Anthracite Heroes: “Big Mary”

Big Mary Tamaqua little boy (2)

Regina R. Drasher regularly portrays “Big Mary” in local performances of a play she wrote about the historic woman. A stickler for historical accuracy, Drasher conducted meticulous research to make sure she got Big Mary just right. We interviewed her to learn more about this incredible woman and about our region’s history. Drasher takes us into this fascinating time-period, sharing insights on how Big Mary’s legacy can provide inspiration and guidance on the struggles we face today.

Anthracite Unite: Who was Big Mary?

Regina R. Drasher: Big Mary was a Slovak woman hero after the Lattimer Massacre. I have no actual recorded proof that Big Mary was at the Lattimer Massacre. But just knowing who she was and her personality, I believe if someone had come and said that there were men with guns by the schoolhouse, and knowing how strongly she supported her husband and the miners, I think she would have been there to see what was going on.

It had to be horrifying: 20 men shot dead, others bleeding, dying. Yet some men went back to work. What Big Mary did was she rallied the women. They went to different collieries and they cleared the scabs out from the collieries so that the strike could stay strong.

The first thing they did is they went across the strippings at Lattimer. There they were met by the Calvary and turned back. But these men were murdered… her husband, her neighbor’s husband, all these men working at whatever collieries, had horrible conditions, weren’t treated with respect, were in constant danger, and men who had no weapons whatsoever were shot dead in the street marching so that these others would go on strike with them. And yet, other men were crossing the picket line and going into work.

Big Mary PortraitWomen often encouraged men to strike, especially the Slovak women. To see these men going to work, breaking the strike, letting the coal companies make money after all this… it was just a horror to them. So she gathered the women, and when they were turned away at Lattimer, they went to McAdoo and Audenried because it was a different county.

The mine owners actually called in the militia after the massacre because they feared this great uprising. They didn’t know what was going to happen. The mine owners were in horrible fear for their lives. They thought there’d be this horrible uprising and so they brought in the militia to guard the collieries, but they were not over in McAdoo and Audenried.

The women marched for two days to McAdoo and Audenried. Could you imagine?! From Lattimer to McAdoo! That is quite a distance, probably about eight miles. If they had babies, they carried them on their hips. They had rolling pins, pokers from the stove, whatever they had. They went in there and drove the scabs out.

One newspaper article I found, it says, “…doing a certain amount of bodily harm.” They were ferocious. You are putting our men’s lives at risk by doing this. Out you go!

At one point, they got to a colliery ahead of the workers. She lined the women up and when the men came to work and saw her “Amazons,” they turned around and left. That is what they were known broadly as: “Big Mary and her Hungarian Amazons.”

They cleared out about six different places in two days.

Big Mary was cunning. The one time, there were mounted men on horses guarding the colliery, so she sent a lot of her women behind the culm banks while others like threw rocks at the horses. Then when the women backed off, the men went away, thinking, “Oh well, they’re gone.” Once the men on the horses left, Big Mary brought the women out from behind the culm banks and they cleared out that colliery. So she was not a “dumb Pollack,” shall we say?

AU: What do we know about her personality?

RRD: Well in one instance, the quote was “a veritable tigress.” Another said that men gave her “wide berth.” Another said that she “paid the trolley fare when she felt inclined to do so.” She was a strong woman. She seemed to be very concerned with what was going on.

She was also very strong as far as being a wife and a mother. She was married almost 30 years and proclaimed her love for her husband. He was said to have patted her cheek when he’d go by her. She lost nine children in her lifetime. She had one daughter living and I feel she was extremely protective of her after having lost her other nine children.

AU: What do you admire most about Big Mary?

RRD: I would say, her love for her family, and her fierceness. Her being unafraid, the fact that she saw what she perceived as being a horrible wrong and trying to right it. She didn’t just sit at home and say “Oh, my, that’s terrible.” She went out and did something about it. I guess you would say she was an activist. She was defending her husband, her boarders, her way of life.

She was a strong woman before women had rights. This is more than 20 years before they had the right to vote.

