|Abandoned Catholic school, Marion Heights|
To the casual observer, the borough of Marion Heights is a sleepy coal mining town, one of hundreds of similar soot-stained villages dotting the landscape of the Coal Region. Prior to 1901, this borough of less than a thousand souls didn't even exist, and back then the village went by the name of Kaiser.
I grew up in Kulpmont, just a stone's throw away from Marion Heights, and the tiny village always fascinated me. Being a descendant of Italian immigrants who toiled in various mines throughout the Coal Region, I used to love the stories my grandfather and other older relatives told me as a child. Often, these stories revolved around the "gang warfare" which pervaded the region throughout the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
These clashes were the result of various ethnic groups who settled in the Coal Region, arriving from places like Italy, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, and Serbia. Being strangers in a strange land, they banded together and formed fraternal clubs and secret societies when they got here- while others already belonged to long-established organizations rooted in the world of organized crime. Newspapers of the era often referred to the members of these groups as belonging to "The Black Hand"- a catch-all term used by the media of the time for organized crime and ethnic gangs.
Northumberland County, for much of its history, has always been a rough and tumble kind of place, like the lawless Wild West frontier minus the cowboys and tumbleweeds. In my youth, I've heard many old-timers say that the reason why folks like Billy the Kid and Jesse James went out West was because they wouldn't last a day in the Coal Region.
Northumberland County's reputation was often alluded to in newspaper reports from neighboring counties:
"Another bloody murder was added to Northumberland County's long list Friday night- the one hundred and eighteenth in twenty-one years... There is a growing feeling that the murder is a Black Hand plot."- Bloomsburg Columbian, Dec. 10, 1908
"It is difficult to keep track of all the murders that are committed in Northumberland County"- Bloomsburg Columbian, Aug. 20, 1908
"Northumberland County has an unenviable record- a record that is doubtless without parallel in the United States... Within the past fifteen years ninety-seven murders have been committed... Only five persons have been brought to trial and only one convicted of murder in the first degree... "- Bloomsburg Columbian, March 16, 1899
"If there is another county in the Unites States, from the half breed lumber regions of Northern Maine to the wild western borders of New Mexico and Arizona, with a cleaner record of unpunished outlawry, let them speak up and take the belt."- Bloomsburg Columbian, March 16, 1899
|Ukrainian church in Marion heights (Shamokin News-Item photo)|
The majority of murders and "Black Hand" activity within the county occurred in larger towns like Shamokin and Mt. Carmel. However, even the tiny borough of Marion Heights was not immune to lawlessness.
In the spring of 1907 a fracas between two men who were believed to have ties to the criminal underworld broke out in Marion Heights:
Some weeks ago Northumberland County was startled by the news that Nick Gedro, of Marion Heights, with five bullets in his body, was dying at the Ashland hospital, the victim of Andrea Yunado, an agent of the Black Hand.
It seems that Gedro was averse to passing away while his assailant was still on green earth, and liable to no greater punishment than that imposed by the average lenient Northumberland County jury. And so Gedro recuperated as quickly as nature would permit, intending to buckle on his stiletto and revolver and go on Yunado's trail as soon as he left the hospital.
But the hand of the law stayed his intentions of blood thirsty revenge. As he stepped from the hospital Saturday morning he was arrested by Sergeant Van Voris of the state constabulary, located at Shamokin, and Deputy Sheriff Condy Langdon, of Centralia, on the charge of stabbing William Murton, on March 7th, and an aggravated assault on Chas. Fetterman of Centralia, which took place on the 4th of August.
After stabbing Murton, Gedro left Centralia and nothing was heard of him until the accounts of the shooting affray were seen in the papers. Gedro now lies in the Columbia County prison at Bloomsburg.
(original article appeared in the May 23, 1907, edition of the Bloomsburg Columbian)
In 1915 another curious incident took place on the highway leading from Mount Carmel to Marion Heights (probably present-day Rt. 54). Although little evidence exists which implicates any Black Hand activity, this story illustrates the outlaw history of the area, which existed well into the 20th century:
Anthony Segro, mail carrier from Mount Carmel to Marion Heights, while riding in an automobile near the latter place, was held up by a highwayman. The latter was about to leap into the car when Segro ran it away. The man discharged a number of revolver shots.
(from the September 16, 1915, edition of the Fulton County News)
These days, gunshots and police sirens are seldom heard around Marion Heights, where the decibel level of everyday life now rarely rises above that of a lawnmower or a backfiring muffler. Sadly, also gone are most of the stories once told by the old timers who lived during the era of ethnic street gangs, highway bandits, and the Black Hand.