In 1875 John Kehoe said: “the Ancient Order of Hibernians is a chartered organization,
recognized by the commonwealth, and composed of men who are law-abiding, and seek the elevation of their members. … nothing can be more unjust than to charge the order
with any acts of lawlessness.” This blog argues for the innocence of many, if not all, of the AOH men prosecuted as “Molly Maguires” in the Pennsylvania coal fields in the 1870s on evidence supplied by the Pinkerton agency.
Kevin Kenny, the most recently published academic author on the “Molly Maguire” prosecutions, denies the participation of Pennsylvania’s Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men who were prosecuted as "Molly Maguires" in organized labor.
In Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, Kenny states: “The leaders of the defeated WBA continued to voice their condemnation of the Molly Maguires as the trials proceeded. Only one, minor official of the WBA was ever implicated in a Molly Maguire crime. Cornelius T. McHugh, the erstwhile president of the WBA branch in Summit Hill, was accused of being involved in the assassination of Morgan Powell. … Other than McHugh, no trade union leader was ever indicted for a Molly Maguire crime.” [“WBA” represents “Workingmen's Benevolent Association,” the regional mineworkers' union.]
Extensive research suggests otherwise.
Extensive research shows that not one but at least three of the AOH officers charged with “Molly Maguire” crimes had served as WBA divisional presidents. A fourth Hibernian, Michael Lawler, WBA delegate from Shenandoah’s District Six, served as one of four signatories to the articles of “arbitration by umpire” drafted by the Miners’ and Laborers’ Benevolent Association (MLBA) at their spring 1871 Grand Council meeting in Mauch Chunk.
Lawler, an alleged “Molly Maguire,” signed and help broker this agreement—one of U.S. history's early collective bargaining agreements.
A Shenandoah reporter traveled to the historic meeting in Mauch Chunk. “Quite a number of the prominent leaders of the W. B. A. of Schuylkill, Northumberland and Columbia counties were on the train,” he said. “Messrs. Michael Lawler of District No. 6, and John Morgan of No. 7, were also among the passengers and in the company of these gentlemen, exchanging opinions on the situation, gleaning intelligence as to the feelings of the men and surmising the probable action of the General Council.”
Seven years later, in a letter written from Pottsville Prison, John Kehoe exhorted a friend to contact, among others, “John W. Morgan” on behalf of Kehoe’s upcoming pardon hearing. These men—these “prominent leaders” of the WBA, union delegates Lawler and Morgan (later a state representative), and Kehoe—these men were all friends together.
The Shenandoah Herald described the men who traveled by train to Mauch Chunk for the Grand Council proceedings—the group that included Kehoe’s friend Morgan and his fellow AOH officer, Lawler.
“A majority of the members of the present Council are young men,” the Herald said, “and are certainly, as a whole, the most intelligent and respectable body of representative miners we have ever seen together, with a few exceptions there is no such thing as gas or blow to be heard from them and from their earnest, serious bearing it is very evident that they appreciate the responsibilities attending their position.”
The Philadelphia Press reported the Grand Council’s proceedings. “The Coal Troubles Over,” it said. “Resumption in the Schuylkill Region. The Articles of Arbitration. Judge Elwell to Determine the Question of Wages.”
A “Committee” of four signed the above-named articles “on behalf of the parties hereto.” Their numbers included “Morgan, Pres’t pro tem, W.B.A.,” and “Michael Lawler.”
Further research reveals yet more clues. One clip from the Pottsville Standard shows that two alleged “Molly Maguires” served, at different times, as WBA divisional trade union president for District Ten, Tuscarora.
John Slattery, arrested as a “Molly Maguire,” served as that district’s first president. In 1877, a fellow divisional president, John Donohoe (also Donahue, Donohue) was hanged as a “Molly Maguire.” In 1872, Donohoe wrote to the Pottsville Standard to endorse Slattery’s bid for the office of register. Alleged “Molly Maguire” Donohoe signed his letter, a resolution from WBA’s District Ten, Tuscarora, “John Donohoe, President.”
Donohoe wrote: “Mr. Slattery was one of the most active in organizing this district of the W.B.A., at a time when unionism met with formidable opposition from those whose interest it was to crush it in its infancy, and … he was our first President and first member who represented us on the County Executive Board and is yet a member in good standing …”
From the scant evidence that remains of this history, not one but three Hibernians: McHugh, Slattery, and Donohoe, have leapt up as WBA divisional leaders. A fourth, Lawler, helped broker—and signed, with Morgan, as two of four signatories—the historic Mauch Chunk collective bargaining agreement. The commonwealth hanged Donohoe as a “Molly.” Lawler, McHugh, and Slattery, all arrested as “Mollies,” served as prosecution witnesses.
Kenny states: “the trade union and the Molly Maguires were clearly very different modes of labor organization. The Mollys differed sharply from the trade union in their cultural origins, their inchoate organization, and their strategy of direct violent action.”
But further research gives further strong evidence to the contrary. In testimony given during the Morgan Powell trial, it came to light that Thomas Fisher, AOH delegate for CarbonCounty, had met sometime in 1875 with Charles Parrish, president of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company. Their discussion took place in the Mansion House in Mauch Chunk. Fisher argued passionately on behalf of the mineworkers’ wages. Father James Brehony, one of very few labor priests in this story, sat at Fisher’s side to help press the mineworkers’ claims.
Two years later, the commonwealth hanged Fisher as a “Molly Maguire.”
During the midst of the Long Strike, a young Hibernian named Hugh McGehan led a parade of four hundred miners through the town of Tamaqua. McGehan marched with his miner’s pick on his shoulder—like a lance in a medieval fairy tale. A hostile local paper reported: “everything passed off quietly, and the men dispersed, without even threatening any one.” Eight months later, an unknown assassin targeted McGehan as he returned home from the small tavern where he kept a restaurant.
Two years after McGehan headed the parade through Tamaqua, the commonwealth hanged him as an alleged “Molly Maguire.”
As so many historians over the decades have claimed, Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires” were labor.
If that had been the extent of their influence, these Hibernians may have ended their lives at the bottom of mine shafts, victims of the mysterious “accidents” that marked Pennsylvania’s coal region during these days. (Kehoe’s brother, Joseph, died in one such incident. So did a Hibernian named Edward Coyle).
But the influence of Pennsylvania’s Hibernians prosecuted as “Mollies” extended well beyond trade unionism.
Coming Next: Who Should Tell Our History?
post was the second in a series of six
offered in support of a lecture series given by A. Flaherty through the OLLI
program at UMass, Boston.