The Crisis That Pulled Them Apart
Black Hand Gang
Only in hindsight could one be tempted to romanticize the Depression, to imagine it as a kind of ritualistic purification of the American soul. It is impossible to count the casualties—physical and psychological—or to assess the damage done to the individual spirit over the course of that decade. Those who survived were often of extraordinary mettle, as evidenced by the Greatest Generation. But there were also the many who might be counted among the emotionally missing in action, those who did not recover from seeing a lifetime’s work erased, their possessions scattered, or their families dissolved.
That was what made the Christmas of 1933 so special and so painful for so many. Though it was a time for families to gather together, many families were disintegrating under the financial and emotional stresses. It was a story as tragic as it was common. As the numbers of children “orphaned” by poverty grew, so too did the place of Canton’s orphanage, the Fairmount Home. For others, the dissolution of one family gave rise to the birth of another, as others came forward to provide for them. Often these were not people of great means, but working-class neighbors barely able to keep their own heads above water.
One need look no farther than Bender’s tavern—not the dining room that catered to Canton businessmen like my grandfather, but behind the dark oak swinging doors that separated the dining room from the kitchen—the divide between white collar and blue. There worked a man named Frank Nicholas Margo. At fifty-six, he was a devout Catholic, a member of St. John’s Church, the League of the Sacred Heart, and the Altar Society.
Once, before the Hard Times, he had had his own restaurant. Now he wielded the cleaver as Bender’s meat cutter, trimming prime ribs, sirloins, and flank steaks that ended up on the plates of men like my grandfather and, in better times, such distinguished diners as George Monnot and Frank Dick.
But in 1933, though Frank Margo barely had enough to feed himself, he and his wife, Louise, had taken it upon themselves to provide for others, especially orphans. But by Christmas 1933, Frank Margo was largely incapacitated by a stroke.
On the evening of December 18, 1933, Louise noticed B. Virdot’s ad in the Canton Repository. She took up a pencil and wrote this note:
I noticed in this evening’s paper that you want to help unfortunate families for Christmas.
During the depression our business failed and we lost our home. Three months ago my husband had a stroke. His right arm and leg is paralyzed. His mind is also affected and he cannot talk. We are wondering will this be the last Xmas our little family will all be together. We have two adopted daughters. The youngest 11 and the other 14 . . . frequently I visit two orphan children at Fairmount Childrens home. The one girl is 14 and stayed with us one year, her little sister is 9 and I cared for her for 6 years. Last month
I visited them and they asked me if I couldn’t come and get them and let them spend their Xmas vacation with us. I told them if it was at all possible for me to come after them I would do so but I do not even have car fare to go after them and take them back and buy them a few little things for Xmas. It would make them so happy to be with us and in our sorrow make us happy to—to think that some kind hearted person made it possible for us to bring joy and happiness to others. God has given you a noble and good heart and I am sure he will reward you. May you continue to prosper even more so in the future that you have in the past is my earnest wish.
WILL YOU KINDLY THINK OF
US AND MAKE US HAPPY ON
THAT GREAT DAY. I REMAIN
VERY TRULY YOURS,
MRS. L. MARGO
800 9TH ST. N.W. CANTON, O.
Days later, a check for five dollars arrived in the mail signed by B. Virdot. On December 31, 1933, Louise Margo wrote again:
MR. B. VIRDOT.
Please accept my sincere thanks for the check which you sent me. The children sure are enjoying their vacation. I am taking them back tomorrow. Our little girl has been seriously ill for the past week but today made a change for the better. May God give you good health, happiness and Prosperity in the New Year and all your life. Again I thank you and will remember you in my prayers.
I REMAIN TRULY YOURS,
MRS. L. MARGO
800 9TH ST. N. W.
THREE YEARS BEFORE Louise Margo wrote her letter, the 1930 U.S. Census records that she and husband Frank owned their own restaurant. Frank was listed as proprietor, Louise as the waitress. But in the Hard Times that followed, they lost the restaurant and much more. The census shows they had not two but five children living with them at 1009 Troy Place Northwest. Eleven-year-old Mary and eight-year-old Annie were listed not as adopted children but simply as daughters. At the time, the two girls were unaware that they were adopted. The Margos had no biological children of their own.
In addition, the census records that Dorothy Shingle, age five; Bobby Shingle, age two; and Martha Shingle, an infant, lived with the Margos. They are listed as adopted. What became of the Shingle children is not known except that following Frank Margo’s stroke, the Margos were no longer able to feed and clothe so large a family and took the Shingle siblings to the orphanage. There is no mention of them in subsequent Canton city directories, telephone books, marriage or probate records, or county orphanage records. They simply vanished. Perhaps they moved away. Perhaps they were adopted by another family and changed their names.
The story of how the other two daughters, Mary and Ann, came to be in the Margo home begins even before the Great Depression. Glimpses of the story can be gleaned from orphanage records and from the memories of Mary’s seventy-one-year-old daughter, Shirley.
That story begins on March 29, 1910, when an eighteen-year-old farm laborer named Antonio Sabelli, from the village of Agnone in southern Italy, set out from Naples aboard the SS Madonna bound for America. He traveled by himself. On the manifest he listed that he was headed for Canton, Ohio, to join Gelsomina Gualfieri, who would become his wife. She would later be known as Susie. In 1922 he and Susie and their four children—Joe, Nicholas, Mary, and Ann—purchased a farm just outside Canton. Eight decades later Mary’s daughter, Shirley Crew, would pass on the story as it was told to her—that Antonio Sabelli abandoned the family and returned to Italy, leaving a distraught and crazed wife to try to feed and provide for their four children.
It is undisputed that Antonio Sabelli disappeared in 1922, but the records, sealed for nearly ninety years, tell a different story. An October 13, 1932, memo from the Catholic Community League to the Fairmount Children’s Home reports that no sooner had Antonio Sabelli purchased the farm than the notorious Black Hand Gang attempted to shake him down, threatening to harm him or his family if he did not make payments to them. Coming from the region of southern Italy where Sabelli had, he was no stranger to the Mafia or its tactics. He knew the first payment to such gangsters would not be the last.
