Monday, November 23, 2015

The Mahanoy City Miners and the Poor of the Cities

For almost a century and a half, history has largely ignored
two documents from Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict. Both appeared in late winter 1871. One was clearly drafted by Irish Catholic men. The second almost certainly was. Both embraced the concept of universal love.

On March 11, 1871, officers from Pennsylvania’s Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent order, filed a revised charter with their state legislature. Some evidence remains to suggest that AOH officers later charged as “Mollies” helped draft this document. Its motto embraced the golden rule. A clause from its introduction read “the Supreme Being has implanted in our natures tender sympathies and most humane feeling towards our fellow creatures in distress, and all the happiness that human nature is capable of enjoying must flow and terminate in the love of God and our fellow creatures.”

The same month that AOH officers filed their revised charter, miners in Mahanoy City, a heavily Irish town in the heart of the hard coal region, published a startling resolution. Whether the revised AOH charter prompted the miners’ resolution remains a mystery.

Pinkerton reports from the mid-1870s give clues to the miners’ motivation. Reports give a count of four hundred-fifty AOH men in Schuylkill County. Four hundred, a report states, were union men—members of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA). Mahanoy City housed Irish miners who held combined AOH lodge and WBA union membership.

Of AOH officers later charged as “Mollies,” one had strong family ties to Mahanoy City in 1871. Former coal miner John Kehoe, the father of three at that time, kept a hotel there. Kehoe’s two grown brothers, both mine laborers, lived in town with their parents. The Kehoe men were law and order men. Kehoe’s father Joseph, a mineworker, served over the years both as township supervisor for Mahanoy City and as town constable. John would hold that post in subsequent years in Girardville.

The Mahanoy City miners’ resolution issued from WBA District Five. It addressed the ongoing mineworkers’ strike and the resulting hardship in securing coal. It declared:

“That we, the miners and laborers of this district, hearing that the poor of the Cities of Philadelphia and New York are suffering for the want of coal, will give one or two days’ labor in the mines, free gratis, for the purpose of supplying coal for their pressing need, provided that the operators will give the use of their collieries, and the railroad companies will transport the same free.”

In March 1871, Pennsylvania’s newly revised AOH charter spoke to “humane feeling towards our fellow creatures in distress.” That same month, miners in Mahanoy City, a heavily Irish town and home to future AOH county delegate John Kehoe, offered to work “free gratis”—to work without pay—to supply the urban poor with coal during wage disputes. The author of the miners’ resolution remains a mystery.

The miners’ offer to supply coal to the poor depended on the matching largesse of the railroads. That winter Franklin Gowen, president of the region’s largest carrier, doubled, and then tripled, his freight rates—an act so outrageous, Governor John Geary called a legislative investigation. Gowen’s stunt helped derail the miners’ offer to the poor. Four years later, Gowen’s efforts broke the miners’ union for good.

The language of the AOH charter and its filing the same month that the miners offered their resolution suggest that both documents flowed from the same spring. In late winter 1871, Christian ideology, with its powerful and sustaining language, may have informed industrial action in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region. If fused, those two ideologies could pose a cataclysmic threat to the region’s railroad and coal interests.

Two and a half years after the AOH filed its revised charter, Gowen brought Pinkerton operative James McParlan into the coalfields. Nine murders followed within a two-year period. Those murders drove Gowen’s early “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

As the targeting of AOH men as alleged “Mollies” heated up, a parish priest from Mahanoy City protested the repeated depiction of his town as a center of terrorism. “I have resided and officiated in this town for four years, and have yet to discover the existence of such a society, much less a single member of such an organization as the ‘Molly Maguires,’” Father Charles McFadden wrote to the New York Herald in late 1874. “On the contrary, the people are peaceable, intelligent and law-abiding. … I had charge of souls in Philadelphia and elsewhere, and I must, in justice, say that the people of Mahanoy City are as pious and good citizens as ever I met with.”

