Friday, April 17, 2015
The Wednesday evening of April 15, 2015, at Penn State’s Hazleton campus arrived a little warmer than predicted. Those climbing the concrete steps from the parking lot to the Evelyn Green Academic Building didn’t need their winter coats. An arrow on a sign reading “Irish History” directed visitors to the Greater Hazleton Historical Society presentation of “The Irish Experience in Northeastern Pennsylvania.”
Breándan Mac Suibhne, associate professor of history from Centenary College in Hackettstown, New Jersey, opened the presentation attended by almost one hundred people. Mac Suibhne examined the emergence of Ireland’s so-called “Molly Maguires,” men banded together to fight the privations of Ireland’s Great Hunger. He discussed an Irish schoolmaster’s claim, in 1856, of a list of alleged “Mollies”—a list the schoolteacher shared with the local magistrate, and then received passage for himself and his family to Australia. Mac Suibhne shared his family’s history and their integration of the painful legacies of privation and emigration.
Then Mark Bulik, author of The Sons of Molly Maguire, used the venue to discuss his understanding of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” history. Bulik's account traces vestiges of mummery in Ireland, a traditional British theatrical form sometimes characterized by male actors dressed in women’s clothing, to alleged “Molly Maguire” violence in Ireland to a transplantation of that violence to the Pennsylvania coalfields.Both Bulik’s presentation and his book rely on a skeleton of previous histories that casually accept the guilt of Pennsylvania’s Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men prosecuted as “Mollies.” Almost all of these previous histories accept the account of events promulgated by Pinkerton agents, in reports and trial testimony, and in Allan Pinkerton’s fiction, a dime novel version of this complex conflict.
The Pinkerton rendition of events from this period has controlled the entire documentation of this history, including Martin Ritt’s film, vetted by Pinkerton agency attorneys before its release in 1970. The Pinkerton version of events focuses attention on trials in four anthracite region counties. Trials actually took place in eight counties, in both the anthracite and bituminous regions. The Pinkerton version of events portrays the Hibernians as banded assassins. Exhaustive research into their biographies suggests Irish Catholic men who combined compassion with an urge for political reform.
In the late 1870s, a defense attorney asked one of the few Irish defense witnesses with the courage to take the stand his opinion of the alleged terrorist group called the “Molly Maguires.” The witness declared them a fairy story, a tale generated to entertain and scare listeners. The discussion at Penn State Hazleton added a new wrinkle to an old story. This time, per Bulik, Ireland’s alleged “Molly” terrorists wore dresses.
Bulik’s theory provides the latest red herring in the long, distorted, telling of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” prosecutions, a telling often used to titillate and entertain. This latest theory, as described in Bulik’s new book, derives in part from a survey of a hundred mummers' scripts archived at the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum.
The history of the “Molly Maguire” trials in Pennsylvania’s Allegheny, Carbon, Columbia, Fayette, Luzerne, Northumberland, Schuylkill, and Westmoreland counties has its roots both in Ireland and in the powerful hybrid of Irish Republicanism and American democracy. This hybrid proved so potent it required twenty-one executions in five counties to halt its forward movement.
Bulik’s theories provoke in other ways. He informed the audience that Pennsylvania’s alleged “Molly Maguire” violence arose after an influx of famine refugees diluted the old “middle class leadership” of Pottsville’s AOH. Bulik’s references to alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes as “the ultimate trick or treat gone bad” and to alleged “Mollies” as the “evil twins of the Mummers” brought expected laughs from the audience.
Many, if not all, of Pennsylvania’s AOH men charged as “Mollies” were naturalized U.S. citizens. The youngest among them decorated the walls of their cells with American flags. They believed in the power of the American system of justice. Up to the time of their executions, they refused to believe their executions could be secured through evidence supplied by self-confessed murderers, corroborated by testimony scripted and delivered by paid Pinkerton operatives. The juries that weighed this evidence included German farmers. Some of them spoke little English.
Bulik gave a glancing reference to John Kehoe, Schuylkill County’s AOH delegate hanged as the “King of the Mollies.” Had Bulik stretched his research a bit, he may have discovered Kehoe’s letter to a Pottsville editor in 1875—a letter that Kehoe wrote from his position as Girardville's high constable. In it, Kehoe urged area residents “to encourage brotherly love instead of sowing seeds of antagonism which sooner or later may lead to bloodshed.”
A quote from Macbeth, included in the program’s handouts, summed up the proceedings for this observer: “… this sore night / Hath trifled former knowledge.”
Bulik’s treatment of this tragically complex social justice history—including prosecutions that ridiculed the protection the U.S. Constitution affords its citizens—further clouds the discussion of the social, religious, ethnic, political, financial, and industrial issues that defined it. These issues still beg for explication.
A dimly remembered quote from the 1870s sums up the ongoing need in the telling of this history: “Justice lies bleeding. / Come fly to her aid.”