y spring of 1878, the so-called “Molly Maguire” trials and executions in northeastern Pennsylvania’s anthracite counties had convulsed the region. As historians have routinely recorded, from 1877 to 1879 nine Irish Catholic men would die on the gallows at Pottsville in Schuylkill County, seven at Mauch Chunk in Carbon County, three at Bloomsburg in Columbia County, and one at Sunbury in Northumberland County.[1]

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper
February 6, 1875
Around the same period of time, numerous arrests also took place in the commonwealth’s bituminous coal region. These western trials have gone unrecorded by historians. The discovery of the western cases, their outcomes, and the financial backing of one caseload in particular, raises concerns about the integrity of the verdicts secured in Pennsylvania’s northeastern “Molly Maguire” cases.

Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and its related Coal and Iron Company, orchestrated much of the anthracite region’s caseload. Gowen hired Pinkerton agents to investigate the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent order chartered in 1871 with the Pennsylvania legislature. On Gowen’s instructions, Pinkerton agent James McParlan, in the region undercover as “James McKenna,” infiltrated the order’s Schuylkill County lodges.

Special Prosecutor
Franklin Gowen

Gowen and his political and industrial colleagues served as special prosecutors in the northeastern trials. Based primarily on testimony extracted from McParlan, prosecutors crafted the conspiracy theory that in the commonwealth’s hard coal region, AOH men had joined together under the terrorist rubric “Molly Maguire” to form conspiracies to commit murder.

In a region awash in nativist rhetoric and cartoons from local, regional, and national newspapers, prosecutors secured dozens of verdicts against alleged “Mollies,” all officers or member of the Ancient Order. Many convicted AOH defendants, a number of them tavern keepers, were family men with strong social, civic, and political ties to the region.
Allan Pinkerton, President
Pinkerton National
Detective Agency

In July 1877, with the northeastern coalfields reeling from eleven executions in three counties in one day,[2] Allan Pinkerton, president of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, sent his agent Robert Linden to travel the region distributing copies of Pinkerton’s latest dime novel. The product, a blend of fiction and nonfiction called The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives, became the basis for much of the “Molly Maguire” canon. The Pinkertons advertised the work widely. Linden gave it to at least one area editor for review.[3] It described “Molly Maguire” activity in four northeastern counties and gave the prototype for cartooned “Mollies”: Irish Catholic men as drunken, illiterate thugs.

But from 1878 to 1881, the cry of “Molly Maguire” also traveled westward to Pennsylvania’s bituminous coal region. Arrests of numerous Irish Catholic men identified as “Mollies” also took place in Allegheny, Fayette, and Westmoreland counties. Pinkerton intervention defined at least one of these caseloads. 

Two issues differentiated the western cases. Unlike the anthracite region trials, judges in the soft coal region allowed defense witnesses to testify on their on behalf. And Gowen did not serve as lead special prosecutor. Without Gowen’s actual presence, his manipulation of the press and, presumably, the hearts and minds of special prosecutors, judges, and jurors, Pennsylvania’s western “Molly Maguire” caseload never achieved the success or notoriety of the northeastern cases.

Pennsylvania’s Alleged “Mollies”: Westmoreland County

“MOLLIE MAGUIRES IN PENNSYLVANIA,” ran a New York Times headline from late February 1878. “Sheriff Guffey, of Westmoreland County, has succeeded in unearthing a gang of Mollie Maguires who have been operating for three years past in the vicinity of Irwins Station, on the Pennsylvania Central.”[4] The Times described the confession of alleged gang member Parfitt.

