Part One—Reimensnyder, Trevellick, and Hester: A Tale of Three Advocates

he postings in the Sunbury American during the early 1870s of nativist publisher Emanuel Wilvert help unravel the intricacies of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict. Wilvert’s articles unlock door after door after door. They help clarify volatile party affiliations and shifting ideological loyalties. Ultimately, they help write the obituary of a powerful populist movement. 

Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict left twenty-one Irish Catholic men dead on the gallows, dozens more imprisoned, and more than a dozen murder victims. It yielded passionate liaisons, both on the side of labor and on the side of the railroad and coal interests. Wilvert, a conservative Republican, stood firmly with the coal interests. From that stance, he repeatedly dismissed the right of workingmen to organize for mutual protection and political activism.

Wilvert’s documentation in the American of the rising influence of Northumberland County’s Irish Catholics shows a far more complex arena than historians have previously noted. These Irishmen moved in opposition against not just industrialist interests, but against the Roman Catholic clergy ranged against them in the coalfields. Wilvert’s columns help tie Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies” to controversial Labor Reform efforts, including presidential politics.

All the defendants charged as “Mollies” belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent order. Wilvert nursed a particular animus against his neighbor Patrick Hester, AOH delegate for Northumberland County. The newsman showed almost equal vitriol toward Cornelius Reimensnyder, the son of a respected Lutheran minister and grandson of the first commissioned captain from the War of 1812.

Reimensnyder, an attorney, also served from 1868 to 1872 as senior editor of Sunbury’s Democratic Guard. Wilvert’s columns on AOH leader Hester and labor editor Reimensnyder, and the relationship between them and national labor leader Richard Trevellick, give glints of a tortuous path that led not only to Cincinnati’s 1872 Liberal Republican presidential convention, but to Hester’s eventual death on the gallows and Reimensnyder’s unsettling leave-taking of the region he and his highly regarded family called home.

In his columns in the American, Wilvert made no secret of his casual contempt for Irish Catholics, or his unease at their steady rise up the political ladder. In late summer 1871, the publisher said of the year’s political contest: “We admit that the Republican party will not receive the support of the Union through out [sic], particularly the Irish Catholics, who have always been advocates of the principles of modern Democracy, opposed to labor themselves, unless it is to prevent them from starvation.”[1]

Hester knew the sting of Wilvert’s pen. “He is a giant of a man, powerful, commanding, silent, and stern,” a more sympathetic Boston Pilot reporter described Hester in 1877. “Hester’s great figure, long black hair, and severe face, mark him instantly among a crowd. Beneath the sternness, however, there is a depth of tenderness rarely absent from a large and powerful man.”[2]

AOH Delegate
Patrick Hester

Hester, a married man, had four daughters. At the time of his death all four had served as schoolteachers. A man of property, Hester kept hotels in Mount Carmel and Locust Gap and livestock valuable enough to warrant an insurance policy. The AOH delegate held a long list of political offices, from township supervisor to school director to tax collector to overseer of the poor.[3]

In addition to his law practice and newspaper duties, Reimensnyder served as an officer for the Sunbury Cattle Insurance Company, where he counted Hester as a client. In 1872, the two men intersected dramatically in events that placed them in the arena of national labor and presidential electoral politics, and in the crosshairs of the region’s Roman Catholic clergy. The dyspeptic musings of Wilvert document all these events.

Emanuel Wilvert Tags the Guard’s Senior Editor

n December 1868, Cornelius Reimensyder purchased the Sunbury Independent and re-christened it Democratic Guard. Emanuel Wilvert’s denunciation of the Guard’s “senior editor” began in earnest in July 1871, when a meeting at Fry’s Hall in Sunbury featured internationally known labor leader Richard Trevellick. Among the meeting’s “most prominent” spectators, Wilvert noted “Mr. Gallagher, candidate for Legislature, the senior editor of the Democratic Guard and J. C. Silvius, [sic] who has abandoned manual labor and is engaged in establishing Unions in the county.”[4]

James C. Sylvis, a shoemaker, took up labor advocacy after the death of his brother, William. William Sylvis, founder of the National Labor Union (NLU), a national coalition of tradesmen, had delivered a rousing address to Sunbury’s workingmen ten months before his death in July 1869.

The resume of labor leader Trevellick, son of a Cornish farmer, included ship’s carpenter, Mississippi riverboat captain, onetime member of the Peruvian navy, and successful lobbyist in 1869 for the federal eight-hour workday. After William Sylvis’s death, Trevellick served as NLU president in 1869, 1871, and 1872. The NLU represented the most powerful labor organization of the day.

