WHO WAS JOHN KEHOE?



By A. Flaherty

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.[1] 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.”[2]

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.”[3]

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.

Ritt’s film, based on Walter Bernstein’s screenplay, did not accord with family recollections. Bernstein based his screenplay on the Arthur Lewis book Lament for the Molly Maguires, a work heavily influenced by the Pinkerton chronicling of events. My family's recollections flowed directly from Kehoe's eldest daughter Margaret. The film’s release prompted Marion Foy, Margaret's daughter, Kehoe’s granddaughter, and my great-aunt, to place a call Lewis.

“It did not happen that way,” Marion told Lewis. The film’s opening scenes place Kehoe, played by Connery with charismatically grim determination, at the bottom of a mine in advance of a carefully planned explosion, a harsh act of industrial sabotage. The family knew Kehoe not as a violent miner, but as a law and order man: an elected high constable, a tavern keeper and family man who had worked his way out of the mines and into a position of influence. “It was political,” a number of Kehoe’s granddaughters said of his execution and that of his fellows.

Around the time of the film’s release, a letter written by Kehoe from Pottsville Jail in early spring 1878 made the family rounds.[4] When he wrote this letter, Kehoe had been held in dungeon conditions for almost two years. He probably wrote under the light of a candle smuggled in by a sympathetic visitor. The letter's phrases resonated despite their misspellings, skewed punctuation, and archaic capitalizations. Its assertions, carefully penned, raised more questions than they answered.

“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”


