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.

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