Even before the Finkelstein family boarded the ship to America, they knew their new home would be Pittsburgh. There, Jacob
Finkelstein had a brother-in-law. The family also knew Samuel Sheffler, the most prominent of Pittsburgh’s Romanian Jews. Sheffler was head of a cigar factory and active in relief organizations that helped bring Romanian Jews to the city and watched over them once they arrived. By 1902, thanks to Sheffler and others like him, Pittsburgh had become a haven for thousands of Romanian Jews. Already the city boasted two Romanian synagogues and a thriving Jewish life in what was known as the Hill District, where Jews from across Europe had settled. In 1905 there were fifteen thousand Jews in Pittsburgh. Seven years later the number was thirty-five thousand.
It was much the same in Canton, where early immigrants paved the way for their countrymen and extended families to follow, and assisted them with housing and jobs. Others, like John Jacob, whose family would later purchase Bender’s tavern, set up a profitable travel business arranging for the passage of immigrants—Germans, Italians, and Hungarians among them—chartering railroad cars that brought them from Ellis Island directly to Canton, their tickets prepaid by relatives. Many, if not most, were illiterate. By 1890, Canton’s illiteracy rate ranked fourth from the bottom among cities of twenty-five thousand or more. Several of the city’s wards were enclaves of the Old World—the Germans concentrated in the second and the fifth, the Greeks and Italians in the fourth.
All of them were drawn by the promise of America. But if fifteen-year-old Sam Finkelstein imagined after arriving in Pittsburgh that he too was now free to participate in that new life, he was mistaken. He had traded a shtetl for a ghetto. Sam spoke no English, and the prospect of going to school, first denied him by the laws of Romania, was now denied him by his own father, who hid his shoes so that he could not attend. Instead he was forced to spend his days rolling cigars along with his brothers and sisters. (Even so, there were days when Sam Stone went to school barefoot—even in the snow—he later told his niece Shirley.) Their cramped white frame house at 51 Rowley Street became as much a sweatshop as a home. Cut off by language, physically isolated by the ghetto, and marooned in his own home, Sam’s first taste of America was anything but liberating. What he saw of America in 1902 as a fifteen-year-old boy stayed with him. And when, years later, in the depths of the Depression, he became B. Virdot to many, he could not help but remember what it was like growing up in such circumstances.
So often the parents put B. Virdot’s gift toward buying shoes for their children so they could go to school. How close to home, literally, that must have struck my grandfather, who, more than anything else, wanted to go to school in this new land but could not because his shoes were denied him. And for many of those who wrote to B. Virdot, more than a lack of shoes stood in the way of going to school. Lottie Allen wrote on behalf of her daughters, Louise and Isabel: “They do not ask for anything but clothes, so that they can go to school.” Three years earlier her husband, James, an Irish immigrant and out-of-work stonecutter, had died after a long illness. His last vision of America, so stark and impoverished, was not the one that had drawn him to this new land, any more than that which greeted Sam Stone upon his arrival in Pittsburgh.
Up and down Pittsburgh’s Hill District were home-based cigar “factories,” mostly mothers and fathers and children in attics working over benches and rolling tables, with poor ventilation, terrible hours, and a dulling tedium that in some smothered ambition and in others kindled it. The air was thick with tobacco, and young backs, stooped for hours over benches, ached like those of old men. Pittsburgh had a hundred such cigar factories. It became the nation’s leading maker of stogies, or “tobies,” as they were called. They were the cheaper, smaller version of the cigar. Such readily available work was a way to survive, but also an economic trap that held many in its grip for a lifetime.
For some few, it was a ticket to wealth. William Marsh became the millionaire “Stogie King.” Before Oscar Hammerstein—grandfather of the famed lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II—was a theatrical producer, he was a cigar maker whose invention of a device on which cigar wrappers were cut helped make Pittsburgh’s Standard Cigar Factory the largest stogie maker in the world. (In reaction to abuses, the labor movement found fertile ground in the industry. Samuel Gompers, a Jewish immigrant and cigar maker, would become a dominant figure in the upstart labor movement.)
In 1913, cigar workers went on strike against the larger manufacturers. One of the Pittsburgh brands struck was Dry Slitz, in whose factories child workers were forbidden from speaking. The union slogan was “You smoke the blood of children if you smoke Dry Slitz.”
Sam and his siblings hated the work, Sam enough to declare himself a socialist, a stand he repudiated years later. One of Sam’s brothers, Al, would recall feeling so confined by the routine of rolling cigars that he could not even stretch his legs. He would nervously rub the ball of one shoe against the other until he had worn clean through the leather. But the cigar business provided one advantage to the Finkelsteins and other Jews: it allowed them to set their own hours of work, enabling them to honor the Sabbath.
There was little laughter in the Finkelstein home, and fewer expressions of affection. In her Jewish faith and keeping kosher, Sam’s mother, Hinde (she later went by the name “Hilda”), was more than strict. She was fanatical. She was also the consummate nag. But with age, she apparently mellowed. My mother only remembers sitting on her lap while she sang the 1907 song “School Days.” My aunt Dorothy recalls passing her room and being frightened at the sight of her swaying and mumbling as she davened (the Yiddish word for praying while rocking slowly forward and back).
Sam’s father, Jacob, was distant and demanding, steeped in faith and the exigencies of feeding his family. A tyrannical figure, he was obeyed but not loved. The hardships of Romania, the trek across Europe, the inescapable sweatshop in their home, all made his father’s emotional distance that much harder to bear. Only Sam, the oldest son, had the courage to stand up to him. There is a story passed down that when Sam was a young boy he was sent to pick cherries, and he fell from a tree, broke his leg, and limped home. There he received neither sympathy nor help. The hardness to which Sam was exposed in his youth made him appreciate compassion all the more. He saw what his father was. He saw emotional wreckage all around him and he wanted no part of it. He had escaped the cruelty of the state, and was no less determined to put the callousness of his home life behind him.
Sam was unwilling to fritter away his days in an attic rolling tobacco leaves. He began to eye the door and plot his getaway. In Pittsburgh, he found work as a peddler, then a salesman, and finally a window dresser in a millinery shop. Along the way he taught himself English, suppressed his accent, and learned to dress in the fashion of the day and carry himself with pride. He became a student of advertising, merchandising, and window dressing. He implicitly understood how dependent the world’s judgment was upon the visual. His new life could be affected as simply as a costume change. Like so many immigrants, he had something to prove—to the world, but also to himself. The limits and doubts and foreshortened horizons with which he had grown up were still there to be tested. His was an ambition fueled less by what he longed to acquire than by what he hoped to shed.
In 1920, nearly two decades after arriving in America, his father, fifty-eight-year-old Jacob, and his sons David, Isador, and Moses were all still living at 51 Rowley Street, still answering to the name Finkelstein, and still rolling stogies. And there the sons might well have spent their entire lives if Sam hadn’t rescued them with the promise of a new job, a new name, and a new life in Canton, Ohio. It was a kind of Pittsburgh in miniature, a gritty midwestern steel town of diverse immigrants and ample opportunity for the willing.
Rarely did Sam speak of his years in Pittsburgh. There are no pictures of him from that period, and none of his father. “Sam Finkelstein” virtually vanished in 1918, when he first arrived in Canton. In his place was Sam Stone—eager, tireless, and, by his own account, native-born. To thoroughly reinvent himself he had to leave Pittsburgh and find a place where no one knew him or his family. He had traveled thousands of miles from Romania to Pittsburgh, and yet much of the grimness of his life had followed him every step of the way. In Canton he could truly begin again.
But the earlier years, the years of rolling cigars, had left their mark. A whiff of tobacco sickened him. Long before it was fashionable, he supported antismoking campaigns, and there was nothing he reviled more than a cigar. (That his future father-in-law would be a cigar salesman did not endear him to Sam.)
The education that was denied him also left its mark. He never learned to write in cursive. His siblings too suffered from a lack of schooling. As a young woman, his sister Gussie could neither read nor write. In later years, her daughter, Shirley, then six or seven, would return from school and teach her the alphabet and how to read. One of Gussie’s proudest moments was being able to sign her own name as she opened up a meager bank account. On Saturdays—Shabbat, the seventh day of the Jewish week and the day of rest—Gussie would take her daughter to the homes of Jewish immigrants newly arrived in Pittsburgh and have her teach them as well. Often they would offer little Shirley food as payment, but she had been instructed in advance to decline, saying she was not hungry even if she was. If she forgot, her mother would remind her with a pinch. She knew to politely decline even an offer of a few pennies.
