Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Justice Trembling in the Balance

Part 1 of 4: The Stacking of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons

“To hang Jack Kehoe in the light of this newly discovered evidence would be a piece of judicial murder,” attorney W. M. Foyle of Towanda wrote to Pennsylvania's governor, John Hartranft, on December 10, 1878, eight days before John Kehoe’s execution as the alleged “King of the Molly Maguires.”

“I think the death warrant ought to be revoked, and further action in the case postponed by the board of pardons till this newly discovered testimony is fully presented to the board, which should in my judgment procure a commutation of the death penalty if not a full pardon,” Foyle continued. “This would be an act of simple justice to the accused awaiting more.”

Foyle’s “newly discovered testimony” came from a newly discovered defense witness named Patrick McHugh. Less than two weeks before Kehoe’s scheduled date of execution, his wife Mary Ann traveled 90 miles from Girardville to Towanda to locate McHugh and have him deposed.

Kehoe, Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) delegate for Schuylkill County, had by this time spent two and a half years in Pottsville Prison. He stood convicted, among other crimes, for the first-degree murder of Frank Langdon, a mine foreman killed at Audenried in 1862.


The attorney Foyle’s attempt to help Kehoe came after years of political maneuvering that kept Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons well stacked against both Kehoe and against all AOH defendants awaiting execution in Pennsylvania. In December 1878 The New York Times gave some details of the actions that tainted successive pardon hearings for these Irish Catholic defendants.

Kehoe’s April 1878 hearing before Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, reported The Times, “was unanimously in favor of commuting Kehoe’s sentence to imprisonment for life.” The Board deemed it “inexpedient, however, to take formal action then, as such a course would establish a bad precedent and affect the cases of the other Mollie Maguires.”

The Board evidently feared that a finding in Kehoe’s favor would affect the outcome of cases of other alleged “Molly Maguires.” The unanimous vote in Kehoe’s favor in spring 1878 did nothing to secure his relief.

On hearing the board’s stunning decision, Kehoe’s counsel suggested that his case be held over until other cases “had been disposed of.” By the time the board met again to consider Kehoe’s case, said The Times, “the opinion of one member of the board [had] been changed by newspaper clamor, and another member, Mr. Quay, retired by resignation of his position as Secretary of the Commonwealth, his successor, Mr. Linn, holding a different view regarding the guilt of Kehoe.”


The chess board that constituted Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons had been reordered. One member who favored Kehoe’s pardon, Matthew Quay, took a leave of absence from his office of secretary of the commonwealth to pursue the newly created position of recorder for the city of Philadelphia. And “newspaper clamor” had evidently changed the opinion of Secretary for Internal Affairs William McCandless.

John Linn took over Quay’s duties as secretary of the commonwealth. In a surprise to no one who followed the political antics of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” caseload, the newly appointed four-man board consistently deadlocked on Kehoe’s request for relief. The appointment of John Linn, said The Times, “has defeated every effort since made to secure a commutation of sentence or a rehearing” on Kehoe’s behalf.

Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and a powerful Democratic political operative, served as chief prosecutor during the "Molly Maguire" trials. Whether Gowen’s long political arm also maneuvered Quay out of—and Linn onto—Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons is not known.

Whatever chicanery took place, Linn’s presence defeated all subsequent attempts to obtain relief for Kehoe. But two pardon board appointees, Attorney General George Lear and Lieutenant Governor John Latta, remained steadfast in their support of Kehoe’s continuing requests for commutation.


Coming November 22 - Part 2 of 4: Lieutenant Governor Latta Falls From a Train

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