From Hooligan to Historian: The Only-in-Homestead Story of Jacob Rader Marcus

Jacob Rader Marcus - Courtesy of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives

Jacob Rader Marcus  (Courtesy of The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives)

My first article about a famous Homestead Hebrew introduced Jack Skirball, the prominent philanthropist and son of the first Jewish merchant in Homestead.  As you may recall, Jack attended Hebrew Union College to become a Reform rabbi.  This article introduces another famous Homestead Hebrew… Jacob Rader Marcus (1896-1995), his classmate and life-long friend!  

In both articles the forgotten fathers are as important as the famous sons.  Sections I and III below tell the story of Jacob’s father, Aaron Marcus (1868-1933).  You’ll see he had quite a different experience as a merchant from Jack’s father.  Their stories, taken together, delineate the range of possibilities for Jewish merchants trying to gain a foothold in these early years.  

Where the previous article could relate almost nothing about Jack’s truncated childhood in Homestead, Section II of this article fills in many details of life as a Jewish boy in turn-of-the-century Homestead.  And Section IV, which concludes Marcus’ story, includes not only a list of accomplishments to kvell over, but also an unexpected way his monumental scholarship paved the way for projects like this one.

I.  Aaron Marcus in Homestead (1899-1906)

II.  Jacob Rader Marcus’ memories of Homestead (1899-1906)

III.  Aaron Marcus after Homestead (1906-1933)

IV.  Jacob Rader Marcus after Homestead (1906-1995)

I. Aaron Marcus in Homestead (1899-1906)
In 1889 Aaron Marcus (1868-1933), then twenty-four, left Lithuania for the United States after five years in the army of the Czar.  A year in New York City at one unpleasant job after another prompted him to peddle his way to Pittsburgh.  Upon arrival, he began work in the steel mills and did not enjoy it.  Around 1893, when he married Jennie Reider in an arranged marriage — or certainly by early 1894 when they had their first child, Isaac — he returned to peddling in the wealthy coal-and-coke region around Connellsville, 40 miles southeast of Homestead.  The family settled in New Haven, a peddling center outside of Connellsville, where Jacob was born on March 5, 1896.  During Jacob’s early years Aaron tried peddling in East Texas, but found it too dangerous — he saw seven peddlers beaten! — and returned home.1

After arriving back in Connellsville, Aaron started hearing about the booming conditions in Homestead.  In late 1898 plans were confirmed to expand the town’s steel mill and build Mesta Machine and two other plants the coming summer.  An advertisement in Homestead’s paper summed up the opportunity that appealed to Marcus: “An army of 5,000 workmen means a population of at least 15,000 people….The grocer, the butcher, the baker, and a host of other trades people must be there to supply them with what they need.”2 So, months after the January 1899 birth of his youngest children, twins Frank and Ethel, he became one of those trades people!  In a rare bit of luck, the Homestead News-Messenger reported the specifics of Aaron’s arrival in town:

Mr. A. Marcus, of Connellsville, has rented the storeroom at 264 Sixth avenue, next door to the Victoria hotel, and will open up next week init with a full line of gents’ furnishing goods, boots, shoes, etc. (The News-Messenger, 8/22/1899)



By this point Sixth Ave. was no longer the town’s main business street.  Professor Marcus later recalled that his father “first started in a modest room near the railroad tracks, and then very shortly after that he was fortunate. He got a good location on the main street in Homestead…It was only about two doors from City Farm Lane, which was next to the mills.” And indeed, the paper reported on that move, too, noting that on April 1, 1900, “A. Marcus will go from his present place on Sixth avenue to 521 Eighth avenue, where Skirboll and Son’s gents furnishing store is now located.”   Prof. Marcus recalled that his father sold to the men who worked in the mills; his fluent Russian from his army days gave him an advantage over most other merchants.  Prof. Marcus himself started working in his father’s store before he was ten. “We always lived in a private house in a different part of the city,”  at first, “near the river in a modest neighborhood,” but for their last year or two they moved to “better quarters” above their Munhall store at a time when his father was “relatively successful” with two stores in town.3

Homestead’s boom aligned with an auspicious time for its Jewish community, too,  After a difficult start, the congregation was finally on an upswing, growing from a nadir of 10 members in 1897 to 20 in 1900.  They had $1,000 in the treasury, resumed services and cheder, and planned to build.   I would guess Aaron Marcus joined the shul soon after he arrived, as he purchased two seats in the new building the day they went on sale, December 2, 1901. When the new synagogue was dedicated on March 31, 1902, he was one of its forty-three members named in the town’s paper.  4  Jacob was six at the time of the dedication; too young to remember or to have participated in the children’s choir, but perhaps old enough to have attended.

1/19/1903: Zion Society Was Formed

1/19/1903: Zion Society Was Formed

Meanwhile, Aaron Marcus was taking his place in the community in other ways.  Besides joining the synagogue, Aaron Marcus was one of twenty-five charter members of the Homestead Zion society, formed in January 1903, and its first secretary.  The paper noted his secular activities, too, like his donation of a dollar to purchase equipment for his neighborhood’s fire company and his store’s trading stamp promotion (an early loyalty program).5  A birthday party he and his wife threw for Jacob’s older brother, Isaac, was covered by the paper, probably the very first time Jacob Rader Marcus appeared in the press.  (Most if not all of the children named in the following article are connected to Homestead’s other Jewish families.  You’ll soon learn why there were no Heppses invited.)

1/25/1905: Ike Marcus' 11th birthday party made the local paper! (Click to enlarge.)

1/25/1905: Ike Marcus’ 11th birthday party made the local paper! (Click to enlarge.)

Later that year the very image of Isaac himself appeared in the paper, along with the rest of his boys’ orchestra, which would soon give a concert in the Music Hall at the Carnegie Library!  (Other than a candidate photo of a Jewish businessman who ran for office, this picture is the first of anyone Jewish in the Homestead paper.)


Somewhere in this picture from 5/5/1905 is Ike Marcus. On 5/10/1905 the paper printed the full program for the concert. Both Isaac Marcus and Henry Markowitz had violin solos! All three Homestead boys named were in the Jewish community.

