Among the many authors I've been privileged to meet in the past three years, two write books about their forebears. How fascinating to be able to find an intriguing link to one's ancestors and then craft a story around it.
One of these online "friends" is Virginia Rafferty, who sought me out on Facebook, interested in my books. It turns out, that when I picked up her novel, The House on Peace Street, I was energized to learn that Rafferty has a light literary touch with simple prose, short chapters, and an overall easy-going style that made The House on Peace Street an absolute joy to read! It turned out to be one of the finest books I read in 2022.
I decided to ask Rafferty to be a guest on my blog site to share more about her journey to discover past family members. I hope that you'll enjoy reading about her quest and consider reading one of her beautifully written and enjoyable books.
Read ON, everybody!
A Connection to the Past
By Virginia Lattimer
I was a newly retired science teacher with quiet evenings at home and time to explore my family history. My life turned when I began searching the Internet for clues. The plan was to present my findings to my family at Christmas in the form of a family tree. Unexpectedly, I learned of a tragic event that profoundly affected immigrant families living in the remote coal town of Lattimer, Pennsylvania. One of those families was mine. I needed to share their story. I became an author.
A WWI draft registration card was an early discovery along my journey to unlock my ancestral heritage. The document provided the first glimpse into the life of the grandfather I never knew. There it was, his handwriting so similar to my sister’s gave credence to the connection between the generations. The scribbled handwriting on the aging document was difficult to read, but it said that my grandfather Stephen was born March 9, 1887, in Eglo Spiska, part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Later research showed that he immigrated to America with his parents when he was a toddler. My grandfather worked in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania, as a coal miner.
Stephen filled out the draft registration card, but he was never called to active duty. He died in the 1918 flu pandemic at age 31. My father, born in 1916, barely two years old had no memories of his father. There were no stories to share, well maybe there were, but I never thought to ask questions like these:
“Dad, where was your father born?”
“Did your mother ever talk about your father?”
“Do you have a picture of him?”
“Did he have brown eyes and brown hair like you and me?”
Stephen wrote on the draft card that he worked for the Pardee Brothers coal company in Lattimer Mines, Pennsylvania. Census records informed me that he was working in the coal breaker at the age of thirteen. Other records indicated he may have been working sorting coal from slate at a much younger age. From images on the Internet I can picture my grandfather as a boy, his face smudged with coal dust, his ill-fitting jacket, and sturdy shoes, his face with a smug grin to show that he was tough enough to endure the hardships of the breaker.
A quick search of the Internet and I found Lattimer, a small coal patch town near Hazleton. A sign at Lattimer told of a massacre that took place there in 1897. Stephen was ten years old. In the breaker where he worked with other boys separating pieces of slate from coal, he would have heard the rifles and the shouting in the street.
Did the machines in the breaker grind to a halt? I must assume they did. I can imagine the crush of boys and men as they pushed and shoved their way down the stairs and onto the street. Did they stop suddenly, hesitating as they saw bewildered, frightened, men, women, and children running toward the sound of gunfire?
“Is it the marchers from Harley?”
“Did the sheriff fire on them?”
“Maybe only a warning.”
“God help us.”
What were the boys thinking as they ran past the women, perhaps cutting through a shortcut behind the shanties they called home? Many, like my grandfather were still children, but those boys were tough. They grew up fast in the breaker with their faces covered with coal dust, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, and foul words and punches directed at boys who gave them offense. Still, Stephen’s soul had an innocence that could not have prepared him for the carnage he was to witness. Nineteen unarmed men, immigrants, who believed in the promise of America, died that day, many shot in the back. The blood, the screams, bodies torn apart, did it give my grandfather nightmares for years to come?
The story of Lattimer did not make its way to the history books found in classrooms. The people who witnessed the carnage wanted to forget. The residents of Hazelton did not want this scar on their community. Only the quiet weeping of widows and stoic faces of the miners attested to the events at Lattimer on September 10, 1897.
The coal wars in Appalachia did not end that day, and the massacre at Lattimer was not the bloodiest encounter but the most deadly at the time. I wanted to tell the story.
The Road to Lattimer, my second novel, is a fictionalized account of the events that led up to that day in 1897.
So what became of my grandfather after that? Eventually, he left the breaker and entered the mines. He married my grandmother, and they had three children. The youngest, my father, was born on Peace Street in Hazleton.
All About Virginia (Ginny!)
Virginia Rafferty is a retired middle school science teacher turned author. Her books were inspired by the immigrant experience of her ancestors who came to America between 1882 and 1912. She has written three novels: Family Secrets... Hidden in the Shadows of Time, The Road to Lattimer, and The House on Peace Street.
Eastern Europeans who came to America and settled in Pennsylvania experienced the reality of child labor in the coal mines and silk mills. They witnessed the struggles between coal miners and mine owners that resulted in a massacre lost in history. Some fought on the battlefields of France during WW1 and lost their lives in mining disasters, while others succumbed to the pandemic of 1918. Virginia’s novels tell their stories.
Virginia retired to Aiken with her husband in 2007.
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The Road to Lattimer