Saturday, December 28, 2013

What Nerved Brutus to Slay Caesar

Beau Riffenburgh’s recent biography of James McParlan, titled “Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland” [sic], documents the life of a detective so slippery, observers cannot even agree on the spelling of his name.

Young James McParlan was noted as “J. McF” in early Pinkerton reports, known undercover in Pennsylvania as “James McKenna,” and in later years spelled his name “James McParland.”

Riffenburgh visited an impressive list of archives in support of this work. But of McParlan’s long career, Riffenburgh concludes: “… there are more questions than answers. It is just this elusiveness that is the essence of the Great Detective, who was, is, and will forever more remain, an enigma.”

Was McParlan “an enigma,” or was he simply a con man? Observers can agree on this: the truth of McParlan’s career—and of his character—live on in the buried details of his caseload. As that truth lived in the hearts and minds of men, long buried, who purchased his services.

In Pennsylvania during the 1870s, a triumvirate of disappointed gubernatorial candidates helped mount the cornerstone of McParlan’s career: the “Molly Maguire” caseload. Three successive defeats in six years of Democratic Party candidates with close ties to anthracite coal and railroad interests had left that party’s conservative leaders scrambling for purchase. The politicians who suffered these losses played both direct and indirect roles in the subsequent “Molly Maguire” trials. Simply put, these men hanged their political enemies.

In 1869 Asa Packer, president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, suffered the first of these stinging defeats. A half decade later, Packer sent his attorney, Allen Craig, to help prosecute the “Molly Maguire” caseload.

In 1872 Charles Buckalew, special prosecutor during the 1877 “Molly Maguire” Rea trial, lost a bitter campaign for the governor’s chair. One coal region editor described Buckalew’s allegiance: “Charles R. Buckalew is acknowledged to be the attorney of the Reading railroad Company. He was their agent while in the Senate, and Frank Gowen’s right-hand man generally.”

Gowen, Buckalew’s promoter, served as president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and chief special prosecutor during the “Molly Maguire” trials. Gowen’s company purchased the services of both McParlan and of a score of Pinkerton operatives who infiltrated the coalfields and the state capital at Harrisburg during this volatile time.

In 1875 Pennsylvania’s voters crushed the gubernatorial bid of Cyrus Pershing, the third candidate with close ties to Gowen. The following year, Pershing served as Schuylkill County’s president judge during the “Molly” trials. According to the New York Times, Democratic Party elder Francis Hughes “engineered” Pershing’s nomination. The year after Pershing’s defeat, Hughes served as yet another special prosecutor in the “Molly Maguire” trials.

In 1871, smack in the midst of the struggling candidacies of these coal region politicians, tens of thousands of Pennsylvania’s Irish Catholic men organized under a new official state charter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). Most were also Democrats. But the political views of these AOH men, champions of the workingmen, directly challenged those of the Gilded Age politicians—Packer, Buckalew, Pershing and Hughes—who carried out the “Molly Maguire” trials under Gowen’s hand.

This conflict in Pennsylvania left behind more than 15 alleged "Molly Maguire" murder victims. It devastated families on all sides of the conflict. It destroyed a nascent labor union and left a political reform movement in tatters. It shattered the political influence of Pennsylvania’s AOH and tainted AOH influence countrywide. That influence threatened to grow exponentially after Pennsylvania’s 1871 official state chartering.

Men caustically—and continually—disappointed in their political ambitions mounted the “Molly Maguire” trials. Those trials pivoted around the purchased testimony of Pinkerton detective McParlan. McParlan’s testimony declared the AOH and a shadowy group called the “Molly Maguires” one and the same.

Riffenburgh says of McParlan: “… most of those who have evaluated his character based on what he did in relation to the Molly Maguires have not truly produced assessments that withstand impartial analysis of the full facts.”

And yet after almost a century and a half, historians have not yet brought forward the facts of these frustrated politicians who helped Gowen mount his “Molly Maguire” campaign.

More than 135 years have passed since McParlan gave his “Molly Maguire” testimony. That testimony sent dozens of influential Irish Catholic men to prison and more than a score—including four AOH county delegates—to the gallows. Yet McParlan’s most recent biographer, Riffenburgh, can declare this detective only “an enigma.”

If McParlan lied in his “Molly Maguire” testimony, his long career as “Pinkerton’s Great Detective” marks one of the most effective and murderous cons in history.

