Bookshelf provides descriptions and notices of recent publications on Pennsylvania subjects.

Sweet William: The Life of Billy Conn

by Andrew O’Toole
published by the University of Illinois Press, 2008; 253 pages, cloth, $32.95

An Irish working-class hero of Pittsburgh, William David “Billy” Conn (1917–1993) captured the hearts of his contemporaries with his stellar boxing record, ebullient personality, and good looks. A lightweight boxing champion, Conn had defeated nine current or former champions in three weight divisions by the time he was twenty-one. Best remembered for his near-defeat of heavyweight champion Joe Louis (1914–1981) in 1941, sports historians and generations of admirers still regard Conn as one of the greatest fighters of all time.

Inducted into the Ring Boxing Hall of Fame in 1965 and the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 1990, Billy Conn was one of the most popular athletes of his era. Nicknamed “The Pittsburgh Kid,” he captured the public’s imagination with his boxing, Hollywood, and military careers, which author Andrew O’Toole chronicles in Sweet William: The Life of Billy Conn by drawing from fascinating interviews with the subject’s family, Conn’s personal scrapbooks, and period newspaper accounts.

Conn debuted as a professional boxer in 1934 at the age of sixteen. He ultimately compiled a record of sixty-three wins — fourteen of them by knockouts — before retiring from the game in 1948. Retirement, however, did not mean relinquishing his role as a public figure. He participated in a number of film documentaries broadcast by Home Box Office and was frequently seen at boxing-related activities until his death at the age of seventy-five. In a motion picture produced by Republic Studios, The Pittsburgh Kid, Conn had played himself in the title role. The movie premiered at the Liberty Theater in Pittsburgh’s East Liberty section on September 24, 1941.

Presenting an intimate look at the champion’s relationships with his girlfriend (later wife) Mary Louise Smith, manager Johnny Ray, and a host of rivals, Sweet William compellingly captures the personal life of a public icon — and beloved life-long Pittsburgh resident — and the pageantry of American sports during the 1930s and 1940s.


Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia

by Peter Cole
published by the University of Illinois Press, 2007; 234 pages, cloth, $40.00

For nearly a decade during the 1910s and 1920s, Philadelphia’s waterfront was home to the most durable interracial, multi-ethnic union seen in the United States prior to the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) era. In a period when most unions, like many institutions, excluded or segregated blacks, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) — founded in Chicago in 1905 as a radical alternative to the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and whose members were known as Wobblies — was ideologically committed to racial equality. More than any other IWW affiliate, however, Philadelphia’s Local 8, the Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union, worked to become a progressive, interracial union. For much of its time, the union majority was black, always with a cadre of black leaders, which included Benjamin Fletcher (1890–1949), a prominent union organizer. Local 8 also claimed immigrants from Eastern Europe, as well as Irish Americans, who had a notorious reputation for racism.

In Wobblies on the Waterfront: Interracial Unionism in Progressive-Era Philadelphia, Peter Cole outlines the factors that were instrumental in the success of Local 8, both ideological, including the IWW’s commitment to working-class solidarity, and pragmatic, such as eliminating the racial divisions that helped solidify employer dominance. The author also shows how race was central not only to the rise but also the decline of Local 8, as increasing racial tensions were manipulated by employers and federal officials bent on destroying the union.

Wobblies on the Waterfront includes illustrations, extensive notes, and a lengthy bibliography.


Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch

by David W. Kriebel
published by Penn State University Press, 2008; 295 pages, cloth, $30.00

Known among the so-called Pennsylvania Dutch as Brauche or Braucherei, the folk healing practice of powwowing was thought to draw upon the power of God to heal all manner of physical and spiritual ills. Yet some people believed — and still believe today — that the power to heal came not from God, but from the devil. Controversy over powwowing came to head in 1929 with the York Hex Murder Trial (Commonwealth v. John Blymire) in which thirty-two-year-old York County powwower John Blymire killed another practitioner, sixty-year-old Nelson D. Rehmeyer, who he believed had placed a hex on him.

Known also as the York Witch Trial, the case holds a special position in the history of powwowing because it deeply affected both the way the practice, often called “white magic,” was viewed by those within the Pennsylvania German culture and the way it was seen outside. It resulted in the enactment in landmark legislation, the Pennsylvania Medical Practices Act, and a program of “scientific” education aimed at quelling superstition among rural Pennsylvanians. Details of the case appeared in the April 1931 issue of the pulp serial The Illustrated Detective Magazine and in at least two popular books, The “Pow-Wow” Book (1929) by A. Monroe Aurand and Hex (1969) by Arthur H. Lewis. The case also inspired Apprentice to Murder, a 1988 motion picture starring Chad Lowe and Donald Sutherland. In 1999, the York Sunday News christened the murder “York’s Crime of a Century.”

In Powwowing Among the Pennsylvania Dutch, David W. Kriebel examines the practices of “powwow doctors” in a scholarly light and shows that, contrary to popular belief, powwowers are still active today. He cautions readers that it is important to distinguish Pennsylvania German powwowing from the “powwows” of the Native Americans. “The chief value of this work is qualitative,” Kriebel writes, “to provide an appreciation of the powwower’s art and practice for the nuances of Pennsylvania Dutch culture and identity today. My scholarship, like much scholarship performed on powwowing in the past, has therefore been predominantly folkloristic and humanistic. What distinguishes my work from most is that it is a contemporary ethnography. I have tried to show that powwowing is a living, evolving practice and not some relic from a bygone past. It makes sense within the cultural models of the Pennsylvania Dutch and is believed in by people who are as rational and modern as anyone else.”

Because powwowing lacks extensive academic documentation, the author’s research is both a groundbreaking inquiry and a necessity for the student of Pennsylvania German history and culture.


These Just In…

A number of new and recent books about Pennsylvania history have been received by Pennsylvania Heritage’s editorial staff, which has not yet had the opportunity to review them, but wishes to share news of their availability with readers.

Carlisle vs. Army: Jim Thorpe, Dwight Eisenhower, Pop Warner, and the Forgotten Story of Baseball’s Greatest Battle, by Lars Anderson, published by Random House, 2007; 368 pages, cloth, $24.95.

Images of America: Vintondale, by Denise Dusza Weber, published by Arcadia Publishing, 2008; 128 pages, paper, $19.99.

Forklore: Recipes and Tales from an American Bistro, by Ellen Yin, published by Temple University Press, 2007; 288 pages, cloth, $35.00.

Pennsylvania Mountain Vistas: A Guide for Hikers and Photographers, by Scott E. Brown, published by Stackpole Books, 2008; 192 pages, paper, $19.95.

Building Character . . . Harry’s Way!! The Story of Harry DeFrank and the value of sport in the lives of our youngsters when done the right way by the right people, by Vincent P. Carocci, published by Tuxedo Books, 2008; 196 pages, paper, $30.00.

Forgotten Philadelphia: Lost Architecture of the Quaker City, by Thomas H. Keels, published by Temple University Press, 2007; 320 pages, cloth, $40.00.

Flow: The Life and Times of Philadelphia’s Schuylkill River, by Beth Kephart, published by Temple University Press, 2007; 116 pages, cloth, $23.00.

One Came Home: A true story about twin brothers who are called to serve their country together in the Korean War, by Vincent A. Krepps, published by American Literary Press, 2007; 314 pages, cloth, $26.95.

The Pennsylvania Anthracite Coal Industry, 1850–1902: Economic Cycles, Business Decision-Making and Regional Dynamics, by R.G. Healey, published by the University of Scranton Press, 2008; 512 pages, paper, $60.00.