The Power of Ridicule

or almost a century and a half, observers of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” history have characterized the Irish Catholic men prosecuted by the commonwealth’s coal and railroad interests as rough mineworkers who had little knowledge of the social and political structures of their community, their region, or even their country. Much of this distortion arises from the original telling of this history, based in large part on archived reports and courtroom testimony offered by Pinkerton operative James McParlan.

McParlan went to great lengths to portray these Irishmen, all officers or members of the Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) benevolent association, as rough terrorists with ties to alleged Irish methods of retributive violence. Special prosecutors, newsmen countrywide, and writers of history all relied on McParlan’s testimony. More than three decades after the Pinkerton spun his courtroom theories, even a prominent advocate of organized labor believed Pennsylvania’s “Mollies” guilty of the crimes charged against them. But buried under all of the “Molly Maguire” rhetoric lies evidence that at least five Hibernians charged as “Mollies” had served in their communities as school directors.

Correspondence of former U.S. Congressman John McKeon, published in New York the month McParlan entered the coal region, opens a new window onto the climate of the times. McKeon’s comments help explain how Irish Catholic miners and businessmen with a sophisticated understanding of their community, their region, their county’s political structures, and the day’s complex social and industrial issues, came to be cartooned for more than a century under the “Molly Maguire” caricature.

A Compact Battalion

n 1873, two years before railroad president Franklin Gowen began his so-called “Molly Maguire” prosecutions in Pennsylvania, former U.S. Congressman John McKeon wrote a letter to the New York Herald. The Herald titled McKeon’s letter “TRIUMPH OF THE BIGOTS.”

New York Herald, October 11, 1873

McKeon warned the Herald’s readers of a resurgence in nativism, the decades-old movement that strove to keep Irish Catholics out of political office. The “Know-Nothing” movement McKeon described grew out of the American Party, whose members call for native-born citizens to arm themselves against immigrants had led to a number of violent clashes during the 1840s. During the 1850s, the “Know-Nothings” claimed a million members. In 1856, the American Party backed Millard Fillmore’s unsuccessful presidential candidacy.[1]

In his letter published less than two decades later, McKeon quoted a New York Times editorial printed after a recent election in fall 1873. The Times editorial encapsulated the nativists’ fears: “‘Our political power follows population, and the result is that the governing power of this portion of the State, and in consequence the whole State, is fast centering itself in the ranks of the lowest and most ignorant classes of the whole community—the Irish Catholic laborers and tenement-house population of New York and its vicinity, led by shrewd native demagogues.’”[2]

“The same article,” McKeon said of the Times editorial, “charged that the Irish Catholics aimed at the absolute possession of the revenues of this metropolis … that they aimed a blow at our American schools, and added, ‘that unless some great revolution should break out the Board of Education of this city would be thoroughly Roman Catholic, as Tammany is now.’”

McKeon quoted a number of ministers who shared the Times’s fears. In addressing his congregation, Rev. Hambler “launched into a furious tirade against ‘Papists,’ charging them with image worship and passionately dwelling on the cruelties of the Inquisition.” 

“‘What care these men what becomes of the nation?’” Rev. Asten asked his congregation. “‘It is ours to cry the alarm. … The remedy for this is to vote for those you have a right to know will be the most patriotic, without regard to color, religion or politics. But I can’t see how a Roman Catholic can come up to this.’”

Rev. Boole declared he would “‘not vote for any Roman Catholic, since it is the avowed purpose of that Church and its adherents to place the Church above the State.’”  Boole advised his congregation: “‘The public schools are now in the hands of drunken trustees, who ought to be in primary classes learning to read; and the Bible is being put out of the schools as fast as they can do it.’”

“‘They work together as a compact battalion under able and audacious leaders,’” the Times editorial said of Irish Catholics. “‘They control in the city administration enormous sums of money. Where they are deficient in votes they can create them. The timid or the ambitious Americans who have belonged to the same party organization have not nerve or principle enough to separate themselves from these useful associates, whom socially they despise.’”

Two years later, in this climate of fear, distrust, and loathing, Franklin Gowen began his “Molly Maguire” arrests.

More Than a Century of Distortion

hree and a half decades after John McKeon warned of the resurgent dangers of nativism, Eugene Debs, founding member of the Industrial Workers of the World and five-time presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, published an address in Appeal to Reason. Titled “The First Martyrs of the American Class Struggle,” Debs’s speech paid tribute to Pennsylvania’s alleged “Molly Maguires” and their efforts, however misguided in Debs’s view, on behalf of labor.