Sunbury newsman Wilvert said of Trevellick’s cause: “we fear that his gigantic efforts will end in smoke like all the previous chimeras of that character. But so long as he can find dupes enough to maintain him without laboring, by fleecing the working classes out of their earnings to pay him for preaching instead of working, it will be all right enough so long as the laboring classes do not discover the cloven foot which is kept concealed from the public eye.”[5]

Wilvert charged Cornelius Reimensnyder and James Sylvis with inviting Trevellick “to come in our midst to enlighten, we presume, our laboring men and mechanics.”[6] In the Guard and the American, Wilvert and Reimensnyder heatedly debated the merits of Trevellick’s reform efforts. Little remains of the Guard’s copy beyond what Wilvert reprinted in his columns. Those snippets encapsulate the ideological conflict that raged during the “Molly Maguire” era.

As Trevellick had “traveled nearly over the whole world,” Wilvert reasoned, Sylvis and Reimensnyder “thought him the very person to enlighten the people, and probably induce some few to join in with them.” Wilvert charged Reimensnyder with taking “great pains since his connection with the Labor Union to make converts.” Reimensyder evidently took issue with Wilvert’s character assassination of Trevellick. “The editors say that Mr. Trevellick has spent a fortune and is now poor,” Wilvert relayed, “‘in his devotion to a cause he believes to be sacred.’” Wilvert charged Trevellick’s NLU not as a reform effort, but as “a political machine for the purpose of obtaining a livelihood without labor.”[7]

In an adjoining column, Wilvert pulled AOH delegate Patrick Hester into the fray. The newsman identified Hester with the NLU and charged the union movement in the coal region with political fraud. “Why was it,” Wilvert asked, “that the candidate for President Judge was unconcerned as to the vote outside the coal region, where he spent most of his time in electioneering in company with Messrs. Pat. Hester, Connelly, Birtch [sic], Gallagher and other leading spirits of the order in that region.” In the same column, Wilvert accused Hester of stumping for Reimensnyder’s father in John Reimensnyder’s election bid for associate judgeship.[8]

In late August, Wilvert targeted Reimensnyder again. He charged the labor editor with backing the NLU “to aid in merging the order into the Irish Catholic element of the Democratic party” for personal gain, to achieve his father’s election as judge. Wilvert railed against Trevellick, calling his efforts an extension of Tammany politics. In the same column, Wilvert again linked Hester to Trevellick and the NLU.We find too,” Wilvert said, “that Germans, Welsh, English, and others … have been duped into this movement of the Irish Catholics. When they find the deception making itself a political organization, then they leave the order in disgust; but we have not found any of the Irish to leave them yet.”[9]

Two weeks later, Wilvert struck again. Reimensyder had refuted Wilvert’s charges in language that led Wilvert to refer to the London fishwives’ market. “The great amount of Billingsgate devoted to us in last week’s Guard,” Wilvert said, “shows that the senior has got out of humor, and that his genial friends, Messrs. Pat Hester and Trevelick [sic], deserve more than ordinary attention at his hands.” Wilvert spoke of the rising Irish political ascendancy and its connection with Trevellick’s national union, saying “the Irish Catholic members, who have long since affiliated … are now making every effort to secure power everywhere, and are fast ruining every party they affiliate with. We would caution all against those who give themselves over to that element, of the dangerous results that will follow by placing them in power.” He asked: “are the weekly visits of Pat [Hester] to the Senior [editor Reimensnyder] intended to affiliate anybody else besides a Labor Union with the bogus Democratic party now in this county?”[10]

A month later the Sunbury Gazette, a second nativist newspaper, published a column headlined “THE IMPENDING DANGER.” It said: “The growing disposition of the Irish Catholic population to usurp political power is becoming every year more evident—and fraud and violence are sure to follow their accession to power. We find this to be the case in all the coal regions.”[11] The same day, Wilvert protested Hester’s efforts to naturalize Irish Catholic voters. “Are they not going to rule the country as soon as they get strong enough,” he asked, “and then wont [sic] they show us who are to be our masters?” In another column, he advised: “Let native and Protestant American citizens ponder before they surrender their dearest rights to the rule of the Pope.”[12]

But politics were changing in Northumberland County. Some labor advocates were turning from the Democratic Party toward a more liberal Republicanism. The year after the Gazette and the American told readers of the dangers of Irish political ascendancy, Wilvert noted that C. W. Gutelius, publisher of the labor-friendly Democratic Guard, had been listed as a “Liberal Republican speaker” in Lower Augusta township.[13] A number of intervening events likely encouraged Gutelius’s supposed defection. They also influenced Reimensyder’s removal from the region and led to Hester’s imprisonment.

