|Cover, Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, 14 July 1892|
Well, it's maybe her.
Maybe, inspired by her.
For sure, 130 years later, Mother Margaret Finch remains one of the most inspiring and colorful characters made famous by the infamous Homestead Strike.
Mother Finch and the Homestead Strike
|Henry Clay Frick, early 1890s|
Stowell's Fort Frick
|Fort Frick look-out tower|
Battle of Homestead Foundation
Upwards of 10,000 people were then living in the borough of Homestead. They called the fence around the steel works "Fort Frick" and responded to its presence by preparing for armed conflict. The mill, of course, was the legal property of the Carnegie Company. The Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers union and its supporters felt at the very least that they had a rightful say in its operations, earned as a matter of painful sacrifice and sweat equity. When the Pinkerton barges floated up the river in the early morning hours of 6 July 1892, nearly half the town's population was said to have shown up along the Monongahela River shoreline to assert their rights for fair wages and good faith negotiations.
As much as anything else, it was the women in that crowd who excited commentary. Among them, defiantly and prominently, was a lady identified as Margaret Finch. Since at least 1888, Margaret had operated the Rolling Mill House at the rear of her home on 524 Fourth Avenue, within a block of the great Carnegie Steel complex. For at least some of that time, it was a licensed saloon.
|Homestead Steel Works, 1890. William J. Gaughan Collection, University of Pittsburgh|
Margaret was described variously in newspaper accounts of the Homestead Strike as "a white haired old beldam who has seen forty strikes in her long life" and "the leader of the Amazons whenever this dark Dahomey land of labor goes to war." While the latter description might puzzle us, it would have resonated with 19th century readers who were fascinated by the ruthless female combat corps of Dahomey, a small West African kingdom that rose to prominence as a result of its militaristic society and involvement in the Atlantic Slave Trade. They'd have gotten the comparison: Margaret was a fierce and wild warrior.
According to breathless multi-page coverage by the Pittsburg Dispatch, when the "great whistle at the electric light plant in the center of town" blew a general alarm before dawn on 6 July 1892, Margaret ran from her home on nearby Fourth Street "brandishing the hand billy she always kept around the house for just such emergencies" (like one does). She was one of the leaders of a phalanx of townspeople consisting of "5,000 men women and children" who raced to challenge 300 Pinkertons intent upon disembarking from barges along the Monongahela riverfront to enter the Carnegie works. It was "....a surging wild mass of human beings, rushing madly for the shore."
In his 1893 book Fort Frick, Myron R. Stowell set the scene:
The town was instantly in an uproar...not a soul was indoors. The streets were one surging, congested mass of human beings headed for the river bank, shouting, cursing, screaming and laughing. Some knew not why they were there and were amused. Others appreciated the gravity of the situation and took things very seriously. Many openly carried guns, rifles, revolvers and improvised firearms. Some had clubs which they had picked up on the street; others tore pickets from the fences as they passed along; others were empty-handed.And so the Battle of Homestead commenced. At least ten men died, including three Pinkertons. Hundreds were wounded, on both sides.
|"An Awful Battle at Homestead, Pa." Illustration from National Police Gazette, 23 July 1892|
We get glimpses of Margaret throughout that bitter day. The same Dispatch account that described her as a beldam documented her leadership:
"....The dirty black sheep, the dirty black sheep. Let me get at them. Let me get at them." High and shrill and strong for all her years as the lustiest fisherwoman who marched on Versailles, it rose in the night air and a hundred voices answered it. "Good for you, Mother Finch. Damn the black sheep. We'll send them home on stretchers."'
|Harper's Weekly close-up of gauntlet from riverbank|
If they were once an invading army, the Pinkertons were now effectively prisoners of war hemmed in by a gauntlet of enraged townspeople.
The presence and involvement of women along the gauntlet made good newspaper copy in 1892, as descriptions of their violent words and deeds provided titillating affronts to norms of female behavior.
Stowell also made a point in his 1893 book of documenting eyewitness accounts that described the women:
Women, too, were in the line, and they plied clubs and stones as vigorously as did the men. They made more noise, for they were hooting and continually urging the men on to the fearful work... Women and girls ran out of the lines and with sticks and clubs beat the poor wretches. One woman had a stocking filled with iron, and with it she struck one of the Pinkerton men over the head.
|"The mob assailing the Pinkerton men on their way to the temporary prison."|
Colorized illustration from Harper's Weekly, 6 July 1892
Battle of Homestead Foundation
The Pittsburg Press somberly informed readers that of the thirty Pinkertons taken to the town hall for medical treatment, "One of them had his eye punched out by an umbrella in the hands of a woman."
In his 1893 history of the strike, Arthur G. Burgoyne informed readers that "Women, converted for the nonce into vertible furies, belabored Mr. Frick's janizaries with bludgeons, stoned them and spat upon them." The Homestead Local News, while hardly sympathetic to the Pinkertons, condemned the abuse in its 9 July 1892 issue and noted that the local police "....pushed the crowds aside, and threatened the women with arrest, but their efforts availed little."
The Dispatch vividly described the mob behavior and the gauntlet.