“‘What nerved Brutus to slay Ceasar [sic]?’” defense attorney Daniel Kalbfus asked a jury of McParlan in 1876. “‘Why did Booth kill Lincoln? … ambition, that which threw Satan over the walls of heaven.’”

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

For the Grace of a Happy Death

December 18, 2013, marked the 135th anniversary of the execution of John Kehoe at Pottsville, Pennsylvania. On that day in 1878, newspapers country-wide reported the scheduled death of the “King of the Molly Maguires.”

On that morning in 1878, an unnamed reporter for the Philadelphia Times sent to cover Kehoe’s execution also described the transformation by six nuns of the cell at Pottsville Prison used to host two final Masses said on behalf of the dying man:

“Shortly after 7 o’clock this morning Father Gallagher entered Kehoe’s cell and a few minutes later began the celebration of the Mass. In one corner of the corridor, in a large, double cell used as a sort of storehouse for the shoes made by the convict laborers, the Sisters had erected a small altar. As I entered this in the dark hours of the morning, 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 reporter described in detail the “MASS IN A PRISON CELL.” The six nuns, four from St. Patrick’s Church in Pottsville and two from the neighboring town of St. Clair, had draped every wall of the dingy storeroom with white muslin draperies. They had brought in branches of evergreen to mount against the white backdrop. They had brought in ornamental white plaster candleholders to place on the small altar. They had lighted the altar with candles.

Those assembled for the two Masses that morning knelt on the room’s cold floor. Father Gallagher, dressed in vestments of gold and white, performed the first service. Two acolytes attended the priest. All prayed “for the grace of a happy death for Kehoe,” and all received Holy Communion. Father Brennan conducted the second service.

“After the last service had been concluded,” the reporter said, “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.”

The account in the Philadelphia Times also included the details of Kehoe’s execution, a grim affair that involved a slipped knot in the ropes and a prolonged strangulation in a snowstorm. While Kehoe struggled for breath on the gallows, Father Gallagher, stationed below him, spoke the words of the plenary indulgence. The Times reporter gave details, too, of that ritual: “for the indulgence to have its full effect perfect charity must exist, and there must be in the heart and mind of the man a destruction of all affection, not only to grievous sins but also to venial or lighter ones.”

Kehoe, Schuylkill County delegate to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, had been twice elected high constable of Girardville and was named, in 1872, as a nominee to Pennsylvania’s State Assembly. He left behind a wife and five children. At the time of his death, Kehoe was 41 years old.

The Philadelphia Times account from the day of the execution contained no byline. A year and a half previously, a Philadelphia Times reporter who signed himself simply “C. CATH.” had interviewed Kehoe at length in his cell at Pottsville Prison.

Fifteen months after the unnamed Philadelphia reporter witnessed Kehoe’s execution in the snowstorm at Pottsville, C. Cathcart Taylor, city editor for the Philadelphia Times, committed suicide at his home in Philadelphia. At the time of his death, Taylor was 34 years old. Whether Taylor had witnessed the two Masses said in the prison cell and Kehoe’s subsequent death on the gallows is not known.

Kehoe’s body was transported by train to his home in Girardville. His burial took place at St. Jerome’s cemetery in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County. Two of Kehoe’s in-laws, victims of an 1875 vigilante attack, also lay buried in the cemetery there that overlooked the town.

A carved hand grasping a cross and a bloom of spring flowers decorates Kehoe’s gravestone. Its inscription reads:

“Sacred to the memory of John Kehoe
A native of the County Wicklow
Died Dec. 18, 1878,
Aged 41 Years, 5 Mos. & 15 Ds.
May his soul rest in peace.
Whilst in this silent grave I sleep,
My soul to God I give to keep.”

Monday, November 25, 2013

Promise Denied and Promise Renewed

“Well, the sun is surely sinking down,” James Taylor sang from the glass pavilion of the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum on November 22, 2013. Visitors gathered in Stephen Smith Hall heard Taylor’s tribute via live broadcast. “But the moon is slowly rising.”

The Library’s commemorative events that day also included a new exhibit called “A Nation Remembers.” This video tribute opened with a 50-year-old broadcast from radio station WGBH, captured during the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s performance of a Rimsky-Korsakov opera score.

Thirty minutes into that afternoon’s program in 1963, music director Erich Leinsdorf interrupted. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Leinsdorf told the matinee audience, “we have a press report over the wires. We hope that it is unconfirmed, but we have to doubt it. The president of the United States has been the victim of an assassination.”