New York Times, February 26, 1878
Parfitt claimed that the Westmoreland gang, responsible for area arson previously “attributed to carelessness,” numbered from twelve to fifteen men. He alleged that Westmoreland’s “Mollies” held periodic meetings in a hotel near Irwins. They “organized and conducted the strikes” in area coalmines. And, Parfitt claimed, they had  “killed a young man named Carroll, whose body they placed on the railroad track, where it was discovered at daylight, mangled and torn.”[5]

The next day, the Times reported that Harry Davis, another alleged gang member, had corroborated Parfitt’s story. Davis’s collaboration led to the arrests of twelve others for the murder of James Carroll: Davis, along with Pat Dougherty, George Carrol, John Snedden, Harry Devlin, Barney Murray, Peter Gleun, William Lewis, P. Murray, Reddy Gormley, Jack Woods, James Doren, and Sandy Snedden. George Parfitt and Robert Whitelaw were already in custody at Greensburg Jail. “The others have fled,” the Times reported. Paddy Doyle, another alleged gang leader, had been drowned the previous summer while crossing the river in a skiff. “Sandy Snedden and Paddy Davis kept taverns at Irwin’s Station, and it was at their houses that the gang met,”[6] the Times’s coverage ran.

Initially, the national press gave wide coverage to Westmoreland’s “Mollies.” Newspapers from Harrisburg to Pittsburgh; southwest to Wheeling, West Virginia; westward to St. Paul and Worthington, Minnesota; and northward to Princeton, New Jersey, reported Sheriff Guffey’s actions. Baltimore’s residents could read, in German, of “Die Mollie Maguires” of Westmoreland County.[7]

In late June, a New York Times article headlined “HUNTING DOWN THE MOLLIE MAGUIRES” reported the arrest of Henry Devlin at Oil City.[8] Per a number of newspaper accounts, a Pinkerton detective made Devlin’s arrest.[9]

But from there, the trail of Westmoreland’s alleged “Mollies” grows cold. For some undisclosed reason, press attention turned well away from the alleged murder of Carroll. Had trials moved forward, had the prosecution secured verdicts of “guilty” against more than a dozen defendants, all hopeful union organizers who had “organized and conducted the strikes,” press coverage would have been comprehensive. Had mass hangings taken place, coverage would have been widespread.

The disposition of Westmoreland’s “Molly Maguire” caseload remains a mystery. The same does not hold true for a second “Molly” murder trial held that year in Allegheny County.

Pennsylvania’s Alleged “Mollies”: Allegheny County

n December 19, 1874, regional newspapers reported the death of John Oatman, a superintendent at the coal works at Duquesne, Allegheny County. Four days before, an unknown gunman had targeted Oatman while the superintendent stood at the mouth of the mines. Oatman died from his wounds.[10]

New York Herald, March 29, 1878

In proceedings that resembled the northeastern trials, wholesale arrests for this murder took place years later. More than three years after Oatman’s death, the New York Herald described the tale of “MORE ‘MOLLIES’ SEIZED—A MIDNIGHT POLICE EXPEDITION.” Eight to ten carriages carrying the chief of police, two detectives, and a dozen plainclothes patrolmen rendezvoused at nine o’clock on the night on March 26 in front of the mayor’s office of an unnamed town. The men, heavily armed, took off in the carriages. “It was surmised,” said a local paper, “that they went to the coal regions to arrest a gang of Molly Maguires.”[11] At six the next morning, the posse returned with four miners they had roused from their beds. All came from a small village outside Wilkinsburg known as “Mucklerat.” Authorities eventually arrested at least seven in the case and charged them with conspiracy to commit murder. Many, including men named Butler, Donegan, Dowling, Garrity, Kennedy, and McGorlick, bore Irish surnames.

Per the Allegheny Mail: “Detective Jerry Smith has been engaged working up the case for the past six months and says he has the ‘dead wood’ on these parties.”[12] Whether Smith was a Pinkerton agent remains unknown. Witnesses at the habeas corpus hearing gave testimony that mirrored that given by Pinkerton operative James McParlan in the anthracite region cases. Two men testified to their initiation by Robert Donegan into a secret society, complete with the swearing of oaths, an order to “kiss the book,” and conspiracies to commit murder. Those conspiracies allegedly included Oatman’s murder.[13] The grand jury in the Oatman case returned true bills of indictment against eight alleged “Mollies” of Mucklerat. With that action, trials moved forward.

