“My dad used to say, ‘Joey…’ — and I swear to God, when he left Scranton, when the coal died — my dad was not a — he was — he was a salesperson; he wasn’t a coal miner. My great-grandpop was.”
“Maureen, we’re in the biggest constitutional fight in fifty years, and you want to know whether Biden’s great-grandfather was a coal miner?”
— Campaign aide Tom Donilon, quoted talking to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times, in Richard Ben Cramer’s book “What It Takes” (1992).
The Fact Checker has done a pair of articles in recent weeks that traced the genealogy of Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and the Rev. Robert W. Lee IV. Consequently, many readers have asked us to look into Biden’s comment that his great-grandfather was a coal miner.
It reminded some people of an incident in Biden’s first campaign, in 1988, when he claimed his ancestors were coal miners in a speech that proved to be plagiarized. So what about his great-grandfather?
Biden’s first presidential run in 1988 exploded in allegations of plagiarism. Without credit, Biden’s stump speech included lines lifted from a speech given by Neil Kinnock, then leader of the British Labour Party. An operative in a rival campaign — that of Michael Dukakis, then governor of Massachusetts, who eventually won the Democratic nomination — gave to the media a tape comparing Biden’s speech and Kinnock’s speech.
Of particular note, Kinnock had referred to his ancestors, Welsh coal miners, “who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football.” In Biden’s telling, it became: “My ancestors, who worked in the coal mines of Northeast Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours.’’
Donilon, the Biden campaign aide who was interviewed by Dowd for the front-page article that sank Biden’s campaign, was quoted as saying: ''Evidently he had a great-grandfather who worked in a mining company.'' But, in those pre-Internet days, Donilon told Dowd he didn’t know the name of the man, the company and the sort of job he held.
Such details are easily discovered these days with websites such as newspapers.com, which can locate articles in ancient newspapers. It turns out that Biden’s great-grandfather (from his mother’s side), Edward Blewitt (1859-1926), and great-great grandfather, Patrick Blewitt (1833-1911), worked in the mines as an engineer and an inspector, respectively. (Father and son can be found in the 1860 Census for Scranton.)
“Patrick Blewitt is mine inspector for the second anthracite district, extending from Providence to the Luzerne County line,” said a 1897 book titled “Portrait and biographical record of Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania.” In 1850, “he became one of the early Irish settlers of Lackawanna County, and assisted Joel Amsden in laying out and surveying Scranton.” In 1871, he was appointed mine inspector, a job he still held when the book was published: “He has done efficient work in the inspection of the forty-six or more mines in his district.”
When Patrick Blewitt died in 1911, the Scranton Truth reported that “for twenty-three years he was a mine inspector, being one of the first men to serve in that capacity. … Mr. Blewitt’s wide knowledge of mining conditions, gathered through years of practical experience in and about the mine here and in Iowa, where he participated in the opening of the first coal mine in that part of the West, made him an authority on matters pertaining to mining.”
Most of the mine workers in Pennsylvania at the time were Irish. The work was tough and dangerous, with 67 workers dying just in Blewitt’s district in 1871, many from tumbling coal or collapsing mine roofs, according to the report he filed.
Biden’s great-grandfather, Edward Blewitt, went to college and became a civil and mining engineer, and eventually a state senator, “the large coal mining operations of that region affording him fine opportunities,” according to a biography on page 343 of a 1909 book, “Pennsylvania and Its Public Men.” The book also said he was involved in silver and gold mining in Montana.
When Edward died, the Scranton Times-Tribune headline described him as a “well-known civil and mining engineer.” That’s also how Edward advertised himself, according to an advertisement placed in the April 5, 1893, edition of the newspaper.
As a state legislator, the newspaper noted in the obituary, “he was one of the pioneers in the fight for mine cave safety.”
In other words, both men worked in and around mines, either as an inspector or engineer. That’s not the same thing as “coal miner,” someone who has the job of extracting the coal. But such jobs are still part of the coal industry. The Bureau of Labor Statistics includes engineers and inspectors as part of its definition of “coal mining jobs.” The Mine Safety and Health Act of 1977 says that anyone who works at a mining site, including contractors, such as engineers, would be defined as a miner.
Still, there is little doubt Biden’s great-grandfather was a politician and a mining engineer, not a mine worker. Biden’s great-great-grandfather appears to have spent more time in the mines.
But we also have to consider whether this was a one-off comment.
It turns out we can find other examples of Biden making this same point — that his father was a salesman and his great-grandfather was in mines — but with Biden correctly saying Edward Blewitt was a mining engineer, not a coal miner.
- “My dad was a salesperson. He wasn’t a coal miner. My great-grandfather was a mining engineer, but my dad used to say, ‘Joey, a job’s about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect.’” (Cincinnati rally, Oct. 12)
- “Although my great-grandfather was, they tell me, the first Irish Catholic State Senator ever elected in the state of Pennsylvania, and he was a mining engineer. But I remember him saying he made that walk, which a lot of you know here in Erie.” (Erie, Pa., rally, Oct. 10)
- “Look, I’m from Scranton, Pennsylvania. My great grandfather is a mining engineer, so I come from coal country.” (Interview, Oct. 26)
The White House declined to comment.
The Pinocchio Test
We generally have not awarded Pinocchios when researching how politicians speak about family myths and stories. We also do not play gotcha when a politician flubs a talking point they have gotten correct on other occasions.
Biden went too far on Tuesday when he described his great-grandfather as a “coal miner,” but during the presidential campaign he correctly labeled him a mining engineer. So this is not a repeat of 1988, when Biden repeatedly lifted lines from a British politician’s speech and falsely said he had ancestors who worked 12 hours underground.
Moreover, Biden’s great-great grandfather was a mining inspector — one of the first in that part of Pennsylvania. So Biden is not incorrect to suggest his family background includes involvement in mines, even if they weren’t part of the Molly Maguires.
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