Part One—A Peaceful Revolution

he influence of Greenback Labor Reform runs all through Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict from the 1870s. The lightning of this financial reform effort arcs back to the work of Edward Kellogg, a New York merchant turned economic theorist. It bounces from Kellogg to Republican theorist Alexander Campbell; from Campbell to Andrew Cameron, founder, with William Sylvis, of the National Labor Union (NLU); and from Cameron and Sylvis to subsequent NLU president Richard Trevellick. Its adherents included a nationwide host of the faithful to this “attractive but peaceful revolution”[1] whose ambitious goals included the eradication of the money monopoly by the elimination of foreign capitalists, land speculators, and poverty among laboring men.

New York Herald, December 17, 1877

The careers of Patrick Hester and John Kehoe, two Hibernian leaders executed as “Mollies” in Pennsylvania, intersected dramatically with leaders of this populist movement. Relationships between the Hibernians and Labor Reformers climbed to the highest arch of political power in Pennsylvania and traveled nationwide through a national trades union that numbered, per its leaders, more than half a million members. Hostile editors denounced the NLU. Equally hostile editors ridiculed Hester and Kehoe, two Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) county delegates, as “Molly Kings.”

“Jack Kehoe and Pat Hester, the ‘Molly Kings,’”[2] the New York Herald tagged the men in late 1877. In a column the same day, the New York Times called the two Irishmen “the two ‘Molly Maguire’ leaders.”[3] In early 1876 the Pittsburgh Catholic, a diocesan newspaper, described the allegedly true criminal exploits of “Pat. Hester, who has been known for many years as the ‘King of the Molly Maguires.’”[4] On Kehoe’s execution in late 1878, newspapers from Philadelphia to Chicago to San Francisco described the death of the “Molly King.”

But during 1871 and 1872, before his arrest and imprisonment on a minor charge, Hester supported Trevellick’s NLU. Hester intersected closely with labor editor Cornelius Reimensnyder as Trevellick traveled the country, moving in and out of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal region to garner support for his national union.[5] Hester’s relationship with Trevellick, “a distinguished champion of the labor movement,”[6] Kehoe’s relationship with Republican Party representative John Killinger, one of “the real leaders of the party”[7] in U.S. Congress, and Kehoe’s relationship with Republican leader Robert Mackey, “PENNSYLVANIA’S NOTED POLITICAL CHIEFTAIN,”[8] all suggest that Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict springs more from the annals of Reconstruction-era political history than it does from the annals of terrorism.

The welter of violence that surrounds this caseload helped lay a false trail for historians. Close examination of contemporary news accounts and one letter, written from Pottsville Jail in spring 1878 and now yellowing and in tatters, lead observers of this conflict down a new and equally treacherous trail.

A Masterly Exposition

he Panic of 1837 brought New York City merchant Edward Kellogg, forced to suspend his business, to the study of finance. The study consumed Kellogg for the duration of his life. The businessman blamed the country’s financial woes on the manipulation by private banks of currency and credit. Horace Greeley, publisher of the New York Tribune, encouraged Kellogg to share his views.

In August 1843, Greeley promoted Kellogg’s first pamphlet, published under the pseudonym “Godek Gardwell.” Titled “Usury: The Evil and the Remedy,” Kellogg’s pamphlet gave the public its first taste of his theories, notably his call for a national banking and currency system operated by a central government, with loans issued at low rates of interest, and interchangeability of paper currency with government bonds. “In his exposure of the evils of Usury, and the tendency of Money to monopolize all Property and the fruits of Labor, he is lucid, searching and powerful,” Greeley said of Kellogg’s first effort. “We shall recur to and comment upon this essay at another time,” Greeley added, “meantime, we advise all who think excessive interest an evil to procure and read it.”[9]

In 1844, Greeley published “Godek Gardwell’s” second pamphlet. Its themes of “Currency—the Evil and the Remedy” may have struck Irish Americans as prescient. “We are now rich in property, but depend on foreign nations to furnish money, the representative of the value of our property,” Kellogg wrote less than a century after the American Revolution. “We might as well import Queen Victoria and the British Parliament to represent our interests at Washington, and depend on them to enact the laws by which we shall be governed, as to depend on the British nation for a representative of our property.”[10] Kellogg’s economic theories found a home with Hibernian readers from the mid-1840s onward. Within the next few years, Ireland would suffer the consequences of British trade policy when grain shipped from Ireland's ports during the country’s Great Hunger helped cause the death by starvation of one million and the desperate emigration of twice that number.

Greeley praised Kellogg’s second effort. “We have rarely met with a more masterly exposition of the tendency of excessive Interest to eat out the substance of a people, and concentrate all wealth in the hands of the few,”[11] the publisher said of the theorist’s new pamphlet.

Kellogg’s ideas spread and took hold. Farmers and anti-monopolists applauded his vision. After the Civil War Alexander Campbell, a businessman turned Illinois state representative, ignited farmers and labor advocates alike with his anti-monopolist and anti-private bank stance based on Kellogg’s theories. In a widening pool that included Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill and Northumberland counties, home to the “Molly Kings,” Kellogg’s theories spread through the Illinois anti-monopolists to Chicago labor advocate Andrew Cameron, and rippled outward to the first NLU president, William Sylvis.

Long before Pennsylvania conducted its “Molly Maguire” prosecutions, tendrils of Greenback Labor Reform theory infiltrated the anthracite coal region. During the Civil War, Sylvis founded a local branch of his Iron Molders’ International Union at Tamaqua, eventual burial site of “Molly King” John Kehoe. Four years after that, Sylvis gave a seminal Greenback Labor speech to workingmen at Sunbury in Northumberland County, home county to “Molly King” Patrick Hester.

Three years after Sylvis’s landmark speech in Hester’s home county, a hostile local editor repeatedly placed Hester in company with Richard Trevellick, successor to Sylvis as NLU president. Emanuel Wilvert of the Sunbury American, a nativist, accused Hester of working to swell the ranks of Trevellick’s NLU with Northumberland’s mineworkers. Trevellick stood with labor advocates Sylvis and Cameron in their denouncement of the private banking system as the parent of all monopolies.

The movement excited fervor. Historian Irwin Unger described the theories of Illinois representative Campbell, Kellogg’s intellectual successor, as “plausible and congenial utopianism.”[12] Plans of low-interest loans to fund businesses spilled into plans for cooperative ventures. From the dusty bins of financial theory, the promise of autonomy glittered for the country’s Gilded Age workingmen.

The movement also had critics, even within labor’s ranks. In the 1860s in Massachusetts Ira Steward, champion of the eight-hour day, warned against fixing “‘public attention upon the economic humbugs.’”[13] Eighty years later historian Philip Foner described Steward’s grasp of “the danger of the currency panacea to the labor movement.”[14] In 1964 Unger described the nineteenth-century movement’s appeal to longhaired men and shorthaired women, including Susan B. Anthony, and called it “irresistible to the more eccentric prewar humanitarians and social reformers—the congenital mavericks, nay-sayers, and professional outsiders seeking a cause in the postwar world.”[15]

Included among those humanitarians and social reformers were Irish American men organized under the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a benevolent order whose preamble stated: “Love guides the whole design.”[16] In spring 1871, “Molly King” Hester helped secure the order’s state charter in Pennsylvania.[17] In 1872, NLU reformers split into factions over their choice of presidential candidate. The rupture proved fatal to the rising power of labor’s national union. But as a rising political power, the AOH was just finding its feet amidst the surging currents of labor reform.

