In the early years of the 20th Century, local newspapers reported Lithuanian ethnicity in crimes of violence, much as media later in the century reported race. As a newspaper reporter in the early 1980s, I remember how the practice of race identification in the news was debated before it changed, along with the custom of identifying all women as Mrs. or Miss.
However, it’s easy to see why a “Lithuanian” brawl could have seemed relevant to U.S.-born readers back when immigrant-on-immigrant crime in the impoverished neighborhoods, often called “patches,” where immigrant miners lived, socialized, drank and fought, so often stereotyped them in the news.
July-December 1906, the Illinois State Register covered a “Riverton Riot,” allegedly by three related Lithuanian saloon-keepers, that resulted in the near-death of the local marshal, John A. Cline. The prosecution side of the story was that Cline ordered Lithuanian immigrant Maude (Martha) Grigiski (Grigiskis) to close her Riverton saloon, which was illegally open on a Sunday. Maude reportedly refused, pulled a gun and backed Cline out of her yard. Then her husband, William, arrived, seized the officer’s club and started beating him over the head. Maude reportedly joined in the beating with the butt of her pistol, while brother-in-law Peter (Simon) Grigiskis arrived and allegedly started beating Cline with a brickbat.
The three Grigiskises were charged with assault and battery with intent to kill, and “riot.” They made bail of $1,200 each, apparently after William exited first and sold some property to bail out his wife. Marshal Cline received 56 stitches to close wounds on his scalp.
The newspaper reported “almost the entire village” was subpoenaed in the case, many as “character witnesses.“ Those who had not been subpoenaed came along to witness the proceedings, so that the courtroom was full even before the trial began. The paper also reported, “Most of the witnesses in this case will be Lithuanians, and an interpreter will be necessitated.”
When the defense took the stand, the Grigiskises proceeded to make a case for their actions based on the alleged “immoral character” of Marshal Cline, which was attested by many (presumably Lithuanian) witnesses. William Grigiskis then testified that the assault was the result of Cline first attacking his wife. Maude testified that she had closed her saloon as ordered, but then Cline insisted they go back inside to see if anyone was still there, at which point he made advances and knocked her out with his revolver.
The real issue could have been the law closing saloons and taverns, frequently operated by immigrants for immigrants, on Sundays, back in the time of 70-hour, six-day work weeks, when Sunday was the only day off for workmen to drink and socialize–and for tavern-keepers to earn a living. In New York City back when Teddy Roosevelt was police commissioner, more than 10,000 German immigrants marched to oppose a similar Sunday tavern closing law. So, such bans were not only likely a precursor to Prohibition, they almost undoubtedly were aimed at immigrant workmen and tavern-keepers. In fact, Simon Grigiski had been fined $25, along with six Italian tavern-keepers, back in 1902 for the same offense, according to the newspaper.
After weeks of trial, on Dec. 29, 1906, the Illinois State Journal reported, Simon was acquitted, and William and Maude Grigiskis were convicted, denied a new trial, and fined $100 plus costs, each: a total judgment amounting to $400. (One has to wonder at a fine, only, for assaulting a lawman—maybe it was a compromise of some sort based on real doubts as to Cline’s character?) It’s unknown if the Grigiskises were allowed to re-open their saloon.
Lithuanians Ralph Patkus, Tony Gabriel and Peter Soto were also reportedly arrested or charged with participating in the assault on Cline. One can almost imagine the whole Lithuanian neighborhood joining in a fight apparently in defense of their countrymen, and against a well-known and despised representative of the law. (The three other men were not tried.)
“One Carved at a Christening”
My favorite example of Lithuanian immigrant stereotyping in the news is: “Lithuanian Celebration in Devereaux ‘Patch’ Results in the Usual Quota of Cracked Pates.” This State Journal article from January 1910 goes on to report “a miniature riot, such as usually accompany Lithuanian christenings.”
The “Patch” was a poor immigrant neighborhood near the Devereaux Heights Peabody coal mine four miles north of Springfield. Lithuanian immigrant Charles Rokinh reportedly beat Tony Shodwit with a blackjack and cut him with a knife at the home of the christened infant (or maybe outside). The paper also reported, “Several swollen pates and blackened eyes are said to have resulted from the Sunday night celebration.”
- Luke Terlis testifies he did not mean to shoot Joe Timmis on July 4, 1906. “Terlis declares that the shooting was accidental, as the ball pierced his own hand before it struck his friend.” Both men are coal miners. “Their knowledge of the ways of this country is exceedingly limited, and they speak very broken English.”
According to the Illinois State Journal, Terlis offered a bribe of $20 not to be arrested when accosted at his Devereaux Patch boarding house by a deputy. Timmis and other witnesses agree that the shooting was accidental and occurred when Terlis tried to prove to a group of miners standing at the corner of Peoria Rd. and Sangamon Ave. that his gun was unloaded. Timmis’s wife later testifies that Terlis had made advances and wanted to do away with her husband, who was critically wounded in the gut.
- Mike Krizonoski is charged with conducting a “blind pig” (operating a speakeasy) in Devereaux Patch, November 1911.
- Lithuanian Mike Rester is charged with stabbing fellow Lithuanian Frank Kerns during a brawl at the Jacob Usman saloon in March 1907.
- Charles Yotus pleads guilty to selling liquor in Devereaux Patch for three days before he was caught, September 1911.
- Peter Akulaitis shoots and kills Joseph Linc in self-defense in the Ridgely neighborhood, September 1906. Linc was wielding a two-bladed pocketknife and cut Akulaitis severely before he was shot. The gun was believed to have been passed off to a friend in the crowd “who secreted it.”
- John Lawrence and Eva Adamitis are both charged with assault with intent to kill in April 1946. Eva reportedly shot John in the face after he beat her in her home.
- Lithuanians Charles Shadwich, Charles Tyrones, Pete Zolden, Joe Savage and Robert Skeets are arrested Christmas Eve 1911, for gambling (a dice game) on East Washington Street.
Many thanks to Tom Mann of Springfield for uncovering these headlines by generously investing his time in research.
Maria Race said:
How do you find all this info? Interesting alcohol-fueled story!
Cindy Baksys said:
It was like the wild west!
Maria, Cindy: Now when I look back, I think the Grigiskis were so violent in their actions because a pitched battled over Sunday closings so detrimental to their tavern business had been going on for years, probably with this same marshal. Who knows, maybe this time he finally crossed the line, or they were desperate. All immigrant enterprises, including both mining and saloons, were matters of survival back then, and the Sunday closing laws were deliberately aimed at immigrant taverns and immigrant drinking.
GeorgeAnn Madison said:
Very interesting reading. Seems like early Lithuanians were strong-willed people; they had to be for survival.