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Sunday, November 20, 2016

106. Burying Children Alive: The Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto from archive.org

Burying Children Alive 

Think of coalmines as vast experimental laboratories of human behavior testing the 
proposition that men, women, and children will do virtually anything — even allow 
themselves to be consigned to damp dangerous tunnels under the ground for all the 
sunlight hours in order to have real work to do as part of the community of mankind. If 
the American Revolution could be said (as the Declaration held) to demonstrate a self- 
evident truth, that all were "endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights," 
the coal revolution tested the contrary proposition — just how far those rights could be 
taken away if exchanged for work. Work was shown by this unworldly occupation to be a 
value as necessary to human contentment as liberty and the pursuit of happiness. In lieu 
of alternatives, people would indeed bury themselves alive to get it. 

And coal was a continuous, highly visible object lesson about just how thoroughly the 
concerns of unseen outside interests could be imposed on childhood. For over a century, 
the best profits had come from using young children as coalminers. By 1843, when 
Horace Mann visited coal-dependent Prussia to gather background for his Seventh 



Report, boys and girls between the ages of five and eight were at work in every coalmine 
in America. Fifty percent of all coalminers were children. 

Children were employed as trappers to open and shut doors guiding air through the mine, 
as fillers to fill carriages as grown men knocked coal from the seams, and as hurriers to 
push trucks along to the workers at the foot of the shaft. In some places trucks were 
pulled instead of pushed, and little girls were employed as pullers because their small 
size was in harmony with the diminutive tunnels, and because they were more 
dependable than boys. An excerpt from a Pittsburgh newspaper of the day is instructive: 

A girdle is put round the naked waist, to which a chain from the carriage is hooked, and 
the girls crawl on their hands and knees, drawing the carriage after them. 

One quiet stream in my own family background was the McManus family from West 
Elizabeth, Pennsylvania, Irish immigrants in the 1840s. Census records list some of them 
as coal- miners. My grandmother was Moss McManus before she became Moss Zimmer. 
She never talked about the past or recalled a single ancestor except one, a McManus 
licensed as a Mississippi River pilot in a document signed by Abraham Lincoln which 
still floats around somewhere in the family. What of all those coalminers, Moss? No 
memories for your grandson? I suppose the answer is she was ashamed. Coalmining was 
something that ignorant, shanty-boat Irish did, not a fit occupation for lace-curtain Irish, 
as Moss tried so hard to be in the face of long odds. 

Long after the owners of mines, mills, and factories had abandoned piety except on 
ceremonial occasions, miners would pray for the strength to endure what had to be 
endured. Their children would pray with them. Here are the words of a little eight-year- 
old girl — exactly the age of my own granddaughter Moss as I write this — who worked as 
a coal miner a hundred years ago. Worked, perhaps, for the famously civilized Dwights 
and Peabodys of New England: 

I'm a trapper in the Gamer Pit. I have to trap without a light and I'm scared. I go at four 
and sometimes half past three in the morning and come out at five and a half past. I never 
go to sleep. Sometimes I sing when I've light, but not in the dark, I dare not sing then. 

Isn't the most incredible part of that the fact she could write so eloquently with no formal 
schooling at all? The year was 1867. A newspaper of that year observed: 

Chained, belted, harnessed like dogs in a go-cart, black, saturated with wet and more than 
half-naked — crawling upon their hands and feet and dragging their heavy loads behind 
them — they presented an appearance indescribably disgusting and unnatural. 

The confinement of American children to warehouse schools less than a half-century later 
had been pioneered by the Massachusetts experiment we associate with Horace Mann in 
the decade just before the Civil War. No other state followed Massachusetts' lead for a 
long time, but everywhere children were engaged in mining and factory work. In 



Massachusetts, the essential practice in confinement was underway, a prelude to 
universal acceptance of schooling as the natural burden of childhood. 

Schools were the anti-matter twins of mines and mills: the latter added children to the 
labor market, schools subtracted them. Both were important functions of a new, 
centralized command economy. By 1900, direct child labor had been rendered 
unnecessary by the swift onset of mechanization, except in those anomalous areas like 
theater, carnival, advertising, and modeling where special pleading to keep children at 
work would succeed during the general campaign to insulate children from common life. 

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