In the northeastern trials, Franklin Gowen used testimony from McParlan to establish an alleged link between the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a legally sanctioned benevolent association, and the so-called “Mollies,” an alleged terrorist group. In similar fashion in the soft coal region, the Pittsburgh Telegraph said of the prisoners’ upcoming trial: “It is alleged that the Mollie Maguires and Ancient Order of Hibernians resolved in secret session to get Oatman out of the way, and it is also claimed that the prisoners are all Mollies.”[14]

In the trial of Donegan, defense witnesses rebutted the prosecution’s allegations of a terrorist organization. The meeting in the woods, said William Macklin, was called “to consult about wages and work.” The men had gathered to discuss, not conspiracies to commit murder, but the organization of a miners’ union. “There had been a Miners’ Union about eighteen months before this, but it had been broken down, and the purpose of the meeting [was] to reorganize it,” Macklin testified. The organizers brought a small book to the meeting. It contained not the workings of a terrorist organization, but “the bylaws of the Union.”[15]

Rumors of violence, actual or fictional, often accompanied late nineteenth-century efforts toward unionization. W. D. Moore, attorney for the commonwealth, “pictured in glowing colors the reign of terror that had prevailed in the region of Muckelrat previous to and succeeding the murder of Oatman, the result, as he believed, of a secret organization whose main purpose was to deal foully with those who incurred their displeasure.”[16]

In his instructions to the jury, Judge White bolstered Moore’s theory. The judge “referred to the secret order known as the Hibernians, or Mollie Maguires, to which frequent reference had been made during the trial of the case, and by way of informing the jury of the nature of that organization, he read from the State Reports the testimony of the witness Kerrigan … who was convicted of the murder of Yost, a pit boss [sic], in the anthracite regions.” “Kerrigan,” Judge White told the jury, “was a member of the Mollie Maguires, was indicted for murder, and in turning State’s evidence revealed the workings of the organization.”[17]

Defense attorneys in the anthracite region did not share Judge White’s confidence in
Prosecution Witness
James Kerrigan
Kerrigan’s credibility. During closing arguments in the trial for the murder of police officer Yost, Lin Bartholomew described Kerrigan as an “unmitigated, unholy villain.” “Character!” Bartholomew said, “character! what can I say of this despicable wretch, this curse let loose from hell, a confessed murderer, a participant in the most fearful of crimes.”[18]

In the western trial of Donegan, defense attorney William Reardon asserted that the commonwealth “had failed to establish the guilt of the prisoner, and dwelt at considerable length upon what he regarded as the most complete contradiction of the strongest evidence that had been offered.”[19] Reardon’s argument prevailed. Despite Judge White’s efforts to convince the Allegheny jury of a murderous conspiracy of Irishmen, the jury acquitted Donegan. After Donegan’s acquittal, Allegheny’s “Molly Maguire” caseload fell apart. No additional trials appear to have taken place.

In both Fayette and Allegheny County in 1878, attempts to paint large numbers of Irishmen with the brush of “Molly Maguireism” failed. Three years later, Pinkerton operatives Robert Linden and James McParlan tried to revive the specter in western Pennsylvania. They did so with help from a prominent financial backer.

Pennsylvania’s Alleged “Mollies”: Fayette County

y 1881, all twenty-one executions of AOH defendants in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region had taken place. The northeastern caseload had wound down completely. Pinkerton operatives James McParlan and Robert Linden, who drove the northeastern cases, moved westward to Fayette County. At issue was the murder of Maurice Healy.

Healy, a foundryman at Dunbar Furnace Company in the heart of the Connellsville coke region, met his death while walking along the railroad line near the furnace. Five weeks later, eight miners were arrested for Healy’s murder. “The promptness with which arrests were made, and the accuracy with which the clues were followed, show that McParlan has lost none of his skill and judgment,” a Bloomsburg newspaper said. “Eight men have been arrested, six of whom were released on bail and two confined in prison.”[21] Arrests included that of seventeen-year-old James McFarland, a young mineworker whose name resembled that of  Pinkerton detective McParlan. McParlan’s appearance in the western region raises alarms as to his possible participation in crime as an agent provocateur or actual assailant. Defense attorneys in the northeastern trials accused him of both acts.
Pinkerton Operative
Robert Linden