Alas, after all this exciting press, only once more did the paper mention Aaron Marcus — to alert the town of his departure,  On April 5, 1906 came the sad news that, “A. Marcus, a former Eighth avenue merchant, moved his family to South Side, Pittsburg, today, where he will go into business.”  On August 9, 1906 he sold his synagogue seats back to the congregation for $114.80.  6  And thus ended Aaron Marcus’ ties to Homestead.  His timing could not have been worse.


II.  Jacob Rader Marcus’ Memories of Homestead (1899-1906)

Although the family’s time in Homestead spanned from when Jacob was three-and-a-half until he was ten, Jacob retained many strong memories of his Homestead childhood.  In May 1979, Ida Selevan took his oral history as part of a National Council of Jewish Women project, and fifteen years later Ann Powell interviewed him as part of the Homestead Oral History Project.  Then ninety-eight, he provided the earliest memories of the Homestead community of everyone.  “On the whole it was not a learned group,” he recalled, “but a very b’kavod [serious] group”7

He remembered two of the early rabbis, Mendelsohn and Newman, “both people of some culture and intelligence who knew some of the amenities.”  He referred to the rabbi as an “omnibus factotum” for his multi-faceted role as rabbi, shochet, mohel, and chazan.  Mendelsohn he described as “a very decent person,” “a gentleman and courteous,” and “very kind.”  The rabbis never hit students as often happened elsewhere.  8

His strongest memories of the organized Jewish community centered around cheder, “a Hebrew school after-class from about four o’clock to about seven. And the rabbi taught us in the Hebrew class. He taught us to read Hebrew.  We were not taught any translation.  We were taught probably some blessings and a few stories from tradition.”  One set of traditional stories he remembered were about Rabbi Akiva, told by Rabbi Newman on Shabbat afternoons.9  During the week,

Around seven o’clock, six o’clock when it got dark in the winter, we observed services. In other words, the children formed a minyan — of course, they were less than thirteen — and they read the prayers for the evening prayer….This was done in the school, in the vestry room, which was called the cellar.

There were cliques there. There were some boys who were better dressed than I was, whose parents were better off than my parents, and I don’t think they cared to know me.  10

The parents, he said, comprised mainly butchers and storekeepers, no peddlers.  He collectively recalled them:

As far as I know all the Jews in the community — and they were more or less of East European stock if you include Hungarians — they were all observant. In a little town like that, you can’t stand out. We were all, everybody was observant…There must have been [a kosher butcher] in Homestead…because we always had kosher meat.

Everybody was Orthodox.  A number were Litvaks; some were Hungarians. It was a mixed group, but they got along very well, as far as I know. Some were a little better dressed than the others. I can recall a woman, a Hungarian, more or less of a peasant type, but a Jewish woman, force feeding a goose.  That’s European. They force-feed them, then they have a very rich liver.

Everybody was open Saturdays.  Nobody was closed on Saturday, nobody. We were all merchants, we were all open on Saturday.  That was a big day:  the workmen got paid from the mills, and they came in and patronized the Jews.  I’m pretty sure at Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur they were all closed.  There was a lot of social control, and nobody would dare be open as far as I know (I think I would recall).

…Everybody was more or less prosperous. There were no poor people as far as I know in the Jewish community…We knew we were a Jewish Orthodox community.

The German-speaking Hungarians stuck out in Marcus’ memories, but as Litvaks, his family were amongst the majority Yiddish speakers.  His father read Yiddish papers like the Folḳsfreynd (People’s Friend) from Pittsburgh and the Morgan Journal (Jewish Morning Journal). “He wouldn’t dream of reading the Forward. He despised socialism, and he voted the Republican ticket,” Marcus recalled.  Odd as it might seem, most of the Homestead Jews were Republicans then.  The father of one of the families he remembered, Morris Frankel, was a local Republican politician at the time Marcus was there.  Other families he remembered included the “Lasduskys, Glicks, Grosses, Heepses (sic)” and “M.D. Weis, Moshe Dovid Weis, a Hungarian from McKeesport,” whom he singled out as “one man who was possibly learned…a man of some Jewish culture.”11  His father knew Hebrew well enough to read stories from the prophets to him.  And, as the earlier newspaper clipping indicated, he was active in the Zionist movement.

When Herzl died in 1904, my father called me in and he gave me some lithographs of the late Dr. Herzl. I was to deliver them to all the Jews in town and to collect 10 cents for a beautiful, big lithograph. Probably made a penny on each lithograph. My father was interested in the Zionist movement… Every Jew was automatically interested.12

His memories of the organized community had their limits, though.  He didn’t recall going to services (though assumed that he must have), but he remembered fondly that “when there was a brit milah, circumcision, we all went because we wanted the [sponge] cake. There was always cake at a circumcision.”  And,

They had occasionally a ball in town — the Jews did, maybe the congregation did — and they invited the alderman to come, or the borough-master [burgess]…They would have a cake walk in the local opera house, or Masonic Hall. 13

Although Pittsburgh filled in some of the gaps he recalled in Homestead’s Jewish offerings, he didn’t recall going there much. The streetcar was slow — it took 30-60 minutes to get into Pittsburgh, he said — and his parents went to the Hill District only occasionally to shop or hear chazzanut concerts.  He was familiar with J. Leonard Levy, the well-known Reform rabbi of Pittsburgh’s Rodef Shalom. “Everybody talked about him.”  As for neighboring Jewish communities like Duquesne or Braddock, he didn’t remember much of connection with them at all.  “That was a million miles away.”  14

Marcus’ memories of family life paint a much harsher picture:

Among the East European immigrants — this applies generally — nobody paid any attention to the children. They were totally ignored, and they grew up by themselves for better or for worse. There was no concept of rearing children. You had to know the blessings. If you were bad you got a smack.  Physical punishment was frequent, frequently also severe.  In other words, the mores and traditions and customs of Europe were brought over here, at least I assume they were. Spare the rod and spoil the child.