“All were ignorant, rough and uncouth, born of poverty and buffeted by the merciless tides of fate and chance,” Debs said in 1907 of Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies.” “To resist the wrongs of which they and their fellow workers were victims and to protect themselves against the brutality of their bosses, according to their crude notions, was the prime object of the organization of the ‘Molly Maguires.’ Nothing could have been farther from their intention than murder or crime. It is true that their methods were drastic, but it must be remembered that their lot was hard and brutalizing; that they were the neglected children of poverty, the products of a wretched environment.”[3]

Historian Kevin Kenny, writing in 1998, expanded Debs’s characterization: “Significant numbers of the Irish immigrants in Pennsylvania came from a preliterate Gaelic culture, marking them off as fundamentally different not only from the Welsh and the English, but also from the people of eastern and southern Ireland, where much of the population had little or no knowledge of the Irish language. It was these Irish-speakers, and not the Irish in general, who became ‘Molly Maguires’ in Pennsylvania.”[4]

“The Irish-speaking Molly Maguires who made their way to Pennsylvania … stand out as quite anomalous in the American context,” Kenny added. “Because of their language, culture, and customs, they were the archetypal ‘wild Irish,’ noticeably and ominously different from the mass of Irish immigrants.”[5]

In an Oxford University Press blog posted in December 2013, Kenny noted that Pennsylvania’s “Mollies” “took their name from a rural secret society in Ireland.” In this short piece, Kenny also gave the prosecution argument that hanged twenty-one men in five counties and sent dozens more to prison: “Like their Irish counterparts, they were led by tavern keepers and called on strangers from neighboring ‘lodges’ of the AOH to carry out beatings and killings, pledging to return the favor at a later date.”[6] echoes Debs’s and Kenny’s characterizations: “Every movement has its legends, and none is more compelling or controversial in the American labor movement than the group of rough, preliterate Irish immigrants known as the Molly Maguires.”[7] The notion of Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies” as rough, illiterate, or preliterate mineworkers has survived into the twenty-first century.

But at least five of the Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men charged as Pennsylvania’s “Mollies” had been elected, before their arrests, to the office of school director. Their election to this office of responsibility and trust played directly into nativist fears of Irish Catholic political supremacy expressed in the New York Times in fall 1873.

In October 1873, John McKeon wrote an additional letter to the New York Herald. In it, the Irishman warned: “a crusade has been regularly planned and organized against Irish adopted citizens and their descendants and against those professing the Roman Catholic religion. That crusade is now in successful movement, and, unless checked, must result in the humiliation and trampling under foot of some of our best citizens.”[8] 

Two weeks after the Herald published McKeon’s letter, Pinkerton operative James McParlan, at the request of railroad president Franklin Gowen, entered Pennsylvania’s coal region to infiltrate AOH lodges undercover.

Some of the Coal Region’s Best Citizens

ohn J. Slattery, Tuscarora

In June 1872, a correspondent who signed himself “Democrat” wrote to the
John J. Slattery
 editor of the Pottsville Standard to endorse the candidacy of AOH member John Slattery for the office of register. “
Mr. Slattery is a Democrat of the first water, and has attested his devotion to the principles of Democracy by many sacrifices of time and money, he has made for the good of the party,” the correspondent wrote four years before Slattery’s arrest as an alleged “Molly.” “The estimation in which he is held by the people of his own Township where he is known, may be learned from the fact that at different times he served them as Tax Collector, Treasurer, School Director, Auditor, Supervisor, Assessor and Town Clerk, in all of which offices he gave general satisfaction.”[9]

Pottsville Standard, June 29, 1872

A resolution from the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), District Number 10, Tuscarora, offered in support of Slattery’s candidacy for register shows this alleged “Molly” as a union organizer: “Mr. Slattery was one of the most active in organizing this district of the W.B.A., at a time when unionism met with formidable opposition from those whose interest it was to crush it in its infancy, and, whereas, he was our first President and first member who represented us on the County Executive Board and is yet a member in good standing, and an honest advocate of Union principles, therefore be it Resolved, That we recognize in him those qualifications of character and ability, that should always be combined in a public officer.”[10]

In 1871, Slattery narrowly missed an election to associate judgeship. In September 1873, the Labor Reform Convention for Schuylkill County offered his name as a candidate for state senator. Three years later, the commonwealth arrested Slattery and charged him with arson related to “Molly Maguire” activity. A few months after that, the commonwealth charged Slattery with participation in a failed “Molly” conspiracy to murder William and Jesse Major. At his wife's urging, Slattery gave prosecution testimony to save his own life.