In the hard coal region trials, Pinkerton operative Linden had remained well behind the scenes, testifying in a few cases but staying out of the limelight. This time, Linden openly used the press to prejudice the cases’ outcome. The Philadelphia Record described Linden’s return home from Fayette County with “the scalps of eight Mollie Maguires dangling at his belt.” Linden told the Record's reporter “that he has evidence of their connection with a well-organized and dangerous conspiracy, and that he has sufficient testimony to convict the accused.” Linden described Healy’s murder as “‘one of the most cold-blooded which has ever been perpetrated in the history of Mollie Maguireism, and when you recollect the previous crimes committed by the Order that is saying a great deal.’”[22]

Those arrested at Linden’s direction included miner John Kane. The Columbian in Bloomsburg said of Kane’s case: “The evidence against Kane, Captain Linden thinks is nearly conclusive. Such an atrocious crime merits the most severe punishment and it is to be hoped that the guilty parties may be convicted and hanged.”[23]

Kane’s union activities, discussed below, surfaced after the Healy murder trials. During the trials, the Pinkerton investigation raised allegations of a dispute over the granting of liquor licenses, an authority evidently held by Healy. The “‘whisky gang’” allegedly plotted Healy’s death.[24]

Defendants in the Healy murder claimed separate trials. Patrick Dolan’s trial commenced first, in December 1881. Like so many anthracite region trials, this case afforded little direct evidence. One prosecution witness offered testimony so implausible, the defense had it excluded from the second trial.[25] Witness Perry Gyddis claimed that one night on his way home he saw lights in the “Molly Maguire lodge room,” apparently the hall where the Hibernians held their meetings. “Here was a chance, he thought, to discover some of the secrets of the order. He crept under the building, which had a cracked floor, and listened to a heated discussion.”[26] The discussion allegedly overheard from under the cracked floorboards centered on a Hibernian conspiracy to murder Healy.

Gyddis’s conspiracy theory mirrored McParlan’s testimony in the anthracite region. Per Gyddis, as per McParlan, “Molly Maguires,” under cover of the AOH, had allegedly met to conspire to commit murder.

Seventeen-year-old McFarland stood trial in the second Fayette “Molly” case.  During McFarland’s trial, a defense attorney placed Linden on the stand and asked the detective who employed him to conduct the case. Linden’s answer surprised many. He named Philadelphia attorney Samuel Dickson.[27] Over time, Dickson served as both director and trustee for Franklin Gowen’s business concerns, including a stint with Gowen in the regional Coal Combination.

Little has surfaced regarding the outcome of McFarland’s case. It appears that he was acquitted. But the public appearance of detectives Linden and McParlan in Fayette County, flush from their success in the anthracite region trials, may have influenced the outcome of Dolan’s case. The jury convicted Dolan of second-degree murder.

Three months later, a startling notice described the disposition of the remaining trials. In March 1882, the Knoxville Daily Chronicle in faraway Tennessee reported that a case in the trial of Healy’s murder, defendant not named, “came to a sudden termination this morning by the court allowing a nol pros.” The prosecution had dropped its case. District Attorney Kane asked for, and received, the discharge of the four remaining prisoners. Coverage of this action was scant, noting only that defendants celebrated their release “in a hilarious manner.”[28] Miner John Kane, the defendant described by Linden as having “almost conclusive” evidence against him, was evidently among the defendants whose cases were dropped.

On the arrest of the eight alleged Fayette County “Mollies” in August 1881, newspapers throughout Pennsylvania and the United States, from New York to Ohio to Minnesota to Kansas, and likely elsewhere, received telegraphic notice of the arrests. Newspapers gave wide regional coverage to Patrick Dolan’s trial and conviction. Fewer surviving newspapers carry the notice, published eight months later, of the caseload’s sudden and mysterious collapse.

Two weeks after the caseload’s collapse, Dolan received a sentence of eleven years.[29] He said he would take his case to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court. There the trail on Dolan’s case, too, grows cold.