It was a way for a proud mother to show off her daughter, the American. But it was also a mitzvah, a Hebrew word meaning “commandment,” but one that has come to mean an act of human kindness—not something to be tainted by money. The truest and highest form of giving is that in which the giver expected and got nothing in return. It was a commandment that was ingrained in each of the children and consummated in Sam’s reaching out to those in need that Christmas of 1933.
Sam and many of his generation entered the Depression clinging to a stubborn individualism that bordered on social Darwinism. They had made it, so others could too. Those who did not share their good fortune had their own network to fall back on. It was called family, the church, or, at its most extended reach, the community. But one in distress did not generally look to government. In 1933, government was still seen as distant and removed, and, given the experience of many immigrants in the Old World, so much the better.
In 1933, the notion of individual responsibility and the role of the state were both being sorely tested. Across the sea, the Soviet Union was creating a society that, as hard as times were here, was seen by many as toxic to individualism. That nation was mired in its own Hard Times, one that made America’s pale by comparison. By some estimates, more than seven million people starved to death there between 1932 and 1933.
Still, American confidence had been shaken, and its revulsion to Marxism was not universal. Had the New Deal not struck some middle ground between laissez-faire capitalism and unfettered socialism, had it not moved to resuscitate the nation, the outcome might have been different. There reached a point here where misery was so widespread and opportunities so few that many came to believe individual action alone could not address the catastrophe they faced. Resistance to government aid would soften, and expectations of the role it should play underwent profound change, for better or worse. (That debate continues.)
It is difficult for Americans today to grasp the stigma that attached to government “handouts” in 1933. By February 2010, thirty-eight million Americans—one in eight—were on food stamps. But in those early years of the Depression, the people of Canton, and those of the nation, would have recoiled at the idea of such a program. The seismic shift in public attitudes toward welfare and public relief programs, indeed toward government as a whole, that followed the Hard Times was as fundamental and far-reaching as any in our history. But in 1933, antagonism to public aid was still deeply ingrained. That fierce individualism can be heard in many of the letters to B. Virdot. Among these was the one written by Joseph P. Rogers, a once successful insurance agent who for six months of the previous year could not say whether he would be able to feed himself, his wife, and his daughters, Carolyn and Eleanor. “I cannot go to the Welfare for help,” he wrote. “I can’t even express myself in writing this letter. It hurts. Something within me rebels.”
Merely being identified as one in want was more than many could bear. In one case in particular, the writer’s anguish in reaching out to B. Virdot was so intense and her fear of being identified so deep that even three-quarters of a century later I cannot bring myself to identify her by anything more than her first name—Mrs. Bessie A. She wrote:
I am a poor woman with a sick girl trying to work and help keep home for a crippled sister and myself.
We are one of the thousands of unfortunate familys who had seen better days, now to Proud to ask charity . . . This is one of the poorest xmases I ever had.
If I thought this would be printed in the papers I would rather die of hunger first as I haven’t been a begger all ways. Hope for better days for my family and the others like us. . . .
The woman who wrote those words was a fifty-five-year-old mother and former phone operator for Western Union. She had emigrated from Ireland in 1880 hoping for “better days,” words that surely would have resonated with the immigrant in Sam Stone. But instead, she found only more of the same. Bessie A.’s words to B. Virdot, particularly her revulsion to accepting charity, are repeated almost verbatim in other letters. Both those born into poverty and those born into privilege viewed the dole with equal distaste. “I believe Mr. Zerby would starve before he would ask for help,” wrote Catherine Zerby of her husband, George. The daughter of esteemed photographer Jacob S. Wissler, she was not accustomed to such hardship. “We cannot afford the newspaper,” her letter began, written on personal stationery with a gold embossed letter Z.
For many today it is difficult to understand the stigma attached to going on the dole or accepting charity. For men like my grandfather, who took such pride in escaping poverty and in providing for himself and his family, charity represented the final act of capitulation. It was not seen as a stop-gap measure to tide one over, but the repudiation of a lifetime rooted in self-reliance. The shame of poverty was tolerable—so many were in distress that Christmas of 1933—but the loss of face that came of publicly applying for relief, of claiming that one’s needs were equal to or superior to another’s, of enduring the gauntlet of probing questions, of surrendering one’s dignity and privacy, for many was too much to ask. They had already been stripped of so much. Self-respect was all they had left.
In her letter to Mr. B. Virdot, Stella Waidman wrote that her husband, Albert, an out-of-work toolmaker, had had surgery and that to pay for the doctors, nurses, and hospital bills, they had sold their home, which was almost paid for. “We could have kept that home if we would have accepted charity,” she wrote, “but we thought it best for Mr. Waidman’s name and for the childrens sake to pay off our bills and sacrifice our home, and build up again.” Her aversion to charity surfaced again near the end of her letter when she wrote, “Please do not send us anything out of pity . . .” The B. Virdot check arrived days later.
American notions of accepting charity were riddled with contradictions. Giving was the Christian thing to do, contributing alms in church and recognizing that we are our brother’s keeper. To give to charity was ennobling, but to accept it was degrading. That was, at least in part, why Sam Stone insisted on his own anonymity and pledged confidentiality to those who wrote to him. They were the only terms under which people, as proud as they were destitute, would come forward. They were the only terms under which Sam himself might have reached out to others.
Many resisted the dole with a mix of defiance and faith. Among those who wrote to Mr. B. Virdot was Roy Rhoads. His December 18, 1933, letter begins:
I saw your kind letter and offer to help the unfortunate to at least one day of happiness. I am like many others. You will not find my name on the Family Services I have been fighting it out and trusting in the Lord and believe me Brother he helps. My name is Roy Rhoads—1124 Clev. Ave. N.W. am 58 years old, wife and our Boy. He has been out of work over 2 years and I worked at Hoover Co. 11 years was laid off 3 years ago and have Battled ever since. I get out and sell razor blades and my wife cares for tourists and people looking for a room and does washing for others. We are back with our rent 4 or 5 months.
I hate to admit all this as I worked all my life and would work at any honest work if I could get it. I worked a few days for the city and cleaned snow from people’s sidewalks. That is all the work I have found. I signed up at Y.M.C.A. last Aug. but have never been called. Not for my sake but for the wife and brighten one home, if you could help it would be appreciated.
1124 CLEV. AVE. N.W.
Roy Rhoads and his wife, Margaret, did indeed survive the Depression. In the years after, as the economy improved, Rhoads found work at the Hoover Company and later Timken Roller Bearing. The years of trauma and desperation behind him, he again learned to enjoy life and gained a reputation as a master of the French horn, an instrument he played in several area groups, including the 135th Field Artillery Band. Hard work and frugality eventually allowed him to retire. His granddaughter Kathleen remembers him as a quiet man with wire-rimmed glasses, sitting in a rocking chair, smoking his pipe. He died in 1950 at age seventy-three.
Dandelions and Pencils
What Roy Rhoads and so many others faced in the depths of the Depression was an utter absence of jobs. No matter how willing one was to work, no matter how humble the wages one would accept, there was still often no work to be found. The Depression pitted one unthinkable against another—the stigma of the handout against the sight of one’s loved ones going to bed hungry and cold. It forced many to the edge between personal honor and false pride. Howard Sommers’s letter to B. Virdot described the desperate straits that many faced but also the determination not to seek charity. On December 18, 1933, he wrote:
Dear Friend, B. Virdot
As I picked up the evening paper I saw your most generous offer to worthy people. I count myself & my wife most worthy as for the last four years I have only had a few days work here and there. But I will go ahead and state the jobs my wife & I have had to do before we would ask for Charity. Picking berries in season and selling them as late as 12 oclock at night, picking cherries on the share and selling our share, My wife had to climb to the tops of the highest trees as I am lame and cannot climb. We have started as early as February to gather dandelions to sell and sold them till May or till people would not buy them any longer as they to tough to eat. Our winter time job is gathering Sassafras which is a lot of hard work and not much money in it. The last 6 or 8 months I have been selling Liquid Solder, Pills & Styrtie pencils in and about Canton for about 10 miles around at nearby towns but I found that selling house to house is a hard job as scarce as money was. As far as clothes is concerned I have had to buy a few things for myself as I had to meet the public, but my wife has not had a coat in 7 yrs. and her last pair of shoes were bought in 1929. The coat is not fit to wear. We have always kept an old car which was the only way we had to get our wood & coal and take us to country to pick our berries & etc.