Women clad in everything from calico to silk had joined the crowed, and hooted and howled like the men....the women threw sand at them and the men spat on them...The women hit them with their umbrellas and threw whole handfuls of mud at them. Not satisfied with this, a number of brooms were taken from the boat and they struck the Pinkertons with these as they passed...
When the leaders turned the bend they were confronted by a veritable wall of excited humanity. In the front ranks of this new and unexpected obstacle were a group of women armed with brooms and clubs. It looked as though no human power could prevent a collision. But thanks to the quick wit of one of the leaders, the danger was averted and what bid fair to be a bloody tragedy was transformed into comedy. It happened this way:
Section, Great Battle of Homestead, Kurz & Allison
Colorized lithograph by Edwin Rowe
Heinz History Center collections
One woman, who appeared to be the queen of the battle, raised her broom, and in a shrill voice said "Where are the dirty blacksheep? Let's have them, boys." At this critical juncture the leader shouted.... "Why, my good woman, we want our shirts laundered and we are going to make these tramps do the job at cut rates."Apparently a laundry joke was just the thing to diffuse the rage of the mob.
In addition to widespread disapproval of the women in the crowd, there was general public and press condemnation of the mob's treatment of the Pinkertons. The mass violence was perceived to harm and discredit union supporters, reinforcing the notion that workers couldn't be trusted on any level. They'd badly misbehaved, after all, and thus were not worthy of having their positions taken seriously. In many contemporary descriptions, perhaps in an effort to differentiate "good" from "bad" members of that crowd, the mob's violence was attributed to the presence of "Slavs" or "Hungarian" laborers and their women. Eastern European laborers were at the bottom of the immigrant pecking order and -- it was inferred -- not bound by rules of civilized behavior. It couldn't have been anyone other than those "foreigners" who behaved so abominably, after all....
But that "queen of the battle" -- was it perhaps Margaret?
|Excerpt from Pittsburg Dispatch, 5 July 1892|
We might do well to wonder that Margaret has been cast as the leader of the women. She might even be the "very determined old lady" on guard duty two nights before the Pinkerton invasion in this Dispatch account of an old lady spoiling for a fight with black-jack in hand (aka sap or billy club, all words for some kind of heavy club, covered with leather, used as a weapon).
However, there's naught in the Pittsburg Dispatch article to actually identify the bent old lady as Margaret Finch.
It's not a stretch to imagine that it *could* have been her. And indeed, one subsequent Homestead Strike trials story (transcribed below) described Margaret as "all lamed up by rheumatism." But a goodly number of women in Homestead likely fit that description, all "bent by the weight of gathered years."
In the absence of proof that Margaret was the "queen of the battle" and skulking around town on guard duty, how is that she's come down in history as the ultimate symbol of female Pittsburgh labor resistance?
Will the Real Margaret Finch Please Stand Up
The historical record is scant on details, but a careful search of available public records lifts Margaret off the pages into real life.
According to published obituaries, Margaret was 55 when she died in 1894 -- which would have made her 53 at the time of the Homestead Strike.
Let us pause for a moment to consider the type of life that at 53 would have left Margaret a bent, white-haired crone who'd allegedly witnessed a total of forty labor strikes in her lifetime.
There are no Finches listed in the Village of Homestead in the 1880 census. Then again, there weren't a whole lot of people living in Homestead back then, period.
Established on the former Amity Homestead in 1872, at first the borough grew slowly. Its expansion, both in terms of land mass and population, corresponded with the enlargement of Andrew Carnegie's steel empire over the next two decades. Steelworks were first built there in 1881. That mill and what was originally the Village of Homestead flourished once Andrew Carnegie purchased the plant in 1883, transforming it from a Bessemer rail mill to a highly mechanized, fully integrated heavy products mill.
|Homestead Plan of Press Shop No.1, 1891. Library of Congress image.|
According to census info, in the ten years between 1880 and 1890 the area's population increased from almost 600 to nearly 8000. The works were described in an 1891 directory as "....the chief cause of Homestead's prosperity."
Where were the Finches in those years? We can't know for sure, and the 1890 census that would help was mostly destroyed by fire. But there are some clues. City directories record that Margaret was the widow of John Finch. While there was a John Finch who did prosperous business as a downtown Pittsburgh liquor wholesaler, our lowly Homestead Finches could but have envied his success.
The 1880 census records a couple named John and Margaret Finch living in Larimer, Westmoreland County. Since 1854 the Larimer coal works mined the Irwin Basin under the auspices of Westmoreland Coal Company (WCC), which thrived on the symbiotic relationship with developing natural gas companies and enjoyed a near-monopoly of the gas coal market. That market began to narrow in the 1880s, and WCC transitioned to competing with other companies supplying coke to the Pittsburgh steel market.
|Larimer Mine c. 1854, from Westmoreland Mining LLC|
That may have seemed as good a time as any for the Finches to make an 18 mile move, up the near-by Monongahela River, to explore new possibilities in boomtown Homestead.
|1890 Directory of Homestead, et al|
Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation
John Finch was born in England; Margaret was born in Wales of Welsh parents. John Finch made his living as a hotel keeper, while Margaret kept house. This makes an even stronger case for identification when paired with an 1890 note in the Dispatch when Margaret was seeking a Homestead liquor license renewal: "Mrs. Finch kept hotel for 8 years, part of the time with a bar license."