In August 1872, in the heart of supposed “Molly Maguire” country, Schuylkill County’s Labor Reformers held a convention. Its delegates included Christopher Donnelly (listed as “Donnolly”) of New Castle, a Hibernian miner and future AOH treasurer for Schuylkill County. Four years later, Donnelly would be charged as a “Molly.”

Future AOH Treasurer Christopher Donnelly
Delegate, Schuylkill Labor Reform Convention, August 1872

The Schuylkill convention called for the election of those who would “restore to the people the rights and liberties of which they have been defrauded, and force the vast railroad and other monopolies that are now oppressing us to a sense of the fact that they are the servants and not the masters of the people.”[18]

Resolution, Schuylkill Labor Reform Convention, August 1872

That same month Kehoe, who would serve two years later as AOH delegate alongside Donnelly, heeded the call of NLU president Trevellick “to take the power in their own hands.”[19] Though he did not secure the nomination, Kehoe placed his name in consideration for Democratic nominee to Pennsylvania’s state assembly.[20]

Future AOH Delegate John Kehoe
Prospective Nominee, State Assembly, August 1872

By 1874, the year Schuylkill County’s AOH men elected Kehoe as county delegate, Kehoe may have begun his shift in allegiance toward the Republican Party. That year, Kehoe’s Republican friend John W. Killinger gave two seminal speeches on the floor of U.S. Congress. Two years after the NLU split destroyed that union’s power, Killinger’s speeches encapsulated the central ideologies of the Labor Reformers.

Greenback Labor Reform, nicknamed “the rag baby,” did not die with the NLU fracture in 1872. It moved into other channels. These included the Grangers and anti-monopolists nationwide. The movement coalesced in 1877 in the formation of the National Greenback Labor Party. Its early appeals against the power of entrenched European nobility captured the imaginations of Hibernians gathered in the United States under the AOH banner. But by 1877, with the formation of the national party, the prosecutors of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” caseload had broken the political power of the AOH, with its three quarters of a million members nationwide. Two pivotal players from the “Molly Maguire” trials, a special prosecutor and his nephew, the conflict’s chief chronicler, would eventually assume the top leadership positions of the national workingmen’s party dedicated to financial reform.

John Kehoe Writes a Long Letter

John Kehoe to W. R. Potts, Circa March 1878

vidence of one tie of Schuylkill County AOH delegate John Kehoe to Greenback Labor Reform lies buried in a letter written from Pottsville Jail in spring 1878. A second, a sharp jibe from a local editor, surfaced in fall 1875 as animosity against Schuylkill’s Hibernians intensified.

Kehoe, convicted in early 1877 of a capital “Molly Maguire” crime, wrote in spring 1878 to his friend Ramsay Potts, an attorney of Quaker heritage, for support in an upcoming hearing for commutation of Kehoe’s death sentence. Kehoe told Potts he would write to John W. Morgan and Dr. McKibben, both sitting members of Pennsylvania’s state assembly. “I Need not tell you who to see you Know them all yourself,” Kehoe told Potts. “I will write a long letter to John W. Killinger him & me used to Be Good old friends.”[21]

Kehoe’s ties to Schuylkill’s Labor Reformers stretched across his AOH leadership. In 1872 AOH divisional secretary James Carroll, married to a cousin of Kehoe’s wife, hosted a Labor Reform nominating convention at his home in Nesquehoning.[22] That same year both Morgan, named in Kehoe’s letter to Potts, and Christopher Donnelly, elected as an AOH officer with Kehoe in 1874, served as delegates to the county Labor Reform convention.[23] In August 1874, Donnelly’s Labor Reform activities would resurface dramatically.

The same year that Schuylkill’s Labor Reformers first gathered in convention, U.S. Congressman Killinger, Kehoe’s “Good old” friend, gave the first of three speeches in Washington that embodied the ongoing fervor of the workingmen’s anti-monopolist views. “Go and hear the champion of labor,”[24] a Schuylkill newspaper said of Killinger a few years later.

Shenandoah Herald, October 16, 1876

“The laboring man desires and deserves the recognition of this House,” Killinger told colleagues in 1872 in his support for the establishment of a Bureau of Labor. “The problem of labor reform … is one of the momentous questions of our advancing civilization. … Kings and people, church and State, feel its influence.” Killinger, federal representative for Schuylkill County, urged greater compensation for the country’s workingmen, along with “some share in the governing forces of the country.” He warned of the iron grasp of associated wealth and of its refusal to grant to laboring men an “equal and exact justice.” He praised “the principle of co-operation, which underlies the labor reform movement.”[25]

In subsequent years, Killinger’s recommendations took on substance. In January 1874 he brought forward a bill for the establishment of a uniform system of railroad transportation through the United States and its territories. Under Killinger’s bill, “Any number of citizens not less than ten may by the provisions of this bill associate for the purpose of constructing and operating railroads under certain restrictions.” The bill called for a uniform gauge of tracks, with rights of way granted through government lands. “It strikes an effective blow against the Railroad Monopolies of the land, and is in the true sense of the term a people’s measure,”[26] the Shenandoah Herald said of Killinger’s proposed bill. Killinger's bill also struck directly against the industry leaders who, within the next few years, would conduct the “Molly Maguire” caseload.

Shenandoah Herald, January 10, 1874

In February 1874 Killinger again took to the floor of Congress, this time to target the era’s stock operators and moneylenders. “They toil not,” Killinger said, “neither do they spin; but by their magic influence and experience in the ways of legislation they have crowded our statute-books with cunningly conceived contrivances that are fatal to individual enterprise, and are reducing our producing classes to the condition of the pauper population of Europe.”[27]

Killinger spoke the creed that moved from Edward Kellogg to Alexander Campbell to William Sylvis and Richard Trevellick: “The scarcity of money, high rates of interest, and the crushing monopoly of associated wealth in the form of our national banking system—these are among the links in the chain which legislation has forged for the limbs of the free-born laboring and producing classes of America. … When currency is scarce, its possession gives the lender great power and advantage over the borrower, and oppression and extortion are too often the result.”[28]

Killinger called for the establishment of a government currency. “The worn out countries of Europe furnish no parallels for us,” he concluded. “We … are a live, growing nation—a thrifty, aggressive people. We are not yet enervated by the vices and corruptions of an enfeebled old age—a decaying nationality.”[29]

At least three AOH officers hanged as “Mollies,” all hotelkeepers, showed a grasp of finance. Northumberland County delegate Patrick Hester served as tax collector, township supervisor, overseer of the poor, and school director. Shortly before his arrest, Carbon County delegate Thomas Fisher was tagged for county tax collector. “Tom is a good man and deserves reward at the hands of the party he has long and faithfully served,”[30] a local editor said of Fisher’s prospects as tax collector.

In an interview given from Pottsville Jail in June 1877, former AOH Schuylkill County delegate Kehoe discussed the financial position of Franklin Gowen’s Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Gowen served as chief prosecutor during the trials. “So you can say almost that everything he touched he botched,” Kehoe told a reporter of Gowen. “When he began his gigantic schemes his company’s stock ran up to 55, equal to 10 above par; it is now selling at twenty cents on a dollar. The Coal and Iron Company saddled the main line with liabilities to the amount of forty or fifty million dollars.” Of Gowen’s efforts to monopolize the region’s coal industry, Kehoe said: “He … began the work of absorbing all the collieries in the county. British gold was poured into his coffers.”[31]

If the Greenback Labor movement needed gathering places as well as tutors, AOH officers in the hard coal region could also provide them. At least eight Hibernians charged as “Mollies” ran taverns, boarding houses, or small hotels. Hester owned two, Junction House at Locust Gap and a second hotel at Mount Carmel. Fisher owned Summit Hill’s Rising Sun, a probable reference to the sunrise featured on the AOH pin. AOH Carbon County treasurer Alex Campbell ran a Storm Hill liquor distributorship. Carroll, in what may have been an open appeal to laboring men, owned a Tamaqua business named Union Hotel. Kehoe owned Girardville’s Hibernian House. Michael Lawler, Hugh McGehan, and Patrick McKenna all ran small taverns.

