With the public hangings in Pennsylvania during the 1870s of 21 Irish Catholic alleged “Molly Maguires,” a pall settled over the surviving family members of the executed Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men. Descendants of these men from various families speak of a closely held belief in their innocence—expressed over many decades in kitchens and living rooms—and of the belief that these men were railroaded to the gallows by a combination of interests.
The executions themselves, the murders that prompted them, the long imprisonment of scores of other AOH men, the pernicious and promiscuous use over the decades of the toxic “Molly Maguire” label, the withholding of much information surrounding these cases, and the reluctance of historians to investigate these events closely all led to a smothering of information regarding the true identities of the AOH defendants—and of their family members. The fact that the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad—not state government agencies—archived many of these records further complicates the investigation of this history.
The executions and the infiltration of Pennsylvania’s hard coal region by numerous Pinkerton operatives produced a lingering climate of suspicion and fear. A raid conducted in December 1875 at Wiggan’s Patch in Schuylkill County against John Kehoe’s in-laws—and the murder there of his brother-in-law and his pregnant sister-in-law—bolstered a climate of terror that kept area residents and their descendants from speaking or sharing information. Survivors suspected rightly that Pinkerton operatives had helped engineer the early morning raid. Its chilling effect was virtually complete.
After the executions, descendants on all sides of the story who remained in the coal region split down the middle—along ethnic lines—in their belief in the guilt or innocence of the AOH men hanged as “Mollies.”
In this climate of suspicion, fear, disquiet and mistrust, personal records remained scant. But a few have appeared in scattered collections.
An unmarked folder held in an archive at the Ryan Library of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, holds one such relic. Titled simply “To the memory of John Kehoe,” this five-stanza poem carries only the mysterious attribution “By graybeard.”
Sometime during the 1980s a granddaughter of John Kehoe released this poem, along with other artifacts. It contains many of the grammatical and spelling lapses common to some nineteenth century writing.
“My pencils good but my hand does shake and cannot compose my theme,” the poem begins. “For my mind is a Stray and I cannot think so good people don’t me blame.”
The unnamed author made a painstaking rendering on lined paper, drafting carefully formed letters with a fountain pen, with flourishes at the stanzas’ openings. Although nothing remains to show who authored this work, its contents suggest it may have been written by John Kehoe’s wife, Mary Ann.
Whoever authored the poem, it is heartfelt, naïve, and of a piercing intensity. Its sentiment brings a rare personal stamp to this history.
“And its no wonder for with grief I’m bound and my heart is uneasy now,” the writer mused. What remains legible of stanza one continues:
In Pottsville Jail they hung my John and caused him for to bleed
Which leaves me now his heart broken wife in Sorrow now indeed