Instead of meeting their demands he secretly went to the Canton police and set up a sting operation. When the mobsters came for their money, the police were waiting. Four gang members were convicted of extortion and sentenced to twenty years in the penitentiary.
But not long after that, Antonio Sabelli disappeared. The memo speculates that he either ran away to escape the Mob or, more likely, was kidnapped and murdered. In either case, no trace of him has ever been found. In September 1923, the Catholic Community League, in a final effort to locate Sabelli, placed an ad in three Italian-language newspapers in New York soliciting information about him. There was no response.
He left behind his wife, Susie, two little girls, Mary and Ann, and two sons, Nicholas and Joe. Susie was in dire condition when the authorities found her. She had no job, spoke no English, and was found alone in a farmhouse with four hungry children living in squalor. She had retreated into her own little world, neglecting both herself and her children.
A 1932 family history written by the Catholic Community League describes the Susie Sabelli they found: “Patient is much reduced physically, probably gastric ulcer. Neglectful of personal appearance. Depressed and agitated. Talks of suicide and destruction of her children. Supposed cause of insanity is desertion of her husband, poverty and personal harm. Patient said she wished to destroy herself, did not wish to see her children live. . . . Intense abstraction exhibits much fear.”
In January 1923, probate records reveal that at age twenty-nine she was judged to be mentally ill—“incurable,” in the words of the court—and committed to an insane asylum. A year later, on December 19, 1923, daughters Mary and Ann were adopted by Louise and Frank Margo. It brought an end to the girls’ nightmare, but even in later life Mary still remembered and spoke of the farmhouse and of waiting and hoping that someone would come to rescue her.
Seven years later, in 1930, the census finds “Susie Sabella [sic]” still a patient in the Massillon State Hospital for the Insane. She worked in the asylum’s laundry service. She was then thirty-six.
How or when Mary learned she was adopted is not known, but it was a secret she long kept from her younger sister, Ann, afraid of how she might take the news that their mother was institutionalized. Mary had two separate birth certificates, both dated May 5, 1919. One lists the Sabellis as her parents, the other, Frank and Louise Margo.
The Depression hit the Margo home hard. Then came Frank Margo’s stroke. On July 31, 1934, seven months after Louise Margo wrote her letter to B. Virdot, Frank Margo suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died. He was fifty-seven. Louise Margo was forced to find a job, and Mary, then fourteen, had to take on both housecleaning and much of the parenting of her younger sister.
At about this time, Mary, a freshman in high school, discovered the whereabouts of her biological mother. One day she secretly visited her in the asylum. After that, she routinely met with her mother after school and told no one. Despite the findings of the court and doctors, she was convinced her mother was not insane, just profoundly traumatized and disoriented. Unable to communicate with anyone, she had been overwhelmed by the loss of her husband, the plight of her children, and her inability to speak English. She was fated to become one of more than a thousand asylum inmates at the vast Massillon, Ohio, facility.
It was years before Mary could bring herself to tell Ann of the adoption and the story of their mother. It did not go well. Ann recoiled and refused to accept it. The topic created a decades-long rift between the two. Ann ceased speaking to her sister. Over the years the chasm only widened. Ann married and moved out of state.
Then one day years later, when Mary was at the dentist, the receptionist casually mentioned that her sister, Ann, had been in earlier that morning. Mary was stunned. Ann, now widowed, had made no attempt to contact her. Months passed before Mary reached out to her. And when they finally met again, they fell into each other’s arms. Their friendship grew, but Ann still insisted that there be no public discussion of their mother, Susie. Indeed, at Ann’s insistence, the rest of the world was not to know they were sisters because that would mean that Ann was adopted and Susie was her mother.
Everyone but Mary and her daughter, Shirley, believed them to be just best friends—though the family resemblance was hard to miss. Shirley was made to promise that she would never refer to Ann as her aunt. And so it would remain all their lives. Ann took her secret to the grave.
Even today Shirley declines to say where Ann is buried or under what name. Like much of Ann’s life, that too is a secret. So too is the identity of the woman who lies beside her and with whom she shares a common tombstone. But Mary kept a Christmas card her long-estranged sister sent her in 1984, shortly after they got back together. It reads: “Mary, dear, The Blessing of 1984 . . . we are reunited . . . not as we would wish . . . all the way . . . but together. Thank the dear Lord that we both lived to see this day. Love and prayers . . . Always, Ann.”
During all the years of Ann’s living in denial, Mary had forged an ever-closer relationship with her birth mother. On Sundays after church, Mary and her family would bring Susie home for the day. “Grandma Susie,” Shirley came to call her.
Susie Sabelli died on February 8, 1961. Her daughter Mary lived a simple life but not an easy one. She made no excuses for herself. In high school she worked at Wagner Fruit Stand and waited tables at the Village Restaurant, and still she excelled in the classroom. In June 1938, when she graduated from McKinley High School, she was a member of the National Honor Society.
Two years later Mary was working as a dollar-a-day-plus-tips waitress in the dining room of Canton’s fashionable Hotel Onesto. On November 17, 1940, she had the pleasure of serving lunch to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Mary made a note of that experience, describing how nervous she was, but wrote that Mrs. Roosevelt put her at ease.
In 1942, Mary worked as an inspector at the Timken Roller Bearing Company but lost her job two years later because she got married—company policy. From 1947 to 1957, she and her husband, William, operated a popular Canton night spot, Naples Spaghetti and Steak House, a place frequented by the likes of Cleveland Indians Hall of Fame pitchers Bob Lemon and Bob Feller, comedian Jerry Colonna, and actress Zsa Zsa Gabor, not to mention judges, mayors, and other town notables. Her biological father, Antonio Sabelli, would have beamed to know that his daughter had helped make the city of his embarkation a Canton landmark.
But Mary and her family continued to live in one of Canton’s most run-down sections. The streets were riddled with drugs. Even as a widow, Mary, five feet tall and a sparrowlike ninety pounds, had little to fear from those around her. She was beloved and protected by the community. To those young neighborhood women who had infants or small children and were in need, she gave five dollars—just as Mr. B. Virdot had given to her adoptive parents. It was five dollars and not a penny more, at least until it was repaid.