To Assuage the Sufferings of Their Brothers

aith-based ideology washed like baptismal water over much of the rhetoric of the nineteenth-century workingmen’s movement. It heightened the stakes among labor advocates, the industrialists who believed themselves ordained by God to rule over the workingmen, and Pennsylvania’s regional Roman Catholic clergy, who with few exceptions warmly supported the coal interests. The majority of clerics under Philadelphia archbishop James Frederick Wood also insisted that no parish activity whatever, including parades and picnics, could be held without the oversight of the parish priest. Patrick Hester’s challenge of this paternalistic rule brought him into direct conflict with his pastor. Hester’s challenge tightened the battle lines between workingmen’s advocates and the clergy three years before Pennsylvania’s first “Molly Maguire” arrest.

Labor editor Cornelius Reimensnyder, the son of a Lutheran minister, said Richard Trevellick had impoverished himself “‘in his devotion to a cause he believes to be sacred.’”[14] Trevellick, in the NLU “Declaration of Principles,” said of the impetus which drove the movement: “We want to be able to utilize the blessings which a kind Providence has given us.”[15]

Hester’s service as school director and overseer of the poor, and his daughters’ service as schoolteachers, implies a strong civic sense. In spring 1871, five months before Emanuel Wilvert warned of Trevellick’s influence, Hester helped move a faith-based effort through the Pennsylvania legislature. That effort resonated with the platform of Trevellick’s NLU, which called for “the general prosperity of the laboring classes.” Trevellick, no stranger to Washington, had successfully lobbied Congress to win the eight-hour workday for federal employees. As one of the country’s “first great labor agitators,”[16] Trevellick knew the power of legislative action.

Hester and his fellow Hibernians took Trevellick’s economic reforms a step further. Their AOH charter, filed in Harrisburg with Hester’s help, focused its support on those less fortunate. It codified the impulse that sent Hester into office as overseer of the poor. The new AOH charter, including constitution and by-laws, sprang “from Love Divine.”[17] 

Pennsylvania Charter, Ancient Order of Hibernians

In 1875, former Schuylkill County AOH delegate, hotelkeeper Bernard Dolan, targeted repeatedly as a “Molly,” spoke of the Hibernians’ aim “to … assuage the sufferings of the poor laboring class, who they consider their brothers in toil.”[18]

Letter to Editor, AOH Delegate Bernard Dolan, October 22, 1875

The same month, sitting AOH Schuylkill County delegate, hotelkeeper John Kehoe, gave the aim of the order’s leaders: “the elevation of their members.”[19]

Letter to Editor, AOH Delegate John Kehoe, October 10, 1875

In early 1876, in the midst of wholesale arrests of AOH men as “Mollies” on evidence supplied by Pinkertons, national AOH president Patrick Campbell also spoke of the order’s aims. The previous year, Campbell had met in Girardville, Pennsylvania, with Kehoe and several Hibernians who would later be charged as “Mollies.”

Campbell gave his 1876 address on Valentine’s Day in New York City. Ireland’s Great Hunger, with its mass unmarked graves, remained in living memory. The San Francisco Monitor published Campbell’s speech under the headline “ANCIENT ORDER OF HIBERNIANS. Address of the Society to their Friends and Fellow-Citizens in the United States.” Campbell told listeners:

The majority of our people belong to the working classes, who, from the very circumstances of their occupations, are exposed to many casualties, and from the precarious nature of their employments—obliging them frequently to remove from place to place, as the field of their labor becomes changed—they would often, when prostrated by sickness or accidental injuries, be reduced to the destitute condition of friendless strangers were it not for the intervention of benevolent associations of their fellow-workingmen, which in the hour of need come to their assistance, support them under sickness and the various trials of life, and, when the last hour approaches, consoles them with the assurance that the decent observances of Christian burial shall be provided for them, and their families, if they leave any to mourn their loss, shall not be without friends and helpers in their time of need.[20]

Hester, a comfortable businessman, shared Campbell’s fervor for “the decent observances of Christian burial.” Hester’s compassion placed his freedom, his standing in the community, and his family’s security at risk.

