A grim confession to make

This week’s episode of Deconstructed focuses on the situation at the border, where thousands of migrants have jammed an immigration system broken by years of malign neglect, topped off by four years of a deliberate dismantling of any process that could rationally handle the regular ebbs and flows of migration, spurred to greater volume by regional instability fueled by climate change and U.S. dominance of the region’s politics. 

I talk about all this with José Luis Sanz and John B. Washington, both of whom are correspondents with the El Salvador-based publication El Faro -- which also has an English language version. Washington is also an Intercept contributor. (To find the podcast, search for “Deconstructed” on whatever podcast player you use. It posted this morning.)

Along the way, the episode takes a deep dive into Joe Biden’s Irish ancestry, and previous remarks he’s made about immigration in relation to his own story. The episode is not about me, but in researching it, I stumbled across some interwoven strands of history that I wanted to share with somebody, and this newsletter feels like the right place, since it feels like a real community. 

For those who don’t know, my full name is Ryan Webster Grim. It was an endless source of yucks in elementary school. Webster! I grew to really like it -- not just the unusual, proto-hipster nature of it, but also that it connected me to a long line of Grims. My father had always told me that I was named after his dad’s uncle, Webster Grim, who had once been the Democratic nominee for governor of Pennsylvania. At some point early on, I realized that the emphasis on “nominee” meant that he had lost -- otherwise we’d talk about him as the one time governor. But until fairly recently, I’d been content to leave it at that. 

Then I looked more closely at his race and learned the reality: He was as corrupt a party establishment hack as you could design in a lab. And he didn’t just lose, he may have been the biggest statewide loser anywhere in the country through the entire 20th Century. 

To back up a second: My mother’s side of the family is Irish, and my great great grandfather Patrick Francis Boyle left County Donegal in 1849, at the age of five, at the height of the potato famine -- driven out by British imperial and economic policy, as Biden noted at his recent press conference. 

I know about Patrick Francis Boyle thanks to this newsletter you’re reading. If you’ve been a longtime reader, you know I’ve been sending this since 2014 and I’ve gotten to know some of the readers over email, and others in person. One of the latter lives in Utah. When I went on a book tour in 2019, I emailed everyone on this list who lived there to tell them about the event, and Mark showed up. He had spent his life working for and being a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints -- the Mormon church. I learned from him that the Mormons had developed ancestry.com, because part of their faith requires them to learn about their ancestors and go back and posthumously baptize them to save them from eternal damnation, since according to their teaching, anybody who hasn’t accepted Joseph Smith is in Hell, and he wasn’t born until the 1800s, so that’s a lot of souls to save. I’m mangling it and that’s not exactly right, but close enough for our purposes. Suffice it to say we had dinner and a wonderful time and he offered to search my genealogy. 

Longtime readers of this email also know that it’s edited by my Great Aunt Mimi, whose sister (my Grandma Sally) was Patrick’s grandaughter-in-law. What Mimi didn’t know until just recently is that Patrick became a state representative in Pennsylvania. Intriguingly, he served two terms, from 1880-1884, representing Lehigh County (I was born in Allentown, in Lehigh County, in 1978), but then moved to Luzerne County, just southwest of Scranton, and was elected there in 1906. 

That same election year of 1906 voters in neighboring Lackawanna County elected Edward Francis Blewitt to the state Senate. Blewitt is the great-grandfather of Joe Biden. That means that my great-great grandfather and Biden’s great-grandfather served in the Pennsylvania legislature together more than 100 years ago in neighboring counties. 

But that’s on my mother’s side. There’s still Webster Grim to consider. Webster, as his name suggests, was on my dad’s side, and is of German extraction, and my uncle tells me the first Grim had arrived here before there was a United States, in 1754.  

It’s fun to think that Webster must have known state Rep. Patrick Boyle and he certainly knew Biden’s great grandpa. Webster served in the state Senate at the same time and in the same party as Sen. Blewitt. Webster, who lived in Doylestown, was elected in 1902, four years before Blewitt, but served the entire time Blewitt did. Democrats were in the minority in the Senate, so there weren’t many of them. According to state legislative records, his name was actually Issac Webster Grim. 

A quick search turned up a resolution introduced by Webster Grim and co-sponsored by Biden’s great grandpa.

Pennsylvania at the turn of the 20th Century was a wildly corrupt place. It was dominated by barons -- steel barons, coal barons, and railroad barons -- and ruled by what was known as the Republican machine. The post-war Reconstruction years, sometimes known as the Second Founding, had sought to radically democratize society and the economy, expanding the franchise and citizenship, and bringing big businesses under the control of the government. Under the control of Radical Republicans, it was working, but the party had always been a coalition of leftists and wealthy northeastern elites who opposed slavery for their own economic reasons, not for the benefit of the enslaved or any egalitarian sensibilities. The Panic of 1873 set off an economic catastrophe, and President Grant’s refusal to intervene led to a spiraling Depression that sapped the strength of Reconstruction. Democrats swept the 1874 midterms, leading to the contested 1876 presidential election which ended with Democrats conceding, but Republicans promising to officially withdraw troops from the South and end Reconstruction. 