In March 1871, miners in Mahanoy City tried to help the poor “suffering for the want of coal.” Their actions accorded with the revised AOH charter filed that month in Harrisburg. The charter’s preamble contained a poem. Its first stanza read: “These laws though human, / Spring from Love Divine, / Love laid the scheme— / Love guides the whole design.”

To further explore this history, visit

Monday, October 12, 2015

The Herald Seduces the Public

Some aspects of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict are
so bizarre as to be almost untellable. One involves the publication, under the direction of James Gordon Bennett Jr., of three articles in the New York Herald. Two came within eleven days of each other.

The exploits of Gilded Age publisher Bennett, evidently a law unto himself, included late-night nude horse-drawn carriage rides. A drunken episode at the family home of Bennett’s fiancé ended with him, by varying accounts, urinating either into the fireplace or into the grand piano. The stunt caused a duel and ended Bennett’s engagement.

Bennett’s readers were more readily seduced. On November 9, 1874, the Herald, widely read and circulated, published an article headlined “AWFUL CALAMITY. The Wild Animals Broken Loose From Central Park.” It told of ‘TERRIBLE SCENES OF MUTILIATION,” “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death,” “SAVAGE BRUTES AT LARGE,” and a “PROCLAMATION BY THE MAYOR.”

Like all good journalism, the zoo hoax offered specifics: forty-nine people killed, with only twenty-seven identified and twelve carnivorous beasts still on the loose. The hoax described the attacks and gave the names of some victims, including an “unfortunate sewing girl,” along with the address of the precinct house that accepted her body. Three regiments had supposedly been called out to fight the wild beasts. Escaped animals included “Lincoln, the Numidian lion,” a rhinoceros, a puma, a “black wolf,” and a Bengal tiger. Few read to the article’s end, where it declared itself fiction.

The details of the zoo hoax hypnotized some New Yorkers into paralysis. Many, convinced the mayor had declared a state of emergency, stayed locked in at home. Others rushed into the street waving pistols, hoping to shoot the first wild beast they met.

The New York Times called Bennett’s article a “gross outrage.” Prominent citizens visited the district attorney’s office to demand action. Attorneys speculated that those responsible for the article’s publication and distribution could be indicted for conspiracy to defraud.

Eleven days after the zoo hoax, the Herald published an article headlined “CRIME IN THE COAL FIELDS. Horrible Deeds of the Molly Maguires. Women Outraged in the Streets.” It described shootings, stabbings, “Ku Klux notices,” mutilations, and the “despoiling” of women by lawbreakers. It mimicked the Herald’s fictional coverage published the previous August headlined: “THE COAL REGIONS. General Prevalence of Riot, Robbery and Murder. BODIES HORRIBLY MUTILATED. Ku Klux Notices Served on Obnoxious Citizens. Vigilance Committees Organized.”

Like all good journalism, the Herald’s “Molly Maguire” hoaxes from August and November 1874 offered specifics. But unlike the zoo hoax, the second “Molly” hoax included a germ of truth. Embedded in the fictional scenes of riot and outrage were two actual coal region murders that later would be ascribed to so-called “Molly Maguire” defendants: that of Captain John Reilly at Wilkes-Barre and of George Major, burgess of Mahanoy City.

The timing of Bennett’s “Molly Maguire” coverage makes it especially bizarre. The Herald's August 1874 hoax appeared before nine murders took place. The outlandish coverage both primed the public for murders to come and helped eliminate all hope for fair trials.

All nine of the alleged “Molly Maguire” murders that dated from late 1874 to 1875 took place after Pinkerton operative James McParlan entered the region. McParlan’s subsequent trial testimony helped convict as “Mollies” numerous family men who had worked their way from the mines into various political offices, including constable, township supervisor, tax assessor, and school director. Many were Labor Reformers.

Like Bennett’s fiction, McParlan’s testimony bristled with specifics. It convinced a wide public, already well primed with sensational newspaper coverage, that the danger posed by Irishmen charged as “Mollies” must be caged.