Gasps of disbelief filled Symphony Hall. Leinsdorf continued: “We will play the funeral march from Beethoven’s Third Symphony.”

The country, as so many later observed, had changed forever.

Veteran newsman Robert MacNeil, in Dallas that day to cover Kennedy’s speech and parade through the city, recalled the vivid sense of promise that colored the parade’s beginning: in MacNeil’s recollection, the “resplendent” presidential couple descending to the tarmac at Love Field, the strawberry-pink suit the first lady wore, the sheaf of blood-red roses she carried, the hand reaching through the fence to break off a souvenir bloom from the bouquet.

That morning in Fort Worth, the President had cheered “no faint hearts in Fort Worth.” He had spoken of the need for all U.S. citizens to “assume the burdens of leadership.” Kennedy’s speech given five months before at American University had called for a “genuine peace … the kind of peace that makes life on earth worth living …”

The presidential party left Love Field on November 22 at 11:40 a.m. The motorcade reached Dealey Plaza just minutes before its planned destination. The three shots sounded as it turned onto Elm Street, past the Texas School Book Depository.

The rest lives in collective memory: the Secret Service agent spread-eagled over the back of the convertible, the message sent to Parkland Hospital to stand by for “a severe shotgun wound.” And then Walter Cronkite’s announcement.

It was for many Americans, said a BBC commentator on the 50th anniversary, “as though hope itself had died.”

But in Dallas for the 50th anniversary memorial, where shots had reverberated through Dealey Plaza, young naval officers resplendent in dress uniform sang “America the Beautiful.” The early afternoon light glinted off their white caps. The tenor line of the song rose and fell, floating over the heads of the assembled crowd.

On the grassy knoll, Mayor Michael Rawlings unveiled a new monument inscribed with words from a speech Kennedy had prepared for the Dallas Trade Mart, a speech that was never delivered. In it, Kennedy spoke of the essential need for righteousness to underlie strength: “‘except the Lord keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain.’”

In Kennedy’s 1963 Civil Rights Address to the country, he spoke of “a moral issue,” one “as old as the scriptures and … as clear as the American Constitution …” Kennedy’s brand of Hibernian optimism and inclusion continues to animate today. A young student vibrant with energy told a BBC newsman on the anniversary date of the assassination that Kennedy’s call to action is “as relevant today as it was in the sixties.”

“So close your eyes,” Taylor sang for those who heard the Kennedy Library tribute. “You can close your eyes, it’s all right. … I can sing this song. And you can sing this song when I’m gone.”

In February 2014, Anne Flaherty will present a three-lecture course titled “Pennsylvania’s ‘Molly Maguires’: Prosecution or Witch Hunt?” through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program at American University.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

The Rhyming of Hope and History

Seamus Heaney, beloved poet and chronicler of the conflict in Northern Ireland, passed away on August 30.

“He turned our disgrace into grace …” said Fintan O’Toole in the Irish Times. Eileen Battersby, describing this “moment of profound universal grief,” said: “It has been many, many years, probably not since the death of Tolstoy at a railway station master’s hut, has the announcement of a death of a writer caused such a cohesive, collective and universal sorrow.”

Mourners spoke of Heaney’s wit, of his sagacity—and, continually, of his profound humanity. They spoke of the stacks of mail that appeared on his desk; mail he made every effort to answer, though such diligence further crowded his own, already daunting, schedule.

I was one of those supplicants. In the mid-1990s, at a sister’s insistence, I sent Heaney a sheaf of poetry. I did not expect a response. The Nobel committee had just awarded Ireland’s chief poet its prize for literature.

But respond he did, apologizing for “the brevity” of his note. “Your poems were waiting among a mountain of other material – and other poems  when I got here yesterday,” this kind man said. “I am in Harvard now only for a couple of days.”

He continued: “I was touched, of course, to hear an echo of ‘The Singer’s House,’ and pleased by the tension and reticence of the writing in general. …”  

The poem he referenced, a poem that echoed one of his own, I’d written for the child of a distant acquaintance who was born with a deformity: a child born without ears.


On Heaney's death Ireland’s president, Michael Higgins, paid tribute to the poet's legacy. "Generations of Irish people will have been familiar with Seamus's poems. Scholars all over the world will have gained from the depth of the critical essays, and so many rights organisations will want to thank him for all the solidarity he gave to the struggles within the republic of conscience.”

