John Kehoe's Grave
St. Jerome's Cemetery
Tamaqua, Pennsylvania
ing of the Molly Maguires,” newspapers from Philadelphia to New York to Boston and beyond characterized John Kehoe on his death by hanging in 1878.

In 1979 Governor Milton Shapp of Pennsylvania granted Kehoe a posthumous pardon, the first such pardon issued in the commonwealth’s history. The explication of this Hibernian’s extraordinary journey from his birth in Ireland’s County Wicklow to the posthumous pardon issued in Pennsylvania a century after his death gives a window onto the risks of progressive reform efforts, and onto the social policies, politics, and treacheries of the Gilded Age.
During the 1870s, Kehoe collided with railroad president Franklin Gowen and Philadelphia archbishop James Frederick Wood in a series of events that left dozens dead, dozens more imprisoned, a rising movement shattered, and observers badly split over just what took place in Pennsylvania’s Carbon, Columbia, Luzerne, Northumberland, and Schuylkill counties.

Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” prosecutions, a whirlpool of court politics, systematically inflamed ethnic hatred, yellow journalism, and innumerable mysterious murders, centered around dozens of trials. Based heavily on testimony given by James McParlan, an undercover Pinkerton agent hired by Gowen on behalf of railroad and coal interests, trials took place between 1875 and 1878. All defendants belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent order. At the time of his arrest, Kehoe served as both AOH delegate for Schuylkill County, in the heart of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region, and as high constable for Girardville.

Early in the trials McParlan, at Gowen’s prompting as special prosecutor, charged that in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region, the AOH and the “Molly Maguires,” an alleged terrorist organization with roots in Ireland, were one and the same. In the trials that mushroomed from McParlan’s conspiracy theory, juries in five counties convicted twenty-one Hibernians of first-degree murder. All twenty-one defendants were hanged. Dozens more, convicted of lesser charges, served prison sentences.

As Pinkerton agents controlled the trial testimony, they controlled the writing of the “Molly Maguire” history. In the maze of interpretations that have surfaced over the last century and a half, Kehoe’s political influence and his support for the era’s progressive reform efforts have gone undiscovered. The same holds true for numerous Hibernians charged as “Mollies.”

Born in 1837 in Ireland’s County Wicklow, Kehoe emigrated with his family to the United States before Ireland’s Great Hunger wreaked its devastation.[1] For his family’s new home, John’s parents, Joseph and Bridget, chose Schuylkill County, where area coal mines drew numerous immigrants seeking new lives.

Something else may have encouraged Joseph Kehoe to settle his family in Schuylkill County. In 1836, one year before John’s birth, members of St. Patrick’s Fraternal Society in New York City joined with Hibernians from Schuylkill County in an unlikely coalition. The Irishmen met to request an AOH charter from the order’s executive members in Ireland and Great Britain.

Along with the new charter, the overseas officers granted to U.S. Hibernians “‘the sacred sparks of liberty and faith, of chivalry and tolerance, of kindly humanity and large brotherly charity’”[2] that characterized the order in Ireland and elsewhere. The new U.S. charter called for members “of good and moral character, and none … shall join in any secret societies contrary to the laws of the Catholic Church.”[3]

“You must love without dissimulation, hating evil, cleaving to good,” the biblical language advised the trans-Atlantic Hibernians. “Love one another with brotherly love … and forget not hospitality to your emigrant brother that may land on your shores, and … above all things, have natural charity among yourselves.”[4]

Hibernians in both New York City and Schuylkill County established divisions in 1836. “The Order thrived among the coal miners in Pennsylvania,” said historian John O’Dea, “and the headquarters remained in that State until shortly before the first American charter was granted to the New York body in 1853.”[5] Schuylkill County’s Hibernians helped secure the first U.S. AOH charter. Pennsylvania, possibly Schuylkill County, served as the order’s first headquarters.  And it was to Schuylkill County that Joseph Kehoe moved his family from Ireland in the early 1840s, less than a decade after Hibernians there combined with Hibernians in New York to establish the Irish Catholic benevolent order dedicated to helping ease the plight of their emigrant brothers.

Bridget and Joseph arrived on U.S. shores with four children, including John, aged about seven, in about 1843. A monthly pay sheet from a Schuylkill County colliery years later shows John, aged thirteen or fourteen, working alongside his two brothers, fifteen-year-old Michael and Joseph, aged nine.[6]

Pay Sheet, Tuscarora Mines, Circa 1851

Stints at other mines followed. Sometime during the 1860s, Kehoe’s younger brother Joseph was killed in a mine accident when the chain on a “pusher car,” a cart used to help hoist loaded coal carts to the surface, broke. The cart plummeted downward and struck Joe, who died of the injuries. His fellow mineworkers believed the accident had been deliberately planned. “They wanted to kill Canvin for that, but I prevented it,”[7] Kehoe told a reporter years later of William Canvin, the engineer at the colliery where Joe Kehoe was killed. Kehoe’s advocacy of nonviolence in this instance was one of a number where he showed an adherence to the AOH creed.

