Our Family Secret: Love and Death in the Mountains and the Horse Thief Sophianos.

By John Kass

My immigrant family was desperately keen on becoming American, to find our lawful and respectable place here in what was then the great melting pot.

Respectability was the goal.  And shame was the lash.

What was stressed to us was that the family name was sacred, that we should never do anything to throw dirt on it, or to allow others to throw dirt on it. It was an ancient understanding of shame and honor, and the honor of the clan, which was more valuable than gold.

Such understanding has fallen out of favor here. But they were from over there. And that’s why there was a secret, why they never spoke about it:

Our great grand uncle. He was called Sophianos. He was a notorious horse thief and robber who was shot dead by the federal police.

We told other family stories around the table, about the beautiful American white mule named Truman, that my father used to plow the fields so the family would have food. Truman was struck by the mati, the evil eye, and collapsed in the village square on its side, legs stiff, stretched out as if dead. But my grandmother said her special prayers and held a glass, and a drop of oil from her fingertips dissolved into water and Truman rose from the dead.

At least, that’s the story. And one about the oven in the courtyard of the family home, and the secret room underneath, where my grandfather, papou, would hide young men running from the communists.

Once a horse fell into the  open well and papou, who could not swim, went in after it and then my father, who could not swim, jumped in too, the two of them and the horse kicking in dark water.

And a story of the blankets our grandmother would weave by hand at her loom, and how she learned canning and midwifery at the Jane Addams Hull-House in Chicago, and became a midwife when she returned to the village.

And a funny one about a sharped tongued relative who was so stubborn, she scandalized the village by refusing to go to the church on her wedding day. Why? Her father had kept a gold florin that she’d once found in a field as a girl. Today, such a coin is worth about $140. Back then it was a fortune.

She kept screaming “My flori!! My flori! I want my flori!!” Her father was forced to sheepishly return it to her hand. The villagers laughed. And only then did the marriage take place.

But no mention of Sophianos. His story was considered shameful. And so they directed conversation to safe topics.

We all spoke English outside the home and English and Greek in the home. We kids spoke Greeklish. And we read the papers for news, learning the strange customs of the people we called “The Americani” (pronounced Ameree-kha-NEE). We stayed up on current events, to bring something fresh to the table for discussion at those big multi-generational Sunday family dinners of ours.

We lived in apartments then, in two-flats up and down Peoria Street. There were peddlers in the alleys that used horse-drawn trucks. Angelo the vegetable peddler had a horse that wore straw hats with its ears sticking through. The neighborhood smelled like the Union Stockyards a few blocks away. It didn’t bother us. We weren’t fancy. And later, after we all moved out to the suburbs, we missed the smell of the old neighborhood. But the dinners and the family were pretty much the same.

One Sunday Thea Fannie would host. The next Sunday my dad and mom might host, or Thea Betty or Thea Sandra or Thea Mary. Or Uncle George and his wife, the other Thea Mary. These feasts that lasted hours. It could take hours to for us to say the long goodbye, so long that someone might put on another pot of coffee and we’d all trudge back inside and talk some more.

If you come from a close-knit immigrant family, then you know about those Sunday dinners and the long goodbye.

Every Sunday someone new would stop by, someone new to America, a friend of a family friend just arrived. All were welcome. And if you had showed up, you’d be welcomed, too. That’s how it was for us. Children were not relegated to some other table in some other room. We all sat together, with card tables as extensions so everyone could sit together at the table.

When we got to talking, you took a position and had to defend it. There was no safe space in the family, and snowflakes were not allowed. TV was never on during dinner. No subject was forbidden, except sex, though I did hear “sex education” mentioned once and blushed because I didn’t quite know what “sex” was,  and my aunts furiously made the sign of the cross and ended it.

But there was that other forbidden subject, too:  Sophianos.

He was a bandit in the mountains of Arcadia in the Peloponnesus of the South, after the Turks had been driven out with fire and sword. In the mountains in the old country, or here in the mountains of this new country, time is relative. Stories are told and retold, and what happened last year or 100 years before, are green and alive in the telling.

