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Behold, The Molly Maguires Mystified

By Peter A. Weisman, with comments by Janine Stavrovsky and Christine Rapp

[1] Since the dawning of the industrial revolution, producing the stratification of socioeconomic status into a competitive class hierarchy never before seen, conflict theorists have appeared to define the unjust. From William Blake's poetry to Karl Marx' manifestos, from Bethlehem steel strikes to the current Labor Party, from Fidel Castro to the Mexican Zapatista movement, from Lenin to Mao Tse Tung, from the Molly Maguires to Jimmy Hoffa, the desire to upgrade the conditions of the working class have had a continual role in justifying violence, providing an equilibrium to keep capital interests in check, motivated whole countries to gain newly instituted political leaders and formats of rule, even in offering some form of purpose for, identity with, and release of violent rage inside the tribal nature of humans in a world of disintegrating, or disintegrated, tribes. The question of the new millennium might very well be whether or not humans can live without enemies. In a country, if not a world, with creature comforts easily secured, labor issues becoming obsolete, where will modern man direct his barbaric energy?

Neither law, nor philosophy, nor reason, nor spiritual counsel has prevailed against this primitive element in man's nature[revenge]. The upward path of civilization, and it has been upward, is twisted by it, leaving grim milestones in appalling quantity. (Lewis viii)

[2] The Molly Maguires were one such labor voice, if perceived this way, one such tribe (both causally and ethnically), and one such milestone, active from the 1860's to the 1870's. It is this period in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal regions which the 1970 movie is based. Long before child labor laws, a minimum wage, suitable standards on working conditions, or any form of labor union (the first geographically encompassing the Pennsylvania coal region was the shabbily organized, often squabbling, General Council of the Workingmen's Associations of the Anthracite Coal Fields founded on March 17, 1869[Aurand 69]), the Molly Maguires were an active labor force, if one views them as such, or a marauding group of renegades, thugs, and Godless anarchists, if one is persuaded to perceive them in that light. If they can be considered a labor force, then this was the last time in America that the left wing was more violent than the right. If they can not, then this was yet another cyclical occurrence of organized anarchy and violence.

[3] One thing is certain, the Molly Maguires intimidated, beat, bashed, crippled, and often murdered mine owners, supervisors, police, and anyone who spoke out against them. They were motivated not only by the working conditions, virtual slave circumstances which forced many to buy life's necessities from factory stores and their often starving families but also by a severe racism acted out against Irish Catholics in the market place, having traveled with them from Ireland. This time period is infamous for "Help Wanted - Irish need not apply" signs.

[4] Film is an active participant in the making of their history, for it portrays what the unscholarly masses would otherwise have to read and, subsequently, would not read. History creates reality, in many instances. Those who perceive the past with an opinionated set of eyes are prone to exhibit said opinion in current cultural negotiations. The role of film creating reality, creating history, is fundamentally irrefutable.

[5] The right words, to paraphrase Lenin, are worth more than a hundred regiments of men. The most powerful form of media propaganda, to paraphrase Lenin once more, is the motion picture image. The image shows action while the word records what most pay no heed to unless it is spoken, mingled with image, taught to the heart. Indeed, to teach with the mind is somewhat mathematical, logical; to teach with the heart, such as the voice, is genius; to teach with the image is sublime in recreating one's paradigm in the student's perception.

[6] The old cliché, "show me, don't tell me" appears to be true when approaching film in creation of history. In approaching the Molly Maguires from a scholarly perception, one witnesses the difference between what is shown on film (the plot) and what is told through dialogue (the history). This difference is a major one, not be overlooked. The dialogue, spoken in an often unintelligible accent, portrays information true to historical form, regardless of the name changes, plot enhancements, and underlying goals. The actions, what the audience will remember, show the proletariat fight with its horrible working conditions and poverty. What we are shown is often emotionally trumped up relationships set to provide melodrama, but also shown is the truth as seen by the pro-Molly sentiment. The film is therefore, classifiably, pro-Molly. Certainly the Pennsylvania government's pardon of each Molly Maguire hung allows this perception to gain some validity to the masses. Still, it is probable that the film-makers cared nothing for the mass or authoritative perception.