In Kehoe’s trial years later for the murder of mine superintendent Frank Langdon, prosecutors used Canvin, possibly responsible for the death of Kehoe’s brother, as a witness against him. A defense attorney established that Canvin, evidently disposed to violence, had killed a man in a Hazleton brothel. Of the testimony given by witnesses during his trial, including Canvin, Kehoe wrote to a friend: “I never thought that men would Be so wicked they swore every way they wanted them.”[8]

On September 11, 1865, at age twenty-seven, Kehoe became a U.S. citizen. In an echo of his embrace of Greenback Labor Reform, with its rejection of British capital in U.S. industry, in his naturalization papers Kehoe renounced his allegiance to Victoria, Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

Schuylkill County Pennsylvania Naturalization Record, 1865

A year later, Kehoe married Mary Ann O’Donnell at Mahanoy City. The young Irishman followed the path of many ambitious mineworkers, out of the mines and into small business ownership. By 1870 Kehoe had established himself as a Mahanoy City hotelkeeper, with property valued at five hundred dollars.[9]

In spring 1871, two events took place that sharpened the conflict between area Hibernians and mineworkers, and railroad and coal men. In April a “Grand Council” of union officers from the Workingmen's Benevolent Association (WBA), the regional union of mineworkers, met at Mauch Chunk in Carbon County to adopt a system of wage arbitration by umpire for the miners wages. Two Hibernians later charged as “Mollies,” Michael Lawler and Cornelius McHugh, attended as delegates, as did Kehoe’s friend, Welsh miner John Morgan. Alleged “Molly” Lawler and Morgan, both miners, served as two of six signatories to the historic document that arose from the Grand Council proceedings. It survives as one of labor history’s early collective bargaining agreements.[10]

Philadelphia Press, May 12, 1871

Pennsylvania's Hibernians also advocated in Harrisburg that spring. In March, they filed a revised AOH charter with the state legislature. Mirroring events from 1836, that same week Hibernians in New York filed an almost identical charter. In Pennsylvania, alleged “Molly” Patrick Hester, per one hostile coal region priest, was one of two Hibernian leaders who “lobbied the charter through the Legislature.”[11] The new charter’s preamble for Hibernians in Pennsylvania and New York contained a poem that began: “These laws though human, / Spring from Love Divine.”[12]

Pennsylvania’s Revised AOH Charter, March 1871

A move to Shenandoah followed for Kehoe, with four small children in tow. He opened a tavern at 3 Main Street. In August 1872, four years before his arrest as a “Molly,” the Irish American tavern keeper placed his name in consideration for Democratic nominee to Pennsylvania’s state assembly.[13] Two decades after his employment as a child laborer at Tuscarora, Kehoe asked voters to consider him as their state representative.

Pottsville Standard, August 3, 1872

Kehoe did not secure the nomination. In August 1874, Schuylkill’s Hibernians elected Kehoe as county delegate and Christopher Donnelly, a miner and political delegate who would also serve as school director, as AOH county treasurer. That November, working in concert with Schuylkill's Labor Reformers, Donnelly helped send their candidate, James Reilly, to U.S. Congress.[14]

Kehoe next moved his family to Girardville, where he opened the Hibernian House. In January 1875, he hosted New York’s AOH national officers at the Girardville hotel. Over his years as a Hibernian leader, Kehoe befriended a number of influential reformers, including union officer John Morgan and U.S. Congressman John Killinger, an outspoken proponent of Greenback Labor Reform. By 1878, the year of Kehoe’s hanging at Pottsville, he had garnered the support and advocacy of Robert Mackey, Pennsylvania’s leading Republican operative.

Hibernian House, Girardville, Pennsylvania

In early March 1875, miners delegates from the five anthracite coal counties that would soon host Molly Maguire” trials and executions traveled to Harrisburg to attend an Anti-Monopoly Convention hosted there. Alleged Molly” Michael Lawler joined the Harrisburg delegates. Their resolutions included a legal challenge to the right of Gowen's railroad to own and mine coal lands under its charter. 
A few weeks later, as required by the revised AOH charter, Kehoe led his men in a St. Patrick’s Day parade. Newsmen described Kehoe’s marchers through Mahanoy City as “strikingly dignified and manly.”[15] A few months later at St. Kieran’s Church in Heckscherville, a parish priest, a foe of the AOH, snatched the flag used to head Kehoe’s parade and burned it before his Sunday congregation.

