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,” said the reporter, “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 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.
The role of the Roman Catholic clergy rose up, with bishops in 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.
This essay, posted on June 24, 2017, was last revised on July 10, 2017.