[7] The film fictitiously documents the historical two-year infiltration of an informant, James McParlan / McKenna, into a small group of disgruntled Irish coal miners in the 1870s. The group, it is told early, had turned to terrorism in what appears to be an attempt to combat horrible working conditions, which are shown with the dust-covered, back-breaking hours. The movie is good with specs, portraying historical facts through dialogue, such as the infamous Molly Maguire name, originating from the island of Eire and the cut-throats who fought landowners there, often dressing up as women. We hear no mention of the woman who was supposedly killed by British land owners who bore the original name. Police Chief Davies gives the audience this information, a Welshman who is McParlan's contact as he infiltrates the organization as McKenna. History tells us that this Police Captain was named Robert J. Linden.

[8] That the Mollies hid within the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the largest fraternal organization in North America at this time, is also told to the audience. The inner workings of the Molly Maguires are shown to exist within an even more exclusive bunch operating inside the Hibernians. These realities are somewhat of a historical enigma for the workings of John "Black Jack" Kehoe's body in Girardville were never documented. In fact, no one knows how intimately the Hibernians and the Mollies were or were not in any given body of the Hibernians. What we do know is that John "Black Jack" Kehoe was the Schuylkill County delegate of the Hibernians, dubbed "The King of the Molly Maguires."

[9] Franklin B. Gowen, the man who hired Alan Pinkerton to solicit a detective, also the owner of the Reading Coal and Railroad Company who wanted to control the manufacture of coal and gain capital in any way possible, threw the two organizations together, but he also insisted that any active labor union was one and the same with the Mollies, gaining the government's consent to begin a private sect of police officers, The Coal and Iron Police. Gowen is mentioned in passing in the film and not shown in his full role. He was the epidemy of the fabled coal baron, starving out families while living in the greatest of comforts. His 1889 suicide might reflect the statistics setting rich, white males on the top of the suicide charts. The all Pennsylvania Dutch juries, many of whom spoke no English, bought Gowen's Hibernian / Molly connection and convicted men based on their membership with the AOH, falling for what the prosecution wanted, a belief that the two went hand in hand. They might have and they might not have, perhaps depending entirely on the micro community one were speaking of.

[10] The film separates the Hiberians and the Mollies with an assumed secret code of silence between the two groups who were one when sharing the meeting room as Hibernians at Frazier's and split when the Mollies linger behind to discuss the business of killing a supervisor, John P. Jones. John P. Jones' murder brought the Mollies to their knees because the men responsible were caught, James Kerrigan among them, who turned state's evidence to save his neck. Kerrigan is a small character in the film, a member of the Hibernians and the goat-owning neighbor of Kehoe. Actually, Kerrigan was a Molly Maguire and a social butterfly from Tamaqua, far from Kehoe's Girardville body. The secret code of allegiance between to two organizations in the film gains validity when the number of alibis provided for the supposed murderers (detained after a day's work in the mines, not caught red handed) points to one thing -- a total community effort to keep the law away from the Mollies, motivated by fear, religious focus against capital punishment, or by loyalty.

[11] What we gain witness to is an accurate depiction telling of the organization through dialogue but hardly showing its complexities in the scale and depth involving the different territories, various contacts, control of suffrage, differing personal and institutional motivations, etc. To the unobservant audience, many of these complexities are surely missed. Missing these complexities destroys a sense of their historical reality. Here is where the film fails. The Mollies ruled this vast region of America without question, not unlike the mafia might be portrayed as ruling New York City or Chicago for their own ends -- the exception to this analogy being that the historical Mollies never appear to be interested in monetary gain, only in the power of the racially scorned proletariat against their forced benefactors to those with a pro-Molly vision and in the release of their fiery, animalistic rage to those with anti-Molly sentiment. (see comment by Janine Stavrovsky)

[12] The fact remains that they were not thieves, at least not motivated by material possessions. Still, one would be an idiot to forget that this was an organization of individuals all acting with personal motivations in mind and this author is doubtless that some of the Mollies were thieves and renegades on the run from the law, even draft dodgers from the Civil War (the Mollies were anti-draft and vehemently declined the government's force; so much so, that President Lincoln declined to send army troops in to collect draft dodgers to this, the most violent section of America, for fear of the circumstances; seems the Mollies scared off the American army).

