A news column from December 1878 suggests that John Kehoe, executed that month as the alleged king of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires,” did not die in bitterness. A Philadelphia reporter who recorded Kehoe’s execution described two Masses held on the morning of the hanging. At Pottsville Jail, six nuns decorated a work cell routinely used to store shoes made by the jail’s prisoners. The nuns draped the cell walls with white muslin and attached pine boughs to the draperies. They inserted candles into white plaster candleholders and placed them on a small altar, where the amber flames warmed the early morning gloom. “As I entered this in the dark hours of the morning,” the reporter said, “the chill look of the prison was left behind and there in a convict cell was a perfect fac-simile of a convent chapel.”
The priests’ vestments of white and gold showed the day, December 18, as a feast day of the Blessed Mother. After the second service, “Kehoe expressed his satisfaction that the day was one of the Virgin Mary’s feast days, for, he said, he had great confidence in her intercessory power.” As they ascended the gallows, many of Pennsylvania’s condemned “Mollies” carried crucifixes before them. Kehoe carried a lighted candle and wore a rosary around his neck. While he strangled to death in a snowstorm, two priests stood at the foot of the gallows. One granted the dying man a plenary indulgence.
The week before Kehoe’s execution, his wife Mary Ann traveled north to Towanda to interview a witness who could secure Kehoe’s commutation. She located the witness and a local attorney deposed him. The attorney pled with Pennsylvania’s Governor John Hartranft: “To hang Jack Kehoe in the light of this newly discovered evidence would be a piece of judicial murder. I think the death warrant ought to be revoked, and further action in the case postponed by the board of pardons till this newly discovered testimony is fully presented to the board, which should in my judgment procure a commutation of the death penalty if not a full pardon.”
Kehoe’s attorneys said of his trial for murder: “As to the trial of this cause, we have only to say that the proceedings, to our minds, were extraordinary. The rules of evidence were strained to a tension never before heard of in the history of criminal jurisprudence; principles of law established that are dangerous in the extreme; and precedents set which, if followed, will make it impossible for innocent persons to obtain justice in a Court of law.”
Who was John Kehoe? How did one man generate such intense feeling, both for him
and against him? Martin Ritt’s 1970 film The Molly Maguires sharpened the question for my family, especially when Ritt brought in Sean Connery to play Kehoe. The family also knew something of James McParlan, the undercover Pinkerton detective played by Richard Harris. And they knew of Franklin Gowen, the railroad president and attorney who orchestrated the trials that sent twenty-one Irish Catholic men from five counties to the gallows.
“Thinking over the Cruelties that has Befallen me, By Bribery Perjury and Pregudise … I am under the sentence of Death. for a Crime I Never Committed which I will Prove to you.”
“their is no evidence in my Case that should Convict me there was Good evidence that Proved my inocence But it was All Jug handled Justice.”
“But iff I had sworn that Lie on Gov hartranft I would Be Pardoned long ago they offered [me] Both Money & Pardon if I would do it. Firgus Farquhar was appointed by Gowen to Pay the money. But I would not take it. they all know that I am inocent.”
“I must write to all my friends to try and do what they Can for Me. Now, Ramsey, what Ever their is in your Power I hope you will do it for me. I will Rite to John W. Morgan & Dr. McKibben you can see them. of Cours I Need not tell you who to see you Know them all yourself. I will write a long letter to John W. Killinger him & me used to Be Good old friends. Now my Dear Potts see all [the] Good men that you can to help you to Get me out of this Cursed Prison I am Heart Broken.”
Who was W. R. Potts, Kehoe’s “Esteemed friend” and the recipient of this letter? Who were John W. Morgan, Dr. McKibben, and, especially, John W. Killinger?
Who accepted bribes, and who perjured themselves? What was “that Lie” to be sworn against Pennsylvania’s governor, John Hartranft?
Kehoe’s letter ended with a postscript: “P. S. dont for get what you told me when you seen me Last. . Ramsey I never thought that men would Be so wicked they swore every way they wanted them … I would sooner die than swear a wilful lie on my fellow man Good By. J. Kehoe”
“‘The entire purpose behind the trials,’” the Irish Times quoted Elliott, “‘was to stigmatize and brutalize the miners.’” The Times added: “No eye-witnesses to the murders were called and in most cases no motive was established for the killings.”
