Some thoughts on “The Molly Maguires” on the 50th anniversary of its big screen debut

On January 28, 1970, Martin Ritt’s The Molly Maguires hit the big screens. It told the story of the renegade Irish mineworkers who took on mining and railroad companies in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields in the 1870s. The movie brought some serious star power to tell the dramatic story – Sean Connery starred as Molly Maguire leader John “Black Jack” Kehoe and Richard Harris played the morally ambiguous Pinkerton detective James McParland, alias James McKenna.

Molly Maguires - Cover

The film was shot in Eckley, Pennsylvania, in the small patch town that was laid out by a mining company in the 1850s. Its buildings, many of which remain standing today, provided a period correct backdrop for the film with minimal changes made to their exteriors.

The film was a failure at the box office, failing to live up to expectations. It received a frosty reception from critics as well.

In honor of the 50th anniversary, I rewatched the film and here are some of my thoughts:

The opening song in the score is a serious earworm; still can’t get it out of my head

Eckley perfectly fits the bill in showing what a mine patch town looked in the mid-to-late 19th century

The exterior scenes in the film perfectly reflect how dirty, dingy, and loud a Coal Region patch town could be in the 19th century

The film takes far too much source material from the notoriously odious trials of the accused Molly Maguires and from Allan Pinkerton’s massively fictionalized account of the debacle

Sean Connery is a legend

My biggest takeaway is that this story needs to return to popular media, preferably in the form of a television show. In a form longer than a 124 minute film, the complexity and nuance of this story could really show through. There is a reason this story isn’t simple – it includes many of the same themes that are recurring today, especially corporate power and greed versus workers’ rights. A Netflix, Hulu, or Amazon Prime would be the perfect venue for a gritty period drama touching on immigration, xenophobia, the working class, and corporate power in Pennsylvania’s violence ridden anthracite coal fields of the 1870s. 

What are your thoughts about The Molly Maguires? When did you first see the film? Did you like it? Let us know your thoughts in the comments down below!


Featured Image: A scene from The Molly Maguires showing a mining village in the 1870s

Want to read more about the real situation in the Coal Region in the 1860s and 1870s? Check out our articles here! 



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19 thoughts on “Some thoughts on “The Molly Maguires” on the 50th anniversary of its big screen debut

    1. Being from the Anthracite region I found the original movie exceptional. Have the-visited Eckley numerous times. Would live to see a “well written script” and a new movie produced….

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  1. I saw it when it first came out,I’ve since shown it to my son’s. I’ve done quite a bit of research on the subject over the years,I do think it’s a much bigger story than a movie could show but I doubt a modern film company would do it any justice as a series or mini series.

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  2. I enjoyed the movie, which I believe was based on Arthur Lewis’s “Lament for the Molly Maguires.” My mother, a Cass Township native, always complained that the picnic on the slag heap was absurd. My nit: The movie kind of left you with the impression that the Molly Maguires were 5 or 6 guys who hung out in one bar in one town, as opposed to a loose network spread across several counties.

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    1. Agreed on your mother’s criticism and yours about the framing of the Molly Maguires.

      By the way, just finished your book this month and loved it. Really thought it brought the West End to life. Amazing work!

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      1. Thanks for the kind words. My publisher, Fordham Univ. Press, had a couple of nibbles from a London TV outfit asking about the rights, but nothing came of it.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. My ancestors came in from Europe and some worked in the mines in Pennsylvania. My first generation Irish great-granddad died leaving two nice houses from his incredible effort. No welfare or civil rights complaints for the hard working heroes of the past.

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    1. Except that’s not true – as documented on this blog and in any history of the Coal Region. The Irish had plenty of civil rights complaints and were treated as virtually second class citizens. Lots of discrimination until they began to be considered white as new immigrant groups began to arrive.

      And as many Irish were arriving in the 1840s during the Famine, you’d be surprised at how much charity they received and how many activists complained that they were “public charges.” – Jake

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    2. Most miners had to live in company houses, shop in the company stores and pay higher prices then if they were allowed to shop outside the patches they lived in. If your husband died while you lived in the homes you were kicked out. Unless one of your children could work in the mines. There was no one to complain to you. This is one of the reason the Mollies were formed.

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  4. I’ve studied considerably on the Mollies and, as a young man, knew a couple of old timers who were there in the later years of their activities. The story line is largely inaccurate, but the depiction of the miners’ working conditions is spot on and is probably the film’s greatest value. Black Jack Kehoe was posthumously pardoned a century later by Penna. Governor Milton Shapp on the grounds that his trial was a travesty. A mock re-trial of Kehoe using current judicial standards resulted in acquittal.

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  5. A good portion of this movie was filmed in Jim Thorpe, previously known as Mauch Chunk, Pa. The main part of the little town was detoured because the roads had been covered in dirt and the store fronts looked like movie sets. I was driving into town and while waiting at a light, watched as Sean Connery crossed the street in front of me. Exciting times for our small town!
    My grandfather lived with us and went to work at the mines every day. He was a lift operator. I remember sirens going off when there were mine accidents and everything came to a standstill. I remember miners walking home every day, in dirty clothes, their faces covered in coal dirt, carrying their black metal lunchboxes. I also remember kind townspeople and caring neighbors in my town, Lansford. In the coal regions, our social lives revolved around our churches and the town bars, and there were plenty of both. There are still a number of people who have a personal history with that era, but they are now in their 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. Anyone committed to researching more depth to the story, should not waste any time waiting to do so!

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  6. I am currently in the draft stage of writing a book regarding the murder of Police Officer Benjamin Franklin Yost. Convicted in the murder, amongst others, was a member of my family, James Boyle. He was my first cousin, four times removed (or my Great, Great Grandfather’s first cousin, who lived next door on Bertsch Street of Lansford, PA). As a retired Deputy Sheriff, I have conducted my own personal investigation into the evidence presented in the case. There were too many discrepancies in succeeding stories in the media and printed materials, that I needed to understand the true story of what transpired on the morning of July 6, 1877 in Tamaqua. I have recently won a lawsuit against the Clerk of Court of Schuylkill County, who would not replicate the criminal files for me. The Judge found in my favor, the first time my family received justice in over 140 years. Once my book is completed, I will publish my findings in print and on the website of http://www.molliemaguires.com

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      1. That is not a mistype. I have not activated the website, yet. Once I have the book completed, then I will activate the website. Sorry for any confusion. I had to claim the website, so it would not slip away. Thank you for your interest, though.

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  7. My husband and his mom were in the movie. At the time, Eckley was owned by my husband’s grandfather. He remembers Richard Harris picking him up and setting him on a car and giving him a $1 bill 😁 He also said the Sean Connery and Samantha Eggar weren’t friendly at all.

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