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Henry VIII’s Wives Ranked

Henry VIII feels, in many ways, like the Donald Trump of his time. In his youth, he was a rich, handsome, carefree young man about town who discarded wives as frequently as he changed his doublet.

In old age, he grew moody and cruel, yet still saw himself as a charming, attractive rogue. Everyone around him had to indulge him if they hoped to keep their heads on their shoulders.

He divorced two wives, beheaded two more, and another died giving birth to his only son. Only two wives outlived him. Of his six wives, some shine brighter than others. As an avid reader of historical fiction, I have some pretty strong – and admittedly only partially informed – opinions about that. And so, for entertainment purposes only, I give you Henry VIII’s Wives Ranked.

Worst: Anne Boleyn (Wife #2)

Since I am an Episcopalian, I suppose I should thank her. Henry founded the Church of England just so he could marry her.

The Boleyns were an ambitious family. Anne’s sister, Mary, was Henry’s mistress first – while married to a minor noble at his court. Anne came to court later and caused a sensation with her regal carriage, graceful dancing and fashionable French clothes. Contemporaries also noted her as intelligent and charming.

When Anne came to court in 1526, Henry had been married for seventeen years to Catherine of Aragon, and she had produced only one living child, a daughter. Henry had one acknowledged illegitimate son, and probably several others. But he needed a legitimate son to take the throne after him, and Catherine was getting past childbearing age.

Anne, an acknowledged master of the arts of seduction, saw her opportunity. She charmed and teased Henry sexually, while refusing consummation without a wedding ring. When it became clear that the Catholic Church would refuse to annul Henry’s marriage to Catherine, Anne also became very interested in Protestantism.

Did I mention that she was Catherine’s lady-in-waiting and supposed friend?

Henry and Anne married in a secret ceremony on November 14, 1532, even before the official annulment of Henry’s Marriage to Catherine. Anne soon became pregnant. But, like Mary, she produced only a girl, the future Queen Elizabeth. Later, she had at least one miscarriage.

Anne was vain and a spendthrift, and her marriage to Henry looked like a Jerry Springer episode, a seesaw of bliss alternating with temper tantrums. As she continued to fail at producing an heir, Henry’s eye turned towards her lady-in-waiting, Jane Seymour.

Rumors of Anne’s infidelity to Henry have followed her through the centuries. They may be untrue. Henry and his advisors certainly had an incentive to cook up an excuse to behead her.

But we know for sure that she broke up Henry’s marriage. And, I don’t care what church you belong to or what era you come from, it’s just wrong to steal another woman’s husband. When Henry had her beheaded so that he could marry Jane Seymour, Anne found out that “what goes around comes around.”

Second Worst: Catherine Howard (Wife #5)

Pretty little Kitty. Someone recently described her as “poor ditzy Kitty,” and that’s about right.

Like both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour, she apprenticed for the job of wife to Henry VIII by serving as lady-in-waiting to his current wife (Anne of Cleves at that time). She was also a cousin to both Anne Boleyn and Jane Seymour.

Contemporaries described Kitty as pretty, frivolous and giddy. She loved both dancing and flirting, like any pretty teenage girl. She also showed the poor judgment often associated with pretty teenage girls.

In her mid-teens, she had an affair with a much older man, which may have been abusive. A few years later, she had another affair, with Francis Dereham, and may have exchanged betrothal vows with him.

The aging Henry became besotted with Kitty almost as soon as he laid eyes on her. As soon as he could dump Anne of Cleves, the two married. And almost as soon as they were married, Kitty apparently started a love affair with one of Henry’s courtiers, Thomas Culpepper.

By this time, Henry was fifty years old. First, he had no business marrying Kitty, who was about eighteen. Second, there’s nothing more fragile than the ego of an aging Lothario. In rage, Henry had his marriage to Kitty annulled on the basis that she had been betrothed to Dereham. He also had both Dereham and Culpepper executed, on the well-known principle that One Does Not Cuckold an Aging and Egotistical Autocrat.

Finally, on February 10, 1542, poor, ditzy Kitty also lost her head on basically the same principle.