It's likely, then, that the Finches lived their early married lives in the coal fields of nearby Westmoreland County, running a hotel, and that they moved to Homestead in the early to mid-1880s. Perhaps they didn't move willingly; perhaps it was John's death that prompted relocation. Whether widowed or not at the time of the move, Margaret was prosperous enough to eventually own at least two properties: an eight-room double house on 524 Fourth Avenue, between Dickson and City Farm Lane and bordered by Elm Alley, plus a lot with a smaller building in the rear. At various points in her life, records indicate that she ran the Rolling Mill House as a saloon and/or grocery and took in as many as five boarders to the larger home.
The photo below, although taken eighteen years after the Homestead Strike, shows what Margaret's neighborhood generally would have looked like in her day. Imagine Margaret's 1890s Homestead. Squint: mentally subtract the electrical power lines, a few buildings, and that dog on the tracks (although Margaret maybe chased his ancestor from her stoop).
|City Farm Lane Crossing, October 1908|
Pittsburgh and Lake Erie Railroad Company Records, University of Pittsburgh
|Illustration, Pittsburgh Post, 7 June 1890|
Margaret lived through the transition of neighboring land from poorhouse property to steelworks, just as she witnessed the beginnings of the shift in Homestead from an independent workers' town to a post-1892 Carnegie company town.
Maps from 1890 and 1894 also provide an idea of the structures and lay-out of Margaret's Second Ward. (Click to enlarge maps).
|1891 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.|
Margaret's property is marked Gro, for Grocery.
Library of Congress collection
|1896 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map.|
Rolling Mill House precisely marked.
Library of Congress collection
|324 Fourth Avenue marked in blue |
G.M. Hopkins Company, Plan of Homestead, 1900
University of Pittsburgh
Making Ends Meet in Homestead
Margaret would have primarily managed her Homestead saloon in accordance with Pennsylvania's Brooks High License Act, a prohibition law enacted in 1888 as a state response to the growing national temperance movement. As a licensed provider, Margaret was required by law to limit her alcohol sales to specific hours and to close on Sundays. She shows up as an "eating place" with license to serve alcohol as early as 1887.
By 1892, the year of the Homestead Strike, so many saloons proliferated in Homestead borough that it was a stand-out in Allegheny County. Margaret initially chose a prudent course as a recognized, licensed purveyor. The irony of this prohibition law is that as a result of its goal to decrease the number of licensed bars in Pennsylvania, it actually caused an increase in the number of illegally operated ones. Plenty of unlicensed speakeasies existed in Homestead which would have faced steep $50 fines for operating sans license.
Why take such a risk? Because given the competition in mill towns like Homestead, obtaining licensure was not a sure thing even for someone with a responsible track record. Getting one was also expensive. The Brooks law raised fees, which ran between $200-500 annually, although the average cost locally hovered at $100.
There was also the public ordeal involved. As per the Brooks law, every year beginning in March applicants were called before the county Licensing Court. Each had to testify to community need for their establishment and guarantee enough custom to justify a license; prove a good record from the preceding year; and demonstrate good moral character. The last was particularly important, since temperance advocates felt the mere temptation of alcohol in communities contributed to individual and societal degradation. Purveyors of liquor were automatically suspect, so had to be above reproach in order to get a license to sell their liquid evil.
|"The Mill and the Still" |
Engraving illustrating the evils of demon alcohol, by Jessie Shepherd.
Harper's Weekly, August 1883
Margaret made her first appearance before Allegheny County's Licensing Court to comply with Brooks on 13 April 1888, along with 33 other Homestead applicants. Her testimony was recorded in the Pittsburg Press and cited in Homestead's Local News. The anti-drink organizations were formidable in their opposition to liquor sale licenses -- and they had plenty to complain about in Homestead. According to the Local News: "The map which the Homestead temperance people presented to the license court looks as if it had the small-pox, so thickly is it marked with black spots, indicating the location of the saloons." Perhaps in her favor, Margaret's was the only saloon on Fourth Avenue. The local paper actually supported saloon restriction as a result of limited licensure, moralizing in an editorial after the hearings:
It is stated that at one time there was as high as fifty open saloons in this town...The presence of the saloon, open at midnight and on Sunday, created the enormous demand for drink, and stulted the moral sensibilities of the people and perverted the public conscience....All good citizens rejoice that the surplus saloons and low dives are wiped out....It is the best thing that has ever happened in the town, and it is the only thing that will redeem our reputation and save us from the disgrace which the saloons brought upon the fair name of our prospective city.Likely to the consternation of a watching gallery comprised of local pastors and virtuous temperance ladies, Margaret held her own against Attorney Price's queries and accusations. This was if-looks-could-kill, Women's Christian Temperance Union-style. Those white-beribboned onlookers were described in the paper as "....Homestead's fairest flowers....a host of them....the looks of grim determination in their various colored eyes meant war right from the start. The applicants looked at them and trembled in their boots."
