The following terms and phrases are used by the miners and workers in Anywhere But Schuylkill.



According to Hoyle:

doing things strictly by the book, or according to the rules. It refers to Edmond Hoyle (1671-1769), a British barrister and writer who was the first to codify the rules for numerous games, including backgammon. He was most famous for his book, “A Short Treatise on the Game of Whist,” from 1742.


AOH revised charter, 1871, Pub. Dom. (Kehoe Foundation)

acronym for the Ancient Order of Hibernians, America’s oldest Catholic Irish fraternal organization. Founded in New York and in Pennsylvania in 1836, the AOH played a prominent role in supporting coal strikes in the 1870s, particularly the Long Strike of 1875, when the WBA (miners’ union) was waning. As a result, the mine owners saw the AOH as an enormous threat and accused them of being a front for the Molly Maguires.

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Black Damp:

is one of the numerous dangerous gases that threatened miners’ lives. Black damp is a mixture of carbon dioxide and nitrogen gas. It is heavier than air and, therefore, found near the floor of mines. It was also called Choke Damp because it could suffocate the miners. (See fire damp, below)

Black Maria:

Cops in a Black Maria, Washington, D.C.
Black Maria, Washington D.C. (Library of Congress)

(pronounced “Black Ma-RYE-a”) a horse drawn police wagon for rounding up striking miners, or an ambulance for taking them to the hospital after a mining accident. Some authorities believe it was first used in New England in the early 1800s, but the term probably goes back much further, because there are similar terms in Norwegian (Maja, or Svarte Maja), Icelandic (Svarta Maria) and Serbo-Croatian (marica). The Clash referenced it in Guns of Brixton.

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Bobtail Check:

a paycheck in which the miner owed the Company more than he earned. Because the Company docked miners for tools, food, coal and medical expenses, some miners worked years without bringing home a penny. Take home pay was typically only 60-70% of a miner’s salary, but only if he was frugal. In 1875, a contract miner earned only $3 per day and his laborers earned only $2. Additionally, mines often shut down for days at a time to regulate production and prices, leaving miners with expenses, but without any income. In 1875, the average miner worked only 132 days. Merle Travis refers to the bobtail check in his classic song: Sixteen Tons (You load 16 tons and what do you get? Another day older and deeper in debt). For more on miners’ working conditions, read this essay by Harold Aurand (.pdf).


(also known as “bone” or “cocko”) is slang for slate and other impurities. “Gobbing the bone” meant cleaning the bony, or impurities, from the coal (or gob). However, gob also referred to the fine coal refuse left on the floor of the breaker or the mine pit.


is a large building where coal was broken up and sorted into smaller, commercially practical chunks (e.g., chestnut was 0.875 to 0.9375 inches, whereas pea was 0.5 to 0.625 inches). Conveyor belts delivered the raw anthracite coal to the top of the breaker. From there, it went to the crusher, made of two cast iron rollers (one with teeth, one with holes to accept the teeth), before rolling down a chute to the cylindrical sorting screen. Finally, it traveled down long chutes to the breaker boys, who removed impurities, like slate and ash. Footmen loaded the cleaned coal into hopper cars for shipment to wholesalers and storage facilities.

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Breaker Boys:

boys who worked in the breaker, removing impurities from the coal after it was crushed and sorted. The boys (usually 10-12 years old, but sometimes as young as 6) sat on wooden planks above the chutes, kicking their feet in and out of the rushing coal to slow it down. They reached in with their bare hands to remove the impurities, sometimes slicing themselves because the slate could be sharp as glass. They weren’t allowed to wear gloves because it impaired their dexterity. Consequently, their hands and knuckles would crack and bleed from the acidity of the coal (see Red Tip, below). Many lost limbs unclogging the belts or died from injuries. And the breaker boss struck them when they weren’t working fast enough. (In the photograph, note the switch in the breaker boss’ hand). Sometimes they exacted revenge by throwing coal at him, or by walking out en masse.


are the rooms (or stope) where mining occurred. Breasts resembled rectangular dark halls. Pillars were thick blocks or veins of coal between breasts. Wagon breasts (less than 6°) were large, shallow breasts that were big enough for wagons to carry away coal. Buggy breasts (6-12°) were steeper and required a buggy, not a wagon, to carry away coal. And Chute Breasts (12-90°) were so steep that coal had to be fed down a chute to reach the Gang Way.