Well I think this is enough said, but I could sit here and write for hours, but 3 pages is enough.
After you have read it over and you are the gudge and you don’t feel that we are worthy of your donation, secretly as you promised then, please destroy this letter so no one will know but you & I.
So Good-bye & Good Luck, and we are living in hopes that good luck comes our way.
FROM MR. & MRS. HOWARD
Sommers’s reference to gathering cherries and being lame would likely have triggered Sam’s own childhood memory of being sent to pick cherries and breaking his leg. Howard E. Sommers was the son of Franklin and Phebe Sommers, farmers who worked the land outside Canton in Jackson Township. Despite the weary tone of the letter, Howard Sommers was only twenty-eight when he wrote it. Almost nothing is known of the turns the Sommerses’ lives took after writing to Mr. B. Virdot. Howard Sommers died at fifty-seven; his wife, Mary, died before him. His July 9, 1962, obituary in the Canton Repository notes only that he worked as a handyman, that he had been under a doctor’s care for a heart condition, and that neighbors who had not seen him for days discovered his body in his home. No survivors were listed. It would appear that his letter to B. Virdot is all that survived him.
Over time, the Depression had a slow, grinding effect on the spirit. On one level, some of those who wrote to Mr.
B. Virdot knew not to take their hardships personally, that so many around them were enduring much the same, but the universality of their suffering did not keep their babies warm, pay for medicine, or save them from eviction. Husbands often took to the road in search of jobs and did not return for months or even years. Before the Depression, John Boyer had had his own service station, and he, his wife, Margaret, and five children lived in a home that he owned. The Depression undid all that. When Margaret wrote to B. Virdot in 1933, John Boyer was in Florida looking for work. The family was left behind, having been forced to give up their home. Circumstances were bleak. “The conditions under which my children are now living,” she wrote, “would seem unbearable.”
Four years into the Depression, the sense of personal failure stole into their lives. Shame and self-reproach took many forms—alcoholism, spousal abuse, depression. The children of Roy Teis remembered their father walking in back alleys and going blocks out of his way to reach their home, all in an effort to avoid a neighbor’s glance or questions. His wife called it his “shame-face.” But it was being at home, seeing the suffering of little ones, that was often the hardest part. The letters to B. Virdot are filled with such anguish.
One of those to write B. Virdot was thirty-three-year-old Hilda Criswell, a mother of four and wife of Reuben Criswell, an out-of-work painter. The daughter of Danish immigrants, she had married at sixteen. She knew how to make do on little, but her resourcefulness had its limits. She had always made her children’s clothes, but now there was no more material. Her twin ten-year-old daughters, Virginia and Vivian, had worn clear through their shoes. “I am ashamed to face my children anymore,” she wrote. Sam would have had a soft spot for her. She shared his mother’s name, Hilda, and one of her daughters shared his firstborn daughter’s, Virginia. And any letter that spoke of the need for shoes—and there were many—would have rekindled personal memories.
Until then, it seemed to some that poverty afflicted only a particular class—those born into hardship . . . It was a kind of negative inheritance, not something that randomly befell the frugal and hardworking. But Mrs. Bessie King, a forty-three-year-old widow and mother of a ten-year-old boy, was caught in the same vortex of poverty that held those she had always viewed as apart from if not below her. Suddenly she found herself applying for assistance. “Oh how it goes against the grain.” she wrote, “to have to go up and sit among the foreign element, and Negroes from 1 to 2 hours, sit there and wait for your turn just like a barber shop . . .”
There was still among some a lingering illusion that poverty was associated with a lack of character or sloth. Mrs. Edna Schaub, hoping to put B. Virdot’s check toward an overcoat for her husband, felt compelled to explain that her thirty-three-year-old husband—out of a job for four years but once an employee in one of Canton’s steel mills—“has always been a good worker and provides, but when there is no work to be had he can’t work. Now we are not the kind of people who are shiftless poor.” Schaub’s letter reflects a pre-Depression prejudice that was sorely tested in those years. Before the Depression, there was less sympathy for the chronically out of work. The employed were sometimes hasty to dismiss them as “shiftless,” suggesting they had brought their circumstances upon themselves. The Hard Times forced people to take a second look, to not be so cavalier in their dismissal of “the kind of people” that were out of work. It ushered in a sea change in societal attitudes toward the needy, lifting some of the blame from the victims and directing some of the remedial responsibility to government and society at large.
Many of the letters were written without the knowledge of other members of the family. Often it was the wife who wrote the letter, not wanting to run afoul of the husband’s pride. George Saal had been one of the leading salesmen in the local office of the Metropolitan Insurance Company, then lost everything during the Depression. He did not object to his wife, Fern, writing to B. Virdot, but he was not privy to the note on the back of her letter: “Mr. Saal read this,” she wrote, “but what he doesn’t know is that today I went to D. Grigsby to get $5.00 on my engagement ring.” David Grigsby was a pawnbroker. It appears that Fern Saal used the B. Virdot money to purchase bread or, more likely, to pay off a debt for such past purchases. The check is endorsed to Nickles Bakery.
The Seeds of Resentment
In some cases it was a wife writing without the knowledge of her husband, who was unwilling to admit his inability to provide for the family. Myrna Jury, wife of Donald Jury, was such a case:
I read your add in todays paper and I talked it over with my husband and he decided that we would not write and therefore some other family would get help. But I feel we need a few things.
My husband was out of work almost three years (prior to July 11,1933.) Since then he had been employed at Timken Roller Bearing Co. At present he is making 40 cents and we’re in debt and are trying hard to get out. Our money doesn’t reach from one pay to the other. Of course if we could let our bills go for a while we could get along fairly well. The only reason I am writing this is to get warm clothes for the children for this winter. We have the following children, Virginia aged 9 Charles 7 Alvin 3, Helen 1. They all need shoes and clothes and Charles needs an overcoat. My husband will not let me go to see the Family Service bout clothes. We were on the Family Service list 17 months and he was so glad to get away from there that he doesn’t want to go back. He said that “we will get along somehow”—But it is awful hard sometimes. My husband lived in Canton since 1915. We have been married almost 11 years. I would and I know my husband would be very glad for anything you could do for us. Whether you help us or not I think you are doing a wonderful and noble deed. Wishing you a Merry Xmas and a happy New Year.
I remain Yours Truly, Mrs. Donald R. Jury P.S. I decided to write without telling my husband. I tried to write our circumstances hoping that you will see fit to help us- Mrs. Jury
MRS. DONALD R. JURY
1326 44TH ST N.E
IT IS CHRISTMAS Eve, 2008—nearly seventy-five years to the day that Mrs. Jury wrote that letter—when I finally track down one of her descendants. I read her the letter. In Jury’s letter, Charles’s mother had said he was in need of an overcoat. But there was more to the story than that. Though Charles was only seven at the time, as the eldest son it often fell to him to contribute food for the family. His father, Donald, refused all outside help. So, Charles was dispatched to find food for the table. With each passing month, as circumstances grew more desperate, his responsibilities increased.
He routinely brought with him a 16-gauge shotgun and a .22-caliber pistol, boarded a city bus, paid the five cents (except when the driver took pity and let him ride for free), and rode the bus to the end of the line and out into the countryside. There he scoured the fields and woods for rabbits and pheasants. But the cost of the shells and bullets was so dear that he dared not miss. Every shot had to produce a kill. Whatever he brought down became the meal that day. And the overcoat? It was to keep him warm so that he might stay out longer and kill more game—a success upon which the lives of others might depend.
When the state offered the Jury family a packet of seeds for their vegetable garden, Donald refused to accept, even though son Charles pleaded with him to do so. But Charles found other ways to keep the family fed. He was not above stealing vegetables from neighbors’ gardens, and each time he did, his father scolded him. Over time, Charles came to bear a deep and abiding resentment toward his father, and to loathe his pride—obstinacy, it seemed to him—and his refusals to reach out for help. That pride, he felt, added to the family’s misery and created a chasm between father and son that would linger throughout their lives. We know this today because Charles’s son, Charles Jr., and his sister, Elizabeth, recall their father telling them of the constant conflict between Donald and Charles over whether to accept outside help.