Evidence remains to document the end of miner John Kane’s life. A year after the collapse of Linden’s Fayette County “Molly” caseload, the Somerset Herald headlined an article: “Mollie Maguire Shot.” On the evening of March 21, 1883, Kane was “pierced with four balls from a pistol in the hands of Superintendent F. C. Keighly [sic], of the Youngstown Coke Works.” Once again, the “Molly Maguire” label proved its staying power. Though the case against Kane had been dismissed, the Herald described the miner as “a leader of the Mollie Maguires of Fayette county.”[30]

Kane worked under Fred Keighley’s supervision. He “had lately been discharged for organizing a force of striking miners and driving new men out of the pits.”[31] Yet another Irishman charged as a “Molly” had hopes of union organization. After Keighley fired Kane, the miner approached Keighley at the company store, where Keighley shot him four times. Keighley gave himself up and claimed self-defense, saying Kane had tried to pull a revolver.

With four bullets in him, Kane survived the attack for two days. “He persists that he did not intend to harm Keighley,” the Wheeling Daily Intelligencer said of the miner. “No pistol was found on his person.[32] If Keighley was charged or stood trial for Kane’s killing, no record has come to light.

Keighley’s name resurfaced in subsequent news accounts. Seven years after Kane's death, in June 1890, more than thirty mineworkers died at Dunbar's Hill Farm Mine, where Keighley served as mine supervisor. A gas explosion and the resulting fire entombed the mineworkers and prevented their escape.

In January 1891, in the Connellsville coke region of Westmoreland County, more than a hundred mineworkers, men and boys, died at Mammoth Mine No. 1 of the Frick Coke Company. Keighley, a supervisor for Frick, was onsite when the explosion took place. The Indianapolis Journal reported: “Superintendent Keighley has been in three big fatalities in this region, but this is larger than any.”[33]

John Bell, the fire boss from Hecla No. 1 Mine, told a reporter: “About two years ago there was an explosion of gas at this mine, and one man was burned to death. No safety lamps were used here. … There was too much work here for one fire-boss … They discharged one a couple of weeks ago to reduce expenses, and one man has been forced to do the work.”[34]

Newspapers described the rescue attempts made at the Frick Coke Company that day. Every few minutes, workers brought dead bodies to the surface. Dismembered limbs and at least one severed head lay scattered throughout the ruins. “One unfortunate,” said the Journal, “met death while on his knees in prayer, with his hands clasped and eyes uplifted. His body was found in this position. The headless trunk did not move the rescuers … but the sight of the corpse in the attitude of prayer brought tears to every eye.”[35]


he description of Fayette County miner John Kane as a union organizer closes the loop on Pennsylvania’s western “Molly Maguire” caseload. In Fayette County, as in Allegheny and Westmoreland counties, an Irishman hoping to unionize mineworkers against dangerous working conditions was accused, on mostly circumstantial evidence generated by hired detectives, as a “Molly Maguire” terrorist. Men who belonged to the AOH, a benevolent order that offered benefits to members, were similarly accused. AOH benefits helped widows and orphans of men killed in industrial accidents. They also helped pay for funerals.

Unlike their eastern brethren, judges allowed juries in Pennsylvania's western “Molly” cases to hear testimony from defense witnesses. Without the press circus that attended the northeastern trials; without the mesmeric influence of Franklin Gowen as special prosecutor; the western caseload, even with Robert Linden’s strenuous efforts and the financial backing of Gowen’s colleague, apparently achieved only one documented conviction: that of Patrick Dolan for the murder of Maurice Healy. Whether Dolan succeeded in his appeal to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court remains unknown.

In Pennsylvania’s western bituminous region, as in its northeastern anthracite region, dozens of Irish Catholic men were arrested, charged, and indicted as alleged “Molly Maguire” terrorists. In the northeastern region, those arrests led to twenty-one executions and dozens of terms of imprisonment for men who somehow escaped the gallows. The western effort, with more than two dozen defendants, yielded but one recorded conviction, and no executions. The final outcome of that one conviction is not known.

Two years before the Fayette County dismissals, an editorial in the Boston Pilot said of two anthracite region defendants: “At the time of their conviction it was a very dangerous thing to be called a Molly Maguire—about as bad as it is for a dog to be called mad in the streets.”[36] Though Pennsylvania’s Allegheny and Westmoreland trials took place while northeastern executions remained ongoing, juries on the western side of the commonwealth remained immune to “Molly Maguire” fever.