In May 1872, Pennsylvania gubernatorial politics, U.S. presidential politics, and Hester’s AOH advocacy intersected to produce a cascade of events. Those events would eventually unite Hester and the attorney Reimensnyder, the Democratic Guard’s senior editor, behind the defense table at the Sunbury courthouse.

The run-up to Hester’s involvement in Pennsylvania’s governor’s race began in February 1872. The Northumberland Democrat, a third nativist area newspaper, told readers of impending election choices. Both Trevellick’s labor advocacy and AOH Christian ideology influenced the local scene. The Democrat urged voters to shun the polls “if the little wrigglers are to give us another babies’ platform and another set of Shamocrats to run on some popular breeze which is to blow dust into everybody’s eyes.” The people should instead demand “some able” man.[21] The Democrat suggested three, including Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and Coal and Iron Company and chief orchestrator of the “Molly” trials; and Charles Buckalew, an attorney and former U.S. senator with close ties to Gowen.
Special Prosecutor
Senator Charles Buckalew

Three years before the “Molly” trials began, the coal interests seemed assured that the Irish Catholic vote would spin Democratic, as it had in times past. Hester seemed poised to deliver that vote. In late May, Emanuel Wilvert reported: “We noticed the Hon. C. R. Buckalew on our streets on Saturday last. As Mr. Buckalew is anxious to secure the nomination for Governor, he no doubt made the visit to Sunbury with a view to set the standing committee right, in his behalf. As Pat Hester and ex-Sheriff Weaver were also in attendance at the meeting of the Democratic Standing Committee, it is presumed that the Coal region will go for Buckalew unanimously.”[22]

But labor interests were spinning another way. Events turned dramatically that May with the Liberal Republican convention in Cincinnati. Wilvert reported from Sunbury: “J. C. Sylvis and C. A. Reimensnyder, Eqs. … started from this place [for the Cincinnati convention] to represent the Labor Union wing.”[23] The names of Sylvis and Reimensnyder did not appear in the convention’s program. But Wilvert’s comments place them at the liberal Republican convention that sought to oust Ulysses S. Grant as presidential nominee. Richard Trevellick, NLU president, also joined the Cincinnati convention, where he supported the candidacy of Supreme Court Justice David Davis.

Reimensnyder’s attendance at Cincinnati, where the convention nominated Horace Greeley, forges the first of a number of links in the chain of advocacy between Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies” and Liberal Republican politics. In May 1872 Reimensnyder, the labor editor who supported Trevellick’s NLU and received weekly visits from AOH delegate Hester, entered the tent of presidential politics, in an event hosted by the country’s Liberal Republicans.

Three weeks later, Hester entered the tent of populist religious conflict. On May 25, 1872, Hester approached the churchyard of St. Edward’s in Shamokin with two fellow Hibernians. The Irishmen brought with them the body of another Hibernian. They sought burial for their parish member in consecrated ground.

Father Joseph Koch, pastor of St. Edward’s under Archbishop James Frederick Wood’s authority, regarded the AOH as an alleged “secret society.” Koch denied burial in consecrated ground to all AOH men. Koch forbade Hester and his companions’ entry. The Hibernians, per subsequent court proceedings, “broke open the gate, forcibly entered, and forcibly buried the dead body in the graveyard.” J. E. Eichholtz’s Northumberland Democrat said: “They carried out their object, and to all intents and purposes it was carried out in a riotous manner. …  Their entry and the forcible way it was done, was as much a riot, perhaps, as if it had been done in seas of blood.”[24]

Koch charged all three Hibernians with riot. Five defense attorneys, including Reimensnyder, represented the AOH men. The clergy’s hostility toward the state-sanctioned Irish Catholic benevolent order showed itself in the Sunbury courtroom. “In this case several priests were present, and the Bishop of Harrisburg, and a large number of very respectable people (catholics and protestants) from Shamokin were in attendance,”[25] the Democrat reported.

Union foe Judge William Rockefeller presided. For burying their fellow Hibernian in consecrated ground against the wishes of their parish priest, Rockefeller sentenced Hester and his colleagues to two years, seven months apiece at Eastern Penitentiary. Hester, an influential AOH delegate, would no longer be on the ground to garner NLU supporters or votes in upcoming gubernatorial and presidential races.