History hasn’t treated Kitty kindly. One historian described her as a “juvenile delinquent,” another as “a stupid and oversexed adolescent.” The poor little thing probably was brainless and selfish, but she was also a child, so I feel a little sorry for her.

Reluctant Homewrecker: Jane Seymour (Wife #3)

Like both Anne and Kitty, Jane caught Henry’s eye when she served as lady-in-waiting to his current wife. But, unlike them, Jane was a reluctant homewrecker. Jane apparently didn’t make a play for Henry.  Even as he began to pursue her, she maintained her chastity until marriage. But her family had great interest in the political advantages of her relationship with Henry, and did what they could behind the scenes to get Boleyn out of the way.

Contemporaries described Jane as meek and gentle, and very skilled at needlework. She treated her step-daughters, Mary and Elizabeth, with kindness and played an especially significant role in reconciling Henry with young Mary.

Jane came from a big family, so Henry had reason to believe she would be fertile. And, on October 12, 1537 – after a labor lasting two days and three nights – Jane gave birth to a baby boy, the future King Edward VI. Twelve days later, she died.

Having given him his only legitimate son, Jane ranked as Henry’s favorite wife. When Henry died, he requested to be buried next to her.

Kept Her Head: Anne of Cleves (Wife #4)

Everyone knows that a king needs not just an heir, but also a spare. Although Henry apparently grieved Jane Seymour, negotiations for his next wife began almost immediately. This time, Henry allowed himself to be persuaded by political considerations rather than by his penis. His advisors wanted an alliance with William of Cleves, a Protestant leader in western Germany, and William had an eligible sister in Anne.

Like Jane Seymour, Anne was described as gentle and skilled at needlework. She could speak a little English, but could read and write only in German.

Henry and Anne had only seen portraits of each other before she arrived in England in December 1539. Their first meeting did not go well.

The aging Henry, still seeing himself as a charming young rogue, had come up with a “meet cute” scheme. He would, in disguise, approach his bride in her chamber with an embrace, a kiss and a “token.” Naturally startled, Anne did not react well to Henry’s little surprise. And, like the petulant overgrown boy that he was, Henry felt insulted.

The two married on January 6, 1540, but never consummated their union. Henry claimed that Anne wasn’t as pretty as her portrait made her look, and it seems that she was also naïve about sexual relations. Possibly, Henry suffered from intermittent impotence by this time.

Anne agreed to an annulment in July 1540, on the grounds of non-consummation. And she came out of the marriage in much better shape than any of her predecessors. Mainly, she still had her head. Henry allowed her to keep her dower lands, and gave her a generous settlement, including at least three homes. She remained friendly with Henry and with her two step-daughters, Mary and Elizabeth. A contemporary chronicler described her as “a ladie of right commendable regards, courteous, gentle, a good housekeeper and verie bountifull to her servants.”

Second Best: Catherine of Aragon (Wife #1)

Catherine’s parents were King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Castile, the same Ferdinand and Isabella who financed Columbus’s 1492 journey to the Americas. As a descendant of both of the first two wives of John of Gaunt, she herself had a distant claim to the English throne. Thus, her marriage into the upstart Tudor family strengthened their legitimacy.

She first married Henry’s older brother Arthur, but he died shortly after their wedding. Henry’s desire to marry his brother’s widow was complicated by a Church ban on such a marriage.

The marriage went forward in 1509 after Catherine swore -probably falsely – that her marriage to Arthur had never been consummated. Henry was only eighteen. Catherine was twenty-four.

By most accounts, Henry adored Catherine, and trusted her completely. He appointed her regent when he went on military campaigns. In one of the wars with Scotland, she rode north in armor – and several months pregnant! – to encourage troops in the Midlands.

One thing that the redoubtable Catherine could not do: provide a male heir. She had at least three stillbirths between 1510 and 1514. One son, Henry, may have lived for a few hours. She produced a daughter, the future Queen Mary, in 1516. Another pregnancy ended in a stillbirth in 1518. Catherine was only 33 at the time, but she had no further known pregnancies. By 1525, Henry’s eye had turned to Anne Boleyn.