The breadth of the territory that hosted the trials surprised me. It ranged from Pottsville, northeast to Jim Thorpe (formerly Mauch Chunk), north again to Wilkes-Barre, west to Bloomsburg, and southwest to Sunbury. Those wanting to visit sites of “Molly” executions would need at least a full day to do so.
|John Kehoe's Hibernian House|
While in Jim Thorpe, I visited the old Mauch Chunk Jail. Built less than a decade
before it mounted seven “Molly” hangings, its stone battlements seemed to date from medieval times. Inside, town fathers had erected a theatre-like enclosure where a throng of viewers could witness the executions conducted there.
At the libraries, a pattern began to emerge. Local historical societies generally housed the microfilm for local newspapers, the most likely sources to identify the careers of individual “Molly” defendants. The local societies had limited resources and hours of availability. They lacked state-of-the-art equipment. All posed challenges to researchers.
I learned to expect large gaps in research collections, especially around issues that
documented the involvement of alleged “Mollies” in labor or political advocacy. Once, close on the hunt of alleged “Molly” Michael Lawler in Grand Council labor union activity, I encountered microfilm that documented page after page of the Shenandoah Herald with the legend “STAINED PAGES MULILATED PAGES.” Someone, somewhere, rather than pulling this source before the newspaper was filmed, had laid down two months’ worth of editions and stained them with poured ink, rendering whole editions wholly indecipherable.
In tracking the involvement of alleged “Molly” Patrick Hester in the 1872 gubernatorial candidacy of Charles Buckalew, I paged through microfilm to find the report of the local Democratic standing committee, a committee that included Hester. I spun the film, convinced I had found the last brick in the wall of “Molly” political activity. When I paged to the edition that should include that gold nugget of research, the pertinent column had been clipped from the newspaper before filming. A tiny flag of paper showed where the scissors had been inserted.
Prosecution arguments abounded, sometimes published in pamphlet form. Biased newspaper editors gave rivers of print to prosecution arguments, but far less to those of the defense. Where trial transcripts survived, defense arguments had been removed. Even newspapers archived at Harrisburg favored the prosecution: numerous Democratic Party organs loudly proclaimed the guilt of the collective “Mollies.” Newspapers sympathetic to the Irishmen, sometimes quoted in other sources, were left out of archives altogether.
Still, what remained in the interstices of research collections, though daunting to collect and archive, opened up a whole new perspective on the “Molly Maguire” story. The era’s ethnic hatred, its contempt, its urge to cloak these executions in ribaldry and banter, rose from the microfilm like a miasma. Individual “Mollies” arose, not as cartoons, but as individual men: husbands and fathers, sons and uncles and brothers, businessmen, office holders, even senatorial nominees to the burgeoning Labor Reform Party. Local newspapers documented their elections as high constables, township supervisors, school directors, tax assessors and collectors, and delegates to political conventions. At the time of their arrests, some alleged “Mollies” worked in the mines while concurrently holding these offices.
One thing became clear. Many Irishmen charged as “Mollies” had climbed well out of the mines and into positions of influence. Those who still worked in the mines shared that influence. These Irishmen showed a passion for political advocacy. Rising AOH membership numbers reflected their charisma and their determined optimism.
When I found a clip highlighting the career of alleged “Molly” leader Patrick Hester as school director, overseer of the poor, township supervisor, and tax collector, with four daughters who served as area schoolteachers, I realized that Kenny’s theory of unassimilated wild Irishmen from a preliterate Gaelic culture may have to be set aside. The New York Herald headline that described a body of union men with two “Mollies” in attendance, along with Kehoe’s friend John W. Morgan, as an “Immense Politico-Industrial Organization—A New Power Forming in the Land,” reinforced that observation.