“She said they had little ones in there and it was to go for bread and milk,” recalls her daughter, Shirley. Given her memories of childhood, Mary was determined to protect children in any way she could. She worked into her eighties as a crossing guard.
She had a neighbor, Dennis Griffin, an African American man who was disabled, but who looked after her in her later years, and when she knew her days were few she arranged to have her house at 1517 4th Northeast pass to Griffin as a way of saying thanks. Though she lived there for sixty-one years, it wasn’t much of a house. (After her death in 2005, it sold for four thousand dollars.)
But despite all she had been through, her spirits were buoyant. In nearly every picture she is smiling and clowning. One picture shows her with a baseball glove outstretched to catch an imaginary grounder.
On April 11, 1999, some 250 came to celebrate her eightieth birthday at the Bethel Temple Fellowship Hall. Among those in attendance was Canton’s mayor, Richard Watkins, who read a proclamation of appreciation and honored her.
Mary and Ann remained close. Ann was suffering from emphysema. Knowing that Mary was near death with cancer, Shirley chose not to tell her mother that Ann had died on February 20, 2005. Six days later, on February 26, 2005, Mary too died. She was eighty-five and is buried in Forrest Hill Cemetery beside her biological mother, Susie Sabelli.
MOST OF THE children who were “orphaned” by the poverty of the Depression ended up at the Fairmount Children’s Home. It had a long and not always lustrous history. During the Depression, many if not most of those in its charge were not true orphans but the children of families unable to provide for them. For some, the discipline and drudgery of its routine seemed a steep price for the certainty of a meal and a bed.
Opened in 1877, its children were called inmates and were expected to work the 154-acre farm. The boys tended the herd of Holstein cows, providing milk and butter; the girls were, to quote a publication of the day, “drilled in needlepoint,” and supplied all necessary clothing, as well as assisting in cooking and cleaning. All of Fairmount’s children had been required to attend Sabbath services, recite Scripture, and sing. The Fairmount Children’s Band became a familiar sight at each year’s Stark County Fair. The home was “designed to lay the groundwork of useful manhood and womanhood in the characters of those who have been deprived of their natural guardians and molders.” By the time the Margos adopted the Sabelli girls, more than three thousand indigent children had passed through the institution.
It was not always remembered fondly. Chester Young was another of those to have written to Mr. B. Virdot. His grandson, Charles, was seven when he and his four siblings were placed at the Fairmount Home. He was there from September 1956 to September 1957. He recalls lining up on Saturday and Sunday mornings, with all the other children, to wax and buff the orphanage’s floors. He also remembers that the penalty for wrestling with his sister was several lashes with a razor belt across his behind. Another favored punishment was placing the children on their knees with their arms aloft until they could hold them up no longer.
Two weeks before Christmas 2002, the Fairmount Children’s Home fell to flames. Some one hundred firefighters poured more than 2.5 million gallons of water on the blaze but could not save the 130-year-old structure.
Louise and Frank Margo, who had adopted the Shingle and Sabelli children and written to B. Virdot that Christmas of 1933, are interred beneath modest stones in Canton’s St. John’s Cemetery. They left no grand estate, but there is another monument of sorts to Frank Margo. Seventy-seven years after he trimmed his last tenderloin at Bender’s, the massive six-legged butcher block where his cleaver fell remains in the tavern’s cellar, virtually immovable, the consummate survivor of both fire and flood.
Having known little of my grandfather’s first decades, I never knew whether he faced anything that was more than he could stand. I used to watch him hold his breath underwater for better than two minutes. I was a competitive swimmer but he could easily stay down longer. I see now that it was less a test of lungs than of will. He simply refused to come up until he had outlasted everyone around him. Whatever discomfort he endured he never showed. He was tough that way. In his seventies, he surfaced into the stinging tentacles of a Portuguese man-of-war and managed to drag himself back to his apartment. But he never could bring himself to speak of his childhood or his father. The absence of photos suggested how much it grieved him to remember.
So it is with the children of Oscar Compher. Almost nothing could have dispelled the gloom that hung over the home of Oscar and Harriet Compher that week of Christmas 1933. The letter he wrote to B. Virdot only hinted at the depth of their sorrows.
Dear Sir, I am a man of 37 years old have held fair jobs all my life was in the restaurant business for several years. I was forced into bankruptcy over three years ago. The last year an half have worked five or six months. I have held out till last week. I had to go to the family service for food. as I have 4 children one off which is sick and wife in bed under doctor weaver’s care expecting child birth any minute. My past failure was do to sickness of my wife and loss of two children. I may off managed things better had I had the experience then that I have now. I only hope for another break or what ever it takes. I might ad that I have ten cents in the house for phone calls at nite. I will close hoping you investigate as I am not much of a writer
OSCAR B. COMPHER
500 NEWTON AVE N.W.
The losses of the past weighed heavily on the Compher family. There was Clarence Marion Compher, the little boy born on March 30, 1924. He died just five months and seventeen days later. The doctor said he died of “malnutrition” and “non-assimilation of food.” Then there was Norma J. Compher, the little girl born exactly two years after Clarence, on March 30, 1926. She died at age six months and 26 days. The cause of death: “bronchial pneumonia.”
Now, as Compher wrote his letter, his wife lay in bed, about to give birth to a seventh child, a daughter, Carol. Harriet’s thirty-four-year-old body was exhausted from childbirth and the stress of feeding the four surviving children—Dorothy, fourteen; Marjorie, twelve; Betty Jane, eleven; and Donald, four. It had taken a terrible toll on her, physically and mentally.
On August 13, 1935—less than two years after Oscar Compher wrote to Mr. B. Virdot—his wife, Harriet Jones Compher, died at the age of thirty-six.
A widower, Oscar now had five children, no prospect of a job, and a brood that was all but impossible to feed. With his wife’s death, he came unhinged. Increasingly, he lost himself in drink. Sometimes he targeted his wrath on the youngest and most vulnerable of the children, little Carol, the child born just three weeks after he had written his letter to B. Virdot. He seemed to blame her for his wife’s death, as if her tiny added weight had pushed his wife over the edge.