[13] The film tells the disinterest in capital gain by simply stressing other motivations: the proletariat motivation in Black Jack Kehoe and Brian McAndrew; the fiery, animalistic rage mingled with disgruntled worker in a very unintelligent Thomas Dougherty; and Frazier, I would imagine, as one going along with his friends and wanting nothing more than to square off the boundaries of his tribe and beat on those in its opposition. Upon entering the dynamics, McParlan (a.k.a. McKenna) sets himself up in line with McAndrew and Black Jack Kehoe but represents himself as a more violent person, set on revenge with a cold, clear, intelligent logic -- not lost in constant discrepancies like Dougherty or silent and violent like Frazier. Also, not nihilistic like Kehoe, allowing him a place in the circle as a strong counter to Kehoe's leadership. This understanding of McParlan's motivations and violent expressions makes him appear historically powerful in his extremes (one of immense intelligence acting out a vindictive sense of right and another of detective capitalist on the lookout to gain in any psychologically hedonistic way possible), when, in fact, he was one sided the whole time -- the side of himself.

[14] The film portrays McParlan as an empathetic type to the proletariat struggle, having worked for pennies with his fellow Irishman, but in the end yielding to his true identity, the capitalist paradigm, testifying against the Mollies, gaining notoriety, money, and everything else that goes along with it -- except, according to Kehoe, the ability to call himself a man and to call himself free. The film shows this inner struggle within him and has him shamed in the end, emotionally scarred for disrupting the bonds of fraternity he had been somewhat wholly responsible for destroying. (see comment by Christine Rapp)

[15] What's real and what's not? McParlan often voted for violent acts against said enemies of the organization because, obviously, he wanted to be accepted and thought of as hard amongst the "bohyos." Also, as John Kehoe is historically noted as claiming, he voted for these acts because he wanted to pin the crimes on them afterward, gaining all the things mentioned (money from the detective agency and media attention). The movie shows him voting yes to the murder of John P. Jones in the one representation of these meetings we see, and it is assumed by an analytical audience that his motivations could be psychologically split up between the racially downtrodden proletariat struggle (McParlan, himself, shown to work in the mines and be cheated by the coal supervisors), also the animal within, as the movie depicts him as no stranger to his own rage, but not uncontrollably acquainted to this rage, and, predominantly, that he wants to pin the crime on the Mollies and come out from his undercover position. In the end, he is more oriented to the greed involved in his true identity. This assumption is due to a conversation he has with Davies when he says it would be better to get them for murder, squash the whole organization because of it. It is here that he also mentions that if he could not leave the mines, he would kill someone to get out. Psychologically, the film rests much of its conflict between proletariat and capitalist within this character's mind.

[16] Historically, McParlan claimed to get the word to the victim whenever possible, but that is extremely ambiguous and not always true, just as extreme a statement as the biased voice that is making the claim. Kehoe said the opposite in an interview before his hanging, splitting the historical eyesight into the many lenses it is.

[17] The film sees through both. John P. Jones is protected, but McParlan is also seen trying to stop Kehoe for fear of the inevitable: his getting caught, tried, witnessing McParlan on the other side of the fence, and going to the gallows. The relationship of these two characters is entire fabrication. It turns this film into somewhat of the buddy film, with Kehoe and McParlan acting as psychological twins. It begs the question, is it a more worthy cause to live the life of a man, given that we only get to die once, and have death be done right? Or is it more noble to pass this off in the name of social mobility? Kehoe acts as he did in life, the role of the former. McParlan has a trumped up psychological conflict, leaning toward upward social mobility in the end but shown to lose something perhaps far more important, his freedom.

[18] Sean Connery plays the famous John "Black Jack" Kehoe, whose historical role in the Mollies is emphasized, celebrated or denigrated, depending. The role of race is expressed with accurate insensitivity regarding the Irish, Welsh, and English in line with current socioeconomic class. Regardless of the audience sentiment, which is more than likely dependent on their current sense of social structure's highest attainable state, the film shows the fight against the unjust working conditions the Irish and their sons were exploited under by English and Welsh capital owners and supervisors. In many passing moments, we are shown the age of children who worked horrendous hours sorting coal and moving bins. The film shows the death of Mr. Raines, a fictional character who slowly dies of black lung.

