Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Enduring Power of Prejudice


On February 6, 1875, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published this cartoon. Leslie’s artist, Joseph Becker, traveled from New York to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to pen a number of these drawings. Two local murders from the previous fall had left the public unsettled, an easy target for Becker’s "Molly Maguire" cartoons. Becker’s drawings appeared in print one month after the Long Strike of area mineworkers began and one month before Schuylkill’s workingmen traveled to Harrisburg as delegates to the Anti-Monopoly Convention held there.


A letter written from Pottsville Prison in spring 1878 by John Kehoe, alleged “King of the Mollies,” begins: “Thinking over the Cruelties that has Befallen me, By Bribery Perjury and Pregudise …”

In an interview given the previous June, Kehoe had told his opinion of Pinkerton operative James McParlan.

Kehoe accused McParlan of encouraging murder, of instigating murder, of condoning murder and of committing murder.

When asked why a Pinkerton operative would encourage such criminality, Kehoe said “it served his purpose to let murder go on, so that he could more readily arouse the prejudices of the community and thus break up the organization by hanging a lot of innocent men.”

In the terrible fall of 1875, when eleven violent deaths within as many months had rocked Pennsylvania’s hard coal region, Kehoe wrote to the editor of the Shenandoah Herald. This editor, Thomas Foster, ascribed the region’s “Reign of Terror” to an alleged group of Irish assassins Foster called the “Molly Maguires.”

“We are thoroughly aware that lawless acts have been committed during the past few months,” Kehoe told Foster, “but does the ‘Reign of Terror’ facilitate a return to quietness and good feeling? I am deeply interested in this matter, for I am under the impression, which has been conveyed to my mind from the remarks of various journals, that with them ‘Mollie Maguireism’ is made synonymous with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which is a chartered organization, recognized by the commonwealth, and composed of men who are law-abiding and seek the elevation of their members.”

Kehoe again counseled nonviolence in a letter written that same month to the Miners’ Journal about a local rabble-rouser who called himself “Americus.” Of this “Americus,” who also called for vigilantism against all alleged “Mollies,” Kehoe advised “it would be more charitable for him or any other correspondent to encourage brotherly love instead of sowing seeds of antagonism which sooner or later lead to bloodshed.”


In the trial of Hibernians Patrick Hester, Patrick Tully and Peter McHugh for the murder of Alex Rea, defense attorney John Ryon pleaded with the jury. “[I]n spite of all our care," Ryon said, "innocent men are sometimes wrongfully convicted. One conviction of an innocent man goes far to destroy confidence in the judicial power of this county.”

“You are the guardians of human truth and human lives,” Ryon told the jury in Bloomsburg, “and upon you and in your hands are the lives of these three men.”

Attorney Daniel Kalbfus, in the defense of Michael Doyle for the murder of John P. Jones, told the jury: “He is an American citizen, and is innocent until he is found guilty.”

Kalbfus begged the jury in Mauch Chunk to set aside their prejudices. “If it was not necessary,” he said, “why do they appeal to your passions and prejudices, and why did the DA in opening the case say that he would prove to you that the prisoner belonged to an organization known as the Mollie Maguires, an organization whose deeds are too diabolical for conception, and that they require Doyle to be hung as one of that order.” 

Attorney Lin Bartholomew said in defense of Doyle: “For weeks the Coal and Iron Company has been in pursuit of the Molly Maguires … They have given time and money to ferret out the members of that dreaded organization and to crush it because it interferes with their own pecuniary interests. They have caught these men, they imagine them to be Mollies, and in order to crush them and the organization they bring over a hundred witnesses …”

By the time the attorneys addressed these juries, the “Molly Maguire” label had acquired a frightening power. Juries found all of the above-named defendants guilty. Judges condemned all four men to death. 

How did such a cartoonish label come to acquire such a frightening power—a power that for a certain length of time could automatically sentence men to death?

Note to readers: all quotes (including spelling discrepancies, misspellings, grammatical errors) are verbatim.

Coming Next: The Pilot Names a Name
This post, first published on May 15, 2013, was the fifth in a series of six offered in support of a lecture series given by A. Flaherty through the OLLI program at UMass, Boston.

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