Lithuanian immigrant Jonas Pupininkas was a breaker boy

Breaker Boy – The Separation of John Papnick

Breaker boy” is what Jonas Pupininkas was called. The name was given to the hundreds of young boys from Lithuania who were lured into the coal mines of Pennsylvania by a promise of employment. Separation followed him.

Separation by breaker boys
The job of a breaker boy was to separate by hand the shale from the valuable coal.

Breaker boys were confined to the mines for long hours. Their job was to break and separate by hand the shale from the valuable coal. The exploitative handiwork of countless breaker boys fired capitalists to unimaginable wealth and fueled the destiny of America’s Industrial Age.

Jonas Pupininkas also was called a lugan. The derogatory slur attached to foreigners from Lithuania who were separated from their families and everything they had known. Lugans in America had no family. For the most part, lugans owned nothing and had nothing. In America, lugans were detestable people, isolated and not easily assimilable.

Separation of coal by breaker boys
Breaker boys worked in a haze of coal dust always under an ever-present overseer.

Upon his entry to the United States, the U.S. Government separated Jonas Pupininkas from his birth name. The boy was divorced from his past. America branded Jonas Pupininkas with the new name of John Papnick. What young John Papnick could make of his new identity, absent any specific direction, was left entirely to him.

As America erased the past of Jonas Pupininkas, America baited John Papnick with what lay before him. To the immigrant boy, and all breaker boys like him, John’s unfolding in America at first appeared like the countless shards of broken black slate he sifted through his hands. The valuable coal enriched no one John knew. Certainly not him. From the shards he held, John only could imagine a slate chalkboard upon which he might write the future he imagined for himself.

His Nation Partitioned

John Papnick is presumed to have been born near Vilnius, Lithuania, maybe Kaunas. His ancient homeland was a country often divided.

Lithuania was a superpower, for a longer time than the United States. When Baltic people fought the Vikings and the Romans, it was only a small tribe of Lithuanians around Vilnius who could consolidate the bellicose factions. In 1253, the Pope conferred a crown upon the pagan Duchy of Lithuania. In return, the duchy abandoned its pagan origins and embraced Catholicism. Centuries of fighting against Teutonic knights ensued. St. George was Lithuania’s patron saint to protect Christians. When Lithuania forged an alliance with Poland, the Teutonic threat was extinguished. The complex politics of this “noble democracy” resulted in many lost wars.

There were many reasons to leave Lithuania. Between 1772 and 1795, John’s ancient homeland was completely partitioned and annexed by Prussia, Austria, and Russia. Speaking the Lithuanian language was banned. Catholicism was suppressed and churches were confiscated. In 1831 and 1863 a nationalist movement sought to make Lithuania independent of both Poland and Russia.  The crumbling of the Russian Empire after World War I gave Lithuania a temporary period of respite. However, World War II saw Lithuania occupied by Nazi Germany and twice again by Russia. The genocide of Lithuanian Jews prevailed. Only 5% of Jews in Lithuania survived. Of Jews in Kaunas, even less survived.

His Family Divided

It is not known if the Pupininkas family of Jonas Pupininkas is of Jewish ancestry. As research continues, what is known is that Toronto, Canada became home to a large family of immigrant Jews who bear the name of Papernich. Toronto also is home to a number of families named Papnick, like John. Russia exiled Lithuanian Jews to Siberia. Germany sent Jews to the ovens of concentration camps.

Only one family survives in Lithuania today who bear the ancestral surname of Pupininkas. No genealogical or historical records for the name Pupininkas can be found in Lithuania.

Family of Gintares and Diana Pupininkas
Family of Gintares Pupininkas, daughter Agne, son Lucas, wife Diana, 2015. Gintares runs a company that manufactures wooden doors. Among a small number of relatives, this is the only Pupininkas family surviving in Lithuania today.

Following the Civil War in America and the revolt in Lithuania of 1863 to restore its alliance with Poland, advertisements solicited young Lithuanian boys to work in the coal mines of America, rather than be conscripted into the Russian army. The passage of the boys was paid by mining companies. An indenture was created in effect, similar to those used in the 19th and early 20th centuries for immigrants from England and Ireland.

Parents of Jonas Pupininkas. They are believed to be Pranas Pupininkas, called Francysszek, and Regina Mazetye. The image is believed to be their marriage photo.
Immigration manual offered to Lithuanian immigrants

By the 1880s, Pennsylvania coal and railroad interests sent their agents to Eastern Europe to lure poor immigrants. Between 1899 and 1914, some 250,000 Lithuanians adopted the United States as their new home.