In the 1890s, Bennett moved the New York Herald from lower Manhattan Midtown. Architect Stanford White designed the new building that became the heart of Herald Square. Someone asked Bennett why he secured only a thirty-year lease for the new premises. The newsman replied: “‘Thirty years from now the Herald will be in Harlem, and I’ll be in hell!’”

To further explore this history, visit

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Enduring Power of Nativism

Nativist rhetoric in the United States, culled from a
vocabulary of hatred, fear, intimidation, and exclusion, reverberates in weird echoes across the centuries.

“We do not accept Jews, because they reject Christ!” the fictionalized character Clayton Townley ranted in Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning. “We do not accept Papists, because they bow to a Roman dictator! We do not accept Turks, Mongrels, Tartars, Orientals nor Negroes because we are here to protect Anglo-Saxon democracy and the American way!”

Parker’s film dramatized the deaths of the three Civil Rights workers killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on the night of June 21, 1964. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner remained undiscovered until early August 1964. Their efforts to register African Americans as voters during “Freedom Summer” led to their murders.

Eighty-seven years before to the day, on June 21, 1877, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hanged the first eleven of an eventual twenty-one Irish Catholic men for alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes. Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) officer Patrick Hester died on the gallows in March 1878.

Before his arrest Hester, a grandfather and former school director, township supervisor, tax collector, and overseer of the poor, had worked for the naturalization and enfranchisement of Irish Catholic mineworkers. An editor, horrified at Hester’s efforts toward suffrage at the local courthouse, described Hester as “one of the acknowledged leaders of what is called the Democratic party in the Coal region, who with a number of his countrymen … just arrived from the temple of Justice, where they had been invested with the rights of citizenship …”

The editor warned: “Let native and Protestant American citizens ponder before they surrender their dearest rights to the rule of the Pope, or to the aggressions of the agents of foreign potentates.”

In Mississippi in 1964, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan drove the murders of Civil Rights workers. During the “Molly” trials in the mid-1870s, nativist lodges honeycombed Pennsylvania’s hard coal region. They went under cover of patriotic-sounding names.

A few weeks after the June 21 executions, a correspondent from Mahanoy City, a heavily Irish area, wrote to the Boston Pilot: “… we have got the ‘Junior Sons of America,’ ‘Mechanics,’ and many other secret societies, calling themselves Young Americans. The ‘Junior’ boys tell their fathers that they have not the same right here as [their sons] have, because they were not born in this country.”

Two Pinkerton agents who drove the “Molly” caseload, James McParlan and Robert Linden, took up residence in towns that housed prominent nativist factions. McParlan lodged in Shenandoah, home to Washington Camp No. 112 of the Patriotic Order Sons of America. The year after McParlan entered the region, Shenandoah formed a secret society under this disturbing name: “Sons of America, Shenandoah Commandery No. 14, Master Americans.”

Linden, McParlan’s supervisor, lodged in Ashland, home to Ashland Camp No. 84 of the Patriotic Order Sons of America. The Ashland division housed a subdivision with another troubling name: the “White Degree council.” The possible influence of McParlan and Linden with these groups has never been investigated.

At the issuance of the “Molly” death warrants in May 1877, the Shenandoah Herald published a column under the jocular heading “Girardville Giblets.” It carried a bald nativist taunt: “All our peace and order loving citizens were made happy this evening on the appearance of the Herald, containing the information that a beginning was to be made at disposing of the ‘Mollie’ murderers. All were happy to know that Governor Hartranft had determined to enforce the law, and that in the future, as at the present, ‘Mollieism’ has got to take a back seat, while white men say what shall be done.”

A half-decade before, the editor who so feared the enfranchisement of regional Irish Catholics had urged: “Every opponent of the Irish supremacy in this county should make it a point to examine the list and see if he is registered. … If the full vote is brought out the result will be a complete overthrow of that faction which is attempting to bind our county hand and foot to the Irish power.”

Within eight years of that publication, nativist rhetoric had helped destroy the power of “that faction.” The AOH in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region was broken. Its leaders had died on gallows in five counties, sat serving long prison sentences, or had long since fled the region.