The scarcity of meat in the Jury household and the memories of hunger left their mark on Charles. As an adult he insisted on having a table full of food at every meal and he often would have steak two and even three nights in a row, perhaps to remind himself that he was now a safe distance from the past. He often talked about the Depression as if it were a parable with a lesson. He told and retold the story of his mother making a birthday cake and the two precious eggs rolling onto the floor and breaking. His mother knelt and wept at the sight.
The legacy of the Great Depression and what the Jury family endured continues to play out. “Even third generation, it’s funny how things follow you,” says Donald Jury’s granddaughter, Elizabeth, now fifty-eight and a systems analyst in Illinois. “Though I do shop, sometimes I feel so wasteful, that we indulge ourselves a lot. You don’t really need it. I have this guilt feeling about Christmas.”
After the Depression, Donald Jury found work as a cabinet-maker at the Walker Lumber Company in Canton. One of the lessons he learned from the Depression was the need for labor to organize. He became president of the Carpenter’s Local 2092 and did not retire until 1968. He died two years later, at seventy. Donald Jury’s son Charles—the boy who hunted—left Canton at nineteen and headed for Florida, where he dived for seashells (another kind of hunting) in the Keys off Seven Mile Bridge and created one of the largest seashell businesses in Florida. Later, he made and lost a small fortune in the roofing business during Florida’s midfifties housing boom. Charles is buried in the Dominican Republic. His grave overlooks the sea. His son, Charles Jr., now runs the family’s seashell business.
When Myrna Jury wrote to B. Virdot in December 1933, she referred to her husband’s disdain for Family Services. In this he was hardly alone. Across Canton, those who wrote to Mr. Virdot shared that feeling.
It was made all the worse by the often degrading circumstances that awaited those who could bring themselves to swallow their pride and apply to Family Services. The agency was woefully underfunded and unable to provide aid to all who were eligible for relief. To winnow down the pool of deserving applicants, the review process got longer and ever more intrusive. The worse things got, the more hoops the desperate were asked to jump through, and the less was left of their self-esteem.
For many, it appeared that was precisely the intention of the process—to frighten away would-be applicants and reduce the numbers facing a bureaucracy that was, like an overcrowded lifeboat, already swamped. By then, it had gained a nasty reputation, its screening process so invasive that many said they would sooner die than face such indignities. Some administrators were deeply resented. They were seen as imperious and arbitrarily wielding the power over the decision as to who ate and who starved. In the midst of such economic turbulence, they alone seemed to enjoy the sinecure of a secure position. It was a combustible mix, made all the more so by the perception that these bureaucrats were untouched by the plight of so many. More likely, it was a necessary professional distance they maintained, lest they become overwhelmed by the suffering all around them.
But for some, unable to watch their loved ones waste away, there was no choice but to run the gauntlet of Family Services. A commissary and a network of Canton merchants and grocers of all ethnic backgrounds—Italian, Jewish, Anglo-Saxon—were affiliated with Family Services and offered the agency goods at a deep discount. Those items were then provided free to Canton’s neediest, or at least those who had endured the screening process.
In 1931, grocer Felicia DiGianantonio offered Family Services a loaf of bread for ten cents; Charles Strasser of Canton Poultry sold the agency a pound of lard for nineteen cents; Joseph W. Farwick & Sons sold them navy beans for twelve cents a pound; Wagner Provision offered them soup meat for nineteen cents a pound. Similarly, Family Services had outlets providing clothing, shoes, and coal. The week of Christmas 1933, recipients, often mothers and their small children, could be seen trudging through the snowy streets of Canton, stooped beneath the load provided by Family Services.
The list of foods available at the Family Services “Community Store” reflected the influx of foreigners and African Americans drawn by the city’s once-expanding industrial base. There was hominy and turnips, sauerkraut and spaghetti. But among the African American population of Canton, as among all Cantonians, there was a strong preference for making it on their own. During the Depression, the city’s Urban League borrowed some fifty-two acres north of Canton, which was used as a vegetable garden for the African American community. In 1932, a coalition of dairies built six cheese factories to process their surplus milk. Everyone who was able had a private vegetable garden, but with mixed results.
Compounding their misery, the growers of 1932 discovered that more than half of the area’s wheat production was infested with the Hessian flies, whose greenish-white maggots concealed themselves under the sheaths of the leaves. Prices for farm produce in 1930 fell to levels not seen since 1910, and over the next three years plummeted to lows last reached in 1900. Farm foreclosures accelerated, and hunger spread.
On December 7, 1932, the year before B. Virdot’s gift, some three thousand “hunger marchers” gathered in Washington, D.C., to call attention to their plight. Among them were two from Canton, Mr. and Mrs. C. W. Austin. They were discovered in an unheated and vacant two-room house, hungry and suffering from influenza. A Washington rescue squad raced them to Gallinger Hospital. Their discovery and that of two dozen others in the abandoned house triggered a single paragraph in the Washington Post that ran under the headline, HORRIFIED.
In the forty years leading up to 1933, Canton’s population quadrupled, but its capacity to provide for the needy had not kept pace. When the Depression struck, Family Services was hit by a tsunami. In December 1929 it provided relief to 188 families. In 1930, the number was 1,324. In 1931, it was 3,128. By 1932, it had risen to 3,511. The number could have soared far higher but resources were exhausted.
In August 1933, the once-private Family Services, no longer able to cope with the demands made upon it, became a public agency under the Stark County Relief Administration, and in 1935 came under the Federal Emergency Relief Administration, or FERA. But no change of administration could overcome the reluctance of Donald Jury or thousands of other Cantonians raised to believe that a man who could not support his family was not a man at all. That was in part the genius of Roosevelt’s New Deal, that it understood and took stock of how down-and-out Americans were feeling, offering them the three things they hungered for most—a job, self-esteem, and a second chance. The hope that Roosevelt kindled was reflected in the names of some of Canton’s businesses: The New Deal Lunch, New Deal Oil Company, and New Deal Tavern.
In the fall of 1933, the Roosevelt administration created the Civil Works Administration, or CWA. It was the first of the New Deal’s public jobs programs, and though it lasted only until the following spring, it led the way for Americans to both provide for their loved ones and preserve their sense of self-worth. Letter after letter to B. Virdot refers to the CWA and the hope that it might come through with a job.
Charles Minor, a father of five, was out of work and in dire need when his wife, Mary, wrote to B. Virdot. “While a steeple jack by trade not turning down digging a ditch. While some of the children needing shoes others needing clothes and unless some Good Person sends us a dinner haven’t got a thing in sight. In the past three weeks had many meals on bread and coffee.” But this was not the first such letter she’d written. Earlier she had written Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s federal relief administrator, hoping he might persuade the CWA to find her husband a job. His response had arrived in that morning’s mail: “said he would try to take it up with head of the CWA here but don’t know when that will be.” Still, it offered a glint of hope.
In its brief time, the CWA put some four million Americans to work, and is credited with building some half a million miles of roads, as well as work on thousands of schools, playgrounds, airports, and other public facilities in which individual workers and entire communities could take pride. Its successor agencies, like the Works Progress Administration (WPA), understood that to restart America, it must offer a hand up, not a handout.
The County Poorhouse, which took in the homeless from Canton and the surrounding area, like Family Services, underwent a succession of names, each reflecting an attitudinal shift—from County Poorhouse in 1837 to County Infirmary in 1850 to County Home in 1924. Its purpose remained largely unchanged. But during the Depression its meager capacity to hold a few hundred homeless men and women was no match for the numbers in need. Ironically, it provided shelter and sustenance in another, less direct way: one of the jobs the WPA came up with for the unemployed was archiving the records of the poorhouse.
But for many in need that December of 1933, Roosevelt and the promises of a New Deal were still just that, mere promises. The day the B. Virdot offer appeared in the Canton Repository, Roosevelt amended yet again an executive order related to the National Emergency Council. To the hungry in Canton who even bothered to follow such bureaucratic minutiae, such news only fed their suspicions that help was still a ways off. Frank Walker, a wealthy lawyer for Anaconda Copper, was named acting executive director of the council, and Time magazine on December 18, 1933, noted wryly: “To outsiders this looked like a new title for an old job. . . . On a nation-wide scale his Council’s representatives were to steer befuddled citizens through the fog of new Washington agencies to the particular bureau that could supply the relief needed.”
Compared to such shuffling and reshuffling of the bureaucratic deck and the growing proliferation of agencies and boards, there was something utterly refreshing about B. Virdot’s offer. It was direct, free of politics, and immediate.