Let's not assume that Margaret trembled in her boots. Here's the Press account of our Margaret before the License Court. As a widow with children, she cited need to support herself, a wise tactic since Judge Ewing had made it known he would never give a license to an unmarried woman.
Margaret Finch, a motherly-looking little woman who had been all lamed up by rheumatism, came next. Her husband has been a cripple for years, and she has had to raise her family by her own work. She has always obeyed the law to the best of her ability. She only wanted a license for one year, so that she could pay for her property. Her earnestness impressed everybody in the court room, but Attorney Price and his right hand man Fisher were not to be downed by any fair story. Fisher didn't flinch as he looked the little legislator in the eye again and said "I have seen Mrs. Finch drunk several times."The Homestead Local News posted notes about Margaret's testimony:
Attorney Cox--You have seen her drunk?
"Yes,sir. I have"
"Does she go on the street when she is drunk?"
"No. She usually isn't able. She lays about the house."
"Now, look here, Mr. Fisher, isn't it a fact that Mrs. Finch became intemperate in your eyes since she refused to buy an organ from you?"
"She was intemperate before that."
"But isn't it a fact that you began work against her after she refused to buy that organ?"
"Well, I tried to sell her an organ. That was business."
Mrs. Finch--Yes, and that's the only reason he testifies against me.
Judge Ewing--But is what he says true?
"Before God, there is not a word of truth in it. I have not taken a drink of anything for months and months."
"Do you ever get drunk?"
"No sir; I do not. I never did."
Mrs. Linch (Finch) -- Saloon, three years $100 license; has 16-year-old girl who gets fits; sold whiskey, not on Sunday for a long time before Christmas; she eloquently pleads her case; five boarders; seven rooms; denies getting drunk. D. Fisher testified that he saw Mrs. Finch drunk different times eight or ten times, too drunk to get out; saw her on the floor drunk. Attorney Cox makes witness "fess" up. Judge Ewing to applicant--Did you not drunk some this morning?We can safely assume that Margaret would have denied a morning tipple, even though her reply was not recorded.
Although the News reported that Margaret was refused a license, the Press confirmed that she received one. It was renewed a year later at a review, with apparent support from the community as per this 1889 hearing note in the Post: "Mrs. Finch, Fourth Avenue, is a widow and wants a license to help her get along. The neighbors would like to see her successful."
Lest we be tempted to judge Margaret from a modern moral perspective, keep in mind that there was little in the way of scandal when it came to women venturing into the alcohol trade, provided they were of certain ethnic or geographic origins. This region's alcohol and beer businesses were dominated by people of German, Irish/English and Italian ancestry -- all cultures comparatively tolerant of women involved in such trades. This was especially true for widows, who as a matter of survival often embraced the business by picking up where their dead husbands had left off. If by necessity the booze business provided them with a livelihood, these women in return provided their communities with gathering spaces to exchange information and ideas -- spaces which often became the birthplaces of social and political movements like unionization.
Mother Finch's Rolling Mill House may have served as a hub of networking and union organizing for members of the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers. It would have been far from the only such place in Homestead to have done so.
Margaret did not appear on the list of applicants to renew her licensure application after it expired in 1890, and henceforth her address was associated with a grocery. Of course, she may well have continued to sell liquor, opting for the legally risky route of running a speakeasy or selling under the counter. Groceries were commonly regarded as fronts for such activities.
As a licensed saloon-keeper, Margaret would have been required to follow orders. For instance, when Sheriff McCleary ordered all the saloons in Homestead and Mifflin Township closed for the duration of the 1892 unpleasantness, as a licensed provider she would have been required to shut down.
But Margaret doesn't seem to have been a licensed provider in 1892. What she did behind closed doors was her business -- so long as she didn't get caught.
|Homestead Steel Works, c. 1893-95. by B.H.L. Dabbs|
Carnegie Museum of Art Collection
There may have been a personal reason for her alliance with workers. In the Homestead directories from this time, she shared her home with Nellie and Robert, her children. Robert, born in 1875, was in his late teens at this point and his occupation was listed as "laborer."
Whether or not Margaret was still selling booze, the family was apparently making do with money from running a grocery out of their home and income from Robert's wages.
Wages that possibly came from Carnegie Steel Company.
Wages that in 1892 had been scaled back, for jobs that were threatened by Carnegie Steel management.
Small wonder, then, that Margaret took to the streets in protest in July 1892: the issues underlying the labor-management conflagration were likely personal. And such was the force of her personality, combined with struggling to make ends meet in ways that many in the community could relate to, that the identity of every stooped, white-haired, blackjack-wielding beldam of a certain age on Homestead's streets in 1892 became conflated with Margaret Finch.
There may well have been other women who fit her physical description (which tells you rather a lot about Homestead in 1892).
But Margaret, well, she was apparently a worthy archetype.
That Margaret has been so identified with the Homestead Strike that every elderly woman associated with the protest has been given her identity seems to speak to her character, resiliency, and visibility in the community as an ally.