On May 20, 1941, six years after Harriet’s death, the Compher family dissolved. Son Donald and his sister Carol were placed in the Fairmount Children’s Home; the two other daughters, in the Alliance Children’s Home. Both were less orphanages than holding facilities for the children of the destitute. Those institutions would become the only homes the Compher children would know.
Donald Compher was six or seven when his mother died. He entered the Fairmount home a boy of thirteen and left a man of eighteen. “I never had no problems there,” said Donald. “And I got fed good.” When he left the institution on June 1, 1946, he went into the air force as a member of the 414th 9th Fighter Squad, working communications. He knows little of his father, and what he does know he chooses not to speak about.
Donald Compher has led a full life—thirty years as a welder with Diebold, five with Republic Steel, and five with Goodyear Aircraft working on navy blimps. He is married and has two sons and a daughter. But he is determined not to discuss his father or his childhood, something Mr. B. Virdot himself could identify with.
What became of the other Compher siblings is less clear. In 1941, twenty-one-year old Betty Jane married eighteen-year-old Roger Humphrey, telling him she was pregnant. It was a lie. The marriage lasted four years. Oscar Compher did not even make the wedding. In fact, Roger says he met Oscar only twice, and both times it was to bail him out of the county jail. Oscar Compher had become a drunk and was so poor that he deliberately broke windows and drank in public so that he could spend the night in jail.
No one had told Oscar Compher that the Depression was over. Even in 1941, some routinely broke the law to gain access to the local jail, where a cot and three meals awaited. “Last I heard,” says Roger Humphrey, “he was back in jail.” Exactly what became of Oscar Compher after he left Canton is unknown. His son, Donald, says he died in Chicago of a diseased liver. Donald did not attend the funeral. The Social Security Death Index records that an Oscar Compher died in Illinois in August 1962, apparently without an obituary.
After Roger and Betty divorced, Betty placed their daughter in the same orphanage where Betty had grown up. Betty would marry several more times and move to Lady Lake, Florida, where she died on December 17, 2007, at the age of eighty-five.
But the most tragic figure of the lot is Oscar Compher’s wife, Harriet. Married at sixteen, exhausted from back-to-back pregnancies, worn down by poverty and her children’s early deaths, she had, over the course of some twenty years, endured more than she could bear. Her obituary said she had died “from complication of diseases.” But her death certificate tells a different story. Under “Cause of death,” the doctor wrote: “General Peritonitis with gangrene of uterus.” The “contributing cause,” it noted grimly, “self-induced abortion, catheter was used.”
When he was in his twenties, Harriet’s son, Donald, got out of the service and made a trip to West Lawn Cemetery to pay his respects to his mother. Only, despite what her obituary had said, Harriet Compher’s grave was not to be found in Canton’s hallowed West Lawn Cemetery. Instead, Donald discovered she had been buried out in the country, in a single grave beside the 162-year-old St. Jacob’s Evangelical Lutheran Church. When he got there he found it was a pauper’s grave. In fact, he could not find the grave at all. Half a foot of top soil had been laid over it and the flimsy marker with the number and her name lay buried beneath. A gravedigger shoveled away the dirt and exposed the marker and the grave of the woman who had given him life and who had died so young. Donald later bought a proper stone to mark her resting place.
For the Compher children, and indeed for many of the nation’s young, the Depression meant impermanence. For some it was the orphanage or a string of foster homes. For others it was being taken in by relatives or neighbors. If a single piece of paper could represent the anguish of these times, it would be the eviction notice. It could put a family on the sidewalk, their few belongings piled beside them. For many families, the Great Depression and the dreaded eviction notice were one and the same. It set a cadence to their lives, each successive notice meaning another move.
A Mrs. J. D. McCoy wrote, “Mr. Virdot our landlord came last eve and give us a three day notice to move. We have no money to pay rent as they all want it in advance. I have moved 4 times since August and now again. It is awful. No one knows only those who go through it.” Her husband was a bricklayer who’d been out of work for two years. With them lived their in-laws and a ten-year-old grandson, who themselves had been evicted.
Along with such failure came uncertainty, the sort that had defined Sam Stone’s own childhood—his escape from Romania, his journey across Europe, his crossing to America, his years of searching for a place to call home. He must have identified with the many who remember the Great Depression as nomadic years. Not all families survived intact. For so many, particularly the children, the constant moving left lasting scars. It meant that they could not complete their schooling, forge meaningful friendships, or find stability in their adolescent years. Many came to resent their parents for uprooting them and grew apart from their own siblings, who were often separated from them and placed in others’ homes. Like Sam Stone’s, their childhoods were deeply fragmented.
Ida Bailey’s family, like countless others, knew no other life. In her letter to Mr. B. Virdot, she wrote:
Mr. B. Virdot Kind Friend
This Xmas is not going to be a Merry one for us, but we are trying to make the best we can of it. We want to do all we can to make the Children happy but can’t do much. About 7 years ago Mr. Bailey lost his health and it has been nick & tuck every since but we thank God he is able to work again. We all work when we can make a nickel honest. Three years ago this Depression hit us and we lost all our furniture and had to separate with our Children. We have 4 of them with us again. There are three girls working for their Cloaths & Board. I do wish I could have my children all with me once again. I work by the day any place I can get work. We managed to get along on what we made until about 6 weeks ago and work was so slow that we was compeled to go to the City for help. Then Mr. Bailey got to go to work for the State so we are having enough to eat and that is about all you know the wages they get don’t go very far when there is 6 to buy eats for. We only got 5 orders from the City and hated to do that. I think if there were some more people in Canton like you and open up their Hearts and share up with us poor people that does their hard work for them for almost nothing (a dollar a day) when the time comes for them to leave this world I would think they would feel better satisfied for they can’t take any of it with them and they are no better than I am. I wish I could talk to you personally. There is people in this town that have a load of things stoared away that I am in need of and would do me lots of good such as Bed clothing and Rugs. We don’t have bed clothing enough to keep us warm. I work for these people and I know what they have. I have got to much pride about myself to ask them for it. When my days work is done all they give me is $1 dollar and hang on to it as long as they can. We would be glad to have you call and see us or let us know and we will come to see you. We live in the Seitner Bldg. Apt #20 third floor. Our address is #229 Market Ave. S. W.