It was an intense source of pride among even the neediest that winter of 1933 that they had not given in and sought help from Family Services. As long as they had the strength to resist that temptation they could claim that they were not yet defeated. For some, even Sam Stone’s anonymous offer of help was too close to a handout. What they wanted was work.
George Hensel wrote, “We have asked for no charity all through the depression. . . . I would like to have work for a Christmas present for I have no shoes. You may think I have nerve writing this, but if you have been in need as long as my wife and I have you know how it feels to eat only one meal a day. . . . I walk so much every day and come home hungry and not much to eat. It makes you feel pretty bad. . . .” In a postscript he added, “There will be no Xmas for us.”
Before the Depression, Hensel had worked for years in a steel mill. Now he was going door-to-door peddling his wife’s doughnuts and cupcakes, but almost no one had any money to buy them. It was all made that much more uncomfortable wearing a pair of shoes he’d long since worn out. In the fierce competition for jobs, employers often looked to hire those who most needed work, but need was defined in ways that disadvantaged the likes of George Hensel, who had only his wife and himself to support. That put him at the back of every line. “We have no children,” he wrote, “and folks thinks we do not have to live.”
Such triaging for work was common during the Depression. Alwyn C. McCort, who had long worked on Canton’s streetcars and in a steel mill, had been out of work for three years and was trying to provide some support to his aging parents, Henry and Anna. From B. Virdot, he wanted only a job. “Now I am not asking for charity,” he wrote, “but thought since you are interested in unfortunate people you might be able to help me get a job. I get turned down again and again because I am single but my parents need my help very badly and I would like to be able to help them and know once more what money looks like.”
But it was the women, married, widowed, and unmarried alike, who often had the most difficult time during the Depression. Employers large and small presumed, often wrongly, that men were the principal supporters of families and women merely supplemented their incomes. But many of the letters to B. Virdot were from women who had no other support than whatever they earned, and on whom others—fatherless children, aging parents, and disabled spouses—counted for their survival.
Catherine Miller, the mother of two children, a daughter aged seven and a son aged four, faced the bleakest of holidays. “I have to support myself and they are both in school,” she wrote to B. Virdot. “They have never known what Christmas is. My husband is in a penal institution at present in York Pa. The children are both in need of clothing and I don’t get any help from any Society.” Days later, her check from B. Virdot arrived.
Wrote another woman, intent upon not throwing herself on the mercies of charity, “I am a widow with an only child, a daughter, and have been struggling to send her to school, and feed her and myself, and often I have gone with nothing to eat, as long as she, who is growing gets it, for she needs it worse than I do. As long as I know my little girl is not hungry it’s all right even though I am.”
These women shared the men’s disdain for charity and the dole. They were no less proud. But in the depths of the Depression, they had fewer options than men. Unlike their male counterparts, few had served apprenticeships or acquired the skills sought by Canton’s mills and factories. They were the first to lose their jobs, as companies, assuming that men were the families’ primary breadwinners, furloughed en masse all married women. It was a sign of how different the times were that there were no uprisings or challenges to such edicts and that these measures were generally greeted as prudent under the circumstances. For these women, such decisions were devastating. Those who made their way through the Depression on their own without recourse to charity or Family Services were a special breed—tough, resourceful, and resilient. B. Virdot’s offer was addressed not only to the men of Canton but to the families that allowed for women too to come forward, and they did.
My grandmother Minna would not have had it any other way. As a teenager and an only child, she provided essential support to her mother and father, a veteran of the Spanish-American War who returned with a disabling case of malaria. Minna would never have allowed Sam to ignore the appeals of women, even if he were inclined to do so, and he was not. Sam had known nothing but strong and independent-minded women in his family. His mother was not to be trifled with, and two of his three sisters had wrenching struggles with poverty. Minna was a feminist with a fierce social conscience whose influence over Sam in such matters could not be overstated. She would have read every incoming letter, doubtless helped him triage the worthiest from the rest, and championed the case of the women. She knew exactly what they were up against.
Years later, in World War II, as men marched off to war, women like the much-celebrated “Rosie the Riveter” filled the industrial ranks. But it was not for lack of ambition or need that the women of the Depression eyed those same positions. Given half a chance, the generation of Rosie’s mother would gladly have rolled up their sleeves in Canton’s mills and factories, and no one thought less of those who were able to do so. In Canton, the fortunate found work as nurses, secretaries, shopgirls, and maids, and did piecework in factories. But as the Depression deepened, they were the first to be let go.
A photo from the 1920s taken at the Hoover vacuum plant shows a vast room filled with women sitting row upon row at sewing machines. But in March 1931, the order went out—all married women must go. No inquiry was made as to whether their husbands had jobs or whether they were their family’s sole support. The next year, Hoover launched a national ad campaign “based on the powerful appeal that the Hoover was the one possession which enabled the women of modern means to enjoy equal luxury with their wealthier sisters.” The appeal fell flat. In 1933 the company began a marketing drive built around the slogan “Elmer is the key to ’33.” The idea was that in Hard Times, Hoover’s sales force should concentrate on the husbands—the “Elmers”—who alone had the authority to purchase costly items like sweepers. Sales sank even further. The company had failed to show women due respect, either as employees or as consumers.
For many women the Great Depression represented a bewildering descent into poverty. Many had been working even before they reached puberty. Their struggles echoed those of their mothers, whose hardships became templates for their own lives. Childhoods, such as they were, had been cut short by the demands of family and their own survival. In Canton, as across the country, there was nothing novel about the idea that a woman would have to support herself and others, but opportunities were rare.
So it was with Rachel DeHoff, who was among those who reached out to B. Virdot. She never enjoyed any delusions that life was going to be easy. The daughter of William and Elizabeth Davis, she was born in August 1897. Her father, William, the son of Welsh immigrants, was a gritty-faced coal miner, a veteran of the Civil War who was born in 1836, already sixty-one when daughter Rachel was born. Her mother was a Scottish immigrant, twenty-nine years younger than her husband. Their bare-bones home in the rural coal-mining village of Somerdale, Ohio, relied on an outside pump, an outhouse, and a crudely dug-out fruit cellar. In 1905 her father died, leaving Elizabeth, then a forty-one-year-old widow, to house and feed her three daughters on her husband’s meager Civil War pension.
School was a luxury Rachel DeHoff could not afford. After the fourth grade, she had to look for work. Not long after her elder sister Esther moved to Canton, Rachel joined her. At thirteen she was working in Canton’s massive Dueber-Hampden watch factory, one of three thousand employees in what was then one of the world’s largest makers of pocket watches. Since the plant’s arrival in Canton in 1888, it had been a magnet for labor and one of the driving forces in Canton’s rapid growth. The sprawling industrial edifice, with its turrets, clock towers, formal gardens, and fortresslike presence, dwarfed the little girl from the village of Somerdale. Three years later, at sixteen, she married Howard DeHoff, who would become a machinist with Timken Roller Bearing Company, another of Canton’s gargantuan employers. The couple saved and built a new home in 1927, had two sons, and appeared well on their way to living out the American dream. Then the bottom dropped out of Rachel DeHoff s world.
First came the Depression. Then, in 1932, Howard fell ill. His urine turned dark and smoky-colored, his back ached, and he was feverish. Something was wrong with his kidneys. Returning by train from the Mayo Clinic, he crawled into bed. Two days later, on March 1, 1932, he died. They said it was Bright’s disease. Howard DeHoff was forty-two. Into the hands of the Great Depression fell his thirty-five-year-old widow, Rachel, and two sons, along with a crushing mortgage and little or no savings. For Rachel, history had repeated itself.
Less than two years later, as Christmas 1933 approached, Rachel DeHoff noticed the B. Virdot ad in the Canton Repository. She waited a day to respond. On December 19, she took up a fountain pen and, across a small pad of lined manila paper, wrote these words:
Dear Mr. B. Virdot
I saw in last nights paper the most human thing I have ever seen in print before. Instead of giving to some church or organization to have your name mentioned over the pulpit, or in the news paper, you have chose the silent way of celebrating Christs birth, which you surely will be repaid. No wonder prosperity has returned to you, and yours. May it never look dark again for you is my prayers—Well I will write a few things about my circumstances. You mentioned men—but I am not a man but I am taking the Responsibility of a man. As Father + Mother. My husband died 2 yrs ago this March left me with 2 Boys to support one in McKinley High another 9 yrs old -I have worked every day at Real Estate, and you know what a uphill job that has been, but I have been able to keep my home & Boys with food & clothing by the effort I have put forth. It looks pretty dark sometimes but we still hold on to that ray of hope—that this terrible depression will soon be over—and I want to state that I have never received charity of any kind or have never complained to anyone before but after I read your letter I made up my mind to write to you, not asking, just telling you my circumstances, but if you think I am deserving of part of your Xmas cheer that you are giving I assure you it will be greatly appreciated & spent for the right kind of things for my boys & myself.