A manual of 290 pages was provided by immigrant agents in the U.S. The booklet advised prospective immigrants of what to expect. The best travel to the U.S. and Canada was in spring. The manual described U.S. cities as hot in summer. Lithuanians are not accustomed to such heat. Travel to the U.S. in winter was uncomfortable and to be avoided. People were out of work in winter and suffered from want. In the U. S., factories slowed down in winter. A winter arrival dragged the arriving immigrant into poverty and exacerbated the hardship of fellow immigrants.

Time Moves Forward

The last photographic image of the Pupininkas family prior to the departure of Jonas Pupininkas (center) for America and his destination in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

Around 1902, the Pupininkas family gathered for a final photograph to document the imminent departure of their eldest son Jonas to America. Observing the sad separation, his father removed his pocket watch from the vest of the suit that he wore in his wedding photo. He then threaded the treasured valuable through the vest of his eldest son. Jonas Pupininkas, now 15-years-old, was his own man.

Jonas Pupininkas left his family and Lithuanian homeland forever. He was bound for Antwerp to board the S.S. Friesland for his transport to coal country in America. Once gone from Lithuania, the boy never would see or hear of his family again.

Passage Isolation

The saloon on the top promenade deck of the S.S. Friesland.

Class distinction was clear aboard the S.S. Friesland. Its spacious promenade top deck provided first and second class passengers ample fresh air. An enclosed saloon on the promenade deck offered protection from inclement weather. Refreshments from the saloon’s bar could be taken below to private compartments on the second deck.

Typical steerage compartment in the bottom hold of a ship.

Below the promenade deck and second deck, in the stuffy hold of the ship, was third class, also called steerage class. Here is where Jonas made his passage. Fore and aft steerage compartments abutted the ship’s mechanical equipment and cargo holds. Though confined, steerage passengers could roam at will. The sleeping accommodation for a third class passenger was a shared compartment where steerage passengers slept dormitory-style.

The three decks of the S.S. Friesland. The S.S. Friesland was launched on August 15, 1899. On December 7, she made her maiden voyage from Antwerp to New York, under the Belgian flag. First-class accommodated 226 passengers, with 102 passengers in second class. The third class accommodated 600 steerage passengers. A steerage class ticket cost 82 rubles.

Under the immigration policies of the time, minors like Jonas were required to be accompanied by sponsors, if not by their parents. More often, a relative or trusted family friend, or even a paid sponsor was solicited or employed. One document shows Jonas Pupininkas arrived in America with his mother. It is more likely this woman was not his mother in fact, but only another passenger said to be his mother. Following their ocean passage, nothing more is learned of this woman who accompanied Jonas Pupininkas.

In late 1902, Jonas Pupininkas was among the final passengers of the aging S.S. Friesland. In January of 1903, the ship was sold to the American Line to sail under the flag of the United States. The ship was refitted to carry 300 second-class passengers in addition to the 600 in steerage. She sailed from Liverpool, England to Philadelphia. Her final voyage was in 1911, after which the S.S. Friesland was sold to an Italian company and reduced to scrap the following year.

Surname Removed & Replaced

Upon his entry at Ellis Island in the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, immigration officials officially recorded Jonas Papininkas as John Papnick. John stuck by his new name. However, on occasion, John spoke or wrote of his birth name as Papanek or Pupnickas. Others recorded his name as Popikinikos or Pupinkas.

How or when John Papnick arrived in Pennsylvania from Ellis Island is not known. Perhaps Pennsylvania was the intended destination of his accompanying sponsors if he had any. Perhaps the coal mining company of his destination also arranged his overland transport. Upon his arrival in Luzerne County in Pennsylvania, John was immediately put to work in the coal mines in or around Kingston.

Simulating Lithuania

The arrival of Lithuanian immigrants in Pennsylvania that led to the founding of St. George Church in Pennsylvania 1872 and twenty years later of another St. George Church in Chicago, Illinois.

But for his work in the coal mine, John Papnick found himself among a community not too different from what he knew at home. The Lithuanian community in Pennsylvania lived in isolation from its host American community. Living exclusively among Lithuanians, John’s new community supported him by cultivating a social, political, economic, and religious structure, totally independent of Pennsylvania’s traditional history and culture.

The center of John’s new community was the neighborhood saloon where the Lithuanian language was spoken predominately and where old Lithuanian surnames were not changed or forsaken. John knew these places well.

