Fifty years ago, the local history that most of us take for granted was featured in a Hollywood movie starring Sean Connery. The Molly Maguires was filmed locally in 1968 in Pennsylvania locations: Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, Eckley, Bloomsburg, Weatherly, Jim Thorpe and Ashland.
Thomas Curney, a local civil war re-enactor, will conduct Memories of the Molly Maguires, a presentation on the 50th anniversary of the making of the movie on April 4 at the Kirby Library. Curney will display memorabilia from the movie that he has acquired over the last 15 years and give a short lecture on the legendary organization.
Although the Molly Maguires are the source of local legend, they are an integral part of US labor history when viewed within the context of the time period. According to Paul F. Clark for Project Muse, the story of the Molly Maguires has dramatic twists and turns, “suspense and complicated characters while still incorporating human struggles such as the indifference of the rich and powerful to the suffering of the working class, the corrupt alliance between big business and government, and the use of force to beat back the efforts of workers to organize”. In other words, the story is made for Hollywood; Illuminating the 1860s-1870’s conflict between wealthy and skilled Protestant English miners and poor, unskilled, immigrant Catholic Irish within the unstable political and economic environment of the Civil War and Industrial Revolution.
Curney’s interest lies squarely within this particular time period. He spent many years as a volunteer at Eckley Miners village where many of the scenes from the movie were filmed, and joined the 81st Pennsylvania Company K, a local Civil war reenactment group in 1989.
“I always had the interest in it,” said Curney who notes he has spent many a day at Eckley and made many a trip to Gettysburg to watch reenactments.
Curney explains that the immigrants who came from Ireland in the middle of the 19th century to escape the potato famine largely ended up in the same cycle of poverty they left in Ireland –English landlords, unfair pay scales and terrible working conditions. He explained that the “Sons of Molly Maguire” is said to have been a local group in Ireland who sought revenge against an English landlord who closed down a pub and evicted the family of operator, Molly Maguire. The group in the United States that took the name, were known as agitators against these same injustices, as local miners would often suffer from unfair labor practices, unsafe working conditions, company owned supply stores and housing, and intimidation.
“The Molly Maguires were agitators,” remarked Curney. “There were a lot of unexplained murders of foremans and mine bosses, but many Irish were dying in mine shafts as well.”
Irish fraternal organizations, such as the Workingman’s Benevolent Association and Ancient Order of Hibernians, often associated with the Molly Maguires, were vital support systems for immigrant miners and their families –providing financial support in the event of a strike, layoff or miner’s death or illness. This support also provided a way for men to organize to demand better pay and working conditions.
“There is definitely an association with they Mollies and the Ancient Order of Hibernians” explained Curney who cautions that the association does not necessarily mean the AOH was a deliberate front for vigilante activity, as was accused at the time. “All members of the Molly Maguires were part of the AOH, but not all members of the AOH were Mollies. The WBA’s primary focus was on labor disputes.”
Regardless of the method by which men organized, fraternal organizations and unions, especially those suspected of violence and intimidation like the Molly Maguires, were seen as threats to the mine owners who sought to keep their iron clad hold on market and labor prices. Franklin B. Gowen, the president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, as well as the associated Coal and Iron Company was considered “the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world” when he hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to go undercover against the Mollies. It is here where the film picks up and follows James McParland’s investigation; which ultimately lead to the murder convictions and executions of 10 suspected Molly Maguires in 1877 and 1878. The Molly Maguire trials nearly destroyed organized labor and have largely been viewed as a surrender of state sovereignty and an example of the massive influence private industry had on government at the time.
The Curney display will include original costumes from local residents who were extras in the film and some never seen before photos from the filming, including those his uncle took while on location. Curney hopes to bring the program to a few more sites throughout the month of April, including Beaver Meadows later in the month.
“If they are interested in local history or that time period, I think they’ll enjoy coming out to hear about it and see what I’ve collected,” concluded Curney.
The program will take place on Wednesday, April 4 at 6:30 pm in the Community Room in the lower level of the Kirby. Anyone interested in the program can register by calling 570-474-9313 or by visiting the library.
(Sources used for this article include Wikipedia and West Virginia University Press.