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C-D Terms and phrases from Anywhere But Schuylkill


weighed the coal and determined what the miner earned. The miner was paid by the ton of coal he extracted. However, a ton was never really a ton, because it was presumed that a large percentage of it was actually slate, bone and rock. The checkweighman never properly examined the coal to see what percentage of it was actually anthracite, but the miner was docked the same every time, regardless, oftentimes by as much as 33%.


a small settlement of clustered homes inhabited by renters who were usually members of the same extended family. There were no stores, schools or churches. Just the houses and the agricultural lands, which were held under the Rundale system, where absentee landlords took most of what was produced as rent, leaving the tenants with tiny, poor-quality plots for growing their own food. In ANYWHERE BUT SCHUYLKILL, Mike Doyle’s father, William Doyle, grew up on Drumnakeel Clachan, in Glenshesk glen, on the eastern side of Knocklayde Mountain, near Ballycastle, on the Antrim coast of Ireland.

Coal and Iron Police

Cossacks attacking Polish strikers, Shenandoah, PA, 1888
Cossacks attacking strikers, Shenandoah, PA, 1888, Pub Dom

a private police force, first established in Schuylkill County, PA, in 1865, by the Pinkerton Detective Agency (See the Eye That Never Sleeps). They were also known as the C&I or Yellowdogs. In the late 1800s or early 1900s, Slovak miners started calling them Cossacks. The Coal Operators used them to brutally suppress strikes, undermine union organizing and intimidate the miners. In 1897, they fired into a crowd of peacefully marching strikers at Lattimer Mine, killing 19 and injuring 32 others, in what became known as the Lattimer massacre. Their brutality was depicted in Dos Passos‘ U.S.A. trilogy and in Sherlock Holmes‘ novel, The Valley of Fear.

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is a coal mine and its associated buildings and structures (e.g., headframe, mine shaft, breaker, stable). The correct spelling is “colliery,” and the correct pronunciation is “call-yer-ee.” However, according to CoalSpeak, the “official” coal region dictionary, the Schuylkill pronunciation is “call-ree.”

Contract miner:

a skilled miner who worked with explosives and tools to extract coal from a breast. He usually hired one or more laborers to help him shovel up the coal and load it into wagons, carts or buggies. Contract miners were paid by the amount of coal that they extracted, and then paid their laborers a fraction of that amount.

Coupla or Couple two three:

some number between two and six, according to the Coal Speak Dictionary.

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Cú Chulainn:

or “Culann‘s Hound,” was an Irish mythological demigod who appears in the stories of the Ulster Cycle. It is also the name of the prize gamecock in Anywhere But Schuylkill. The mythological Cú Chulainn was originally named Setanta. He got his new name as a child, after killing Culann’s guard dog in self-defense and offering to take its place until a replacement could be found. He trained as a warrior in Scotland, under the mystical female warrior Scathach. As a youth, he performed superhuman feats, similar to those of Achilles. At 17, he single-handedly defeated an entire army. He was the champion of the Irish Kingdom of Ulster and unmatched as a killing machine. He had love affairs with warrior queens and fairies. But he was ultimately defeated at the age of 27, by another hero, Lugaid mac Con Roi, through sorcery and treachery.

Culm Heap:

the waste pile found near mines and collieries. They were composed of slate, ash, clay and soil, along with fine bits of coal, and could grow as large as a hill. They smelled like rotten eggs from the hydrogen sulfide gas they emitted. Children often scavenged them, looking for usable grains of coal they could bring home for their family’s stove. The C&I arrested or harassed anyone who tried to take any. Sometimes the mounds shifted or collapsed, killing the children. They also caught fire and sometimes exploded, emitting a pale blue flame that was visible at night.