My mother, Kehoe’s great-granddaughter, filed Kehoe’s photocopied letter with other family papers. Its poignancy, expressed in such careful penmanship, haunted me. So did the family discussion of the 1875 raid at “Wiggan’s Patch,” the mining village where Kehoe’s mother-in-law kept a boarding house. The early morning attack had left Kehoe’s sister-in-law, a young pregnant mother, crumpled in her nightdress at her bedroom door, dead from a gunshot. Her brother, too, had been shot to death, his body set on fire.

~~~

Eight years after the release of Ritt’s film, Kehoe’s story again caught the family’s attention. In 1978 our cousin Joseph Wayne, another direct descendant of Kehoe, joined with the Labor History Society of Pennsylvania to help secure Kehoe’s posthumous pardon. Attorney John Elliott led the legal effort.

“‘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.”[5]



In support of the request for Kehoe’s pardon, Elliott wrote a memorandum that outlined the facts. “Molly” trials conducted in an atmosphere drenched in social, religious, and ethnic bigotry. Juries that systematically excluded Irish Catholics. Specially gerrymandered districts to ensure the presence of jurors who spoke only German. Retaliatory practices against miners engaged in union activity: blacklisting, eviction, and denial of goods at company stores.



Alleged “Molly” defendants arrested by private “Coal and Iron” police, held in dungeon conditions without bail. The installment of railroad attorney Gowen as the trials’ special prosecutor. The appearance of a second prosecutor in full Civil War uniform.  Most significantly, Gowen’s tying of alleged Irish “Molly Maguire” terrorism to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent order.


Here was a fat clue, one long known to the family. Kehoe, along with numerous “Molly” defendants, had served as an AOH delegate. All of Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies” shared AOH membership. In court Gowen restated the purchased testimony of Pinkerton agent McParlan. That testimony intertwined the two organizations, painting both as criminal. In his opening and closing statements, totaling nine hours, Gowen told jurors 2,417 times of this alleged terrorist “secret society.”

More clues followed from Elliott’s memorandum. Cyrus Pershing, the trials’ most active hanging judge, was a personal and business associate of Gowen, handpicked and brought to Schuylkill County to serve as its president judge. Ethnic and class bias and animus against Irish Catholics informed Pershing’s judicial decisions. So did Pershing’s loss, in 1875, as candidate for Pennsylvania’s governorship—a loss Kehoe, the union, and the AOH helped bring about.

Politics entered the picture with Elliott’s memorandum. So did the effects of yellow journalism. A “rancid and inflammatory press,” Elliot said, prejudiced Kehoe’s case and “pre-ordained his verdict.” Elliott summed up: “Petitioner’s trial was a farce devoid of fundamental fairness and basic Constitutional protections.” His memorandum delineated some of those deficiencies.

Elliott’s appeal succeeded. In his letter commemorating Kehoe’s posthumous pardon, Pennsylvania’s Governor Milton Shapp said: “we can be proud of the men known as the Molly Maguires because they defiantly faced allegations which attempted to make trade unionism a criminal conspiracy. These men gave their lives in behalf of the labor struggle. For this reason, all Pennsylvanians today join with the members of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society in paying tribute to these martyred men of labor.”[6]

Vindication. The “Mollies,” as the family had always maintained, were labor. They fell victim, through their labor advocacy, to Gilded Age machinations that ended in judicial lynchings. Kehoe’s influence as AOH county delegate and his challenge of Gowen’s industrial and political interests had earned him both his execution and his title “King of the Mollies.”

The controversy that swirled around the alleged “Mollies” did not end with Shapp’s issuance of Kehoe’s posthumous pardon. The family assumed, if they thought of it at all, that subsequent treatments of this history would honor Shapp’s actions and the findings of the Labor History Society. But in 1998, Irish historian Kevin Kenny published Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. Kenny’s point of view aligned with that of Ritt’s 1970 film: Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies” were not innocent of the crimes charged against them. As oppressed mineworkers, they were driven to violence through the extremes of the era’s draconian working conditions.

Kenny took his thesis a step further. His research showed that numerous Irish immigrants in Pennsylvania came from a “preliterate Gaelic culture” [7] that differentiated them from the Welsh, the English, and their own countrymen in southern and eastern Ireland who knew little or no Gaelic. “It was these Irish-speakers, and not the Irish in general, who became ‘Molly Maguires’ in Pennsylvania,”[8] Kenny asserted.

In Kenny's view, these transplanted Irishmen refused to assimilate, clinging to the customs of the old country. “Because of their language, culture, and customs,” Kenny said, “they were the archetypal ‘wild Irish,’ noticeably and ominously different from the mass of Irish immigrants.”[9]

Kenny repeated his views in an Oxford University Press blog posted in December 2013. The post stated that Pennsylvania’s “Mollies” derived from “a rural secret society in Ireland.” In this short piece, Kenny gave the prosecution argument that hanged twenty-one Irish Catholic men and sent dozens more to prison: “Like their Irish counterparts, they were led by tavern keepers and called on strangers from neighboring ‘lodges’ of the AOH to carry out beatings and killings, pledging to return the favor at a later date.”[10] Despite Governor Shapp’s action in 1978, Kenny’s argument in 2013 matched Gowen’s address to a Schuylkill County jury in 1876. Kenny’s work challenged assumptions of innocence for the Irishmen hanged as “Mollies.” In his view, oppressed workingmen had adopted tactics from Ireland. Though violent, they hoped these tactics would help better the workingmen’s lot.

The family received Kenny’s work with dismay. Here was a credible thesis, written by a faculty member of the University of Texas who received his doctorate from Columbia University. In his work Kenny named Eric Foner, among others, as those owed his “principal intellectual debts.”[11] Oxford University Press published Kenny’s Making Sense. It would remain irrefutable until challenged by another academic with yet another take on this history.

And Kenny’s theory held water. Such an explanation—the Irishmen’s refusal to assimilate—could accord with the violence that took place in Pennsylvania’s coal region during the 1860s and 70s. We may have to set aside our collective view of supposed innocence for these Irishmen. And yet …

Some family members refused to give up. Years before my sister, Susie Flaherty, had examined the threads that wove a seeming pattern of innocence for the prosecuted Irishman. Her travels led her to the coal region where she met with John Brennan, a member of the Labor History Society and staunch believer in Kehoe’s innocence and that of his co-defendants. After Kenny’s book appeared, Ellen Engelhardt, Kehoe’s great-granddaughter, combed her New York Times clips on Kehoe’s trial and execution. She and her husband Bill traveled to the coal region to talk with others about these cases that continued to stir such controversy after more than a century.

One of Ellen’s finds included an interview of Kehoe from Pottsville Jail.[12] In late fall 2001, with the World Trade Center bombings vivid in everyone’s mind, I looked over the interview. I brought a prejudice to that enterprise: in that dark time, the notion of Irish terrorists in Pennsylvania’s coal region did, in fact, make sense. But quotes from the Kehoe interview, like those from Kehoe’s letter, echoed in my memory.

“‘Before McParlan came they tried to make the detectives keep taverns among us. But they couldn’t find out anything because there was nothing to find out. And then they sent McParlan, who was an Irishman and perhaps a Catholic, and they instructed him to join the society and encourage and commit crime, and when he should get enough into the snare he was to begin hanging them on his own evidence and that of others whom he threatened to hang, and who, to save their necks, would lie on their fellows.’”

“‘After [McParlan] came among us there were several murders committed, some of which he encouraged, and all of which, if he had been a true man, he could have prevented.’”

“‘[McParlan] even went through the county in carriages looking for men to go and shoot other men. This I have from those who were in the carriages with him. His motive must have been pride in his ability to ferret out crime and the well-greased purse-strings of Franklin B. Gowen.’”

“‘Franklin B. Gowen is the only Mollie I know of. … His whole course as president of the Reading road has shown him to be 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.’”

The Philadelphia newsman who recorded this interview reflected that Kehoe’s facility in stating his views “would do credit to a lawyer’s brief.” One phrase in particular reverberated: Gowen would allow “‘no obstacle, however sacred,’” to obstruct his ends. What was this sacred obstacle? Who was John Kehoe, and what were his ends?
~~~

