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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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).