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a possibly less rude way of saying “fuck.”

Fire Damp:

highly explosive hydrocarbon gas. It was lighter than air and found near the roof of the breast (see black damp, above).

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G-H Terms and phrases from Anywhere But Schuylkill


the main road in and out of the mine, running from the shaft to the working breasts. They often had tracks for the shoofly (small gauge train). Manways were roads that ran perpendicular from the gangway to the breast, allowing men to get the coal from the breast to the shoofly. Monkey headings were airways, or ventilation tunnels, running parallel to the gangway. The gangway and airway met at the breasts. There was usually a furnace at the bottom of the shaft to maintain air circulation.


a half-human fairy, three to four feet tall, covered in coarse, red hair. They came originally from Scotland, but settled in northern Ireland. They had the power of invisibility, but could make themselves visible to trusted humans. Considered very sociable, they sometimes did chores for humans, especially in exchange for cream. They wore no clothing, just twigs and dirt that collected in their fur. There are no stories of female grogochs.


(also known as a gallows frame, winding tower, hoist frame) is the framework above an underground mine shaft that enables the hoisting of machinery, personnel, or materials into the mine pit. Modern headframes are built out of steel or concrete. In the 1800s they were made of wood and resembled a giant gallows. The cage was the elevator that took the men and boys down the shaft to the bottom of the pit.

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slang for a dimwitted fellow, (see Coalspeak dictionary). Many believe the word derives from “Java” and “Mocha, conveying that the person lacks the intelligence of a cup of coffee. However, there are other explanations. In “Mean Streets,” they use the epithet “moke,” which may have been a bastardization of “jamoke.” Or, “jamoke” might actually derive from “moke,” which was used in the early 1800s, in Britain, as a term for donkey or mule. This derivation makes sense, considering how important mules were in nineteenth century mining, and how many miners came from the UK.


Molly Maguires:

Molly Maguires Marching to Their Deaths, June 21, 1877, By Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, Public Domain

Irish terrorists who threatened and murdered mine bosses and scabs in the Pennsylvania coal fields. They supposedly infiltrated and dominated the WBA (miners’ union, see below). However, the only evidence for such a terrorist conspiracy comes from the testimony of agent provocateur, James McParlan, and his boss, Allan Pinkerton, hired by the coal companies to destroy the WBA. Franklyn Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, led the legal prosecution, resulting in the conviction of dozens of union activists. Twenty of them were executed on June 21, 1877. According to Irish World (June 30, 1877), the Mollies were “a fiction created in the course of a fierce class battle. . . No where. . . have we found. . . a single authentic document which showed the existence of a group or organization calling itself the MM.” (from Counterpunch, 6/21/07)

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Latvian mummers, by Spekozols, Own Work, CC BY-SA 4.0

a type of itinerant play. The actors, known as mumers, or guisers, marched from house to house at Christmas and other holidays, performing their comical, allegorical plays. Common characters included: Captain Mummer, Beelzebub, the Fool and Dr. Quack. Mumming was popular throughout much of Europe going back to the Middle Ages, and was brought to America by immigrants. It is still performed in some parts of the U.S., including Pennsylvania, where ANYWHERE BUT SCHUYLKILL takes place. In some countries, including Ireland, mummers wore tall, conical wicker masks. To modern readers, this might conjure images of the Ku Klux Klan, but masks in this shape have a long tradition in Catholicism, like the purple capriotes worn in processions during Spain’s Semana Santa. To learn more about traditional Irish mumming, see Henry Glassie’s All Silver and No Brass.

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N-O Terms and phrases from Anywhere But Schuylkill


errand boy. The nipper opened and closed the gates along the tracks, allowing the shoofly train to pass through. He helped control air flow in the mines by keeping the gates closed when not in use. Nippers spent 10-12 hours a day sitting alone in the dark. Many devised amusements to keep themselves preoccupied, like whittling and rat-killing competitions.