MR. & MRS. BAILEY
WISHING A MERRY XMAS
A HAPPY NEW YEAR
Ida Bailey was forty-four when she wrote to Mr. B. Virdot. Her husband, Fred, was forty-six. When he could get work, it was as a carpenter. She hired herself out as a laundress and maid. In all they would have twelve children. Unable to provide for them, the Baileys placed many of their children in the homes of others, where they grew up. The younger ones never quite understood what had happened to them or why they could not live with their family.
The Depression marked them for life, defining not only their values but those of their children as well. Their son Denzell Bailey was born on May 1, 1919, and was thirteen when his mother wrote her letter. By then the course of his life had literally been set in stone.
The Bailey family had never owned their own home, and never settled in. By his own count, Denzell moved twenty-eight times before he was out of the sixth grade—that was twenty-eight different apartments and boardinghouses and homes and nearly an equal number of schools, some of which he entered, exited, and reentered all within the same year. He never had a chance to make friends, to settle into a routine, or to absorb class lessons. He barely had time to unpack. His clothes were all hand-me-downs from older brothers and seldom fit his slender body.
After the sixth grade, he dropped out of school and went to work. The years ahead were sometimes no less trying than the years behind. At eighteen he married Velma Lillie, a girl whose background was similar enough to his own that he did not need to explain himself. Velma had endured the Depression, lost her mother at nine, been put up for adoption, and known little stability herself.
Without an education, Denzell Bailey had few career choices. He worked for years as a bricklayer, but ill health forced him to stop.
From out of the Depression he emerged with one all-consuming certainty: his children would not endure what he had. There would be no constant moving, no rootless existence. Whatever might be out of his control, this one thing he pledged to himself and to his loved ones: that they would have a home and one home only—that they would go to school and never be asked to move until their education was complete.
But no ordinary home would do. He wanted something solid and lasting, so he set about building his own house. It would be made of stone. Nothing less permanent would suffice. He scoured the area for sandstone blocks. Some he found in an old one-room schoolhouse that had burned down. Others came from an abandoned barn. Still others came from a nearby quarry. Anywhere and everywhere that he could find sandstone, he and his son, Dan, loaded it into his truck and drove it home. During the day he worked as a bricklayer, and later as a janitor at Trump Road Elementary—his children’s school. But at night, he and his son used a pick, chisel, and hammer to hew the stones to the size and shape needed.
Every evening and every weekend were spent cutting stone. A good day’s work might be three or four stones cut to size. The work stretched on for months, then years, then decades, and finally a lifetime. Denzell Bailey’s home took him some thirty years to complete, and though it was but a modest two-bedroom house—less than one thousand square feet—no one would or could move it, a testament to his determination.
Everyone knew of his work—his mission. And many across the town were eager to make their modest contributions to the house as it took shape. It was a tangible investment in a dream. People brought small stones from their travels and handed them over to Denzell, who always found a place for them. The stones came from across the country and around the world. It was Denzell’s house, but it belonged to everyone who had known what it was to be displaced by the Great Depression. A Methodist preacher brought a stone from the Holy Land. Another traveler brought a rock from the base of the pyramids.
And so, over time, the house at 3219 Fourth Street Southeast took shape. And there, with its one tiny bathroom and two bedrooms, the home of Denzell and Velma Bailey’s four children still stands. In 1997, after both Denzell and Velma had passed, the house was sold at auction. The price was forty thousand dollars. The buyer was Denzell’s son, Dan Bailey, who helped build it and who could no more let it go than see it torn down. The neighborhood has fallen on hard times and property values have declined, but the house that Denzell built is in its own way a lasting monument to the legacy of the Great Depression.
Today Dan Bailey works as a car mechanic just next door, in a garage he and his father built.
As an adult Denzell had occasionally visited his parents, Ida and Fred Bailey, but, as Deloris and the other grandchildren recall, there was little warmth between Denzell and his family. Fred, a tall, thin man, rarely said a word and resembled a scarecrow that had had the emotional stuffing taken out of him. On such visits the grandchildren were expected to sit quietly, say nothing, and ask for nothing.
Years after the Depression had lifted, it seemed that Ida and Fred Bailey were still on the move, though not by choice but out of necessity. One mark of the emotional distance that separated the grandchildren from Grandpa and Grandma Bailey—they do not know where their grandparents are buried.
But as Deloris Bailey surveys the landscape around her today in these troubled financial times, she finds it uncomfortably familiar. “I sometimes think we are ending up in the same way,” she says, fretting about our inability to provide stable homes for our children. For years she has worked as a nanny helping to raise others’ children. Five days and nights a week a little four-year-old girl is under her care, and has been since she was four months old. The mother, a flight attendant and single parent, can find no other job that will provide the benefits she needs. To Deloris Bailey, it feels as if history is repeating itself.
If Denzell Bailey’s house was a testament to the Depression, so too was his life. He worked as a bricklayer, a janitor, a candy salesman, and, finally, he sold Den-Vel Vacuum Systems that were installed in people’s homes. He worked up until a couple of months before he died at age seventy-eight, trying to ignore the stomach cancer that was consuming him. He died on November 23, 1997, surrounded by his four children, in the living room of the stone home that he had built by hand.
His obituary in the Canton Repository carried a picture of him, a distinguished-looking man. It spoke of his service in World War II, his membership in the United Bethany Methodist Church, his marriage of fifty-nine years, and his far-flung family, then numbering three daughters, a son, ten grandchildren, and thirteen great-grandchildren. He was laid to rest in Canton’s Warstler Cemetery beneath one last block of stone.
Mr. B. Virdot’s Story: Betrayal
By 1929, Sam Stone had weathered religious persecution, a frightful exodus, a home that was more like a sweatshop, a beating from union strikers and company guards, and more. But nothing prepared him for the anguish that would come at the hands of his own brothers.