Patrick Hester's Junction House, Locust Gap

If the Greenback Labor movement needed meeting lodges statewide, the AOH could provide them. In 1876, the year of the wholesale “Molly” arrests, AOH membership in Pennsylvania stood at more than sixty thousand members.[32]
James Carroll's Union Hotel, Tamaqua

In late summer 1874, meetings at Hibernian establishments in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region culminated in a political effort that rocked local politicians and reverberated, in a bizarre article published by the New York Herald, all the way to New York City.

Schuylkill’s Labor Reformers Show Their Hand

he religious fervor embodied in Pennsylvania’s AOH charter, filed in March 1871 in Harrisburg, combined in August 1874 with the tenets of Labor Reform to produce an upsurge of optimism and confidence among young Irish Catholic delegates to Schuylkill County’s Democratic convention. That same month, Schuylkill’s AOH men elected John Kehoe as county delegate. They elected Christopher Donnelly, a New Castle miner subsequently elected as school director, as county treasurer. Donnelly’s involvement in the month’s political affairs places Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies” in the crosshairs of national electoral politics.

The Miners’ Journal in Pottsville, site of the August 1874 convention, described the purpose of the meeting “to select a candidate for the Congress of the United States—a most solemn and important duty.”[33] The convention stirred the ethnic hostilities that would fuel the upcoming “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

Schuylkill County Democratic Convention, August 3, 1874

The Shenandoah Herald described the Democratic primaries: “captured, swept from their moorings, by a tidal wave of Irish national feeling and bias created by the candidacy of Mr. Reilly. The young Irish American element of the Democratic party, who, for the past few years, has been coquetting with the Labor Reform movement … adopted him as their protege, and … triumphantly carried for him all the primaries in the county in which the Irish element of the party preponderates.”[34]

The Miners’ Journal said of James Reilly’s proposed nomination to U.S. Congress by the young Irish American delegates: “They merely ignored their German and American brethren, and brought out a young gentleman of their own nationality.” The Journal described similar events in New York, where “the Irish Democracy are confessedly in the ascendancy, and as a consequence all the best offices are bestowed upon them.”[35]

“Mr. Reilly’s friends were in the majority and controlled the convention,” the Shenandoah Herald reported. “After making his nomination they proceeded to set up a ticket, which would help him to make the election.”[36]

Buried in coverage headlined “SCHUYLKILL COUNTY DEMOCRACY. Warm Contest over the Congressional Tid-Bit,”[37] lies the bit of evidence that links Schuylkill’s alleged “Mollies” to federal politics in this instance. Christopher Donnelly of New Castle, who served as 1872 delegate to the county Labor Reform convention, delivered thirty-nine votes to Reilly’s nomination in August 1874. Two years later, the commonwealth charged Donnelly as an alleged “Molly.”

AOH Treasurer Christopher Donnelly, New Castle
Delivers 39 Votes, Nominating Convention, August 3, 1874
U.S. Congressional Candidate, James Reilly

Letters of protest followed Reilly’s nomination. A Democrat announced himself as a third-party candidate with this observation: “Perhaps one of the most remarkable incidents connected with the late so-called Democratic Convention was the entire crystallization and concentration of the Irish vote upon James B. Reilly.” Reilly’s campaign, charged the writer, “was exclusively confined to sections inhabited by these people, and among the secret societies of which he is either a member or a head.”[38]

A second letter bore the signatures of twelve Democrats who opposed Reilly’s nomination. They strove to save their party “from total destruction and ruin.” The letter’s signers included German-born Adolph W. Schalck. Schalck had clerked in the law office of Franklin Gowen, chief prosecutor during the “Molly” trials, and would serve as Schuylkill’s district attorney during the trials’ later years. “The party cannot be ruled in the interest of a secret society,” Schalck and his fellows said of the Labor Reformers’ takeover of their party’s interests.[39]

The contest raged. A Reilly supporter said: “As a Democrat his record is unimpeached and unimpeachable. … their only hope of defeating him lies in creating disaffection in the Democratic ranks, by stirring up the prejudices of race and religion. In other words, they hope to defeat him by showing that he is a Catholic and the son of an Irishman.”[40]

The third-party candidate against Reilly aired local nativist attitudes openly: “Perhaps there is no class of voters in this country controlled less by reasons of public policy and more by passion and prejudice that these very people, and when they can be brought together and organized into secret societies … based upon their nationality and religion, the elements are secured and liable to be used to advance the interests of any one bad enough to employ them for improper purposes.” The displaced Democrat protested further: “The delegates from the farming districts were without influence or weight in the convention.” In the day’s language, “delegates from the farming districts” equaled Germans. Many would be called as jurors in the upcoming “Molly” trials. The angry Democrat appealed finally “to the thoughtful and fair-minded people of this county to aid me to defeat an organization which would introduce into the politics of the nation and State, an element dangerous to civil liberty.”[41]

Even open nativism could not quell the rising tide of Labor Reform advocacy. But it could distract from the political gains made by Schuylkill’s young Irish Catholics. The day after Reilly secured the nomination, the New York Herald ran an article headlined “THE COAL REGIONS. General Prevalence of Riot, Robbery and Murder. BODIES HORRIBLY MUTILATED.”[42]

New York Herald, August 4, 1874

The Herald column described murders, “Ku Klux Notices,” and numerous bloody deeds, along with supposed victims’ names. “All these outrageous proceedings,” it said, “are attributed to the ‘Molly Maguires,’ a band of cutthroats who are said to ply their trade of robbery and murder in the mining country.” The Herald seemed intent on terrorizing the region: “Reports come in from the mountain towns that bodies are found frequently, showing fearful brutality at the hands of the fiends that roam unmolestedly the surrounding country.”[43]

In Pottsville the Miners’ Journal, hostile to Irish Catholics, reprinted the Herald’s column under the headline “THE MOLLY MAGUIRES. Getting Fame Abroad. Terrible Account of Them.”[44] The Journal ran the column directly above its column that described Reilly's nomination. The Herald's column, all fiction, could further inflame area residents already outraged over Reilly’s nomination. It could not remove Reilly’s candidacy from the political agenda.
James B. Reilly

An October letter from “AN OLD DEMOCRAT” summed up that candidacy: “It soon became evident that Reilly, the young politician, had out-generalled the entire party; and all recognized in him the ‘coming man.’ He had discharged the duties of the office of District Attorney with fidelity, and the people now intended to reward him with an office of greater responsibility; and all because he was honest, industrious, sober and upright in all his dealings.”[45]

The Herald's fictional reports of alleged “Molly Maguire” violence did not dissuade voters. In November, Reilly took his seat as one of the youngest sitting members of U.S. Congress. Schuylkill’s Labor Reformers, with one recently elected AOH county officer prominent among them, helped send him there.