…Neither of my parents believed in sparing the rod until we started to grow up, and I was punished severely at times even as late as my thirteenth year.  That same year I was beaten pretty badly by my father, though I never held it against him. I was devoted to my father. But that generation, it was a generation also of not poverty, but hard times, panics.  It was before the Federal Reserve could control panics. And my father had a lot of financial troubles, a lot of troubles. And he was a very unhappy man, though he was devoted to me and devoted to his children, but when you’re unhappy you take it out, and you whip and hit people.

It was a hard life. These immigrants had a tough life, don’t you ever believe otherwise. There may have been some homes, and I think there were some where there was no violence, where the parents were more cultured and didn’t raise their hands against the children. My home was not that type of home.

“We didn’t believe” in vacations, he recalled. “No card playing. No dancing.”  When asked what his mother did for a good time, he answered, “She didn’t.  She cooked.”15

Jacob had to contribute, too.  He worked for his father starting when he was about eight, and by the time he was a teenager, he could run the store on his own.  In Bright Eminence: The Life and Thought of Jacob Rader Marcus, one of the stories the author retells gives particular insight into all that Marcus had to master at a young age.

When they still lived in Homestead, and when he was only ten or eleven years of age, his father had to go to the market to restock his shelves.  He left the youngster in charge.  A customer came in and Jake sold him the most expensive suit in the store.  He still remembers that the suit was a fine brown worsted.  He fitted it for the man, and then proceeded to make the necessary alterations:  he shortened the trousers.  When his dad returned, Jake told him of the sale, expecting to be highly praised.  His father simply said:  “Good boy!”  He took it for granted that the youngster could handle any business that turned up; otherwise he would not have left him in charge.16

Overall his memories are of growing up on his own and not spending a lot of time with his hard-working parents.  As a result, many of his most fascinating recollections are of what it was like to grow up running wild in Homestead.  He told many, many colorful stories that illustrate activities I’ve read about elsewhere, such as going to Kennywood and wild west shows, and especially celebrating Halloween, always a major affair in Homestead:

10/31/1905: The town's burgess warned child "against committing any depredations" on Halloween as in "the old time manner of celebrating the event by destroying property and annoying everyone as much as possible."

10/31/1905: The town’s burgess warned youngsters “against committing any depredations” on Halloween as in “the old time manner of celebrating the event by destroying property and annoying everyone as much as possible.”  Click to enlarge.

Halloween night, gangs — we were all kids six, seven, eight, nine years of age — would go along the alleys in Homestead with huge poles and would turn over outdoor johns.  That was the fun on Halloween night.17 

…And I recall one particular event, it was Halloween night…and I had a false face of a devil. I came home about eleven o’clock, ten at night. The maid was sleeping in the kitchen, probably had a cot. When she saw me she starts screaming in Polish, “The devil!”  And my mother came home then, tired, frustrated, working hard, Saturday was the big day in the store, and she gave me a severe beating.

July 4th was worse:

Fourth of July everybody went almost berserk. They went to my father’s store or one of the other stores and bought a nickel plated revolver for three or four dollars.  Bear in mind this was almost a hundred years ago [from 1994].  I’m in my upper-nineties. And they got ammunition, blanks, and walked up and down the street on the Fourth of July strictly at night, shooting up with their cheap revolvers.  Not the Jewish community, the goyim, the Gentiles.

Poverty and lawless led to all kinds of stories like these.

There were gang fights. There was a gang, a notorious gang, called the “Cotter Gang.” Some ended up in the penitentiary and the like. I also know there was poverty in Homestead. People had big, long poles, and as the railroad trains loaded with coal moved through Homestead, people used their poles to knock the coal off and got their supply of coal.  18

“Playground in Mill Village,” 1909. © Lewis W. Hine/Museum Collection (source)

“Playground in Mill Village,” 1909. © Lewis W. Hine/Museum Collection (source)

He didn’t exempt himself from this bad behavior.  His most benign memory of childhood fun in the Second Ward, the immigrant neighborhood, was of playing “Run Sheep Run” (a sort of group hide-and-go-seek).  Here are some of the hijinks of this self-described young “criminal”:

I came home walking from school when I was about seven years of age, and there was a peddler.  (In those days bakers peddled their goods.) I saw a pie. We didn’t have pie at home — pie isn’t a Yiddish esnvarg [food] — so I stole a pie. The baker saw me, chased me home, and my mother had to pay for the pie. A huge pie, five cents.

Then I also ran with some Gentile kids, and they would steal soap from the boarding houses, where the Slavs were boarding.  They would steal soap because they were so impoverished that they couldn’t afford to buy soap, and I’d run with them.  We were in a gang.

…There was also an Irish gang in town of young men — boys, rather.  When we [he and his brother] would try to sell newspapers on a Sunday, they took our papers away from us.  They controlled the newspaper business. We were out of business.

And when…I was seven years of age [1904], my father gave me a batch of buttons, campaign buttons. Theodore Roosevelt and a man named Fairbanks were running for office, national office, and I sold all my campaign buttons.  And when I came home and wanted to give my father the money (I sold them mostly in saloons)…, I reached in my pocket.  My purse was gone. My purse had been picked in saloons by professional pick-pockets.

…I was very streetwise and some of these people with whom I ran, kids, also seven, eight years of age, not only stole soap from the boarding houses, would go into a drug store, and there was some candies exposed, chewing gum and other things, and we’d steal those.

His only Jewish friends in those early years were from cheder.  The kids he got into trouble with,

were all Gentiles, Gentiles from humble homes. Proletarian mill workers and the like. Sat at the bottom of the heap.

…My constant companion was the son of a Scotsman, and he had a humble position in the steel mill…I wasn’t conscious of being a Jew, and he accepted me as another buddy.19 I don’t recall at any time that I ever was reproached in Homestead as a Jew. Bear in mind it was mill town where everybody was a foreigner. You were a hunky, or a — and that was it.  (Most of them were Slavs, and they were all called hunkies.)

Indeed, his Homestead stories don’t include much in the way of anti-Semitism.  (He experienced plenty elsewhere.)  As he entered school, he distinguished between two kinds of non-Jews — those who were native-born, and those who were foreigners.  Of the first group:

We looked upon them as superiors, because we were the children of immigrants.  We were humble. And we thought that they were Jesus H. Christ…Everything was relative.  But as we were growing up, and the children of immigrants, we stopped at the native Americans, who were very superior, elite, and our superiors, whatever that meant.