Three weeks after Hester’s conviction, F. A. Hower and Co. of Lancaster County purchased the Democratic Guard. “The paper will hereafter pursue an independent course, and will not be published in the interest of any political party,”[26] Wilvert told readers. C. W. Gutelius, publisher for the Guard, was leaving the newspaper business. The Guard’s senior editor, Reimensnyder, after witnessing Hester’s conviction at the courthouse in Sunbury, had lost his voice in area events. Three weeks after that, Wilvert reported that the Guard’s new editors “have hauled down the Greeley ticket, an evidence that they intend to publish a free and independent journal.”[27]

Two and a half years passed. In spring 1875, Hester completed his prison sentence and returned to the coal region. That September, after a spate of a half dozen mysterious coal region murders, Gowen began his “Molly Maguire” prosecutions in earnest.

In 1875, Reimensnyder again suffered the arrows of a nativist publisher. In June, he  wrote to Wilvert to protest the American’s featuring of a “card” published by J. E. Eichholtz, publisher of the Northumberland Democrat and the Sunbury Daily. Eichholtz, Reimensnyder protested, had published fictitious correspondence over Reimensnyder’s name. “What prompted his sudden change of feeling we, of course, cannot tell,” Reimensnyder said.  “Of course, now it is proper to abuse us. … he now controls two papers, the columns of which, as he sees fit, he can constantly fill with the most bitter and venomous attacks against us personally.”[28]

Four months later, the Sunbury American’s report of sheriff’s sales for Northumberland County included the notice of “ALL that certain lot or piece of ground situate on the south side of Chestnut street,” complete with a two-story brick dwelling, property of “CORNELIUS A. REIMENSNYDER and FLORENCE L. REIMENSNYDER, his wife.”[29]

As the subject of local editorial vitriol, Reimensnyder, a news editor, insurance executive, member of a prominent area family, and attorney for AOH defendants, may have simply walked away from his property at the onset of the “Molly” prosecutions. Local biographies include scant information about Hester’s former defense counsel. One speaks of him simply as “Cornelius, a lawyer of Toledo, Ohio.”[30] A second provides this mention: “Cornelius Reimensnyder, the eldest son [of John and Susan], practiced law in the West.”[31]

Hester was less lucky. On November 7, 1877, the commonwealth re-arrested the former AOH delegate for the 1868 murder of Alexander Rea. Hester had been formerly charged with Rea’s death and released in 1869 on a grant of nolle prosequi. Daniel Kelly, tagged “Kelly the Bum” by newsmen, confessed to killing Rea, but testified in 1877 that Hester and two AOH codefendants had conspired to commit the crime. Charles Buckalew, defeated in his 1872 run for the governor’s chair, served as special prosecutor in Hester’s trial. In his closing argument, Buckalew told the jury: “a murder such as this could not be committed unless through a society such as the Ancient Order of Hibernians or ‘Mollie Maguires’ has been pictured to be.”[32] 

Boston Pilot, May 30, 1878

The Boston Pilot disagreed. “To go back to a deed committed nine years ago, for which the man has once borne the fullest investigation, and to put him in the dock now, coupling his name and the death of Mr. Rae [sic] with Molly Maguireism, seems to be a stretch, not of justice, but of malignant persecution,”[33] it said of Hester’s trial. “THREE MEN HANGED,” the Pilot headline ran after Hester’s execution at Bloomsburg. “Was Pat Hester an Innocent Man?” The column told readers: “The sentiment had grown to be a conviction in the minds of the people that Patrick Hester, a highly respectable man, was innocent, and would be reprieved.”[34]

Of Rea’s death, Hester told the Pilot reporter: “I am innocent of the murder of Rea and know nothing of it, and never had it in my mind to injure him. He was a particular friend of mine and was very prompt and punctual in business. Oh, no, I was sorry for his death and am sorry now. I never had any spite against him. It is not probable that I would undertake to kill a man by sending a lot of men that I never knew before.” Of his conviction, Hester told the same reporter: “‘I am … as innocent of the charge on which I am here as an unborn child. I have been abused like a dog. They have been after my life for a good many years. That is publicly known. … Politics are at the bottom of it. That was the starting of it.’”[35]

Part Two—The “Molly Maguires” and the Labor Reformers

he thread of religiosity runs throughout the narrative of Patrick Hester’s involvement with Cornelius Reimensnyder, the son, grandson, and brother of Lutheran ministers; and of Hester’s intersection with national labor leader Richard Trevellick, an upholder of the Methodist faith. Religiosity defines Hester’s actions against his parish priest, where the Irishman risked his freedom to obtain a Christian burial for a fellow Hibernian. It defines the 1871 AOH charter Hester helped secure, where “Love guides the whole design.”[36]
AOH Delegate
John Kehoe

