Saturday, July 16, 2011

"The Stories Were All Lies"

Pinkerton, McParlan and Sherlock Holmes Tell a Tale of the "Molly Maguires"

In the telling of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” history, fact and fiction collide brutally. A centuries-long trail of innuendo, half-truths, fiction and outright lies fogs the telling of this history.

Pivotal to this telling is the credibility of Pinkerton operative James McParlan. McParlan’s trial testimony helped execute 21 men—and sent scores more to prison. So much depended on the truth of McParlan’s statements.

Just how credible were those statements?

This post gives two versions of one significant issue.

The question at issue is this: How did McParlan first cultivate the Irish Catholic men he later helped execute as “Molly Maguires”? Did he seduce them with tales of murder, as he testified in court?

Or did he use another strategy?


Both Allan Pinkerton and Arthur Conan Doyle spun McParlan’s trial testimony into lucrative fictional tales. McParlan first met Pennsylvania’s alleged “Molly Maguires” while working undercover as “James McKenna.” In reports from January 1874 filed with his supervisors, McParlan provided one version of his cultivation of numerous county officers of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).

Less than three years later, during trial testimony, McParlan gave a second version of his cultivation of these men. McParlan’s May 1876 testimony, given under oath, left out telling information from reports made to his supervisors two and a half years before.

Allan Pinkerton’s fictional 1877 work described McParlan's exploits in detail. It further clouded the trail.

And in 1915, incredibly, Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes mystery “The Valley of Fear” gave yet another fictionalized account of the “Molly Maguire” drama. In Sherlock Holmes’ case, McParlan appeared undercover as “Jack McMurdo,” aka “Birdy Edwards.” And AOH delegate John Kehoe, weighted down with diamonds and gold chains, was known both as “Councillor McGinty” and as “Black Jack McGinty,” the feared head of a “murder society.”*


During the Yost murder trial in May 1876 McParlan testified in detail of his supposed cultivation of Schuylkill County’s alleged “Molly Maguires.”

“I … told them different tales,” McParlan testified. “Sometimes I told them I shot a man; sometimes I told them I counterfeited money … the stories were all lies.”

Pinkerton’s 1877 fiction reinforced McParlan’s claim. Titled “The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives,” it appeared less than a year after McParlan’s sworn testimony in the Yost trial.

Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and head of the regional “Coal Combination,” likely commissioned this fictional work. Robert Linden, Pinkerton superintendent of Gowen’s private police force, distributed Pinkerton's new book to regional editors.

Published while “Molly Maguire” trials remained ongoing, it skewed justice for cases that lay pending before Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court and its Board of Pardons. Pinkerton’s book painted the alleged “Molly Maguires” as violent thugs. Its descriptions of drunken Irish depravity reinforced the vicious “Molly Maguire” label. It helped secure fast verdicts of “guilty” in ongoing trials. And it dovetailed closely with McParlan’s trial testimony.


“The Detective Sings, Fights, and Dances Himself Into Popularity,” Pinkerton titled Chapter 8 of his “Molly Maguire” story. Studded with puerile Irish American dialect, it described McParlan’s introduction in late January 1874 to a Pottsville hotel called the Sheridan House, run by a former AOH man named Dormer.

“Dormer had given a hint … that the stranger [McParlan] was a hard case generally, and engaged in concealing himself from certain officials in Western New York, who were in search of him for having killed a man in Buffalo a year or so before,” Pinkerton’s narrative related breathlessly. “It was more than probable that [McParlan’s] reputation as a dealer in counterfeit money had also been discussed by the same worthies.”

Singing. Fighting. Jigging. Tales of counterfeiting, and of a murder committed in Buffalo. And, of course, drinking. According to Pinkerton, this was McParlan’s supposed tale of introduction—in January 1874—to the AOH men he hoped to cultivate.


In 1915 Arthur Conan Doyle went Pinkerton's work one better. While the coal region struggled to recover from the historic trauma of 21 public executions and the killings that generated them, area residents reviewed the latest in a long line of works that painted McParlan as heroic.

Conan Doyle’s work clanged with negative stereotyping. Kehoe’s character “McGinty” was a “black-maned giant, bearded to the cheek-bones, and with a shock of raven hair which fell to his collar.” His eyes were “of a strange dead black,” his complexion “as swarthy as an Italian.” He had an “enormous hand, which was hairy as a gorilla's.”

In Sherlock Holmes’ Pennsylvania case, the Irishmen under “McGinty’s” command committed murder at his will. They swaggered and drank and fought. They beat an elderly newspaperman until his “white hair was dabbled with patches of blood.” And they swapped murders—and rewarded young men with a few dollars for committing their murders for them. In other words, Conan Doyle trotted out McParlan’s trial testimony almost verbatim.

These Irishmen invited McParlan’s character “McMurdo” to join them in their murderous society. They burned his arm with their society’s brand. And, as in Pinkerton’s work, “McMurdo” confided his criminal past to these savage Irishmen.

