Wednesday, May 30, 2012

The Anonymous Dead

I spent another day lost in the images of old newspapers at Old Fulton NY Postcards, skimming through news reports of slate quarry accidents for mention of a mystery Pereksta cousin reportedly killed in a mining accident in Vermont in the early 1900s.

While fatalities in the slate quarries of New York, Vermont and Pennsylvania weren't reported daily, there were dozens and dozens of reports. My first two search requests yielded over 500 hits each. I got a manageable list of 154 articles on my fourth try. It was very dangerous work. The demented genealogist in me perked up, thinking that there would be ample occasion to find my Pereksta mentioned.

Wrong. Lots of fatalities. Lots of news reports. But almost all the Eastern European immigrant fatalities were reported as unnamed Hungarians.
Five Workmen Probably Killed in an Accident in a Slate Quarry
Allentown, Pa., March 1 - While seven quarrymen were at work this morning in the slate quarry... the top caved in, burying Joseph Reamley, Samuel Kreitz, Griffith O. Pritchard, William R. Jones and three Hungarians....
(The Brooklyn [NY] Daily Eagle, 1 March 1894, p. 1, col. 4)

This next report adds the insult of scant vocabulary to fatal injury when compared to the adjective laden report of Mr. Williams' death.
Fatalities at Granville 
Rowland Williams, a native of Wales, while at work in Norton Brothers' slate quarry at Granville on Wednesday afternoon, was instantly killed by a huge stone which fell from the ledge and crushed him. His body was terribly mangled. He leaves a wife and four children.
A Hungarian working in Hughes quarry at Granville was struck on the head by a falling stone and killed on Tuesday afternoon. 
(Glen Falls [NY], The Morning Star, 30 July 1897, p. 8, col. 2)

There was a widely reported collapse in 1905 that killed several men - though reports of the numbers range from eight to 14. I read thirteen accounts of the accident. Most read like this one.
Cave-In Fatal to 14
Awful Accident in a Vermont Slate Quarry This Morning
Troy, N.Y., Oct. 6 - Sixteen men were buried this morning in a cave-in of the Vermont Slate company's quarry, about two and a half miles from Granville, N.Y.  
David Cadwallader and Fraser Queen, foremen of the quarry, were rescued. The latter is expected to die. The 14 dead include J. B. Williams, president of the company, and Hungarian laborers. 
Four bodies had been removed by 11 o'clock.
(The Auburn [NY] Citizen, 6 October 1905, p. 5, col. 8)
Only two papers, The Syracuse Journal and The Binghamton Press, named the immigrant laborers, Stephen Banois, John Illnetakie, Joseph Illnetakie, Netro Demsic, John Toronco and Joseph Wasick. The next spring there was another accident nearby.

Two Men Killed in a Quarry
Troy, N.Y., June 22 - John Hasoyd Roberts of Warren's Switch, and an unknown Hungarian were killed by a cave-in in the slate quarry of Beecher & Company.... Robert Jones of Granville and two Hungarians were injured, the former probably fatally....
(New York, The Evening Post, 22 June 1906, p. 1, col. 2)
I suspect this accident warranted a full paragraph because young Norton was injured. 
Slate Quarry Accident
Hungarian Killed and Granville Resident Seriously Injured. 
A falling rock in one of the Norton Brothers' slate quarries at Granville Tuesday afternoon killed a Hungarian and seriously injured Hiram Norton, son of James Norton, village president of Granville, and senior member of the firm of Norton Brothers. The block was being lifted when it slipped from the chain, and falling struck a rock in the side of the quarry, breaking into two parts. One struck the Hungarian on the top of the head, killing him instantly; the other struck Mr. Norton on the side of the head and shoulder, bruising the head and cutting open his shoulder badly. His injuries, while serious, are not thought to be dangerous. 
(Glen Falls [NY], The Morning Star, 13 February 1908, p. 8, col. 5)

This article names the Welsh miner who could not rescue the victim, but neither the victim nor his friend.
A Fatal Dive
A young Hungarian was drowned in the Mettowee river while swimming Friday near the Sheldon slate quarry in Granville.... [He] was accompanied by another Hungarian, who called for help. His cries were heard by Myrddin Jones, at work in a quarry. Jones dived in....
(Glen Falls [NY], The Morning Star, 4 August 1908, p. 8, col. 4)
This article actually named two Hungarian men, though not the two or three others who were still missing.