Both Hester and AOH delegate John Kehoe, called out as the “Molly Kings,” died on the gallows to widespread public condemnation led by venomous press coverage. During his ordeal Kehoe, like Hester, turned for support to a man of religious heritage. In a letter written from Pottsville Jail to Ramsay Potts, an attorney of Quaker antecedents, Kehoe, the father of five young children, said: “I never thought that men would Be so wicked they swore every way they wanted them … I would sooner die than swear a wilful [sic] lie on my fellow man.”[37]

Reimensnyder said that labor leader Trevellick had impoverished himself for a cause he believed to be sacred. Kehoe described coal magnate Franklin Gowen, prime mover behind the “Molly” caseload, as “a man of restless, arbitrary ambition, with such grasping tendencies that no obstacle, however sacred, was ever allowed to interpose between him and his end.”[38]

“We want to be able to utilize the blessings which a kind Providence has given us,”[39] Trevellick’s NLU Declaration of Principles stated. A treatise from the 1798 Irish Rebellion, left behind in Kehoe’s cell at Pottsville Jail, stated: “The Almighty intended all mankind to lord the soil. … surely it is unfair that one or one hundred should hold in their hands those necessaries which none ought to want; it is not possible that God can be pleased to see a whole nation depending on the caprice and pride of a small faction.”[40] These ideologies, separated by an ocean and three quarters of a century, seem to flow from the same spring.

Ulysses S. Grant defeated Horace Greeley soundly in the 1872 presidential election. Greeley died before the electoral vote was counted. On his death, a correspondent to the New York Tribune said: “every man in this country who earns his bread by labor is better off to-day and for all time because Horace Greeley has lived. Can the world give him greater praise than that he thus carried out the foundation principles of Christianity?”[41]

Like religiosity, the thread of Labor Reform politics runs through the “Molly Maguire” story. Trevellick, former ship’s carpenter and NLU president, launched the Greenback Labor Party to help push forward reform. In 1872, the year after Trevellick traveled the coal region, Schuylkill County’s AOH treasurer Christopher Donnelly, a miner later charged as a “Molly,” served as delegate to the county Labor Reform convention.[42] In February 1872, James Carroll, hotelkeeper and AOH division secretary hanged as a “Molly,” hosted a Labor Reform convention at his home in Nesquehoning.[43]

In 1871, Trevellick told a meeting of mechanics in Virginia that they were “entitled to take a more active part in the government of the country, and that it is their duty to take the power in their own hands.”[44] The following year Kehoe, a former miner turned hotelkeeper, placed his name in contention for Democratic nominee to Pennsylvania’s state assembly.[45] In 1874, Donnelly again served as delegate, this time to Schuylkill County’s Democratic Party. Donnelly’s delivery of 39 votes to James Reilly’s nomination helped send Reilly, a young Irish Catholic, to U.S. Congress.[46]

Donnelly, another Hibernian elected as school director,[47] served a long term of imprisonment for an alleged “Molly” crime. Kehoe and Carroll died on the gallows. If Trevellick’s charisma had fused without interference with that of Hester, Kehoe, Carroll, and other AOH leaders, it might have produced a movement of startling proportions. At the height of the “Molly” trials, AOH members in Pennsylvania numbered, by an official estimate, more than sixty thousand Irish Catholic men.[48] AOH members nationwide numbered almost three quarters of a million.[49] Trevellick noted 1872 NLU membership at six hundred thousand.[50] If the goals of the Hibernians, to elevate members and provide for those less fortunate, had fused without interference with widespread Labor Reform political aims, the results might have been striking.

Mauch Chunk Coal Gazette, February 23, 1872
AOH Div. Secretary
James Carroll

“His people are well off, and of good social position,” the New York Sun said of Carroll after his execution for alleged conspiracy to murder police officer Benjamin Yost.[51] Carroll, who hosted a Labor Reform convention in 1872, had a card published after his execution in 1877. The father of four young children said: “‘Now, gentlemen, I do here confess to be innocent of the crime that I am charged with. I never wished for the murder of Yost or any other person … I hope if I ever wronged any person that they will forgive me as I forgive those who have so falsely belied me. I, as a dying man, have no animosity towards any person. I hope that there will be no reflection thrown on my friends or family for this.’”[52]

Hester, a grandfather, declared his innocence on the gallows at Bloomsburg. The simple facts of editor Reimensnyder’s ethnicity and professional standing may have helped him escape the net of “Molly Maguire” arrests. Labor Reform politicians with Irish surnames who belonged to the AOH fared less well in Pennsylvania in the late 1870s.