Of the latter, whose public holiday and wedding celebrations he remembered well, he recalled:

[In school] everybody was a foreigner.  The school we attended were mostly Slavs and Poles…I lived in a tight little community among Jews and Slavs and Poles. And these Poles, when I knew them, they didn’t have any kids, there were a lot of unmarried ones, and I had no Polish associates.  I associated only with Jews in Homestead.  In school I had no Gentile friends.

I’ll conclude with my favorite of Marcus’ stories, which weaves together his themes about Jewish life in Homestead with the wild character of Homestead children.  Here is one version of the story as related in Bright Eminence:

Jacob’s older brother, Isaac, was a very serious lad.  When the time came for the evening prayers he would stand up and recite them with dignity and devotion.  One of the students, thinking he would have some fun, pricked Isaac in the buttock with a pin.  Isaac flinched but continued his prayers until he had finished them, then very quietly — this was in winter — he went to the stove where he had left his skates, picked up one, and struck his assailant in the face almost cutting off his nose.  After this episode no one bothered Isaac when he was reciting his prayers.20

When Prof. Marcus related it to Ann Powell for his Homestead oral history, he added one more detail about the identity of the unknown assailant:  “I don’t remember his name.  He was part of the Heeps family — H-double E-P-S.”21

Listen to Prof. Marcus tell the story from beginning to end in his 1979 oral history:

(At 0:33 the Yiddish word is chokhmes, which means something like “wisecracks” or “comebacks.”22 )

It may seem from all these stories that Homestead brought out the worst in its children, but as you’ll soon see, it provided one other influence that would make all the difference for young Jacob.


III.  Aaron Marcus after Homestead (1906-1933)

Jacob’s memories of Homestead seem a touch rosy to me.  When he repeats that everyone was prosperous and there wasn’t any anti-Semitism, even when he downplays painful incidents like his parents’ punishments, I can’t help but think that whatever the difficulties that befell Jacob during his first eleven years, time would prove them to be much less painful than the years that followed.

Jacob was always honest about what came next for his family.

1900 to 1906 the mills were going full blast. People were well paid.  They worked twelve hours a day for a dollar. And my father made some money, and everybody was more or less prosperous.

…Conditions began to be bad in Homestead, we were not making any money, and father was eager to improve himself, so around 1906 or ’07, I do not know when, probably ’07 he moved out of Homestead, went to Birmingham at the Southside of Pittsburgh, on the other side of the Monongahela, and he opened a small little department store.  And within a year or so he was bankrupt.

Aaron Marcus opened new his department store in April 1906, a couple months after his wife gave birth to a stillborn daughter, and a year-and-a-half before the Panic of 1907 hit.23  After his business failed,

He moved out to West Virginia hoping to improve his lot…And he went from the frying pan to the fire. And he suffered for years and years until World War One broke out. Then we couldn’t make a living in Wheeling.  We moved out into the mountains where there were no Jews in a village.  There my father made enough money to retire on.

At his parents' farm, c. 1914. (Source: Bright Eminence)

At his parents’ farm, c. 1914. (Source: Bright Eminence)

In West Virginia Jacob traded the cliques from Homestead’s cheder for outright ostracism from the affluent, long-assimilated German Jews.  Once, when business was especially bad, he tried to help his father by selling merchandise from a booth at the local market house and was caught by some of the members of his confirmation class.  He never forgot the humiliation.  24

In the mountains where business, at least, was better, they were the only Jewish family for miles around.  At this point, though, any loneliness or discomfort was his parents’ and siblings’.  At fifteen Jacob left home.

Before returning to Jacob’s story, I would like to look more closely at Aaron’s 1907 bankruptcy.  It’s useful for us that he failed in this way.  Just as Jacob’s oral histories leave behind a unique record of childhood in Homestead, Aaron’s bankruptcy fills in missing details about life as a small-time clothing merchant… because bankruptcy is a legal proceeding that leaves behind a paper trail that persists to this very day.

I picked up the trail at the National Archives in Philadelphia, where archivist Patrick Connelly confirmed for me that Aaron Marcus’ name appears in the Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Index.

"Case No. 3803. In the matter of Aaron Marcus, a petitioner for adjudication in bankruptcy of himself . Allegheny." The remainder of the page summarizes the court proceedings that took place from 11/21/1907 -3/11/1908. (Source: Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Dockets, 1898 - 1979 from Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 - 2009

“Case No. 3803 In the matter of Aaron Marcus, a petitioner for adjudication in bankruptcy of himself.” The remainder of the page (not shown) summarizes the court proceedings that took place from 11/21/1907 -3/11/1908. (Source: Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Dockets, 1898 – 1979 from Record Group 21: Records of District Courts of the United States, 1685 – 2009)

I soon learned that his complete bankruptcy file was a whopping 285 pages, available in the collection Bankruptcy Act of 1898 Case Files, 1898 – 1952 from Record Group 21 at the National Archives in Kansas City.  The scan they emailed me ironically cost the most by far of any record related to this project, though it was still less than flying to Missouri!  (All the remaining images and information in this section come from these records.)

Cover page of Aaron Marcus' Debtor's Petition, filed 11/21/1907 at 4:45 PM

Cover page of Aaron Marcus’ Debtor’s Petition, filed 11/21/1907 at 4:45 PM.  (Click to enlarge.)

Bankruptcy has formal steps.  No one ends up whole, but the bankrupt isn’t permanently broken, either.  For Aaron Marcus the process began on November 21, 1907 when he declared bankruptcy.  The petition he filed with the court includes the standard “Statement of all Debts of Bankrupt,” which records that he owed two months of rent ($140) for his store and $10,270.15 for merchandise purchased from 76 different suppliers across 13 different states.

Aaron Marcus had what was probably a very typical men’s and boy’s clothing, furnishing, and shoe business, so examining his creditors (complete list here in PDF form) gives a sense of the vast reach of suppliers connected to even the meanest of operations.  Against his debts he claimed $5000 “stock in trade.”  Surprisingly, he did not indicate that anyone owed him money.  (Another bankruptcy petition I read from this period reads like a who’s-who of unemployed, immigrant steelworkers who bought on credit.)  He also did not indicate owning any real estate or personal property (other such petitions list things like house furnishings or watches).

