Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Who Should Tell Our History?

By A. Flaherty

John Kehoe’s granddaughters first brought me to the “Molly Maguire” research. Before I began this work in earnest, other events fanned my interest.

Decades ago, before came into being, a neighbor picked up a book at a yard sale for a dollar.

A small, thick book bound in dull, red cloth. So old, the cloth had worn thin.

Published in “MDCCCLXXXVII.”


"The Molly Maguires and The Detectives,” its title page read. “By Allan Pinkerton, author of ‘The Expressman and the Detectives,’ ‘The Model Town and the Detectives,’ ‘The Spiritualists and the Detectives,’ Etc., Etc. New and Enlarged Edition.” 

Family members looked over this book with the proprietary air of a mother cat with a kitten. But interest in Allan Pinkerton’s “penny dreadful” quickly turned to disgust.

What was this? This was nothing but a dime novel. Its lurid descriptions of gangs of drunken, illiterate Irish thugs rampaging across the countryside to commit “murder and rapine” bore no resemblance whatever to the conversations held late at night by Kehoe’s descendants—individuals close to the source of this conflict.

We knew that Wayne Broehl Jr., an academic historian, had used Pinkerton’s novel to fill in gaps in his authoritative history. Broehl had relied on Pinkerton reports for the balance of his telling.

We realized that history—our country’s history, and Ireland's—was being told, in this instance, through the lens of a dime novel commissioned by Franklin Gowen, the railroad magnate whose Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company had helped fund the “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

Pinkerton supplied Gowen with numerous operatives to aid in these prosecutions. The year after Gowen hired Pinkerton to oversee the “Molly Maguire” case, Pinkerton, president of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, went into the publishing business. His specialty was dime novels.

The year after Gowen hired Pinkerton, Pinkerton officially hired a staff of writers and artists—and went into the business of writing fiction.

Broehl told the “Molly Maguire” story as Pinkerton portrayed it, in both his novel and his detectives’ reports. Both Broehl and Pinkerton discussed prosecutions in four counties: Carbon, Columbia, Northumberland, and Schuylkill.

If Broehl had tracked the newspaper coverage, he would have discovered a widely ranging campaign against dozens more Irish Catholic men—a campaign that flowed north to Luzerne County and westward to the counties of Allegheny, Fayette, and Westmoreland.

Wherever the benevolent order called the “Ancient Order of Hibernians” had strength in Pennsylvania, the Pinkertons conducted their so-called “Molly Maguire” campaign.

Pinkerton’s dime novel—and Broehl’s retelling of these events—both dramatically undersold the true scope of the Pinkerton Agency’s efforts against the Hibernians.

Both Pinkerton’s dime novel and Broehl’s authoritative history relied heavily for their telling on the reports of Pinkerton operative James McParlan. The credibility of the prosecution’s entire caseload—and the subsequent telling of the “Molly Maguire” history—rested heavily on one remarkably fragile support: the credibility of McParlan’s reports.

Coming Next: Did McParlan Lie?

This post, first published on May 1, 2013, was the third 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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