AOH Carbon County delegate Thomas Fisher, too, showed ties to the Greenback Labor movement. A Democratic Party delegate whose name had been placed in contention for county commissioner,[53] Fisher also served as division treasurer to the Summit Hill branch of the Emerald Benevolent Association,[54] yet another charitable order. In spring 1876, local Democrats discussed Fisher’s probable election as county tax collector. “Tom is a good man and deserves reward at the hands of the party he has long and faithfully served,”[55] the Mauch Chunk Democrat said.

Mauch Chunk Democrat, May 27, 1876

Execution, AOH Delegate
Thomas Fisher

March 29, 1878
Fisher, an older married man and owner of the Rising Sun hotel, had no children. A few months after his execution at Mauch Chunk for alleged conspiracy in yet another long-ago murder, that of mine superintendent Morgan Powell, the Mauch Chunk Democrat reported the election results for the county convention of the national Greenback Labor Party. J. S. Fisher, Fisher’s nephew, would serve as one of two permanent secretaries.[56]

After Fisher’s execution, the Irish World issued his dying statement. The Irishman said in part: “I am innocent of the murder of Morgan Powell as the child unborn. I never was engaged in a conspiracy … to take the life of Morgan Powell, or to injure him in any way, public or private. … My life has been taken away by a combination of men and not for crime. The only thing they could prove against me, in justice, was that I was a County Delegate of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and that I never denied.”[57]

While “Molly” trials and executions remained ongoing Terence Powderly, along with Trevellick, helped promote the Knights of Labor. A Scranton miner described the new order’s objects: “the elevation of labor by legal and honorable means.”[58] The New York Times denounced the Knights, with its feminist and anti-child labor agendas, as “simply another name for American Communism.” “The movement has spread like lightening,” the Times said of the order.[59]

As Franklin Gowen had promoted the theory of a terrorist cell within the AOH he called the “Molly Maguires,” he identified a terrorist cell within the Knights he called “McNulty’s Gang.”[60] As he had in his war against the AOH, in his battle against this new order Gowen engaged both the Pinkertons and the anthracite region clergy. With the region terrorized by numerous, seemingly random murders and the wholesale execution of Irishmen, some of them prominent, Gowen’s actions in the Pennsylvania coalfields helped dilute this new union effort.


t took the archived clips of a disgruntled nativist editor to tie Pennsylvania’s AOH men charged as “Mollies” to Richard Trevellick and the National Labor Union, to Trevellick and Greenback Labor Reform, and to the 1872 Liberal Republican Convention at Cincinnati that chose a presidential candidate. History lives in the relationships between individuals. The tale of Reimensnyder, Trevellick, and Hester, and the revelations that spin from their interactions, opens a vivid chapter in U.S. labor, political, and ethnic history.

A tattered, yellowing letter, a century and a half old, ties Patrick Hester’s AOH colleague John Kehoe to federal Greenback Labor Reform efforts. While Hester languished in Eastern Penitentiary on the charge brought by Father Koch, his Hibernian colleagues in Schuylkill County successfully entered the arena of national Labor Reform politics.[61] The surprising denouement of their effort would involve Democratic elder and special prosecutor Francis Hughes, a pivotal actor in the “Molly Maguire”  trials. 

By A. Flaherty © 2016

This column was updated September 29, 2016.


