Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Franklin Gowen Argues:

"Men Were Not Created Equal"

Both the Miners’ Journal in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and the Reading Eagle reported in full Franklin Gowen’s stirring words to an assembly at Pottsville in 1878: “The Declaration of Independence affirmed that all men are created equal and endowed with certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”*

But Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, begged to differ with our country’s founders. “Men were not created equal,” this Irish Episcopalian said flatly. Only one distinction, he insisted, separated men: “the distinction between mind and matter, between the men who labored with their heads and those who labored with their hands.”

“There [are] two great classes of people in this world,” Gowen thundered, “men of genius, or intellectual men, and those who [are] not so, the men of labor."


It was early April 1878 in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Pottsville’s town fathers—its self-proclaimed “white men”—were in the mood for a spring celebration.

The previous year had seen the execution of 11 Irish Catholic men, all officers or members of the “Ancient Order of Hibernians” (AOH), on the gallows in three counties for so-called “Molly Maguire” crimes.

Just the previous week had seen the hangings of four more AOH men, including three powerful county officers of the benevolent order. All four AOH men protested their innocence of the crimes charged against them.

Peter McHugh and Patrick Tully asserted their innocence at sentencing hearings. Patrick Hester declared his on the gallows, before God and man. Thomas Fisher, “as guiltless as an unborn child” of the crime charged against him, did the same.

The efforts of these AOH men had been aborted. The efforts of Gowen’s “Coal Combination,” the cartel of regional railroad and coal interests, against all populist organization—union, political and social—had succeeded brilliantly.

The commonwealth’s “Molly Maguire” prosecutions, based on evidence supplied by Pinkerton operatives in Gowen’s employ, had spread even to the western part of the state. Those prosecutions now disrupted the bituminous coal counties of Allegheny and Westmoreland.

Gowen’s prosecutions, engineered by private detectives and enabled by private police, had made a mockery of the constitutionally protected rights of Irish Catholic defendants. But not one attorney had successfully challenged Gowen’s autocratic abuse of the courts.

By April 1878 Gowen, generator of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” juggernaut, had cleared the field to make any assertion he wanted. To pursue his vendetta against the AOH men, the industrialist had set aside the U.S. Constitution.

He had already upended one protective icon of American liberties. He had no problem now shattering even the bedrock document of U.S. identity—its Declaration of Independence.

To Franklin Gowen, prosecutor of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires,” the laws of the United States simply did not apply.


Judge David Green introduced Gowen to the “large and brilliant audience” assembled that April evening for the Atheneum Anniversary at Pottsville’s Academy of Music. From the audience, Judge Cyrus Pershing applauded warmly. These two judges, along with Gowen, had helped send Schuylkill’s AOH men to the gallows.

Pottsville’s Atheneum, its gentlemen’s literary society, had been founded just one year before, amidst wholesale signings of death warrants for Irish Catholics convicted as “Molly Maguires.” Judges and prosecutors who secured those convictions joined now to celebrate their literary society’s first anniversary. They did so with Gowen’s speech. The Eagle subtitled it “ALLEGED EVILS OF TRADES UNIONS.”

Gowen gave this speech just four days after Thomas Fisher declared himself “guiltless as an unborn child” on the gallows. The night of the speech, Gowen strutted with self-importance, as he had as prosecutor in so many “Molly Maguire” trials. He confided to those assembled: “in the many conflicts he had had with Mollie Maguires, secret societies and investigating committees he had formed a very low opinion of his opponents, who had played the part of labor reformers.”

Exactly one week before, the executions of three powerful AOH men had convulsed the region. These Irishmen could no longer plague the Coal Combination with their challenges of collective bargaining, union solidarity, legislative investigations or benevolent associations.

The railroad president felt in the mood to crow. And crow he did, setting aside even the might of the icon of U.S. independence.


Years before, Gowen had made clear his belief in the “five great races of men.” In Gowen’s personal—and peculiar—ideology, “the Celts” comprised a distinct and separate race. The role of Irish Catholics—to this aristocrat—was not to lead, but to serve.

And the “true happiness of every man,” Gowen puffed now to society members, “and especially of the laboring man, was to be accomplished only by individual effort, not by striving collectively.” Trade unions destroyed confidence between employer and employee by "making both subject to the domination of an irresponsible society led by inferior men.”

In a region where Irish Catholics comprised much of the “laboring class,” Gowen’s speech was a marvel of arrogance, drenched in thinly veiled bigotry. But 15 Irishmen were already dead on the gallows. Few would rise to challenge him now.


The glittering assembly that heard Gowen’s speech held both members of the Atheneum society and stockholders of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Many enjoyed wealth due in part to the efforts of seven-year-old slate pickers.

St. Clair’s Hickory Colliery, just a few miles from Pottsville’s Academy of Music, employed some of these boys. They worked in conditions of unimaginable deprivation. By the time Gowen gave his Pottsville speech, no trade union remained to protect them. Gowen’s efforts, and those of the Coal Combination, had destroyed unionism in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region.

The gentlemen in Pottsville gave Gowen’s effort on the “ALLEGED EVILS OF TRADE UNIONS” a thunderous applause. They applauded too, Gowen’s subversion of the U.S. Declaration of Independence. That document lay in tatters under their feet. Their applause helped scatter its contents.

A few miles away, the desperate lives of the slate pickers continued, unchallenged by “labor reformers.”

And the next year and a half would see the death of six more AOH men on the gallows.

For in Pennsylvania’s coal fields, as Gowen assured Pottsville’s finest citizens, “Men were not created equal.”


Coming July 1, 2011 — “Before I Die I Will Relate These Facts": Patrick Hester's Dying Statement