After the Homestead Strike
In February 1893 when trials began for Homestead residents charged in the deaths of the Pinkertons, Margaret was back in the newspapers as a defense witness.
Her testimonies were clearly directed at proving murderous intent of Pinkertons, innocence of the Homestead community, and good faith efforts of the labor leaders on the citizens advisory committee to prevent bloodshed. During one case, Margaret's summarized testimony fed the narrative that hapless Homestead residents were filled with anxiety about the barges, which they thought were filled with scabs sent to reopen the mill:
Mrs.M. Finch, Homestead, was examined by Mr. Erwin. She said she was a widow and had one son. On the morning of the trouble she arose at 4 o'clock. She went to the scene of the trouble, being attracted by the noise, and stood on the bank. She saw the boat land. She went to the barges and said to the men aboard: "For God's sake, if you are scabs, don't take our men's places!" One of them had a gun in his hand and witness asked him what he was going to do with it, and he replied: "I will let you see before night." Witness went up the bank, and she heard a shot and fell. She was not shot, but scared.Margaret played the role of sweet, dear, curious lady, pleading with menacing Pinkertons. She went on to assert "The first shot came from the boat."
|Courtroom in Allegheny County Courthouse, 1889.|
James Benney Photographs, Detre Library & Archives, Heinz History Center
(Image adjusted for clarity)
At another trial, Margaret stated she was warned away from the riverfront by concerned labor leaders O'Donnell and Coon, who were trying to stave off trouble:
Mrs. Margaret Finch, of Homestead, said she was in bed on the morning of July 6, and got up when the whistles blew, and went down to the river bank where the barges landed. O'Donnell passed her going to the bank. When she got there O'Donnell was trying to keep the people back. She heard him say, "If you go down there you will all be shot." On cross-examination she said that when O'Donnell passed her Capt. Coon was with him, and when she got there Capt. Coon was talking to the men on the barges.Apparently no one from the prosecution had access to newspapers from six months earlier, where Margaret, beldam extraordinaire, black-jack in hand, was described as "the leader of the Amazons whenever this dark Dahomey land of labor goes to war."
The next two years were comparatively quiet ones for Margaret. On 23 March 1894, her daughter Nellie was married to Isaac Bromwich(k) by Rev. W. J. White of St. Matthew's Protestant Episcopal Church. The wedding took place in the family home with a few friends present.
A few months later, on 3 October 1894, Margaret Finch died.
|Pittsburg Press, 4 October 1894|
Yes, in 1894 "old" was 55: stooped with rheumatism, swollen with edema. The official cause of death on her burial record was asthma.
And those "many children"? When Margaret's will was probated twenty days later, only three children were mentioned: Robert, Nellie, and Elizabeth. Of Elizabeth Finch, presumed daughter of John and Margaret, there is little discernible trace in the local historical record. The Homestead News identified her as Elizabeth Gregory of Colorado; hence the "far away relative" waiting to be heard from.
When she composed her will a year earlier in October 1893, Margaret designated Robert recipient of all her worldly goods, including the rear building where she resided at 524 Fourth. The double house that Margaret owned fronting Fourth, which she had often rented out to boarders, was left equally to daughters Nellie and Elizabeth. However, Nellie's portion was left in trust to Margaret's "esteemed friend" Thomas Watkins, who was vested with the authority to manage or turn it over to Nellie as he saw fit. Watkins, close to Margaret's age and living nearby as the proprietor of a hotel on Heisel Street, was also named as Margaret's executor. She had sold property to him earlier in 1894, so the two presumably had at the very least mutual respect in business.
The trust set-up is understandable when we consider that Nellie was 23 and unmarried when Margaret wrote her will. It would have been unusual to own and solely manage property as a single young woman, especially in a rough town like Homestead. As a married woman, the mysterious Elizabeth had no such strings attached to her bequeathment.
However, there may have been other concerns which made Margaret doubt Nellie's capabilities.
Epilogue: Mother Finch's Children
Six months after her mother's death, Nellie Finch made the newspapers.
|Pittsburg Press, 1 April 1895|
Indeed, what to do with Nellie Finch? Nellie, who was abandoned by her husband (misidentified above as Isaac Brumage), with an infant likely given up, plagued with a "troubled mind" and a stint in the county home already, and well-familiar with "bad company." It is perhaps a testament to the legacy of Margaret's prominence in the community that "kind-hearted ladies" took in her daughter...but such kindness wasn't enough to undo the "wreckage."
|RPPC Woodville County Home, c. 1890s |
Several months later the Press reported that Nellie, after being picked up "on the streets" again, had been remanded to the "county home." That Press account is filled with inaccuracies and inconsistencies. Nellie, who was 26, was identified as 23. The County Home, aka Woodville was identified as "Woodbury." Nellie was described as having lost her mother when she was but "a mere girl" -- which would have been news to Margaret! Her husband was once again misidentified, this time as "Brumigen." Her history was framed as shaped by loss, abandonment and charity, with a dead mother and a husband who "several years ago deserted her and went to Europe. Since then she has subsisted on the charity of the public."