Within an eight-month span in 1874, Kehoe’s “Good old” friend, U.S. Congressman Killinger, delivered two landmark speeches on Labor Reform, and Kehoe’s fellow AOH officer Donnelly merged with Schuylkill’s Labor Reformers to help send Reilly to U.S. Congress, where Reilly would serve with Killinger. Donnelly’s efforts and those of his fellows appear to have sparked resistance in the form of the New York Herald’s “Molly Maguire” fiction, published by James Gordon Bennett Jr.

By the time Schuylkill’s young Labor Reformers swept Reilly into office, Pinkerton operative James McParlan had been in the coal region for a year at Franklin Gowen’s request, investigating the AOH undercover. McParlan’s carefully archived reports to his superiors include no reference whatever to AOH Labor Reform activity. If McParlan submitted fictional reports, his employer could provide assistance. In 1874, Allan Pinkerton went into a side business publishing dime novels. The president of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency had a stable of artists and writers at his disposal to pen any number of sensational accounts, including those published in the New York Herald and elsewhere.

The fervor that swept Reilly into office continued to build. The following spring it culminated in anti-monopoly efforts at Harrisburg. There anthracite mineworkers, in conjunction with national Labor Reform advocates, mounted a challenge against Gowen and his railroad that included both Greenback Labor advocacy and a call for a national party of workingmen. The effort proved a siren call for the hard coal region Hibernians.

Part Two—Pennsylvania’s Sons of Liberty Awake

he call for the 1875 Anti-Monopoly Convention at Harrisburg issued nationally from Horace Day, a New York philanthropist and NLU vice president who backed currency reform. In Pennsylvania’s hard coal region, the call came from three leaders of the regional miners’ union: John Welsh, George Corbett, and C. Ben Johnson. The convention’s aim, said this committee, was to give “‘organized expression to the conviction of the people of this Commonwealth that they, and not the great railroad and other corporations that have assumed it, are the rightful sovereign power in this State.’”[46]

The previous October, Day had appealed directly to Pennsylvania’s Labor Reformers. The Philadelphia Press reported Day's comments to workingmen that “‘in your State the leaders and wire-pullers of the Democratic party are confederated with Wall street and the European capitalists, your worst enemies!’” The Press noted: “In Philadelphia, Schuylkill, Luzerne, and Carbon counties there are thousands of Labor Reformers organized against the baleful influence pointed out by Mr. Day.”[47]

Philadelphia Press, October 29, 1874

As with James Reilly’s nomination to Congress, the move toward anti-monopoly activity drew a reaction from the national press. Less than a month before mineworkers traveled to Harrisburg, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in New York published an article with a sheaf of illustrations detailing “THE ‘MOLLY MAGUIRES’ of the Pennsylvania Coal Regions.” This masterpiece of nativist rhetoric described “a class of desperadoes as brutal and reckless as Spanish guerillas or Italian banditti.” Leslie’s article told of midnight murders and death threats written in blood. It laid poverty, ignorance, drunkenness, despair, brutality, sloth, and criminality at the door of “the rough, unlettered Molly Maguires of the mountains of Pennsylvania.”

Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, February 6, 1875

Prior to the Harrisburg convention, Irish miner and union officer John Shanahan wrote to the Irish World in New York. Shanahan wrote from Mount Carmel, where Hibernian Patrick Hester kept a hotel. Shanahan hinted at the convention’s aims: “Nearly all the coal land in the State of Pennsylvania is in the hands of corporated companies, who want high rates of interest, who aim a death-blow at labor, and especially at trades’-unions.[48] At the convention’s close, Shanahan reported its purpose: “opposing the encroachments of the great railroad and other corporations of this State, whose study seems to be to reduce the working people of this country to a state of degradation equal to that of the working classes of European countries.”[49]

Irish World, March 13, 1875

In an unusual alliance, Pennsylvania’s workingmen combined with Grangers, retail coal dealers, and national labor leaders to challenge the region’s coal cartel, and railroad president Franklin Gowen in particular. New York publisher John Swinton came to Harrisburg, as did Philadelphia Quaker Edward Davis, S. M. Smith of the Illinois Farmers’ Association, and Victor Piolett of the Pennsylvania Grange. The large representation of miners’ delegates who traveled to the state capital from five Pennsylvania hard coal counties had no way of knowing that their courthouses would soon host Gowen’s “Molly Maguire” trials, and their jails twenty-one “Molly Maguire” executions.

The Pottsville Miners’ Journal described the delegates who streamed in from those counties: “A large number, it is true, are discolored by the effects of long employment in the mines, but the general effect of the assembly is that of an intelligent, vigorous, resolute body of men, knowing the task they have undertaken, and moved by a quiet resolve to perform it.”[50]

Miners' Journal, March 4, 1875

The Philadelphia Press advised readers to remember that Gowen’s Coal and Iron Company owned eighty percent of the region’s coal mines, paid its work force (which included child laborers) as little as possible, and kept the supply of coal short in order to charge customers as much as possible.[51] The Miners’ Journal captured the convention’s intensity and solidarity, with its “short, sharp, nervous speeches, earnest, vigorous, terse, without wasting words, showing how deeply the conviction has grown, that a new departure in industrial law is absolutely needed, and in an astonishing degree showing how men in different pursuits, and acting widely apart heretofore, are harmonious in their views as to the means necessary to be adopted.”[52]

A series of resolutions displayed the convention’s aims. They condemned the actions of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad in dismissing union men, and its treatment of employees generally. They charged Gowen with legislative fraud in obtaining his charter for the Laurel Run Improvement Company, the forerunner to the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. They urged a legislative investigation “with instructions to report an act repealing all or so much of their charters as may be detrimental or dangerous to the public welfare.[53]

New York Times, March 4, 1875

The convention’s inflationists harked back to Edward Kellogg’s theories, endorsing a version of Kellogg’s interconvertible bond proposal.[54] In poetic language, delegates reflected: “That it is the abiding conviction of this convention, and is becoming more and more that of the one hundred thousand voters whom it represents, that under and above, and around all the evils enumerated in the resolutions we have passed, the potent and fruitful source of all those evils … is that pestiferous outgrowth of brutal greed, the recognition and practice of the doctrine that money is value.”[55]

Jack O’Brien of Tamaqua, home to Labor Reformer and alleged “Molly” James Carroll, addressed delegates during an evening session. The Irishman “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.”[56] 

In a poem, O'Brien invoked 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.[57]

With the delegates roused, O’Brien called for a conference to convene at Cincinnati to discuss the formation of a national party. From the heart of its coal region, one of Pennsylvania’s “sons of liberty” issued the call for a national movement of workingmen.

At least one Hibernian charged as a “Molly” served as a delegate to the Harrisburg convention. Allan Pinkerton’s novel The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives, a sensational blend of fact and fiction, notes the attendance of miner Michael Lawler at Harrisburg.[58] Pinkerton’s undercover operative James McParlan, a familiar of Lawler’s in Shenandoah, may also have attended. McParlan’s reports from this time span are unavailable.

Six weeks after anti-monopoly delegates met at Harrisburg, Pennsylvania governor John Hartranft approved a number of acts of the state assembly. Among them was a joint resolution authorizing an investigation into the affairs of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company and Coal and Iron Company.[59] Pennsylvania’s workingmen, the marks of the mines still on their faces, had successfully mounted a legislative investigation into Gowen’s right to own and mine coal land under his companies’ charters.