[1] Sunbury American, August 26, 1871. Wilvert refers here not to John Siney’s Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a regional union of mineworkers, but to Richard Trevellick’s National Labor Union, a national union of all trades.
[2] Boston Pilot, February 17, 1877.
[3] Ibid., March 30, 1878.
[4] Sunbury American, July 29, 1871.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid, August 12, 1871.
[7] For Wolverton's comments, see Ibid.
[8] Ibid. Hester, school director for a number of terms, may have intersected professionally with John Reimensnyder, elected in 1874 as Northumberland County’s first superintendent of schools.
[9] Wilvert’s comments in Ibid., August 26, 1871.
[10] Ibid., September 9, 1871.
[11] Sunbury Gazette, October 7, 1871.
[12] Sunbury American, October 7, 1871.
[13] Ibid., August 24, 1872.
[14] Ibid., August 12, 1871.
[15] Printed in Bloomfield Times (New Bloomfield, PA), November 7, 1871.
[16] Caryn Hannan and Jennifer Herman, Michigan Biological Dictionary (St. Clair Shores, Michigan, 1998), 283. 
[17] For reference to Hester’s effort in helping secure the 1871 AOH charter, see Catholic Standard, October 17, 1874, “The Church and Secret Societies. A Discourse Delivered by Rev. Daniel I. McDermott.” McDermott, hostile to the efforts of the AOH, referred obliquely to Hester’s involvement: “A man, who afterwards acknowledged the iniquities of the society to the Bishop of Philadelphia, and promised to abandon it (a promise which was not kept), and another leader, now serving out a term of imprisonment for exciting a riot against a priest for carrying out the Bishop’s instructions in regard to this society, were the worthy (?) Catholics who lobbied the charter through the Legislature.” Hester’s imprisonment for “riot” on the testimony of Rev. Joseph Koch is described above in the section “To Assuage the Sufferings of Their Brothers.” For preamble of revised AOH charter, see 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 (AOH constitution and by-laws reprinted in their entirety, 167-174).
[18] Miners’ Journal (Pottsville, PA), October 13, 1875.
[19] Kehoe’s letter, written in October 1875, was published in the Shenandoah Herald June 8, 1876.
[20] San Francisco Monitor, March 4, 1876.
[21] Northumberland Democrat, February 23, 1872.
[22] Sunbury American, May 25, 1872.
[23] Ibid., May 4, 1872.
[24] Northumberland Democrat, August 16, 1872.
[25] Ibid.
[26] Sunbury American, August 31, 1872.
[27] Ibid., September 21, 1872.
[28] Ibid., June 11, 1875.
[29] Ibid., October 15, 1875.
[30], accessed June 11, 2016.
[31], accessed June 11, 2016.
[32] Shenandoah Herald, February 23, 1877.
[33] Boston Pilot, February 17, 1877.
[34] Ibid., March 30, 1878.
[35] For Hester's comments, see Ibid.
[36] Commonwealth vs. Kehoe, 167.
[37] John Kehoe to W. R. Potts, circa March 1878, John Kehoe File, M 170.18 MI, Schuylkill County Historical Society. For Kehoe’s involvement in Greenback Labor Reform, see A. Flaherty, “The ‘Molly Kings’ and Greenback Labor Reform," From John Kehoe's Cell
[38] Interview, Philadelphia Times, June 27, 1877.
[39] Printed in Bloomfield Times, November 7, 1871.
[40] “The Union Doctrine, or Poor Man’s Catechism: Union Creed,” Labour History 75 (November 1998): 35. For discovery of this work in Kehoe’s cell, see New York Herald, December 19, 1878.
[41] New York Tribune, December 2, 1872.
[42] See Pottsville Standard, August 17, 1872.
[43] Reported in Mauch Chunk Coal Gazette, February 23, 1872.
[44] Richmond Dispatch, May 5, 1871.
[45] See Pottsville Standard, August 3 and 24, 1872.
[46] Miners’ Journal, August 7, 1874, “SCHUYLKILL COUNTY DEMOCRACY. Warm Contest Over the Congressional Tid-Bit.”
[47] See Pottsville Standard, February 19, 1876.
[48] Boston Pilot, May 22, 1880.
[49] Philadelphia Times, August 28, 1876.
[50] Daily State Journal (Alexandria, VA), May 5, 1872. Trevellick made this statement at a meeting of mechanics in Richmond. Historian Philip Foner noted of NLU membership: “Early in 1869 the Chicago Tribune quoted the membership of the National Labor Union at 800,000, although Sylvis himself put the figure at 600,000. Both estimates were greatly exaggerated, but membership was soaring to high levels.” See Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 1 (1947; repr. New York: International Publishers, 1972), 376-377.
[51] New York Sun, June 23, 1877.
[53] See Mauch Chunk Democrat, October 9, 1875.
[54] For Fisher’s EBA election, see Ibid., March 28, 1874.
[55] Ibid., May 27, 1876.
[56] Ibid., July 27, 1878.
[57] Irish World, April 13, 1878.
[58] Sunbury American, April 5, 1878.
[60] For Gowen’s denunciation, see Sunbury American, February 21, 1879. For regional clergy, see Miners’ Journal, February 22, 1878: “EXCOMMUNICATION. The Knights of Labor Denounced by the Church.” This action, by Father Ryan at Mahanoy City, took place a year before Gowen’s denunciation of the order.
[61] See Flaherty, “The ‘Molly Kings’” (pending publication, this website).

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