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History faculty member investigates a 1910 Hungarian immigrant marriage

| Jim Oberly

Journalists say that news reporting is the "first draft of history."  History faculty member Jim Oberly has taken that phrase and reworked and given context to a story that appeared in the May 13, 1910 New York Times under the headline "Hastens to marry his mother's choice."  The Times reporter had been tipped off by an immigration official at Ellis Island about an arranged marriage between a pair of Hungarian immigrants who had never met one another in the old country.  The article reported that the bride disembarked off the S.S. Carpathia dressed in peasant costume, met her groom-to-be, got married, went shopping, bought the most fashionable clothes of 1910, and then set out for a new life in Colorado where her husband worked as a coal miner, all in that order.  The article concluded with the upbeat reporting that immigration officials had seen plenty of unhappy arranged marriages but thought that "Petra" and "Andrew" fell in love at first sight. 

As all journalism students learn, the first thing to get right in a news story is the spelling of the names of the subjects.  The Times reporter in 1910 failed this basic directive as "Petra" was really "Piroska" and "Andrew" was really "Mihaly."  It was not only the Times reporter who did not get the couple's names correct, but for the next seventy years, nearly all American officials consistently, sometimes comically garbled their names.  Piroska gave up and became "Pearl" and Mihaly became "Mike."  Even in her 1983 obituary, Pearl's daughters misspelled their mother's name in writing of her life.

Piroska/Pearl and Mihaly/Mike lived a life in and among the turmoil of 20th century American history.  They lived and worked with other Central and Eastern European migrant miners in the Colorado coal country.  The couple had the first of their nine children in Colorado in 1912, just as the the United Mine Workers and the Rockefeller-owned mines engaged in bloody conflict over the right to collective bargaining, ending in the 1914 "Ludlow Massacre" where hundreds of miners and their families were killed.  The family moved to southern Illinois where Mihaly/Mike got work as a miner in the Saline County coalfields.  There, Catholic migrant mining families such as Piroska and Mihaly's confronted the violence of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s.  In the 1930s, coal production in the Illinois mines plummeted due to the Great Depression and Mihaly/Mike had to turn to government work with the Works Progress Administration (WPA) to sustain the family.  Piroska/Pearl suffered much heartache in her life as she lost to early death one son, one son-in-law, and husband Mihaly/Mike.  She found sustenance in her parish church in Saline County, Illinois, and in the Hungarian migrant community.  Hers may have been an arranged marriage but she made it last a lifetime.


Jim Oberly, professor of history and American Indian Studies

The Journal of Austrian-American History was launched in 2017 with funding from the Botstiber Foundation.  The editor invited Oberly to write up the story of Piroska and Mihaly for the inaugural issue.  "Love at First Sight and an Arrangement for Life: Investigating and Interpreting a 1910Hungarian Migrant Marriage" is available through McIntyre Library's subscription to JSTOR.