Friday, November 6, 2015

The Greek Who Never Went Home....

Most of the immigrants who lived in Grinnell early in the twentieth century had come either from Canada or from western and northern Europe. But as the railroads prospered and Grinnell added some industries that required more labor, the migrant influx changed, reflecting the changes taking place all across the country as increasing numbers of US-bound immigrants came from the Mediterranean and Mexico. Consequently, for example, most of the men who worked in Grinnell as section hands for the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad were Mexican. But the May 17, 1910 issue of the Grinnell Herald carried the sad news about a section hand who was not Mexican, and who was seriously injured.  The paper reported that Socrates Perras (the paper spelled it Perees), a Greek, was working on the tracks, and, having stepped out of the way of a passing freight train, had inadvertently stepped between two cars that were being switched on the next track. He was knocked down and thrown under the cars, his chest crushed and his back broken. Evidently still conscious, Perras was rushed to hospital where he soon died, far from his Greek home and family. The story of how Grinnell responded to this tragedy is often confusing, but simultaneously revealing about the town's encounter with an unfamiliar culture.
Grinnell Herald May 17, 1910, p. 1
Socrates Perras had arrived at Ellis Island in early May, 1907 aboard the S.S. Roma, which had sailed out of Naples in late April with a full complement of immigrants, many of whom were Greek. Responding to officials who compiled the passenger list, Perras gave his age then as 30, but his death record reports his age as 47, meaning that he was born around 1863, and therefore must have been 44 or so when he immigrated.  Perhaps he thought that providing officials a younger age would help him find work in America, or perhaps the immigration official misheard him—we'll never know.

The ship's manifesto reported the man's home as "St. Dimitri," or Agios Demetrios; as you might expect, toponyms like that are legion in Greece, so it is hard to say with confidence exactly where Perras originated. He traveled to America with two other men from St. Dimitri, and all claimed to be headed to Chicago, intending to stay with their friend, Gust Macris, and with Perras's uncle, Panogliotis Factoris (?), both of whom were said to be living at 1320 Portland Avenue, Chicago. No such address survives in today's Chicago, but Perras and friends might have confused Chicago with Chicago Heights, which was a destination for many immigrants around 1900 and which today still has a 1320 Portland Avenue. In fact, the 1910 US census did find a Gust Macris living at 1312 Portland Avenue, Chicago Heights, immediately next door to 1320 (where the census registered another group of Greek immigrants), so this is certainly where Perras was headed.
S. S. Roma (undated photograph)
How he ended up in Grinnell is unknown, but it seems likely that Perras acquired the railroad job in Chicago, where the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad had offices at the LaSalle Street Station. At the time of his death, Perras had probably only recently reached Grinnell, because his name does not appear in the 1910 Grinnell census nor in the 1910 city directory. Moreover, at the time of the accident, the Grinnell Herald admitted that the dead man was "little known," with the result that no pallbearers could be found—not even among railroad employees, several of whom had been called to testify at the inquest that investigated the accident.  Therefore, several businessmen (the grocer W. T. Moyle , the shoe company man, C. J. Card, the dentist, Dr. A. J. Brock, and three others) "dropped their work long enough" to serve at the "simple funeral."
Lasalle Street Station (ca. 1904), Chicago, Home of Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (photo courtesy of

The funeral was indeed simple. Although two local clergymen—Rev. G. E. White (a Congregational missionary in Turkey but back in Grinnell for the funeral of his father), and Rev. Elias Handy, pastor of the Methodist Church—volunteered to conduct services, "their friendly offers were declined," the paper reported (in a maddeningly perfect example of why the passive voice is obfuscating). Certainly the dead man did not decline the offer, but who did is left unsaid.

The stated reason for declining the help of the volunteer clergy is also confusing: the newspaper explained the situation by saying that the "dead man was a Catholic, and Catholic services, if any, were required." "For this reason," the report concluded, "burial was made without religious service."
St. Columbanus Catholic Church, Main Street and Washington Avenue (photo ca. 1913)
However, if Perras was a Catholic, he could certainly have obtained a Catholic burial. Although Catholics had yet to gain a strong foothold in Grinnell (only about 5% of the town's population then identified as Catholic), a Catholic parish had existed in Grinnell for almost thirty years by the time that Perras suffered his accident; in 1910 the Rev. James Curtin was priest, and had been priest at St. Columbanus since 1897. So, although  there might have been some difficulty in reaching the priest, the problem could not have been so great as to deprive a dead Catholic of a proper burial.

