Donald Trump is taking a literal page from 1870’s corporate mogul Franklin B. Gowen’s playbook, and it’s frightening.
As a playwright, I decided to research the story of my Great-Great Uncle, Alexander Campbell, an alleged Irish “terrorist,” who was sentenced to death in 1877 for the murder of a mine operative. It was a family story I grew up hearing, and at the time, I thought it might make an interesting tale for the stage. Once I dug deeper, I realized this story should serve as a warning to all of us living in America, circa 2016.
The driving force behind Alexander Campbell’s execution was Franklin Benjamin Gowen. Much like Trump today, Franklin Gowen served as the embodiment of corporate power. Famous for his “huckster” ways, he created the first price-fixing scheme in American History. As President of Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, he orchestrated a monopoly on both the railroads and coal mines. With this shared interest, he gained control of the economy in the state of Pennsylvania, and much of the nation. The only thing preventing mass profits was a group of Irish immigrants.
These men were proactive leaders within the labor movement, and actively protested against the abysmal working conditions of Gowen’s mines. As immigrants who recently escaped the Great Famine and British oppression, they were incredibly competent when it came to organizing a revolution. This is how they became the greatest threat to a corporate empire.
Gowen capitalized on the prejudice many people had against Irish immigrants. He, like Trump, prayed on the fears of the people by stating that “lawless immigrants” were coming to kill them. Trump’s anecdote about Sarah Root’s murder employed an identical strategy.
He painted prominent members of the Irish labor organization as a “foreign threat” and a group of “terrorists.” He even gave them a fictitious name, “The Molly Maguires.” Gowen described them as “lawless, murdering thugs.” He, like Trump, highlighted the threat of a “hateful foreign ideology” infiltrating the country.
He used the “state” for his own private interests and personal gain. The Coal and Iron Police arrested my Uncle for a murder that he did not commit. Yes, a police force owned by the coal and iron companies that Gowen represented. My Uncle was investigated for “a murder” by The Pinkerton Detective Agency, who was hired and paid for by Gowen and the coal companies. Lawyers hired by the coal companies tried him. In fact, Gowen himself was allowed to prosecute many of the cases as he was previously elected DA of Schuylkill County. Alexander Campbell was investigated, arrested, and tried publicly by private entities representing Gowen’s business interests.
Gowen, like many have hypothesized Trump wishes to do today, utilized state power to serve private corporate interests. Gowen took it to its furthest conclusion, namely execution. Twenty men, including my Great-Great Uncle Alexander Campbell, died innocently on a scaffold. Though the history of the “Molly Maguires” has been sensationalized, the story of the complete release of sovereignty into the hands of private corporate power remains largely untold.
Both Pennsylvania legislatures have since passed resolutions declaring the trial of Alexander Campbell and many other men who died on the scaffold, “inherently unconstitutional.” In the 1870’s, the nation let Gowen get away with the abuse of corporate power, and the utilization of a public platform to enrich his own private interests. It led to the murder of twenty innocent men, all because they interfered with someone’s “bottom line.” Under a Trump rule, I cannot help but think we aren’t far off from a reality like this one.
I have often felt that it is the role of the arts to help shine a mirror onto our society to reflect back that which may be present, but unseen. Thus, when Donald Trump lambasted immigrants at the Republican National Convention employing the exact same rhetoric Gowen used to unlawfully hang my Great-Great Uncle, I realized the stakes had become much higher. I now know I need to use my art form for more than just entertainment, but instead use it as it was originally intended—as an important part of citizenship. I see that we, as artists, have a duty to our audience to tell unheard stories such as this one, and show America that history does in fact matter.
Annie Harrison Elliott is a playwright currently writing the drama The Handprint about Alexander Campbell and the unlawful trial of the Molly Maguires.