Heaney memorialized the universal sorrow of conflict. In “Funeral Rites,” his women left behind in empty kitchens resembled women I’d researched; women who’d survived this country’s “Molly Maguire” conflict. His “tight gag of place / And times” from “Whatever You Say, Say Nothing” described what I’d glimpsed of the conflict in Pennsylvania’s hard coal fields—and of the troubled, contentious, controversial telling of its history.


The poem I wrote that echoed Heaney’s “The Singer’s House” is titled “Swimmer.” I offer it here in honor and memory of this great and singular man.

the child who was born
without ears
without ears

I hope he is with
the souls
of the drowned souls

swimming in Gweebarra
transfigured into seals

their sleek heads
skimming the waves

listening for the sound
of the singer
on the shore

A. Flaherty

Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Pilot Names a Name

Why did a Roman Catholic diocesan newspaper published in Boston encourage a smear in 1874 against a specific officer of Pennsylvania’s Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH)—a businessman, a family man, an articulate advocate for progressive reform?

How did certain letters—first appearing a week and a half before Pinkerton operative James McParlan entered Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal fields—find their way into the Catholic Pilot?


On October 18, 1873, The Pilot published a letter. This correspondence allegedly originated from Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania.

Pinkerton operative McParlan, if reports can be believed, entered Pennsylvania’s hard coal region a week and a half after this letter appeared in print.

The Pilot headlined its article: “‘Molly Maguires.’ The Modocs of Pennsylvania – A Reign of Terror.”

The Pilot's editor advised: “The following letter, which we copy from the Boston Globe will be interesting to our readers.”

The letter described Pennsylvania's “Molly Maguires” as “an organized body of desperadoes, the membership ranging between 500 and 1000, the operations of which extend throughout the coal regions, from Northumberland to Luzerne County.”

Those numbers tallied with membership numbers for AOH  men in the hard coal region at that time.

“[C]itizens have been afraid to appear upon the streets,” the letter said, “so powerful and murderous were the intents of the Mollies.”

Seven months later, The Pilot printed a second letter, this one allegedly from Scranton. This named a prominent Schuylkill County Hibernian by name.

“The ‘Molly Maguires.’ A Shocking State of Affairs,” The Pilot headlined this article.

“The ‘Mollies’ number about 2000 in the Schuylkill region. The leaders are many, but the most prominent one is said to be a man by the name of Barney Dolan, who lives near Locust Gap. Citizens, business men, coal operators, and miners have either been driven from the regions or brutally assassinated on the highways.”

Bernard (Barney) Dolan, hotelkeeper and one-time Democratic candidate for prothonotary, preceded John Kehoe as AOH delegate for Schuylkill County.

A year and a half after The Pilot’s article appeared, Dolan wrote to the Miners’ Journal in Pottsville. Dolan’s letter appeared during the violence-scarred fall of 1875, in the midst of a hotly contested gubernatorial contest. In it, he described the voting habits of Schuylkill County’s AOH men.

“God gave them the faculties to reason,” Dolan said, “and discern right from wrong, and being possessed of these faculties they exercise them upon all occasions, and never more so than do they at the ballot box. They go there unprejudiced and unbiased, vote for men whose ‘character cannot be successfully assailed’—men who will devote their time to secure the welfare of the Commonwealth, and assuage the sufferings of the poor laboring class, who they consider their brothers in toil.”

Over the course of the 1870s, The Pilot came to offer more balanced coverage. At the time of AOH officer Patrick Hester’s scheduled execution as an alleged "Molly Maguire," it came strongly to Hester’s defense.

But why, initially, did this Roman Catholic diocesan newspaper published in Boston encourage this smear against Dolan, an AOH county delegate from Pennsylvania's hard coal region?

Note to readers: all quotes (including spelling discrepancies, misspellings, grammatical errors) are verbatim.

This post, first published on May 30, 2013, was the sixth in a series of six offered in support of a lecture series given by A. Flaherty through the OLLI program at UMass, Boston.
Flaherty’s next presentation, beginning September 16, 2013, will be held through the OLLI program at Penn State University, State College, PA.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

The Enduring Power of Prejudice


On February 6, 1875, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper published this cartoon. Leslie’s artist, Joseph Becker, traveled from New York to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to pen a number of these drawings. Two local murders from the previous fall had left the public unsettled, an easy target for Becker’s "Molly Maguire" cartoons. Becker’s drawings appeared in print one month after the Long Strike of area mineworkers began and one month before Schuylkill’s workingmen traveled to Harrisburg as delegates to the Anti-Monopoly Convention held there.


