Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Was It "Political?"

By A. Flaherty

I first heard of John Kehoe, so-called “King of the Molly Maguires,” in conversations around my mother’s kitchen table.

Overheard, really. I was supposed to have been asleep hours ago.

A select group of descendants held these conclaves: my great-aunts, Kehoe’s granddaughters; and my mother, Kehoe’s great-granddaughter. Sometimes my grandmother would be there.

My father would have long since gone to bed. One memorable night, he crept down to the basement and pulled the power in a successful attempt (after the lights went back on) to encourage the ladies to their beds.

The aunts in John Huston’s film version of James Joyce’s The Dead—the ones who hosted the annual Dublin dinner—powerfully resembled our great-aunts, Madge and Marion. (So powerfully that on seeing Huston’s film one of my sisters, living overseas at the time, suffered a bout of homesickness.)

Kehoe’s granddaughters never wavered in their belief in Kehoe’s innocence, or in their belief in the innocence of many, if not all, of Pennsylvania’s alleged “Molly Maguires.”

These ladies would bring up other names at my mother’s table—names plucked from some dark, arcane history. Names that became part of family lore.

Hester. Gowen. McParlan. Archbishop Wood.

And places. Some had the romance of the old Indian names. Tamaqua. Shenandoah. Mauch Chunk.

One place, they always mentioned in hushed tones. Wiggan’s Patch.

“It was political,” Aunt Madge would assert of the motive for these prosecutions. The others would murmur assent.

In their day, these ladies were all staunch supporters of the Democratic Party—the party they saw as the champion of progressive causes. But in the days of the coal barons, Pennsylvania’s Democratic Party played host to its Gilded Age industrialists, its railroad and its coal men. In those late nineteenth-century days, Pennsylvania’s Republican Party was much more likely to champion progressive causes. In those days, the Democratic Party also played host to the majority of Irish Catholic voters—a situation  Kehoe and his fellow Hibernians hoped to rectify by their support of certain Republican candidates.

During one of our Easter dinners some decades ago, someone took a too-generous helping of ham. Aunt Madge laughed. She said: “Don’t be a Republican.”
In 1875, she would have said: “Don’t be a Democrat.”


Over the years, interest in the “Mollies” waxed and waned. Kehoe's descendants shared the news about every new history or novel or film that passed into the canon. As new works came into public view, stories crept out, too.

“They always held their heads up.” They said that of the families of the executed men, and of the Kehoes in particular. “They always held their heads up.”

There were stories of the nun from Ireland who taught my mother in Mount Carmel—the nun who held Kehoe in reverent awe.

And of what my grandmother overheard said of herself as a girl on the streets of Girardville. “There goes a dirty ‘Molly.’”

And the shocking incident of Aunt Marion. Marion, the quintessence of feminine gentility, telephoned one of the published authors after his book came out.

Wayne Broehl Jr.’s book had been recently published—the Dartmouth business historian.

That same year came Arthur Lewis’ Lament for the Molly Maguires.

To Kehoe’s granddaughters, these books—both history and novel—were  inanity piled on inanity.

Madge heard Marion telephone Lewis. “It did not happen the way you portrayed it,” Marion told the author. “Your book is a lie.”

A half decade later, Martin Ritt made a film based on Lewis’ book. The ladies agreed that Sean Connery gave a powerful performance as Kehoe. And they agreed that the film’s characterizations were rooted not in fact, but in fiction. They regarded Ritt’s characterizations of Kehoe and Pinkerton operative James McParlan as an inversion of the truth.

They strenuously agreed on one other fact: Pennsylvania’s “Coal Combination” did not prosecute a group of so-called “Mollies.”

“It was the Ancient Order,” they insisted. “They wanted to destroy the order.”

Ritt’s film portrayed Kehoe as a rough: a compelling leader, but a rough one. A leader who never hesitated to order a good "bashing," and in time, even a killing. In scene after scene, Connery appeared as Kehoe in the grimy clothes of a miner, blacked from head to toe with coal dust.  

“Kehoe was no longer a miner,” my grandmother said after seeing Ritt’s film. “He was a hotelkeeper. And an important man. He was getting ready to run for state assembly.”

Years passed. Kehoe’s granddaughters lived to see Pennsylvania’s Governor Milton Shapp issue Kehoe a posthumous pardon in 1979.

Then the granddaughters, too, passed into history.

My mother’s sister, Ellen, picked up the torch. She began to research in earnest. Ellen lived to see the news clip from the 1870s I found at the historical society in Pottsville the day my car battery died. “Political Announcements,” it said. “For Assembly, Subject to Democratic rules … John Kehoe, Shenandoah.”

Underneath Kehoe’s name came the name of Bernard Dolan as candidate for prothonotary, or chief clerk of the court. Dolan preceded Kehoe as Schuylkill County’s delegate for the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH).

It appeared grandmother was right. These alleged “Molly Maguire” leaders were not oppressed mineworkers.


When her father was hanged, Kehoe’s daughter Margaret was one month shy of her tenth birthday. What knowledge Margaret had about Kehoe, she passed on to her children—including my grandmother and great-aunts.

And John Kehoe’s granddaughters, with knowledge that came directly from his eldest daughter, said of the reason behind the execution of 21 Hibernians for so-called “Molly Maguire” crimes: “It was political.”

Coming Next: Who Should Tell Our History?

This post, published on March 27, 2013, was the first in a series of six offered in support of a lecture series given by A. Flaherty through the OLLI program at UMass, Boston.