May God Bless you & Wishing you a Merry Xmas & a prosperious new years- I remain—
MRS. R. DEHOFF
3039 9TH ST
Days later, she received a check for five dollars signed by B. Virdot. To what use she put the money is not known, but there was little reason to fret for Rachel DeHoff. She was hell-bent on providing for her small family. In the months before her husband died, she had begun to study for the real estate test and to prepare herself for a career. She was one of the first women in the state to become a real estate agent and she shrewdly navigated the harshest of markets. In those dire times, few homes were sold. Many had been foreclosed on and were owned by the banks, which feared nothing as much as vandals in the empty houses. DeHoff understood that and initially focused on renting the houses, thereby assuring the bank that someone was there to watch the property. She arranged to take half the first month’s rent in such homes, giving her an income stream that allowed her to hold on to her own house even as she provided other families with at least temporary housing. She was tough and tireless and, notwithstanding a mere four years of schooling, deft at running numbers, calculating mortgages, and projecting her financial needs.
And she was compassionate. Just as her sister had taken her in, so she took others into her home. One of these was a childhood friend in need of shelter. Nola Walters would live with the family for years, and in return for cooking and cleaning she was given not merely lodging but a family to call her own. Christian spirit or not, no one got something for nothing. That was the singular axiom of the Great Depression. Hoboes would come to Rachel DeHoff’s back door, as they did to so many homes, and offer to shovel coal or, in winter, clear the sidewalk, and in return they received a sandwich they would eat on the back porch—a scene repeated hundreds of thousands of times across the nation. And such generosity was repaid in kind by neighbors and shop owners.
In her field, Rachel DeHoff would prove herself the equal of any man. She made a name for herself in the industry, paid off her mortgage, vacationed in Cuba, and eventually became successful enough to open another real estate office in Phoenix, Arizona, where she wintered. She was always frugal, but the Hard Times she had twice endured—once as a child and later as a widow—were forever behind her.
But it was her sons, Howard Ellsworth and Harold, upon whom she lavished the most attention and for whom she sacrificed much. Rachel DeHoff endowed them with an appreciation for education and a keen sense of service to community and country. Like so many children of the Depression, they were grateful for the sacrifices made on their behalf but grateful too to the nation that provided them with prospects brighter than any their parents could have imagined. The fusion of sacrifice and gratitude was later put to the test on the battlefield.
DeHoff’s sons both served in World War II. Howard was a second lieutenant in the Army Air Forces. Harold became an infantry platoon sergeant, fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and crossed the Rhine at Remagan. He came away with a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts. Both men not only finished high school but got college degrees. Howard had a long and solid career with Hoover.
Son Harold got a law degree, and became the city prosecutor and then a distinguished judge on the Common Pleas Court. His life intersected with much of Canton’s history. As a prosecutor in the late 1950s, he helped shut down the city’s teeming trade in prostitution, padlocking some nineteen brothels and bringing to an end a decades-long stain on the city’s reputation. Today, at eighty-four, he is a last living link to what was. He remembers well the city’s corruption.
To outsiders vice and graft may have smacked of hypocrisy, but in Canton, corruption was seen as something of a homegrown industry, not unlike Timken, Hoover, or Diebold. They may have been the wages of sin, but they were still wages. The furniture stores furnished the brothels’ waiting parlors and sold them hundreds of mattresses, the doctors examined the girls and collected their fees, the laundry gathered their soiled sheets, and the police took their cut of the action in envelopes in exchange for keeping out-of-town girls from encroaching and making sure the johns and ladies carried on their business safely.
Decades later, a well-known madam married a vice-squad cop without raising an eyebrow. A mayor had been dismissed for “inefficiency,” a polite word for graft, and, as the New York Times duly noted, Canton’s police chief had been suspended amid accusations that he had sold protection to gangsters.
Such corruption went way back. In September 1905, William S. Couch wrote in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “For a lurid little city, commend me to Canton.” He described Canton as a “monument to present day Ohio politics built by the present day Ohio politicians, who have piled gambling hells [sic] and Parisian music halls on a foundation of other iniquities in their effort to attain such immortality of memory as may be derived from public office and political power. . . . Fluttering, tawdry rags, faded tinsel, leering faces and satyrs’ figures, a frieze of poker decks and roulette wheels, these predominate in the design and decoration of the other memorial [President McKinley’s monument], the flimsy whole lit with red lights by night and covered from sight by day.” Whiskey Alley, then one of Canton’s more notorious sections, was “lined with gambling dens, each located above a saloon. During a moment’s quiet, when the music machines are still, the rattle of ivory chips reaches the ear on the street.” And for half a century, Canton’s brothels operated with a brazenness that attracted patrons, gawkers, would-be soul savers, and, of course, fallen women.
Rachel DeHoff’s son Harold, both as prosecutor and as judge, was one of those who helped put an end to all that, or at least reduce it to a scale befitting Canton’s size. He was too young to remember when in 1926 the mob gunned down Don Mellett, the city’s corruption-fighting editor, but he remembers when, as prosecutor thirty years later, two trustees from the Ohio State Penitentiary delivered his prison-made desk. One of the two men was a former Canton police detective who was convicted for his role in Mellett’s murder.
Service continues to run in the DeHoff family. Rachel’s granddaughter Rachelle Martin became a commander in the U.S. Navy, retired as a deputy inspector general, joined the gubernatorial administration of George W. Bush as commissioner of a regulatory agency in Texas, and later headed a rape crisis center in New Bern, North Carolina. She remembers her grandmother Rachel DeHoff helping her with college tuition and making it clear that nothing would be allowed to stand in the way of her getting an education. Today she has her grandmother’s fine Haviland china, a mark of the better times she came to know. Granddaughter Rebecca J. Canoyer also pursued a career of service, first with the Red Cross, then as an oral interpreter for the deaf, and today as a management and program analyst for the Department of Homeland Security in Washington, D.C.
She too feels a close affinity to her grandmother. To her two sons, Rachel DeHoff passed on what Rebecca calls “a tremendous feeling of patriotism for the country and a need to give back.” They in turn passed that feeling on to the grandchildren. I read her Rachel DeHoff’s letter from 1933. She cried. Later that day Rebecca and her fourteen-year-old son were to volunteer at a shelter.
Many of the landmarks of Rachel DeHoff’s life are now gone or unrecognizable. Dueber-Hampden, the giant watch factory that first employed her as a young girl, went out of business in the late 1920s, largely a casualty of the advent of the wristwatch. In March 1930, industrialist Armand Hammer sold the watchmaking machines to the Soviet Union. They were loaded onto twenty-eight railroad cars and transported to Moscow, where they became the First State Watch Factory.
Along with the equipment went twenty-three of Canton’s finest watchmakers and engravers, who, under contract, worked in Moscow for a year or more, setting up the plant and training Russian workers. There were, after all, no jobs to be had for them in America in 1930. Each of the workers received passage aboard the SS Aquitania, a Moscow apartment, a cook, and a waiter. They were paid a daily wage and, at the completion of their contract, a princely five thousand dollars a year to be deposited in a New York bank. Well into the twentieth century, the equipment from Canton was used at the now renamed First Moscow Watch Factory and continued to turn out as many as now renamed six million watches a year. One of those watches was reportedly given by Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev to President Ronald Reagan. Some of the Canton machinery was even spotted in China in the mid-1980s.
The twenty-acre industrial site in Canton fell to weeds and broken glass. As a child I remember them taking down the massive Dueber-Hampden factory in 1958 to make way for Interstate 77. The site is also home to the Trinity Gospel Temple. But before the buildings were torn down, workers vacuumed under the floors to retrieve the gold shavings that had accumulated over the decades. Today, Rachel DeHoff’s son Harold still has the Dueber-Hampden gold watch his mother wore around her neck. To her, it symbolized the distance she had come.
