The Ancient and Esoteric Order of the Jackalope

William Gropper's "JOe Magarac" (1947)

Jackass Forever

Joe Magarac: folklore or fakelore?

What’s that? You’ve never heard the legend of Joe Magarac? Well, take a seat by the fire and let’s get you up to speed.

Our story takes place in southwestern Pennsylvania over a hundred years ago, at the dawn of the Twentieth Century. At that time industry was king, and steel mills lined the Monongahela Valley as far as the eye could see. Admittedly, that wasn’t very far because the air was filled with a thick black soot that got into everything: your clothes, your hair, and your lungs. It was an ugly and dangerous byproduct of an ugly and dangerous industry.

A steel mill was a harsh employer. They treated men like they were beasts, and drove them until they were broken. Low pay and hazardous working conditions were the norm. If you were lucky you might get to retire right before your body broke down. If you were unlucky, well, at least the funeral would be cheap because there wouldn’t be much of a body left.

And yet people came from all over the world to do that hard work. Hungarians, Magyars, Romanians, Bulgarians, Serbs, Croats, Poles, Ukrainians, Russians, Estonians, Latvians, and Lithuanians all flocked to the Mon Valley to scratch out their patch and give a better life to their children.

This is the story of those brave immigrants, specifically the ones who lived in Hunkietown, high up in the steep hills where you might get a little fresh air and a few rays of sun a few times each year. The good people of Hunkietown had somehow managed to build a happy life in a place everyone else thought of as hell on Earth.

And none of them was happier than Mary Mestrovich. Mary was the prettiest girl in all of Hunkietown, prettier than the Hunkie girls back home in the old country, prettier than the big city girls in Pittsburgh, prettier than any other girl in the whole world if I’m being honest. She had eyes as blue as the flame of a blowtorch, cheeks redder than a hot iron ingot, and silky hair the color of molten steel. She was polite and sweet and could dance the polka better than anyone. Every boy in Hunkietown dreamed of making her his wife, and now she was eighteen and ready to marry.

The only obstacle was Mary’s father, Steve Mestrovich. Steve was the best cinderman in the whole Mon Valley, and he wasn’t going to let just anyone marry his sweet little girl. No, Mary’s husband would have to be a hard worker, a good provider. And that meant he would have to be strong. Not just strong, but stronger than Steve himself, possibly even the strongest man in the whole world.

But how to find such a man?

Fortunately Steve Mestrovich was as clever as he was strong.So he threw a party. People came from all over just to see what he was up to. They came from Homestead and Braddock and Monessen and Duquesne and even from Johnstown. They gorged themselves on cabbage rolls, pierogis, and sweet cakes and washed them all down with copious amounts of beer and prune-jack.

Once they were all good and drunk, Steve Mestrovich herded them into a nearby barn and whipped away a tarp to reveal three dolly bars he had brought home from the mill, one weighing 350 pounds, one weighing 500 pounds, and one weighing 900 pounds. Then he declared he would give Mary’s hand in marriage to anyone who could lift the three bars. Every unmarried man lined up to take their chances.

Well, to a steelworker a 350 pound dolly bar is nothing. They could all lift it over their head with no problem, except for a few men from Homestead, boys really, who protested that they hadn’t had a proper breakfast that morning. Everyone pretend to agree, just to let them save face. They were good boys, but everyone knew their steel was weak.

It was the 500 pound dolly bar that really separated the men from the boys. Only three men made it through that round: Andy Dembrowski from Johnstown, Eli Stanoski from Homestead, and Pete Pussick from Hunkietown.

That 900 pound dollar bar…

Eli Stanoski couldn’t budge it, and broke both of his arms in the attempt.

Andy Dembrowski went next, and he couldn’t move it either. The crowd loved that, because it finally proved two things: that the steel mills in Johnstown were weaker than the coffee mills down in Pittsburgh, and that the best man in Johnstown was no better than the worst man in Hunkietown.

