Brow Beat

Heartwarming! When His Father Died in a Coal Mine, This 12-Year-Old Went to Work in the Same Coal Mine.

A little kid in a work uniform, as pictured in a biography of Henry Demarest Lloyd.
Andrew Chippie, age 12. Henry Demarest Lloyd

Andrew Chippie is only 12 years old, but it’s already clear that he’s a boy who puts family first!

As he explained in sworn testimony before the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission in December of 1902, his family was thrown into crisis when an ill-tempered mule kicked out a support beam in a mine operated by the G.B. Markle Company, causing a platform to fall on top of his father and crush him to death. The Markle Company generously paid the Chippies $50 to cover the burial expenses in consideration of his service to the firm, although unfortunately his burial expenses came to more than $50. They also offered Mrs. Chippie, Andrew, and his three siblings six whole months of free rent in the company housing where they resided at the time, plus all the coal the family could eat, in exchange for waiving all rights to legal action or further investigation into the feasibility of mule-proof construction methods. But when Mrs. Chippie, a Hungarian immigrant who speaks very little English, refused to sign the waiver of liability, the family’s rent and coal bills quickly drove them deeply into debt to their father’s former employer and the family’s current landlord.

That’s when Andrew sprang into action! Concerned about his family’s financial situation and the well-being of his younger siblings, little Andy dropped out of school after only a year’s education and took a job as a breaker boy at the Markle company’s Drifton colliery, working ten hour days picking impurities out of coal for wages of four cents an hour. The work was difficult, but Andrew never complained about his aching back or the cuts on his hands, out of sheer determination and a child’s love for his siblings, plus also the fact that his boss was in the habit of lifting him into the air by his ears and slamming him back into his seat whenever his work performance was unsatisfactory, and sometimes would throw rocks at him too.

But Andrew’s long hard days bent over a conveyor belt dodging rocks and guarding his ears were all worth it when payday rolled around! In May of 1902, the Chippies owed the Markle company $60.09 for rent and coal. Just six months of backbreaking work later, Andy had earned so much that not only did he not receive any take-home pay, but his family owed the Markle Company $88.17, nearly thirty dollars more than they’d owed before the 12-year-old went to work. Just imagine how deeply they would have fallen in debt if not for little Andy’s initiative and stick-to-itiveness!

Some commenters have suggested that the Chippies’ situation is more a symptom of systemic flaws than a heartwarming story of triumph over adversity. Clarence Darrow, for instance, placed blame with “the fiendish cruelty of John Markle,” instead of celebrating Andrew’s hard work and indomitable spirit. But Markle is the founder of the John and Mary R. Markle Foundation, which works “to promote the general good of mankind” and recently launched the Rework America Business Network in partnership with other general-good-of-mankind-promoters like Archer Daniels Midland, Boeing, Duke Energy, McKinsey & Company, and Walmart, so good luck selling the narrative that he’s the villain here. Plus, Markle is now distantly related to the British royal family, and coal-baron-to-royalty is the kind of Cinderella story Americans love, almost as much as they love the kinds of Cinderella stories where children are pressed into labor after the death of a parent. There’s no bad guy in this story of a brave little boy fighting to help his family: There are only heroes.

Darrow also suggests that if the press were to report on the people and conditions that sent Andrew Chippie to the mines, instead of serving our readers whatever paltry comfort we can generate by hyping up individual acts of heroism in the face of systemic injustice, it might be possible to “rake up some muck” and help change those conditions. To that, we say, “Tell it to the judge!” Specifically, tell it to Judge George Gray, who was so moved by Andrew’s testimony that he did the only thing a well-respected political figure who also happened to be the chair of the Anthracite Coal Strike Commission could do: He sent Andy a box of Christmas presents, including a trumpet, a toy ice-wagon, a metallochord, and a new coat! The heartwarming story of Judge Gray saving Christmas was picked up by papers nationwide, as readers thrilled to the prospect of a happy ending for the long-suffering Chippie family. The first federal anti-child labor law was passed more than a decade later (and the first one that stuck, more than a decade after that) after a sustained campaign from activists and journalists alike, but it’d be hard to argue that pack of scolds did more good for children than the toy ice-wagon. Just ask Andrew, who was in tears as he expressed his deep gratitude to the gathered reporters. “I want you to thank Judge Gray for me,” he told them. “If I could write I would do it for myself.”

Chippie’s fundraising efforts have already inspired other do-gooders, like the 9-year-old who used his allowance to pay off his classmates’ school lunch debt, the Home Depot employees who built medical equipment for a 2-year-old out of PVC pipe rather than try to get his insurance company to cover it, and the woman who gave her kid’s teacher a car so she could get to work. Everything is just so goddamned heartwarming these days!