Pittsburgh Commercial, April 24, 1875

Less than two weeks later, Gowen met with Pinkerton and the detective’s Philadelphia supervisor. Their meeting took place in the midst of the miners’ “Long Strike,” a regional affair that lasted more than five months. The three met, an archived report notes, “to talk the matter over, concerning the threats and outrages occuring [sic] in the coal regions, and to consult with regard to the investigation the agency had made.” Pinkerton “proposed to have a trusty man sent from Chicago here, with a view of going thoroughly over the ground.”[60]

On May 3, 1875, Pinkerton operative Robert Linden entered the coal region. Linden took up residence in Ashland, home to the “White Degree council” of Ashland Camp No. 84, Patriotic Order of Sons of America.[61] Six murders followed within four months of Linden’s arrival. In the crucible of regional Labor Reform efforts, the macabre coal region fiction of the New York papers had suddenly sprung to life.

Four of the six murders took place in or near Shenandoah, the base for Pinkerton undercover agent McParlan who moved through the area under the alias “James McKenna.” Shenandoah also served as home to the Sons of America Shenandoah Commandery No. 14, Master Americans, organized eleven months after McParlan entered the region.[62]

Two of the murders near Shenandoah took place at Raven Run, where a miner and his boarder were killed in the early morning of September 1 by a group of five gunmen. Men and boys gathered for work, as many as a hundred, witnessed the shooting.

Days followed with no official inquiry into the murders of Thomas Sanger and William Uren. Jurors at an inquest censored the sheriff and district attorney for nonperformance of duty, “‘it now being three days since the occurrence and they have not made inquiries or moved toward ascertaining the facts of the case to the jury’s knowledge.’”[63]

Linden told his Pinkerton supervisors that he met on September 10 with Schuylkill County District Attorney George Kaercher and Robert Heaton, owner of the Raven Run colliery. On September 11, Linden reported: “To day the operative [Linden] had a conversation with R. C. Heaton, and is convinced that he will not identify the parties who committed the murders at Raven Run, and the workmen taking the cue from their employers will all be Know Nothings.”[64] A detective in Gowen’s employ, using a veiled reference to nativism, had successfully usurped the legal machinery of Pennsylvania’s coal region.

Though four murders took place in and around Shenandoah, area residents could expect little relief from the local police. For reasons not given, the Shenandoah town council had voted to remove their paid police force in April, a few weeks before Linden arrived in the region.[65] As with the murders of Sanger and Uren in September 1875, arrests for the murder of police officer Benjamin Yost at Tamaqua in early July 1875 would not take place until February 1876.

Criminal justice authorities in Schuylkill County had ceded their legal authority to Pinkerton operatives in Gowen’s employ. The time gap between these murders and the subsequent arrests gave hostile newsmen a months-long span to pound into residents’ ears an insistent drumbeat of fear, hostility, and ethnic hatred.

Gowen added to the chorus. In July, the railroad president hosted state legislators at Atlantic City to debate the merits of the investigation into his companies charters. A Pinkerton operative helped wine and dine the men, and escorted a number to an area brothel.

Gowen ventilated his views in a lengthy speech to the lawmakers that he paid newspapers in Philadelphia and New York and throughout the coal region to publish. It included allegations of a secret society of coal region murderers. Cartoons of so-called “coffin notices” enhanced its publication. The legislators eventually ruled in Gowen's favor.

Illustration, Franklin Gowen's Speech to the Pennsylvania Legislature
New York Times, August 6, 1875

Three arrests did take place within a week of the September 3, 1875, murder of mine superintendent John P. Jones at Lansford. These arrests opened the season against area Hibernians as “Molly Maguires.” Pinned in the coats of two defendants “were found badges with the initials A.O.H.,” the Miners’ Journal informed readers. “These letters are the initials of that brotherhood known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The reader is left to form his own conclusions.”[66]

The Cincinnati convention opened six days after the murders of Sanger and Uren. The Pennsylvania anti-monopoly committee expressed the belief that the workingmen’s delegates at Harrisburg would bring the same passion to Cincinnati in the project of uniting the forces of the farm, the mine, and the workshop, for the elevation of the whole.”[67]

If Schuylkill County’s Hibernian Labor Reformers attended the Cincinnati convention, no record has come to light. The spate of six alleged “Molly Maguire” murders in four months convulsed the region and may have crippled efforts toward financial and industrial reform on the part of the region’s AOH men. The murders did not stop Christopher Donnelly and Michael Lawler, both later charged as “Mollies,” from serving as Democratic delegates to the county convention that September.[68]

In the July 1876 trial of Hibernian Thomas Munley for the murders of Sanger and Uren at Raven Run, Gowen seized the courtroom to give a sweeping indictment of the AOH based on McParlan’s alleged discoveries. Gowen’s rhetoric served a dual purpose. Using essentially uncorroborated testimony from McParlan, the railroad president turned special prosecutor also wanted a first-degree murder conviction against Munley to open the door to wholesale convictions.

The day Gowen spoke, every foot of the Pottsville courtroom was filled. As with all “Molly Maguire” trials, he spoke to a jury box whose majority numbered German Americans. “It is a fight between the ‘Mollie Maguires’ and Pinkerton’s agency,” Gowen declared, “and I would stake the last dollar I have in the world that Pinkerton’s agency will win.”[69]

Special Prosecutor Franklin Gowen, Trial of Thomas Munley

In rhetoric that echoed the New York Herald and Frank Leslie's sheet, Gowen told of “the hundreds of unknown victims whose bones lie mouldering [sic] over the face of this whole county, stricken down in a community which should have defended them.” He appealed to prejudice and fear: “things have now reached such a pass that the Irish people will find themselves compelled to separate themselves from these outcasts of creation and scum of the earth.” He mentioned the “political strength” of the AOH order. And he condemned Schuylkill’s entire AOH as criminal: “If there is a murder committed in Schuylkill county by this organization there will be no doubt whatever but that every one of the five hundred members in this county will be guilty of murder in the first degree, and not one who has connived at it but will hang, and I tell you, gentlemen, that for the present state of affairs, under God, we owe it to James McParlane [sic], the detective.”[70]

The jury deliberated for one hour. Though Munley’s father, brother, sister, and a number of friends had testified that Munley had been at home on the morning of the murders, the jury ruled as Gowen bid.

From 1876 through 1878, variations of the scenario in Munley’s trial replayed themselves endlessly throughout Pennsylvania’s coal region. They yielded twenty-one executions and the incarceration of dozens of AOH defendants.

In May 1877, the Shenandoah Herald reported the issuance of the first death warrants. The newspaper reported from the town that housed both Detective McParlan and the Sons of America Shenandoah Commandery No. 14, Master Americans.

Under the headline “GIRARDVILLE GIBLETS,” a special correspondent told the Herald's readers: “All our peace and order loving citizens were made happy this evening on the appearance of the Herald, containing the information that a beginning was to be made at disposing of the ‘Mollie’ murderers. All were made happy to know that Governor Hartranft had determined to enforce the law, and that in the future, as at the present, ‘Molliesm’ has got to take a back seat, while white men say what shall be done.”[71]

Shenandoah Herald, May 2, 1877

A Coffin for the Rag Baby

he Cincinnati Workingmen’s Conference in September 1875 coincided with the city’s Industrial Exposition, celebrated with parades through its principal streets. The Cincinnati Coffin Company took advantage of festivities to parade a twelve-foot-long wooden coffin under the windows of the Cincinnati Enquirer, an editorial supporter of Greenback Labor. The coffin bore the inscription “For the financial rag-baby, to be buried Oct. 12,”[72] the date of the gubernatorial election. “The idiotorial [sic] force was transfixed with horror,”[73] the Chicago Tribune reported. “Everybody saw the huge ‘rag-baby’ coffin in the parade yesterday,” the Cincinnati Daily Star said. Its display “created a considerable sensation as having the appearance of a partisan affair.”[74]

