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Attila’s Successors

January 11, 2011

Power house mechanic working on a steam pump. I would call this gentleman a "hunk" :). Photo by Lewis Hine

Slovaks filled the coal mines, the steel mills and the glass factories by the end of the 19th century, yet most Americans had never heard of them. “Hunkies,” Americans called them, a terribly derogatory word used to describe all eastern Europeans of Slavic descent from the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a group Americans thought of as dirty, uneducated immigrants worthy only of the lowest of the unskilled labor jobs in the mills and mines.

Skilled and Unskilled Steelworkers by Ethnicity, Carnegie mills, 1907

In December, 1890 a strike was declared at Carnegie’s Thompson Steel Works mill.  A group of English speaking workers stormed the factory and beat up a guard named Quinn, who died a few days later from his injuries.  Management accused a group of about 50 workers of the beating, nearly all Slovaks, not one an English-speaking person.  The newspaper headlines screamed, “Wild Huns!”, “Savage Huns!”, “Attila’s Successors!”  To add fuel to the fire, the Pittsburgh Dispatch newspaper reported that county police had found a bunch of “Huns” in the woods making bombs with the intent of blowing up the Allegheny District Court.  It was false, but it further inflamed public prejudice.

Riding the ball on the Empire State Building. Photo by Lewis Hine. The men would hand over their paychecks to the women who managed the household. Women often worked as domestic servants or in factories for even less thank 15 cents an hour.

The case went to trial and three Slovaks were found guilty of murder: Michael Sabol, Andrew Toth and George Rusnak, each sentenced to death by hanging, while others were sentenced to prison.  No matter that Rusnak was over 50 miles away at the time of the attack; a Slovak’s oath in those days carried the weight of a “puppy’s yelp”.

Many Slavic families lived together in boarding homes, playing music after work for entertainment. 35% of the household income came from children, and their parents often lied about their ages on work permits to get them to work as young as possible.

Slovaks jumped into action, raised thousands of dollars for their defense (on salaries of less than $2.50 a day) and sent in thousands of petitions to the Pennsylvania Pardon Board requesting clemency for the three for “ a crime which they did not commit,” ultimately helping to free the men.

The case illustrates the vast differences between the culture of the immigrants and assimilated (former immigrant) Americans.  In 1890 the “Hunkies” shunned the ideals of the American Dream, deriding the pursuit of the almighty buck as worshipping “Dollar Gods.”   They prized family, community, church, food, culture; hard work too, but only as a means of survival, not wealth.  Whereas Americans may have seen them as poor, unskilled and uncivilized, the Slavs saw Americans with “the idolistic pursuit of money at the expense of your soul” resulting in “hatred and desperation. Good character and work are the greatest wealth”, they extolled in their ethnic newspapers and magazines.

Slovak steel worker, by Lewis Hine. Many unskilled workers had no desire to advance their careers into skilled labor, according to Jeff Bodnar's book.

Rightly or wrongly, by the time their children and grandchildren grew up, they embodied the American Dream the immigrant parents and grandparents shunned.   In Pittsburgh, the daughter of a Slovak coal miner has grown up to be iJustine, an Internet star and lifecaster; other successful Slovak descendants include Jon Voight and his daughter Angelina Jolie;  Andy Warhol; Jesse Ventura; Steve McQueen; Paul Newman; John Roberts, the Supreme Court Justice and Republican Tom Ridge, 1st Secretary of Homeland Security and former Governor of Pennsylvania.  We Slovaks are everywhere, blending perfectly into American society, and yet you still probably haven’t heard of us.

Slovak boarding house, 1912 by Lewis Hine. Pauline's parents ran one of these for several years for factory workers in Akron, Ohio from 1908-1912.

To read more about the murder case of Quinn and about Slovak immigrants, I encourage you to read these two public domain books, one by Jeff Bodnar from 1976, and the other by Peter Rovnianek from the 1890’s.  I used both books for this article.  Jeff’s book contains surprising facts about Slovak immigrant culture including views of child labor, and Peter’s book is a first hand account of Slovak immigrants in the 1890’s (you will need Google Translate to read it).

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    January 11, 2011 1:14 pm

    Wow Tonya you have excelled yourself on this one. Amazing material. Especially the list of famous Slovaks.
    I had never heard the term recapitulation used in immigration stats before. That table is amazing. The Italian stat in particular. Many thanks, you MUST publish this work when you have completed.

    • January 11, 2011 11:11 pm

      In reading up more on the recapitulation theory, it appears that it was used to prove white races were superior to other races. It’s also call biogenetic law:

      The theory was used a lot in the 19th century. Some people saw it as applying to child raising. They thought that even after birth, people matured in a way similar to how they evolved. It therefor made no sense to make children behave more maturely; after all, young children would be more monkey-like than human-like.

      The theory was also used to support the idea that white people were superior to people of other races.

      • Stan permalink
        January 11, 2011 11:22 pm

        I had not thought of that. I thought it might mean something simple. But since your comment I have also done more research. Check out Darwin’s Origin of Species Chapter 14. “Recapitulation and conclusion”.

        “Turning to geographical distribution, the difficulties encountered on the theory of descent with modification are grave enough. All the individuals of the same species, and all the species of the same genus, or even higher group, must have descended from common parents; and therefore, in however distant and isolated parts of the world they are now found, they must in the course of successive generations have passed from some one part to the others.”

        It would be interesting to know when the Immigration Commission started to use the term.

      • January 12, 2011 11:07 pm

        Stan, take a look at this article.

  2. January 11, 2011 2:16 pm

    Thank you, Stan. I totally overlooked the “recapitulation” word in the table. Do you think they are referring to the recapitulation theory of 1866 – that the development of an organism follows the evolutionary history of its species? Wow. That’s a whole other blog. The Augustus Sherman book gets into this a bit too, about how they “typed” the head shapes of immigrants, and graded them.

    • Stan permalink
      January 13, 2011 4:53 pm

      That is one incredible, scary publiceye article. I had no idea…
      The links with Darwin are not my imagination. I cannot believe some of the info and the 1924 decisions, BEFORE Germany.

      • January 13, 2011 5:02 pm

        Hitler came over in the 1920’s to see the Eugenics operation, and sent a fan letter back later that I read. And then later, there are letters back and forth amongst the Eugenics people about what Hitler is doing in Germany, and how proud they are that he is carrying out their vision. One of them went over to Germany in the early 30’s to set up shop there, and his protege was Mengele.

  3. January 11, 2011 8:18 pm

    What a superb article Tonya and the photos are compelling. My 93 year old mother felt that discrimination in Johnson City NY. Graduating from high school at age 15 she should have been the valedictorian but they said “oh we made a mistake and it’s too late to change it”. She got 3rd prize of $10 and was afraid to go home and face her father but he said it was OK as they had to make a speech but she got the $10. The principal also told her to get rid of those “hunky earrings” or she’d never get a job (she had pierced ears as did so many of the immigrants). I have to laugh as today people pierce everything imaginable.

    • January 12, 2011 11:06 pm

      Helene, thank you. I am sorry to hear of your mom’s experiences with discrimination, and suspect it was not uncommon. She certainly didn’t let it define her though, did she? I want to be just like her when I grow up! Tonya

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