I like Catherine because she fought for her marriage and for what she believed was right. “God never called me to a nunnery,” she said, “I am the King’s true and legitimate wife.” After Henry set her aside, he held her daughter basically hostage. Catherine and Mary longed for each other’s company, but Henry had banished them both from court to separate locations. He offered to allow them to reunite only if they would acknowledge Anne Boleyn as the true queen of England. They both refused.

Catherine’s final letter to Henry, as she knew she was dying in late 1535, is poignant:

” My most dear lord, king and husband,

The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all worldly matters, and before the care and pampering of your body, for the which you have cast me into many calamities and yourself into many troubles.

For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things.
Katharine the Quene.”

Best and Last: Katherine Parr

Henry loved his Katherines; Parr was the third. And, in my opinion, she was Henry’s best wife.

By the time Katherine married Henry, he was well into his fifties. He was fat, suffered from both diabetes and gout, and had stinking sores on his leg from an old wound. He was cranky, mercurial, and hard to live with. Katherine didn’t want to marry him. She’d had two husbands already, and was probably already in love with her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour. But, if Henry wanted to marry you, you married him or you died.

Katherine spoke French, Latin, Italian and Spanish, in addition to English. She was a committed Protestant at a time when the country was still bitterly divided and Henry himself wavered back and forth. She wrote three books. Not some trashy memoir like you’d probably see today, but books of prayers and meditations. Her “Prayer for the King” is still in the English Book of Common Prayer. She may also have translated the Gospels into English.

Like Jane Seymour and Anne of Cleves, Katherine maintained loving relations with her step-daughters, the future Queens Mary and Elizabeth.

For her erudition, her kindness to her step-children and her endurance of Henry at his absolute worst, Katherine stands out to me as Henry’s most admirable wife.

Katherine Parr and Anne of Cleves were the only two wives to outlive Henry. Henry died on January 28, 1547, of complications of gout. Katherine died in childbirth on September 5, 1548. Anne died on July 16, 1557, probably of cancer.

Sources

Most of the historical facts in this post came from Wikipedia

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wives_of_Henry_VIII

But the stories of these fascinating queens are best brought to life in fiction. I especially enjoy Philippa Gregory’s series of books on the Tudor queens:

The Other Boleyn Girl

The Boleyn Inheritance

The Constant Princess

The Taming of the Queen


My Five-Star Reads of 2022

I had only a few five star reads this year, including an old childhood favorite, some unreliable narrators and, oddly, lots of orphans.

A Lantern in Her Hand

I started the year with a childhood favorite. I first read A Lantern in Her Hand in sixth grade, when I bought it from the TAB book catalog at school. I loved it so much that I re-read it every couple of years until I was about thirty, and it finally fell apart and had to be thrown away.

It is the story of Abbie Mackenzie Deal, who goes west with her new husband in the early 1870s, to claim a farmstead in Nebraska. Abbie loves to paint and sing, and dreamed of life as a painter or singer. She had a wealthy beau who could have provided her with the luxury of painting and singing lessons had she married him. But she fell in love with Will Deal and thereby chose a different life.

Aldrich wrote this book in 1928 for young people. Therefore, it presents that era’s romanticized view of the prairie pioneers. But I still loved it as much at age 66 as I did at 12. Abbie is such a strong female character. And I like the values that the book presents: loyalty to family, friends and community, hard work, sacrifice for the next generation. Those values are timeless.

Haven

Haven was five-star read for me, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Don’t pick it up if you like a lot of action. The story builds very slowly and quietly, and there’s lots of description of things like building a hut and hunting birds.

In seventh-century Ireland, a passionate scholar-priest, Artt, turns up at the monastery where young Trian and old Cormac are monks. Soon after his arrival, Artt has a dream in which he founds a monastery with Trian and Cormac. The monastery is to be located on an island previously innocent of human footprints. There, Artt and his two monks will make copies of the Bible and live ascetically.