They were all cheering for Pete Pussick, the hometown favorite, who had been making goo-goo eyes at Mary Mestrovich ever since he was fourteen. Except Pete could barely budge the 900 pound dolly bar. He grunted and groaned for minutes, but could only manage to get it an inch off the floor before he passed out from the strain, still holding the bar.

Steve Mestrovich was stumped. His test had failed. Who was going to take his daughter’s hand in marriage now?

Then the barn door burst open, and he walked in.

How to possibly describe him? He was tall, so tall that even in the barn he had to stoop down so he didn’t bump his head on the rafters. And he was huge, too: his wrists and ankles were thicker than your waist, his neck was like a tree trunk, his back was broader than the gates down at the mills. His sheer bulk was accentuated by his ridiculous outfit, because he was wearing the largest clothes you could possibly but stretched them out so much he looked like an adult crammed into a child’s suit. What showed through the bursting seams was not flesh at all, but shiny metal, as if he were a man literally made of steel.

The big steel man took one look at what was going on, rolled up his sleeves, and then lifted both Pete Pussick and the 900 pound dolly bar clear over his head. Then just for good measure he took the dolly bar and bent it into a tight little pretzel. (He was nice enough to put Pete to the side first, which showed he was kind as well as strong.) Then he walked over to the refreshments, drank down a keg of beer like it was a pint glass, and started housing cabbage rolls like they were we going out of style.

Steve Mestrovich gingerly approached the big man to ask him who he was, and he man took a moment from swigging a jug of prune-jack to tell him.

“They call me Joe Magarac. They call me that because all I know is how to work and eat like a donkey. I was born in an ore mountain in the Old Country, and I come to the U.S.A. to work in the steel mill because I am the only genuine steel man in the whole world.”

And then he clunked his chest, which rang out like a solid steel rail, just to prove his point.

Well. That was all Steve Mestrovich needed to hear. He told Joe Magarac that he was clearly the strongest man in the world, and he had won his daughter’s hand in marriage.

When he heard that, though, Joe went white as a sheet and apologized. He hadn’t know what the contest was for or he wouldn’t have entered. He couldn’t marry anyone. All he wanted to do was work and eat. Really just work, to be honest, he only ate because it made other people uncomfortable when he didn’t. Steve should probably just give Mary’s hand to the runner-up.

That was fine by Mary, who had been making goo-goo eyes at Pete Pussick, ever since she was fourteen and would have probably just eloped with him if her father hadn’t come up with this hare-brained stunt in the first place. She and Pete got married that night.

Steve Mestrovich was fine with that, because the only genuine steel man in the whole world was now working for him down at the mill, and he was the best worker anyone could have asked for.

Joe Magarac could stick his hands right into the furnace to check the temperature. Then he could go over to a ladle full of melted steel, stir it, and slop it into ingot molds with his bare hands. He could make the prettiest steel rails you ever saw, eight at a time, by squeezing fistfuls of red-hot steel between his fingers. And he would work a twelve hour shift without complaint, and would then clock out and clock right back in, working back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back-to-back shifts.

The other workers complained that Joe was putting them out of work by doing all of it himself. They would have made a bigger deal of it, except he had saved all of their lives multiple times by stopping runaway barges, throwing up impromptu catwalks in the blink of an eye to catch them when they fell, righting a tilting ladle that was about to spill 24 tons of molten steel, like he was some asbestos Atlas. They didn’t want to seem ungrateful.

They weren’t the only ones complaining, either. The owners complained that Joe’s diet, which involved biting down on ingots like they were bread and drinking molten slag like it was soup, was costing them money. They weren’t on board with his hygiene habits either, which involved just walking into the furnace to let all the soot burn off his body. Their insurance companies hated that.

Steve wound up getting Joe a room in a nearby boarding house, though Joe didn’t spend much of his time there. Instead he took simultaneous double shifts at steel mills up and down the river. When the workers at those mills complained too, he started spending his free time competing in steel making competitions.

