Thursday, September 30, 2010

Rummaging in America’s Attic

A while ago, before the heat of summer, Lois and I were spending the weekend down in Wilmington, visiting her cousin Bobbie and Bobbie’s husband, Andre. After dinner on Saturday night, Andre mentioned that he hadn’t been up to the flea markets in Lancaster for a while. I mentioned that I liked flea markets and enjoyed going to the Brooklyn Flea when we were up in New York visiting the children. So then Andre asked if I’d like to go up to Lancaster Sunday morning, and I said yes and asked when we would be leaving.

Maybe I should have asked about the departure time before I said yes. Anyway, the sun did rise before we got to Lancaster, and Andre loaned me a warm coat that he kept in the back of the car.

I’m glad I went, for a number of reasons. First of all, it was fun. Andre is very good company, and he’s as fascinated by old tools as I am. The Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, N.Y., used to have a table of old tools whose use the museum had been unable to identify. Anybody could play What’s This For? Just fill out a slip of paper and put it in the box.

I’m terrible at figuring out the purpose of old tools. Andre’s quite good at it.

Anyway, we spent a good amount of time at the outside tables, rummaging through the contents of people’s attics and barns. Then we went inside, where the more established dealers have their stalls, and where the prices are a bit higher. I have never seen so many roll-top desks in my life. This was more like wandering through living rooms – grandma’s and grandpa’s living room, to be exact. I glanced at a handsome table and the bric-a-brac that covered its top. I’ve often wondered how the grandmas of the world managed to dust all these things, but they did. Near a corner of the table there was a small black & white photograph in a standing frame. I looked a little closer. It was a young couple, happy and well-fed – perhaps newly married some 70 or 80 years ago.

The SS at Home

I looked a littler closer. The man, presumably the husband, was round and smiling. He was wearing a military uniform – an SS uniform. Hitler’s Waffen-Schutzstaffel.

I decided not stare at my little discovery, and instead moved on. Around another corner was a stall given over largely to old firearms, mainly deer rifles that had seen better days. In a glass case, though, was the pride of the collection, lovingly cared for, recently oiled. There was a Luger – standard German army issue in World War I, and tons of them saw service in World War II. Next to it lay a Mauser. The Mauser is an even older pistol than the Luger. It’s one of the first automatics, and it looks clunky and hard to handle. Still, it also saw active Wehrmacht service in both world wars.

I was a little shocked. I don’t believe I’d ever seen an actual Luger before – just in the movies – and it had not occurred to me that I would ever see an actual Mauser. I looked a bit and then, not wanting to stare, turned around and looked across the aisle.

And that’s how I came to the flag shop. There it was, across the aisle from the guns. A festival of colors, and in the corner, on a table, under a bunch of flags I didn’t recognize, there was a red field peeking out, and just a bit of a white circle, and there, vanishing under the other flags, just a sliver of a square of black. The foot of a swastika. If you weren’t looking for it, you wouldn’t see it. Time for lunch.

James Carville has described Pennsylvania as Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between. Things are a little more complicated than that. There aren’t a lot of Confederates in the attic – Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, after all. Instead we have in our attic – what? Well, we’ve got some paintings by Andrew Wyeth of his friend and neighbor Karl Kuerner. Kuerner was a farmer who had served in World War I as a machine gunner, and been wounded. He fought the war in a Wehrmacht uniform, and when he emigrated to the United States, he brought the uniform with him.

And Wyeth painted him in his uniform – the all-encompassing greatcoat and the iconic steel helmet made famous by two world wars and innumerable movies. My favorite is a late painting, from 1989, which I discovered a few years ago when I visited the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford. It’s called Snow Hill. It’s winter; Karl in his uniform and a number of Wyeth’s other regular models are dancing around a Maypole. It’s a bit out of season for a Maypole. There are a lot of weird things about this painting, but for me the weirdest thing is the old German guy dancing around in a uniform that those of us who are a certain age will never forget.

The Molly Maguires

I confess I’m not an expert on Pennsylvania history. I grew up in New York, where William Penn did not loom large in the grammar school curriculum. It was more Peter Stuyvesant – Peg-Leg Pete, we children called him. And, later, Boss Tweed and Jimmy Walker, all the lovable rogues who probably weren’t so lovable in person.

So I find that I regularly have the opportunity to learn something new about my adopted state. Here’s another example: The Molly Maguires. I’d heard of them, but that’s about it. It didn’t help that I kept confusing them with the Wobblies, who are something entirely different. There’s a 1970 movie called The Molly Maguires. It stars Sean Connery, Richard Harris, and Samantha Eggar. Appearing in a small role is Anthony Zerbe, better known to my daughter for his work on The Young Riders, where he played the old guy.

The Molly Maguires reminds me a bit of Errol Flynn’s Robin Hood, a work of fiction inspired by an unrecoverable past. That’s the basic problem with the Mollies. We don’t know much about them, and we’re not going to know. Pretty much everything we do know comes from the people who were trying to kill them. It puts me in mind of the Albigensian heresy in France, which led to an actual Crusade in the thirteenth century. Virtually everything we know about the Albigensian heretics comes from their Inquisitors. Talk about a thick filter. Nor were the Crusaders and the Inquisitors always concerned with the fine points of legal procedure. This is where we get the quote “Kill them all; God will know his own.”

Anyway, the Molly Maguires were Irish coal miners in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania, which is not very far from Philadelphia. Today the area is probably best known for the town of Centralia, which has been plagued for several decades by an underground coal fire that has resisted all attempts to put it out.

