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

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