As for Somerdale, Ohio, where she grew up, it bears little resemblance to the place Rachel DeHoff knew. It was swept away by the Great Depression—literally. In the 1930s, as part of the Works Progress Administration, the Dover Dam was built upstream across the Tuscarawas River. Somerdale was moved in its entirety from what became known as “The Bottoms”—periodically washed out as a flood-control area—to higher ground. Even Somerdale Cemetery, where Rachel DeHoff’s parents were buried, was dug up and relocated above the flood plain. Today the population stands at 242, the sole business is a bar, and the coal shafts that Rachel DeHoff’s father, William, once worked are now exposed to the skies and reworked as strip mines.
Rachel DeHoff died on January 27, 1974, at the age of seventy-six. She is buried in Forest Hill Cemetery, among so many others who weathered the Great Depression. She lies not far from the graves of James Brownlee, Allen Bennafield, and others who, that dark Christmas of 1933, reached out to B. Virdot.
So Little for Women
Rachel DeHoff’s life was a testament not only to the virtues of hard work but to the promise and reality of social mobility that had drawn so many to America. She had lifted herself out of the ranks of the poverty-stricken, where she had been born, and provided her children with lives of promise. As a woman, her achievements were all the more noteworthy, having overcome not only a lack of formal education, the Depression, and widowhood, but the many societal obstacles placed before her gender. But for every Rachel DeHoff there were many more women, no less intelligent or industrious, who could not surmount the barriers before them, barriers made all the more formidable by the Depression and the scramble for jobs and scarce resources.
Many of these women, talented and willing to work long hours under wretched circumstances, came to resent the unfairness of an economic system that was rigged against them. For a woman to succeed it was not enough for her to be a man’s equal. She must be better than him—or find another way around the system. Many of the women who wrote to B. Virdot faced just such a challenge.
Edith Marie Saunders, like Rachel DeHoff, was a woman of great determination, not someone who was looking for, or willing to take, a handout. She was born on May 12, 1909. Her early life was fraught with emotional and financial setbacks that toughened her up but also left her resentful. Her parents divorced when she was a child. She dropped out of school and at sixteen entered into a miserable marriage that lasted only a few months—just long enough for her to contract a venereal disease that left her unable to have children. She was struck by a car, which broke her collarbone and so damaged her leg that the doctor told her she would never walk again. She proved him wrong.
Edith was the oldest of three children and the only girl. Her childhood was briefer than most. Following her parents’ divorce, she found herself burdened with adult responsibilities. Something of a tomboy, she played ball with her brothers in the alley, but books were her refuge and her salvation, as they were for her mother, Minna. After the divorce, Minna sold the children’s literature series “My Book House” door-to-door. Minna Saunders wrote of her own childhood, “I used to go into the apple orchard, put apples in my pockets, and climb a tree and read Grimm’s Fairy Tales.”
She passed that passion on to her daughter, Edith. “I loved to read and always had books hidden in my room,” Edith Saunders wrote years later. “When I thought everyone was asleep, I would turn my light on and read for a long time.”
Independent, strong-willed, and miffed that what few breaks there were in this life favored men over women, Edith Saunders steered her own course. In 1932, as the Depression deepened, she left New York City and returned to Canton to help support her mother and younger brother, Jim. She invested her savings in a small mom-and-pop grocery store and for a time did well enough. The three of them lived in an apartment in the rear of the store. But the Depression caught up with them. At the time she wrote to B. Virdot, Edith Saunders had nothing.
504 NEWTON AVE. NW
DEC. 18, 1933
Dear Mr. Virdot:
I think that what you are doing this Christmas is a very beautiful and fine thing. It is something I had often wished I could do too.
It isn’t very easy to tell anyone about one’s misfortunes, except in just the manner you have suggested.
Of course, I may not be considered as a businessman, but I have had to bear all the responsibilities of a man during the greater part of this depression. Anyway—may I tell you about myself?
Over a year ago, I was living in New York City and was earning quite good money. Just about that time everything began to go wrong for my family here in Canton, my two brothers and mother.
I knew that I could not possibly support a family in New York on the salary I was making.
But I had saved some money and I returned to Canton and invested it in a small business.
My youngest brother worked with me, and together we managed to build up our business to the point where it was supporting all of us.
But just when everything was progressing beautifully, I lost my little business through the unscrupulous methods of another business man here in town. I was only twenty-three years of age and of course, too I tried it again but eventually lost everything except for about $50.
It broke up my family. One brother is in Michigan, the other in St. Louis Missouri. They are practically living on charity, and earn so little there is nothing to give to help mother and I.
But both mother and myself have always worked at direct selling, and together we have managed to scrape up a few dollars on commissions now and then, but always such a constant strain I fear that sometimes it becomes almost too great for us to bear.
We do not own a home here, nor furniture, tho we once did, like many others and we have no relations—only each other. Recently we were unable to pay any rent for five weeks and were ordered to move. A friend gave me money to pay a week’s rent at the address given but my new landlord found out about what happened, and I have been asked to move again.
It seems strange to think that probably some of the money I brought to Canton and invested or some of the money which passed through my hands while I was in business may have found its way into the pockets of the same landlord.
So much is done for men—so little for women who need it often worse than a man.
Many girls might have drifted into dreadful things to keep from starving—even suicide perhaps.
But that is such an ugly thing to do.
Tho I confess often I have thought how sweet it would be to lie down to rest, and feel my work was done, and that I never need face another day of fear again.
But that is dramatic and I am not a bit like that really. Only just once in a while, deep inside me. I have usually managed to find some humor in this tragedy.
I wonder what ten dollars would do for me—it has been such a long time since I had that much.
Pay rent for two weeks—or one week and buy food with the rest, or stockings, those pesky things that will wear out no matter how neatly one tries to keep them darned. And it does make a girl look so poor. Thank heaven I have decent enough clothes otherwise—and so do my brothers and mother.
Or best of all I could buy some gifts for those who are dear to me and whom I have always managed to remember—until this Xmas.
Perhaps you think I am not too deserving. It isn’t my nature to weep. Even in this letter I could not describe how dreadful things are not knowing from day to day whether we shall find ourselves homeless—and nowhere to go—and no money to go there.
This sounds like the adventures of “Tish” does it not? But whether some morning I shall find a grand surprise or not—I still [think] that what you are doing is fine and splendid, for nothing builds morale and inspires self confidence and courage like money in one’s purse. I should long to be able to say “It is a pleasure” to the person who could think of such a fine thing to do. However I must move by Wednesday so my landlord says—but where or how I don’t know.
But shall leave change of address for postman. But remember—I won’t miss what I never had—so unless you feel I deserve it—give to the others. Most sincerely, Edith M. Saunders.
Two days later, Sam mailed a check for five dollars to Edith Saunders. It was forwarded and caught up with her a few days later.
In the letter, Saunders obliquely compares herself to “Tish,” an apparent reference to the redoubtable spinster Letitia “Tish” Car-berry, the heroine of the popular mystery novels of Mary Roberts Rinehart. It was Rinehart who said of life, “a little work, a little sleep, a little love and it’s all over.” At the time Saunders wrote her letter, she was twenty-four, stooped beneath the weight of the Depression, and suppressing the yearning for it to be “all over.”
But Edith Saunders’s life was just beginning. The themes she touched on in her 1933 letter to B. Virdot would resonate throughout her long life. Whether because of her parents’ divorce, her own disastrous first marriage, the unscrupulous man who cost her a fledgling business, or her justifiable perception that men were given an unfair advantage, Edith Saunders sought and held the upper hand over most of the men in her life.
She married five times and in each divorce emerged with that much more of a treasury. Her exes did not fare so well. Among them was a senior engineer at Chrysler, Steven Lazorshak, husband number four. Edith Saunders would settle in the exclusive Bloomfield Hills suburb of Detroit and live in an expansive brick house with a manicured courtyard and a pool. (She would later marry the gardener, Paul Lemieux, husband number five.)
“Nothing,” she had written in 1933, “builds morale and inspires self confidence and courage like money in one’s purse.” Edith Saunders became a bona fide millionaire, perhaps not entirely self-made, but a millionaire nonetheless.
But it was not just about money. She had also been determined to make up for the educational deficit of her youth. “I had never finished high school and regretted that very much,” she wrote decades later. So, in her midfifties, she studied for six weeks and earned her General Educational Development diploma, or GED. She then went on to earn a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English. She taught English literature in high school for years.
