Skip navigation

For TEN YEARS I was obsessed with telling the story of the “Molly Maguires”.  I wrote four plays.  One is published and taught at Penn State.  I’m always coming back around to this story and I can’t quite explain why.  Most people drawn to it have a family or regional connection.  I have neither.  My friend Marlie believed I was there and have now been reincarnated to come back and tell the story.  As only the true irony of life can offer up, turns out my friend has since passed on and so I can’t ask her about it anymore.

Way back in ’95 I was directing two plays for the Source festival in DC and I had written one of them as well.  We teched earlier in the day to come back and perform in the evening.  They were short plays and there were usually ten a night.  This man Gabriel Shanks had also written and directed a play there.  He used to run the Theatre Conspiracy before a group of women conspired and took it over to launch some really great works for women in Washington for  a span of three years.  So when Gabriel and I arrived later in the day to prep for the evenings performance we found that the tech crew had given each piece abbreviated short titles.  His play was, “The Naked Penis Play” as they saw it.  It consisted of two naked men lying on the floor with some simple bedding naked.  They each only spoke one word back and forth for about ten minutes.  It was a gorgeous piece of work.  My play was a four woman show that was kind of overlapping and jagged monologues delivered by women whom I’d only assigned letters for character names.  It was dubbed, “The Screaming Woman Play” by the techs.  So, Gabriel and I lay down a bet, “What would scare audiences more,  naked penises or screaming women?”  Thus went the evening.  By the way, the other play I directed was a solo piece that my friend Marlie performed called, “Solataire”.  I have all of this on video but cannot bring myself to watch.  I miss her.

Hands down, my play shocked and terrified audiences much more than his.  We drew the obvious conclusion.

Years later a woman whom I’d met at a panel discussion on women in the arts brought up the subject of the Molly Maguires.  She came over with a group of women to talk about the idea I was having for starting my own Company and we rode the elevator together and instead of giving her a lift to the metro station I drove her home and we talked.  Out of this conversation came a decade of complete obsession for me.

The lithograph image of Molly consisted of an Irish Woman confronting the British Police who were trying serve her eviction notice.  She stood in the middle of the road in front of her rented home and her fist touched the sky.  The legend goes that on the next day when the constibularly came to evict her a group of men dressed in women’s clothing appeared and slay the British.  The men called themselves, “The Sons of Molly Maguire” later known simply as the “Molly Maguires”.

Again, the image of the woman with her fist in the air-the screaming woman- became synonymous with terrifying power.  Or, maybe it was the opposite.  Maybe it was a joke to let the attackers get super close and then take them out while dressed in drag.  It goes back and forth.

It raises the question about the power of women and also about how men interface with that.  That the story made it across the Atlantic before WiFi was stunning.

What with absolute power corrupting absolutely this began to make sense.  About five years into Molly Maguire research I realized that in trying to retell this history which, while sometimes compelling and fascinating to experience, certainly did not always make good theatre -but I was a woman possessed- what I was really digging down into was my own story somehow.  The more I excavated the more overcome I was with the sense of the nameless ones.

Eckley Miner’s Village allowed me to perform the solo show on the Catholic alter during their Coal Mining Festival called Patch Town Days.  SANCTUARY.  Eckley was the movie set for the Sean Connery Film on the Molly Maguires which doesn’t even come close to telling the story, by the way.  The film Matwan comes much much closer to capturing the time, the divide and conquer mentality, the monarchy of owning the resources of the world and crushing expendable labor to make a buck.  Thinking about the Irish in the Molly Maguire story, how they were discriminated against and had to figure out how to protect themselves, snd knowing the Kennedy’s would rise up to live in the white house less than a hundred years after was incredible to ponder.  Each new ethnicity was the bottom rung of the ladder until they climbed up.  The problem is, the bottom rung is there, the ladder is there, and the next group to be discriminated against would occupy the rung and have to figure out how to climb up.  Over and over and over and over… Now we have an African American President and an oil disaster that seems almost unmanageable and border patrol.  Natural resource, expendable labor, citizenship, the themes haunt.

What’s interesting about Eckley Miner’s Village is that the town so embraces the set of the film that 40 years later it is still protected.  Electrical wires are buried, cars must be hidden from view even for people who now live in the patch homes.  And the breaker, built to stand for three months remains and faces much controversy.