Once a man, twice a boy:

When miners became too old and frail to work in the pits, lost limbs, or developed “miner’s asthma“ (black lung), they often went back to the breaker to work at the sorting tables. Since working in the breaker was considered boys’ work, those who went back were “boys” a second time, but without the vigor and exuberance

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Paid Criers:

professional keeners or mourners. They were almost always female.

Payday Gait:

to walk fast, as if in a hurry to pick up your paycheck.

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Pluck Me:

the Company Store. Everything was more expensive and lower quality than at a public store, but for miners living in remote patch towns, it was often the only choice available. Furthermore, they they were paid in scrip and had no legal currency; therefore, the Pluck Me was the only place they could shop. So, the Company plucked them once with low wages and again when they sold them their overpriced merchandise. Merle Travis refers to this in his classic Sixteen Tons: Saint Peter don’t you call me, ’cause I can’t go. I owe my soul to the Company store.

Red Tip:

a skin condition that afflicted breaker boys’ hands. It resulted from exposure to sulfuric acid, which formed when the coal was washed to remove impurities.

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Robbing the Pillars:

the treacherous job of cutting coal from the pillars (walls supporting the roof). Miners would start with the last pillar at end of gangway, so they could retreat toward the shaft if the overburden started to collapse. Many men died robbing the pillars, when the overburden collapsed on their heads. At the Coal Region History Chronicles, you can read the harrowing story of 16 men, trapped when a huge chasm opened up after they robbed the pillars. And in this obituary, you can read about a Scranton miner who died while robbing the pillars. And here’s 1909 editorial about a pillar robbing incident that destroyed a school and did $100,000 worth of damage.

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S-T Terms and phrases From Anywhere But Schuylkill


Scrapple, By Stu Spivack, Made by author, CC BY-SA 2.0

a loaf of cooked hog offal, thickened with cornmeal or buckwheat and spiced with sage and pepper. German immigrants (the Pennsylvania Dutch) brought the dish to Pennsylvania. They called it panhas or pannhaas, meaning “pan rabbit.”


slang for the small-gauge train that took miners from the shaft to their breasts. It also delivered coal from their breasts back to the shaft. It ran along tracks on the gangway. Shoofly is also the name of a molasses pie popular among the Pennsylvania Dutch.

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Sidedoor Pullman:

hobo slang for boxcar.


a wooden stick, stuck into the wheels of a coal car to slow it down (like a brake). Spraggers were boys who slowed down the coal cars by spragging their wheels. This prevented coal cars from picking up too much speed and derailing. Spraggers sometimes lost fingers or hands when a sprag got caught.

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Van Diemen’s Land:

The Widow McCormack’s House, Billingary, Public Domain

early British name for Tasmania, where the British had a penal colony. From the early 1800s to the 1853 abolition of penal transportation, some 73,000 convicts were transported to Van Diemen’s Land, including many Irish revolutionaries. In ANYWHERE BUT SCHUYLKILL, Mamai tells the story of how her family fled Ireland to avoid having her father arrested and sent to Van Diemen’s Land for his role in the Famine Rebellion, in Tipperary, also known as the Battle of Ballingary. The song, Van Diemen’s Land, by U2, is about John Boyle O’Reilly, poet and revolutionary Fenian, who was sent to the penal colony in Tasmania for treason. He later escaped to Boston.

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John Siney founded The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association in 1868, in Schuylkill County, PA. The WBA fought for higher wages, safer working conditions and sickness and death benefits. In 1868, they struck for enforcement of Pennsylvania’s new 8-hour workday. By 1869, they had organized 32,000 out of the 36,000 miners in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coalfields. The WBA was one of the nation’s first industrial unions, organizing all workers within the industry into a single union (in contrast to craft unions, which were organized by job title). Here you can read Terence Powderly (one of the first leaders of the Knights of Labor) describing Siney’s influence on him.

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