[19] With all the violence, threats, explosives, and murder that still echo across the hills to the ears of the current Pennsylvanian occupants, the film is a unique glimpse into the earliest of labor fights leading to child labor laws, a minimum wage, and the search for a supportable wage. In the end, three men, Kehoe among them, are sent to the gallows. A few historic faults in the film include the intellectual short circuit of the organization itself, without setting up any plan of action to change the system. Failed strikes are mentioned, but the violence seems senseless, perhaps pointing to the assumption that it is the last straw in reaction to corrupt, if not downright racist, social institutions drawing an analogy with the 1970 African American struggle (the year of the film's release).

[20] There is a sensation in Kehoe's steadfast conflict theory that there is no other way for him to turn, like a man trapped in the parameters society has given him. At the same time of the film's release, American history witnessed the Black Panthers becoming popular among the national media. The film's relation is not implausible as the film was written by Walter Bernstein, directed by Martin Ritt, and produced by both. Together, they were suspected communists in the Eisenhower years and blacklisted from the movie world for some time. Still, in the cultural significance of history's timelessness, contemporary issues come and go, the film remains.

[21] How are we to perceive the Molly Maguires in a world where television satiates the proletariat with the leisure that lies, where the race struggle has abated into understanding, where domestic issues are solved with a healthy economy and suitable rights for workers? Are we to branch this conflict theory to the third world, where children of the South Pacific are working in sweat shops? The film offers no such analogy. What it does do for the audience in way of constructing a social conflict theory is rather base, for it stems from a time gone by.


Janine Stavrovsky (June 2005)

Was this movie Pro-Mollies or against? In the 1970's movie called the Molly Maguires, some critics have tried to understand the official viewpoint of whether the Mollies were good or bad. In historical terms, the Mollies were feared among many and heavily ruled the Pennsylvania coal region. They were so feared that they were able to escape the Civil War draft presented by President Lincoln. Ultimately, these men committed daring and despicable crimes, but the movie makes an attempt to show us the horrible working conditions of mines and how unfairly they were treated. This show of support of the Molly Maguires is seen in many scenes such as how much the workers would get paid after a week's worth of work or how their health was severely affected by the mines. This movie strengthened its support for the Mollies by even having the main character, James McParlan, who was posing as a coalminer, admit that he would "kill somebody" if he couldn't eventually get out of the mines. Ultimately this movie tries to help the audience understand why the coalminers were rebellious by showing the horrible working conditions and nasty treatment they received.

Christine Rapp (Feb. 2009)

I'll agree that the director wants to dispel any last minute anti-Molly sentiments, but the movie paints them as heroes and victims anyway so I don't think this is his biggest concern. McParlan has been the star of the movie; he is the one man who can walk both sides of the fence. McParlan appreciates the fact that the Mollies are causing terror and destruction and that the organization should be stopped, but he also understands the plight of those miners. Jack doesn't need to forgive McParlan…we do. We've witnessed the reek of desperation the coal miners emit. We've seen how nasty Captain Davies can be. McParlan almost single-handedly hung the men who were his supposed friends. If you know the history of the Molly Maguires, then you know how the story will end, but you can't help but hope that McParlan will change his mind and stop destroying the Mollies. When he holds true to his promise and testifies against them in the end, we need to be reminded that he's human and isn't completely without remorse for sending three of his comrades to the gallows. In real life, McParlan disagreed with the violence and brutality of the Mollies and had no qualms with helping to punish them. As far as he was concerned, anyone who was guilty of terror (from either side) deserved what he got in the war between the Mollies and coal barons. He did not, however, condone the killing of innocents--women and children--from either side. McParlan was deeply angered whenever the use of his information resulted in the death of a bystander.

Aurand, Harold W. From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers; The Social Ecology of an Industrial Union: 1869-1897. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1971.

Lewis, Arthur H. Lament for the Molly Maguires. New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1964.