A variety of organizations and social clubs were available to John to advance the socio-political interests of Lithuanian immigrants. Dominating John’s community was the Roman Catholic Church. A variety of Catholic congregations built churches, schools, and hospitals. Religious orders were organized to run them.

St. Mary’s Annunciation Catholic Church, 258 Zerby Ave., Kingston, Pennsylvania, torn down 2016.

John centered his new life in and around the parish of St. Mary’s Annunciation. When an immigrant like John was ready, these same institutions assisted the immigrant in moving out of Pennsylvania and forward into Lithuanian-American communities in the heart of America.

Assimulating America

If freedom in America had any meaning for John Papnick, foremost in his thoughts was his freedom to have a family again. Next would be his freedom to liberate himself from working in a coal mine. John was an excellent carver and woodworker. Perhaps he could make furniture to sell. Above those hopes, John eagerly desired to abandon his status in Pennsylvania as a temporary arrival. John was ready to make his permanent home in his new homeland of America.

Marriage photo of John Papnick and Agnes Levulis, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, about 1918.

Around 1917-18, John married Agnes Luvel. She was another Lithuanian immigrant, presumed to have been born in Vilnius. It is reasonable to assume that Agnes Luvel’s surname was altered by immigration officials, as was John’s. A likely Lithuanian root of her name was Levulis.

Agnes arrived in Boston harbor in the company of a sister and her Russian husband. Her sister didn’t like America. They returned to Europe shortly after their arrival. As the years passed, Agnes and her sister wrote letters to one another. As more years passed, the sister had less and less to say about their different lives. In time, the letters stopped. Agnes never heard from her sister again.

Also accompanying Agnes to America was a cousin named Rose Zack (probably Zachery). Rose settled nearby in Wilkes Barre, Pennsylvania. Other Luvel and Levulis family members ultimately settled in the state of Michigan.

To commemorate their new life together, John built a new chest of drawers for Agnes. Drawing upon his woodworking craftsman skills learned in his boyhood, John hand carved each drawer meticulously. The extra drawers of this hope chest would be needed for the family John and Agnes expected soon would come.

New Family

The first child born to John and Agnes Levulis Papnick was a girl named Nellie, born in 1918. Nellie Papnick arrived in late November in Kingston. She was baptized in St. Mary’s church. How much longer John and Agnes stayed in Kingston beyond Nellie’s baptism is unknown. New family life was beckoning. Before their next child Juliana arrived in January of 1920, John and Agnes moved to the Bridgeport neighborhood on the near south side of Chicago, Illinois. There, a larger community of Lithuanians awaited them.

New Church

Bridgeport is an old working-class community in Chicago. Its original name was Hardscrabble. When a tributary of the Chicago River established a port and built a bridge connecting Hardscrabble to Chicago, Hardscrabble became Bridgeport. Unto today, the neighborhood remains working-class, occupied by the latest immigrant wave arriving to embrace the American heartland.

 “According to 1910 data, Chicago had about 500 Lithuanian business establishments, including: 180 bars and saloons, 90 grocery stores, 33 barbershops, 17 clothing stores, 14 trucking and taxi companies, 10 print shops, 11 miscellaneous stores, 10 photographer studios, etc. As they prospered, the number of educated and professional Lithuanians increased. By 1916 there were 40 Lithuanian physicians, 10 lawyers, 25 each newspaper editors and publishers, 120 priests and 30 bankers, as well as about 3,000 shopkeepers, 2,500 owners of beer halls, and 10,000 tradesmen and skilled workers.”

Vilnews, “Lithuanian Immigration to the United States”

In Bridgeport, A. Olszewskis operated a Lithuanian immigration agency at 3252 S. Halsted Street. A couple of blocks away at 3249 S. Morgan Street, another agency was operated by J.M. Tananevice. These agencies provided services to assist immigrants of Lithuanian descent like John and Agnes seeking to settle in Chicago, and in Bridgeport specifically.

St. George Catholic Church at 33rd & Lituanica Streets in Bridgeport, constructed in 1893 by Lithuanian immigrants. Lituanica Street formerly was Auburn Street. The renaming of the street reflected the recognition of Bridgeport’s Lithuanian community. St. George Church was torn down in 1990. Its altar, stained glass windows, and other artifacts were sent to a new Catholic church under construction in Lithuania.

