Women and the Lattimer massacre: Mary Septak

A bit more on the interesting but perhaps not unusual women of the Lattimer massacre–this time, “Big” Mary Septak, a Polish immigrant, miner’s wife, mother, and caretaker of several boarders.  Evidently she not only took care of all these people, but the men in the mines, too.  She seemingly had no fear of the National Guard and local police, leading women on marches, and calling men up from the mines to fight for their rights.

I’ll report more in on Mary as I find it – she’s quite the character and is bound to appear again.  This entry comes from The Century Vol. 55(6), April 1898: “A Pennsylvania Colliery Village. An Artist’s Impressions of the Colliery” by Jay Hambidge (available online at the Cornell University Library).  Mr. Hambidge also illustrated an article before this in that edition of The Century. I recommend reading and looking at it to get a feel for the local sentiment at that time.  It’s interesting stuff!  Anyway, here’s a bit about “Big Mary”:

Mary Septak

Mary Septak by Jay Hambidge

“‘Big Mary’ is for the time the object of our search, and we finally find her cleaning a goose for her Sunday dinner.  Mary is by far the most forcible and picturesque character in all the mining region.  In her peculiar way she is a queen, and rules things with a high hand.  During the strike Mary was the most troublesome of all the foreigners.  No professional agitator had half the force for mischief that this woman exerted.  One day she led seventy-five women of the patch in a charge on the troops.  At that time these amazons were armed with clubs and pieces of scarp-iron, and they stopped only when they felt the bayonets of the immovable line of soldiery.  One would not imagine her such a character from the smiling greeting she gave us.  With her husband, she keeps a sort of boarding house for other miners; and in the living-room of the shanty were seven beds and eight trunks.  Probably from twelve to fifteen men occupy the same room with this man, his wife, and daughter, a large-boned girl of fourteen.  …

In a bed at one end of the room two men are sleeping with their clothes on.  They work on the ‘night shift’ in the mines, and sleep during the day.  These men belong to the class which was most active during the strike.  Mary the mother rattles along in conversation with her husband and daughter, her talk being punctuated with profanity.  Suddenly she turns to me with a demand to know if I eat meat on Friday.  I answer in the affirmative.  ‘Jesus kill you some day,’ she says, and laughs.

The amazon loves her husband, she asserts, and the affection is evidently mutual, for as he passes  her from time to time, he says some pleasant words or pats her cheek.  They have been married thirty years, and the daughter Mary is the only living one of ten children.  ‘When I ‘way from my man I cry all time, and when he ‘way from me he cry all time’ is the way the woman puts it.  In all their  years of married life he had never once struck her.

This is the woman who has the reputation of being a veritable tigress.  The men in the mining company’s offices are afraid of her, and give her a wide berth.  The trolley-car conductors tremble when she hails a car, and not one of them has ever been known to collect a fare from her except when she felt disposed to pay.  She has a contempt for American women.  They are not strong, she says, and cannot work in the fields.  The food they eat is too sweet; they would be better off if they ate sour soup and sour cabbage.” – p.826

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About LM Project
The LMP is a collaborative endeavor which aims to recognize the events surrounding the Lattimer Massacre, an incident that changed the labor movement and impacted the world by bringing to light economic disparities and ethnic tensions in the anthracite region of PA.

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