It must be said that Sam was nearly impossible to work for. My own father worked for him for several years, loved him as a man, but hated him as a boss. He could be mercurial, demanding, and miserly. There is little question that the desperate days of his childhood left a mark on him, as it did on all his siblings. One minute, he could be magnanimous to family and strangers alike, and the next, stingy to the point of cruelty. There was a time in 1943 when he was so tightfisted with his own wife that she had no money whatsoever. For a time she worked as a newspaper reporter with the Akron Beacon Journal. Only after she threatened to leave him did he relent and grant her a modest allowance. There are other instances too where he used money as a kind of emotional weapon. He never forgave Minna’s mother, Rosa, for opposing his marriage to Minna and believing him unworthy of her. When, in the 1950s, Rosa was placed in a nursing home, Sam refused to pay for her care and Minna was forced to sell off some of her jewelry.
Once, in front of other employees, he fired his own daughter, Dorothy, then in high school. He expected anyone who worked for him to give their all, and his attitude toward money reflected a kind of pathology shared by all his siblings—that it was a way of controlling others. To his siblings he was often as demanding as he was generous. He had single-handedly brought his family out of the Pittsburgh ghetto, rescued them from a life of menial labor, delivered them to Canton, found them housing, and, in a very real sense, opened the door for them to enjoy the American dream. But as a boss he had also alienated them and set them against him. Whatever gratitude they once felt for him soured into resentment. Their falling-out was sordid and ugly.
From Sam’s perspective, it would have been insult enough that in the early 1930s, Al, Mack, and Dave, his brothers but also his employees, all walked away from Sam’s store and turned their backs on him. It would have been the height of gumption to imagine that they would go into direct competition with him, opening a store in the same small town. That they opened that store on the same block as Sam’s—just a few doors away—had to have been unbearable. But the affront did not end there.
When I was a boy, the names of Sam’s brothers were never spoken in our home. But I did hear a story several times when I was older that one or more of the brothers literally backed a vehicle up to the rear of Sam’s store late one night, loaded up his suits and other clothes, then placed them in their own store around the corner. I knew that families were given to exaggeration, that stories get stretched. I imagined this to be just such a tall tale.
But in 2009, Mack Stone’s grandson David volunteered that the story was true in every particular. His own grandmother Edna had told him how she had backed her car to the rear of Sam’s store, while her husband, Mack, carried out suit after suit, all of it bound for Stone Brothers, a few steps away from Sam’s shop. Mack confirmed the story to his son. When Sam later entered his brothers’ store, he instantly recognized his own merchandise.
“That’s mine!” he fumed.
“Prove it,” challenged Mack.
Perhaps Sam was too crushed to bring himself to prosecute his own brothers. But perhaps it was something else, something more sinister. Sam knew that Mack and the others had something on him—the knowledge that he had fraudulently obtained a passport, birth certificate, and other legal papers, that he had sworn falsely under oath before federal authorities, and that he was not, as he claimed, native-born. Sam was in no position to bring in the law.
Instead, he allowed a curtain of silence to fall between himself and his betrayers. It lasted for years. Half a century later, a residue of alienation still separated Sam’s descendants from those of his brothers.
It is likely that Mack and his brothers were jealous of Sam’s success and position in the community. There is evidence that Mack would have been only too willing to use Sam’s mistakes against him, even if it meant sending his eldest brother to prison. In a sheaf of letters left by my grandmother is a November 30, 1932, affidavit in which a man named Ernest W. Richman, who worked for my grandfather, swore that Sam’s brother Mack had come to him several times in June 1932 with a plan to blackmail Sam, and to allege that Sam had ordered Mack to torch his Buffalo, New York, store to collect the insurance. There was in fact a fire that destroyed the store, but Richman in his affidavit said “the entire story is a fabrication,” that Sam had nothing to do with the fire. Sam never sought retribution against his brother Mack.
But my grandmother Minna never forgave Mack. As principled a person as ever there was, Minna recoiled from any contact with him. “Mother hated Mack like poison,” said Dorothy, my mother’s sister. “I think if she had a gun, she would have shot him.”
Even today I cannot fathom the audacity of brother robbing brother. Perhaps to some degree it reflected the lawlessness of the city in those times. Crimes in Canton often went unreported and unpunished. In the public’s mind, many city officials and police were corrupt. In such a freewheeling environment, criminality was seen as one of the lubricants for self-advancement, particularly in the Hard Times. The crimes of Noble Wright and George Carlin had been carried out in desperation and targeted strangers against whom they meant no harm.
But there was something unmistakably personal behind this crime. It was a fraternal insurrection, a statement that the brothers would never again be content to live in the shadow of their older, more successful sibling, that no longer would they accept a supporting role. Underappreciated and underpaid, they’d had enough. Sam had done much for them, bringing them out of the ghetto, giving them jobs, providing housing, an Americanized last name, a new life. From Sam’s point of view this thievery was an act of supreme ingratitude. The brothers doubtless saw it differently—it was a long-overdue comeuppance and a declaration of independence. For all the good Sam had done them, he had inadvertently taken on the same authoritarian role he so reviled in his father, and now his brothers had broken away from him. They flaunted their newfound pride and in 1931 named their new store Stone Brothers. It was almost as if they no longer considered Sam one of the brothers.
For well over a decade the two stores were bitter rivals. Even as the Depression deepened and business dwindled, they carried on their commercial feud, dueling over competing prices and promotions in the advertising pages of the Canton Repository. Finally, Sam bought out his siblings, and eventually, in the midfifties, sold Stone Brothers to my father. But the wound between Sam and Mack never healed. Even decades later, the brothers’ names were not uttered in our house. It was as if they never existed. For much of my life, I believed my grandfather was an only child, oblivious to the fact that he had six siblings, several of whom lived a few minutes’ walk from our front door.
MUCH OF SAM Stone’s life—his ambitions, his appetites, his view of money as a means to help some and control others—was shaped by early hardship: the Romanian exodus, anti-Semitism, relentless poverty, a home devoid of affection. All these took their toll. The house at 51 Rowley Street in Pittsburgh was a place of crushing religious austerity and superstition. Sam and his siblings were raised with a paranoia that at any moment Old World prejudices could seize them in the New World. Even today, some of the grandchildren believe that America could be ravaged by anti-Semitism. As the eldest son, Sam was the first to distance himself from that home and its toxins, and perhaps for that reason the most successful in escaping its influences.