A letter written from Pottsville Prison in spring 1878 by John Kehoe, alleged “King of the Mollies,” begins: “Thinking over the Cruelties that has Befallen me, By Bribery Perjury and Pregudise …”

In an interview given the previous June, Kehoe had told his opinion of Pinkerton operative James McParlan.

Kehoe accused McParlan of encouraging murder, of instigating murder, of condoning murder and of committing murder.

When asked why a Pinkerton operative would encourage such criminality, Kehoe said “it served his purpose to let murder go on, so that he could more readily arouse the prejudices of the community and thus break up the organization by hanging a lot of innocent men.”

In the terrible fall of 1875, when eleven violent deaths within as many months had rocked Pennsylvania’s hard coal region, Kehoe wrote to the editor of the Shenandoah Herald. This editor, Thomas Foster, ascribed the region’s “Reign of Terror” to an alleged group of Irish assassins Foster called the “Molly Maguires.”

“We are thoroughly aware that lawless acts have been committed during the past few months,” Kehoe told Foster, “but does the ‘Reign of Terror’ facilitate a return to quietness and good feeling? I am deeply interested in this matter, for I am under the impression, which has been conveyed to my mind from the remarks of various journals, that with them ‘Mollie Maguireism’ is made synonymous with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which is a chartered organization, recognized by the commonwealth, and composed of men who are law-abiding and seek the elevation of their members.”

Kehoe again counseled nonviolence in a letter written that same month to the Miners’ Journal about a local rabble-rouser who called himself “Americus.” Of this “Americus,” who also called for vigilantism against all alleged “Mollies,” Kehoe advised “it would be more charitable for him or any other correspondent to encourage brotherly love instead of sowing seeds of antagonism which sooner or later lead to bloodshed.”


In the trial of Hibernians Patrick Hester, Patrick Tully and Peter McHugh for the murder of Alex Rea, defense attorney John Ryon pleaded with the jury. “[I]n spite of all our care," Ryon said, "innocent men are sometimes wrongfully convicted. One conviction of an innocent man goes far to destroy confidence in the judicial power of this county.”

“You are the guardians of human truth and human lives,” Ryon told the jury in Bloomsburg, “and upon you and in your hands are the lives of these three men.”

Attorney Daniel Kalbfus, in the defense of Michael Doyle for the murder of John P. Jones, told the jury: “He is an American citizen, and is innocent until he is found guilty.”

Kalbfus begged the jury in Mauch Chunk to set aside their prejudices. “If it was not necessary,” he said, “why do they appeal to your passions and prejudices, and why did the DA in opening the case say that he would prove to you that the prisoner belonged to an organization known as the Mollie Maguires, an organization whose deeds are too diabolical for conception, and that they require Doyle to be hung as one of that order.” 

Attorney Lin Bartholomew said in defense of Doyle: “For weeks the Coal and Iron Company has been in pursuit of the Molly Maguires … They have given time and money to ferret out the members of that dreaded organization and to crush it because it interferes with their own pecuniary interests. They have caught these men, they imagine them to be Mollies, and in order to crush them and the organization they bring over a hundred witnesses …”

By the time the attorneys addressed these juries, the “Molly Maguire” label had acquired a frightening power. Juries found all of the above-named defendants guilty. Judges condemned all four men to death. 

How did such a cartoonish label come to acquire such a frightening power—a power that for a certain length of time could automatically sentence men to death?

Note to readers: all quotes (including spelling discrepancies, misspellings, grammatical errors) are verbatim.

Coming Next: The Pilot Names a Name
This post, first published on May 15, 2013, was the fifth in a series of six offered in support of a lecture series given by A. Flaherty through the OLLI program at UMass, Boston.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Did McParlan Lie?

This illustration from Allan Pinkerton’s novel about the so-called "Molly Maguires" gives a likeness of John Kehoe and James McParlan. Kehoe, dressed in a dark suit and topcoat, holds a top hat in his hands. McParlan, standing to Kehoe’s right, wears the clothes of a workingman.