Once he won a steel-making race with Gary from Gary, and beat him by more than three thousand pounds even though he had let the Hoosier get a three day head start. Joe was impressed, that was the closest anyone had ever come to beating him. The mill owner from Gary was also impressed, and offered Joe a job for more pay. Joe refused, because if he moved to a new city he would have to stop working while he relocated.

During World War I, Joe single-handedly made so much steel that he offset the lost output from every other steel worker who had been drafted. The government tried to pin a medal on his chest for that, but they couldn’t find a pin that wouldn’t bend on his steel skin.

Eventually it all caught up to Joe Magarac. He made so much steel that there was a tremendous oversupply. The mills were shut down and all the workers furloughed until the warehouses emptied out. Everyone blamed Joe, but not too much, because after all he had saved all of their lives. Besides, they could use the time off to spend quality time with their wives, sweethearts, and children. Not Joe Magarac, though. He didn’t have a wife or sweetheart or children. All he had was work. Literally. He hadn’t even slept or eaten in fifteen years because he was so busy working.

After a few days of forced idleness, he went crazy.

That day there was a great noise in the mill, and Steve and Pete and all the workers ran down to see that Joe had started it back up again and was melting himself down in the furnace. They begged him to stop, but Joe declared that all a magarac can do is eat and work, and at least this way he would die doing what he loved. They all doffed their hats and shed a tear as Joe’s head melted away. The last thing they saw was the big smile on his face, until that too melted into nothingness.

I gotta tell you, though, that last batch of steel Joe Magarac made from himself was the finest steel ever made.

The Saga of Joe Magarac, Steelman

Now, I’m hardly surprised you haven’t heard of Joe Magarac before. Hardly anyone outside of Pittsburgh had before November 1931. That was the month Scribner’s magazine ran an article bty Owen Francis called, “The Saga of Joe Magarac, Steelman.”

Owen Francis was born in the Mon Valley and was employed as a steelworker until 1917, when he got drafted by Uncle Sam and sent overseas to fight the Kaiser. In France he inhaled a lungful of mustard gas, and during his long recovery he began to reconsider the life choices that had brought him there.

Francis decided he would be a world-famous screenwriter, which was easier said than done. He moved to California and spent years taking night classes and working odd jobs before he managed to sell a single script to Warner Brothers. It was the only script he ever managed to sell. When the money ran out he had to move back to Pittsburgh.

That move proved to be a fortuitous one. Francis drew inspiration from the mines and mills of his youth and the stories of the men who worked there, and used that to launch a career as a magazine feature writer. “The Saga of Joe Magarac, Steelman” was his first big break.

I find that Joe Magarac is a man living only in the imagination of the Hunkie steel-mill worker. He is to the Hunkie what Paul Bunyan is to the woodsman and Old Stormalong is to the man of the sea. With his active imagination and his childlike delight in tales of greatness, the Hunkie has created stories with Joe Magarac as the hero that may in the future become the folklore of our country. Conceived in the minds of Hunkie steel-mill workers, he belongs to the mills as do the furnaces and the rolling-mills… The saga of Joe Magarac is more typical of the Hunkie than any tale or incident or description I might write. It shows his sense of humor, his ambitions, his love of work, and in general, shows what I know the Hunkie to be: a good-natured, peace- and home-loving worker.

The finished article is more or less the story from the beginning of the episode. It also gives you a good idea of why Owen Francis’s literary career never took off. The prologue is overlong, self-serving, and more than a little patronizing. The actual story is poorly paced, jumping from the beginning right to the end with no middle. What is there is barely readable, with all of the dialogue presented in a thick dialect that is nearly indecipherable.

Francis contributed a few more articles to Scribner’s between 1931 and 1935, mostly more Joe Magarac tales where rescues steelworkers from certain death and defeats other similarly-endowed paragons of labor in outrageous contests. After that he vanished without a trace… and so did Joe Magarac, who was quickly forgotten everywhere but Pittsburgh.

