Tag Archives: neglected American folklore


Joe MagaracLabor Day weekend is the appropriate time to post this 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.        

Joe Magarac statueAs 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:   Continue reading


Filed under Mythology, Neglected History


Balladeer’s Blog continues its examination of the many facets of Fool Killer lore. FOR PART ONE, INCLUDING THE HISTORICAL CONTEXT, CLICK HERE

Fool Killer illustrationPART TWO: The second surviving Fool Killer Letter. (See Part One for an explanation)

MARCH 10th, 1859: From “… the right side of the Richmond & Danville Railroad” – This letter from Jesse Holmes, the fictional Fool Killer to Charles Napoleon Bonaparte Evans, Editor of the Milton Chronicle, was, like the others, written by Evans himself as dark-humored political and social commentary.

The Fool Killer began this letter by stating he was abandoning his murderous campaign to help the citizens of Leasburg, NC in their Quixotic battle with the Postmaster General in Washington, DC. The people of Leasburg objected to the mail delivery schedule established by the Postmaster General. January of 1859 was when the relevant postal route contracts were awarded.

Skull Walking Stick 2(My fellow geeks for 19th Century American history will recall that these routes – sometimes referred to as Star Routes because they were indicated by three stars on the route indexes – were often at the center of bidding scandals.)

The fictional Jesse Holmes stated he had decided to let the people of Leasburg fight their own postal battles. That was because the only way he could have rendered a decisive blow on their behalf would be to visit Washington, DC, and he feared having his own morals corrupted if he set foot in the District. (Hey, tell it to Billy Jack, Jesse!) 

The Fool Killer instead decided to head to Raleigh, NC to force the adjournment of the notoriously corrupt Democrat-dominated legislature (The Fool Killer, like Editor Charles Evans, belonged to the dying Whig Party). Enroute he was distracted, as so often happens in the Fool Killer Letters.

1850s north carolinaIn this case the distraction came in the form of “a venerable and mighty clever man” who asked Holmes to find out who had stolen his prize turkey. Armed as always with his club/ walking stick/ cudgel the Fool Killer began his investigation.

Presently he came across a parade of the Don Quixote Invincibles, a sort of southern, Raleigh-centered version of Mummers. The Invincibles would march in colorful, anachronistic costumes on special occasions.

Jesse spotted a DQI member wearing a colorful costume made of freshly-plucked turkey feathers and knew he had found his man. The Fool Killer struck down the turkey thief and was then attacked by the dead man’s fellow DQI marchers. Holmes wielded his weapon to deadly effect as usual, fighting off all of them (“Tarheel Fu” I guess). When a marcher costumed as a Chinaman was smacked down dead the other DQI’ers finally gave up their attack and fled the scene. 

The Fool Killer then resumed his journey toward the state house to fulfill his plan to confront the crooked politicians of the General Assembly.  Continue reading


Filed under Mythology, Neglected History