At this point Howard Crown, with his longtime interest in the “Mollies,” offered to squire me around the coal region.[13] Many knew Howard’s generosity firsthand. Ned McGinley, national AOH president, expressed his support for the search. Jean Dellock of the Schuylkill County Historical Society offered thoughtful assistance, as did the staff at the Dimmick Memorial Library at Jim Thorpe.

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.

While combing though microfilm at area libraries, I stayed at Kehoe’s Hibernian House, still operated by Joe Wayne. Kehoe had lived there with his family while serving as Girardville’s high constable. He had lived there at the time of his arrest. After his execution, his wife held the wake for him there. I felt the old tavern’s history seep up from its floorboards, and from the mahogany bar, still intact, where Kehoe had served whiskey to undercover Pinkerton agent McParlan and to New York’s AOH officers.
John Kehoe's Hibernian House
Circa 1880s

“The Molly Maguires themselves left virtually no evidence of their existence, let along their aims and motivation,”[14] Kenny said in his 1998 work, the most recent available treatment. Yet I already had two vital sources of information: the Kehoe letter and the Kehoe interview. Both gave new insight into these stupefying events.

I searched for more sympathetic observers. Philip Foner’s 1947 History of the Labor Movement in the United States first led me to the Foners, a family of four progressive and intellectual brothers who in the 1940s, in a run-up to McCarthyism, had been denied academic jobs. Philip Foner’s take surprised me. He completely set aside the old take on the “Mollies” as terrorists, and noted that recent research “has revealed a different story. It is now established that there was no society in America calling itself the Molly Maguires, that this name was tagged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians by the commercial press whose purpose it was to help the coal operators crush all organization in the mining industry; that the Philadelphia and Reading Company hired the Pinkerton spy agency not to save society from a band of terrorists but to spread terror.”[15]

The findings of Philip Foner accorded with family recollections.[16] They also led me to Henry Foner, Philip’s younger brother and editor, and to a years-long, valued friendship. On learning of my research, Henry traveled to Girardville to visit Kehoe’s Hibernian House. He hoped my findings would help vindicate his brother’s work, published six decades before. Seated in Kehoe’s tavern, Henry quietly handled the leg iron and chain that Joe Wayne had salvaged during a demolition at Pottsville Jail. The leg iron had kept Kehoe bolted to the wooden floor of his cell.

My meeting with Henry led to a lunch in Manhattan with his nephew, Eric Foner. In 2011 Dr. Foner’s work on Lincoln, The Fiery Trial, would win the Pulitzer Prize. As he had served as one of Kenny’s advisors at Columbia University, I approached the meeting with some trepidation. I shared what I had uncovered on the alleged “Mollies” and Greenback Labor Reform, a nineteenth-century movement of progressive politics, finance, and labor advocacy. Dr. Foner’s comment, “you know more about this than I do,” alarmed rather than soothed. It also encouraged me to continue the labyrinth research.

Along the way others, including Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney, encouraged me to continue the search for clues into Pennsylvania's Mollies.” That search led me to libraries and archives from Pennsylvania’s coal region to Philadelphia to Harrisburg to Baltimore to Boston and Washington, D.C. Late in the research, with the release of Terry George’s film The Promise, I read of the culture of denial that accompanies episodes of ethnic cleansing. Christine Kinealy’s work on Ireland’s Great Hunger, and the museum at Quinnipiac University honoring that history, helped inform my investigations.

I also learned firsthand about the culture of denial. When a researcher at one university backed himself into a corner while explaining that master film for a Harrisburg collection had gone missing during archiving, I knew I had entered brackish waters. I felt the same on learning that the library at Jim Thorpe suffered a fire the year Governor Shapp signed Kehoe’s posthumous pardon. Around the time of the fire, some microfilm documenting the “Molly” era went missing.

