Saturday, October 22, 2011

Alex Campbell's Wake

Part 4 of 4: The Sun’s Editor Pleads for the “Molly Maguires”

The New York’s Sun’s June 1877 coverage of Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) treasurer Alex Campbell’s wake proved among the most outrageous in a decades-long campaign by newsmen to smear Pennsylvania’s AOH men as illiterate “Molly Maguires.”

Historian Kevin Kenny relied in part on the Sun’s account of Campbell’s wake to shape his views of the AOH men prosecuted as “Molly Maguires.”

But extensive research shows that John Swinton, chief of staff and editorial page writer for the Sun at the time of Campbell’s wake, strenuously disagreed with his own newspaper’s coverage. Swinton tried to rectify the tragic events that coverage helped set in motion.


On Swinton’s death in 1901, The New York Times said of the newsman: “He … assisted workingmen’s movements of every kind with money as well as with his pen and voice.”

On July 1, 1877, ten days after Pennsylvania hanged 11 so-called “Molly Maguires,” the cases of many other AOH men sentenced to death—including those of Patrick Hester, John Kehoe and Peter McHugh—lay pending before Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons. Swinton wrote a private letter from New York on that date. He addressed it “To the Board of Pardons.”

“I beseech you to save my country, and your state, from the terrible wrong & appalling disgrace of these executions,” Swinton implored the Pennsylvania board. “I beseech you to exercise clemency, which in this case I believe to be justice, toward the so-called ‘Molly Maguires,’ now under condemnation.”

The Pennsylvania board ignored Swinton’s plea. It held fast to its decision to execute the remaining AOH defendants. For two and a half more years the “Molly Maguire” juggernaut rolled on throughout Pennsylvania.


Six years after Swinton addressed his plea to Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, he addressed a group of pressmen in New York. “There is no such thing … in America, as an independent press,” Swinton told fellow journalists. “The business of the New York journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his race and his country for his daily bread. … We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping-jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.”


Thus New York editor and workingmen’s advocate John Swinton spoke in July 1877 of the “terrible wrong and appalling disgrace” of Pennsylvania’s ongoing “Molly Maguire” executions. Swinton drafted his private letter to Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons just days after his own newspaper indulged its descriptive orgy of Campbell’s wake for regional newsstands.

If Swinton, not Allan Pinkerton, had first written Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” history, this defining slice of Irish American experience may have received a just interpretation.

In 1932 Anthony Bimba determined: “Although at least nineteen men died on the gallows as Mollies, there was no organization by that name. … After the label itself had been made sufficiently fatal to send a man to the gallows, the mine owners proceeded to fasten this label upon all miners’ leaders they wished to get rid of.”

In 1947 labor historian Philip Foner concurred, stating: “It is now established that there was no society in America calling itself the Molly Maguires, that this name was tagged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians by the commercial press whose purpose it was to help the coal operators crush all organization in the mining industry; that the Philadelphia and Reading Company hired the Pinkerton spy agency not to save society from a band of terrorists but to spread terror …”

Howard Zinn, in his 1980 work “A People’s History of the United States,” supported Foner’s claim. Zinn described the alleged “Mollies” as “members of a society called the Ancient Order of Hibernians … accused of acts of violence, mostly on the testimony of a detective planted among the miners.” Zinn noted in particular Foner’s use of a quote from the Irish World in New York. It described the AOH defendants as “‘intelligent men whose direction gave strength to the resistance to the miners to the inhuman reduction of their wages.’”

A decade’s research proves the truth of these claims.

By the mid-1870s, 700,000 Irish Catholic men had organized in the United States under the sheltering arm of AOH social, political, labor, financial and even religious reform. It took a widespread effort to cripple the order in Pennsylvania statewide—and to undermine it not just throughout the United States, but worldwide.

That effort needed not just Pennsylvania coal operators, their Pinkerton agents and their hired press. It needed Pennsylvania courts and Roman Catholic clergy to join in the effort. The collusion of all of these powerfully self-interested men stopped the AOH reform movement dead in its tracks.

