Friday, May 19, 2017

John B.Edwards vs.The Man


My Grandma Busch's father has been an enigmatic figure for me.  He moved away from Pittsburgh before my grandparents were even married, and my father had only fleeting childhood memories of him. But a recent discovery of his lawsuit against Union Mining Company has opened new insights into his life and personality.
The only known photo of John Edwards, taken in Richmond, Virginia, c. 1875, when he was in his mid-20s.

My father recalled hearing that John was the Black Sheep of the family back in his native Wales. A hard-drinking blacksmith, he worked in the slate mines. When he married Ann Jones of Froncysyllte, her family opposed the union. In 1872, the couple emigrated to the U.S., taking their two-year-old son Edward with them. My grandmother was born in 1874, and her brother Jesse in 1877. When Ann died in 1884, John couldn't manage the children and abandoned the two younger ones to the cold care of a Baptist "orphan asylum" in Pittsburgh.

Some time after that, John moved to Frostburg, Maryland, where he married Alice Harriet Mussiter in 1893. The only things that Dad could remember about his grandfather--and these apparently were from John's visits to Pittsburgh in the 1910s--were of John singing "Oh, How I Love Jesus!" on the streetcar and of Dad and Grandpa Busch hauling John drunk out of saloons in Homestead, where he was singing hymns in Welsh and English, sometimes from on top of the bar.
Grandma Annie Edwards Busch with Dad, 1908. John Edwards had a copy of this photo of his daughter and grandson, as I discovered through Ginnie Ganoe of Frostburg.

These stories are the reason that I was taken aback to find that John and his second wife (who is listed as both "Alice" and "Harriet")  had enough gumption to sue the Man, namely Union Mining Company, one of a number of coal mining companies in the Frostburg area. In April 1894, a notice was posted in the Cumberland Times of the initial hearing. (Thanks to Ginnie Ganoe for alerting me to this notice.)
According to affidavits in official records of the case in the Circuit Court of Allegany County, Maryland, this is what happened: 

John B. and Harriet Edwards were living as subtenants in the Varnum House, a 55-room hotel and office building owned by Union Mining in Mt. Savage.  While John was at work, one Daniel Houck, a former sheriff and then-agent for Union, busted into the Edwards's quarters and demanded that Harriet vacate the premises. When she refused, he threatened to arrest her and throw her in jail. He badgered her until her resistance crumbled, and she fled, leaving supper on the table and all of their belongings behind. Houck then locked up their rooms and refused to let them in to retrieve any of their possessions. They were locked out with only the clothes on their backs.

The lockout continued for a couple of weeks, during which time they were forced to find somewhere else to live. When they finally were allowed to take back their belongings, they found that some had been stolen or damaged. Their suit asked for $500 in damages from Union for the expense of having to find new lodgings and replacing household goods and clothing.
The Union Mining office building with the Varnum House at right. (Photo courtesy Dan Whetzel)
The court documents end with a page declaring "case dismissed," meaning that the case never went to trial and Union settled out of court. This outcome is amazing to me. Mining companies in the Appalachian coalfields at this time had extraordinary power and resources, controlling the lives of their workers in so many appalling ways--company-owned houses and stores, extensive political connections, etc.

Union Mine, Mt. Savage, 1841
John Edwards worked as a blacksmith for one of these mining companies in Mt. Savage, possibly Union. Blacksmiths worked in the mines and on the surface, and there's no record of which he did, perhaps both. The 1910 census shows that he was still working as a blacksmith for a coal company, and that his "mother tongue" was Welsh. John and Harriet were subtenants, so we can only speculate why Houck threw them out of Varnum House. If they were behind on their rent, the tenant would be the aggrieved party, not the landlord, Union Mining.

Blacksmiths for a West Virginia coal mining company with their tools (Photo courtesy Rebecca Gaujot)
I recently visited the graves of John and Alice [Harriet] Edwards in Porter Cemetery outside of Frostburg. Simple stone markers note the names and dates of each. It's a lovely, remote site on a hilltop surrounded by the Allegheny Mountains. Someone cares about this old cemetery enough to tend to it and erect a new fence with two hand-painted panels.
The entry gate to Porter Cemetery, Eckhart, Maryland
One of the hand-painted panels on the fence.
The visit to Porter Cemetery occured before I had a chance to look at the court papers from the suit against Union. So I just introduced myself to John, then sang the refrain of his favorite gospel hymn for him--"Oh, How I Love Jesus!"
Warming up to sing for John (grave marker at left font). My dog Viggo was quite alarmed by this unexpected vocalizing.
Video
Singing "Oh, How I Love Jesus" for John


There is a Name I love to hear,
I love to sing its worth;
It sounds like music in my ear,
The sweetest Name on earth.

 Refrain:
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Oh, how I love Jesus,
Because He first loved me!

It tells of One whose loving heart
Can feel my deepest woe;
Who in each sorrow bears a part
That none can bear below.

This Name shall shed its fragrance still
Along this thorny road,
Shall sweetly smooth the rugged hill
That leads me up to God.

 And there with all the blood-bought throng,
From sin and sorrow free,
I’ll sing the new eternal song
Of Jesus’ love for me.

    ---Frederick Whitfield, 1855

Epilogue
Special thanks go to my neighbor Ezra Gray, who went through the court papers and did further research on details of the suit. A fitting postscript is that Ezra found side-by-side articles in The Cumberland Times a year or two previous to the suit:
John B. Edwards arrested for disorderly conduct.
Someone else settling a slander suit against Union Mining.