In 1875 and again in February 1876, three months before Kehoe’s arrest as an alleged “Molly” for Langdon’s death fifteen years previously, area voters elected the AOH leader as Girardville’s high constable.

Pottsville Standard, February 19, 1876

By fall 1875, the strands of anti-monopoly union agitation and Greenback Labor Reform politics threatened to combine explosively in a nationwide movement for a workingmen’s political party. With fellow Hibernian John Slattery, Kehoe spent the fall campaigning on behalf of Governor John Hartranft, the Republican candidate for reelection. By this time, AOH members numbered, by an official count given years later, at more than sixty thousand members statewide.[16] Hartranft won the election.

By October 1875, a number of alleged “Molly” murders had inflamed the local populace. A hostile local press called repeatedly for vigilantism. Kehoe, taunted personally by Shenandoah publisher Thomas Foster, pleaded with area residents “to encourage brotherly love instead of sowing seeds of antagonism which sooner or later may lead to bloodshed.”[17]

Letter to Editor, John Kehoe, October 22, 1875

Foster continued his calls for vigilantism. On December 11, a group numbering forty to fifty men conducted an early morning moonlight raid at Wiggan’s Patch, where Kehoe’s mother-in-law kept a boarding house. Half a dozen men entered the house. They shot Kehoe’s pregnant sister-in-law, a young mother, as she stood at her bedroom door in her nightdress. They shot Kehoe’s brother-in-law, Charles O’Donnell, outside the house and set his body on fire. As with the death of his brother Joe, Kehoe again showed restraint. Though all charges were eventually dropped, Kehoe’s actions as constable led to the arrest of one leader of the Wiggan’s Patch raid.

A few weeks after the murders of Mary Ann Kehoe’s sister and brother at Wiggan’s Patch, Archbishop Wood issued an order of excommunication against the AOH regionally. Kehoe’s arrest for Langdon’s murder took place five months later.
Kehoe’s journey across the Atlantic, to the mines of Schuylkill County, to marriage, tavern ownership, and elected office, to the Hibernian halls of Pennsylvania and New York, to the heady chambers of political influence, to the proclamation of his death sentence and his hanging at Pottsville, ended with his burial, at age forty-one, at Tamaqua. His carved headstone at St. Jerome’s Cemetery shows a hand grasping a cross, with a spray of lily of the valley. Its inscription reads: “May his soul rest in peace. / Whilst in this silent grave I sleep, / My soul to God I give to keep.”

While awaiting execution at Pottsville Jail, Kehoe turned to a small shelf of books for comfort. Historical reverberations sound from two items left behind in his cell: a biography of the Italian martyr St. Alphonsus Liguori, founder of the Redemptorist Order; and The Poor Man’s Catechism, a treatise from the 1798 Irish Rebellion. The convictions expressed in both works, especially advocacy for the poor, mirror the beliefs imprinted in Pennsylvania's AOH charters and in the fervor that marked the support of Kehoe and his fellow Hibernians charged as “Mollies” for the eras reform efforts.
[1] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Free Inhabitants in Mahanoy Township in the County of Schuylkill State of Pennsylvania, 1860” (the Kehoe name is listed as “Coho” in this document). Per a review of dates and places of birth, Joseph and Bridget Kehoe arrived in the United States between 1842 and 1844.
[2] John O’Dea, History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, vol. 2 (New York, 1923), 884.
[3] Ibid., 885.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., vol. 1, 14.
[6] These time sheets are held in the collection of the Schuylkill County Historical Society. Thanks to Howard Crown for providing them to me.
[7] Philadelphia Times, November 19, 1878.
[8] John Kehoe to W. R. Potts, circa March 1878, John Kehoe file, M 170.18.MI, Schuylkill County Historical Society.
[9] U.S. Bureau of the Census, “Inhabitants in Mahanoy Borough West Ward, in the County of Schuylkill, State of Pennsylvania, 1870.”
[10] Philadelphia Press, May 12, 1871.
[11] For Rev. Daniel McDermott’s oblique reference to Hester’s involvement in the AOH chartering, see Catholic Standard, October 17, 1874, “The Church and Secret Societies.”
[12] Report of the Case of the Commonwealth vs. John Kehoe et al., stenographically reported by R. A. West (Pottsville, 1876), 167.
[13] Pottsville Standard, August 3 and 24, 1872.
[14] For Reilly’s election to Congress, see “The Molly Kings and Greenback Labor Reform” (pending publication, this website).
[15] Shenandoah Herald and Philadelphia Times, March 20, 1875.
[16] Boston Pilot, May 22, 1880 (from report of annual AOH convention).
[17] Miners’ Journal, October 22, 1875 (the microfilm for this correspondence is partially obscured).