We learn even more about Marcus’ shop from the report filed in early December by the court-appointed appraisers who valued his goods and store fixtures at $2650.57, about half what Marcus claimed. The inventory (complete report here in PDF form) lists exactly what Marcus’ store had been selling, all the different kinds of garments and accessories that an average man or boy might wear in that day.  As his was the kind of small business that almost never left behind records, these court-mandated inventories give unique insight into aspects of their operation.

Notice for receiver's sale for Aaron Marcus.

Notice for receiver’s sale for Aaron Marcus.  (Click to enlarge.)

Over two auctions in late December, Marcus’ goods and fixtures were sold to the highest bidder.  The first auction, won by David L. Markelson, was not accepted by the referee after unspecified “exceptions were filed.”  The second auction, which netted $2025, was accepted.

Between the two auctions, the next phase of the bankruptcy proceedings began.  Marcus’ creditors met in downtown Pittsburgh and appointed a trustee to represent them.  And here is where things begin to get interesting.  A hearing was held on January 18, 1908, in which the trustee and two other men representing the creditors questioned Marcus about the events leading to his bankruptcy.  Transcripts of these hearings don’t always appear in the bankruptcy records, so we’re very fortunate to be able to hear from Marcus’ own mouth how he went under (and even to learn surprising twists along the way, such as his investments in real estate, which were a winning strategy for other Homestead business men).

His testimony makes clear that he followed the formula that worked for so many others in the Homestead Jewish community, but “on account of slow business” (probably exacerbated by his admitted failure to keep any business records whatsoever!) he chose to depart.  He moved his stock to his new store at a point at which he didn’t have any money and already some creditors.  As new bills mounted he borrowed more and more money — $800 from one friend, $500 from another, $600 from his brother-in-law in Connellsville.  Apparently, this brother-in-law and a cousin in New York were even willing to advance a 25% settlement to the creditors so Marcus could avoid bankruptcy!  25

It became clear in the summer of 1907 that his situation was hopeless.  Business remained slow, and he was sued by one of his creditors in June.26

Q You were in pretty bad shape during the summer?

A Yes.

Q And it didn’t get any better during the fall?

A I was expecting it to get better. After July business is over.

Q As a matter of fact, it got worse in the fall?

A It didn’t get better. It got worse. [Note:  The panic began mid-October.]

Q You owed more than you had in stock?

A Yes.

Q That same condition existed up until you went into bankruptcy?

A Whatever I took in I paid out…I paid off as much as I could.

Q You were unable to pay your debts?

A I was expecting business for fall. After July there is no business. July and August there is nothing doing.

Q When did you first find out you were insolvent?

A When the creditors started to push me. They didn’t give me a chance.

Q When was that?

A About a week or two before they closed me up.

Q You knew, Mr. Marcus, that you were insolvent away back in June?

A If I had had a good season I could have paid up a lot of creditors.

Q You owed about $10,000 according to your schedules. Did you expect to pay that off?

A Yes, if I had had a chance. If they would not bother me.

Q As a matter of fact you knew in the fall that you were insolvent?

A I knew it before the time of Bankruptcy. I knew I would not be able to pull through.27

You can hear the despair and denial in his insistence that he could have made it.  The emotion may be honest, but overall it’s hard to know how reliable his testimony is.  He was evasive on almost every point, from the details of when and how he sold his real estate, a $1700 check his former clerk claimed he wrote shortly before declaring bankruptcy, the timing of particular large purchases of goods, and most intriguingly, the itinerant jobbers to whom he sold his goods wholesale in the months before declaring bankruptcy.  Somehow it was the examiner who was able to provide specific names and dates and amounts.  About one, he asked, “Did you make any arrangement with him to store any of your goods, or to take some of your goods so that you would be able to defraud your creditors?”  And more pointedly, “Was there any goods that you had over in the South Side store originally that were taken out and put in storage or in possession of some other person that was not accounted for in the inventory made of the goods on the premises?”  Again and again there were questions about how he allegedly disposed of his stock in the four months before the bankruptcy…. and about the involvement of his brother… the same David L. Markelson whose attempt to buy the goods at the first auction was blocked!

Despite all these concerns, the bankruptcy proceedings moved towards completion.  On February 10th an “Order of Distribution” was filed with the court, laying out how the creditors would be reimbursed at a rate of 5%.  And that would have been it, except for a freak occurrence: a robbery reported Sunday morning, February 16, in a storage space on the Southside…rented by David L. Markelson… containing goods that had previously belonged to Aaron Marcus!

The timing of the robbery is suspicious to me.  What are the odds that this storage space, of all storage spaces, would get robbed ever?  Let alone right as the bankruptcy proceedings were about to wrap up?  And only five or six pairs of pants (or maybe some overcoats) taken out of  64 cases of goods valued at $3865.50?  28  If you ask me, the robbery was some sort of last-second ruse by the trustee to expose what he believed was Marcus’ and Markelson’s malfeasance.  On February 19 the trustee updated the referee on the situation, concluding that he believed “that the aforesaid property was…placed in said house for the purpose of concealing it from [Marcus’] creditors.”

The trustee called another hearing, which took place four days later. Longer and more involved than the original hearing, it revealed that Marcus had been heavily indebted to his brother since April 1904, when David arrived in Homestead from Odessa with $7000.  During the four months he lived with Marcus, he gave him $1400 before moving onto New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Salt Lake City, Denver, and San Francisco “to try for a place of business.” He kept lending his brother more money — $3000 in total — and to keep track, “I got a small book, and it burned up in San Francisco” during the April 1906 earthquake.  In June 1907 he returned to Pittsburgh, moving back in with his brother and pushing him to repay him before his planned return to Russia.  The best Aaron could do was give him goods, $2500 worth in the first batch, and $1500 in the second.  Knowing nothing about the men’s furnishings business, David could not find a buyer and put the goods in storage.  29

Promissory note from Aaron Marcus to his brother, 2/1/1905

Promissory note from Aaron Marcus to his brother, 2/1/1905

The main issue at stake was the timing and circumstances under which Markelson received each set of goods.  Despite all the suspicions raised, the trustee, Marcus, and Markelson eventually agreed that $2437.50 worth of goods had been transferred more than four months before the bankruptcy, and on March 14 the referee decided that the remaining $1428 transferred sooner had to be auctioned to pay off Marcus’ debts.  The auction took place on April 6 and netted just $235.  The creditors were paid off July 1st at a rate of 3.56%.  And then the matter was truly at an end.  On September 25, 1908, Aaron Marcus exited bankruptcy and soon after moved to Wheeling for a fresh start.  David joined him as his clerk for a year or so.  He never returned to Russia.