Shenandoah Herald, September 11, 1873

ornelius T. McHugh, Summit Hill

As president of the Summit Hill WBA chapter, AOH bodymaster Cornelius McHugh attended WBA Grand Council proceedings at Mauch Chunk in April 1871. New York Herald coverage of the Grand Council proceedings described an “Immense Politico-Industrial Organization—A New Power Forming in the Land.”[11]

New York Herald, April 12, 1871

McHugh, along with numerous Irish Catholic colleagues, voted at Mauch Chunk for arbitration by umpire, an early form of collective bargaining.

Mauch Chunk Democrat, April 22, 1871

In September 1872, Carbon County’s Labor Reform Convention elected McHugh
Cornelius T. McHugh
as secretary. In February 1874, voters elected McHugh as one of two school directors for Mauch Chunk Township. Three months later, the Summit Hill chapter of the Knights of St. Patrick, a benevolent association, elected McHugh as president.

Mauch Chunk Coal Gazette, February 27, 1874

In October 1876, the commonwealth arrested McHugh in connection with the alleged 1871 “Molly” murder of mine superintendent Morgan Powell. “He is a member of the Borough School Board, the School Tax Collector and a mine boss,” the New York Herald said of McHugh at the time of his arrest.[12] McHugh gave prosecution testimony to save his own life.

atrick Dolan Sr., Big Mine Run

Patrick Dolan Sr., AOH bodymaster from Big Mine Run, got caught up in the wave of “Molly” arrests in May 1876. The commonwealth charged Dolan, along with numerous defendants, with participation in an alleged “Molly” conspiracy to reward Thomas Hurley for the murder of Gomer James. Before his arrest, Dolan served as school director for Butler Township. The New York Sun, one of the most hostile of the New York sheets, said after Dolans conviction: “Patrick Dolan, Sr., was a school director in Butler township. Probably when he gets out of jail he will ask to be reelected that he may teach the young ideas how to ‘shoot.’”[13] Dolan served a term of imprisonment.

New York Sun, August 25, 1876

atrick Hester, Mount Carmel

AOH county delegate and bodymaster Patrick Hester, of Ireland’s County
Patrick Hester
 Roscommon, spent the early 1870s stumping the coal region on behalf of Richard Trevellick’s National Labor Union, a national association of tradesmen.[14] The father of four grown daughters, all schoolteachers, Hester owned hotels in Mount Carmel and Locust Gap. He held positions in local office as school director, tax assessor, township supervisor, and overseer of the poor.

In November 1876, the commonwealth arrested Hester along with two other AOH men for the 1868 murder of Alexander Rea. In 1869, prosecutors had released Hester on a grant of nolle prosequi in the same case. “No evidence was elicited against Mr. Hester at all,” the Northumberland Democrat reported on Hester’s release in 1869.[15] The commonwealth hanged Hester nine years later.

New York Sun, March 25, 1878

hristopher Donnelly, New Castle

In 1872 Christopher Donnelly, a miner, served as delegate to the Schuylkill County Labor Reform convention. In 1873, Donnelly served as delegate to the Democratic county convention.

Pottsville Standard, August 17, 1872

In August 1874, Schuylkill’s Hibernians elected Donnelly as AOH county treasurer. That same month, Donnelly again served as a delegate to the Democratic county convention. In that capacity, the new AOH county officer delivered thirty-nine votes to the successful nomination of James Reilly for U.S. Congress. Reilly secured the congressional seat in November.[16]

In February 1876, Donnelly secured the office of school director for New Castle. In May 1876, the commonwealth arrested the AOH officer in connection with a failed “Molly” conspiracy to murder William and Jesse Major. Donnelly served a term of imprisonment.

Pottsville Standard, February 19, 1876

At least four of the five alleged “Molly Maguires” who served as school directors, Christopher Donnelly, Cornelius McHugh, Patrick Hester, and John Slattery, combined their spirit of civic responsibility with labor advocacy. Donnelly and McHugh were miners. Hester and Slattery had business concerns. All four worked for union organization and labor reform in a hostile era, in a region determined to stop the ascendancy of Irish Catholics to political office.