The two monks feel honored to be chosen. But only the bare minimum of supplies will fit in their boat when they set off down the River Shannon towards the sea. They land on what what we today call Skellig Michael and begin their work. But Trian has a secret. And both Trian and Cormac begin to have doubts about Artt, to whom they have vowed perpetual obedience.

Donoghue does a great job of conveying the claustrophobic feeling of living on a small island. She also builds tension slowly and expertly, and vividly portrays the natural beauty and the desolation of the island and the hardships the three monks endure to make it habitable.

To me, this book was about the issue that finally prompted me to switch churches about a year ago. It’s about the tension between an abstract faith that scorns our life of flesh and a living faith that honors both the body and the soul. Donoghue doesn’t preach or extemporize at all in her novel. She simply tells a story that illustrates the logical consequences of a faith that scorns this earth and deems body and soul incompatible. Magnificent.

You Have a Friend in 10A

Short story collections are hit-or-miss for me. Usually I only like a few of the stories. But I liked every single story in this collection, and loved several of them.

Shipstead is great at coming up with interesting situations for a short story. Unrequited love lasting for years on an isolated Montana ranch. A young man who believes he is the son of his mother’s employer. A French colony on a small island which loses contact with the rest of the world during WWI, leading to horrifying consequences. These stories really keep the reader turning pages.

And her use of language is both economical and gorgeous, a hard feat to pull off. In just one example, she describes a man who “resembled a petrified log in both body and spirit.” From those few words, can’t you just imagine him perfectly?

My favorite story was “Acknowledgements,” in which a young aspiring writer takes a unique revenge on a female classmate in his MFA program. But, rather than exposing her, he exposes himself and has to face flaws in both his character and his writing.

The only bad thing I can say about this collection is that it made me feel like “Oh. I’m not a real writer. Real writers produce stories like THESE.”

Trust

Trust tells the life story of fictional financier Andrew Bevel from four different perspectives.

The first section is a novel based on the lives of Bevel and his wife Mildred, fictionalizing them as Benjamin and Helen Rask. The Rasks are both portrayed as intellectually and socially rather unusual.  In this version, Rask is a financial manipulator, and the cause of both the 1929 stock market crash and his own wife’s death.

The second section is Bevel’s unfinished and self-serving autobiography.

In the third section, the young woman Bevel hired to write his autobiography, Ida Partenza, tells her story. We see her first as a naïve young woman, desperate for a job. Later, we meet her as a mature writer who goes back and tries to learn the truth about Andrew and Mildred Bevel.

The fourth section consists of Mildred’s journals, hidden for decades and finally uncovered by Ida.

I don’t want to say much more, because I want to allow future readers the delight of uncovering the truth bit by bit.

Demon Copperhead

As Demon Copperhead opens, Damon (nicknamed Demon) is a little boy growing up in a trailer in rural southwestern Virginia. His father died before he was born, and his mom is a recovering (ish) addict raising Demon herself on her wages as a stock clerk in Wal Mart. They rent the trailer from the kindly Peggott family, who live nearby, and Demon’s best friend is “Maggot” (Matthew) Peggott, their grandson. Times are hard, Demon longs for a father, and he has to be preternaturally mature to keep his loving-but-disorganized mother on track. He is also secretly in love with both Maggot’s Aunt June and cousin Emmy.

Demon’s life gets a lot worse when mom finds “love” with a man named Stoner. Before very long, Demon finds himself in the foster-care system. He bounces from family to family, none of them anything like nurturing. He develops even more toughness and resilience in circumstances that are heartbreaking to read. Then he gets what looks like a break, but turns into the beginning of a downhill slide.

This book is very affecting and hard to put down. Kingsolver’s portrayal of rural life in Appalachia is poignant, both in its warmth and beauty and in its poverty and despair. Demon’s voice is authentic and engaging. And Aunt June is an absolutely wonderful character, one of those women whose tough love can sometimes change the world. Demon also finds allies in a foster sister, a coach, two dedicated teachers and one friend who manages to keep his soul through brutal years in foster care. But his journey is far from easy.