But those same forces defined the lives of his six siblings, who were exposed to them for the entirety of their childhoods and adolescence. Several of those lives were marked by tragedy and eccentricity. Their attitude toward money was pathological, their insecurities in the new land profound, their abilities to connect emotionally, even with their own families, damaged. From Jacob, the patriarch of the family, several inherited a kind of frozen heart unable to show affection.
As a child and a young man, I knew nothing of Sam’s siblings. I knew only that there were people in town who were to be avoided and never acknowledged. I had been led to believe that they were related to us in some distant way, and that it was in our interest to maintain and expand that distance. Three of Sam’s siblings lived within a few blocks of where I grew up, though I never met them, did not know their names, and was expressly told not to try to find out.
The barrier between us was erected partly to protect me from danger, real or imagined. There was also a measure of snobbery on the part of my mother and my grandmother, who viewed much of the rest of the Stone clan (though not all) as belonging to a lower social class. They were nameless specters flitting about my childhood landscape whom I came to look upon with a mix of dread and pity—and the curiosity that comes from years of stifled inquiries.
Sam had a brother David, who at twenty-three was still living at home in Pittsburgh and rolling cigars for his father’s in-home factory. Sometime in the 1920s he came to Canton to work for Sam. He was a misanthrope who, like Mack, was suspected of stealing from his own brothers. It is said he bet what little money he had on the 1948 Truman-Dewey race and lost. He was suspicious of women and uncomfortable in their presence. His sister Gussie once asked him when he might marry. “Never,” he replied. “Why would I want to feed a strange SOB?”
And yet for all the toughness of those words, he was never unkind to others. He was shy and socially awkward, had few friends, and preferred to bury himself in books at the public library. He is said to have been brilliant and quoted Shakespeare at length. He worked at Stone Brothers, selling clothes alongside brothers Mack and Al, but even there he did not fit in. He drank, usually alone. He died in November 1964 at the age of sixty-nine. At first, no one noticed his passing. It was the odor that led authorities to his decomposing body, found in his one-room flat above a Canton tavern. He left no will. His paltry bank account was divided among his siblings. Until a few years ago, I had never even heard his name.
Sam Stone’s elder sister Sarah married an English Jew named Jacob Berman. Her grandson, Arthur, says that one day Jacob failed to return home from work. Nothing was heard of him for years. Then he was discovered living in Pittsburgh’s Jewish Home for the Aged. They speculate that he had been the victim of a mugging that had also robbed him of his memory, leaving him incapable of caring for himself. Sarah and her young daughter, Zelda, had been left nearly destitute.
In 1941, Sarah married Hyman Shapiro, a Russian immigrant who owned a barrel and bag company in Canton. On the marriage application she listed her place of birth not as Romania but “Pittsburgh, Pa.” She had divorced her first husband, Jacob Berman, just one month earlier. She told her sister Gussie that she had found a man with money and that when they counted it she would hide some of it in her skirt. She lived out her final years in Santa Monica, California, overseeing the charwomen at the Shangri-La Hotel. She walked the twenty-two blocks between home and work to save the nickel bus fare. Sarah died just short of seventy on March 27, 1953, and, as evidence of her Orthodox faith, was buried that same day at two in the afternoon at the Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles.
Sarah Berman would pass on the legacy of hardship to her daughter, Zelda, who died at ninety-nine on May 17, 2009. So miserly was Zelda that she would never buy stationery, but instead would gently open the writer’s envelope, press it flat, and write her response on it. She even reused greeting cards from birthdays and holidays, taking scissors to excise the sender’s salutation and signature, and sending them out again. Her sons, knowing this, sent her cards in which the greeting and signature were written on a separate piece of paper and slipped into the blank card, leaving it for Zelda to send out without need of tailoring.
Zelda washed clothes by hand in the washing machine to conserve on electricity, bought her clothes secondhand, reused turkey bones that had been cleaned off the dinner plates to make soup, and collected used Styrofoam cups from trash bins, washed them out, and put them on her shelf, some of them complete with the indentations of others’ teeth.
Her husband, a onetime bookie turned real estate investor, left her millions. But she lived in constant fear of poverty and carried with her the dread that anti-Semitism would grab her and her loved ones, even in Santa Monica. She could never bring herself to trust a Gentile or to believe that she was safe in America. To the end she saw herself as “a poor little waif,” says her son. “She was so afraid. The wolf was always at her door.”
Zelda donated her body to the University of Southern California Medical School—apparently in part to avoid the cost of a funeral.
As for the house in Canton that I had been forbidden from stopping by on my way to and from elementary school each day, there was, I would learn five decades later, ample reason for apprehension. That was the home of Sam’s brother Mack. For whatever reason, he did not apply for U.S. citizenship until 1949, half a century after coming to America. He married a woman named Edna Cook, but the marriage ended in divorce. They had a son, Don, who was in and out of trouble. Don eloped with an underage girl, for which he later went to prison. The story made the papers. “When someone was in trouble,” recalls an aging cousin, “they would say, ‘They had to go away for a while.’ ” That was what they said of Don.
Mack’s ex, Edna, drank gin and became a recluse. She made the front page of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other papers around the country on April 22, 1952, when police raided her home at 1406 Pennsylvania and discovered her with her three young grandchildren—Don’s children—living in squalor amid dozens of cats and dogs. The children had not been allowed to go to school, had not bathed, had no working toilet, were malnourished, and were dressed in rags. An eight-year-old granddaughter had rarely been allowed to leave the house and had lived like the dogs, only with less to eat. The children were removed from the home and placed in the custody of the juvenile court.
It was not the last time Edna and her son would make the news in Pittsburgh. On June 21, 1970, Edna Stone, then eighty-three, thought she heard someone breaking into her garage. She and Don, then fifty-eight, went out to investigate. Edna carried a .32 pistol. Exactly what happened next is unclear, but this much is known: a twelve-year-old African American boy, Ernest Keith Caldwell, lay dead of a gunshot wound, Edna and Don faced murder charges, and the north side of Pittsburgh erupted in a race riot. Don admitted to tossing the gun into the Allegheny River, but both mother and son were ultimately acquitted of murder charges, arguing that it had been a warning shot gone awry.
