The last time an American tycoon exploited terrorism

tags: election 2016, Trump, Frank Gowen

And those terrorism fears are being exploited by a flamboyant billionaire businessman, conflated with nativist anxieties over Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees.

It seems to be an American tradition, these plot elements combining together: Terrorism panic and xenophobia, exploited by a celebrated business tycoon for his own gain. The clearest — and ugliest — example of this was the Molly Maguires terrorism panic that swept America the 1870s: an alleged secret international Irish Catholic conspiracy to terrorize and murder Americans, and spread mayhem across the country in order to destroy our cherished way of life.

The man who whipped up and exploited the Molly Maguires panic for his own ambitious purposes was a young railroad tycoon named Frank Gowen. Forgotten today, but in the 1870s, Gowen was one of the most famous and upwardly-mobile robber barons: president of the world’s first corporate conglomerate, Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (better known by Monopoly fans as just the Reading Railroad), which, under Gowen in the early 1870s, was considered one of the largest companies in the world, valued at some $170 million.

Gowen’s power was such that he was able to fix the Pennsylvania legislature to pass laws giving his railroad company the right to raise a fully deputized and armed private police force, which was used to violently destroy labor union organizers. Gowen then had himself named as chief prosecutor in the capital trials of labor activists, while feeding the national media stories about an international Irish Catholic terrorism conspiracy. Under that panic, Gowen succeeded in hanging 19 Irish Catholics, destroying the labor union, and giving his railroad conglomerate complete control over setting the price of coal and the price of the labor that mined the coal.

There have been some articles equating the xenophobia and hysteria over Syrian refugees today with anti-Irish and anti-Jewish bigotry of the past, but what makes the Molly Maguires story relevant is that it goes deeper than mere animalistic bigotry and xenophobia, which we all know is bad — and gets instead into the deeper and darker politics of terrorism hysteria, at a time of exploding wealth inequalities, mass migrations, and technological revolution.

The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was one of the first railway lines built in the US, starting in the early 1830s, to transport the anthracite coal from eastern Pennsylvania’s coal region, to Philadelphia on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania. The alleged Molly Maguires conspiracy was centered in Schuylkill County (pronounced “skoo-kl”), the center of the richest anthracite coal region in the world. ...

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