The Enduring Spirit of Bigotry

ormer U.S. Senator Charles Buckalew proved a formidable foe of the Hibernians prosecuted as “Mollies.” Buckalew served as special prosecutor in the trial of Patrick Hester. Six years before Buckalew addressed the jury in Hester’s trial at Bloomsburg, he offered a bill on the floor of the U.S. Senate. “Senator Buckalew is still persistent in his efforts to engraft the principle of cumulative or reformed voting upon the statute books of the Commonwealth,” the Sunbury American reported in early 1872. “He has renewed his bill of the last session applying the principle to the election of school directors, and as it was before received with much favor it will doubtless become a law.”[17]

The Northumberland Democrat printed the specifics of Buckalew’s bill, which secured “minority representation in the organization of school boards.”[18] It is doubtful that Buckalew’s “minority representation” embraced the notion of Irish Catholic school directors in the coal region, where Buckalew resided.

In his 1873 correspondence to the New York Herald, John McKeon wrote: “This spirit of bigotry is not of modern growth. From the earliest history of our country a prejudice has existed against foreigners.” McKeon gave the Know-Nothing oath from the 1840s, when members swore to use all means in their power “to counteract and destroy the influence of foreigners and Roman Catholics in the administration of the government of the United States.”[19]

“This spirit of persecution and hostility to foreigners and Catholics is never at rest,” McKeon said in October 1873. “Within the past few years this feeling is again forming its battalions. The pulpits of this city and its environs have of late been resonant with sermons, inculcating the idea that the Catholic Church is hostile to freedom, to the education of the people and to the very existence of a republican form of government.”[20] A year after McKeon described the nativists concerns,, Hibernians in Pennsylvanias coal region helped send a young Irish Catholic to U.S. Congress.

The arrests of Pennsylvania’s AOH men as “Mollies,” including five school directors, began two years after McKeon warned New Yorkers of the revival of the specter of nativism. Prosecutors used all means in their power, including appeals to base ignorance and fear, to secure the desired verdicts. Caught in this net were numerous Irish Catholic politicians, including tax assessors, tax collectors, township supervisors, and constables not mentioned in the above accounting.

As the prosecutors of the “Molly” caseload and the early writers of its history hoped, the individual accomplishments of the Hibernians charged with capital crimes on extremely dubious evidence were subsumed under the powerful rubric of “Molly Maguire.” Even Eugene Debs, writing decades later, characterized the prosecuted Irishmen as “ignorant, rough and uncouth.”[21] So effective were the Pinkertons at selling their version of events, even labor advocate Debs, writing thirty years after the mass hangings, did not consider the possibility of innocence for the Hibernians prosecuted as Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires.”

This column was posted November 9, 2016.


[1] For background on the American Party, see Timothy Egan, The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero (New York, 2016), 141-151 and 162-163.
[2] The New York Herald reprinted the New York Times editorial, with McKeon’s comments, on October 11, 1873.
[3] Voices of Revolt, vol. 9, Speeches of Eugene V. Debs (New York, 1928), 76; published in Appeal to Reason, November 23, 1907.
[4] Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York, 1998), 37.
[5] Ibid., 38.
[6] “Ten things to understand about the Molly Maguires,” accessed November 2, 2016,
[7] “Molly Maguires,” accessed November 2, 2016,
[8] New York Herald, October 6, 1873, “KNOW-NOTHINGISM. Revival of the Native American Party in This City and State.”
[9] Pottsville Standard, June 29, 1872.
[10] Ibid., July 6, 1872 (italics in original).
[11] New York Herald, April 12, 1871.
[12] Ibid., October 23, 1876.
[13] New York Sun, August 25, 1876.
[14] See “The ‘Molly Maguires’ and the National Labor Union, updated September 29, 2016,
[15] Northumberland Democrat, May 21, 1869.
[16] For Reilly’s election, see “The ‘Molly Kings’ and Greenback Labor Reform, updated November 2, 2016,
[17] Sunbury American, January 27, 1872.
[18] Northumberland Democrat, February 9, 1872.
[19] New York Herald, October 6, 1873.
[20] Ibid.
[21] Voices of Revolt, 76.

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