AU: On that note, because men are the ones telling the story, we don’t hear a lot about women when studying the history of the region. Is there anything about women from the era that we can learn more about or appreciate more about thanks to Big Mary and her legacy?

RRD: Even though women didn’t have rights, I think she was a liberated women. I think she was a woman, not a female trying to fit into a certain mold. She did what she thought was right no matter what the mores of the time were. She did not follow this idea that women should be seen and not heard. She followed her conscience and did what she thought was right.

I also admire the fact that she was very strong for her family. In fact, I think there are more strong women taking care of their families today than we realize, just like there were then. She took care of her family. She was a working woman. The term “working woman,” that came about after the 1950s. [Laughs] Women have always worked.

My grandmother used to say, “A man’s work is from sun to sun, a woman’s work is never done.” I never fully grasped that until I started learning about how these women lived. She took in boarders. At the time, a half-double in a patch town could hold 20 to 30 people. The family would live in the downstairs room, and the boarders would be upstairs. In Lattimer, they had to walk about a mile for a well.

She had to have meals ready for the boarders before and after work. She had to have the wash water warm for them because, contrary to popular belief of a “Saturday night bath,” the men that worked in the mines had to wash up after every shift. The women washed the bed linens by hand! If you’ve ever seen what a man who comes home from the mines looks like, you know. Often times, the women would wash the backs of the men!

Plus, all the shopping, which is not like today. You did not go to Wal-Mart once a week or stop on your way home from work. You shopped at the Company Store… also, no refrigeration.

Plus, washing the clothes by hand. Washing those work clothes by hand. Almost everything had to be ironed because they were inorganic materials and they wrinkled. And if the men worked different shifts, then she had to work along with those different shifts. Keep in mind, a lot of these things she did, she did while she was pregnant and nursing. She also washed diapers by hand.

AU: Why do think its important that we remember Big Mary? What are some of the lessons she teaches us that are relevant today?

RRD: I think one thing is that she saw a wrong and tried to correct it. She didn’t just sit in her home, or gossip with the neighbors about it. She was also a strong woman, a leader.

Also, at the time babies died much more frequently than they do now because of epidemics. I think women can look at this history and say, “thank you God that we have vaccinations. I don’t have to worry about my child getting small pox or Scarlett fever and dying from it.”

People always say, “Oh, the good old days!” I say, nope, I’ll stay here. I don’t want a child with polio. I don’t want a child going deaf or blind from the German measles, stuff like that.

AU: Let’s transition from talking about the real Big Mary to talking about the person who plays Big Mary. Tell us about your performances.

RRD: Well, I present Mary’s story as Big Mary. I try to keep the speech as I think it would’ve been. I am Big Mary telling the story, and so I become her and speak as I think she would have spoken.

The way I begin it, I always give a warning to whoever is introducing me. I say, “Look, I am going to interrupt you, so don’t get upset.” And I tell them, don’t say “Regina Drasher is going to tell Big Mary’s story; say Big Mary is here to tell her story.”

big & waitkus (2)

I start in the back of the room. I stand with my hands on my hips and I’ll say: “I am Maria Septakova, and I will tell my story!” Then I sort of stomp towards the front because I believe Big Mary didn’t mince her steps. I believe she was about her business.

I try to give the whole background of what a patch town was like, of her boarders. Then I tell how the strike had originated, how Gomer Jones, the mine boss, beat a mule driver with an iron bar. I explain how strikes were different then, how men would leave their collieries, march to other collieries, and ask them to join the strike.

I tell the story of the massacre, of specific men or boys who were shot. I talk about how, afterwards, the deputies strode through, and when a man called for water, one of the deputies took the cigar out of his mouth and said, “We’ll give you hell, Hunkies, not water!” Because the men did boast, some of them, about how many they shot. I try to tell about these specific – and horrific – things to try to really bring it home.

I also make the point that the United Mine Workers didn’t want who they considered “aliens” in their union, but then afterwards how at Lattimer all the men were there and all the men had joined the union.

