“It’s arguably one of the first kind of sobriety movements that emerges in the United States,” notes Simon, “in which people who suffer from alcoholism are kind of granted a degree of agency and self-determination over their own affliction.”
In the years before the Civil War, Pittsburgh became home to a free black man from West Virginia, Martin Delany — one of the most daring and heroic figures of this tortured era. He would settle in the Hill District, treating Pittsburghers during the cholera epidemics of 1833 and 1854, when doctors and residents fled the city. He was one of the first three Black men to be admitted to Harvard Medical School, though white students conspired to throw him out.
Delany returned to Pittsburgh and started a newspaper called The Mystery, longing for an African homeland for freed American slaves — examining ideas that would later be explored by Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X.
“He is positing a very revolutionary, very radical vision of black independence and black self-determination,” says Simon. “Obviously, he’s writing against the slave-owning aristocracy of his native South, which is an obvious target. And then he felt that there was a degree of condescension from white liberal abolitionists, who saw the issue as a means for their own kind of moral growth.”
Delany became the first African-American field-grade officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War. But aside from a historical marker near PPG Place Downtown, he is barely remembered in Pittsburgh today.
The ugliest depths of the American character would become manifest in Pittsburgh as well, like the ranting street preacher of Market Square, the Reverend Joseph Barker. His ferocious anti-Catholic diatribes frequently landed him in prison for inciting riots. While in prison, he was elected Mayor of Pittsburgh in 1850.
“Barker was sort of this bizarre, buffoonish, clownish, awful figure,” says Simon, noting there isn’t much information about him.
As mayor, he was a disaster — starting his rival police force that would fight the regular police and harass the growing Irish Catholic population.
“He’s this kind of loudmouth, obscene guy who won’t shut up, who riles up violence against ethnic minorities,” explains Simon. “When I was writing the book in 2019 and 2020, it was hard not to see some parallels (to today). And at the time, the fact that he lost the next election, I took as a favorable omen, perhaps that things can kind of self-correct a little bit.”
Now, Pittsburgh is among the most Catholic cities in America, with a Catholic mayor. “So there’s this kind of final revenge against this mayor,” notes Simon.
There’s plenty more in “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh,” from the musical sparks that flew when Duke Ellington met Billy Strayhorn, to a city at war with its largest employer in the Homestead Strike of 1892, to Nazi saboteurs seeking to destroy a vital economic artery.
And of course, there’s Joe Magarac (“jackass” in Croatian) — the folklore/“fakelore” mill hunk of incredible strength, whose origins are suspect but who became an icon of immigrant worker power nonetheless.
Simon writes with a lively, piquant style that finds sharply observed details in unexpected places. We can say with confidence that “An Alternative History of Pittsburgh” will be on our ultimate Pittsburgh bookshelf list the next time it’s updated. It’s available at independent bookstores in Pittsburgh and online at Belt Publishing.