In 1875 John Kehoe said: “the Ancient Order of Hibernians is a chartered organization,
recognized by the commonwealth, and composed of men who are law-abiding, and seek the elevation of their members. … nothing can be more unjust than to charge the order
with any acts of lawlessness.” This blog argues for the innocence of many, if not all, of the AOH men prosecuted as “Molly Maguires” in the Pennsylvania coal fields in the 1870s on evidence supplied by the Pinkerton agency.
n November 17, 2016, in the Atrium
Lobby at Bucknell University’s Weis Center, an event took place as part of the
university’s “Coal Collections” series that may help change the way history is
written, taught, and interpreted.
Early visitors to the program titled
Maguires in the Pennsylvania Coal Region” found an array of sofas arranged
before a mounted display. A large blow-up, a number of feet high, of a
black-and-white photo taken of alleged “Molly” leader John Kehoe shortly before
his execution, gave a hint as to how the event might proceed.
had evidently expected a small group. As the minutes ticked by, more and more
attendees appeared. Helpers rolled forward carts loaded with folding chairs to
seat the crowd that eventually numbered more than two hundred. Older community
members commingled with students who came to hear the presentation. The scent
of onions from the “hand pies” offered as a sample of coal region food lingered
in the glass-enclosed room. It seemed almost impossible that this gracious
setting would host a civil discussion of events that had so convulsed the
commonwealth a century and a half before.
English professor and Joyce scholar
John Rickard, a possible relative of alleged “Molly Maguire” Michael Lawler
(also spelled Lawlor), opened the program. Rickard distributed a handout with
samples of nineteenth-century nativist cartoons. These included Thomas Nast’s
“The Usual Way of Doing Things,” with its ape-faced Irishman astride a keg of
gunpowder, brandishing a whiskey bottle in one hand and a shillelagh in the
The remarks of Rickard and
co-presenter Adrian Mulligan, chair of the Geography Department, took up the
better part of the program. Both offered cogent assessments of this
fantastically complex and controversial slice of U.S. and Irish American history.
In his opening remarks, Rickard recommended the work of Kevin Kenny, the most
recent academic scholar to address Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict.
Rickard’s description of Irish
immigration to the United States included a discussion of both nineteenth-century
nativist attitudes and the dangers suffered by Irish American laborers that led
to eventual unionization, a logical outcome of historical Irish resistance.
Rickard, whose ancestor Lawler had served as delegate to both 1871 Grand
Council union arbitration proceedings at Mauch Chunk and 1875 anti-monopoly
efforts at Harrisburg, spoke of the infiltration by Pinkerton detectives of the
Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) in the Pennsylvania coalfields, and the
resulting prosecution and execution of many AOH men as alleged “Mollies.”
Rickard also addressed the Pinkerton influence on the writing of this history.
Mulligan, a native of Ireland, detailed
the challenges shared by ethnic groups from different parts of the globe,
including Chinese laborers and Irish American immigrants. The geography
professor also spoke of the need for current scholars to learn from past
history, in particular from the echoes of nineteenth-century inequities on
current growing economic disparity.
From John Kehoe’s Cell
first learned of the scheduled Bucknell
presentation from friends who live in Bloomsburg. I subsequently contacted John
Rickard and advised him of my research, in particular the essay collection
posted from September through November 2016 to this blog titled “From John
Both Rickard and Adrian Mulligan
paused midway through their presentations to acknowledge my contributions. Both
referred to my position as a “Molly” descendant and to the scholarship
contained in the work posted to the blog, which includes documentation showing that
prior to their arrests, a number of Hibernians charged as “Mollies” had been elected
as school directors.
In his concluding remarks, Mulligan
spoke of the need to share these findings with today’s students. The respectful
attention of those gathered for the event gave credence to his recommendation.
Rickard had mentioned a number of times during his remarks that winners usually
write the history. He concluded: “Now the descendants are writing the history.”
The Kehoe Foundation
n old maxim attributed to the
Quakers reads: “Evil flourishes when good men do nothing.” A new maxim might read:
“Honor history or suffer the consequences.” The results of the recent
presidential election sharpen this discussion.
A careful study of Pennsylvania’s
“Molly Maguire” conflict yields innumerable echoes of today’s challenges, from
the dangers of unbridled nativist rhetoric to the perils associated with fake
news to the potentially tragic effects of corporate, political, judicial, and clerical abuse of
In 2013 I formed the Kehoe
Foundation, with interested individuals, as a 501c3 research foundation. Its
goals include education into the intricacies of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire”
conflict to help inform and illuminate current scenarios—educational,
political, and cultural.
The foundation, with its
comprehensive research collection, is currently seeking backing from an
academic institution. Such a collaboration might help engage students like
those who viewed the Bucknell “Molly Maguire” presentation. The hearts and
minds of such students will soon be guiding our country.
are invited to browse the collection of essays posted here.
“Jug-Handled Justice” describes railroad president Franklin Gowen’s almost single-handed usurpation of Pennsylvania's criminal justice system for the duration of the “Molly Maguire” trials. At this essay's conclusion John Elliott, the attorney who helped secure John Kehoe's 1979 posthumous pardon, gives a summation of Gowen’s actions.
“The ‘Mollies’ Were Also School Directors” gives the background of five Hibernians prosecuted as “Mollies” who served in office as school directors. This piece also documents a resurgent tide of nativist feeling that manifested in the northeastern United States in the early 1870s.
“Pennsylvania’s ‘Molly Maguires’: The Surprising Western
Caseload,” describes the “Molly” caseload in three western Pennsylvania
counties. This effort from 1878 to 1882 involved dozens of defendants. It failed
as spectacularly as the eastern effort succeeded.
“The ‘Molly Maguires’ and the National Labor Union” describes the relationship between alleged “Molly” Patrick Hester and Richard
Trevellick, president during the early 1870s of the National Labor Union, a
countrywide coalition of tradesmen.
“The ‘Molly Kings’ and Greenback Labor Reform” describes the
role of Hibernians charged as “Mollies” in a progressive nineteenth-century financial
reform effort. In particular, this essay discusses the relationship between Kehoe
and U.S. Congressman John Killinger, a vocal proponent of Greenback Labor
Reform efforts in the early 1870s.
archived through the Library of Congress “Chronicling America” website helped
inform this body of work. Readers at this site are invited to inform
their own views of this fantastically complex, and fascinating, slice of U.S.
tab labeled “JOHN KEHOE,” located above, offers a new, comprehensive bio for
Schuylkill County’s AOH delegate.