If these organized Irishmen had been given free rein, our U.S. “Gilded Age” may have earned itself a new title. This age enriched a group of industrialists called “robber barons” at the expense of the workingmen they treated like serfs. If the reform efforts of well over a half million Irish American men had been allowed to take hold, our “gilded” age may have instead embodied the democratic principles that underlay this republic.

Those enlivening principles helped draw large numbers of passionate Irishmen to these shores. The brutal smashing of their AOH reform movement remains a great loss to history, to the Irish American identity—and to this republic.

This post was edited October 30, 2011 to include Howard Zinn's comments.


Coming November 1 – The Poem by "Graybeard" - Part 1 of 2: An Uneasy Heart

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Alex Campbell's Wake

Part 3 of 4: Campbell's Assertions of Innocence

After Pennsylvania hanged 11 so-called “Molly Maguires” on June 21, 1877, newspapers country-wide had a field day. The New York Sun kept readers well entertained with its dime-novel accounts of Alex Campbell’s Friday night wake.

In 1995 historian Kevin Kenny used the Sun’s account of Campbell’s wake to bolster this theory: that Pennsylvania’s so-called “Molly Maguires” remained outside the characteristic culture of Irish immigrants to the United States.

But research into coal region newspapers disputes Kenny’s characterization.


Just three years before Campbell’s execution as a “Molly Maguire,” an 1874 newspaper squib announced a social event hosted by the Irishman from County Donegal. “A ball will be given on Tuesday next at the house of Mr. Alexander Campbell,” a Carbon County paper reported from Summit Hill. “A fine time is anticipated.”

An account from the mid-1870s showed that Campbell, known locally as a “well-to-do Irishman,” served with two of his fellow “Molly Maguires” as a delegate to a county Democratic convention. Campbell and two fellow AOH officers who assembled in Mauch Chunk to elect their local and state representatives did not belong to the “preliterate Gaelic culture” of Kenny’s alleged “Molly Maguires.”

After their arrests as "Mollies," at least two of Campbell’s fellow prisoners in Mauch Chunk Jail, if not Campbell himself, decorated the walls of their cells with the American flag.


Campbell spoke English fluently. “‘You still assert your innocence?’” a newspaper reporter asked the AOH officer less than a month before his execution.

“‘Yes, I do,’” replied Campbell, “‘and I know that in the very bottom of my heart that the commonwealth knows the same thing. They cannot help know it as they were well aware of the perjured testimony that was given during my trial.’”

At the reading of his death warrant a day later, Campbell said: “‘It’s hard to die innocently; but I shall not be the first to die thus. God knows that I am innocent of any crime; and the people know it, and the Commonwealth know it.’”

A week before his execution Campbell's wife brought their two children, one an infant and one four years of age, to his cell for a final leave-taking. A local newspaper reported: “It was a trying moment when Campbell was compelled to finally separate from his children—he kissed and kissed them time and time again. But he bore it manfully.”

A few months before his execution, five residents of County Donegal addressed Pennsylvania’s pardon board on Campbell’s behalf. They pleaded that the defendant had “so conducted himself, while at home, dutifully, steadily and honestly; and that his parents are honest, industrious and respectable.”

Campbell’s defense attorney, Daniel Kalbfus, wrote to the same board: “I was one of the Counsel who defended Alex Campbell in his trial for the Murder of John P. Jones. The character of the material witnesses against him, was so palpably infamous, and the game they played so certainly in the interest of their own forfeited necks, that I could not agree to a verdict that would take Campbell’s life—nor can I now.”


Campbell, AOH treasurer for Carbon County, was no “archetypal ‘wild Irishman.’” Before his arrest as an alleged “Molly Maguire,” Campbell—along with his fellow AOH officers—had acculturated himself comfortably into Carbon County’s social and political scene.

Pennsylvania did not prosecute wild Irishmen as “Molly Maguires.” The commonwealth prosecuted, in some instances, prosperous members of its own middle class. Many were fathers of large families. At least one was a grandfather.