Almost certainly, however, Perras was not Catholic, but rather Greek Orthodox, and there were no Orthodox priests in Grinnell—a circumstance that might truly have caused a difficulty for arranging funeral rites. In 1910 Greeks were practically unknown in Grinnell, although within a few years, a small clutch of Greeks had taken up residence in town. The 1915 Iowa census, for example, found Peter Staffanou, a Greek immigrant and co-owner of a confectionary at 825 4th Avenue (later known as Candyland); with his brother Theodore and his candy store co-owner, James Joris (another Greek), Staffanou lived at 927 West Street. Two more Greeks, Peter Marcopolos and Tom Koserar, operated a shoe-shine in town in 1915, but none of these men (all but Koserar were still single in 1915) lived in 1910 Grinnell. Staffanou, for example, told the census-taker that he had arrived in the US in 1910, but had been in Iowa only two years, meaning that he had arrived in 1913. At the time of Perras's death, therefore, Grinnell still had not made much acquaintance with Greeks.

But there was at least one Greek in 1910 Grinnell: Charles Plagakis, whom the newspaper mentioned as having given evidence at the inquest. Born in Greece in the 1880s, Plagakis had entered the United States in 1909 and found his way to Grinnell where, according to the 1910 US census, he was working as a salesman in some place called "candy kitchen"—probably what later became Staffanou's Candyland. In January 1910 in Perry, Iowa Plagakis had married a Greek girl, Stella Lonebesi, who had immigrated from Greece at about the same time as her new husband; the pair, along with a boarder who was apparently Charles's brother, James, resided at 828 Main Street in 1910.

Plagakis later left Grinnell, settling in Chicago. But in 1910 he appears to have played a central role in assisting Grinnell authorities with the death of Socrates Perras, perhaps explaining in his best English that Perras was "Catholic," and therefore not eligible to be buried by Protestant pastors. Mediation in behalf of an unknown countryman could only go so far,  however: Plagakis did not volunteer as a pallbearer, for example, nor, apparently, was he in a position to underwrite burial costs.

In any event, Perras was buried two days after the accident in Hazelwood Cemetery, not in potter's field, where the unknown and impoverished were usually put to rest, but rather on the slope that bends down to Arbor Lake. Did someone buy him a grave plot, one wonders? If so, evidently not much money changed hands, because no gravestone was erected in the man's memory.
Grave marker (?) of Socrates Perras, Hazelwood Cemetery
Visitors to this part of the cemetery today can find numerous grave markers spilling down the hill, along with a small cement slab, sunken now a bit below grade, half-way down the incline. Like some other gravestones of the era, the cement marker was modest both in cost and appearance. Nevertheless, many of these same cement markers reveal a simple identification of the deceased—a name and date imprinted on the cement before it hardened. The marker over the plot in which Socrates Perras was buried, however, remains anonymous, and no doubt escapes the notice of all but the most curious.
Modest cement gravestone for "infant son of J. F. Ferson, Dec 26 (?), 1921" (2015 photograph)
Cemetery records indicate that as many as ten bodies are buried in this fifteen-by-twenty plot, but only two markers identify those interred there—one recalls Alexander Kline, who died in November, 1909, and the other remembers Merrill James Quire, an infant who died in July, 1910; the rest, some buried before Perras, others afterward, are not remembered by any marker whatsoever. Why Perras ended up with this unlikely collection of the unremembered dead is unclear.

In this way the story of Socrates Perras's brief sojourn in Grinnell came to an end. Only a staccato epilogue played out later that summer in Chicago: in early August the Cook County Probate Court appointed John F. Devine to collect and administer the property left behind by Perras, who had died intestate. Devine reported that he had gathered "property and effects [belonging to Perras] in said County, the value of which does not exceed the sum of Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000)." It seems unlikely that Perras had accumulated so enormous a sum in his brief time in America, so perhaps the number employed was chosen arbitrarily. However, as other Cook County intestate declarations indicate, it could have been a much smaller sum ($500, for example, in some other cases), so Perras evidently had accumulated a large treasury, even if the total was not so stupendous as $10,000.

What Devine did with the money I could not determine, although one may hope that the funds found their way back to St. Dimitri and the widow and six children that Perras had left behind. Sadly, none of that surplus was available to fund a gravestone in Hazelwood, where Socrates Perras still slumbers anonymously, far from his native Greece.

1 comment:

  1. Again - a superb rendering of an interesting subject. Thanks!