A Wobbly Martyr's Grave - Bob Helms

An article by Bob Helms about finding the former home and grave of Martynas Petkus, a IWW member who was shot and killed by police during a strike in 1917. Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1617 (November 1998)

I am pleased to announce that the grave and the home of fellow worker Martin Petkus (Marciionas Petkeviczia)1, a Lithuanian sugar worker and Wobbly who was shot to death by riot police during a sugar strike in Philadelphia, have been located.

On February 21, 1917, a strike had been going on for several weeks, led by IWW, at the Franklin and McCahan sugar refineries. The bosses at both companies were bringing in African-Americans as scabs, and each night the police would escort the scabs home from the plants, located along the Delaware River at the foot of Reed Street.

At 5:30 p.m. such a group came out and was met by about 30 strikers' wives led by Florence Sholde, 32 years old, who threw pepper into the faces of both the scabs and the police. The crowd grew and the confrontation escalated into a pitched battle of bricks and pistol shots, involving hundreds of union supporters. FW Sholde was arrested for inciting to riot (police agents supposedly had spotted her earlier in the day urging militant action at a meeting), and scores of people were injured on both sides, but Martin Petkus was killed by a single bullet in the chest and fell across a railroad track. He lived a few blocks away at 131 Tasker Street - the house is still standing today.

The news reports say that he was one of the striking Franklin workers, that he was "known among them as a giant of strength and courage," and that the police found an IWW membership card in his pocket. He was recognized by all as a leader, and accordingly his funeral was a formidable event.

Petkus' body lay in state at the Lithuanian National Hall (still standing), which was the headquarters of MTW IU #510 at that time, and on February 26th he was carried to St. Casimir's Lithuanian Catholic Church, a dozen or so blocks away, with a crowd of about 10,000 accompanying his casket. Little girls wearing red dresses sold red carnations to union supporters.

Over 200 African-American IWW longshoremen who were out on a sympathy strike walked behind their slain comrade in a group, with red carnations on their lapels. When the funeral mass was over, about 1,500 people went in a train of vehicles to Holy Cross Cemetery in Yeadon, about five miles distant in the western suburbs. Holy Cross is on Baily Road, and our man is in "Section E, Range 9, Lot 27, Grave CR."

The grave is marked by a black granite cross bearing the names of the Wobbly martyr and a younger brother who died the following year. The inscription is in Lithuanian. FW Petkas was 28 years old.

Originally appeared in Industrial Worker #1617 (November 1998)

  • 1. libcom note - he was also known as 'Martynas Petkus'