St. George Catholic Church attracted a large Lithuanian population to Bridgeport. In 1893, immigrants built the impressive cathedral in the Gothic tradition well remembered from Vilnius. The nuns of St. Casimir, whose order was founded in Scranton, Pennsylvania by Maria Kaupas, established and taught the school at St. George parish. The school was constructed in the image and tradition of the school Lithuanians built previously in Scranton at St. Joseph church. St. George’s grammar school accommodated 600 students with a meeting auditorium that could seat 1500. Young Nellie, Juliana, and Johnny Papnick received their elementary education here, as did Nellie’s children in later decades.

Wishing to establish themselves as American-born, Nellie, Juliana, and Johnny adopted new American names for themselves. Nellie became Elaine Magdalen Papnick. Juliana became Leona Papnick, called Lee. Johnny, originally named for his father, adopted the name of Patrick Papnick, called Pat.

The new Lithuanian school constructed at St. George Parish in Chicago (R) is a direct reflection of an earlier school built by Lithuanians in Scranton at St. Joseph Parish (L).

John Papnick was likely lured first to Chicago by Illinois coal mining companies who advertised in Pennsylvania for experienced miners to work in Illinois mines. When John arrived with Agnes and daughter Nellie to St. George Parish in Bridgeport, a better employment opportunity presented itself. Already suffering chronically from the coal dust ingested in his lungs, John never would have to work in the coal mines again.

The Wrigley factory located at 3535 S Ashland in Chicago, 1933. Constructed In 1911, the plant closed in 2005. The first job of Elaine Papnick was as an assembly line worker making gum at Wrigley. Nellie despised the job for its boredom and tediousness. Not to mention the fact, someone always was looking over her shoulder. The bright girl, who was motivated to self-learn to skip grades in school, didn’t like that.

John found himself a job in the Wrigley Chewing Gum factory. In the Depression-era, John was a conscientious and excellent employee. As his family grew, John rented a spacious three-bedroom apartment in a new brick building at 3139 S. Emerald Avenue. John never missed more than one month’s work during his decades of employment with Wrigley.

Displaced Persons

Agnes Levulis Papnick afer her separation from John Papnick
Agnes Levulis Papnick, cooking a Sunday meal following Mass. To treat grandchildren, Agnes always provided sparkling strawberry pop.

The Wrigley company provided John’s family a steady and comfortable living. John bought Agnes a wood-burning stove manufactured by iron-works. Agnes mastered the behemoth, producing their favorite Lithuanian meals of kugele or potato pancakes. Nellie developed a taste and fondness for herring. Agnes also mastered her new Singer sewing machine. A wardrobe of handmade dresses and clothing attired Agnes, Nellie, and Juliana. With a payment plan, John also bought Agnes a new mink coat.

At this time, more immigrants displaced from Lithuania arrived in Bridgeport. Unlike John, some possessed a measure of means to buy homes and grow businesses. The parish of St. George was more richly supported than most Lithuanian churches in America. The family of John Papnick became part of Bridgeport’s middle class.

With the advent of World War II, Bridgeport’s Lithuanian community swelled with overflow from the refugee internment camps of Europe and the United States. Refugees of the war were known as DPs – displaced persons. The DP influx put a strain on Bridgeport, but no one was unwelcome or turned away.

In this time, what went wrong for John that broke apart his family can only be surmised.


John’s children began to leave home to start lives of their own.

Bud and Elaine James suffered their own separation
Wedding photo of Elaine Magdalen Papnick and Harry Francis “Bud” James Sr. Elaine later donated the white silk wedding dress she made by hand to a new Catholic Church in Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri in need of priestly vestments.

Before World War II began, Nellie married Bud James of Westmont, Illinois. After their first child nicknamed Buddy was born, Bud went to war. When he returned they had a second child, Mary Lee. When their third child Peggy was born, who soon died of leukemia, Bud and Elaine legally separated. They never divorced. Bud faithfully supported his children and Elaine throughout her lifetime. Neither ever married again.

Next, John’s son Johnny joined the Army. When he returned from the war, he became a welder, married, and started a family of his own. As a welder, Johnny constructed skyscrapers of the Chicago skyline and Chicago’s famed skyway bridge connecting the City of the Broad Shoulders to Indiana.

Leona Papnick's separation from family lead to a career in travel
Bridesmaid and sister Leona “Lee” Papnick in the handmade gown she made for Elaine’s wedding.

Juliana, who now went by the name of Leona or Lee, set her eyes on a glamorous career in travel. She became a stewardess for the Twentieth Century Limited of the New York Central Railroad and later the City of San Francisco of the Southern Pacific Railroad.

In one derailment, Leona saved the live’s of passengers. On another occasion, she attended former President Herbert Hoover when he suffered a seizure. Hoover publicly acknowledged Leona and thanked her in the national press.

