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Was It Really a “Rebellion”?

    My brother had a coal hole, on the Reading ground. They blew his hole shut. That was it! Things got rough then… They had to let the people make a living or there would have been a civil war. Reading bought that ground for four dollars an acre… How in the hell? … Four dollars an acre! … It was the people’s ground. That’s the way we figured. We were digging our own coal. We owned the land! Land of the free!

    – Joe Padelsky, bootleg miner, Primrose, PA

    In books and writing, titles usually come last. After completing the book I could think of no better title than calling it exactly what it was: the Bootleg Coal Rebellion. Is that hyperbolic, exaggeration? What specifically makes this a rebellion? The book itself is relatively free of abstract arguments like this one, focusing instead on the narrative itself, but the question has been asked and this seems like a good place to answer it.

    Each dictionary has its own definition of Rebellion, and usually more than one. I’ll give you two and show how they apply, or not, to the bootleggers.

    According to Dictionary.Com: “open, organized, and armed resistance to one’s government or ruler.”

    A stricter definition from Meriam-Webster: “open, armed, and usually unsuccessful defiance of or resistance to an established government

    Open: The bootleggers began at night, but as their numbers grew, they shifted to broad daylight. By 1934, they formed unions to organize their activities, speak on their behalf, fight legal battles. By 1935, they held open negotiations with coal companies and the state government.

    Organized: The primary focus of the book is how the bootleggers organized themselves. So, to give just a few examples here: Mines were to be spaced 100′ apart but linked for ventilation. Coal would be sold at a standard rate, and they carried out strikes when those rates were violated. Miners, truckers, and breakers all paid dues to local bootleg unions, which kept record of who had and had not paid. Truckers displayed emblems to show they were up-to-date. This is the tip of the iceberg.

    Armed: Bootleggers almost never brought firearms into the conflict, and when they did their leaders often told them to go home. They were, however, armed with dynamite. Through the years of 1929 – 1942, they dynamited at least one dozen steam shovels and power shovels. The companies usually backed down after this, fearing where else the miners would place dynamite. Bootleggers relied much more often on non-violent resistance, such as laying in front of or inside of machinery. But they always did this with the implicit threat that there could be violence.

    Resistance/Defiance: The bootleggers of that time believed they had to choose between their own communities and company property rights. They chose themselves. Clearly this was in defiance of the companies as well as some basic principals of the US government. They resisted anyone who tried to enforce those property rights, be they Coal & Iron Police, state police, courts, or federal law.

    The crux, then, is whether a rebellion is a failed revolution. The vast majority of bootleggers didn’t want to overthrow the US government (although the Communist bootleggers certainly did). However, various government officials including Pennsylvania governors said that an attempt to break up bootleg mining would result in civil war. For instance, one federal official appointed to deal with coal bootlegging said that the situation “has become so serious as to amount to rebellion and civil war, which only the calling out of the National Guard can suppress.”*

    When an open, armed, organized force of people makes the government is fears enforcing it’s own basic laws within its own territory, and when they hold that ground for a decade, that is indeed a rebellion.

    *”Pinchot to Probe Coal Bootlegging,” Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, Aug. 10, 1934.

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