This Tender Land

Albert and Odie are orphaned brothers, the only white boys living in an Indian School in Minnesota in 1932. The school is run by the pitiless Thelma Brickman and her equally odious husband. Their rules are enforced by the vicious, predatory Mr. DiMarco.

The boys’ lives are made bearable by their loyalty to each other. Albert, the older, is a rule follower. Odie’s rebellious, trouble-making nature exasperates Albert, but the brothers always have each other’s backs. And they have friends in the mute Indian Mose, the kindly school handyman and caretaker Mr. Volz, and their teacher Cora Frost and her sweet little girl Emmy.

In the summer of 1932, tragedy claims Mrs. Frost, Odie feels he is the cause of a horrifying accident, and dark secrets emerge about the Brickmans. This combination of events causes Albert, Odie, Mose and little Emmy to flee the school together. Thus begins a river odyssey that will take the children from northwestern Minnesota all the way to St. Louis, Missouri. Albert and Odie hope to find relatives in St. Louis.

The joy of This Tender Land isn’t just the very sympathetic characters of the four children. It’s also the beautifully-rendered portrayal of Depression-era America. Along their way, the children meet a half-crazed farmer about to lose his land, an Indian who may or may not be their protector, and a travelling faith healer. They land for a while in a camp of displaced workers and farmers where Odie falls in love for the first time. The Brickmans have reason to want them dead or at least silenced, and pursue them at every stage. The boys will feud, protect Emmy, protect each other, and grow up fast.

Parts of this book are so brutal that they are hard to read. But the story, and the rendering of the landscape of the Mississippi River watershed, were beautiful enough to make this a 5-star read for me.


Books I Will Never Read

Everybody who knows me knows that I am a voracious reader. I enjoy spiritual, sociological, political or scientific non-fiction. My real passion, though, is fiction, especially literary or historical fiction. But there are some fiction genres that I have learned to avoid. What follows is completely personal. Some readers may absolutely love a genre that I detest, and to that I say: Enjoy! But here are some types of fiction that I absolutely will not read and some others that I read very seldom

Top of my Never-Never-Never List

At the top of my list is any book about magical creatures. Vampires, witches, werewolves, zombies, zombie werewolves. Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope. I’ll grant that it takes a lot of imagination to write these books, so nothing against authors who write them. I just don’t want to read them. When I read fiction, I’m interested in human dilemmas. As soon as the main character is super-human in any way, you’ve lost me. All too often, too, authors take ridiculous liberties and the story doesn’t even have an internal logic. Or the author seems to think that as long as their book has a magical creature in it, it’s ipso facto interesting, and the writing is boring.

Case in point: A Discovery of Witches. Everybody I know assured me that I would love A Discovery of Witches, even though I usually hate books about witches. I got 100 pages into A Discovery of Witches and only discovered that it is very boring to read about a character who borrows from the library a book that she realizes is enchanted and returns it to the library anyway! Then she has a very lengthily-described and boring dinner with a vampire or something. Boring, boring, boring.

Next on my No-thanks List

I went through a phase twenty years ago or so of loving to read books about Amish people or people who lived in quaint little towns where nothing really interesting ever happens. These books are nice escapes for someone who enjoys very light reading. But I got bored with them very quickly. The characters are usually not very deep, and the problems are too easily solved. I think these books were an escape for me when I was working a very demanding job while still raising children. They were little fantasy worlds where I could imagine myself living simply and peacefully.

For me, this genre also includes “cozy mysteries,” usually featuring a charmingly eccentric little old lady and lots of tea.

Also No Thanks

Romance novels. I guess I’m just too old.

No Thanks With Exceptions

I went through a Christian fiction phase, too, but this genre features the worst of both supernatural fiction and cozy fiction. The characters in Christian fiction often have a dark side that needs healing by Christ. But they are generally otherwise very shallow. And their problems are generally solved by getting right with God, which is a good thing in real life, but a form of magic in fiction. The point of fiction is for people to solve their own problems.

