Thursday, September 15, 2011

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

Thomas Nast Enters Their Arena
Bernard Dolan’s October 1875 letter to a Pottsville editor does in one stroke what no historian has ever done for Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” recording. This former Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) delegate for Schuylkill County described Schuylkill’s AOH men not as members of the “poor laboring class,” but as voters who chose those politicians most likely to “assuage the sufferings of … their brothers in toil.”*

Dolan’s letter highlights the truth of the AOH officers of Pennsylvania’s hard coal region. Some AOH members executed as “Molly Maguires” were mineworkers. But AOH leaders executed as “Mollies” were not. These Irishmen had worked their way out of the mines and into ownership of hotels and taverns. They were no longer members of “the poor laboring class,” no longer “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

They were, in fact, area businessmen. The 1870 U.S. Census lists AOH delegate Dolan, born in Massachusetts, as a hotel keeper. It lists Dolan’s declared value—real estate and personal—at $6400.

As a former AOH county delegate, Dolan had immediate knowledge of the voting habits of AOH men. But no historian has ever documented Dolan’s take on AOH political reform. Only Dartmouth historian Wayne G. Broehl Jr., writing in 1964, has mentioned Dolan’s letter—and then only with condescension. Broehl called Dolan’s effort “a particularly arrogant letter.”

Eighty-nine years after its publication, Broehl dismissed Dolan’s impassioned defense of his fellow AOH men as “particularly arrogant.” Vital clues into the "Molly Maguire" story have remained buried in this letter for more than a century. Dolan’s description of AOH electoral activity gives the seeds of the political contention that drove the onslaught against both Pennsylvania’s alleged “Molly Maguires”—and against the AOH order generally.


That onslaught relied heavily on the work of artists and editors.

In August 1871 the Irish Times correspondent who spoke of Irish Americans as “hewers of wood and drawers of water” warned his countrymen: “The mass of the Irish who come here to earn their bread find very little favour [sic] from the Yankees.”

One month previously, after a bloody clash in New York between parade watchers and militia during that city’s Orange Parade, Thomas Nast penned one of his most outrageous cartoons. Nast’s cartoon did nothing to help the Irish find favor with the Yankees.

Like Allan Pinkerton’s artists, Nast made no secret of his contempt for Irish Catholics—or his willingness to lend his pen to inflame campaigns of ethnic hostility. Nast’s July 1871 cartoon showed an Irish ape dressed in patched workingmen’s clothes. As in the best Irish caricatures, Nast’s beast wears boots with upturned toes. The beast’s suspender strap drops and curves down like a devil’s tail. His upraised arm wields a knife, poised to plunge it into Lady Liberty’s breast.

If nativists commissioned Nast’s effort, they got good value for their money.

Harper’s Weekly published Nast’s cartoon. Its brutish Irish ape carried not just the power to shock. It carried the power to distort, to inflame and to mobilize resistance against any number of perceived Irish threats. It carried the power to lodge itself well in the public consciousness.

The publication in New York in July 1871 of Nast’s Irish beast attacking the icon of American liberty came just four months after the AOH order legally filed identical state charters in both New York and Pennsylvania. And as Bernard Dolan eloquently stated in 1875, the AOH order sent its Irish Americans voters to the polls to vote thoughtfully—in the interest of both their states’ welfare and workingmen’s issues.


In mid-winter 1875 an unknown someone also hired Nast to make the long trip from New York to Pennsylvania's Schuylkill County. During Pennsylvania's "Long Strike" of hard coal mineworkers, a Shenandoah newspaper used Nast’s cartoons to jeer at area Irishmen in the hard coal region. The Harper’s Weekly cartoonist trained his pen on an Irish union delegate subsequently arrested as a “Molly Maguire.” The Irish union delegate emerged in Nast’s cartoon as a drunken, poorly dressed, overweight leprechaun.

Someone hired Nast to train his vitriol on Irishmen in not one, but two volatile political arenas: in New York, and in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region. In both arenas, the AOH order figured prominently. New York got an Irish beast attacking Lady Liberty. Pennsylvania got a union delegate portrayed as a dissipated leprechaun.

Who encouraged—who purchased—Nast’s coverage?


Eleven months after the appearance of Nast’s cartoon ridiculing Schuylkill’s union delegate—and just two months after Dolan’s declared manifesto that Schuylkill’s AOH men voted only for candidates “whose ‘character cannot be successfully assailed’”—a party of forty or fifty men swarmed during the early morning hours into Wiggan’s Patch, located outside Mahanoy Plane in Schuylkill County. Six or seven of their number entered the house of Margaret O’Donnell, mother-in-law of John Kehoe and one target of the night-time attack. The men murdered Kehoe’s pregnant sister-in-law as she stood at the door of her bedroom. They murdered Kehoe’s brother-in-law as he tried to flee the scene.

The attack came close on the heels of the defeat of candidate Cyrus Pershing, the pick of Pennsylvania’s Coal Combination for that year’s hotly fought gubernatorial seat. Pinkertons hired by Franklin Gowen, head of Pennsylvania’s Coal Combination, helped engineer the early morning raid.

Just how far can ethnic hostility drive politicians?

Just how badly did Know-Nothing politicians want to eliminate the AOH order, not only in Pennsylvania, but in New York and throughout the United States?

How many artists were they willing to hire? How many editors? How many “vigilantes”?

And how many Pinkerton operatives?


Coming September 30 - Alex Campbell's Wake: Part 1 of 4 - Sensational Dispatches to City Papers

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