Edith Saunders died in 1999 with a long string of men’s names after her own and a sizable estate. But even in death, she left behind a legacy that reflected what stirred her to write to B. Virdot in 1933. To her two brothers, Robert and James, she left only one thousand dollars each and a hand-written note in the codicil to her will suggesting it was more than they deserved. Ten years after her death, there is still property from her estate unclaimed in the hands of the state of Michigan, which is seeking her heirs.
And finally, perhaps stung by the shady businessman who cost her a business in 1933, she endowed the Oppenheimer-Mancuso (Lazorshak) Award at Central Michigan University, established in 2000. A member of the class of 1965, she funded it from her estate. The one-thousand-dollar prize goes to “a senior philosophy major who submits an outstanding essay on the subject of the necessity for teaching ethics and/or character development in the elementary grades.”
As a twenty-three-year-old woman, Edith Saunders had hoped to better her position in life through business, but the Depression and a predatory businessman scuttled that dream. One after another, her marriages failed or ended, but each provided her another rung toward financial stability and social ascendancy. Five marriages later, she was a millionaire, had acquired the education long denied her, and found a profession that gave her a measure of autonomy and pride.
She was hardly the first to recognize that marriage could act as a kind of social elevator that could carry one either up or down. Her first marriage, brief but defining, had taken her into the depths; the subsequent ones were more to her advantage. B. Virdot—Sam Stone—was no less aware of the role marriage could play in one’s social and financial fortunes. His mother, Hilda, had often pointed out that she had married beneath her in accepting Jacob’s hand, and that had she done otherwise, she might have averted much of the heartache and hardship that followed. That lesson was not lost on Sam. In marrying Minna, he took a major step upward, and won for himself social acceptance in circles that until then had been beyond his ken. It did not mean he did not love her, but to win such position with a ring and to gain a lifelong tutor in the finer things of life—literature, music, and manners—made the union all the richer. What Minna got in the bargain was a man of great heart and a student eager to improve himself.
Mr. B. Virdot’s Story:
A Foreigner No Longer
Those efforts at self-improvement did not begin in Canton but were fully realized there. Exactly why Sam Stone first came to the town is not known. More than a dozen years of his life are largely unaccounted for. From Pittsburgh, he wandered from state to state, boardinghouse to boardinghouse. A niece says he spent time in West Virginia. It was there that he likely did his unpleasant work in the coal mines. In 1914, then twenty-six years old, he was living in Kenosha, Wisconsin, working as a salesman in Block Brothers department store—the Block Brothers were themselves Jewish immigrants. Two years later, he was managing S & J Gottlieb Dry Goods in the same city. From those years only a single scrap of paper survives, a sheet of stationery from a shoe store on which Sam had copied a poem by the Cleveland, Ohio, poet Edmund Vance Cooke. It is titled “How Did You Die?” The first stanza reads:
Did you tackle that trouble that came your way
With a resolute heart and cheerful?
Or hide your face from the light of day
With a craven soul and fearful?
Oh, a trouble’s a ton, or a trouble’s an ounce,
Or a trouble is what you make it.
And it isn’t the fact that you’re hurt that counts.
But only how did you take it?
By 1917 Sam was in Chicago, briefly working for a millinery shop. On June 5 of that year he registered for the military, one of twenty-four million American men to do so. He listed his name as “Samuel J. Stone,” his date of birth as March 2, 1888, and his birthplace as Bucharest, Rumania. It was one of the last times he acknowledged that he was an alien.
Years later, Sam told me he received his military training on the fields of Gettysburg. He never went overseas but he did see death. One afternoon, while his tentmate was cleaning his rifle, he was struck by lightning and was killed instantly. The body was blackened and Sam was close enough to have his own brows singed. I have a black-and-white picture of him standing in front of a field tent holding his bolt-action rifle affixed with bayonet. Underneath, in his unmistakable pen, Sam wrote “THE UNDECIDED SOLDIER.” Doubtless he enlisted because he had to. But he must have felt considerable ambivalence, torn between his desire to serve his adopted land and his apprehension about wading into the interminable disputes of the Old World from which he had hoped to forever distance himself.
A year later, he was living in Canton, a boarder in the home of a local Jewish merchant. On January 9, 1920, he told a U.S. Census enumerator that he and his family had emigrated from Germany in 1900. He also claimed to have been naturalized as an American citizen. The lifelong lie was beginning to take shape. But as I later unwound the skein of lies, I came to at least understand, if not his reasons, then at least his fears.
It was no later than 1920 that he invented the story of his birth in Pittsburgh. For the next sixty years, he would hold fast to that account, risking everything. But why suddenly invent such a story? Perhaps it was because he was now beginning to establish himself in Canton as a businessman and he yearned for the social acceptance he imagined came with being native-born. He was admittedly impatient and yearned to be American in every sense of the word.
But something else was happening in the country then that had to frighten him. Across the nation, there was growing xenophobia and suspicion of leftists, anarchists, labor organizers, and Eastern European immigrants. A rash of bombings in major cities heightened tensions. Thousands of immigrants were rounded up and put in jail. Hundreds were deported in the middle of the night. Much of the suspicion centered on the foreign-born. Jewish refugees in particular came under scrutiny, linked in the minds of many to the sort of internationalism and labor activism that was behind the radical assault on America. Provoked in part by the Bolshevik Revolution, the bombings and unrest triggered a hysteria that Sam would have seen as a direct threat to him.
It reached a crescendo in January 1920 when U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and his special assistant, a young firebrand named John Edgar Hoover, arrested some six thousand people and held them without trial. The discriminatory residue of the Red Scare soon found expression in the nation’s ever-more-restrictive immigration policies, which took aim at excluding refugees from those countries suspected of carrying the contagion of radicalism. Technically the quotas were set as a percentage of each of those country’s immigrants and offspring already in the United States, but the baseline was set to 1890—before the great influx of Eastern Europeans—and was designed to reduce that immigration to a trickle. A 1924 law allowed a mere 794 immigrants from Romania. In such an environment, it is easy to imagine Sam’s eagerness to conceal his origins.
The governmental crackdowns and growing public apprehension raised the specter of anti-Semitism and even deportation. There was nothing that Sam Stone and his siblings dreaded more than the prospect of losing their place in America and being forced to return to the doleful landscape of their youth. It was something they talked about among themselves and it was an insecurity that several passed along to their children. That fear, that the Old World could somehow, even after two decades, reach out and seize him, was kindled anew by America’s midnight roundups of immigrants. Once already, in Romania, he and his family had been stripped of all the rights of citizenship. To “Sam Stone, the American,” falsely claiming to be native-born may at the time have seemed to offer a safe haven. Ironically, it was precisely that action that would later put him in fear of prison or deportation.
Amid so many contradictions in Sam’s life, there was also this: as intent as he was upon concealing his past, he was always true to it. He constantly drew upon it as a reservoir of acquired wisdom and never dreamed of apologizing for the humbleness of his beginnings, the rough edges, the gaps in his education. He may have reinvented himself—by changing his name, his country of origin, his date of birth—but he never attempted to be anything other than who he was, a self-made man who had grown up in Hard Times and who, even in his most prosperous days, identified with those who struggled. In that way, as in so many others, he shared a common bond with many in Canton who straddled two very different worlds.
Sam’s documents may have been fraudulent, but he was no fraud. He never put on airs, pretended to be high-born, or said an unkind word of those who were forced to scratch out a living. To the end, they were his people. The vulnerabilities he shared with them trumped any differences of religion, race, or gender, and if he fit in with those of privilege it was because they recognized in him something authentic, and not because he pretended to be one of them. So it was with Mr. B. Virdot. It was a made-up name, a pseudonym, but one that allowed him to express his truest self. That was the only contradiction in the man, that to be himself he had first to be someone else.
Such an act of prevarication would have found an understanding audience in Depression-era Canton, and well beyond. A lie that liberated one from encumbrances past and over which one had no control and bore no responsibility was still a lie in the eyes of the law, but if it moved a man and his family closer to their dream, if it distanced him from ancient prejudices, if it merely allowed him to be judged on the merits of his work, most, I would wager, would have withheld judgment. Canton was a place that had drawn its share of immigrants from countries deemed undesirable by the town’s longer-established upper crust, those same people who used the laws to close the door behind them. Being unwanted by others was something many in Canton had in common, that and the need to be valued, if not for who they were, then at least for who they or their children might become. For them, emancipation was more than a simple matter of emigration. Back then, many did not speak of the past, and some, like Sam, chose to fictionalize it. No one thought the less of them for it. Canton had summoned them all with the promise of a second chance.