In Girardville, the Shenandoah Herald taunted John Kehoe in similar fashion. During fall 1875, with early arrests of AOH men as “Molly Maguire” suspects, that paper’s publisher called repeatedly for vigilantism against AOH men alleged as “Mollies.” On October 9, Thomas Foster reprinted this suggestion from the Lebanon Daily News: “The hanging of a few dozen of these rascals for an example would be a blessing and heralded with joy by the more respectable portion of our people. If this won’t do, declare them banditti and ‘string up’ every mother’s son of them, and that for the sake of justice, law and order only, and thus rid the country of a scourge worse than the Asiatic cholera.”[75]

Foster challenged readers: “Are you, free born citizens, going to allow yourselves to be cowed down and murdered by set [sic] of cutthroats, whom it would be an act of justice to shoot down at sight? Will you allow your wives and children to be terrified … No, you are men and will act like men.”[76]

The next day Kehoe, from his position as AOH county delegate and Girardville's high constable, wrote to the newsman. Kehoe assured Foster: “the Ancient Order of Hibernians … is a chartered organization, recognized by the commonwealth, and composed of men who are law-abiding, and seek the elevation of their members.” He pleaded for caution: “Now, nothing can be more unjust than to charge the order with any acts of lawlessness, and nothing can be more inconsistent with the wishes of the people than the agitation of this matter by the leading papers of this county. The articles which have appeared on this matter have done an incalculable amount of harm, and, as a friend to law and order, I would advise their cessation.”[77]

The same month Kehoe wrote these appeals, the AOH wielded significant political heft. “In October 1875, it was feared and courted by both political parties,”[78] Democratic Party operative Francis Dewees said of the order in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region.  That same month, Foster taunted Kehoe with the presumed death of Greenback Labor Reform in Schuylkill County. Like the Cincinnati coffin maker, Foster used a metaphor to drive home his point.

In late August, Kehoe and his wife had suffered the death of their three-month-old daughter, the youngest of six children. That fall, Foster hired an anonymous Girardville writer who called himself “Americus” to terrorize AOH members. Girardville was also home to the Washington Camp of the Patriotic Order Sons of America. Of the increasingly volatile atmosphere, Americus said: “if we are adding fuel to the flames we are proud to know it and hope the flames will burn so fierce and so high that it will make it too hot for a Mollie Maguire to exist in this region. They began this warfare and law-abiding, peaceable citizens have got to end it now and forever, and there is only one way, that is, the utter extermination of the murderers.”[79]

Shenandoah Herald, October 18, 1875

In the same column, under the rubric “THAT BABY,” Americus said: “Some of the boarders at one of our hotels got up a rag baby and laid it in one of the beds in an unoccupied room, and when Kate went to fix up the bed she was horrified by the ‘dead man’ lying in bed. The brave girls then came up and after taking a look, left suddenly for the kitchen, when reinforced by Rosie, they made a determined advance on the corpse and pulled out a rag baby. Now they get mad if you say they were scared.”[80] Per Americus, the “rag baby,” the term editors countrywide applied to Greenback Labor Reform, was dead. As the “ Molly trials geared up, an Irish maid had discovered its corpse in a Girardville hotel.

John Kehoe's Hibernian House, Girardville

Greenback Labor collided with court politics for Kehoe in fall 1875 when the Hibernian campaigned through AOH lodges statewide for the re-election of Republican gubernatorial candidate John Hartranft. In testimony solicited by prosecutor Francis Hughes during one of the trials from AOH member John Slattery, who testified to save his own life, Kehoe’s advocacy brought charges of “vote-selling” on the part of the “Mollies.” Robert Mackey, “PENNSYLVANIA’S NOTED POLITICAL CHIEFTAIN,”[81] evidently appreciated Kehoe’s electoral efforts on behalf of Republicans. Contemporary observer Alex McClure noted: “Exhaustive efforts were made on the part of [Robert] Mackey and others to save the life of Kehoe, but Hartranft yielded to these importunities only to the extent of delaying the execution for an unusual period.”[82]

Another twisted byzantine strand accompanied Kehoe’s campaigning. The Irishman worked against the candidacy of Democrat Cyrus Pershing, called by one Republican sheet “the tool” of railroad and coal magnates Gowen and Asa Packer.[83] Hughes, a new convert to Greenback Labor, helped Pershing secure the party’s nomination at Erie. A little more than a year after he lost the governor’s race Pershing, sitting president judge of Schuylkill’s Court of Oyer and Terminer, sentenced Kehoe to death.

“The democrats of Pennsylvania have not entered a political contest for years with such odds in their favor,” the Harrisburg Patriot said the year after Pershing’s defeat. The Patriot named a number of elements that favored the Democrats’ chances, including this: “The Molly Maguire organization, an important element of republican strength in Pennsylvania, is broken up and its leaders are under sentence of death.”[84]

Greenback Labor Reform efforts continued despite “rag baby” obituaries. The September 1875 conference at Cincinnati, made up of labor and Grange leaders, called for a national convention to be held at Indianapolis the following May. When delegates gathered there on May 17, 1876, two men with direct ties to AOH men charged as “Mollies” appeared: Hughes and Richard Trevellick.

Four years had passed since AOH delegate Patrick Hester had met repeatedly in the office of a Sunbury labor editor to discuss recruitment for Trevellick’s National Labor Union. Less than a year had passed since Hughes’s favored candidate, Pershing, suffered defeat. Hughes would garner much press for his role as special prosecutor in Hester’s trial, where the attorney and Democratic Party operative warned locals of the hordes of “Mollies” gathered in the mountains above them, poised to descend on their farms and wives and children.

Hughes’s appearance in May 1876 at the Indianapolis convention signaled a new element in the Greenback Labor arena. The Democratic operative appreciated the movement’s appeal to laboring men, a crucial element in electoral contests in the mid-1870s. Some doubted Hughes’s new allegiance. The Pittsburgh Commercial said of speeches Hughes gave prior to his supposed political conversion, “he declared that the day would come when a bushel of greenbacks would not buy a bushel of potatoes!”[85]

If Schuylkill County’s Hibernian Labor Reformers had plans to attend the Indianapolis convention, those plans were thwarted. Ten days before the convention took place, the New York Sun gave front-page, above-the-fold coverage to an article headlined: “A JAIL FULL OF ASSASSINS. EIGHTEEN MOLLY MAGUIRES WHO ARE LIKELY TO BE HANGED.[86]

New York Sun, May 7, 1876

Eleven arrests made on May 6 included those of Kehoe, Donnelly, Lawler, and Patrick Dolan. Kehoe, Donnelly, and Lawler, politically active the previous year, had been recently elected to local office: Kehoe as high constable, Donnelly as school director, and Lawler as “judge” for Shenandoah’s first ward, presumably an appointment as an election official.[87] Dolan had served as school director for Butler Township.

