Except they weren’t: Joe Magarac

A statue of Joe Magarac bending a steel beamI’m fascinated with stories of people who are not what they seem, or are not what they claim to be. History is full of stories of people who hide or change their identities, for all sorts of reasons both good and not-so-good — as well as stories of fictional people who were invented for all sorts of reasons both good and not-so-good. But sometimes the story is so much more interesting, and I’d love to share some of these stories with you. If truth is stranger than fiction, then true fiction is even stranger than that. Welcome to a new occasional series: Except They Weren’t.

What John Henry was to African-American rail workers, Joe Magarac was to steelworkers in Pittsburgh.

In 1931, Pittsburgh author Owen Francis (a former steelworker himself) interviewed a group of immigrant steelworkers from Croatia. They told him of the legend of Joe Magarac, a strong and hardworking folk hero figure who shows up just in time so save his fellow workers from calamity.

Francis wrote up the story for the November 1931 issue of Scribner’s magazine as “The Saga of Joe Magarac: Steelman.” Like the more famous John Henry, Joe Magarac might not have been a real person, but he was a real inspiration to the downtrodden workers of America.

Except he wasn’t.

There is no historical record of Joe Magarac before the 1931 article, and when anthropologists interviewed Pittsburgh immigrant steelworkers in the 1940s and 1950s, no one had heard of him. We’ll never know for sure, but it sure looks like the guys were just playing a fun game of troll the reporter. The clincher? Check out what “magarac” means in Croatian.

A photo of a cute donkey grazingNot Joe Magarac

But in one of those Bizarre Things That Happen Sometimes, the article proved so popular that Joe Magarac actually became a local folk hero, and an unofficial symbol of the city of Pittsburgh. Here he is, hard at work on a mural of a downtown building. And the photo above is of his statue in front of U.S. Steel’s headquarters.

Joe Magarac is an example of what historians and anthropologists call “fakelore” — stories that have the structure and purpose of folklore, but were created for another purpose. What other examples of fakelore do you know?

Image credit for the statue photo: Flickr user Devon Christopher Adams

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