The women of 1877 slept on average 4 hours each night.  It’s incredible when you think about it.  Ethnicities so divided that they put the Catholics on one end and the Protestants on the other.  The Polish, the Irish, the German, the Italian, and so on and so forth.  No mixing.  Anecdotes were told in some stories about fires burning buildings to the ground as fire departments on either end stood yelling the debate over flames about which group the building belonged to.

The women of 1877 did not have voting rights.  The gender divide was as strong as the class and ethnic divides.  Women went to church, men went to bars.  And men created political movements at those gatherings.  Black Jack Kehoes Hibernian House still stands in Girardville less than 5 miles away from Wiggan’s Patch where a massacre occured on Dec 10, 1875 that would lead to mass hangings of Irish men through the court systems beginning June 1877 and running for two years.  Until it was no longer headline news.  I’ve played my guitar there.

The women of 1877 were widowed often if they did not die in childbirth.  Men who were not battling it out pre-labor union for fair treatment underground were dying down there with cave ins and disasters.  In PA anthracite coal is the commodity.  It is found no where else in the world.  The veins of anthracite run vertically up from the ground and so mining it is a dangerous job which tended to end in more cave ins that the horizontal veins  of Bituminous Coal
of the rest of Appalacia.  Outrageously, mine disasters continue to happen today and the earth has now been robbed and appears barren in those regions.  No trees.  No roots.

The Irish women of 1877 who married were the most abused and poverty stricken people of their day.  The Irish woman of 1877 who did not marry and took on jobs as maids were the most independent and wealthy women of their day.  They had access to mansions, upper class menu’s, the libraries of the learned, and they had Sunday’s off.  It was said that the Irish maids out on the town on Sundays had the nicest clothes, the prettiest Victorian gloves.  Their uniforms, housing, and food were provided AND they earned a salary.  Priests would come to the back kitchen doors and ask the maids for money.

The Irish Catholic maids of 1877 shared duties with Protestant male servants because the wealthy landowners believed that the religions would not “mix”.

Mary Campbell was wife to Alexander Campbell.  He was hanged on June 21, 1877 along with nine other men.  All before 11am, and four simultaneously over in Pottsville (where they bottle Yeungling today).  Mary appealed to the supreme court and had her voice heard despite her low ranking as a woman.  She failed, but there was no leaf left unturned.

“The Valley of Fear” is the last Sherlock Holmes novel penned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.  It’s said to be influenced by the Molly’s.  I think it’s bunk.  Boring bunk.  The Pinkerton Detective Agency was the driving force for the execution of these men.  Valley of Fear is a Victorian informercial to rally more clients for the Pinkertons.  They were hired by a politician, landowner, railroad/mine baron named Asa Packer.  Their primary witness was held in the dungeon of the prison in Mauch Chunk Jail for three days.  He was an alcoholic deprived of food and drink and light.  He confessed the men and his testimony along with the spy hired by the establishment was the only evidence used to kill the 20 men over 2 years.  I’ve been to the prison many times.  It’s owned by the McBrides now.  And every spring the dungeon produces various random shoes and news clipping from the Victorian Era.  Because anthracite coal heats so well, the prisoners would have to stuff the vents to cool the place down.  And so each Spring the rains wash the cool winter drops down into the basement.  It’s like the place is slowing digesting or breathing.  Creepy as hyell!

When considering the expendable I found upon reflection that one constant result was mass execution.  This is a sure sign that a group in history was viewed as less than human.  We have the Native Americans massacred at Wounded Knee and beyond.  We have African American slaves at Veasey Plot and beyond.  The Irish as Molly Maguires on Black Thursday and beyond.  And the witch hunts which wiped out a generation of women SO LONG ago and beyond for sure.

The strength and power of the story as it turned out did not lie with the printed stories or the names remembered as much as it did with the heart and spirit of the story itself.  Because the people who survived and carried on in all of the best ways are largely un-named a century later.

So, it’s everyone’s legacy.  The legacy of story.  The power of truth.  The undeniable ability to bend our own life, our future, our story with the choices we make.

Margaret O’Donnel was a feisty woman.  She lost her children, two of them shot point blank at Wiggan’s in front of her eyes.  Her husband struck by a falling block underground and incapacitated for much of their married life.  I found the tombstone that Margaret somehow purchased.  Every name was printed on the square, they all lay to rest together.  Except her name is missing.  Her name is missing because who was left to have it inscribed?  Us.  We are left.

One Comment

  1. Great story, great ending…. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: