The Molly Maguires and the Chilean Experience

by Bernard McCormick Monday, October 18, 2010 No Comment(s)


The dramatic rescue of the Chilean miners included a lot of background on the mining industry. It included spots on the influence of unions in the U.S. to effect safety standards which have made the underground work much safer – at least in our country. The news from Chile happened to intersect with two projects I have been working on during off hours. One is an update of my family tree, which began with a man born in Ireland in 1803 who somehow cared about genealogy when the average Irishmen did not know the word. The other is a book on the history of magazines such as our Gulfstream Media’s flagship Gold Coast and other titles moving up the coast to Martin County.

First, a touch of family history. My maternal great grandfather died in a mine accident in Pennsylvania in 1875. The irony is that he was not a miner. He went into a mine on some kind of chamber of commerce Sunday tour, and it collapsed. We have another connection which will come later. First, the book. In looking over issues from the 1960s when Philadelphia Magazine, my old joint, invented the new media we now call city/regional magazines, I came across a cover story on the making of the film “The Molly Maguires.” It was a good movie, but was a disappointment at the box office. It starred Sean Connery and Richard Harris. Connery, face darkened with coal dust, was on the magazine cover. The inside black and white photos were a masterpiece. Some of those shots will definitely be in the book.

The Molly Maguries, often shortened to Mollies, were a group of immigrant Irish miners in Pennsylvania who struggled in the 1860s and 1870s for better working conditions and pay for a very dangerous job. Some historians view the movement as an extension of the Irish troubles in the old world which most of the miners had fled. In fact, the name itself emigrated from Ireland where it had been a secret organization resisting British rule. The Mollies were mostly Catholic boys and the mine owners mostly Welsh Protestants. They did not much like each other. The movement became violent, with many deaths. More Irish were killed that mine bosses, but it was nasty business either way. Eventually the mine owners broke the Mollies by infiltrating them with a Pinkerton detective, played by Richard Harris in the film. The film was shot in the small town of Eckley in the Pennsylvania coal regions. It was an old fashioned looking place, and the set designers merely had to take down electrical stuff and dirt over the streets to create an authentic period look. Philadelphia Magazine sent Gaeton Fonzi, later a regular contributor to our Florida magazines, up to Eckley to do a behind-the-scenes story. He had access to the stars and his story was a great read.

Now we backtrack to family history. The leaders in the Molly Maguires were eventually tried and 20 were hung. One of them was named Alexander Campbell. My mother, who passed the family tree information down from her grandfather, had been told that Campbell was a relative, perhaps a cousin, of my mother’s grandmother, Mary Campbell. There were four other men named Campbell who were mentioned at the trials as members of the Molly Maguires. My mother never knew the exact connection. It was lore, rather than documented information, but I have found that lore in family trees is often reality.

The trials of the Mollies were controversial. At the least they were rigged, with bribed witnesses, and jurors of Dutch ancestry who barely understood English. The alleged leader of the Mollies was hung, but almost a century later Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp gave him an official pardon, the only one in Pennsylvania history. And to this day there is division of opinion over the movement. Some historians regard them as murdering terrorists who got what they deserved. The descendants of those men, however, hold them as heroes who were the forerunners of the first important labor union, the United Mine Workers. Today, thanks to public employee unions taking advantage of the rest of us, the word union is not universally revered. But in the nineteenth century they were admirable institutions, bringing better wages and safety to many industries, including garment workers and railroading. And in the case of the United Mine Workers, the union forced the kind of safety improvements that were a sidebar to the Chilean miners story.

In general, the Mollies have done well by history. The Cleveland Indians were originally the Cleveland Molly Maguires. And there are numerous bars bearing the name. As for Alexander Campbell being family, I guess we could check that out if we spent enough time with the Mormon genealogical records. Maybe one day we will. In the meantime, it is satisfying to stick with lore.

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