What happened to these young seafood workers?

‘Marie Kriss, seven years old, shucks oysters and picks shrimp at Biloxi Canning Co., when not tending the baby. Makes 25 cents some days. Biloxi, Mississippi, February 1911.’ Lewis Hine’s information.
‘Marie Kriss, seven years old, shucks oysters and picks shrimp at Biloxi Canning Co., when not tending the baby. Makes 25 cents some days. Biloxi, Mississippi, February 1911.’ Lewis Hine’s information. Library of Congress

Their faces are images captured around a century ago. Sometimes they smile or look at something just off to the side, but more often they look intently into the lens, seemingly older than their years.

Their photos were taken by sociologist and photographer Lewis Hine. Hine traveled to places such as Beaumont, Texas; Oklahoma City; Lawrence, Massachusetts; Eastport, Maine, and Apalachicola, Florida, to document children as young as preschool working in textile mills and factories, on farms and at sawmills. He also came to the Mississippi Gulf Coast and found children working in seafood factories in Biloxi and Bay St. Louis. Reproductions of some of his photos can be seen in the Maritime & Seafood Industry Museum in Biloxi.

Some of the young Mississippi Coast workers:

▪ Eleven-year-old Sadie Kelly carries an oyster basket in one hand, a wicker basket on the other arm in a photo from 1911. She lives in Bay St. Louis during the canning season, and this is her second year to pick shrimp for the Peerless Oyster Company. Her head is roughly shaved due to a bad case of head lice. Sadie is on a pathway and looks like she’s either on her way to work or headed home; either way, she looks like she has a lot of other concerns on her mind.

▪ Gertrude and Mildred Kron, 5 and 3 years old respectively, hold hands in their photo taken in February 1911. Gertrude bites her bottom lip, almost like she’s suppressing a smile, and looks away from the camera while Mildred’s bright eyes stare into the camera. They “help shuck oysters every day in the Barataria Canning Company” in Biloxi, according to Hine’s caption.

▪ Lazaro Boney is 12 years old in a photo taken with several other children who work at the Biloxi Canning Factory in 1911. He had worked there for four years; in the photo, he is barefoot and wearing short pants and a sweater. “Both he and his mother said he makes $1.75 a day when shrimp are large and plentiful. He made $57.00 last year in 3 months,” Hine said in his caption. Factory workers often said an “acid” in shrimp would eat into the flesh of fingers and even destroy shoe leather and tin. It actually was an alkali.

The Lewis Hine Project

Joe Manning of Florence, Massachusetts, is an author, historian, genealogist, freelance journalist, poet, photographer and songwriter. About 11 years ago, Addie Card, a young spinner photographed in 1910, started Manning on the road to writing the stories of these children, which has become known as the Lewis Hine Project. His blog, Mornings on Maple Street, includes the Lewis Hine Project.

“There was a little girl standing in front of a machine in Vermont,” Manning said in a recent telephone interview. He and another researcher and writer, Elizabeth Winthrop, were taken with the photo of whom Hine described as an “anaemic little spinner in North Pownal Cotton Mill.” She originally had been identified as Addie Laird.

Winthrop had written a novel, “Counting on Grace,” which was inspired by Addie. In 2005, she hired Manning to find out what happened to Addie after 1920, where Winthrop’s information had stopped.

“It took 11 days to find a grandchild,” he said. He found more relatives who were amazed to learn about their grandmother’s childhood.

The ability to research and introduce an aspect of a family’s history inspired Manning to want to tell the stories of more of Hine’s subjects.

“I wanted to go find another picture,” he said. “I had time. I wanted to bring another anonymous child to life.”

He found more Hine photos at the Library of Congress’ website and began working through the more than 5,000 images available. In all, Manning has done 350 stories so far, but he has no plans to stop.

“It’s one of the loves of my life,” he said.

Man on a mission

In the process, Manning learned more about the man who photographed these children. Hine was hired by the National Child Labor Committee to take the photographs, but before that, he was a school teacher.

“He had been a teacher at a progressive school in New York,” Manning said. “He studied social work and English. The headmaster at the school suggested he learn how to use a camera to use in his teaching. That was in 1905. He took some kids from his sociology class on a field trip to Ellis Island, and he went back to take some incredible photos of people who had just gotten off the boat. He didn’t want to make them look pitiful but like ‘real’ people.”

