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 divisional treasurer for Storm Hill, 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.

This post was revised on August 9, 2018.

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

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