He was a tall man, a brigand, an unrepentant mountain klepht. Decades after the Turks had been driven out, there was little law in the mountains. He took advantage of this. And he became a forcible gatherer of gold, of cattle, and many sheep and fine horses.

Early Western European depictions of the klephts painted them as killers and as ravishers of women, portraying them ferociously, as predators, as they would today’s Mujahidin. But the klephts were not Mujahidin. They were ferocious but were Orthodox Christians, and what they wanted was the Turks  gone from their country. They also wanted gold.

At the time, Western Europeans, then as now, wished that the Greeks were the classical people from their books, the people of antiquity, with their robes and their philosophy and their urns. But the mountains aren’t like that.

The klephtes. The two kidnappers fired on the poor father, vintage engraved illustration. Journal des Voyage, Travel Journal, (1880-81).

Sophianos wasn’t like that either. He was thief, leader of his clan of brigands, and a great price was put on his head.

He had his long guns and pistols and terrible sword and knew how to use them. Most Westerners see Greeks as smiling merchants, shopkeepers, eager to please, with sunny dispositions of happy islanders from sunny shores, dancing and breaking plates to the applause of tourists. But there is the other side that comes from the mountains where the eagle flies. The eagle does not have a sunny disposition. It is not happy, except when it strikes. It is a raptor.

And Sophianos was not eager to please anyone. He was eager to take from them. His mountain band of brothers were just like him, unsentimental when it came to gold.

But he did have his romantic side.

And it was romance that cost him his life. He died for love just outside our village of Rizes.

But we didn’t learn about him as children. It took years, until we were in our late teens and many of the older cousins were married, and our aunts grew old, to hear the name of Sophianos mentioned at the table.

My aunts didn’t want to hear about him. They already knew the stories. There are no secrets in a village.

And they were intent on respectability in America,  and terrified of shame. They didn’t want their children and nieces and nephews—or worse, strangers–to think such behavior was remotely acceptable by our clan.  And so, his memory wasn’t eternal. It was stricken.

There were no cell phones then, of course, but if they had been invented, they wouldn’t have been allowed at table. And we all had to be there. The women of immigrant families from all nations kept families together then. Perhaps they still do. Women are the backbone of family. And the women of our family believed, like a closed fist of sisters, that Sunday dinner was necessary.

Sometimes there was lamb. Often dolmades and pastitsio, and fruit and sweets for dessert, and real home-made yogurt and crushed walnuts drizzled with honey. The men smoked and had their coffee.

And there were always Jell-O molds, because, well, we were becoming Americans and that’s what the newspapers told us, that the Americani had Jell-O at their tables. I’ve hated Jell-O all my life. But I ate it then, because it would have been rude to refuse.

At Sunday dinner, all subjects were discussed, except “sex education.” We talked of politics and the Chicago politicians who squeezed the family businesses. We talked of crime and geography, wars, the White Sox, and movies (I’m partial to “El Cid” to this day) even Ripley’s Believe It or Not.

But nothing that could be remotely considered as shameful. We learned nothing about the in-law who finished off her cruel and abusive husband with a hammer as he slept. One night, he’d gone after the children and so she killed him. For this, she was locked away in an insane asylum.

And we never talked of the Chicago Outfit boss Gus Alex, a South Sider, and his dangerous brother Pete. We didn’t talk of gamblers, though Greeks are notorious gamblers with many losing their businesses through horses, cards or dice. Nick the Greek wasn’t a hero. And I never once heard mention of  the game of barbout, until years later, as a reporter, I learned that my late godfather was known in neighborhoods as Johnny Barbout until he disappeared somewhere in Las Vegas.

And we heard absolutely nothing about the horse thief.

The classical historian Victor Davis Hanson has written about shame and the ancient Greeks, though this applies to many other cultures.  On every continent, in every culture, across Asia,  through India and Africa, North and South America, and the islands, and among Native Americans here,  shame was the means to maintaining social order among people.