Then, during World War II, the United Steel Company made Joe Magarac the focus of their advertising. He was plastered on ads and posters and promoted as a hero, a tireless company man who thought only of how to make American industry better so we could finally stick it to Hitler, Tojo, and Mussolini.

Almost overnight Joe Magarac went from an obscure figure to a genuine American icon. United Steel published educational comics where a surprisingly fey “Genie of Steel” uses his magic powers to teach children about the steel-making process. Irwin Shaprio’s Joe Magarac and his U.S.A. Citizen Papers recast the tale as a modern-day fable, adding an action-packed coda where Magarac turns into a giant monster and goes on a rampage to teach nativist bigots the value of immigration. Jules Billard’s slightly more sophisticated retellings of the stories reached millions of readers in the pages of the Saturday Evening Post.

Naturally Pittsburgh was the epicenter of this Magarac mania. A relief of Joe Magarac and his coal-mining cousin Jan Volkanik stared down at travelers from atop the Manchester Bridge. His feats were depicted on murals in the Carnegie Museum of Art, on rides at the Kennywood amusement park, and in countless WPA projects. Every steel mill tried to claim Joe Magarac as their own, at least until a larger-than-life-size statue was installed in front of the Edgar Thomson steelworks in Braddock. William Gropper’s painting of Joe bending a piece of bar stock with his bare hands won a public opinion poll and was declared “best in show” at Gimbel’s 1947 Pennsylvania Art Exhibit, despite being one of the most grotesque things you’ve ever seen.

It didn’t take long for the Joementum to falter, though. Walt Disney aanounced that Magarac would be featured in a series of shorts based on American folk tales, putting him in the exalted company of Paul Bunyan and Pecos Bill, but nothing ever came out of that other than a few concept drawings. Megalomaniacal sculptor Frank Vittor’s proposal to cap Point Park with a 100′ sculpture of Joe Magarac hoisting two ladles of molten steel was rejected by Pittsburgh’s planning commission, which went with a more traditional fountain instead.

Then in 1953 Hyman Richman brought it all crashing down.

Folklore or Fakelore?

Richman was an amateur folklorist from Pittsburgh, and he was sick of talking about Joe Magarac. Whenever he went to conferences that was all anyone wanted to talk about. Where did Joe Magarac come from? What other Joe Magarac tales did he know? Joe this. Magarac that.

The problem was that Hyman Richman had never heard of Joe Magarac before, and it was driving him nuts. He decided to get to the bottom of the whole Magarac business.

Fortunately his day job was with the Department of Labor, which gave him the opportunity to interview immigrant steelworkers all over Pittsburgh. And what he discovered was that none of them had heard of Joe Magarac before, either.

They didn’t know him in Pittsburgh, they didn’t know him in Homstead, they didn’t know him in Braddock or Elizabeth or Clairton. The Hungarians didn’t know him, the Croats and Serbs didn’t know him, the Swedes and Poles and Lithuanians didn’t know him.

There were tales of Bunyanesque characters like Henry Palm, Arstrong Joe, and Mike Lesnovich, living man-mountains who could tie bar stock into knots with their bare hands, but that was where those stories began and ended. There certainly weren’t any mythic narratives like the Joe Magarac stories in circulation, much less any sort of complicated and layered tale like the courtship of Mary Mestrovich.

The suits at United Steel didn’t know much about him, either. They knew even less about him than their employees, if that was even possible.

Richman was confused, so he wrote to the authors who had published stories about Joe Magarac, to see what their sources were. It turns out they had never heard of Joe Magarac, either, before reading the November 1931 issue of Scribner’s.

Before that date there was no mention of Joe Magarac in print, anywhere.