This hot mess of journalistic reporting was probably due to a combination of factors: Nellie as an unreliable narrator, either deliberately or as a result of underlying psychiatric issues; the dawning awareness of progressive thinking which tried to link environmental deprivation to social welfare; and poor fact-checking.
Nellie had another short-lived marriage in March 1903 to Henry Orthwine/Orthwein, a widower some eight years older from South Side. The marriage record recorded that Ellen Finch, born in Larimer, had not been married previously. In an era before easy fact-checking, it was probably easier to claim this status than to track down a husband who'd left to return to England. The couple was married at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church in the South Hills and resided on South Side, where Henry worked as a laborer. On 26 January 1906 Henry was struck by a P&LE train at Lucas Station near Homestead, dying instantly of a fractured skull.
Nellie continued to live life around the edges. Admission to institutes like Woodville and Marshalsea Poor Farm (later Mayview) in this era were typically because of some combination of indigence, illness (medical and/or psychiatric), and/or incompetence at self-care. People often went in and out of such facilities, and Nellie's life fits that pattern.
|Allegheny County Workhouse and Inebriate Asylum, Blawnox. Postcard c.1910.|
In 1909, the widowed Ellen Orthwein spent 30 days at the Allegheny County Workhouse on a vagrancy charge. The registry recorded this stay as her second admission.
The census records her living at Marshalsea in May 1910 in a section designated for paupers. However, she was soon transferred to the County Workhouse. Admitted under her maiden name of Ellen Finch, aka Ellen Orthwine, Nellie served a 30 day sentence at the Workhouse for her third conviction, this time as a "common prostitute." Vital statistics recorded at that admission document that at age 40, the widowed Nellie was 5'1", weighed 107 pounds, was dark-complected with brown hair and gray eyes, had left school at age 17, and had been orphaned by both parents before age 14.
She was back in the Workhouse in February 1911 as Nellie Ortwein, weighing only 99 pounds at admission. She stayed sixty days on a "disorderly conduct" charge. All of Nellie's Workhouse registry entries ticked off a description of "moderate drinker" under habits.
That last stay seems to have resulted from a lover's quarrel, as these articles explain. They're worth reading in their entirety. Life lived around the edges, yes, but Nellie clearly inherited some of her mother Margaret's spunk.
|Pittsburgh Post, 7 February 1911|
|Pittsburg Press, 6 February 1911|
"Scientific" and "neat" undercuts notwithstanding, Nellie officially married for a final time in July 1912 to this same John Weir/Weier/Weieier. They lived for nearly twenty years together in various places on the Northside, where she was a housewife and he worked a machinist/laborer. John died of pneumonia in 1937.
Luck never seemed to be with Nellie: she made the news again in 1939 when hospitalized for a broken leg after being struck by a car. Nellie died of pneumonia in 1957 at the age of 87, having spent her last 13 years at Mayview State Hospital.
Robert's life in the aftermath of his mother's death also seems to have been characterized by chaos and misfortune. A week after Margaret died, the Press reported that the "general notion and grocery store" on Fourth had been burglarized. The Press misidentified Robert as Robert Sinch (since apparently fact-checking when it came to reporting on the Finches wasn't a thing), and did not make a connection to Margaret.
But the story alone was sensational enough.
Upon gaining entry to the building through a back window, the bold burglars allegedly chloroformed sleeping Robert and companion Thomas Evans, who were sharing an upper room. It was noted that the rest of the family was not at home. In its very brief mention of the incident in the Pittsburgh Commercial Gazette, Evans was identified as Robert Finch's uncle.
The Press article did not stint on details:
After the robbers had succeeded in placing the men under the influence of the drug, to make sure of their safety, they took the cap off an old gun which was standing in the corner of the bedroom and two revolvers that were lying on the dresser were thrown out the window, the thieves evidently not wanting to bother with them, as they were probably well supplied with weapons of their own. The house was then ransacked from top to bottom. The trunks and wardrobes were broken open and the contents strewn about the floor.
Headline, Pittsburg Press 16 October 1894
While it was impossible to tell what had been taken, it was discovered that $50 in cash, a silver watch and numerous articles of wearing apparel were missing this morning from the room in which the men slept. The thieves overlooked a gold watch belonging to Sinch (sic). After confiscating everything they could find of value upstairs the burglars went to the store room below. They went from one end of the room to the other and made a careful selection of the stock of groceries and notions. They carried away with them an immense quantity of goods the value of which could not well be estimated.
The proprietor, with his companion, awoke this morning with aching heads and noticing the peculiar odor in the room became aware at once of what had happened. The entire house was in a terrible state of confusion, the burglars having been evidently determined to leave nothing that was worth carrying away. Sinch(sic) came to the city this morning and notified the police authorities of the case.
|1900s chloroform bottle |
Chloroforming victims for robbery, kidnapping and assault has been a trope in crime fiction, often to the point of cringe-worthy cliché. A cursory search of newspaper articles from the late 19th and early 20th century reveals regular mentions of claims that chloroform was used as an incapacitating agent by criminals. The substance was relatively easy to get or make, so its usage for nefarious purposes was certainly possible.
