The Molly Maguires

Produced and distributed 1970 by Paramount, Color, 124 min.,

DIRECTOR: Martin Ritt
PRODUCER: Martin Ritt and Walter Bernstein
SCREENPLAY: Walter Bernstein; suggested by Arthur Lewis' 1964 book Lament for the Molly Maguires
MUSIC: Henry Marcini
EDITOR: Frank Bracht
ART DIRECTION: Tambi Larsen.


Sean Connery as Jack Kehoe, leader of the Molly Maguires
Richard Harris as detective James McParland, alias Jamie McKenna
Samantha Eggar as boardinghouse keeper Mary Raines
Art Lund as Frazier, big red-haired fighter Molly member #2
Anthony Zerbe as Tom Dougherty, Molly member #3
Anthony Costello as Frank McAndrews, youngest Molly member #4
John Alderson as Jenkins, Molly member #5
Frank Finlay as Captain Davies, leader of the police "peelers"
Philip Bourneuf as Father O'Connor
Brendan Dillon as old man Raines, Mary's father
Malachy McCourt as the bartender
Bethel Leslie as Mrs. Kehoe
Frances Heflin as Mrs. Frazier
Susan Goodman as Mrs. McAndrews


This film is a drama of Irish immigrants and coal miners in 1876 Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The Mollie Maguires were a secret society of Irish miners who used violence against mine owners and officials. The Pinkerton Detective Agency hired James McParland to infiltrate the Mollies, resulting in the arrest of 20 leaders, who were tried, convicted and executed. McParland's testimony at the trials, and Allen Pinkerton's book on The Molly Maguires and the Detectives have shaped historical interpretations to the present day, painting the Irish as evil terrorists and the Pinkerton's as responsible enforcers of law and order. The Mollies themselves left no evidence or writings, and remain mysterious. Not until J. Walter Coleman's 1936 book The Molly Maguire Riots did historical interpretation become more balanced. Martin Ritt's film is based on Coleman and the 1964 book by Arthur Lewis, and is sympathetic to the Mollies. It was filmed in the late spring and early summer of 1968 at the only functioning 19th century anthracite coal mine remaining in America (until 1971), the Council Ridge Colliery at Eckley, Pennsylvania. "Martin Ritt was a postwar victim of the Blacklist and has a passionate sympathy for the downtrodden and victims of society. His 1979 film Norma Rae was based on the real-life story of textile union activist Crystal Lee Sutton in her fight against the J.P. Stevens Co. in Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. His last film in 1990 was Stanley & Iris that focused on illiteracy. His 1963 film Hud portrayed Paul Newman as an "anti-hero" character, and won an Oscar for James Wong Howe's photography. In Molly Maguires Howe's photography again is a key part of the narrative, both realistic and abstract in presentation." (quote from Magill's)

James McParland, photo from Patrick J. Hall
The Molly Maguires were not simple gangsters, but practiced "retributive justice" using violence against violence in the industrial revolutions of the anthracite mining region of the 19th century. When mine owners hired thugs to assault and intimidate the miners, the Mollies responded in kind. They coexisted with the Irish fraternal organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) and the first coal miner trade union founded in 1868, the Workingmen's Benevolent Association (WBA), but they were a separate organization. When mine owner Franklin B. Gowen and the Reading Railroad began to buy and consolidate the anthracite mines, the Mollies responded with violence in 1875 Schuylkill County, mostly in rural areas rather than densely populated urbanizing areas such as Pottsville. There was also conflict between skilled British and Welsh miners and the unskilled Irish laborers, between nativists and Catholics. The first wave of Molly Maguire violence took place during the Civil War, as anti-Union Irish opposed the war effort of government officials. The labor activism of the Irish, trying to organize a union, was equated with treason, and after the war the formation of new police units continued the suppression of all labor activism. One of the main issues was mine safety, as accidents increased after the Civil War, such as the 110 killed in the Avondale fire in 1869 caused by poor ventilation and single entryways. After 1870, Gowen began to cut wages from the $50 earned per month by the average laborer. In 1873 Gowen hired the Pinkerton agency to suppress labor opposition, and undercover agents McParland and P. M. Cummings were sent into the coal mines. The "Long Strike" of the anthracite miners from Jan. to June 1875 failed, and the WBA trade union led by John Siney collapsed. Gowen spend $4 million in the Long Strike to defeat the union, and to destroy John Kehoe, successful saloon owner who opposed Gowen's political ambitions to control Schuylkill County.

photo from Patrick J. Hall
Therefore, for political and personal and economic reasons, Gowen and the Pinkertons created the "myth of the Molly Maguire" According to Harold Aurand, "The myth that Molly Maguire was the enforcer for the Workingmen's Benevolent Association confirmed a long held suspicion that a permanent working class presented a danger to the Republic. From this perception the episode demonstrated how easily a gang of cutthroats or a demagogue could seize control of the workers. The myth simultaneously rendered the ensuing class war understandable while justifying the employment of violence against strikers. The Pennsylvania State Legislature, for example, condoned the shooting of strikers in Scranton during the 1877 strike by noting "many of the Molly Maguires, driven out of Schuylkill County. . .gathered in and about that city." The same myth justified the corporation's attack upon the social and political autonomy of the community. The Molly Maguires reputedly overawed local authority by violence, political corruption, and perjured testimony. Only the corporation, the Philadelphia and Reading, had the resources to break their sinister grip. By casting the corporation as the champion of law and order and the community as prone to corruption, the myth provided a rationale for the corporate take-over. But the myth not only served the interests of capital; it provided labor with a creditable method of protest. Absenteeism and sabotage were not readily available instruments of protest to the mine worker. The anthracite industry rarely worked more than half a year. Miners owned their own tools and other forms of sabotage carried great personal risks. A coffin notice, however, could, thanks to Molly Maguire, strike fear in the heart of any foreman or superintendent and therefore permitted the individual mine worker to protest in a meaningful manner. The fear generated by a coffin notice also could be employed to intimidate scabs. "


revised 2/1/03 by Schoenherr | Film Notes