Was Covered by Tons of Slate Rock and Earth
... A remarkable escape from death was that of Phabbeus Drewseitch, who, with four or five other Hungarians, was buried in a cave-in of rock and earth at Owen Brothers slate quarry near Granville on Tuesday morning....
The dead body of Steve Sautjes, another victim, was recovered....
(Glen Falls [NY], The Morning Star, 15 April 1909, p. 8, col. 6)
There were more, but I'd seen enough. I'll have to find another avenue of investigation to see if I can locate documentation supporting or disproving the family story of a mystery cousin's death.

Image Credit: Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, FSA/OWI Collection, [ LC-USF34- 045884-D [P&P] LOT 1246 ]


  1. Makes me feel like our immigrant ancestors were disposable..... A real tragedy for the families.

  2. Susan,

    This was VERY interesting. I agree with Claudia. The articles do make our immigrant ancestors sound disposable. If one Hungarian/Pole/Slovak/Whatever is killed there will still be five more in line for his job. So sad and impersonal. I wish they printed the names.

    Silly me. I've never thought to try to look for my PA miner's death in Old Fulton Postcards. Thank you for the idea though I suspect he, too, will be one of the nameless...

  3. They were disposable - or generic, if you prefer - from the perspective of the quarry owners and the communities they lived in. Certainly not from our perspective.

    I did find four death records for the men killed in the last article cited. Ancestry's database, "Vermont Death Records, 1908-2008" includes Simon Kopeton, George Kurmos, Stephen Sollys and Mike Souiski, who all died in a quarry accident near Granville, NY on 13 April 1909.

  4. Hey Susan. I have a Hungarian ancestor that died around that time, but can't find him anywhere. This is a great inspiration! I figure he was around the New Jersey, New York Area, working in the mines, I think. Maybe, I will check the newspaper for these accidents, and maybe he won't be invisible. If you run into anyone named Szam, let me know.

  5. You might want to try in a couple more days will be adding around 1,600,000 more newspaper page from the past from many areas of New york State... Tom Tryniski

  6. Wow, if you didn't have all those quotes, I would hardly believe it. It's really sad.

  7. That's so frustrating!

    I wonder how much the language barrier contributed to their anonymity. It's funny that they would classify all eastern Europeans as "Hungarians". I lived in Ukraine for two years and the Hungarian language sounds very different from Russian, Ukrainian, or any of the other Slavic languages spoken in most of that area.

  8. It's painful to think of how heartbreaking these accidents were for the victims' families, compared with how casually they were treated by the newspapers. How sad--and what incredibly dangerous work that was.

    I do love envisioning the "demented genealogist," though! I'm going to remember that the next time I'm searching through a newspaper or death register with my fingers crossed, hoping to find a report of bad news. Come to think of it, I feel rather like a demented genealogist a lot of the time...

  9. I agree with Shelley - I love that phrase! I will have to remember to pull it out whenever that is the hat I am wearing for the day. I also have to agree with everyone else's comments on the horrid way these people were minimalized (not sure if that is a real word, but it fits so well I'll leave it anyway). If it were not for newly migrated workers that worked at such dangerous occupations, our country would have been unable to do all that it did and of course many of us would not be here today. It's like reading a slave registry for a plantation as each person is essentially a number. So sad. Good luck finding the mystery cousin though - hopefully you can make your "Hungarian" more than a nameless soul!

  10. Susan, thank you so much for this work. Along with most everyone here, I had no idea that Hungarians were so 'disposable'; is this spillover from the European dislike for those who called themselves Gypsy? I read "Bury Me Standing" and was shocked at the blatant mistreatment of these people, which was not that different from how African Americans were treated here after Emancipation. It's a crime these deaths weren't treated equally.

    Your 'demented genealogist'? Totally fits you. I can see it. And many of the rest of us.

    Again, thank you for the diligent work you're doing to provide respect to those who weren't respected while they were living.

  11. Wow, xenophobia at its ugliest.

    Don't know if I am sad or glad to say I've not seen that in connection with searches about my ancestors.

    Maybe I've just lucked out so far...

    Dee at Shakin' the Family Tree


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