Leona advanced to operating gift shops on the passenger liners S.S. President Cleveland and S.S. President Wilson of the American President Lines, traveling between San Francisco, Hawaii, Hong Kong, and the Orient. She sent back discovered treasures to family in Bridgeport that became family heirlooms. Later, she operated gift shops onboard the S.S. America and the S.S. United States of the United States Lines, where she met her future husband from Great Britain, the extremely handsome James Jeffrey Giles. Jim was a steward in the First Class lounge and a favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The former King of England always called upon Jim to attend him and his wife when sailing. Lee and Jim started their own family and had two sons, James and Jeffrey.

Meanwhile, as the children of John Papnick left home, life between John and Agnes unraveled. Agnes was left to become a cleaning woman in high rise business offices in downtown Chicago.

“Watch Out for the Machines”

John had just delivered a toy chest he had constructed proudly for his grandson Buddy James. His daughter Elaine, though, was upset. It was morning. John had been drinking. The stench permeated all of John’s clothing.

As Elaine argued with her father, John picked up the three-year-old. He rubbed his unshaven face into the boy’s smooth cheeks. He and Buddy giggled and laughed. With Buddy in John’s arms, John walked out the door.

“Watch out for the machines!” By the mid-20th century, trolleys from the Victorian era still serviced many streets of Chicago.

Stepping onto the bricks of Wallace Street, John saw a trolley approaching almost a block away. Haunted by his boyhood as a trapper in the Pennsylvania coal mines, John pulled Buddy back. “Watch out for the machines!” he said. They waited for the trolley to pass on the rails before them. They crossed the empty street and entered a tavern. John ordered a beer and a shot of whiskey. The bartender poured Buddy a Coke.

Buddy never saw his grandfather for years after, not until John’s funeral. On the morning John died, Buddy learned for the first time where his grandfather lived. John died in a room he occupied above one of Bridgeport’s neighborhood saloons. In John’s lifetime, the breaker boy became a broken man in neighborhood saloons.

Trapper boys were stationed to open and close trap doors through which coal-laden carts traveled. The coal mine experience of John Papnick, and those like him, led to the passing of child labor laws in America.
“Watch out for the machines!” A greaser boy, always under the vigilant eye of the overseer, directed the coal-laden carts driven by the weight of the load, inertia, and the force of the greaser boy alone.

Dominus Vobiscum

John Papnick lay in his casket, his father’s watch-chain threaded through a suit this workman never wore when he lived. On his last birthday, John was 61. The funeral director Mr. Anthony wheeled John’s casket out of the funeral parlor into the middle of Lituanica Avenue. Atop the casket lay two flower bouquets compassionately contributed by Mr. Anthony. Left behind was a small visitor register. Few names or signatures were entered. Many of the entries were unknown to John’s family. Walking behind John’s casket were his daughter Elaine and her two small children, Buddy and Mary Lee.

The frieze of St. George slaying the dragon, above the main entrance to St. George Catholic Church in Bridgeport, Chicago, Illinois

Automobile traffic was stopped in all directions for John. The small procession turned north and proceeded 25 feet to 33rd Place, where it turned west. At the iron gates to St. George Catholic Church, John’s casket was turned to face the church. Beneath the stone frieze of St. George slaying the dragon, this knight of Lithuania entered church one last time. All of John’s dragons now were left behind him or felled.

The main altar of St. George Catholic Church, Bridgeport, Chicago, Illinois, under a statue of its patron protector in America, St. George.

In the house of the Lord, John Papnick was most welcome, although John was not a frequent visitor. John’s casket rolled up the long aisle to the main altar, passing a scattering of old Lithuanian immigrant women wrapped in their babushkas, praying as they always did every morning. Mass for John’s repose was celebrated at the main altar alone. Four other altars stood silent. Except for Elaine, her children, and the prayerful women, the numerous pews were entirely empty.

The huge organ of St. George church resounded triumphantly throughout the cathedral – as if John was God’s only son.

The separation of Jonas Pupininkas
Jonas Pupininkas, aka John Papnick 1886-1951

Within two hours, John arrived at his final resting place in St. Casimir Cemetery. He lays beside his bride Agnes and aside Elaine’s daughter Peggy, John’s granddaughter who was isolated in a hospital for three years as she painfully died of leukemia. Years later, Elaine’s ashes would rest beside them all.

Jonas Pupininkas – knight of St. George, breaker boy, broken man, separated in life from all he had known – was united in the company of the Lord for eternity.


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