Labor Day weekend seemed like the appropriate time to post my long-delayed look at neglected working class folk hero Joe Magarac. This figure was the Steel Mill equivalent of Paul Bunyan and John Henry.
Though mostly associated with Polish-American steel workers in Pittsburgh, PA the general figure of a literal “man of steel” helping and protecting his coworkers can be found from the East Coast through the American Midwest. Sometimes the figure is Croation or some other ethnicity instead of Polish.
Written versions of Joe Magarac and/or similar steel worker tall tales seem to have started around 1930 or 1931. Oral legends about such figures – but not specifically Joe Magarac – have been dated as early as the 1890s.
Vintage advertisements from tattered old newspapers indicate that such Man of Steel imagery may have been used for the steel industry prior to World War One. This “Which came first, the chicken or the egg” dilemma for Joe Magarac and other Steel Men puts one in mind of the quandary surrounding Billiken lore.
As a lame play on words since this is Labor Day season I’ll present Joe Magarac’s origin and then depict his tales as “Labors” like in The Labors of Hercules.
BIRTH – Joe Magarac supposedly sprang into existence from a mound of iron ore and – depending on the version – that mound was either in Pittsburgh or the Old Country. Magarac emerged from the melting mound fully grown and spoke broken English like so many of the other Polish steel workers. He was called into being by the urgent need to catch up on production since the current shift had fallen dangerously behind.
Joe was 7 or 8 feet tall, his flesh was like solid steel, his torso was as wide as a smoke-stack and his arms were as thick as railroad ties. His surname Magarac meant “mule” in the workhorse sense, referring to his stamina. Joe’s appetite was such that he carried his lunch in a washtub instead of a standard lunch box.
Magarac’s favorite leisure time activity was polka-dancing and halushkis were his favorite food.
THE LABORS OF JOE MAGARAC:
I. Magarac won a weight-lifting contest held for the hand of the beautiful Mary Mestrovich. However, Joe was content with simply winning the contest and let Mary wed her true love Pete Pussick (no comment).
II. Joe used his superhuman strength to catch a 50 ton crucible to prevent it from crushing to death dozens of steel workers. Later refinements of the tale depicted Magarac then storming into the boss’s office to force him to improve safety conditions at the mill.
III. Magarac took to tasting the molten steel to make sure it was just right and afterward would blow smoke out of his nose and mouth like people who smoke cigarettes and cigars.
IV. In order to meet demand, Joe once pulled an “all-year shift,” working 24 hours a day, 365 days straight with no time off.
Variations depict Magarac having to do this to save the jobs of all his coworkers or as a patriotic act to keep the steel flowing during a war.
The worst variations say this was ALWAYS Joe’s way of working, but those versions seem to have originated as “management-encouraged” tales that depict endless labor as the greatest form of happiness for the working class. (Think of southern plantation owners promoting the image of happy, singing slaves picking cotton as a forerunner of this type of propaganda.)
V. When the U.S. Army needed cannon-balls Joe Magarac would grab handfuls of molten metal and sculpt them into shape like you or I would make snowballs.
VI. The Joe Magarac (or generic Man of Steel) legend was used by Labor in tall tales about the Homestead Rebellion of 1892 in Homestead, PA. Magarac supposedly fought at the side of the striking steel workers against management and their Pinkerton thugs.
VII. By the time of the Great Steel Strike of 1919 the Joe Magarac/ Steel Man figure was being used by both sides – Labor and Management.
Each side claimed him as their own, with Labor insisting Joe could walk the picket lines and fight Strike-Breakers as tirelessly as he worked steel and with Management claiming Joe was so distraught at not getting to do the work he loved because of the strike that he clobbered his striking coworkers to set them straight.
VIII. Eventually Magarac’s employers realized that, having been born fully-grown out of a mound of iron ore, Joe did not have citizenship papers like all his Legal Immigrant coworkers.
Crooked management or crooked politicians (depending on the version) try to take advantage of Magarac by telling him he needs to slip them $1,000 to “smooth the way” for his citizenship papers. In the “submissive, slow-witted laborer” versions of this tale Joe anxiously works another marathon shift to earn the $1,000 for the bribe. In “blue-collar hero” versions Joe uses his might to bring about the downfall of the crooked bosses or politicians.
IX. For various reasons depending on the version, Joe Magarac is in Washington D.C. and while there he overhears Congressmen and/or other politicians disparaging Polish steel workers (or laborers in general). Magarac is furious and goes on a Hulk-like rampage in the nation’s capital. The army is called in to fight our hero but his rampage is stopped only when a delegation of politicians apologize to Joe for slighting him and his colleagues.
(Some versions depict this Washington D.C. rampage happening over Joe’s disgust with the crooked politicians wanting bribe money in exchange for his citizenship papers.)
THE END OF JOE MAGARAC – There are many versions of Joe’s end. Sometimes he willingly lets himself be melted down so that his steel body can be used to make “the strongest steel ever made.” Other times he throws himself into a Bessemer Blast Furnace so his body can be used to make enough steel to build an entire new steel mill, creating even more jobs for steel workers.
Still later versions say that with the closure of the steel mill where Joe works he refuses to leave and is “still there to this day, waiting for the furnaces to burn once more.”
The New Christy Minstrels sang a song about Joe Magarac and Pittsburgh , PA is loaded with Joe Magarac murals and statuary. Joe seems to have served as the inspiration for Golden Age Comic book superheroes like Man O’Metal, Steel Sterling and Fearless Flint. +++