It’s also useful for warding off the decadence that comes with liberty and wealth. If the streets of America were not paved with gold, at least there was opportunity here, a chance to risk everything and create wealth far beyond what could be found in small villages across the ocean. And now America is a wealthy nation and its people are quite shameless.

If you follow the news these days, what is truly shameful now? Not much.

Today, the political left that reigns over all the cultural institutions of America and shapes metaphor–the universities, corporate journalism, Hollywood and the arts–is addicted to shaming people. But their addiction is all about political control. Shame and honor once felt by clans has little, if anything, to do with today’s Orwellian application.

When we became teenagers, I’d heard snatches about Sophianos and pressed the family to tell the story. And finally, the Theas allowed it, though they didn’t like it. As I remember it, they were furious when  after one Sunday dinner, when the men were smoking,  the subject of Sophianos came up and finally we were let in on the secret.

“He liked to collect things,” said my father. “And every year he’d ride up and down Greece, riding all the way to Bulgaria, and collect things.”

Theo George, a former teacher, added to the story.

“They say he collected everything he could,” said Theo George. “Everything.”

He used his guns and that sword and his gang to collect gold, silver, cattle and sheep, jewels.  And fine horses, not thick boned horses for the plow, but agile light steppers for mountain riding, with Arabian blood.

Despite the politically tinged dark fantasies of some French and English artists, Sophianos didn’t kidnap women. Besides, he had a girlfriend, my aunts said.

The stories say he had great flocks of black sheep in the mountains near the village, hundreds of them on the hillsides. And no one would touch the black sheep because they knew what would happen if they did.

“He wouldn’t like it,” said Thea Fannie, laughing.

 “No Fannie, he wouldn’t hurt anyone!” said Thea Betty, reverting to her role.

“Oh, come on Betty!” said Thea Fannie. “Nobody touched his provata. If you did…” She made a cutting gesture across her throat.

He ruled up there for years, riding up north to “collect” and back south to spend. Ultimately, the federal authorities had enough of him. A great price was put on his head in gold.

His problem was that he loved a girl from Rizes. She was said to have been beautiful, with long black hair and black eyes, but who can really say? Women are always beautiful and virtuous in such stories. What we do know is that they were engaged to be married and he was eager to visit her. So he did.

“He had a very good horse, but it was wild, and he came down from the mountains to the village to see her, and the army was hiding and surrounded him,” said Theo George.

He dropped his weapons.

“He said, ‘Wait boys, wait, relax, my horse is too wild, let me get off,” said my father. “And he stepped down from the horse. And that’s when he started running.”

Can a man outrun a horse? Not on flat land, but up there, it depends on the ground.

He was a fast runner, a mountain man. He turned and began running back up the mountain, on hard ground between the big rocks, toward his hide-out, where his men were ready with their long guns. He was leaving the army horses behind, and so quick, that he was getting away. At least, that was the story.

“And that’s when they shot him. Bam!” my father said. “Dead.”

We pictured him wearing a white shirt, his hands flying upward and out at impact. There were no last words, no speech. He was dead on the ground.

For years, that place at the base of the mountain, the field where he died was named after him: Sophianos. There was no formal ceremony of the naming. Nothing was written down. That’s just what our some in our village called it.

But I don’t think it’s called that now, or if anyone there remembers his story. We do. I think they grow sour cherries on the place, which make a fine fruit preserve sold across Europe.  I never learned what happened to the girl from Rizes who loved Sophianos.

For all I know she may have been a distant relation. Was she ever married with children of her own? Did her father get any reward, or was he sad when the shot rang out? Was he mourned, or were the people relieved?

We don’t really know. We don’t know much, except that our family didn’t want to talk about it.  And by the time they wanted to talk of it, many details had been forgotten and lost.

For all I know she lived her life, and if she had children, perhaps her great grandchildren may have come to America through Ellis Island, to host big Sunday dinners of their own, with their families around them, where such things were not discussed.


(Copyright 2021 John Kass)


European immigrants arriving at Ellis Island, ca. 1907

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