Another clip showed that Kehoe, six years before his execution, had aspirations to serve in Pennsylvania’s state assembly. The careers of John W. Morgan and John W. Killinger, mentioned in Kehoe’s letter to Potts, rose up dramatically, featuring in one instance a detailed legislative plan for cooperative ownership of the U.S. railway system.
Discovery followed discovery. Links of alleged “Mollies” to the day’s labor leaders, Richard Trevellick and William Sylvis, appeared under the creaky microfilm readers. With every discovery, political intrigue thickened. “Molly” cases, undocumented by any historian, appeared in the commonwealth’s bituminous region: in Allegheny, Fayette, and Westmoreland counties. These cases, too, bore the stamp of Pinkerton interference. The ongoing vendetta against AOH men, partly overlooked by the conflict’s chroniclers, spilled from one side of the state to the other. Though the western cases generated no executions, their attendant chaos, including three murders, disrupted communities for half a decade. As “Molly” chroniclers, including Allan Pinkerton, chose to exclude them from the early histories, they had never reached the history books at all.
The role of the Roman Catholic clergy rose up, with bishops in Erie, Philadelphia, New York, and Boston driving a press campaign through diocesan newspapers that kept the "Molly Maguire" terrorist image embedded in the public mind. Without this strenuous clerical interference, including that of Philadelphia's Archbishop James Frederick Wood, juries may have reconsidered the dozens of "guilty" verdicts they rendered in so many courts.
With the availability of the Library of Congress website, “Chronicling America,” a whole new avenue of discovery appeared. I no longer had to sift through individual copies of newspapers, searching for names. This new database could do that for me. Newer discoveries helped confirm a rising sense of unease. Not only had Gowen’s industrial allies leagued with him to mount the trials, they had also suffered defeat after defeat in Democratic state party contests. Disappointed politicians that included numerous special prosecutors helped stage the “Molly” trials. These men shared white supremacist leanings. The “Molly” trials took on the feel of both a nativist crusade and a vengeful political vendetta. Gallows' strangulations that appeared to have been deliberately engineered strengthened this perception.
Information arose as to the AOH, the benevolent order that claimed all the alleged “Mollies” as officers or members. In 1871, its men had secured a new charter through the state legislature at Harrisburg. The same week, AOH men in New York secured an almost identical charter. Kehoe had ties to New York’s AOH officers. He knew them personally, had hosted them at Hibernian House and met with them in New York. A convoluted series of events that featured a hostile coal region priest identified alleged “Molly” Patrick Hester as one of the men who had helped walk Pennsylvania’s AOH charter through the state legislature. The charter’s preamble contained a poem with the line “Love guides the whole design.”
AOH membership numbers rose up, staggering in their import. At the time of the “Molly” trials, the order numbered, by an official count, sixty-three thousand men in Pennsylvania and three quarters of a million nationwide: more than enough to turn the tide of both state and national elections.
Along the way marked by these findings, I shared them through presentations to community members at Fairfield, American, and Penn State universities, among other venues. A listener at Penn State asked if I would be lecturing college students. They needed, she said, to know just how history is written. Criminologist Rosemary Gido, with her longtime interest in the “Molly” conflict, expressed support for the work, became a valued friend, and eventually helped me establish the Kehoe Foundation.
In fall 2016, I posted a number of essays to this blog, From John Kehoe's Cell, and shared them with two Bucknell University professors. In a noontime presentation hosted at their university, featuring a black-and-white photo of Kehoe blown up many feet high, John Rickard and Adrian Mulligan noted that descendants are now writing the “Molly” history. In May 2017, the Inn of Court of the Dauphin County Bar Association held a private presentation in Harrisburg to discuss the trials. I assisted presenting attorneys with research. Judge Susan Schwab thanked me and acknowledged “the effort it must take to keep this history alive.”
steadfastly hostile in his coverage, described the contents of Kehoe's cell. They included a small library. The Life of St. Alphonsus described the martyrdom of Alphonsus Liguori, the Italian founder of the Redemptorist order. The Poor Man’s Catechism, the treatise from the 1798 Irish Rebellion, stood alongside the biography of the Italian saint condemned by slander.
This essay, posted on June 24, 2017, was last revised on August 11, 2017.