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Flora and the Coat of Many Pockets

When you’re born on April Fool’s Day and named a girl’s name, things are bound to get weird sometimes. That is, if you happen to be a boy.

Johnny Cash understood this, and wrote “A Boy Named Sue.” Sue’s absent father named his son Sue to toughen him up, to help him to make his way through life without a father’s guidance and influence. As Sue attests, “Life ain’t easy for a boy named Sue.”

I have no evidence or even a clue why Benjamin Franklin Herrington and wife Hannah named their son Flora when he was born in 1878. He was their sixth child of seven, and the first son. Perhaps they assumed it had to be another daughter, and named him Flora without looking closely. Perhaps, Benjamin, channeling Johnny Cash, decided the name Flora would toughen up his first son.

Flora became his official name when he was baptized a month later at the Fairview Church of the Brethren in Masontown, Pennsylvania.

Life for a boy in Masontown in the late 19th century was tough enough without having the added burden of answering to a girl’s name, and not exactly the most frequent or popular girl’s name. Admittedly, Frances, Adelaide, Alice, Jenny, and Kathryn had been used up on his younger sisters, and Hannah, a very popular feminine name in the 19th century, was his mother’s moniker.

Flora’s dad had served as a private in the 7th West Virginia Infantry during the Civil War from 1861 to 1864. Masontown is only a good stone’s throw from West Virginia. In 1861, this area was part of the state of Virginia which had seceded from the Union. Lots of folks in southwestern Pennsylvania became active in persuading their neighbors in Virginia to secede from the state and form West Virginia. To help seal the deal, many men from Fayette and Greene counties in Pennsylvania volunteered to serve in West Virginia regiments. Quite a few of them were Herringtons and Baileys. But that’s another story.

When Benjamin Franklin Herrington was mustered out, he returned to Masontown, married Hannah and started raising a family and working a farm.

The Benjamin Herrington kids all went to school, and you can imagine the razzing poor Flora took about his name and maybe even about his birthdate: “Flora’s a real April Fool” maybe the other kids called him.

I wonder how many fights he fought on the schoolyard, or in the neighborhood.

Flora’s mother died when he was seven. From that moment, Flora was raised by a Civil War veteran and five older sisters.

Not much information has been found about Flora, but he most likely got a job in the coal mines when he was a teenager. This would not have been unusual for Masontown teens in the 1880s and 90s. There were many coal mines in southwestern Pennsylvania and although it was back-breaking, dangerous work, it paid better than working as a farm laborer on someone else’s land.

The men who owned the coal mines in those days cared nothing about their employees’ health and welfare. There were no unions to protect workers’ rights. If a man was injured or developed Black Lung, that was his look-out and no concern of the mine owner or the mine superintendent.

You were fired without any severance pay. Those who dared to speak up against the unsafe and unhealthy conditions or complained about the low wages and the long work hours were beaten and sometimes killed by gangs hired by the mine superintendents.

Some years later, Flora, now in his mid-20s escaped the mine and worked as a laborer at the High House coke plant. Anthracite (hard coal) and bituminous (soft coal) burned pretty well, but not hot enough or clean enough to make pig iron of a sufficient quality to be used in making steel.

In the 11th century, Chinese ironworkers discovered the benefits of “cooking” soft coal in beehive ovens until the impurities had been burned off, leaving a highly combustible fuel capable of making high quality pig iron.

Coke ovens were first used in Fayette County Pennsylvania in 1817, and by 1900, Masontown and other mining towns of western Pennsylvania produced 19 million tons of coke, enough to fill a train of railroad cars stretching from western PA to San Francisco and back to Masontown.

Flora Herrington tended coke ovens, shoveling coal into the opening at the top of the ovens, keeping them burning until the coke was ready, raking it out of white-hot ovens to cool. Then he would load the coke onto carts which were hauled by donkeys to barges on the Monongahela River, and shipped downstream to the steel mills at Pittsburgh.

It was hard, hot, hazardous dirty work. The fumes from burning coke can take your breath away, and the heat from the ovens is only slightly hotter than the hinges on the doors of Hell.

The assistant superintendent of High House coke plant was an Irishman named James Shannon. He thought Flora’s name was hilarious, and he rode Flora hard. When Shannon saw his ridicule had gotten under Flora’s hide and made him resentful, the super found fault with his work.

Before too many days of this had passed, Flora had had it. Arming himself with a .32 caliber revolver, Flora fired at James Shannon, but the bullet missed its target.

The Masontown police were notified, and although they probably considered Flora’s action to be justifiable, the warden of the Fayette County jail got into his car and drove out to High House and arrested Flora Herrington and brought him to jail.

When the turnkey and the warden commenced to search him, Flora exclaimed indignantly, “It ain’t necessary to search me. I don’t have anything on me.” Well, as you will see, Flora Herrington was a master of the understatement.

He was searched and this is what the officers found in the pockets of his overcoat: a .32 caliber revolver, a pair of brass knuckles, three large pocket knives, a city of Philadelphia police badge, three purses, a box of cartridges, a file, two match boxes, several small stones;

a beer opener, two pipes, two bunches of keys, two rings, a home-made skeleton key made from a sheet of brass, a large lump of tinfoil, a lot of Confederate money, an assortment of snuff boxes, pieces of combs, a small mirror, several hairpins, a collection of pants buttons;

an assortment of nails running to the 40 penny size, one peach seed, an old clock spring, parts of a dismembered watch, an assortment of more-than-risque postcards, several truant officers’ reports, two or three large pieces of wood;

a small magnet, a large piece of white chalk, a half pound of snuff, six handkerchiefs, a watch, several pieces of old watch chains, a shoe hook, several yards of rope, and a lot of celluloid buttons.

Obviously, Flora was not the sort to leave home unprepared.

In case you are wondering, yes, I am a distant relative. That may explain why my desk is always cluttered. I don’t own a coat with as many pockets as Flora.

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