Aaron Marcus’ story is his own.  He tried hard. He had hope. He saw the path forward, but lacked the luck and skill to make it.  Nevertheless, it’s tempting to mine his experience for insight into the many other turn-of-the-century Jewish merchants like him.  Though most fared better, they all faced the same risks and depended on each other for loans and credit. As a grown man, his son would acquire a unique perspective into why his father’s sad story is worth examining a century later.


IV.  Jacob Rader Marcus after Homestead (1906-1995)

"Going Home from Work: This picture sums up Homestead:--the mill at the left; the Carnegie Library on the hill in the center, and the mean houses of the Second Ward to the right." (Lewis Hines in Homestead: The Houses of a Mill Town)

“Going Home from Work: This picture sums up Homestead:–the mill at the left; the Carnegie Library on the hill in the center, and the mean houses of the Second Ward to the right.” (Lewis Hines in Homestead: The Houses of a Mill Town)

Homestead may have initially brought out the worst in young Jacob, but it’s also what sparked his fledgling promise.  Reflecting on the petty thefts and pranks of his youth, he told Ann Powell,

I must have stopped when I was about, oh, nine, let me figure now, let’s say about 1906. I was nine or ten years of age. By that time my whole life had been changed. My father bought me a membership in the Carnegie Public Library. That was one of the first libraries that Carnegie built.

He walked a half-mile from his home to the library, presenting his hands upon arrival to show they were clean enough to handle books.  30

And then I began to read, and by the time I was, let’s see 1906 I was ten years of age, I had read dozens of books by an English writer called George Henty.  You see my genes had begun to make themselves known, and I was a voracious reader, and my whole life has been dominated by that because I read history books, and when I began to move forward in life and make a career, I have made it as a historian.

Home for a visit, c. 1919. (Source: Bright Eminence)

Home for a visit, c. 1919. (Source: Bright Eminence)

In Wheeling a local rabbi took an interest in him and pushed him to go to Hebrew Union College for high school and college.  While Aaron Marcus was displeased at the prospect of his son’s becoming a Reform rabbi, Aaron’s store was not doing well enough to provide a future for Jacob, and Jacob wanted nothing more to do with the uncertain world of business.

He left home for HUC at the age of 15, crying most of the way to Cincinnati.  He lived in boarding houses while there.  I cannot resist sharing this anecdote from when one of his fellow roomers purloined a gun from the landlady’s policeman son and waved it around.

Jake knew how dangerous this was — he had helped sell revolvers in his father’s store in Homestead — so he grabbed it from Sol.  As he did this Jack Skirball dived under a bed.  Jack was embarrassed when he emerged and he said to Jake:  “You bastard, you were too scared even to move.”  Jake laughed at him; guns never scared him.31

If Jack Skirball had spent more of his childhood in Homestead, perhaps he would have had stronger nerves, too!

As a lieutenant in WWI, 1918. (Source: Bright Eminence)

As a lieutenant in WWI, 1918. (Source: Bright Eminence)

Marcus was ultimately successful at HUC, though it took much effort to overcome the limitations of his earlier education. He was ordained after WWI, but instead of pursuing a pulpit, he began to teach there.  He took a leave of absence to earn his PhD in Europe, and upon his return he resumed teaching at HUC and never left.  According to Dr. Uri Herscher, after Skirball became financially successful, he help support Marcus’ scholarship.

All of that scholarship was in the new field of American Jewish history, which became Marcus’ focus within a few years of his return to the U.S.  The website of the American Jewish Archives, which he founded in 1947, explains how.

Throughout the 1930s, Marcus collected source material and urged his students to write papers in the field of American Jewish history; in 1942, celebrated as the 450th anniversary of the discovery of America, he offered what he later described as “the first required graduate course in an academic institution in American Jewish history.” The 1940s saw other scholars, too, strengthen their interest in American Jewish history…What set Marcus apart was that he knew more than the others did, having come to the field earlier, and he alone decided in the 1940s to devote his full attention to American Jewish history.

The website goes on to relate how he “worked systematically to establish American Jewish history as a scholarly discipline.”  Those details I’ll leave to the various articles enumerating his achievements, such as this 1958 article written on the tenth anniversary of the archive he founded and this 1997 article by fellow American Jewish historian Jonathan Sarna.

Instead, I’ll conclude by focusing on one small work amongst his more than 300 books and articles on the history of American Jews.  I did not discover How to Write the History of an American Jewish Community ’til long after I began this project, but it is, indeed, the missing instruction manual I wish I had had all along.  I can’t get over the coincidence that the manual was written by a scholar from the very town I’m researching.

In this book he sets forth instructions in a manner as clear and straightforward as the title would suggest for “all of us today [who] are history-conscious.”32  This democratic approach is astonishing given the high level of his training.  What’s all the more striking is that he wrote this manual in 1953, long before trends in historiography, empowerment movements, and genealogy made his ideas mainstream.  I felt him addressing my own hopes when he wrote these words:

Marcus in his later years.

Marcus in his later years.

