If you want to know how the world would look if libertarians got their way you don’t have to go very far. Northeastern Pennsylvania in the 1860s and 1870s put few restrictions on the “liberty” of the millionaires who owned the anthracite coal mines. There was no Federal Reserve. Each big mine had its own company script, legal tender only at the company store. There were no city police departments. Every “job creator” has his own private army of security guards, private detectives, and company spies. There was no social security, no unemployment insurance, no medicare or medicaid. There were no labor laws or safety standards, and no environmental regulations. Each mine was its own little feudal kingdom governed by its own ruling class, the CEO and Board of Directors, managed by a labor aristocracy, the English, Welsh, and German Americans who worked as foremen and engineers, and worked by unskilled Irish Catholic immigrants who were, for all practical purposes, slaves.
In the early 1870s, the mine owners in what are now Lackawanna, Luzerne, Columbia, Schuylkill, Carbon, and Northumberland counties broke a series of strikes organized by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish fraternal order that had become the nucleus of an emerging labor movement. After the longest strike, which last over 6 months, finally petered out, the owners did what capitalists always when they suddenly find themselves in total control. They turned up the repression up to 11. Wages were cut in half. Prices at the company stores doubled. They fired adult workers and hired children, some as young as 12. More importantly, Franklin B. Gowen, the owner of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, and at the time “the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world,” began to take steps that will be all too familiar to anybody who lived through 9/11, George W. Bush, and the “war on terror.”
Whether or not the Irish immigrant labor movement in Northeastern Pennsylvania went “underground” in the 1870s is still a matter of dispute among historians. Clearly, in the wake of the famine of 1847 and the mass emigration of Irish Catholic peasants to the United States, a tradition of secret societies and violent resistance emigrated with them. At the same time, violence poverty and repression go together. Not every bar fight that ended with someone getting shot or getting his skull cracked was political. The local newspapers, however, all of which were firmly under the control of the mine owners, didn’t let the opportunity go to waste, blaming every violent crime on a secret society of Irish labor organizers popularly known as the “Molly Maguires.” A climate of fear and hysteria resulted, especially among the English, German and Welsh Americans who held petty positions of authority over the Irish Catholic underclass. Franklin B. Gowan, who, in addition to being President of the Philadelphia & Reading Coal & Iron Company, had also served as the District Attorney for Schuylkill County decided to crush the Irish immigrant labor movement once and for all.
Martin Ritt’s 1970 film The Molly Maguires is a dramatization of what follows. James McParland, a private detective played by Richard Harris, arrives in Eckley Pennsylvania, hired by Franklin McGowan to identify the leadership of “The Molly Maguires,” who McGowan believes are responsible for a series of mine explosions. Initially creating suspicion — he’s new and his hands are far too soft for him to have had much experience as a miner — McParland eventually manages to infiltrate the local chapter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, led by Jack Kehoe, a historical Irish American labor leader played by Sean Connery. As the film unfolds, McParland collects enough information to implicate ten men in the murder of two mine owners. Although the evidence was far from conclusive, all of the men are hanged in Mauch Chuck and Pottsville Pennsylvania, in what is now widely considered to be a travesty of justice. Kehoe would be hanged a year later on obviously trumped up charges. As Carbon County Judge John P. Lavelle would later observe, it was the “libertarian” ideal come to life, a government which had effectively surrendered its authority to a private corporation.
“The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.”
Marin Ritt’s film has one undeniably great scene. After McParland completes his first week on the job, he goes to collect his paycheck. The detective hates working in the coal mines but still, as an able-bodied, relatively young man — Richard Harris was 40 in 1970 — he’s managed to haul a lot of coal out of the ground. Nevertheless, the mine owners not only charge the miners for their equipment, they have ratcheted up the repression in the wake of the failed strikes. After all is said and done, McParland takes home a grand total of 23 cents. We keep watching. Surely, we think, the more experienced miners, who already own their equipment and who are better at hauling coal, will do better. They do worse. The more coal a miner can haul, the more equipment he needs, and the more he is charged. The man in line after McParland hauls out twice as much coal and makes only half as much money. The next man hauls out even more coal and winds up in debt for the week. He owes the mine owners money. In other words, the Irish immigrant coal miners are effectively slaves. For a moment McParland, who’s being paid by the mine owners to bust up the labor movement and who has plenty of money, hesitates, almost in disbelief at what the workers at the mine have to put up with. McParland is also an Irishman himself. Has he sold out his own soul? Is he Judas?
Nothing else in the Molly Macguires has the power of this one incredible scene. We never really learn if McParland’s hesitation was a genuine moment of regret, or if he had simply been disoriented by having, for once in his life, to do hard labor. Sean Connery is far too good-looking and far too well-built to be convincing as a coal miner. The real John Kehoe was an influential labor leader but he would still have spent many 12 hour days underground. The way Connery looks, I half expected him to check his Rolex, order a dry martini, shaken not stirred, then go upstairs to the presidential suite to fuck another Bond girl. Sean Connery in 1970, especially with his neatly trimmed mustache, would have made a great young Ernest Hemingway, but he’s no more believable as an Irish immigrant coal miner than Peter Dinklage would be as an NBA power forward.
The other miners are similarly miscast. McParland’s love interest, played by Samantha Egger, is even better looking than Connery. In the end, the only character in the film even remotely believable as working class is Police Captain Davies, a Welshman played by Frank Finlay. It has an unintentional consequence. After he explains how he had been willing to do anything to stay above ground in the light, to get out of working in the mines, we come away understanding the motivations, not of the militant labor leaders who dynamite the mine shafts, but of the private detectives who sell them out, a result the film’s screenwriter, a former communist blacklisted by the McCarthyite witch hunts in the 1950s, surely didn’t intend. Worst of all is Richard Harris. Normally a good actor, he seems to sleepwalk through his starring role. Although he has more screen time and dialog than anybody else in the film we never get a clue about his motivations, or even about why he’s so intent on sleeping with Mary Raines, Egger. She’s an unpleasant social climber. He’s a rat carrying out private cointelpro for a capitalist pig mine owner, and nothing registers. Well, I guess it was 1970 and everybody hated rats. If Connery hadn’t been almost as bad and almost as inexpressive, I might be tempted to say that Harris was resentful over not being the hero.
In any event, The Molly Maguires is no Matewan, John Sayles’s classic 1980s film about a similar incident in West Virginia. Indeed, it’s baffling how Martin Ritt could have made such a dull film about such a compelling historical event. Watch a documentary about the real Molly Maguires instead. But never forget, what happened on December 8, 1878 is what libertarians want, the “liberty” of the ruling class to turn the working class into actual slaves, and to do anything the hell they want to any of us without the fear of “government.”