Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers

Part 2 of 4: The Canary Sings

It would take a book to document the various legal manipulations, chicaneries and outright nullifications of existing law undertaken to procure the scores of "guilty" verdicts issued during Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

Carbon County’s District Attorney Edward R. Siewers added to that list of offenses. In October 1875, in a region inflamed with prejudice and lust for convictions at any price, Siewers characterized Irish Catholic defendants’ requests for a change of trial venue into a county less tainted with bias as “false and unfounded.”

In this cynical legal climate, it came as no surprise that the “confession” of prosecution witness James Kerrigan eliminated all hope for fair trials for Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) defendants prosecuted as “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania.


“The Mollies Exposed!!!” a Shenandoah newspaper crowed in February 1876. “One of the Prisoners at Mauch Chunk Makes a Confession. Closing in on The Game!”

The Irish American “game” swept into the legal net through Kerrigan’s statement included Carbon County’s AOH delegate Thomas Fisher, its treasurer Alex Campbell and three other prominent AOH men.

An avid public waited two months for Kerrigan’s “confession” to hit local newspapers. When published, it did not disappoint.


Kerrigan’s statement was sensational. And it was lurid. It told a credulous public long susceptible to “Molly Maguire” tales that Irish Catholic men who had spent years—sometimes decades—working their way out of the mines and into ownership of hotels and taverns, who had married and were raising families, who had successfully entered the political arena, and who were the elected officers of an international, state-sanctioned, Irish Catholic benevolent order, had also orchestrated widespread schemes of conspiracy to murder various mine officials.

To many who knew the Irishmen charged, Kerrigan’s “confession” was flatly unbelievable.

Kerrigan was charged as a defendant in Carbon County. District Attorney Siewers, in compliance with a writ of habeas corpus issued by Schuylkill County’s Judge Cyrus Pershing, allowed the former AOH bodymaster to be transported over the county line to Pottsville, where Pershing took Kerrigan’s statement in closed-door proceedings. Reporters attended, but not as guardians of civil liberties. Pershing instructed the newsmen to publish only when told to do so by prosecutors.

In April, with numerous trials pending, prosecutors lifted the gag. Local papers gave front page coverage to “KERRIGAN’S CONFESSION.”

“There ought to be more hangings than there is,” one juror said after reading the infamous document.

Buried deep in Kerrigan’s “confession” came the intelligence that would send a score of men to the gallows, imprison at least a score more, and cripple the entire AOH order statewide. Kerrigan told Judge Pershing: “The purposes of the ‘Mollie Maguires’ or A. O. H. is to kill people, beat them and burn down buildings. The notion is that it is to protect workingmen, but really they are all of the most hardened villains in the places where they reside.”

Kerrigan’s statement would be repeated, in various forms and with varying degrees of erudition, by numerous prosecution witnesses.

Editors published Kerrigan’s statement gleefully. They labeled Irish Catholic defendants “MURDERERS” before those defendants ever set foot in a courtroom.

Prosecutors’ reliance on Kerrigan’s statement—and judges’ wide support of that document—set aside all hope of equal protection for scores of AOH defendants. These Irishmen would not be tried individually, but as alleged members of a notorious criminal organization known as the "Molly Maguires." For membership in the AOH order, per James Kerrigan, equaled membership in that murderous society. Kerrigan’s charge started the legal juggernaut rolling.


Coming February 1 – The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers – Part 3 of 4: The Canary Sings No More

The photo at the top of this post is of Hotel Wahnetah, opened in 1886 at Glen Onoko in Carbon County.

The material of Judge John P. Lavelle quoted in this four-part post is taken from "The Hard Coal Docket," published in 1994.

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