I will note some exceptions in this category, though. One of the best books I ever read was Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers. I also recommend the Shiloh Legacy series (and its sequel Shiloh Autumn) by Bodie Thoene. These books feature well-developed characters of faith who work hard to solve the problems that face them. Redeeming Love is based on the Book of Hosea. And the Shiloh series contains some interesting social commentary.

Nope for a While: Science Fiction and Fantasy

I was a big science fiction fan in my teens and twenties. I remember devouring the Lord of the Rings and Dragonriders of Pern series, one right after the other. That was in the 1970s and I liked how women were allowed to be warriors in the Dragonriders series. One of the great things about science fiction is that it imagines worlds different from ours, yet the problems and their solutions are still human.

I got turned off on sci fi and fantasy because it started to seem to me that it was mostly about world-building and not so much about character and plot.

But, more recently, I’ve started to reconsider. I read the Scythe series a few years ago with my grandson, and recently I’ve read and enjoyed Cloud Cuckoo Land, Sea of Tranqulity and Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower and Parable of the Talents. So, I guess I just needed to find literary sci fi. If anyone has any recommendations of good literary sci fi or fantasy, I’m definitely open to that.

If anyone disagrees with my gripes, that’s fine; feel free to comment. And feel free to enjoy your favored genre without any criticism from me. I love all my fellow readers, even if I don’t love all books.


Why I am Still Patriotic

For the past couple of years, I’ve chosen a word to summarize my focus for that year. In 2021, it was Patience. And, boy, did I need it that year, between lingering Covid and Al having some pretty serious surgery that involved a very long recovery.

This year, my theme is Hope. And, again, I find that I set myself an appropriate challenge. We have an important mid-term election coming up, and it seems that many people feel despair that our country can ever overcome the terrible divisiveness of the past five years. I admit that I’m not especially optimistic, at least over the short term. I don’t necessarily feel hopeful. But, similar to faith, I believe that hope is a verb more than a feeling. I believe that hope is in what we do. So, I will be canvassing for my preferred candidates every Saturday between now and the election.

Do I love doing that? No, I do not. The weather isn’t always agreeable, and people aren’t always happy to see you. But I will make myself do it because, in spite of the rancor of the past five years, I still love my country. One of my five-star books for 2021 was about the topic of patriotism, and I’m republishing my review here because I don’t have any better words to explain why I’m still patriotic, and why I’ll be out there canvassing regardless of weather, and regardless of slammed doors and argumentative rightists. God bless America!

My Review of Reclaiming Patriotism

My heart broke on November 8, 2016. I have always been patriotic, but I have struggled since 11/8/2016 to maintain my faith and pride in my country. 1/6/2021 didn’t help.

This book was like an elixir. Smith is a professor of Philosophy and Political Science at Yale, and his writing reflects that. He doesn’t just expound his own opinions at the reader. Referencing sources from Aristotle to the Federalist papers, he relies especially on Lincoln’s speeches and writings, in his defense of patriotism.

He defines patriotism as loyalty to one’s home country in the first chapter. Then he contrasts patriotism with both nationalism and cosmopolitanism. And, finally, in the last two chapters he describes what enlightened patriotism looks like and discusses the values and character of the United States, the things that we can love and take pride in.

This book took me a couple of weeks to read. It was both intellectually and emotionally dense for me. I had to read a little, and then ponder what I’d read before reading more. But it was well worth it.

In a nutshell, Smith’s argument is that you can recognize that your nation is flawed and still love it. You can respect that other people love their own countries, too, and still love you own. It isn’t even necessary to think, as many Americans do, that you live in the best country in the world. You can still love America because it is your own. Your home.

I thought about how the people of America gave me an education. I thought about how my family would have lost our home after my dad died, if the American people hadn’t sent us Social Security survivor’s benefits every month. My country has given me so much. This is my home. I enjoy French culture and language, but I don’t love France. I didn’t grow up in Paris or on the wide plains of the French countryside. Instead, I grew up in the hills and valleys of Appalachia, and there lies my heart.

