Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Justice Trembling in the Balance

Part 2 of 4: Lieutenant Governor Latta Falls From a Train

An April 1878 meeting of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, reported The New York Times months later, resulted in a unanimous decision to commute the death sentence of Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) leader John Kehoe to imprisonment for life.

The Times did not report where it received this information. When the board’s decision came down that April, it was kept well-hidden from the newspapers.

Pennsylvania’s four-man board, newly constructed in 1874, consisted of four appointees: the commonwealth’s secretary, its attorney general, its secretary of internal affairs and its lieutenant governor.

In April 1878 all four of those officers, reported The New York Times eight months later, had voted in favor of Kehoe’s request for commutation of his death sentence.

That ring of support unraveled before it could again rule on Kehoe’s behalf.


By September 1878 the Machiavellian legal arena that had secured the signed death warrants for 16 AOH defendants was well in place. Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court had denied all requests for relief for these Irish Catholic defendants. Those too poor to have their evidence printed for that court’s review simply went to the gallows without even the appearance of effective due process of law.

By fall 1878 the issue of John Kehoe’s request for commutation had become a political football. This was an election year.

But Franklin Gowen had matters well in hand for the pardon board’s September 1878 hearing. He knew he could rely on the support of William McCandless, secretary of internal affairs. And Matthew Quay had taken a leave of absence from his office of secretary for the commonwealth. Quay’s replacement, John Linn, could also be relied upon to vote against Kehoe’s request.

That left Attorney General Lear and Lieutenant Governor Latta. Both these men showed a stubborn insistence on voting in Kehoe’s favor. But if the board deadlocked again in a two-two tie, that would favor the commonwealth, not the defendant.


The board met on September 4 to reconsider Kehoe’s case. “Several hours were consumed in deliberation,” reported a Harrisburg paper, “when the board decided to refuse to recommend the commutation of his death sentence to imprisonment for life.” As expected, both Latta and Lear voted in Kehoe’s favor.

Latta then boarded a train for his home in Greensburg.

“A rather serious accident befell Hon. John Latta, Lieut. Governor … on Wednesday night, on his return from Harrisburg, where he was attending the meeting of the Board of Pardons,” reported a Pittsburgh paper. “[I]n stepping off the train … he was thrown down with such violence as to fracture his right arm above the elbow.”

“Lieut. Gov. Latta was very seriously injured at Greensburg last night,” reported a Bloomsburg paper. “He sustained a dislocation of the shoulder and is suffering from concussion of the brain. Considerable anxiety is felt at his recovery.”

Latta’s unfortunate accident did not end his efforts on John Kehoe’s behalf. Latta did recover from his injury. And he continued to side with Kehoe in ongoing pardon board deliberations.


Coming December 1 - Part 3 of 4: The Witness is Worthy of Credit

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Justice Trembling in the Balance

Part 1 of 4: The Stacking of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons

“To hang Jack Kehoe in the light of this newly discovered evidence would be a piece of judicial murder,” attorney W. M. Foyle of Towanda wrote to Pennsylvania's governor, John Hartranft, on December 10, 1878, eight days before John Kehoe’s execution as the alleged “King of the Molly Maguires.”

“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,” Foyle continued. “This would be an act of simple justice to the accused awaiting more.”

Foyle’s “newly discovered testimony” came from a newly discovered defense witness named Patrick McHugh. Less than two weeks before Kehoe’s scheduled date of execution, his wife Mary Ann traveled 90 miles from Girardville to Towanda to locate McHugh and have him deposed.

Kehoe, Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) delegate for Schuylkill County, had by this time spent two and a half years in Pottsville Prison. He stood convicted, among other crimes, for the first-degree murder of Frank Langdon, a mine foreman killed at Audenried in 1862.


The attorney Foyle’s attempt to help Kehoe came after years of political maneuvering that kept Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons well stacked against both Kehoe and against all AOH defendants awaiting execution in Pennsylvania. In December 1878 The New York Times gave some details of the actions that tainted successive pardon hearings for these Irish Catholic defendants.