Constantly bear in mind that what you are doing can be of real worth, not only to local historiography, but also to those who may one day write the history of the Jewish community of your state. Your essay or book can even become an important stone in building the story of the Jew in this land. The material in your essay may well be used by some historians of American Jewry, and their conclusions, in turn, may be drawn on by the general historians of the United States. The latter often incorporate into their writings materials dealing with the various religious and ethnic and racial elements, for all these groups together make up the American people. Thus your work can become part of the main stream of American history. When you are writing, you are writing not only for yourself and your generation, but also for posterity, for the American people.33

Yes, Marcus wrote the manual on what records to collect and how to find them — particularly pointing out the value of personal interviews and court records — but the person I hear in both of his oral histories is just another man telling old stories with a lack of self-awareness in finding himself on the receiving end of people putting his own ideas into practice.  And here I am, a Heeps!, poking around to find the larger meaning in his favorite childhood stories and his father’s worst setbacks.  While he, more than anyone, would understand what I’m up to, I still can’t help but think he’d be amused by all the fuss I’ve made over one father and one son who tried to find their way in a once-booming milltown.

  1. “Jacob Rader Marcus–A Biographical Sketch,” by Stanley F. Chyet in Essays In American Jewish History To Commemorate The Tenth Anniversary Of The Founding Of The American Jewish Archives, (c) 1958, pp. 1-3. Bright Eminence, The Life and Thoughts of Jacob Rader Marcus, by Randall M. Falk, (c) 1994, pp. 16-18.  These two books have two very different accounts of Marcus’ time as a steel worker, a rare and fascinating example of a Jew in the steel mills in that very early period.  The earlier account, Chyet’s, has simply, “After some experiences, most of which were not particularly happy, in the Pittsburgh steel mills, Aaron Marcus became a peddler of tinware. The panic of the early 1890’s may have been largely responsible for his withdrawal from the steel mills.” The latter has a more elaborate version:

    In Pittsburgh Aaron went to work in a small machine shop where he developed a good relationship with his boss, George Westinghouse, one of the founders of what was later to become a great industry.  One day the boss came to Aaron and told him that he, Aaron, was going to quit.  Marcus, frightened, asked Westinghouse why he was firing him.  Westinghouse replied that the was not firing him, but that Marcus, being a Jew, would soon open his own clothing store!  Eventually the prophecy came true.  When Westinghouse had to close his shop for a time because he had fallen victim to the terrible financial panic of 1893, Marcus found another job in the Carnegie Steel Mills.  He was discharged from that job when, trying to advance himself, he experimented with the operation of an overhead crane, which he almost destroyed.

    On a related note, I am grateful to Dr. Marcus’ former student Stephen Mallinger for giving me his copy of Bright Eminence.  As it is out of print, I doubt I would have come across it otherwise.  Dr. Marcus never wrote his memoirs, nor permitted a biography to be written about him while he was alive, so this book remains the next best option. 

  2.  The News-Messenger, October 20, 1899  

  3. Jacob Rader Marcus Homestead & NCJW oral histories; The News-Messenger, 3/21/1900; Chyet, p. 3.  The records are all over the place as to where they lived.  The 1900 census suggests 402 Dixon, but as house numbers were omitted for entire pages, the number is in doubt.  The city directory from the same year says, “621 E Eighth ave res[idence] Dickson,” which seems right.  The 1902 directory has the store in the same place, but their residence now at 525 E Fourth.  And the 1906 directory has them living and working at 936 Eighth Avenue. (Note that the 521 in the newspaper address and the 621 here are the same address; buildings were renumbered in this time period.)  

  4. Lasdusky’s speech at 1902 synagogue dedication gives the milestones for the year 1900. Thirty-two men in total purchased seats on December 2, 1901.  For more, see Box 2, 1901-19014 seat book, p. 54, corroborated by this newspaper article.  For the members at the time of the dedication, see this list in the newspaper. The articles on this last page all differ in the number of members — 42?  43?  48?  — and there aren’t the right synagogue records to resolve the question.  Later entries in the 1902-1914 cash book (Box 4) record A. Marcus making regular payments for dues, seats, and “Zionist,” though these payments seem to diminish in size and frequency towards the end of his time in Homestead, perhaps indicating financial problems?  

  5.  The News-Messenger, 9/15/1903 and 11/6/1903  

  6.  Box 2, 1901-19014 seat book, p. 54.  It’s a little confusing what happened here, since on 12/2/1906 “Frau Markus” returned that sum of money to the congregation (Box 4, 1902-1916 cash book, p. 53a), but on 1/13/1907 the congregation paid $120 to “Markus für 2 Seats” (Box 4, 1902-1916 cash book, p. 54b).  

  7. NCJW interview, Tape 1 Side 2, 26:07.  The remaining quotes in this section, unless attributed, are from the Homestead oral history (recording and transcript at that link).  

  8. These quotes come from the Homestead & NCJW oral histories and Bright Eminence, p. 20.  The rabbi he remembers seems least likely to have been Mendelsohn, who served from 1901-1903 when Jacob was quite young.  Friedman (’03-’04) and Newman (’04-’06) also overlapped with his time in the town, though he only named Newman.  

  9. Rabbi Avika reference from the NCJW oral history, Tape 1, Side 2, 2:14  

  10. ibid., 12:07  

  11. ibid., 3:19, 24:26.  Weis’ son, Max, became a Reform rabbi.  He was at HUC from 1909-1918.  Marcus was there from 1911-1917, 1919-1920.  I feel certain that the boys were in contact during their time at HUC, and perhaps in the years afterwards (Max was a pulpit rabbi).  Perhaps Marcus remembered M.D. Weis so well for his later re-acquaintance with his son.  M.D. Weis remained a life-long, involved member of the synagogue, leading the difficult musaf service on the High Holidays for many years.  A friend of Marcus’ father warned him that, “If you send your son to Hebrew Union College he will become an apostate” (Bright Eminence, p. 26).  I wonder what Weis made of his own Reform rabbi son!    

  12. ibid., 8:37  

  13. ibid., 24:45.  This is true — I’ve found newspaper clippings for a few such balls. At this time they were sponsored by the congregation, though over this decade social functions largely transferred to the Jewish social groups.  

  14. Although there is evidence of social and family visits amongst all these communities, I don’t think of it as contradicting him so much as for situating his memories within the range of experiences different people had at that time.

    The J. Leonard Levy recollection is from the NCJW Oral History, Tape 1, Side 2, 9:24.  During the Marcus family’s time in Homestead, he spoke at the first synagogue dedication in 1902; he returned for the second one in 1914 as well.  In 1908 he spoke at Munhall High School’s graduation, and in 1910 he spoke at the United Literary Clubs of Homestead.  Although as a Reform rabbi his faith and practice were at odds with Homestead’s Jewish community, it is clear they respected his learning and leadership.  