To further explore the history of Pennsylvania’s Hibernians prosecuted as “Molly Maguires,” visit

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Pennsylvania's Hibernians and the Clergy

Roman Catholic clergy figured prominently in Pennsylvania’s
“Molly Maguire” prosecutions. During the 1870s, Archbishop James Frederick Wood of Philadelphia, Bishop Jeremiah Shanahan of Harrisburg, Bishop Tobias Mullen of Erie, Father Daniel McDermott of New Philadelphia, Father Joseph Koch of Shamokin, Father Daniel O’Connor of Mahanoy Plane, Father Joseph Bridgeman of Girardville, and many more, massed together to declare Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men and alleged “Molly Maguire” terrorists one and the same. Archbishop John Williams of Boston, Cardinal John McCloskey of New York, and Archbishop Patrick Ryan of St. Louis joined with Pennsylvania’s clergy in condemning the AOH men.

The clerics published their views in diocesan newspapers from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Erie. Press coverage in the eastern cities echoed the clerics’ views and prepared the ground for the trials to come.

John Kehoe, AOH delegate for Schuylkill County executed in 1878 and posthumously pardoned in 1979, tried to cut through the resulting clamor. In fall 1875, from his seat as Girardville's high constable, Kehoe wrote to a local editor to protest the press’s conflation of the AOH with the “Molly Maguire” label.

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. … Now, nothing can be more unjust than to charge the order with any acts of lawlessness, and nothing can be more inconsistent with the wishes of the people than the agitation of this matter by the leading papers of this country. The articles which have appeared on this matter have done an incalculable amount of harm, and, as a friend to law and order, I would advise their cessation.”

A few hardy clerics supported the AOH and the mineworkers’ cause. Just months before Kehoe wrote his letter from Girardville, Father James Brehony of St. Joseph’s Church in Summit Hill joined forces on behalf of the mineworkers with Thomas Fisher, AOH Carbon County delegate subsequently hanged as a “Molly.” The priest and the AOH delegate sat down together with Charles Parrish, director of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, to negotiate the wage issue.

Their meeting proved unsuccessful. The following year, Fisher sat in Mauch Chunk Jail, charged with an alleged “Molly Maguire” crime. 

By January 1877 numerous AOH leaders, including Fisher and Kehoe, had been imprisoned, tried, and convicted. Within months, they would be sentenced to death. 

By February 1877, mineworkers’ wages had fallen to such a point fathers were unable to feed their families. Father Brehony organized a “Catholic colony” movement, in his words, “to enable Catholics who wish to leave the coal regions, to form a colony and thus avoid the disadvantages of separate removal to a distant part of the county.”

A reporter for Archbishop Wood’s diocesan newspaper described the mineworkers’ plight: “Removal or starvation are the alternatives that now stare thousands of the coal region broadly in the face. The expectation of bettering their condition there, of even obtaining a decent livelihood for themselves and their families is plainly hopeless.” The wages now being paid the men “simply place them in a condition of slow starvation …”

At the height of the “Molly” trials, an unnamed priest from Ohio addressed a group of Hibernians in Philadelphia. This priest shared Father Brehony’s passion and his willingness to confront those in authority. The unnamed priest gave a scathing assessment of Archbishop Wood’s actions against the AOH. Newspapers in Philadelphia and Shenandoah refused to give this priest’s name, his parish, or the name of his bishop. They identified him only as “connected with a prominent church in Ohio.”

The unidentified priest “denounced the action of Archbishop Wood in anathematizing the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and held that the members are the most fervent supporters of the Catholic faith.” Of Archbishop Wood's order of excommunication against AOH men in the Philadelphia diocese, the Ohio priest told Hibernians assembled in Philadelphia: “My bishop, through the official organ of his diocese, pronounced the action of the Philadelphia hierarchy as an injustice that was only worthy of the despot of Russia.”

Of the wholesale identification of the AOH with alleged “Molly Maguire” violence, the unnamed priest from Ohio concluded: “The movement against you is a Know Nothing strike at every Irish organization, and every man concerned in it deserves to be loaded with execration.”

To further explore this history, visit