Kehoe’s April 1878 hearing before Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons, reported The Times, “was unanimously in favor of commuting Kehoe’s sentence to imprisonment for life.” The Board deemed it “inexpedient, however, to take formal action then, as such a course would establish a bad precedent and affect the cases of the other Mollie Maguires.”

The Board evidently feared that a finding in Kehoe’s favor would affect the outcome of cases of other alleged “Molly Maguires.” The unanimous vote in Kehoe’s favor in spring 1878 did nothing to secure his relief.

On hearing the board’s stunning decision, Kehoe’s counsel suggested that his case be held over until other cases “had been disposed of.” By the time the board met again to consider Kehoe’s case, said The Times, “the opinion of one member of the board [had] been changed by newspaper clamor, and another member, Mr. Quay, retired by resignation of his position as Secretary of the Commonwealth, his successor, Mr. Linn, holding a different view regarding the guilt of Kehoe.”


The chess board that constituted Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons had been reordered. One member who favored Kehoe’s pardon, Matthew Quay, took a leave of absence from his office of secretary of the commonwealth to pursue the newly created position of recorder for the city of Philadelphia. And “newspaper clamor” had evidently changed the opinion of Secretary for Internal Affairs William McCandless.

John Linn took over Quay’s duties as secretary of the commonwealth. In a surprise to no one who followed the political antics of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” caseload, the newly appointed four-man board consistently deadlocked on Kehoe’s request for relief. The appointment of John Linn, said The Times, “has defeated every effort since made to secure a commutation of sentence or a rehearing” on Kehoe’s behalf.

Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and a powerful Democratic political operative, served as chief prosecutor during the "Molly Maguire" trials. Whether Gowen’s long political arm also maneuvered Quay out of—and Linn onto—Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons is not known.

Whatever chicanery took place, Linn’s presence defeated all subsequent attempts to obtain relief for Kehoe. But two pardon board appointees, Attorney General George Lear and Lieutenant Governor John Latta, remained steadfast in their support of Kehoe’s continuing requests for commutation.


Coming November 22 - Part 2 of 4: Lieutenant Governor Latta Falls From a Train

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

The Poem by "Graybeard"

Part 2 of 2: The Darkening Future

The poem by “Graybeard,” written on lined paper in careful nineteenth century penmanship, remains one of the most enigmatic artifacts from Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” history. Its author remains unknown.

The poem’s contents suggest that John Kehoe’s wife Mary Ann penned this work.

Whatever its derivation, the poem by “Graybeard” told Mary Ann’s story.


In 1877 s Philadelphia reporter called Mary Ann, the mother of five, “quite a young, comely woman.”

“She has proved herself a faithful wife, and has clung to her husband steadfastly through good and evil report,” a Pottsville newspaper said after Kehoe’s sentencing hearing. “In the darkening future she will be entitled to sympathy.”

Of Mary Ann’s strenuous efforts to secure a commutation of sentence for her husband, the same newspaper reported: “Mrs. Kehoe’s dream by night and the object of her labor by day, is to save her husband from being executed on the 18th prox. She will go to Harrisburg with by far the best prepared case of any presented by the long list of Mollies.”

The poem by “Graybeard” describes that struggle in part.

“For the last two years and over on hope I relied upon,” its second stanza reads. “But now my hope is over for my husband dear is gone.”

The poem continues, with its misspellings and grammatical errors:

Like a faithful woman I done my best and I could do no more
For him indeed I lost my rest and hardship Sore I bore
But it was my right to do for him for he was my husband dear
And I lost no chance either night nor day to let my husband clear
But it was all in vain allas for me for his enemies was not slow
For they hung my childrens Father and my husband dear my John Kehoe


“His life [they] wanted and [they] have it now for the hirelings Swore untrue,” stanza three asserts. “By perjury they hung my John but anything would do.”