Then I tell the story of the different raids. After that, I tell of her returning to Lattimer, where all the men are cheering for Big Mary. Then it ends with the last recorded evidence of her, which is that “She raised the sword over her hear, whirled in a circle and shrieked like a demon, exposing a pair of stout ankles.”

Then I say, “This should not be, but Big Mary show the world the will of Hunkie women!” And that’s how I end it. She is proud of what she did and she did what she could.

AU: How has learning about Big Mary or just learning about the history of the region enriched your life? What has it meant to you as a person?

RRD: I love the history and I have admiration for Big Mary because she was brave, and she kind of inspired me to be brave. Women were on the sidelines, but to see what they went through, just even how my grandmother had to live. I am amazed that women survived the things they did. I couldn’t imagine losing one child, let alone losing nine. Yet she went on. Big Mary was still loving and tender and caring. I think we can all look back, any of us with coalmining heritage, and be proud.

The men didn’t do it by themselves. I truly think that women had it more difficult in many ways. I figured it out about Big Mary: She spent something like seven full years of pregnancy. If you add up how long she nursed the babies, it would have been eighteen years. Yet she did everything she had to do.

AU: One of the others things that is striking about this story is that when we are taught this history, we tend to hear a lot about the people at the top, you know the inventors and the owners of the mines and so on.

RRD: The rich people, yeah.

AU: Exactly. Just as we don’t hear a lot about the women in our history, we don’t hear a lot about the lives of specific working class people.

RRD: That is one of the reasons I love Eckley Miner’s Village so much, because our story is of the working class. Ninety-eight percent of Eckley was poor workers and there were only four mine owners. So, yes, there was management, but you had to have hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of workers.

That’s our story! It’s not the Victorian ladies, not the new horse and carriage, or whatever. Yes, that is the mine owners’ story, but it is a small part of the whole story. People tend to go for the notables, the ones who made the news, and not the workers.

AU: If folks are interested in seeing your performance, where can they do that or how can they learn more about it?

RRD: I will be doing Big Mary at the Anthracite Festival of the Arts in Shamokin at the end of May.


big mary & cary

AU: Great. And you mentioned that you are writing a book about Big Mary. Can you say more about that?

I want to tell her story. It’ll start with how I discovered her, and with what my goal is in telling her story. It is so that she is not forgotten because she usually gets two itty-bitty paragraphs and by the next book she’ll probably be forgotten. I tell how I travel around Lattimer trying to see if anybody heard of her… nobody has. I also say that it’s the story of Big Mary, I present it like I present my play, and then I list at the end the known facts I discovered about her. You know, what is conjecture just based on the time-period… things like that. I say, given everything I learned about her, I try to put her story together in a readable manner, but here are the established facts. I’ll also have quotes from newspaper articles here and there, and I’ll discuss the prejudices of the time and things like that.

I also state that I grew up hearing, “The Lattimer Massacre, they shot miners.” But that’s all I knew. I just knew it was this horrible thing where they shot a bunch of miners on strike. Then, you know, the more I read about it, it’s like… almost unbelievable.

AU: Anything else in closing to point out about Big Mary or your work on her?

RRD: I would say, and this is the thing I tell kids, I say, “Talk to your grandparents. If you have an elderly neighbor and you have your parents’ permission, talk to them.” Let them know you want to know because every person in that town is history lost if we haven’t spoken to them. If I hadn’t spent time with my grandmother, I wouldn’t have had that initial interest. I wouldn’t have learned the story of my grandmother running away from home to get married.

Ask them: What did they do when they were kids? Where did they go to school? What was their first job? How did grandma meet grandpa? How did Mr. Jones next door meet Mrs. Jones? What kind of work did they do? And always tell them “Thank you for talking to me.” Even if they say no the first time, its in their mind that you want to know their story.

There are so many things all around us. There is just so much history around us, and so much more than we know. If we don’t talk to our families, our friends, our neighbors, it’s all gone away.


(NOTE: with the exception of the sketch of Big Mary , which was done by Jay Hambridge, all photo credits on this post are to Regina R. Drasher)

One comment

  1. […] through struggles just like our own; people who empower us. (As a prime example of this, see the recent Anthracite Unite post about “Big […]


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