But unadulterated chloroform as an effective knock-out drug for criminals has been exaggerated and mythologized. Chloroform-induced sedation requires continuous and careful dosing to be effective and safe. Slapping some chloroform-drenched handkerchiefs on two sleeping men is unlikely to result in blissful unawareness for several hours.
There's surely more than a suspicious whiff of chloroform to this story. We can, perhaps, imagine two very drunk men dead to the world while their house was being robbed below them.
|Photo of front room in a comfortable home in Homestead, c. 1909, by documentary photographer Lewis Hine |
From Margaret F. Byington's Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town of the Pittsburgh Survey
Things didn't get better for Robert after this incident. In March 1895 the Press reported his marriage to Elizabeth Polask (Lizzie Rolash on their license), describing them as "two popular young people of the borough." The couple was married in the parsonage of the Homestead United Presbyterian Church by Reverend Samson in what was described as "a quiet wedding" in the Homestead News, with only Lizzie's sister for attendant and best man H. Healey.
Their honeymoon didn't last. Six months later in September 1895, the Pittsburgh papers reported that Robert's wife had abandoned him in spectacular fashion.
|Headline, Pittsburg Press, 17 September 1895|
Robert Finch, of Homestead, is on the warpath after a truant wife, and James Betz has joined him in the search for a runaway daughter. The women are alleged to have taken away $275 belonging to Mrs. Finch's husband and the Betz girl's father. They mysteriously disappeared from Homestead yesterday and have not been heard from since, although detectives are on their track.A long article in the Press described how Elizabeth Finch left the house with $200 while Robert was at work at the mill. Learning that she had been seen in the company of Annie Betz, he and Mr. Betz joined forces. Neither man could account for how the women knew each another. Annie had absconded with family money twice in the last year, turning up first in Allegheny City and secondly in Connecticut in the company an actor from a traveling circus. Motive for this "truancy" was unknown, as Annie Betts had been behaving "splendidly until yesterday" and the Finches had "lived happily ever since their marriage." A particularly revealing bit in the Press account sheds some light on Finch family life:
Mrs. Finch is a rather pretty blonde, about 25 years old. She has only been married about a year, and has no children. Her husband can assign no reason for her leaving him... Owing to the social standing of the Finch family in Homestead society is in confusion over the affair. By his mother's death about six months ago, Mr. Finch was left considerable money.Lo and behold, Mrs. Bessie Finch turned up in Braddock the next day. The Press reported that "Mr. Finch heard that his truant wife was in Braddock and had her arrested on a charge of desertion. Yesterday he withdrew the charge and took her home."
But this story doesn't end happily ever after.
It developed at the hearing that Mrs. Finch is matrimonially inclined. It was admitted that she two husbands living and would have had a third, but the man, after taking out a license, discovered the conditions of affairs and escaped. Mrs. Finch is a very comely-looking woman, about 24 years of age. Mr. Finch says he would be perfectly happy if he could only induce her to remain at home.Oh, Robert. No, Robert. This won't end well.
Ten months later in July 1896, as he attempted to board a train with his valuables in a trunk, Robert was apprehended by Constable Fagan. Either on this day or subsequently, he was charged with assault and battery and desertion by his wife Lizzie Finch. The case went to trial in November, and the Press account again illuminates Finch life:
Finch was formerly a prosperous mill man in the Homestead steel works. He was economical, and although only 21 years old at the time of his marriage he was the possessor of an eight-roomed house on one of the principal streets of Homestead, valued at $2,500. Finch testified at the hearing that his wife induced him to sell his property, and that she spent the money buying rich clothes for herself. She had alleged that when all the money from the sale had been spent she was compelled to visit disorderly houses. Finch denied the allegation and said she went there from choice. She admitted that Finch bought her dresses that cost $85 and shoes at $12 a pair.But then Robert Finch dropped his truthbombs. He couldn't possibly be charged with desertion because he was not the lawful husband of Lissie/Bessie Polask/Rolash. She was, remember, "matrimonially inclined" and had been:
Magistrate McKenna told Finch he had a poor opinion of a man who would live on the money of a woman made in a disorderly house. He then sentenced Finch to pay a fine of $35 and costs or undergo an imprisonment of 60 days in the workhouse.
....previously married to an Italian named Gerelo, in Homestead. He said she and Gerelo lived together in Homestead and Braddock for some time. He met the woman at a ball and fell in love with her. He proposed marriage and she accepted the proposal. It was not until they had been married some time that Gerelo, the first husband, turned up. Finch says he was frightened nearly to death when the Italian claimed the woman.
Afterwards, according to the story told by Finch, Mrs. Finch fell in love with a man named Harry Kelsey and was wooed and won. The wedding day was set and everything put in readiness for the nuptials but just before the clergy arrived at the house Mrs. Finch told the prospective groom that she already had a husband living. Kelsey declared the match off, but is is said that he stayed late at the house and enjoyed the festivities.