But there were other goings-on in Mack’s Twenty-second Street house that spelled danger and would help explain why as a child I was to treat it as a no-man’s-land. Following his divorce, Mack married his brother Al’s maid, a woman named Eleanor who was thirty years his junior. The marriage scandalized the family. Then, on December 17, 1957, Mack’s stepson, Jack, and a brother-in-law, Richard, both twenty and both with criminal records, were shot to death on the streets of Canton. The double murder made front-page headlines. Jack Stone stumbled into a police station, blood pouring from his wounds. He died hours later. The crime was never solved. The son of one of Sam’s other brothers recalls his mother bringing the newspaper up to his room the day of the murder. “This is what happens to tough guys,” she said.
That was the house that I walked past on my way to school each day. It was also in that house that Sam’s brother Mack was savagely beaten, allegedly by an in-law. He was discovered by his son Jeff lying in a pool of blood on the kitchen floor, an overturned table on top of him. And though he underwent extensive brain surgery, he never recovered from the beating. He died on October 10, 1961.
Sam’s sister Esther married Joseph Moidell. They lived less than one minute’s walk from our front door, but I never knew my grandfather even had a sister, much less that I frequently passed her house. To utter that last name, Moidell, in our home was forbidden. There was never an explanation given, and on the one occasion when I asked if they were in some way related, my question went unanswered. Their son Arnold, or “AJ,” was a businessman and gambler who played the ponies and later owned racehorses. He dabbled in any number of schemes. He was a millionaire for a time, but died broke. Two of his three children didn’t speak to him for decades. Though Sam was said to be fond of Esther, I heard nothing of her when I was growing up.
For years, Sam gave sporadic help to his sister Gussie. The only thing she inherited from the Finkelstein home was a coldness of heart. She was terrified of her father. She would often say things that were “cutting,” remembers her daughter, Shirley. Never did she kiss her daughter or tell her she loved her. The closest she came was when, at age seventy-five, after years of being tended to by Shirley, she told her, “You’ve been a good daughter.” That was it. Gussie’s marriage was largely a sham. Her husband, Abe, drank and was unfaithful. He had a lifelong cough that was said to have been contracted in the Old World when his mother hid him in a well so the Russians would not take him. When their son Meyer was stricken with polio, Gussie seemed to give up on life. The family lived on welfare. Gussie too had her secrets. Shirley remembers a broad scar across her mother’s stomach. She once asked her about it, believing it to be from a Cesarean section. Her mother dismissed it as a birthmark.
Gussie’s early life and Sam’s were marked by such losses. Their mother, Hilda, had suffered at least two miscarriages, and a daughter named Rozlah died as a child in Romania. The children were led to believe her death was the result of an evil eye put on the child by Gypsies. So when Shirley was pregnant with her daughter, Eva, Gussie insisted that red ribbons be placed all around the house to ward off evil. But the real curse on the family came from within—it was their iciness of heart. Upon the death of her son Meyer, Gussie declared, “Well, God punished him because he got married and left me alone.”
Shirley was the only relative of Sam’s he felt he could trust. She was a lifelong confidante of his and knew some of his secrets. When Shirley was a young girl living in the projects of Pittsburgh, Sam gave her a powder-blue Dan Millstein designer suit, which she wore to the few special occasions she attended in her early life.
Shirley is warm and caring, but she too inherited the familial insecurities rooted in the long-ago pogroms of Romania and reinforced by the Nazis. “Jewish people now think we’re good here in America,” she tells me. “Don’t believe it. All it takes is one rough leader and we are all gone.”
For many of the descendants of Jacob and Hilda Finkelstein, 107 years of relative safety and acceptance in this country counted for little. As eager as they were to put the past behind them, they do not let go of history. Gussie’s mother was part of the Finkelstein conspiracy that took an oath not to reveal the family’s past. Her daughter, Shirley, to this day remembers her words, spoken in Yiddish: “Don’t say anything. I was born in America. The whole family was born in America.” She also remembers her telling her never to utter the name Finkelstein or they might send her back to the world from which they had escaped. My own mother said that not once in her entire life did she hear her father say the word Romania.
Finally, there was Sam’s youngest brother, Al. On his August 31, 1934, marriage license, he lists his place of birth as “Pittsburgh, Pa.” But unlike Sam, in 1941 he applied for U.S. citizenship and disclosed that he had been born in Dorohoi, Romania. He had a son, Jack, and a daughter, Ferne. Al bore some of the same emotional scarring as his siblings. He never spoke of his father and rarely of his childhood. “They certainly were not emotionally healthy adults,” says Ferne. “I felt that my whole life, I fought to not be like my father who was—I was the apple of his eye—I loved him absolutely—he was an amazing father—but he was a workaholic. He could not easily be with other people. He really never had friends. His entire life was working.”
In time, the enmity that simmered between Sam and his siblings in the thirties passed. Over the years, Sam and his brother Al reached some reconciliation. His name appears on Minna’s gift list, as do Esther’s and Gussie’s and Sarah’s. But there was no armistice with Mack. It was as if he never existed. I never met any of Sam’s siblings and did not learn of their existence until well after they were all dead and gone. That decision had been made for me.
Somehow, Sam Stone navigated through all the same treacherous shoals—economic and emotional—that claimed his siblings. He did not emerge wholly unscathed. His attitude toward money, his determination to erase his childhood and place of birth, his fixation on anti-Semitism and the Nazis, were all vestiges of early trauma. And there were doubtless wounds of which even today I am unaware. But his capacity to feel and express love, his compassion and humor, these were largely intact.
To salvage these traits, he had had to reinvent himself, and not only by claiming to be native-born. “Mr. B. Virdot” was the gift he gave others, but it was also the gift he gave himself. It was the right to a second chance, to be reborn as someone else. He had spent his youth under the thumbs of two tyrants—the state and his own father. As a child and an adolescent, he had been largely impotent in the face of the terrible want and injustice that surrounded him. To finally be in a position to help others represented a sea change in his life. It was not external recognition that he hungered for, but the internal affirmation that such giving conferred upon him. It was a statement not of net worth but of his own personal worth, and the value of others with whom, despite a world of differences, he shared so much.