Next he turned a critical eye to the works of Owen Francis in the hopes that would turn up some sort of lead. In the process he discovered some weird inconsistencies. For instance, in “The Saga of Joe Magarac” it is claimed that “magarac” is the Hungarian word for “jackass” and that it is a compliment that means you are a hard worker. It does mean jackass, but it’s Croatian and not Hungarian, and it is anything but a complement. Interviewee Steve Berko even told Richman to be careful throwing the word around because, “You can call someone that and he’ll beat your head in.”

The more Richman thought about Joe Magarac, the more confused he got. Who, exactly, was he supposed to be an aspirational figure for? Sure, lots of people wanted to be big and strong, but Magarac was also dumb as a rock. Why would anyone want to be a mindless robot who worked 24/7/365 without ever taking a break to rest or play? Who had no interest in women or prune-jack or cabbage rolls? Who didn’t care about his wages or safety concerns or the well-being and employment of his fellow workers? A man who literally threw himself into the furnace when he could no longer work

There were possibilities. Maybe Joe Magarac was a satirical figure created by workers to make fun of what management demanded from them; or maybe he was an aspirational figure created by management to promote their vision of the ideal worker. Maybe he was a joke played on Owen Francis by some steelworkers who were sick of answering his questions, or maybe Owen Francis had just made the whole story up on his own.

Too bad no one could ask Owen Francis, because he had vanished from the face of the Earth.

\In the end Richman decided that Joe Magarac not authentic folklore but fakelore, created by a down-on-his-luck writer to sell magazines, and perpetuated by the steel industry as a public relations stunt. His advice was simple: “The best thing anyone can do with the Joe Magarac story is forget it.”

It was hardly a new conclusion. It is now widely accepted that Pecos Bill is not an authentic cowboy legend but invented by Tex O’Reilly in 1917. Most of the Paul Bunyan legends were invented by logging company publicists, or are bowdlerized versions of much less savory tales. Why should Joe Magarac be any different?

There were those who fought back, though. Poet Gyorgy Szecskay claimed he could prove that there was a real-life Joe Magarac, a Hungarian shepherd who emigrated to America in the 1850s and who was famous less as a hard-working Pittsburgh steelman and more as a union-busting brawler from New York who whipped mills into shape. When actually pressed Szecskay could provide no actual evidence and Richman easily debunked his claims.

Let’s face it, Joe Magarac is never going to make it up there with Paul Bunyan and John Henry in the S-Tier of American folk heroes. He’s lucky to be down there in the C-Tier with other has-beens and never-wases like Captain Stormalong and Mose the Valiant Fireman. Neither of whom I had heard of before I started researching this episode.

Pittsburghers tried to keep the legend of Joe Magarac alive, but when the steel industry collapsed in the 1970s and 1980s he was forgotten once more. Today some locals may know the name, but they’ve never heard the stories. Perhaps the clearest sign of Magarac’s fall from grace is that when the Steelers finally chose a mascot in 2007 they opted for a generic new character named Steely McBeam. Pittsburghers have new icons now.

One of those can be found a stones throw from Heinz Stadium, where the structural footings of the old Manchester Bridge can be found on the banks of the Ohio River. Once the bridge they supported was emblazoned with an image of Joe Magarac, but now those footings serve as a pedestal for a truly beloved and enduring local legend.

Mister Rogers.

Connections

If want another fakeloric story from Pittsburgh, why not go hear about how the Curtiss Candy Company definitely didn’t drop Baby Ruth candy bars on downtown? (“Death from Above by Chocolate”)