He began his work with the NCLC in 1908, and as part of that work, he came to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Among the children he found were Marie Kriss and Olga Subat.

Manning found their descendants.

“Their stories are very similar,” Manning said. “The people I interviewed were incredibly observant about the culture of Biloxi and of Slavic people, probably Croatian.”

Their families “spoke so eloquently about why they were the way they were. Both of their families had already reflected on their lives,” he said.

Baltimore to Biloxi

Little Marie Kriss, 8 years old, is standing at the corner of a house in a dirty pinafore, her eyebrows furrowed. When she wasn’t tending a younger sibling, she shucked oysters and picked shrimp at Biloxi Canning Co. Her family lived in Baltimore but would migrate south for the winter to work in the factory. A year before this photo was taken, her family decided to make Biloxi their permanent home. Marie died in 1993 at age 90, but Manning was able to talk with Sandra Beaugez, one of her granddaughters, who had strong memories of her grandmother’s stories about her youth.

“She remembered women being pregnant — in the family way as she called it — and they would be going into labor, but the factory wouldn’t let them go home. It was that horrible,” Beaugez told Manning. “But she never used the term ‘horrible.’ She just called it strict or whatever. She said it would be freezing cold, and they would have to work out on the wharf. They would have these big metal cylinders that they stood in, and there was a hole to see out of, and holes to stick their hands through to pick the shrimp. The only warmth they had was a coal stove, and it was so cold, that sometimes their legs were so numb that they didn’t realize that their legs were so close to the fire that they would get blistered. They would work out there for hours and hours. She lost part of her ring finger, up to the first knuckle, from handling shrimp. The acid eventually caused it to rot away. But she never complained about it to us. She just said it was hard work.”

Kriss was careful with her money and could find treasures in unexpected places, her granddaughter told Manning.

“We would go visit her on the weekends and stay overnight,” Beaugez said. “She used to take us to the movies, but we took our own popcorn in greasy brown bags and hid them. On the way home was when the real treat began. People would leave their trash cans out on the street. She would go through them and pick out old dolls, if they looked clean. She would take off the clothes on them and make, by hand, gorgeous gowns for them. She once found a flashlight. And then she found a cowboy doll that didn’t have any legs. She stuck the cowboy in the flashlight with his head sticking out. Anything you gave her, it went on the wall. Her apartment was like a museum.”

A formidable aunt

Olga Subat was even younger than Marie in her photo. At 5 years, she is pictured sitting on steps, her head down and her tiny fists to her eyes. It’s quite likely she’s just tired; her day had begun at 5 a.m. helping her mother at the factory. Her mother told Hine, “Oh, she’s ugly,” a phrase which confounded Manning, but it’s likely Olga’s mother meant “She’s being ugly” by not posing for the photo. Olga’s parents actually owned their home at 855 Reynoir St. Olga went to school, and later she said she completed the 11th grade. She died in 1989 at the age of 83 in Houma, Louisiana.

Manning talked with Susan Bourgeois, Subat’s niece, who described her aunt as “very nice” as well as “forthright and funny” and said Subat worked as a helper to people in their homes, saving her money over the years into a sizable nest egg. She also could be a little formidable.

“Honestly, Aunt Olga was scary,” she said to Manning. “When she walked into a room, you sat up straight. And you hoped she wouldn’t send a frank remark your way. One time, one of my sisters visited Aunt Olga, and brought her son along. Aunt Olga looked at him and said, ‘He looks like a turtle.’ Now, where did Aunt Olga acquire this blunt behavior? Her mother, of course. That was just her way of talking. She was always forthright and funny. There was no outward softness to Aunt Olga, but I am sure there was on the inside.”

Nevertheless, “When she experienced a stroke, my parents brought her to Houma, their hometown,” Bourgeois told Manning. “I would go visit her with my youngest child, Michael. Strangely, in her peculiar state, she loved being around his sweet innocence. It makes you wonder if that softness was hidden all along. I know it was hard for Dad to see his older sister in that condition, but I think they were all there for one another all along, in spite of the difficulties of life.”

Researching the lives of these children and the adults they became has had strong meaning for Manning.

“Every one of these kids has been a part of my family,” he said.

Tammy Smith: 228-896-2130, @Simmiefran1

Related stories from Biloxi Sun Herald