Pinkerton Operative
James McParlan

The appearance of Pinkerton operative James McParlan on the ground, supposedly twenty-four hours after Healy’s murder in Fayette County raises alarms in that case and in the entire “Molly” caseload. A number of defense attorneys in the northeastern cases accused McParlan as an agent provocateur. Some accused him of committing the murders he ascribed to the “Molly Maguires.”

The prosecution’s failure in Pennsylvania’s western “Molly” cases calls into question the credibility of the prosecution’s success in the northeastern cases. In all three western counties, prosecutors used strategies that copied the efforts of their eastern colleagues, with dismal results. Based on the defeat of the western caseload, the success of the northeastern caseload, acquired through unrelenting appeals to prejudice and its virulent twin, nativism, deserves a closer examination.

In Pennsylvania’s northeastern “Molly” trials, corporate interests aligned with nativism to corrupt the right of trial by jury. The mention by Linden of Samuel Dickson, one-time member of Gowen’s Coal Combination, as the financial backer of the Fayette County trials, draws Pennsylvania’s railroad and coal men into yet another ring of conspiracy in the commonwealth’s “Molly Maguire” caseload.

A. Flaherty © 2016

This column was updated September 27, 2016.


[1] The execution of AOH defendant Andrew Lenahan at Wilkes-Barre in Luzerne County, performed on the same day that six Hibernians died at Pottsville and four died at Mauch Chunk, is routinely overlooked by recorders of these events. For Lenahan’s execution, see New York Herald, June 22, 1877.
[2] See note 1 above.
[3] See Columbian (Bloomsburg, PA), July 13, 1877. The Bloomsburg editor said of Pinkerton's book: “We are forced to the conclusion that the whole work is sensational—made to sell—and that Pinkerton’s Agency, which ‘never sleeps,’ is a humbug, if the book in question is a test” (italics in original).
[4] New York Times, February 26, 1878.
[5] For Parfitt’s testimony, see Ibid.
[6] Ibid., February 27, 1878.
[7] Der Deutsche Correspondent (Baltimore, MD), February 27, 1878.
[8] Ibid., June 27, 1878. On February 27, the Times had previously reported the arrest of “Harry Devlin.”
[9] See, for example, Harrisburg Patriot and Evening Star (Washington DC), June 27, 1878; Columbian (Bloomsburg, PA), June 28, 1878.
[10] Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, December 19, 1874.
[11] New York Herald, March 29, 1878 (reprinting Allegheny Mail, March 27, 1878).
[12] Ibid.
[13] Pittsburgh Commercial, July 7, 1878.
[14] Pittsburgh Telegraph, October 21, 1878.
[15] For Wm. Macklin’s testimony, see Ibid., October 23, 1878.
[16] Pittsburgh Commercial, October 25, 1878.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Shenandoah Herald, July 24, 1876.
[19] Pittsburgh Commercial, October 25, 1878.
[20] Bozeman Avant Courier, November 11, 1878. See also Pittsburgh Telegraph and Pittsburgh Daily Post, October 25, 1878.
[21] Columbian (Bloomsburg, PA), August 26, 1881.
[22] For Linden’s comments, see Butler Citizen (Butler, PA), August 24, 1881; reprinting Philadelphia Record.
[23] Columbian (Bloomsburg, PA), August 19, 1881.
[24] New York Times, August 21, 1881.
[25] Daily Globe (St. Paul, MN), December 23, 1881. In the trial of James McFarland: “The defense objected to the introduction of testimony relating to a meeting in Molly Maguire hall, overheard by a witness for the prosecution, and the court sustained the objection.”
[26] Ibid., December 19, 1881.
[27] Evening Star (Washington DC), December 24, 1881. The Star’s coverage noted Linden’s response as “‘Samuci [sic] Dickson, esq., of Philadelphia.’”
[28] Knoxville Daily Chronicle, March 16, 1882, noting “A special to the Chronicle from Uniontown, Pa.”
[29] New York Times, March 31, 1882.
[30] Somerset Herald, March 28, 1883.
[31] Ibid.
[32] Wheeling Daily Intelligencer, March 23, 1883.
[33] Indianapolis Journal, January 28, 1891.
[34] Ibid.
[35] Ibid.
[36] Boston Pilot, January 25, 1879.

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