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 www.kehoefoundation.com.

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