ECKLEY — Many residents of Northeastern Pennsylvania can recite the history of the infamous Molly Maguires and their battle against oppressive coal mining operators in Eckley.
Eventually 10 of them were hanged after being accused of murdering coal bosses.
On Sunday, more than 200 history buffs, coal-mining enthusiasts and curious folks of all ages gathered at the Eckley Miner's Village museum to hear the tale again from Jim Burke, who worked closely with Paramount Pictures when it distributed the movie “The Molly Maguires” in 1970. They also were treated to a complimentary airing of the film in the museum auditorium.
Burke, who oversaw the finances of the movie, told the group the Molly Maguires were not criminals, but in fact heroes. He hailed their efforts to defend the poor mining families and fight against the corrupt coal barons.
“My hat's off to them,” Burke said.
The immigrant miners in those days dealt with harsh discrimination, horrendous working and living conditions and the threat of “coffin notices,” where they faced violence if they did not comply with coal company mandates, Burke said. These types of conditions existed for 50 years and affected 40 different ethnic groups, he added.
“It wasn't just some brave Irish immigrants; they all became fed up,” Burke said. “They did what was necessary to end the evil,” he said.
The crowd laughed as he told stories about the visits of actors Sean Connery and Richard Harris to local bars “hand wrestling with the local yokels” and being thrown out of one bar in Jim Thorpe. He also talked about reports from retired police claiming the staff from Paramount Pictures did its share of reveling all over Northeastern Pennsylvania.
When approached with the script for the movie, Burke said his answer was an enthusiastic “Hell, yes!” to take it on. He knew the story had to be told to honor instead of curse the group who boldly shaped industry in Pennsylvania and across the country.
Burke spoke as part of the Eckley Miner's Village museum's celebration of Pennsylvania's 332nd charter day, said Bode Morin, administrator of the Eckley museum. Charter day commemorates the date in 1681 when William Penn was granted the land to found Pennsylvania, Morin said. The Eckley museum was open free of charge as were all others in the state, he added.
Sunday's event provided an opportunity for those interested in local mining history to visit a typical “coal patch town,” Morin added.
From 1854 until the 1960s, coal miner tenants inhabited the 60 assorted buildings, he said.