  15. ibid., 28:58  

  16.  Bright Eminence, p. 27  

  17. In Bright Eminence, p. 23, he says that there was a man in one of the outhouses who would have killed them had he been able to chase after them!  

  18. NCJW Oral History, Tape 1, Side 2, 9:49  

  19. In the NCJW Oral History he mentions that his friend’s father was a cripple. He also recalls, “We were quite friendly and quite intimate. 25, 40 years later I went back, located him. He didn’t care to know me. He didn’t even want to talk to me”(Tape 1, Side 2, 11:38).  

  20.  Bright Eminence, p. 20  

  21. Yes, I know my family is Hepps today, but at that time they were still experimenting with spellings, so it quite possible that the misspelling is not Prof. Marcus’ faulty memory, but my family’s prolonged orthographic indecision! As for which Hepps, the candidates are my great-uncle Abraham Hepps, who was a year older than Isaac Marcus, or his cousin, also Abraham Hepps, who was two years older.  Less likely, it could have been my grandfather, Jacob Hepps, who was four years younger than Isaac Marcus, or his cousin, also Jacob Hepps, who was three years younger.  You can’t make this stuff up. Update: My father insists he thinks it was his father!  

  22. Thanks to Fred MacDowell on Tracing the Tribe (probably not his real name?!) for helping me identify this word.  

  23. Pennsylvania Birth Records, 1906-1908, and Examination of the Bankrupt, p. 1.  Actually, he testifies that he had two stores, one at 1404 Carson St. and one at 1406 Carson St.  He sold the one at 1404 in the spring of 1907, at which point he was clearly in trouble, though he didn’t declare bankruptcy ’til months later.  

  24.  Bright Eminence, p. 27  

  25. Examination of the Bankrupt, pp. 4, 6-9, 17  

  26.  Hearing on the Petition of the Trustee, p. 66  

  27. Examination of the Bankrupt, pp. 18-20  

  28. Hearing on the Petition of the Trustee, pp. 29-30, 35; 2/19/1908 Petition to Gain Possession of Property, and Order of Court  

  29. Hearing on the Petition of the Trustee, pp. 36-7, 45-6, 50-1  

  30.  Bright Eminence, pp. 19-20  

  31. ibid., pp. 34-5  

  32. How to Write the History of an American Jewish Community, pp. 1  

  33.  ibid., p. 32  

  10 comments for “From Hooligan to Historian: The Only-in-Homestead Story of Jacob Rader Marcus

  1. July 3, 2016 at 2:03 pm

    very nice, Tammy!

  2. Paula Keizler Cramer
    July 3, 2016 at 5:11 pm

    Tammy, your research continues to turn up interesting stories and relationships. Thanks for this one about Jacob Marcus. Fun to discover how far and wide the “children” of Homestead have traveled.

  3. Ann Sheckter Powell
    July 3, 2016 at 6:32 pm

    It actually is not surprising that many Jews were Republicans. They chose it because it was the party of Lincoln. To reinforce that feeling was the fact that the segregated South was Democratic. It was revulsion at Hoover and the events of the Depression, coupled with Roosevelt’s skills at enticing and nurturing ethnic groups that turned the tide

  4. Lynn Saul
    July 3, 2016 at 10:32 pm

    Fascinating stories, with some similarities to my own family’s stories and some differences. And amazing how Jacob Marcus “wrote the book,” literally, for what you are doing!

  5. Karen L. Grossman
    July 4, 2016 at 12:00 am

    Very interesting, Tammy! This takes me back to my grandparents Yitzhak and Esther Grossman’s era in Homestead and the hard times he experienced in his store there. Thanks.

  6. Sam Zolten
    July 4, 2016 at 6:49 am

    Nice to be updated by you on this 4th of July. Your accounts of the lives and times of these Western Pennsylvania Jews are so fascinating to read and you tell these stories so well. My grandfather Jos. Meyers , while conducting his furniture trade in McKeesport, struggled to pay his creditors (his ledger books document pages of unpaid credit provided by him to the townsfolk) prior to relocating his family and business in Manasquan, NJ. Many anecdotes you share parallel the oral histories I find so fascinating . Looking forward to the next edition .
    Sam Zolten

  7. Stan Trachtenberg
    July 4, 2016 at 4:43 pm

    Somehow my initial comments did not seem to make it to you. Briefly, I have for sometime thought that growing up in the sort of diverse and non-affluent society such as Munhall/Homestead provided was helpful for Jacob Marcus and probably for a lot of us who have read this column.

    Second, I have not heard or read the word “hunky” in quite a long time, but I do remember that many of Eastern European descent calling each other that name, most often with pride.

    Lastly, I especially liked the view up to the Homestead Carnegie Library from City Farm Lane. That was the location of the “Hole in the Wall” entrance to the steel mill. Just to the right of that view on Eigth Avenue was our family’s Sarons Drug Store, and to the right of that view on Ninth Avenue, I grew up. As for the library, I spent many hours there, taking out books, attending plays, and learning to swim!

    Thanks for doing this, Tammy.

  8. Aaron David Marcus
    July 12, 2016 at 10:35 am

    Jacob was my Uncle. My family would journey every year to celebrate Passover. They were fabulous! I loved him very much and miss him terribly.

  9. Millard Mack
    May 7, 2017 at 8:50 pm

    401 McAlpin Avenue in Cincinnati was Dr. Marcus” home and he had Seders every year that I know of from the 1950s forward. Even today Dr. Gary Zola, the head of the Archives continues the Marcus Seder
    at the Hebrew Union College

  10. Ann Sheckter Powell
    August 20, 2023 at 4:28 pm

    Tammy Hepps is an indefatigable and intelligent researcher. She is able to organize a formidable trove of information into a coherent and articulate narrative, bringing her own voice in only when it offers a thoughtful addition to the material. Her work truly is, as Marcus wrote, “part of the mainstream of American history,” – an until now untold story revealed. through her efforts, “for posterity.”

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