But those affinities – “habits of the heart” as Smith calls them – aren’t the only reasons to love America. Smith mounts a full-throated defense of all that is good about our country, all that is worth loving. First and foremost, our dedication to the notion of the “equal moral dignity” of every human being. Have we always fully lived that principle? Obviously not. But, to an extent that no other nation can match, it is our creed. Smith also calls out our Constitution, which has managed to maintain rule of law for almost 250 years. He also points to our cultural, artistic, economic and scientific achievements. And I would add that we have also defeated tyranny twice in the past century. That’s a record to be proud of.

You can weep for our country’s flaws and errors. I certainly do. But this book reminded me that nations are like human beings: tragically flawed and gloriously noble both at the same time. It reminded me that I am not free to give up on our country any more that I am free to give up on the people I love. It gave me back my hope and pride


The Pressed Steel Car Strike

One of the bloodiest battles of the early twentieth century labor movement took place just a few miles from downtown Pittsburgh, in my old hometown of McKees Rocks.

Imagine earning only $122* for 110 hours of work over eleven days. You pay $400* a month to rent half of a small company-owned duplex. You have to buy all your groceries and supplies at inflated prices at a company store. On average, of the 6000 men working in your plant, one dies in an industrial accident every day. And your wife or daughter may be asked for sexual favors to help you keep your job or to forestall payment on your debt at the company store.  

These conditions led to The Pressed Steel Car Strike in 1909. It was the most significant labor dispute in the Pittsburgh area since the 1892 Homestead Strike, and a precursor to the Great Steel Strike of 1919.

*Note: all dollar amounts in this post adjusted to 2022 dollars

The P&LE and the Pressed Steel Car Company

The Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad started business in 1879, transporting coal, coke, iron ore, and limestone into Pittsburgh’s steel mills, and transporting the finished steel out. They located their 100-acre repair and maintenance center in McKees Rocks in 1888. The railroad employed thousands over the years, including one of my uncles. Immigrants flocked to the Rocks for the work opportunities. By 1920, the population of the town reached 14,702, 42% of which were immigrants. Between 1879 and 1920, many Italian and Slavic immigrants arrived, adding to the German and Irish populations already settled in the Rocks.

In 1899, in Joliet, IL, the Pressed Steel Co. and Fox Solid Press Steel Co merged to form The Pressed Steel Car Company. Run by Frank Norton Hoffstot, the company manufactured passenger and freight railroad cars.

At the time, it was the second-largest rail car producer in the United States. Locating a plant in McKees Rocks near the railroad hub and so much cheap labor seemed like a no-brainer.

Background of the Strike

By 1909, the plant employed 6000 men of sixteen different ethnicities, most of them foreign-born. But it had a reputation for brutal oppression. Workers called it “the last chance” and “the slaughterhouse.” The priest of St. Mary Roman Catholic Church in the Rocks said that “men are persecuted, robbed and slaughtered, and their wives are abused in a manner worse than death. . . all to obtain or retain positions that barely keep starvation from the door.”

Laborers worked under a “Baldwin contract,” a form of labor pooling. The company parceled out jobs in lots to foremen who contracted to get the work done for a set sum. The less the foremen paid the workers under them, the more they got to keep for themselves. So, the foremen had a strong incentive to race each other to the bottom of the pay scale. And workers couldn’t count on the size of their paychecks from one project to the next.

A newspaper reporter investigated the pooling scheme and found that one worker worked nine days, ten hours a day, and received pay of $89.53*. Before pooling, workers had averaged as much as $130* a day. But after pooling went into effect, average pay plummeted to $16* per day.

The strike begins

July 10, 1909, was a payday. Many workers noticed that their pay seemed especially scanty on that day, even less than the paltry amount they had bargained for. They demanded to speak to plant management. The managers refused. Violence erupted immediately.  The first fatality was an immigrant worker named Stephen Horvat. More deaths would follow.

The leaders of the strike were a former German metalworker and union leader, Hungarian veterans of railway strikes, and three Russians who had been involved labor strife in St. Petersburg in 1905.