In Conan Doyle’s version “McMurdo” tells “McGinty” he has killed a man in Chicago, a man who helped him “shove the queer” [pass counterfeit bills]. “I just killed him and lighted out for the coal country,” McParlan’s character tells Kehoe’s character. Forty years after Schuylkill County’s first “Molly Maguire” arrests, the character of Schuylkill’s AOH men was again under direct assault—this time in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s fiction.

But McParlan's lurid statements of murder and counterfeiting—given in person during trial testimony and glamorized by writers of fiction—had helped send 21 Irish Catholic men to the gallows. Those statements inflamed the ethnic hostility that allowed scores of “Molly Maguire” prosecutions to move forward.

Was McParlan’s trial testimony the truth, or was it fiction?


Per Pinkerton’s fictional account, McParlan seduced Schuylkill County’s AOH men in January 1874 with sordid tales of counterfeiting and murder. Decades later, after meeting Pinkerton’s son William on a cross-Atlantic voyage, Conan Doyle seasoned Pinkerton’s tale even more highly—this time for international consumption, in a Sherlock Holmes tale.

But McParlan himself had given his Pinkerton supervisors another version of how he contrived to influence many of the AOH officers from Pennsylvania’s hard coal region. This did not take place in saloons. It did not take place on trains, or at the bottom of mine shafts. And it did not take place while “shoving the queer.”

According to McParlan’s own reports from January 1874, he gained the trust of many of the region’s AOH men in a week-long church mission in Pottsville.

And it was Schuylkill County AOH treasurer Christopher Donnelly, imprisoned later for alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes, who invited McParlan to attend these church services.

“In the evening,” McParlan’s report told supervisors, “the operative attended the mission at the church – being a sort of revival – attended by all from Pottsville & all parts from the County [of Schuylkill] and Cumberland & Luzerne Co. The operative intends attending this mission closely as he will meet with all the M.M.’s and the fact of his attendance will gain for him more friends and confidence than all else.” The mission, said McParlan, “will last until the middle of next week.”

McParlan returned to church services on Wednesday, and again on Thursday. On Friday he attended the mission “in all devoutness morning & evening & made some new acquaintances.” On Saturday, and on Sunday, despite stormy weather, McParlan “attended church faithfully.”

In McParlan’s own words, “the fact of his attendance” at these church services—not jigging, brawling, drinking, counterfeiting or murdering—would “gain for him more friends and confidence than all else.”

On his entry into the hard coal region as an undercover Pinkerton operative, McParlan attended church services for one week “in all devoutness morning & evening” to gain the confidence of Pennsylvania’s AOH hierarchy.


No authoritative history of the “Molly Maguires,” no fictional account, no semi-fictional account, has ever described McParlan's use of his church attendance to cultivate regional AOH men. McParlan’s attendance at church services to secure the trust of these Irishmen accords with their membership in an Irish Catholic benevolent society that chose for its motto “Friendship, Unity and True Christian Charity.”

Two years later McParlan testified in court that he gained the confidence of regional AOH men with tales of murder and counterfeiting, in “stories that were all lies.”

Which version of McParlan’s story is the true version?

An unnamed correspondent to the Boston Pilot in 1876 stated matters succinctly. “Paid swearers will swear for pay, especially perjured ones, such as McParlan,” this writer said. “I would not hang a fly on his oath.”

In his defense of AOH treasurer Alex Campbell, attorney Daniel Kalbfus said to the jury of McParlan: “His testimony all writers admit, is of the most dangerous character. … If they would not accuse me on the other side of being a blackguard I would call him a liar. Coward! He abetted, he planned, he connived the killing of John P. Jones, and you know it.”


Pinkerton’s 1877 “Molly Maguire” dime novel was one in a series he published during this time. It fit in with earlier works titled “The Detective and the Somnambulist” and “The Murderer and the Fortune Teller.” Like these tales, Pinkerton’s “Molly Maguire” story reads as lurid fiction. But so did McParlan’s trial testimony.

Eighty-seven years after Pinkerton’s book appeared, Wayne G. Broehl Jr. published his scholarly work titled “The Molly Maguires.” Broehl relied, in part, on Pinkerton’s fictional account for his telling of this history. This defining slice of the Irish American historical experience can trace its scholarly treatment to an 1877 dime novel version of events published by Allan Pinkerton, the head of a private detective agency with a commercial interest in the caseload—and in procuring verdicts of “guilty” in ongoing "Molly Maguire" trials.

If McParlan’s “Molly Maguire” trial testimony, like his sensationalized tales, was simply “stories that were all lies,” then the history that flowed from that testimony is fatally compromised.

What is the truth of McParlan’s trial testimony—of his character, his credibility?

What is the truth of Pennsylvania’s AOH men fingered by McParlan as “Molly Maguires?”

*Note: Materials offered in this blog are documented in the full-length work "Waking the Dead: The Myth of the "'Molly Maguires,'" pending publication.

This article has been revised.


Coming August 15: “Hireling Spies and Paid Informers”: Pinkerton’s Baltimore Plot Against Lincoln (Part 1)

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