Pottsville Standard, February 19, 1876

New York Sun, August 25, 1876

Pinkerton operative Robert Linden issued the warrants. Arrests devolved into a Mad Hatter’s tea party of conspiracy theories, with innumerable Hibernian civic leaders initially charged with conspiracy to murder a local bully on evidence supplied by Pinkerton operative James McParlan. McParlan’s testimony would eventually remove AOH leadership from the five hard coal counties whose delegates attended the Harrisburg Anti-Monopoly Convention. Some Hibernians who escaped the net of arrests fled the region. A Philadelphia newsman who praised Gowen’s efforts said of AOH defendants: “the accused … include among their number several men who have held high official positions in Schuylkill county.”[88]

After the arrest of Kehoe and his fellows, the Freeman’s Journal, a Catholic diocesan newspaper in New York, printed a letter from choleric coal region priest Daniel McDermott. McDermott charged: “The evidence of James McParlan, a detective, who for three years was engaged in ferreting out the perpetrators of the outrages committed in the coal region, will prove what we priests in Schuylkill County have long known the A. O. H. to be—a diabolical secret society, and that it is everywhere the same society, in spirit and government.”[89] Gowen and Hughes’s decimation of the AOH, an international order, would continue with clerical sanction.


he arrests based on James McParlan’s alleged discoveries removed the Hibernian Labor Reformers of Pennsylvania’s coal region from the political arena. By 1877, the year of Pennsylvania’s first mass “Molly Maguire” executions, national Labor Reform had taken on very different garb.

One aspect remained the same. With trials ongoing, U.S. Congressman John Killinger continued to stump the region, making speeches on behalf of the workingmen. The following year, a Greenback club in Northumberland County declared: “Mr. Killinger’s inclination to repel British influences interfering in the government of this country is patriotic, commendable, and praiseworthy, and merits the admiration of his constituents.”[90]

By spring 1878, the Greenback Labor Party had become the National Party. In May, the New York Times described the party’s convention at Philadelphia as “A REMARKABLE COMBINATION OF HONEST MEN AND DEMAGOGUES.” Delegates elected special “Molly” prosecutor Francis Hughes as permanent president, and Francis Dewees, Hughes’s nephew and first chronicler, with the Pinkertons, of the “Molly Maguire” conflict, as chairman of the party’s national committee. The Times’s correspondent observed: “That there were many able men in the convention cannot be denied, but it was evident to those who have any experience in political gatherings that the clear-headed ones, the men who controlled the proceedings, were working for interests of their own, and using for their own purposes the many wild and flighty spirits who were their associates.”[91]

That same month Killinger, perhaps weary of political treachery, declined the call of the Greenbackers to the governor’s chair. “I appreciate your kind references to myself in connection with the nomination for Governor,” Killinger wrote to a Lebanon editor. “I do not, however, desire to be a candidate, and have taken occasion to say so whenever approached on the subject.”[92]

By May 1878, Labor Reformer James Carroll had been hanged at Pottsville. AOH delegate Hester had been hanged at Bloomsburg. Thomas Fisher, AOH delegate for Carbon County whose nephew served as permanent secretary to the county National Greenback Labor Party,[93] had been hanged at Mauch Chunk. Kehoe’s execution at Pottsville would take place seven months later.

Wives had taken over the hotels, boarding houses, and taverns previously run by the Hibernians. After the infiltration by Detective McParlan of numerous AOH lodges, not all felt safe discussing issues within the comfort of four walls. In late May 1878, the New York Tribune reported: “it is not an uncommon scene to find a company of unemployed miners at street corners in Pottsville, or Tamaqua, talking about the currency, and of general politics. One of the company who can read takes up a newspaper, or a currency pamphlet, and discloses to his little crowd of listeners what it contains, and when he finishes they all join in a free open-air discussion.”[94]

New York Tribune, May 31, 1878

Pottsville served as the site of nine “Molly” executions. Tamaqua, home to both anti-monopolist Jack O'Brien, author of the “sons of liberty poem, and to James Carroll’s Union Hotel, would serve as Kehoe’s burial site. Even “Molly Maguire” executions could not tamp Labor Reform fervor among Schuylkill’s mineworkers, both literate and illiterate, in these towns.

Economic humbug, panacea, or siren call, hard coal mineworkers in mid-1878 continued to believe that currency reform would better their circumstances, even as AOH leaders swung from gallows above them. AOH leaders hanged as “Mollies” who embraced the movement all died declaring their innocence. The mineworkers’ ongoing loyalty points up the movement’s appeal.

John Swinton, the New York publisher who attended the 1875 Harrisburg Anti-Monopoly Convention, wrote to Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons after the first mass “Molly” executions on June 21, 1877. Many Hibernians remained under sentence of death. “I beseech you to save my country, and your state, from the terrible wrong & appalling disgrace of these executions,” Swinton wrote to the board. “I beseech you to exercise clemency, which in this case I believe to be justice, toward the so-called ‘Molly Maguires,’ now under condemnation.”[95]

John Swinton to Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, July 1877

From 1860 to 1870, Swinton served as an editor for the New York Times. From 1875 to 1883, he served in the same capacity at the New York Sun. Sometime around 1880, per historians Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais, the newsman refused to drink a toast to the independent press. “‘There is no such thing, unless it is in the small towns,’” Swinton said. “‘The business of the New York journalist is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his race and his country for his daily bread. You know this and I know it, and what folly is this to be toasting an “Independent Press.” We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping- jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes.’”[96]

John Swinton to New York Pressmen

A Pottsville dentist named Difendorfer provides an unlikely denouement to the saga of Greenback Labor Reform. “He has long been an earnest advocate of the issue of money by the government, and from his youth up has been strenuously opposed to monopolies of all kinds,”[97] a biographical account from 1881 said of Robert Difendorfer. The account also highlighted the dentist’s candidacy for coroner under the Greenback Labor ticket.

By February 1879, twenty executions of alleged “Mollies” had taken place. As part of a labor advocacy committee Difendorfer, along with a Mahanoy City wheelwright named Mason and a Shenandoah tobacconist named Spurr, published a notice against Franklin Gowen in the Miners’ Journal. The notice, signed by more than twenty area men, threatened a strike if Gowen refused to issue the back pay he owed to his mineworkers.[98]

The following year, Difendorfer wrote to Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons on behalf of Christopher Donnelly, the AOH officer who helped send James Reilly to Congress. Donnelly, swept into the net of “Molly” arrests, had avoided execution and was serving a term of imprisonment. Difendorfer had met frequently with Donnelly after his incarceration and found the Hibernian “so far superior in conduct and gentlemanly bearing,”[99] he felt impelled to plead on Donnelly’s behalf.

His conviction occurred when every honest citizen’s indignation was justly aroused because of the many crimes that had been committed, and all that was really necessary to convict was to prove that the defendant was a member of an organization intent upon committing crime,” Difendorfer said of Donnelly’s case. “In such times honest men as Jurors may over-reach the demands of Justice. In looking over the list of names on his petition for release I find that more than half of the Jurors sitting at the time of his conviction … now after four years have elapsed and prejudice no longer holds dominion over reason they ask for his pardon.”[100] The board denied Donnelly’s request for commutation.

With the successful conclusion of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” caseload, AOH membership numbers dropped from three quarters of a million nationwide in 1876 to, by an official estimate, 114,698 in 1884.[101] Membership numbers in Pennsylvania dropped from more than sixty thousand at the height of the trials in 1876 to seven thousand in 1880.[102] By the mid-1880s, AOH leaders, both statewide and nationwide, offered far fewer lodges as safe havens for the discussion of political and financial reform. After three decades of intense efforts, despite the passion of farmers, workingmen, and anti-monopoly advocates, the Greenback Labor Reform movement dissolved in the mists of third-party efforts.

By A. Flaherty © 2016

This column was updated November 2, 2016.