Five thousand of the plant’s 6000 workers joined the strike. Three thousand more from the Standard Steel Car Company of Butler also went out on strike in solidarity. The carpenters’ union sent wagons of food, and the Pittsburgh Leader newspaper took up a collection. Sensing an opportunity, the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World, sometimes called the “Wobblies”) came to the aid of the strikers. Big Bill Haywood himself, leader of the IWW, even showed up.

The company wasted no time in hiring scabs. By the end of July, 100 new workers had been brought into the plant, On July 14, a riverboat pulled up to deliver more strikebreakers. The strikers fired on the boat, forcing it to retreat. When deputy sheriffs tried to intervene, a riot broke out, resulting in 100 injuries from rocks, clubs and bullets. A mob of 1000 strikers attacked fifty mounted officers and broke a state trooper’s leg. Law enforcement got orders to shoot to kill.

Escalating Violence

On July 23, the company established an “information bureau” where workers could state their grievances. But the strike, and the violence, continued into August. In mid-August, the company hired 450 more strikebreakers.  On August 19, strikers attacked streetcars bringing workers into the plant. On August 21, they shot at the company doctor, W. J. Davidson, as he approached the plant. Workers’ wives also joined the rioting. When state troopers and local deputy sheriffs arrived, the strikers attacked them, too.

By August 22, 200 state constables (whom the Slav workers called “Black Cossacks”) and 300 deputy sheriffs had been deployed to protect the strikebreakers. That day, when strikers again boarded a street car to turn back scabs, armed deputies confronted them and opened fire.

The next day, the rioting strikers killed the deputy sheriff, Harry Exley. On August 22 and 23, the bloodiest days of the strike, Exley, two state troopers, and at least ten strikers lost their lives.

The Strike Ends

The tide of the strike turned on a newspaper photograph and an ill-advised attack on company housing.

The workers’ housing stood near the plant, in the little neighborhood called Presston (also known as Hunky Town). The area remained rural enough that workers had gardens to supplement their diets.

During the strike, the company began to evict workers, who were neither working in the plant nor paying their rent. On August 21, a local newspaper published a photograph of one family’s eviction. The photo included the heartbreaking feature of a baby buggy loaded into the wagon of possessions being carted away, and it gained much outraged sympathy for the workers.

Then, on August 23, state troopers stormed Presston to facilitate the evictions, attacking both men and women.

The Strike’s Legacy

The work stoppages and the bad publicity forced the company to settle the strike on September 8. The pooling practice ended. Wages were increased. The company began to offer English classes to immigrant workers. They improved housing in Presston, built a playground and planted trees. For many years after, the company sponsored free annual festivities on Independence Day, with races, garden competitions and cash prizes.

Workers won a victory on September 8, 1909, part of the labor movement’s long progress towards decent pay and working conditions.

The community of Presston still stands, in the form of about 200 duplex houses on Ohio and Orchard Streets.

The Pressed Steel Car Company went on to contribute significantly to the World War Two industrial effort, designing and produced tanks, gun carriages and motor carriers. The company was bought by U.S. Steel in 1956.

The P&LE Railroad went out of business in 1992.

The McKees Rocks Bottoms, where the P&LE yard and the Pressed Steel Car plant stood, is still home to a small railyard and several industrial plants, including Tudi Mechanical Systems, Standard Forged Products, and McKees Rocks Forgings. An historical marker and small memorial live on a nearby corner. The memorial is adorned with ten small American flags: one for each of the workers’ lives lost on August 22, 1909.

Presston early 20th century

Presston today. The 1899 duplexes still stand.

Sources

Agreen, Bernadette Sulzer, and the McKees Rocks Historical Society. Images of America: McKees Rocks and Stowe Township. Charleston, SC: Acadia Publishing, 2009.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pressed_Steel_Car_strike_of_1909#:~:text=The%20Pressed%20Steel%20Car%20strike%20of%201909%2C%20also,private%20security%20agents%2C%20and%20the%20Pennsylvania%20State%20Police.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pressed_Steel_Car_Company

https://www.post-gazette.com/business/businessnews/2009/08/16/Pressed-Steel-Car-strike-in-McKees-Rocks-reaches-centennial-anniversary/stories/200908160200


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