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,”[17] 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.[18]

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.”


~~~


On the morning of Kehoe's execution a New York Herald reporter, though
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.

Both volumes flash with clues into the workings of Kehoe’s mind and the aims of AOH men during this turbulent time. Their dual call for advocacy backed by Christian brotherhood accords with the principles of the Labor Reform Party, a party supported by many alleged “Mollies.”

All of the condemned “Mollies” had in their possession a copy of the AOH charter, revised in 1871. The volumes found in Kehoe’s cell echo the sentiment found in that charter. A poem from the charter’s preamble begins: “These laws though human, / Spring from Love Divine.”[19]


The best answer to the question “Who was John Kehoe?” may lie between the pages of the two works found in the Irishman’s cell on the morning of his execution, and in the pages of the AOH charter. Those pages, with their advocacy for the poor and their urge toward egalitarian political action, may have formed the basis for Kehoe’s ideology, his leadership, and his influence on Pennsylvania’s AOH men. Those pages, and not research heavily influenced by purchased Pinkerton testimony, may provide history’s best answers to the mysteries of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict.

This essay, posted on June 24, 2017, was last revised on August 11, 2017.


[1] For this description of Kehoe’s execution, see Philadelphia Times, December 19, 1878.
[2] W. M. Foyle to Governor J. F. Hartranft, 14 December 1878, John Kehoe Clemency File, Department of Justice Records, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
[3] A. Campbell, S. A. Garrett, John W. Ryon, A Brief Statement of the Facts to be presented to the Board of Pardons at Harrisburg, April 9, 1878, Kehoe Clemency File, PHMC.
[4] For Kehoe’s original letter, see John Kehoe to W. R. Potts, circa March 1878, John Kehoe File, M 170.18 MI, Historical Society for Schuylkill County.
[5] Irish Times, December 21, 1978.
[6] Letter of Governor Milton J. Shapp, 6 September 1978, John Kehoe File, HSSC.
[7] Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York, 1998), 37.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., 38.
[10] “Ten things to understand about the Molly Maguires,” accessed November 2, 2016,  http://blog.oup.com/2013/12/ten-things-to-understand-about-the-molly-maguires/.
[11] Kenny, Making Sense, vii.
[12] For Kehoe interview, see Philadelphia Times, June 27, 1877.
[13] For Howard Crown's comprehensive guide to coal region participants, see Howard T. Crown and Mark T. Major, A Guide to the Molly Maguires (Frackville, 2003).
[14] Kenny, Making Sense, 5.
[15] Philip S. Foner, History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 1 (1947; repr. New York: International Publishers, 1972), 460.
[16] Philip Foner’s view accorded somewhat with the work of Anthony Bimba, published in 1932. “It is evident,” Bimba said, “that some of these murders were committed by provocateurs and Pinkerton agents and later fastened on the miners’ leaders.” See Anthony Bimba, The Molly Maguires: The true story of labor’s martyred pioneers in the coalfields (New York, 1932), 124.
            Walter Coleman’s 1936 work also casts doubt on these prosecutions. Coleman, willing to be convinced that prosecutors colluded to hang innocent men, noted that the worst that could be said of the trials’ prosecutors “is that they entered into a deliberate conspiracy to manufacture evidence with which to convict their enemies, the labor leaders, a charge which, obviously, cannot be proved.” Coleman believed this conspiracy theory “so far within the realm of possibility that it deserves consideration." See J. Walter Coleman, The Molly Maguire Riots: Industrial Conflict in The Pennsylvania Coal Region (Richmond, 1936), 168.
            Coleman’s work, originally published as a thesis for Catholic University, raises concerns about the fairness of the historical canon. The prosecution, along with their hired Pinkerton operatives, helped write the original “Molly Maguire” history on which scholars based their works. Coleman relied heavily on an 1877 work published by Francis Dewees, nephew of special “Molly” prosecutor Francis Hughes. Dewees’s The Molly Maguires: The Origin, Growth, and Character of the Organization, published while trials remained ongoing, skewed heavily toward the prosecution. Dewees also thanked three Pinkerton employees, including McParlan, for their assistance. Where Coleman found gaps in Dewees’s coverage, he turned to Allan Pinkerton’s 1877 dime novel The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives.
            In 1964, in his new work The Molly Maguires, Dartmouth historian Wayne Broehl, Jr. set aside Coleman’s skepticism. Broehl’s work reached back to again paint the Pinkertons as heroes and the alleged “Mollies” as terrorists.
[17] New York Herald, April 12, 1871.
[18] For Dr. Gido’s description of the Alexander Campbell trial, see Famous American Crimes and Trials (vol. 2, 1860-1912), ed. Frankie Y. Bailey and Steven Chernak (Westport, 2004), 21-38.
[19] 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.

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