Flashback Friday: The Girl Who Lived

Image of girl in black seated on chair
Margaret Fazekas, fourteen years old.

Margaret Fazekas welcomed the new year of 1913 as an ordinary teenage girl, one of hundreds residing in the Copper Country. She saw the year out as a symbol of a fight and the survivor of a near-death experience.

Labor disputes had occurred in the mining communities of the Keweenaw Peninsula before, but the strike that began on July 23, 1913 ushered in an unprecedented era. Following years of fledgling effort to organize disgruntled workers–dissatisfied with their long hours, low rates of pay, and other concerns–the Western Federation of Miners (WFM) took root in the Copper Country. The key to their sudden appeal lay, in part, in the introduction of the one-man drill. This new device allowed a single worker to perform the tasks that he had once done with a partner. To his employers, this meant fewer men to be paid for equal production, increasing profit and redirecting productivity. To the laborer himself, it represented a loss of the companionship and assurance that working with another man provided. Many mine accident reports documented the rescue of injured men from rock falls or other serious incidents by their partners. Although having another man present could not always prevent a fatality, laborers likely felt more confident in their survival when working in tandem. If nothing else, a miner operating a one-man drill could easily find himself lonely, stranded with his own thoughts and the overwhelming clamor of the machine for hours at a time. Taken collectively, the new list of grievances found appeal in the hearts of skilled and unskilled blue-collar workers alike.

The strike began with passion that spiraled into violence on the part of both pro-union and pro-company sympathizers. Calumet & Hecla, Quincy, and other mining companies ceased operations for a short time, banking on a supply of copper already processed and available for sale, as well as the assumption that tensions would cool in the weeks that followed. Strikers harassed and bruised up men leaving their jobs. James MacNaughton, general manager of Calumet & Hecla, enlisted the support of the local sheriff to protect C&H’s interests, and the Michigan National Guard arrived soon thereafter to ensure law and order. In the words of historian Larry Lankton, “an uneasy calm held over the mines in the coming weeks.” The calm lasted until the Guard began to withdraw in mid-August and as a group of recently-deputized men opposed to the strike and private security guards assumed additional policing responsibility. Some of the new deputies took their duties seriously and performed them well. Others blundered, spilling blood. On August 14, 1913, two unarmed men died from gunshot wounds following a confrontation at a boarding house in Seeberville, just outside Painesdale. Six deputies and guards hired from the Waddell-Mahon Company had been the ones responsible. The Seeberville deaths of Steve Putrich and Alois Tijan galvanized supporters of the WFM, and the tensions of the strike escalated.

A little over two weeks later, fourteen-year-old Margaret Fazekas was shot in the head.

Image of house surrounded by snow
The Seeberville house where Putrich and Tijan were shot.

Like many Copper Country children in 1913, Margaret’s roots lay overseas. On August 5, 1902, she arrived in New York City with her mother, Julianna (Julia). Julia gave her place of origin and that of her two-year-old daughter as Rudabanya, Hungary, a small village near today’s border with Slovakia. They planned to reunite with John Fazekas, Julia’s husband and Margaret’s father, at Kearsarge. It had been two long years of separation, and several children joined the family in the years after Margaret and Julia settled in Houghton County. A number of clues indicate that life in the Fazekas house, however, was not peaceful. In 1910, the census taker found John residing at 99 Albion Street in Houghton, then the address of the county jail. Margaret later stated that her father had abandoned the family in mid-1913. Reconciliation was a long time coming.

John’s departure left Margaret to help her pregnant mother look after siblings ranging from infancy to ten years of age. Her education had ended in the sixth grade, perhaps to assist with family responsibilities or to bring in a little extra money in the face of her father’s instability. The coming strike added another degree of turbulence to Margaret’s teenage life. She turned fourteen the same month of the Seeberville incident. One wonders what the future felt like to her on her birthday, with violence and anger seemingly around every corner of her community and her family’s financial situation bleak.

Group of men, women, and children marching with American flags
A typical strike parade that included a number of women and girls.

September 1, 1913 marked Labor Day, which had become a federal holiday less than twenty years earlier. The labor situation in the Copper Country had not improved. A number of men who had walked off the job in July felt that the time had come for them to return to work at the mines, which reopened. To compensate for the absence of strikers, companies like Calumet & Hecla hired men from outside the Copper Country. WFM advocates denounced the arrival of the imported men, whom they called “scabs” willing to break the strike on the backs of workers. A number of skirmishes followed, many involving pro-union women. Women–especially ones from Croatian, Slovenian, and Hungarian backgrounds–played prominent and vital roles in the early days of the strike in particular. Female supporters of the WFM marched in frequent parades and attended rallies. More ardent ones hurled rocks and insults at men walking to work. The wife of one union man even allegedly set fire to timber at the Isle Royale mine’s No. 1 shaft, according to files kept by Calumet & Hecla.

A band of women gathering near Kearsarge early on the morning of Labor Day, then, was nothing unusual within the context of the strike. That day, Margaret Fazekas joined them. “September 1 I went on picket duty with the other women,” she said later, according to transcripts of an inquest held before the United States Congress. “My mother didn’t send me out… some neighbors knocked at the door and they called me.” It was about five in the morning when the ladies arrived to ask Margaret to come along. As a relative of a striking worker, whose relationship to her she did not disclose to Congress, she agreed to join in the morning’s parade and, with her mother’s permission, stepped out in the fresh Copper Country air.

Mine operations in the winter
North Kearsarge No. 1, circa 1915.

