Friday, September 30, 2011

Alex Campbell's Wake

Part 1 of 4: Sensational Dispatches to City Papers
A 1998 review for the History Book Club called Kevin Kenny's “Making Sense of the Molly Maguires” the “best book on the subject.” “It is meticulously researched, carefully argued, and well written, and it brings all of the events to life,” said this review. “The controversy over the Molly Maguires will not end with Kenny’s book. … But no one will ever again be able to think or write seriously about the 1870s violence in the anthracite coal region without reading this stunning volume.”

Since the publication of Kenny’s work in 1998, no historian has stepped forward to challenge it.

But new research suggests that Kenny’s argument is in need of revision.


“The Molly Maguires embodied a rare, transatlantic strand of a pattern of violent protest characteristic of different parts of the Irish countryside at different times between 1760 and 1850,” Kenny said in “Making Sense of the Molly Maguires.” “The type of violence in question has been aptly described as a form of ‘retributive justice.’”

Many convicted “Mollies” came from west Donegal, noted Kenny, from a “preliterate Gaelic culture.” “It was these Irish-speakers,” he said, “and not the Irish in general, who became ‘Molly Maguires’ in Pennsylvania.”

“Because of their language, culture, and customs, they were the archetypal ‘wild Irish,’ noticeably and ominously different from the mass of Irish immigrants,” Kenny determined.

In a 1995 article published in Labor History, Kenny used one example in particular— the wake of Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) divisional treasurer Alexander Campbell—to reinforce his theory of these “archetypal ‘wild Irish.’”

Campbell died on June 21, 1877, along with ten other AOH men executed on that day in Pottsville, Mauch Chunk and Wilkes-Barre. He was charged with the 1875 murder of mine superintendent John P. Jones.

Kenny relied on an account from the New York Sun to describe Campbell’s wake. But like much of the Sun’s reporting of the so-called “Molly Maguires,” this account was a masterpiece of hyperbole. A week after its publication, a private letter from the newspaper’s own editor to Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons challenged the truth of the Sun’s dime-novel reporting.



The Sun, noted Kenny, described “a protracted boisterous wake” held for Campbell “of precisely the type frowned upon by the Catholic Church, conducted in the Irish language, and featuring the distinctly Gaelic practice of ‘keening.’”

The Sun’s account rivaled Shakespeare’s “Double, double toil and trouble.” It beat even Allan Pinkerton’s fiction for color. In its account, Irishmen swarmed Campbell’s premises, smoking clay pipes and drinking whiskey. Forty women dressed in hooded cloaks sat in the parlor adjacent to Campbell’s laid-out body and gave their grief “free rein.”

One crone among them, “the Keener,” exceeded all others with her “lamentations and curses upon the enemies of the dead man.” Of the judges, detectives and prosecution witnesses who sent AOH men to the gallows, she intoned: “May they and their children meet with fire and hunger, and disease, and early death … and may every true friend of Aleck, the kind, good soul, who died through perjury, revenge his awful death.”

“Such outcries were hushed when the presence of strangers in another room was discovered,” the Sun reported, “and afterward only Keeners who spoke Irish were permitted to lead the lamentations.”

“Here, once again,” Kenny observed, “was some fleeting evidence of the closed, alien culture embodied by Molly Maguireism, from which outsiders were rigidly excluded.”

“The few people there who are not Mollies are in bodily fear of the others,” the Sun concluded. It bolstered that claim with reports of numerous, murderous threats of wild vengeance. If true, this was a dire account of a dangerous people.

If true.


In Pottsville, the Miners’ Journal protested the city dailies’ sensationalized accounts. No friend to the Irish, the Journal’s editor nonetheless flatly denied the claims of vengeance threatened at the Irishmen’s wakes.

“It is hardly necessary to state that the sensational dispatches to city papers have only a very little leaven of truth in them,” the Journal admonished readers. “Falsehoods, palpable to residents of the coal region, throw discredit even on what may be true in them.”

As to the disturbances reported at Campbell’s Friday night wake, the Journal openly contradicted the Sun’s account. “The reports that the crowd at Campbell’s wake were very disorderly on Friday night are false,” it said. “We have it on good authority that good order was maintained. … There was no demonstration of any kind.”

The photo at the top of this article is of Alex Campbell, AOH treasurer for Storm Hill, hanged on June 21, 1877, in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania.

This post was revised on August 9, 2018.

Coming October 8 — Alex Campbell’s Wake – Part 2 of 4: Conducted With the Greatest Decorum

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