The remainder of stanza three speaks of Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad; of James Frederic Wood, archbishop of Philadelphia; and of mine supervisor Frank Langdon, who died after a beating at Audenried in 1862:

To please the prince great Franklin B. the Liars done all [they] could
And left a widow now of me to satisfy Rev. Bishop Wood
Had he been guilty I would not care, no nor ask to set him free
But by the evidence any Sensible man would know it was downright perjury
For poor Langdons blood he never shed which his Jury ought to know
But [his] life [they] wanted and [they] have it now of my husband John Kehoe


Stanza four describes Kehoe’s hanging:

Oh many a trip to Pottsville Jail for two years and one half I made
To comfort him in a dismal cell many a visit there I paid
But the eighteenth of December was the Sadest there to me
To See my husband dear upon the gallows tree
When he bid farewell forever to his children and his wife
The parting was heart rending and I thought I would lose my life
My heart was breaking to the core, for it was a dreadful blow
To part with him for ever my poor husband John Kehoe


Coming November 15 – Justice Trembling in the Balance – Part 1 of 4: The Stacking of Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The Poem by "Graybeard"

Part 1 of 2: An Uneasy Heart

With the public hangings in Pennsylvania during the 1870s of 21 Irish Catholic alleged “Molly Maguires,” a pall settled over the surviving family members of the executed Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men. Descendants of these men from various families speak of a closely held belief in their innocence—expressed over many decades in kitchens and living rooms—and of the belief that these men were railroaded to the gallows by a combination of interests.

The executions themselves, the murders that prompted them, the long imprisonment of scores of other AOH men, the pernicious and promiscuous use over the decades of the toxic “Molly Maguire” label, the withholding of much information surrounding these cases, and the reluctance of historians to investigate these events closely all led to a smothering of information regarding the true identities of the AOH defendants—and of their family members. The fact that the Pinkerton Detective Agency and the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad—not state government agencies—archived many of these records further complicates the investigation of this history.

The executions and the infiltration of Pennsylvania’s hard coal region by numerous Pinkerton operatives produced a lingering climate of suspicion and fear. A raid conducted in December 1875 at Wiggan’s Patch in Schuylkill County against John Kehoe’s in-laws—and the murder there of his brother-in-law and his pregnant sister-in-law—bolstered a climate of terror that kept area residents and their descendants from speaking or sharing information. Survivors suspected rightly that Pinkerton operatives had helped engineer the early morning raid. Its chilling effect was virtually complete.


After the executions, descendants on all sides of the story who remained in the coal region split down the middle—along ethnic lines—in their belief in the guilt or innocence of the AOH men hanged as “Mollies.”

In this climate of suspicion, fear, disquiet and mistrust, personal records remained scant. But a few have appeared in scattered collections.

An unmarked folder held in an archive at the Ryan Library of St. Charles Borromeo Seminary in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania, holds one such relic. Titled simply “To the memory of John Kehoe,” this five-stanza poem carries only the mysterious attribution “By graybeard.”

Sometime during the 1980s a granddaughter of John Kehoe released this poem, along with other artifacts. It contains many of the grammatical and spelling lapses common to some nineteenth century writing.


“My pencils good but my hand does shake and cannot compose my theme,” the poem begins. “For my mind is a Stray and I cannot think so good people don’t me blame.”

The unnamed author made a painstaking rendering on lined paper, drafting carefully formed letters with a fountain pen, with flourishes at the stanzas’ openings. Although nothing remains to show who authored this work, its contents suggest it may have been written by John Kehoe’s wife, Mary Ann.

Whoever authored the poem, it is heartfelt, naïve, and of a piercing intensity. Its sentiment brings a rare personal stamp to this history.

“And its no wonder for with grief I’m bound and my heart is uneasy now,” the writer mused. What remains legible of stanza one continues:

My spirits low Since that dreadful day with Sorrow on my brow
In Pottsville Jail they hung my John and caused him for to bleed
Which leaves me now his heart broken wife in Sorrow now indeed

The last two lines of the first stanza remain indecipherable, apart from the last two words. “John Kehoe,” the end of stanza one reads.

Coming November 8 – The Poem by “Graybeard” – Part 2 of 2: The Darkening Future