Saturday, December 28, 2013

What Nerved Brutus to Slay Caesar


Beau Riffenburgh’s recent biography of James McParlan, titled “Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland” [sic], documents the life of a detective so slippery, observers cannot even agree on the spelling of his name.

Young James McParlan was noted as “J. McF” in early Pinkerton reports, known undercover in Pennsylvania as “James McKenna,” and in later years spelled his name “James McParland.”

Riffenburgh visited an impressive list of archives in support of this work. But of McParlan’s long career, Riffenburgh concludes: “… there are more questions than answers. It is just this elusiveness that is the essence of the Great Detective, who was, is, and will forever more remain, an enigma.”

Was McParlan “an enigma,” or was he simply a con man? Observers can agree on this: the truth of McParlan’s career—and of his character—live on in the buried details of his caseload. As that truth lived in the hearts and minds of men, long buried, who purchased his services.

In Pennsylvania during the 1870s, a triumvirate of disappointed gubernatorial candidates helped mount the cornerstone of McParlan’s career: the “Molly Maguire” caseload. Three successive defeats in six years of Democratic Party candidates with close ties to anthracite coal and railroad interests had left that party’s conservative leaders scrambling for purchase. The politicians who suffered these losses played both direct and indirect roles in the subsequent “Molly Maguire” trials. Simply put, these men hanged their political enemies.

In 1869 Asa Packer, president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, suffered the first of these stinging defeats. A half decade later, Packer sent his attorney, Allen Craig, to help prosecute the “Molly Maguire” caseload.

In 1872 Charles Buckalew, special prosecutor during the 1877 “Molly Maguire” Rea trial, lost a bitter campaign for the governor’s chair. One coal region editor described Buckalew’s allegiance: “Charles R. Buckalew is acknowledged to be the attorney of the Reading railroad Company. He was their agent while in the Senate, and Frank Gowen’s right-hand man generally.”

Gowen, Buckalew’s promoter, served as president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and chief special prosecutor during the “Molly Maguire” trials. Gowen’s company purchased the services of both McParlan and of a score of Pinkerton operatives who infiltrated the coalfields and the state capital at Harrisburg during this volatile time.

In 1875 Pennsylvania’s voters crushed the gubernatorial bid of Cyrus Pershing, the third candidate with close ties to Gowen. The following year, Pershing served as Schuylkill County’s president judge during the “Molly” trials. According to the New York Times, Democratic Party elder Francis Hughes “engineered” Pershing’s nomination. The year after Pershing’s defeat, Hughes served as yet another special prosecutor in the “Molly Maguire” trials.

In 1871, smack in the midst of the struggling candidacies of these coal region politicians, tens of thousands of Pennsylvania’s Irish Catholic men organized under a new official state charter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). Most were also Democrats. But the political views of these AOH men, champions of the workingmen, directly challenged those of the Gilded Age politicians—Packer, Buckalew, Pershing and Hughes—who carried out the “Molly Maguire” trials under Gowen’s hand.

This conflict in Pennsylvania left behind more than 15 alleged "Molly Maguire" murder victims. It devastated families on all sides of the conflict. It destroyed a nascent labor union and left a political reform movement in tatters. It shattered the political influence of Pennsylvania’s AOH and tainted AOH influence countrywide. That influence threatened to grow exponentially after Pennsylvania’s 1871 official state chartering.

Men caustically—and continually—disappointed in their political ambitions mounted the “Molly Maguire” trials. Those trials pivoted around the purchased testimony of Pinkerton detective McParlan. McParlan’s testimony declared the AOH and a shadowy group called the “Molly Maguires” one and the same.

Riffenburgh says of McParlan: “… most of those who have evaluated his character based on what he did in relation to the Molly Maguires have not truly produced assessments that withstand impartial analysis of the full facts.”

And yet after almost a century and a half, historians have not yet brought forward the facts of these frustrated politicians who helped Gowen mount his “Molly Maguire” campaign.

More than 135 years have passed since McParlan gave his “Molly Maguire” testimony. That testimony sent dozens of influential Irish Catholic men to prison and more than a score—including four AOH county delegates—to the gallows. Yet McParlan’s most recent biographer, Riffenburgh, can declare this detective only “an enigma.”

If McParlan lied in his “Molly Maguire” testimony, his long career as “Pinkerton’s Great Detective” marks one of the most effective and murderous cons in history.

