In the later part of the 19th century, the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania was swept by hysteria over a secret Irish immigrant society, The Molly Maguires, who were accused of committing murder and industrial sabotage. Vilified by the establishment of the day, with time they would be seen as heroes of the labor movement and idolized as counter-culture heroes in a movie. Who though were “The Molly Maguires” and is either version correct?
Even the origin of the term “Molly Maguire” is subject to debate. Legend has it that it arose from the name of an old woman who was forcibly evicted from her property, a move that was then violently resisted by neighbors on her behalf. Other traditions point to a tactic of ambushing a heartless rent collector or landlord by having one of the participants dress as a woman and act as a decoy to slow the intended targets carriage so that it could be attacked. However, there is little evidence that an organized secret society existed in Ireland called “The Molly Maguires”, rather it was a term used to describe “rural justice” and reprisals against wrongs committed by the ruling class.
In the years after the civil war America’s industrial boom and expansion was fueled by coal and the mines of Pennsylvania attracted thousands of Irish immigrants. The conditions of employment were deplorable and exploitive: in addition to back breaking labor the miners were required to pay rent for homes that were owned by the mine, had to shop in stores owned by the mine and would have deductions from their pay for the use of the very tools they used to mine coal. It was not unusual after a week’s hard labor for a miner to find himself owing money to the mine rather than receiving pay. The miners lived, as one mine owner put it, in a state of “semi-slavery.”
Labor Unions did try to form to work to protect the miners, but they were brutally suppressed, by men like Franklin B. Gowen. Gowen was a former Pennsylvania prosecutor who had ruthlessly climbed to power of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and Philadelphia Coal and Iron Company. Gowen was not satisfied in simply crushing the unions, he wished to exterminate any future threat of organized resistance and leadership among the Irish Catholic mining community. To justify a crack down on potential organizers, Gowen, along with newspaper publisher Benjamin Bannon, began disseminating information of a secret organization that was engaged in a campaign of violence, “The Molly Maguires”. To add credibility to this conspiracy theory, Gowen took steps to link the alleged “Molly Maguires” to a known “secret organization” of Irish Americans, who by organizing and speaking up for the rights Irish immigrants had already caused the mine owners trouble: the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
Gowen arranged for a Pinkerton Detective, James McParland to infiltrate the AOH. McParland was an Irish immigrant who had a checkered past, even allegations of having committed a murder in Buffalo. Alan Pinkerton stated McParland was not the sort of man to be troubled if he thought Gowen’s attack on the AOH was “simply persecution for opinions sake.” McParland was able to infiltrate the miners and the AOH, but after two years was unable to provide a link between the violence of the coalfields and the AOH, nor the existence of a group called the “Molly Maguires.” This was no problem as Gowen was able to arrange through his influence that any violent act that occurred was an example of “Molly violence”. The coalfields had always been a fertile ground for feuds and vigilante justice, and not just by Irish Americans, a group of Dutch Immigrants, the Mudochs, had waged an undeclared war against Irish American for years. It is also likely more than coincidence that some of the smaller mine owners who were the victims of “The Mollies” were also competitors of Gowen. Gowen’s agent McParland, having found no direct evidence of the Mollies, was not averse to attempting to provoke members of the AOH to violence where they could be entrapped. Pinkerton himself openly admitted that members of the AOH were “quietly murdered.”
Events culminated in bringing 50 miners to trial. That Gowen was leaving nothing to chance with the outcome of the trials can be seen in the case of “Black Jack Kehoe”. Kehoe, a retired miner and leader of the AOH had been a known spokesman for miner rights. Gowen arranged for himself to serve as prosecutor in Kehoe’s case (a clear conflict of interest) and imported a sympathetic judge to hear the case. Irish Catholics were barred from serving on the jury. One juror, a Dutch immigrant, later admitted that he did not understand much of the English testimony “but was for hanging him anyway”. Kehoe was convicted of a murder that had occurred 14 years before despite the fact that the victim, who had lived for several days after the attack and knew Kehoe, never implicated him and several witnesses for Kehoe placed him away from the scene of the attack. However, Gowen, through testimony from McParland and others that is now largely considered perjury, successfully portrayed Kehoe as “The King of the Mollies.” Kehoe and eighteen other men would eventually be hanged.
As to the credibility of Gowen and McParland’s claims regarding the existence of the “Molly Maguires”, one can draw conclusions from their later lives. McParland would later fail in an attempt to frame several labor leaders for the murder of the former Governor of Idaho. Once again, McParland would again try to invoke the image of a “secret conspiracy” but failed to convince anyone of its existence. Gowen would later be forced to resign his position as president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and Philadelphia Coal and Iron Company, but not without making powerful enemies of men perhaps even more ruthless than himself: J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. Gowen was found dead in a case of a “suspicious suicide”.
It is somewhat sad to note that the men who were hanged for being “Molly Maguires” are still victims of the efforts of Gowen and McParland today, but ironically by people who attempt to idolize them. These admirers of the “Mollies” still accept as fact the dubious accusations of their persecutors, but now for their own ends portray these events as the acts of righteous “Robin Hoods”. It is hoped that one day the less romantic but perhaps more frightening truth will win out, that these men were likely the innocent victims of one of the great witch hunts in history and their chief crime was nothing more than for the “crime” of being Irish, Catholic and Hibernians.
Did You Know that…
- On June 21, 1877, ten coal miners accused of being “Molly Maguires” were hung in two separate executions. This day has come down through history as “The Day of the Rope”
- Before one of the convicted miners, Alexander Campbell, was taken from his cell to be hanged he stooped and dabbed his hand with something from the floor of his cell. Campbell turned to his guards, said, “I am innocent, and this be my testimony”, and then slammed his open hand against the wall leaving his handprint. Despite efforts over 130 years to scrub it away the handprint still is visible to this day.
- In 1979, Pennsylvania Governor Shapp granted “Black Jack” Kehoe a posthumous pardon, the first every issued by that state.
- One of the worse mining disasters in our nation’s history occurred at the Avondale mine in 1868. The owner of the mine had cut costs by not digging a second escape exit, and when the mine caved it trapped and killed 179 miners, most of them Irish immigrants. This led thousands of miners to join one of the nation’s earliest labor unions, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, headed by Irish American John Siney. It was the threat of this union that attracted the attention of Gowen to suppress all union activity in the region.
- Another crusader for the rights of labor and a zealous crusader against child labor in the mines at the turn of the twentieth century was Cork born Mary Harris Jones, often referred to as “Mother Jones”.