[1] Chester McArthur Destler, American Radicalism 1865-1901: Essays and Documents (Copyright 1946, Connecticut College; repr. New York: Octagon Books, 1972), 55. Thanks to Eric Foner for directing me toward this volume.
[2] New York Herald, December 17, 1877.
[3] New York Times, December 17, 1877.
[4] Pittsburgh Catholic, January 15, 1876.
[5] For a detailed discussion of Hester, Trevellick, and Reimensnyder, see A. Flaherty, “The ‘Molly Maguires’ and the National Labor Union,” From John Kehoe’s Cell,
[6] Richmond Dispatch, May 4, 1871.
[7] New York Herald, March 4, 1875.
[8] New York Times, January 2, 1879.
[9] Greeley’s comments published in the New York Tribune, August 17, 1843. 
[10] Ibid., June 14, 1844.
[11] Ibid., June 19, 1844.
[12] Irwin Unger, The Greenback Era: A Social and Political History of American Finance, 1865-1879 (Princeton, 1964), 101.
[13] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 1 (1947; repr. New York: International Publishers, 1972), 422-423.
[14] Ibid., 422.
[15] Unger, Greenback Era, 110.
[16] Report of the Case of the Commonwealth vs. John Kehoe et al., stenographically reported by R. A. West (Pottsville: Miners’ Journal Book and Job Rooms, 1876), 167.
[17] For Hester’s involvement in the AOH chartering, see Flaherty, “‘Molly Maguires’ and NLU”.
[18] Pottsville Standard, August 17, 1872.
[19] Richmond Dispatch, May 5, 1871.
[20] Pottsville Standard, August 3, 1872.
[21] John Kehoe to W. R. Potts, circa March 1878, John Kehoe File, M 170.18 MI, Schuylkill County Historical Society.
[22] Maunch Chunk Coal Gazette, February 23, 1872.
[23] Pottsville Standard, August 17, 1872.
[24] Shenandoah Herald, October 16, 1876.
[25] Killinger’s speech printed in Anthracite Monitor, January 13, 1872.
[26] Killinger’s proposed bill discussed in Shenandoah Herald, January 10, 1874.
[27] The Shenandoah Herald published Killinger’s speech on February 28, 1874.
[28] Ibid.
[29] Ibid.
[30] Mauch Chunk Democrat, May 27, 1876.
[31] Philadelphia Times, June 27, 1877.
[32] Noted in Boston Pilot, May 22, 1880, report of AOH national convention: “Prior to the Molly Maguire troubles, the Order of Hibernians had a membership of about 63,000 in Pennsylvania.”
[33] Miners’ Journal (Pottsville, PA), August 4, 1874.
[34] Shenandoah Herald, August 8, 1874.
[35] Miners’ Journal, August 7, 1874.
[36] Shenandoah Herald, August 8, 1874.
[37] Miners’ Journal, August 4, 1874.
[38] Ibid., September 18, 1874. The Shenandoah Herald published this letter on September 19, 1874.
[39] Schalk’s letter published in Shenandoah Herald, September 19, 1874.
[40] Pottsville Standard, October 17, 1874.
[41] Miners’ Journal, September 18, 1874.
[42] New York Herald, August 4, 1874.
[43] Ibid.
[44] Miners’ Journal, August 5, 1874.
[45] Pottsville Standard, October 10, 1874.
[46] Reading Eagle, February 23, 1875.
[47] Philadelphia Press, October 29, 1874.
[48] Shanahan’s letter published in Irish World (New York), March 13, 1875.
[49] Ibid., March 20, 1875.
[50] Miners’ Journal, March 4, 1875.
[51] Philadelphia Press, March 3, 1875.
[52] Miners’ Journal, March 4, 1875.
[53] New York Times, March 4, 1875.
[54] For complete coverage of the Harrisburg convention, see Harrisburg Patriot, March 3 to March 5, 1875.
[55] Ibid., March 4, 1875.
[56] Ibid., March 5, 1875.
[57] Ibid., March 4, 1875.
[58] Allan Pinkerton, The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives (1877; repr. New York, 1972), 257-258. For Lawler’s participation in 1871 MLBA arbitration proceedings, see Edward Pinkowski, John Siney: The Miners’ Martyr (Philadelphia: Sunshine Press, 1963), 81; also Shenandoah Herald, April 13, 1871.
[59] Pittsburgh Commercial, April 24, 1875.
[60] Report of Benjamin Franklin, 28 April 1875, Reading Railroad Collection, Molly Maguire Papers, Hagley Museum and Library.
[61] W. W. Munsell & Co., History of Schuylkill County, Pa. (New York, 1881), 186.
[62] Munsell, Schuylkill County, 389.
[63] Shenandoah Herald, September 11, 1875.
[64] Reports of Robert Linden, 10 and 11 September 1875, Reading Railroad Collection, Molly Maguire Papers, Hagley Museum and Library (all caps, underlining in original).
[65] Shenandoah Herald, April 17, 1875.
[66] Miners’ Journal, September 9, 1875
[67] Workingmen’s Advocate (Chicago), August 14, 1875.
[68] Miners’ Journal, September 14, 1875.
[69] Gowen’s speech published in Shenandoah Herald, July 13, 1876.
[70] Ibid.
[71] Ibid., May 2, 1877.
[72] Chicago Tribune, September 20, 1875.
[73] Ibid.
[74] Cincinnati Daily Star, September 9, 1875.
[75] Shenandoah Herald, October 9, 1875.
[76] Ibid.
[77] Kehoe wrote this letter on October 10, 1875. Foster printed it in the Herald on June 8, 1876 (italics in original).
[78] F. P. Dewees, The Molly Maguires: The Origin, Growth, and Character of the Organization (1877; repr. New York: 1969), 228.
[79] Shenandoah Herald, October 18, 1875 (italics in original).
[80] Ibid.
[81] New York Times, January 2, 1879.
[82] Alexander K. McClure, Old Time Notes of Pennsylvania, 2 vols. (Philadelphia 1905), vol. 2, 396.
[83] Harrisburg Telegraph, October 27, 1875.
[84] Harrisburg Patriot, September 1, 1876.
[85] Pittsburgh Commercial, September 25, 1875.
[86] New York Sun, May 7, 1876.
[87] Pottsville Standard, February 19, 1876.
[88] Harrisburg Patriot, August 12, 1876 (reprinting Philadelphia Evening Bulletin).
[89] Freeman’s Journal (New York), May 20, 1876 (italics in original). Numerous priests in Schuylkill County denounced the AOH. All acted under authority from Archbishop James Frederick Wood of Philadelphia. In December 1875, Wood excommunicated all AOH members under his jurisdiction.
[90] Shenandoah Herald, October 25, 1877.
[91] National convention reported in New York Times, May 9, 1878.
[92] Sunbury American, May 10, 1878 (reprinting Lebanon News).
[93] Mauch Chunk Democrat, July 27, 1878.
[94] New York Tribune, May 31, 1878. See also Foner, History of the Labor Movement, 483-484.
[95] John Swinton to Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, 1 July 1877, RG-15, Department of Justice Records, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission
[96] Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, Labor’s Untold Story: The Adventure Story of the Battles, Betrayals and Victories of American Working Men and Women (1955; repr. New York: United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, 2005), 81.
[97] W. W. Munsell & Co., History of Schuylkill County, Pa. (New York, 1881), 302 (noted as “Robert E. Diffenderfer” in this account).
[98] Sunbury Gazette, February 21, 1879 (reprinting Miners’ Journal; noted as “R. E. Diefenderfer” in this account).
[99] R. E. Difendorfer to Pennsylvania Board of Pardons, 14 June 1880, RG-15, 13-1139, Christopher Donnelly File, Folder 1, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
[100] Ibid.
[101] Boston Pilot, June 14, 1884.
[102] Boston Pilot, May 22, 1880.

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