Oyster shuckers

These children shucked oysters at Maggioni Canning Co., Port Royal, S.C., for four hours before school and three hours after, and from 4 a.m. until early afternoon on Saturdays.

The story so far: The charges against Lillian Roupe escalate to homicide when her husband dies from a bullet wound. Although the victim and accused are ordinary working people, the public begins to see his death as no ordinary crime.

From the earliest days of exploration and colonization, Europeans saw America as the land of opportunity. In the middle of the 18th century, what is now called Western Pennsylvania was the edge of the frontier, and Scots-Irish immigrants arriving here from Ulster saw their opportunity in land to farm.

In the mid-19th century, Irish left famine in their homeland and saw opportunity in survival. They would build the highways and railroads that moved the frontier much farther west.

By the end of the 19th century, the Industrial Revolution had transformed Western Pennsylvania; it was no longer just a place for growing crops in its soil and harvesting timber from its forests, but for taking coal and gas and oil from beneath its surface to fuel its furnaces, its factories, glass works and steel mills.


Lewis Hine photographed breaker boys at a mine in Pittston, Pa., in 1908.

A new wave of emigrants left Europe to satisfy the demand for labor on this side of the Atlantic, finding their opportunity in the money to be made in the mines and mills. From 1836 to 1914, more than 30 million Europeans immigrated to the United States.

One immigrant's story

The journey in earlier years took many weeks, and one in seven passengers died en route. But by the time Thomas Moss departed from Liverpool in 1882, new innovations in shipbuilding had cut the crossing to fewer than 10 days.

Moss, who was born in Tewkesbury, England, in 1846, followed the trail of migrants to Western Pennsylvania and found work at the Canonsburg Iron and Steel Co., more commonly known as the Budke Mill, for its founder, John Budke.


The ship on which Mary Neathway Moss and her children traveled to America.

As so many other immigrants had done, Moss left his family behind in England until he could establish himself in America. On Dec. 1, 1884, Mary Neathway Moss and her two daughters, Nellie and Phoebe, and son, Thomas Jr., departed Liverpool for Philadelphia aboard the British Princess: iron-hulled, 420 feet long, powered by steam and wind caught in sails on its four tall masts.

Daughter Phoebe did not survive childhood. Mary gave birth to another daughter, Edith, in 1885, and a son, Daniel, in 1888. The Moss' youngest child, Lillian Mae, came into the world in April 1890.

Lillian's early life

The Internet is a marvelous tool for research, but it sheds little light on the lives of children of the past, whose names did not usually reach the historical record until they acted officially as adults. It can be concluded, however, that Lillian Moss left school for the workforce at about age 12.

By 1903, the Moss family had divided; Thomas Sr. continued to work at the Budke mill and live in a house in its shadow, on Herman Street near the railroad tracks, and Mary had moved into rented rooms at 192 Lawrence Ave. in Washington with her daughters Edith and Lillian, who were listed as glass packers in the 1903 Washington City Directory. The following year, Thomas Jr., then working as a blacksmith, moved into 955 Arch St. with his mother and sisters.

Until her death in March 1915, Mary Moss continued to live in various houses in the Summerlea Avenue area of Tylerdale. City directories for some of those years also list Thomas Sr. living at those addresses. It is not possible to determine why the couple lived apart. They may have had a marital separation, or perhaps it was more convenient for family members to live closer to where most of the jobs were in the early 1900s – in Washington.

By 1895, Washington was a major glass producer with plants operated by Hazel-Atlas, Duncan & Miller, Highland, Phoenix, Novelty and Pittsburgh Window Glass. And children Lillian's age working in those factories was commonplace. It would not be until 1915 that Pennsylvania's Child Labor Law prohibited the employment of children under the age of 14. A 1911 congressional study found that 38 percent of average family income was earned by working children.

Child labor in coal mines was just as prevalent, where they were likely to contract respiratory disease and where death and injury were daily occurrences. Physicians found upon inspecting child miners that they were malnourished, sleep deprived, had many minor injuries and curved spines from bending over the breakers. It was the job of the breaker boys to pick out impurities from a river of coal passing beneath them. 

In 1877, The Labor Standard described child labor in the Hickory Colliery in St. Clair, Pa.: “In a little room in this big, black shed – a room not 20 feet square – 40 boys are picking their lives away. The floor of the room is an inclined plane, and a stream of coal pours constantly in. They work here, in this little black hole, all day and every day, trying to keep cool in the summer, trying to keep warm in the winter, picking away among the black coals, bending over till their little spines are curved, never saying a word all the livelong day. These little fellows go to work in this cold dreary room at seven o'clock in the morning and work till it is too dark to see any longer. For this they get one dollar to three dollars a week. Not three boys in this roomful could read or write.”

Decadent youth

Lillian Moss was a teenager at a time when moral decay was a prime topic of conversation in Washington. Parents were distraught over the waywardness and disobedience of their children, and they felt powerless to keep them away from liquor, drugs and pool halls. In February 1907, a scandal erupted over the suicide of a teenager in a room above the Lyric Theatre that shed light on police corruption and child prostitution in the borough.

Around her 16th birthday, Lillian Moss met a worker at the Tyler Tube Mill named Henry Clay Welling. He was tall and thin, with dark eyes and dark hair, and five years older than Lillian. And in January 1907, a month before the Lyric Theatre scandal broke, Lillian gave birth to his child.

She named the baby Theodore Lester Moss. On the birth certificate, the infant was listed as not legitimate and the mother's occupation as “servant girl.”

Unwed teenage pregnancy is hardly a new phenomenon. But the social stigma of such a circumstance was far more damaging 100 years ago than it is today. Lillian's condition would have cost her her job and her reputation. Her chances at happiness in the remainder of her life would have been woefully reduced. What man would want her, or wish to support a child not his own?

It would take a few years, but an opportunity would arise that Lillian could not help but seize.

Next: A chance at new life

Mercy Has a Human Heart
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