Many of Pennsylvania’s AOH officers prosecuted as “Molly Maguires” were not, in Kenny’s words, “noticeably and ominously different from the mass of Irish immigrants.” They were, in fact, political leaders—and area businessmen. They were embedded in the social life of the region.

Kenny’s 1995 description of “the closed, alien culture embodied by Molly Maguireism”—and his 1998 description of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires” as “archetypal ‘wild Irishmen’”—beg for revision.

Given the gaps in Kenny’s theory, the latest in the “Molly Maguire” accounting, given more than 130 years of severely flawed historical accounting, Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” story demands a new reckoning.


Coming October 22 – Alex Campbell’s Wake – Part 4 of 4: The Sun’s Editor Pleads for the “Molly Maguires”

Saturday, October 8, 2011

Alex Campbell's Wake

Part 2 of 4: Conducted With the Greatest Decorum

In June 1877 the New York Sun reveled in wild scenes of alleged drinking, “keening” and chanting of curses during the Friday night wake of Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) treasurer Alex Campbell, executed as a “Molly Maguire.”

A Philadelphia Times reporter, drawn by rumors of the “expected wild time” to be had at Campbell’s Saturday night wake, attended that service. Campbell would be buried on Sunday. Reporters could hope to be kept well entertained by the mourning of wild Irishmen.

But events disappointed. The Philadelphia article described only “QUIET AND ORDERLY PROCEEDINGS.” “Plenty of Pipes and Whiskey,” its headline read, “but No Demonstrations or Threats of Violence.”


Mourners to Campbell’s funeral on Sunday gathered from all the towns, villages and mining patches surrounding the AOH order in Schuylkill and Carbon counties. Most, if not all, believed strongly in Campbell’s innocence.

The mourners gathered during the time of greatest upheaval the coal regions had ever known. The mineworkers’ union had been smashed for good two years before. Then questionable—some said appalling—“evidence” had convicted numerous AOH men, and most of the region’s AOH officers, of capital crimes.

Irish mineworkers had pledged portions of their starvation wages to secure defense counsel for the AOH men. Some of those mineworkers now went to work with empty dinner kettles.

Campbell’s funeral drew these men and their families in droves. Its procession of mourners, the largest the coal regions had ever seen, wound all the way from Campbell’s tavern at the foot of the mountain to the little church at its top.


The Philadelphia reporter called Campbell, a coal miner turned hotel keeper turned liquor distributor, “a well-to-do Irishman.” Campbell’s Saturday wake, he reported, “was conducted with the greatest decorum … notwithstanding the published rumors.”

This reporter spent several hours at Campbell’s wake hoping for the “expected wild time.” He found no incident worth reporting but “the ordinary watching of the dead by a dozen women in an inner room, and at the most fifty or sixty men who sat in an outer room smoking their pipes and conversing in low tones.”

“The yard and front of the house had a few idlers standing about in groups,” he noted, “but not even the episode of a drunken man or a weeping woman broke the monotony of the wake.”

Some local newspapers, too, stuck to the facts. One gave a description of Campbell’s tombstone. “This stone is over seven feet in height, plain finish, with Gothic cross on the top and representation of the Crucifixion,” the report stated. “The inscription is on the stone, with simply the name ‘Campbell’ in heavy raised letters on the base. The stone complete weighs about a ton.”


Of the New York Sun's reported “keening” from Campbell's Friday night wake, historian Kevin Kenny said in 1995: “Here, also, was a cultural pattern that would need careful monitoring if the ‘wilder’ Irish of west Ulster and Connacht were to be tamed.”

But the Sun’s reports of threats, of keening, of curses—of Kenny’s “archetypal ‘wild Irish’”—were a fiction concocted by a New York reporter to sell newspapers and keep ethnic hostility strongly on the boil. Such stories of supposed "Molly Maguire" activity had circulated for years, inside and outside of the coal region.

They made newspapermen a lot of money. They helped send 21 Irish Catholic men, guilty or innocent, to their deaths on the gallows.

And they have influenced historical accounts for more than a century.


Coming October 15 — Alex Campbell’s Wake – Part 3 of 4: Campbell’s Assertions of Innocence