Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Politics of Schuylkill's "Molly Maguires": Part 1 of 2

To Assuage the Sufferings of Our Brothers in Toil

The execution in Pennsylvania of 21 Irish Catholic men as alleged “Molly Maguires” did not take place in a vacuum. These executions followed on decades of an intensive "Know-Nothing" campaign against individuals of foreign birth. Politicians known as "nativists" engineered this campaign.

Nativists believed that only native American citizens, or Americans by birth, should hold public office. Nativists disliked and distrusted Catholics, especially Irish Catholics.

Thomas Nast’s 1871 political cartoon of an Irish ape attacking Lady Liberty showed matters graphically. “Liberty” held the whip-hand—against all Irish threats.


Other unsettling beliefs informed the Know-Nothing campaign of these decades.

In August 1871 a reporter for the Irish Times described the climate well. He told fellow Irishmen: “It is a fact not known in Ireland how small American politicians think of Irishmen.”*

“The idea at your side of the Atlantic,” he told readers in Ireland, “is that there is a brotherhood of sentiment, a sort of alliance—offensive and defensive—between the native Americans and the Irish.”

“No such thing! The Americans, in the main, consider the Irish in no such light. They find them useful as hewers of wood and drawers of water. Their vote is wanted for the irrepressible politicians with which this country abounds, and they tolerate them so far; but, most assuredly, they care little for Irish politics as Irish politics, and as far as they touch them at all remind me very much of the fox who climbed out of the well on the back of the goats. They certainly reach profit and emolument by the means of the Irish, and, as far as I see, will continue to do so.”

The “irrepressible politicians” who reached “profit and emolument by the means of the Irish” included Pennsylvania’s Coal Combination, the cartel of railroad and coal interests centered in the commonwealth’s hard coal region. These industrialists clearly wanted Irishmen—and their young sons, some as young as seven years old—for their “hewers of wood and drawers of water.” But they also wanted Irish votes for the political campaigns that raged throughout the commonwealth during the 1870s.

And to the dismay of these industrialists—all heavy political operatives—an Irish Catholic benevolent association known as the “Ancient Order of Hibernians” (AOH), legally chartered in 1871 in both New York and Harrisburg, had entered the political arena.


In 1875 Bernard Dolan, a former AOH delegate from Pennsylvania's Schuylkill County, gave a local voice to the Irish reporter's assessment. Dolan preceded John Kehoe, hanged as the “King of the Molly Maguires,” as AOH county delegate. Though targeted as an alleged “Molly Maguire,” Dolan somehow escaped arrest.

In October 1875, during a chaotic election cycle, Dolan wrote a scathing letter to a Pottsville paper. From July through September that year six murders had taken place in Schuylkill County. The murders had badly shaken the region. All had been blamed on the so-called “Molly Maguires.”

Dolan’s letter landed squarely in the midst of that year’s hotly contested gubernatorial race. It challenged the unnamed “imbecile editor of an evening sheet” published locally. This editor, charged Dolan, believed “that the members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians can be bought and sold as if they were so many cows, &c.”

Dolan resisted that notion. God gave AOH men, he said, “the faculties to reason, and discern right from wrong, and being possessed of these faculties they exercise them upon all occasions, and never more so than do they at the ballot box.”

AOH voters, Dolan said, went to the ballot box “unprejudiced and unbiased, vote for men whose ‘character cannot be successfully assailed’—men who will devote their time to secure the welfare of the Commonwealth, and assuage the sufferings of the poor laboring class, who [sic] they consider their brothers in toil.”

In the pages of a Pottsville newspaper, during a violent election season, Dolan had uttered the AOH political manifesto. As former AOH county delegate, Dolan spoke authoritatively. And in Dolan’s informed opinion, AOH voters sought both to secure “the welfare of the Commonwealth” and to “assuage the sufferings of … their brothers in toil.”

AOH voters throughout the United States—in Pennsylvania, north to New York, west to Illinois and California—were reform voters. Their numbers—and their power—increased with every election cycle.


In all the streams of opinion that have issued in the “Molly Maguire” canon, no historian has ever brought forward Dolan’s political assessment. Nor has any contemporary historian suggested that Pennsylvania’s Irishmen, assembled under the AOH banner, had become a political power. Very few authors—from the 19th, 20th or 21st centuries—have considered the possibility that these Irishmen took their order’s motto of “Friendship, Unity and True Christian Charity” into the voting booth with them.

But Dolan’s 1875 letter asserts that AOH men, moving at the time of Dolan’s writing under the influence of AOH delegate John Kehoe, voted thoughtfully, deliberately, carefully—and in the interests of the “poor laboring class.” In a region torn with labor strife, the AOH electoral block constituted political power.

Dolan’s letter on AOH political heft appeared in October 1875. Two years later Francis Dewees, a local author, said of Schuylkill County’s AOH: “In October 1875, it was feared and courted by both political parties.”

Munsell’s 1881 History of Schuylkill County, Pa., said of AOH political power: “The Ancient Order of Hibernians … was sufficiently strong here to hold the balance of power between opposing political parties.”

Just how powerful had these AOH leaders in Pennsylvania become—these Irish Catholic men who combined their vote with that of fellow AOH members “to secure the welfare of the Commonwealth, and assuage the sufferings of … their brothers in toil?”

Just how large an electoral threat did the AOH order pose to the men of Pennsylvania’s Coal Combination?


Coming September 15, 2011 – The Politics of Schuylkill’s “Molly Maguires” – Part 2 of 2: Thomas Nast Enters Their Arena

1 comment:

  1. From Patrick Hester's great-great-great-granddaughter,

    Thank you.