The events for which the Mollies are known took place shortly after the Civil War. Trade unions were in their infancy, and after the Panic of 1873 the country found itself in the midst of one of the worst business downturns in its history.

It was the era of robber baron capitalism, and even in gentler times the bosses have been known to hand the hardship of recession on to the workers, rather than keep it for themselves. The Mollies took exception to the practices of the boss class. In this they were hardly alone. But their response cut to the chase, as we say in the movies. While union organizers were talking about negotiations and strikes, the Mollies took to sabotage – apparently they sometimes used explosives, which look very pretty in the movie – and to intimidation and murder. They didn’t just kill underlings, either. They offed the mine bosses.

That is, if the Mollies actually existed. There are those who think they were thought up by the bosses, as a way to crush the nascent union movement. I’m inclined to think the Molly Maguires did exist. The mine bosses definitely died. If you want to organize an assassination program, you don’t necessarily need the CIA (although the Phoenix program in Vietnam is a classic of its type – it gave us the phrase “terminate with extreme prejudice”), but still such a program requires some planning and direction, and even I am not prepared to believe that the bosses organized the killing of quite so many of their own class.

I’m not convinced the Mollies ever dressed up as women, although that may have been the source of their name. Frankly, after watching Marlon Brando in The Missouri Breaks, rising from the tall grass to commit mayhem, all while dressed as a pioneer woman, it occurs to me that travesty, to use the technical term, requires both talent and an appropriate context. So I think the Mollies should leave the cross-dressing to Philadelphia’s Mummers, who dress up in odd costumes and parade on Broad Street on New Year’s Day. (The Mummers, by the way, used to be called the New Year’s Shooters, because they would wander around shooting off firearms – this after imbibing impressive amounts of alcohol.)

We must remember that it was an inchoate era. On the workers’ side, the various elements of entertainment, social welfare, trade unionism, and political assassination had not yet sorted themselves out. On the management side, Fortune 500 corporate management and the Harvard Business School have yet to put in an appearance. Instead, we have a clear nostalgia for England, where the local squire would be named justice of the peace as a matter of course, thereby binding economic with political power. Perhaps not so different, as a practical matter, from what we have today, but still the atmospherics are from a completely different place.

Interestingly, the two main characters in our drama are not Mollies. Instead, they belong to the management side. The protagonist was Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, which in addition to hauling coal was a major owner of coal mines in the anthracite region. His Sancho Panza was an undercover agent in the employ of the Pinkerton detective agency, James McParlan. Both of these men were Irish.

McParlan penetrated the Molly Maguire organization and forwarded regular reports to the Pinkerton agency, which as a matter of course forwarded them to Gowen. The information then seems somehow to have gotten into the hands of the local vigilantes, who proceeded with their very own assassination program.

I’m a little uncertain as to why Gowen didn’t just stick with the vigilante murders. They seemed to be going well, although the vigilantes did manage to shoot a pregnant woman to death. I think today we would call that collateral damage. At any rate, the vigilante approach avoided the nuisance of trials and the possibility of not-guilty verdicts. Perhaps winning wasn’t enough. Perhaps Gowen felt the need to be right as well, and to have his righteousness validated by the community. It seems that even robber barons can have their weak points.

For some time, Gowen had been engaging in a propaganda campaign against the Mollies that makes the run-up to the Iraq war look like an exercise in dispassionate policy analysis. So the ground was prepared and the show trials began, with Gowen himself serving as a special prosecutor (he had previously been district attorney in Schuylkill County). McParlan was the chief witness. In the end, 20 men were hanged to death, and the Mollies did a slow fade-to-black.

The world moved on. Or did we? I find the Molly Maguire story deeply unsettling. It seems that we in America are never many steps away from pure savagery, and we forget this at our peril. The Mollies themselves strike me as a personification of the unrestrained id, what someone with a more ideological bent might call the righteous anger of the proletariat. The bosses, on the other hand, seem to possess the righteous anger of the rich, and very little in the way of a superego that might restrain their baser impulses.

There’s something about the bosses, and their lust for unfettered power. I’m a city boy, and I’m used to things being run by a sclerotic oligarchy. But at least oligarchs have to answer to one another. Out in the country, in the coal fields, I see a yearning for true autocracy – unilateral control by one man, who answers to nobody.

Franklin Gowen, Autocrat of the Anthracite. And he just about was that, for a few years, until J.P. Morgan knocked him off his perch.

Muhammad Islam

The Germans and the Irish are the two largest ethnic groups in the United States, and it occurs to me that I don’t know them very well. Come to think of it, I’m no longer sure that I understand America very well. There are a lot of internal narratives out there; they can be highly particularistic and, it seems, extremely persistent. So much for the great American melting pot. And if we all agree on less than we were told in grammar school, then one casualty is the concept of the United States as a fundamentally middle-class country. Clearly there are those, like Franklin Gowen, who yearn for a country of rich and poor, with very little in the middle. By the way, Gowen wound up committing suicide by shooting himself in the head.

I’m thinking of a little boy named Muhammad Islam. I tutored him last spring, at an after-school program in South Philly called Mighty Writers. Muhammad is bright, cheerful, a hard worker, an all-around nice kid. He’s also black, and a Muslim, and, as my daughter remarked, Muhammad Islam – that’s a heavy name to put on a little kid.

Maybe he’ll be okay. Years ago, Johnny Cash did a song called “A Boy Named Sue.” Sue’s father gave him the name because he figured that a boy named Sue would have to learn early to stand up for himself. That sounds like a better strategy than relying on the kindness of strangers.

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