Sources

  • Blair, Walter. Tale Tale America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
  • Fishwick, Marshall W. “Sons of Paul: Folklore or Fakelore?” Western Folklore, Volume 18, Number 4 (October 1959).
  • Francis, Owen. “The Saga of Joe Magarac: Steelman.” Scribner’s Magazine, Volume 90, Number 5 (November 1931).
  • Gilley, Jennifer and Burnet, Stephen. “Deconstructing and Reconstructing Pittsburgh’s Man of Steel: Reading Joe Magarac against the Context of the 20th-Century Steel Industry.” The Journal of American Folklore, Volume 111, Number 442 (Autumn 1998).
  • Hughes, Kara. Pennsylvania Myths & Legends: The True Stories Behind History’s Mysteries (Second Edition). Lanham, MD: Globe & Pequot, 2022.
  • Kovacevic, Ivan, “Who Murdered Joe Magarac?” Electronic Journal of Folklore, Volume 59 (December 2014).
  • Nesbitt, Mark and Wilson, Patty A. The Big Book of Pennsylvania Ghost Stories. Mechanicsburg (PA): Stackpole Books, 2008.
  • Patrick, Kevin J. “Joe Magarac and the Spirit of Pittsburgh” in Scarpaci, Joseph L. and Patrick, Kevin J. (editors). Pittsburgh and the Appalachians: Cultural and Natural Resources in a Postindustrial Age. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2006.
  • Shapiro, Irwin. Joe Magarac and His U.S.A Citizen Papers. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1979.
  • Shapiro, Irwin. Heroes in American Folklore. New York: Julian Messner, 1962.
  • Sheviak, Margaret R and Anderson, Merilee. “American ‘Fake’ Folk Heroes.” Elementary English, Volume 46, Number 3 (March 1969).
  • Simon, Ed. An Alternative History of Pittsburgh. Cleveland: Belt Publishing, 2021.
  • White, Thomas. Legends & Lore of Western Pennsylvania. Charleston, SC: History Press, 2009.
  • “Steely McBeam.” Pittsburgh Steelers. https://www.steelers.com/youth/steely-mcbeam. Accessed 9/22/2023.
  • Naylor, Douglas. “Gimbel’s Pennsylvania Collection previewed at New York gallery.” Pittsburgh Press, 12 Sep 1947.
  • “Joe Magarac leads vote in Gimbel art exhibit.” Pittsburgh Sun-Telegraph, 25 Feb 1948.
  • Hopper, Hedda. “Walt Disney digging into native folklore.” Baltimore Sun, 9 May 1948.
  • Priestly, Lee. “Iron Man of the Steel Mills.” Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, 27 Jan 1951.
  • “Park may have Joe Magarac statue.” Pittsburgh Press, 18 Apr 1851.
  • “Vittor proposes great moinument for Point.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 18 Apr 1951.
  • “Frank Vittor visions Point Park memorial out-towering goddess.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 5 Jun 1951.
  • “Tall tales of Magarac abound in steel mills.” Greensboro Daily News, 2 Mar 1952.
  • Swartworth, William. “Big Joe made U.S. Steel what it is.” Cincinnati Enquirer, 2 Mar 1952.
  • “Point fountain to be world’s highest.” Pittsburgh Press, 30 Apr 1953.
  • “Vittor promises fight over Point’s fountain.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2 May 1953.
  • “Joe Magarac revealed as a hoax.” Pittsburgh Press, 26 Jun 1953.
  • Swetnam, Geore. “Joe Magarac… hoax and humbug!” Pittsburgh Press, 28 Jun 1953.
  • Swetnam, George. “The Return of Joe Magarac.” Pittsburgh Press, 2 May 1954.
  • “Presstime!” Pittsburgh Press, 4 Jul 1954.
  • Stuart, Roger. “Historic art heading for scrap heap along with doomed Manchester Bridge.” Pittsburgh Press, 15 Mar 1964.
  • Gigler, Rich. “Pittsburgh’s Man of Steel.” Pittsburgh Press, 12 Aug 1979.

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Artist. Lover. Social Media Unfluencer. Acknowledged authority on lucrative bogs. Dave "The Knave" White is all this and more. But most days he's a web developer, graphic designer, and cartoonist. He lives in Pittsburgh with his wife, his two cats, and his crippling obsession with strange trivia.

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