Margaret and her neighbors fell in with a group that eventually swelled to some two hundred participants, including a handful of other young girls. She found herself at the front of the marchers as they processed through Kearsarge, eventually passing by “the property road going toward the Kearsarge mine and the back road there.” Their sheer numbers effectively, though perhaps unintentionally, prevented the morning shift from reaching the Kearsarge. About a dozen deputies on either flank of the parade spoke up with a protest of their own. “They told us to go home for breakfast,” Margaret recalled, although “we weren’t doing any harm at all.” The women objected. “We said we had just as much–” Margaret began when telling the story to Congress before correcting and gentling her speech. “We can stay there just as well as they can. We weren’t doing anything at all. Some of the ladies told them to go for breakfast, and they turned back, and we thought they were going home for breakfast.” The confrontation seemed poised to end.

“But when they turned back toward us,” the teenager said, “they had the revolvers in their hands and they started shooting.”

Realizing immediately how dangerous her position at the front of the parade had become, Margaret turned to run. As she fled the fusillade of bullets, one deputy’s shot struck her in the back of the head, right below her left ear. “I don’t know anything afterwards,” she told the inquest. She collapsed, unconscious. According to historians Gary Kaunonen and Aaron Goings in their Community in Conflict: A Working-Class History of the 1913-1914 Michigan Copper Strike and the Italian Hall Tragedy, fellow marchers carried Margaret to “a little storm shed at the back of a neighborhood house.” There, physician Andrew C. Roche from the local hospital attended her and quickly called for an ambulance to take her to the public hospital in Calumet. For four or five days afterward, Margaret struggled to regain consciousness. Dr. Roche felt skeptical that she would ever return to her right frame of mind, if she even survived the harrowing injury.

Image of wood-framed building with large porch
An early version of the Calumet Public Hospital.

Word of Margaret’s shooting rapidly spread throughout the Copper Country and across the United States. In its edition the next day, the Calumet News, which generally favored the mines’ interpretations of the strike, argued that evidence pointed to paraders being equal participants in the violence but conceded the severity of Margaret’s state and her pitiable status as daughter of “a widow.” Within two days, newspapers in Billings, Minneapolis, Natchez, and other towns had picked up the story. The Star-Tribune of Minnesota told its readers that Margaret’s wound would likely prove fatal. Indignantly, it noted that none of the deputies who participated in the shooting had been arrested. Outrage in the community about the grievous assault on a child eventually led to just one man, John Lavers, being charged for his participation in the “Labor Day disturbances” at Kearsarge and pinpointed as the man whose bullet had wounded Margaret Fazekas.

The legal consequences of the day were still to come. That first day of September, Margaret lay in a hospital bed, fighting for her life and likely to lose the battle. In Hancock, WFM members met with President Charles Moyer, who declared the morning’s actions nothing short of murder. As the week wore on, Dr. Roche assessed Margaret’s state again and determined that the best course of action was to operate. His instincts proved correct: the procedure started Margaret down the road to eventual recovery. “Dr. Roach [sic] said some of my brain came out,” Margaret told the Congressional inquest, describing the physician’s age-appropriate summary of her injury, “but he put it back in again and he took a bone out of it–a small bone.” His prognosis for her future mental abilities remained guarded, but Margaret proved stronger than her injury. Four and a half weeks later, despite all odds, she left Calumet Public Hospital and went home to Kearsarge. Early in 1914, she was well enough to testify confidently before the Congressional inquest, remove her hat, and show the assembled men where her hair had grown to cover scars left by the bullet.

Headline reading, "Young girl fatally shot in clash at North Kearsarge."
Headline from the Calumet News, September 2, 1913, before Margaret’s successful treatment.

Margaret Fazekas became a symbol and a point of rhetoric of the strike for both sides. To those unsympathetic to the union’s arguments and who found their tactics reprehensible, she represented the innocents maimed by violence they deemed the WFM to have sparked. For supporters of the strike, she stood as another example of unchecked abuses that the mines levied out on the Copper Country’s people. In December, when a grand jury declared that insufficient evidence existed to indict John Lavers, she demonstrated to newspapers outside the futility of obtaining justice and answers about culpability in the strike.

Her father’s absence, the strike, and her shooting led Margaret to grow up quickly. In July 1915, a month before her sixteenth birthday, she and Joseph Dorko, age 21, filed an application for a marriage license. They left the Keweenaw Peninsula, settling in New Brunswick, New Jersey by 1917. Other members of the Fazekas family soon joined them: Julia Fazekas and Margaret’s siblings all resided in New Brunswick as of the 1920 census and apparently spent the remainder of their lives there. Margaret and Joseph had two sons, Joseph and Stephen, and a daughter, also named Margaret. Their marriage may not have been a happy one, however: in 1940, the couple resided separately, and Margaret’s 1952 obituary did list her husband among her surviving family, although Joseph outlived her by more than twenty years.

The life of Margaret Fazekas was an eventful and tumultuous one. By the time she reached an age that we associate today with proms and college applications, she had left her native country behind, experienced the loss of an absentee father, marched in a labor dispute, survived a harrowing injury, and testified to the strike that shook the Copper Country. Her story is one of many that can be told of strong Upper Peninsula women enduring the unimaginable–and one that ought never to be forgotten.


One Comment on "Flashback Friday: The Girl Who Lived"

  • American first FINN second and a Yoooper forever
    August 10, 2020 at 8:04 am

    A stirring story to say the least! I would wager that most have never heard of this. Archives keep putting out those interesting tales from history! Thank You