Mrs. Finch made no denial of the accusation that she has a husband living besides Finch. Finch caused his wife to take a hasty departure from the mayor's office by telling her that he would enter suit against her for bigamy.
Robert apparently didn't have $35 to spare, so he spent his sixty days in the County Workhouse on a disorderly conduct charge. He spent more time there in 1907 for assault and battery.
But we can hope that life stabilized a bit for Robert, for in 1900 he married (for real) a widow named Susanna Walker Evans. It is interesting to note that a Thomas Evans was described as Robert's uncle and sleeping companion at the time of the robbery; perhaps these families were connected. The English-born Susanna was some 15 years Robert's senior. She had immigrated in 1879 and by 1900 had six surviving children from her first marriage, ranging in age from young adulthood to age 9. During their 28 years together, the Finches moved around Pittsburgh and eventually settled in Ohio. Susanna passed away in 1928 and, along with several of her children and grandchildren, was buried in the Finch family plot in Homestead. Robert lived into the 1940s; of his burial there is no record.
Queen of Battle
Although the people won the Battle of Homestead, they lost the war. The conflict dragged on for months. In November 1892 the mill started back up again with non-union workers under management's terms. The works at Homestead would not have union representation until 1937.
|"Pay line at the Homestead works, showing some of the steel corporation's stockholding employees"|
Circa 1907, photographic print on stereo card
Library of Congress
Margaret Finch's life as documented in public records and histories reveals a woman who fought more than her share of battles. Whether as "leader of the Amazons" patrolling the streets armed with a trusty black-jack and engaging in mob violence, or as a widow doing her best to provide for her family, Margaret was a force to be reckoned with.
The personal was political for women like Margaret; then as now, women who have to work to support themselves don't have the luxury to entertain philosophical debates about the performance of feminism. That Margaret Finch has come to represent for Pittsburgh a kind of female archetype of labor resistance and solidarity is accidental and convenient. But the force of her personality might incline us to think she wouldn't mind the association.
At the end of her life, did Margaret feel she had won against the forces arrayed against her? She was prosperous enough to have drawn up a will to distribute valuable property, and to make considered provisions in the hopes of providing stability for her children. In that sense, Mother Finch was a matriarch of Biblical proportions. Her struggles were uniquely her own, but the battles she fought were also representative of working class struggles in an era with few safety nets.
It can't have been an accident that the business Margaret maintained was robbed within a week of her death -- criminals are opportunistic, after all. Her death and funeral arrangements were well-publicized in both Pittsburgh and Homestead. It's tempting to imagine that no one would have dared try to rob the place when she was alive (ahem, black-jack).
We can't know how much Margaret fretted about children Nellie and Robert, but there are indications that young Nellie had specific issues which would have been cause for maternal concern. There's no telling whether Margaret's stalwart presence might have helped Nellie and Robert establish interpersonal stability in adulthood. Her absence had to have been keenly felt, however. Nellie's repeated claims to social welfare officials that she had been orphaned in childhood, while certainly not literally true when it came to her mother, may have had foundations in a felt sense of abandonment. Robert, while chronologically a young adult, also seems to have floundered and at least in his early years was no stranger to scandal and law enforcement.
|Corner of Dickson in soon-to-be demolished Bottoms. There's even a small grocery at far right.|
Archives of Industrial Society Photograph Collection, University of Pittsburgh
There's nothing left today of Margaret Finch's world. It changed relatively quickly, according to Margaret F. Byington in her exhaustively-researched Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town volume of the Pittsburgh Survey. Writing in 1910, Byington noted that "....the Second Ward, except for those who owned homes there in earlier years, has been largely abandoned to the newer immigrants." Mother Finch's part of town, abandoned to the "Hunkies" of the day, was eventually part of the eight block "slum" that was razed in the early 1940s when the mill expanded to ramp up wartime production. Entire streets disappeared from the map, including Fourth Avenue in its entirety. Little may have changed in terms of housing stock from 1894 until then; one Post-Gazette report noted as justification for the demolition that over half of the area's 4551 homes were deemed substandard, many still without bathtubs or toilets. The area by then known as "The Bottoms" included a vice belt that included "The Houses" of ill repute along Sixth Avenue.
The great mill that dominated the lives of Homestead residents closed forever in 1986. Today you can park your car in a giant mall parking lot near the Waterworks open-air shopping plaza, which encompasses where 524 Fourth Avenue used to be.
Margaret was laid to rest high above the town in Homestead Cemetery. If ever there was a grave marker erected for her in Section C, it has disappeared.
There are no known photographs of Margaret Finch. Only her signature on the 1893 will is a reminder of her physical presence. But Mother Finch's place in the historical record assures that her struggles have not been forgotten.
A note about sources: In the interest of keeping this entry readable as something other than an academic treatise, I've chosen to dispense with citations. Please don't hesitate to contact me if you would like specific sources for any of the data or narrative presented herein.
Special thanks to researcher Daniel Ramseier for his support, fact-checking, and expert guidance in trolling local records and interpreting cemetery information. Thanks also to Homestead historians Mark Fallon and Tammy Hepps and the Homestead Carnegie Library for assistance with resources.