Monday, April 11, 2016

Pennsylvania's Sons of Liberty

During the 1870s, the rhetoric of Irishmen in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region rang with idealistic fervor. Their musings on history, some expressed poetically, included the American Revolution. Some of this rhetoric arose from two towns that served as homes or housed taverns owned by alleged "Molly Maguires": Mount Carmel, in Northumberland County, and Tamaqua, in Schuylkill County.
One issue in particular captured hearts and minds. Irish miners and their advocates actively resisted the influence of British capital in the anthracite coal trade. In late winter 1875 John Shanahan, Northumberland County labor union officer and miner, spoke out against the British stockholders of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. "They pay their presiding officer $25,000 per year, and that man, once poor and penniless, says [less than] $1.25 per day is too much for labor!," Shanahan said of railroad president Franklin Gowen. Of the newsmen’s ongoing hostility toward mineworkers, Shanahan said: "They forget we are men; that we are only resisting powerful corporations and a moneyed aristocracy." Shanahan wrote his correspondence, to the Irish World in New York, in advance of his attendance at the Anti-Monopoly Convention held that March in Harrisburg. Shanahan wrote from Mount Carmel, where AOH officer and alleged "Molly" Patrick Hester kept a home, and a few miles from Locust Gap, where Hester kept the Junction House, a hotel at the junction of two train tracks. Before his execution, Hester served as town supervisor, tax collector, school director, and overseer of the poor.
At the same time, thirty miles east of Mount Carmel, activist Jack O’Brien of Tamaqua wrote a poem to rouse the anti-monopolists. "You sons of liberty awake," O’Brien’s poem began. The "sons of liberty" hailed back to the American Revolution. During a debate in 1765 over the Stamp Act, British parliamentarian Isaac Barré applied the term to American colonists who opposed British rule. Barré, an Irish soldier and politician of French descent, declared that British oppression had "planted" these men in America. In Boston, the group gathered at the Green Dragon Tavern. On the night of December 16, 1773, "Sons of Liberty" under Samuel Adams’s leadership walked into the annals of history when they dumped a cargo of British tea into Boston Harbor.
A century later, Pennsylvania’s "Sons" protested "the tyrant’s" monopolization of their coal trade. Of O’Brien’s 1875 address to the Harrisburg anti-monopolists, a newsman said: "He … poured out such a strain of narration and melody that the whole house gave up its rigid tactics and exchanged business for jollity. … He pictured in language of the purest Celtic all the wiles and misdoing of monopolies, corporations and politicians."
Whether O’Brien’s poem took its inspiration from Barré’s "Sons of Liberty" is not known. It gave a nod to the American Revolution:
You sons of liberty awake,
Your hearths and altars are at stake;
Arise, arise, for freedom’s sake,
And strike against monopoly.

Your American eagle is [not] dead,
Again his giant wings are spread
To sweep upon the tyrant’s head,
And down with usurping monopoly.
What soul but scorns the coward slave;
But liberty is for the brave;
Our cry be Union or the grave,
And down with usurping monopoly.

The views of O’Brien and Shanahan at the Harrisburg convention reflected those of tens of thousands of workingmen in Pennsylvania and, per their convention, "the one hundred thousand voters whom it represents." The greatest representation of miners to the convention came from Pennsylvania’s Carbon, Columbia, Luzerne, Northumberland, and Schuylkill counties. Within the next four years, those five counties would host "Molly Maguire" executions.[i]

"Our cry be Union or the grave," O’Brien said. O’Brien penned his poem from Tamaqua, in Schuylkill County, home to alleged "Molly" and Labor Reformer James Carroll. Before his execution, Carroll owned a Tamaqua hotel he christened "Union Hotel." Less than four years after the workingmen held their Harrisburg convention, the cemetery at St. Jerome’s Roman Catholic Church in Tamaqua served as the burial site for John Kehoe, alleged "King of the Mollies." Before his execution, Kehoe served two terms as high constable for Girardville, where he kept a hotel called Hibernian House. During the attendant regional trauma of "Molly Maguire" trials and executions in five counties in four years, anti-monopoly fervor died too, along with the impassioned rhetoric that represented "one hundred thousand voters."

Of Carroll's execution, Kehoe said in 1877 from Pottsville Jail: "'I'm sorrier for Carroll than any man I ever knew. He was a decent man and was raised up to decency and ought not to have been hung on such men's evidence."

"'British gold was poured into his coffers,'" Kehoe said of Gowen's efforts to monopolize the Pennsylvania hard coal trade. Of Gowen's character, Kehoe said, "His whole course as president of the Reading road has shown him to be a man of such grasping tendencies that no obstacle, however sacred, was ever allowed to interpose between him and his end.'"

[i] AOH member Andrew Lenahan, executed on June 21, 1877, in Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, is routinely omitted from lists of so-called “Molly Maguire” executions. Wilkes-Barre is named for British parliamentarians John Wilkes and Isaac Barré, noted above. Both supported the American colonists’ efforts.

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