“‘What nerved Brutus to slay Ceasar [sic]?’” defense attorney Daniel Kalbfus asked a jury of McParlan in 1876. “‘Why did Booth kill Lincoln? … ambition, that which threw Satan over the walls of heaven.’”

In February 2014, Anne Flaherty will present a three-lecture course titled “Pennsylvania’s ‘Molly Maguires’: Prosecution or Witch Hunt?” through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program at American University.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

For the Grace of a Happy Death

December 18, 2013, marked the 135th anniversary of the execution of John Kehoe at Pottsville, Pennsylvania. On that day in 1878, newspapers country-wide reported the scheduled death of the “King of the Molly Maguires.”

On that morning in 1878, an unnamed reporter for the Philadelphia Times sent to cover Kehoe’s execution also described the transformation by six nuns of the cell at Pottsville Prison used to host two final Masses said on behalf of the dying man:

“Shortly after 7 o’clock this morning Father Gallagher entered Kehoe’s cell and a few minutes later began the celebration of the Mass. In one corner of the corridor, in a large, double cell used as a sort of storehouse for the shoes made by the convict laborers, the Sisters had erected a small altar. As I entered this in the dark hours of the morning, the chill look of the prison was left behind and there in a convict cell was a perfect fac-simile of a convent chapel.”

The reporter described in detail the “MASS IN A PRISON CELL.” The six nuns, four from St. Patrick’s Church in Pottsville and two from the neighboring town of St. Clair, had draped every wall of the dingy storeroom with white muslin draperies. They had brought in branches of evergreen to mount against the white backdrop. They had brought in ornamental white plaster candleholders to place on the small altar. They had lighted the altar with candles.

Those assembled for the two Masses that morning knelt on the room’s cold floor. Father Gallagher, dressed in vestments of gold and white, performed the first service. Two acolytes attended the priest. All prayed “for the grace of a happy death for Kehoe,” and all received Holy Communion. Father Brennan conducted the second service.

“After the last service had been concluded,” the reporter said, “Kehoe expressed his satisfaction that the day was one of the Virgin Mary’s feast days, for, he said, he had great confidence in her intercessory power.”

The account in the Philadelphia Times also included the details of Kehoe’s execution, a grim affair that involved a slipped knot in the ropes and a prolonged strangulation in a snowstorm. While Kehoe struggled for breath on the gallows, Father Gallagher, stationed below him, spoke the words of the plenary indulgence. The Times reporter gave details, too, of that ritual: “for the indulgence to have its full effect perfect charity must exist, and there must be in the heart and mind of the man a destruction of all affection, not only to grievous sins but also to venial or lighter ones.”

Kehoe, Schuylkill County delegate to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, had been twice elected high constable of Girardville and was named, in 1872, as a nominee to Pennsylvania’s State Assembly. He left behind a wife and five children. At the time of his death, Kehoe was 41 years old.

The Philadelphia Times account from the day of the execution contained no byline. A year and a half previously, a Philadelphia Times reporter who signed himself simply “C. CATH.” had interviewed Kehoe at length in his cell at Pottsville Prison.

Fifteen months after the unnamed Philadelphia reporter witnessed Kehoe’s execution in the snowstorm at Pottsville, C. Cathcart Taylor, city editor for the Philadelphia Times, committed suicide at his home in Philadelphia. At the time of his death, Taylor was 34 years old. Whether Taylor had witnessed the two Masses said in the prison cell and Kehoe’s subsequent death on the gallows is not known.

Kehoe’s body was transported by train to his home in Girardville. His burial took place at St. Jerome’s cemetery in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County. Two of Kehoe’s in-laws, victims of an 1875 vigilante attack, also lay buried in the cemetery there that overlooked the town.

A carved hand grasping a cross and a bloom of spring flowers decorates Kehoe’s gravestone. Its inscription reads:

“Sacred to the memory of John Kehoe
A native of the County Wicklow
Ireland.
Died Dec. 18, 1878,
Aged 41 Years, 5 Mos. & 15 Ds.
May his soul rest in peace.
Whilst in this silent grave I sleep,
My soul to God I give to keep.”


In February 2014, Anne Flaherty will present a three-lecture course titled “Pennsylvania’s ‘Molly Maguires’: Prosecution or Witch Hunt?” through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program at American University.