Meanwhile, workers were organizing into proto-unions and fighting back against the barons. The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association in Pennsylvania organized mineworkers, but lacked the militancy that some workers wanted. Into this breach stepped the Molly Maguires, which emerged in the 1860s in Pennsylvania coal country.

Secret societies were a major part of Ireland’s political economy for centuries, and the Molly Maguires were importing it here. The original Molly Magquire was an Irish widow who launched an organization called the Anti-landlord Agitators in the 1840s as tenants clashed with landlords in Ireland. The fight between those landlords and the  people working on the land was central to how the famine had unfolded. The landlords fought against relief for people because they were effectively starving people off their land, seizing it from families that had been working it for centuries. 

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Biden, at a speech before an Irish American audience in 2013 said that a newspaper had accused state Sen. Blewitt of having been a member of the Molly Maguires. “He denied it, but we all hoped it was true,” Biden said.

In 1875, mineworkers in Pennsylvania launched The Long Strike, and bosses fought back by hiring the Pinkertons to infiltrate the union and their alleged paramilitary arm the Molly Maguires to find evidence of criminal behavior. People on both sides had been killed, but convictions were only handed down to members of the Maguires. On June 21, twenty of them were mass executed by the state of Pennsylvania in 1877, breaking the back of the union. 

Three weeks after the mass execution of the miners, the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 began in West Virginia, where the Molly Maguires were also said to be active. It quickly spread to Pennsylvania and across the country, sparking fears that the U.S. was witnessing its own Paris Commune. It was violently suppressed after 69 days that shook the country to its core. 

The rest of the century continued to see violent conflict between oligarchs and workers exploited in the most ruthless fashion. The Homestead Massacre came in 1892 in western PA, the most infamous bloodshed at the hands of the Pinkertons.

Out of this conflict rose a populist reform movement, determined to take on the power of the barons and the party bosses. Republicans, thanks to a major corruption scandal, were on the ropes heading into the 1910 gubernatorial election, their dominance of the state in question. The state treasurer, a Democrat, caught Republicans stealing millions of dollars from a fund meant for construction of the Capitol in Harrisburg. Republicans needed a high-profile candidate free of scandal, and turned to a star baseball player, John Tener, hoping his name recognition and celebrity would carry him. He had been elected to Congress just the year before and had organized the first Congressional Baseball Game in 1909, which is still played annually today. 

A grassroots movement, meanwhile, formed around the state treasurer who had exposed the party bosses, a populist reformer named William Berry. Now he was pledging to take on the barons, and looked to have the nomination for governor locked. In an extraordinary intervention, both party bosses -- Republican and Democrat -- colluded at the Democratic convention to stop Berry. In his place they nominated state Senator Webster Grim.

Webster Grim, in other words, was the patsy the party bosses put up to lose on purpose, with the ultimate goal of stopping the insurgent candidate. 

But Berry didn’t stop, and populists in both parties rallied behind him as he formed the Keystone Party and became its nominee. I’d have to spend more time in Scranton newspaper archives to find out if Rep. Boyle and Sen. Blewitt supported the patsy Grim, or broke off and backed Berry. Like Biden’s wish that his ancestor was a Molly Maguire, I hope they did the right thing -- and opposed Webster -- but I’m kind of afraid to find out. 

Tener, the ballplayer, ran to the left, shocking Republican Party bosses, promising major public works projects, funding for education, and support for women’s suffrage. A Wikipedia page ends with a brutal summary of the race, as my namesake did just enough to kneecap the populist third party candidate: “While Tener was unable to gain a majority of the vote, he was able to defeat Berry, as Grim, who had the support of the party machinery, split enough of the progressive vote to lead to a Republican win.” 

Grim did his job. Tener won with 41% of the vote, the “third party” candidate came in with 38%, and Grim won just under 13% -- which has to be the lowest statewide showing for a major party candidate on the ballot in the entire century. (But there’s still someone else to blame if you want: Berry lost by 30,000 votes, but the Socialist candidate got 53,055 votes, more than 5%.) The real difference had come in Republican-dominated Philadelphia, where Tener ran up a 45,000-vote margin.

Tener, though, followed through on his campaign pledges, and turned out to be a surprisingly progressive governor. He created the state’s public education system, centralized control of highway construction and levied taxes to fund it, and implemented hunting fees for the first time in order to fund conservation. He pushed a Constitutional amendment for women’s suffrage. All in all, a pretty good governor. So, I guess, thank you, Uncle Webster.