John Kehoe, alleged “King of the Mollies,” held clearly defined views on the Pinkerton operative, James McParlan, who helped hang 21 Hibernians in five Pennsylvania coal counties.

Kehoe expressed these views in an interview given from Pottsville Prison a week after the mass hanging of six Hibernians there. They hanged the Irishmen in pairs, two at a time.

Prison officials hanged one of Kehoe’s in-laws at Pottsville on June 21, 1877.  James Carroll, an Ancient Order secretary and the father of four small children, was married to Anne O’Donnell, a cousin to Kehoe’s wife Mary Ann.

Kehoe rarely gave interviews. The shock of the recent executions may have shaken his reserve. He spoke in this instance with a reporter from the Philadelphia Times. The reporter noted of Kehoe’s interview that his “closeness and cohesiveness of stating his views … would do credit to a lawyer’s brief.”

“Before McParlan came,” Kehoe said, “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 he 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.”

Kehoe went on at length. As to McParlan’s purpose, the Hibernian said: “it served [McParlan’s] purpose to let murder go on, so that he could more readily arouse the prejudices of the community and thus break up the organization by hanging a lot of innocent men.”

By “the organization,” Kehoe meant the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

Kehoe blamed McParlan for the region’s so-called “Reign of Terror.” “I could fill your paper five times over,” he said, “telling of the actual participation of this man in the crimes for which he now condemns others. He 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.”

The reporter evidently questioned Kehoe about McParlan’s motive. Kehoe’s response? “His motive must have been pride in his ability to ferret out crime and the well-greased purse-strings of Franklin B. Gowen.”

AOH defense attorney Martin L'Velle echoed Kehoe's convictions about Allan Pinkerton's star operative. During the "Molly Maguire" trials, L'Velle told a jury: "from 1865 to 1873 there was no such thing as a murder case in Schuylkill County, not until the emissary of death, James McParlan, made his advent into this county, and crime since then has been in the ascendant."

Note to readers: all quotes (including spelling discrepancies, misspellings, grammatical errors) are verbatim.

Coming Next: The Enduring Power of Prejudice

This post, first published on May 8, 2013, was the fourth in a series of six offered in support of a lecture series given by A. Flaherty through the OLLI program at UMass, Boston.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Who Should Tell Our History?

By A. Flaherty

John Kehoe’s granddaughters first brought me to the “Molly Maguire” research. Before I began this work in earnest, other events fanned my interest.

Decades ago, before came into being, a neighbor picked up a book at a yard sale for a dollar.

A small, thick book bound in dull, red cloth. So old, the cloth had worn thin.

Published in “MDCCCLXXXVII.”


"The Molly Maguires and The Detectives,” its title page read. “By Allan Pinkerton, author of ‘The Expressman and the Detectives,’ ‘The Model Town and the Detectives,’ ‘The Spiritualists and the Detectives,’ Etc., Etc. New and Enlarged Edition.” 

Family members looked over this book with the proprietary air of a mother cat with a kitten. But interest in Allan Pinkerton’s “penny dreadful” quickly turned to disgust.

What was this? This was nothing but a dime novel. Its lurid descriptions of gangs of drunken, illiterate Irish thugs rampaging across the countryside to commit “murder and rapine” bore no resemblance whatever to the conversations held late at night by Kehoe’s descendants—individuals close to the source of this conflict.

We knew that Wayne Broehl Jr., an academic historian, had used Pinkerton’s novel to fill in gaps in his authoritative history. Broehl had relied on Pinkerton reports for the balance of his telling.

We realized that history—our country’s history, and Ireland's—was being told, in this instance, through the lens of a dime novel commissioned by Franklin Gowen, the railroad magnate whose Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company had helped fund the “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

Pinkerton supplied Gowen with numerous operatives to aid in these prosecutions. The year after Gowen hired Pinkerton to oversee the “Molly Maguire” case, Pinkerton, president of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, went into the publishing business. His specialty was dime novels.

The year after Gowen hired Pinkerton, Pinkerton officially hired a staff of writers and artists—and went into the business of writing fiction.

Broehl told the “Molly Maguire” story as Pinkerton portrayed it, in both his novel and his detectives’ reports. Both Broehl and Pinkerton discussed prosecutions in four counties: Carbon, Columbia, Northumberland, and Schuylkill.

If Broehl had tracked the newspaper coverage, he would have discovered a widely ranging campaign against dozens more Irish Catholic men—a campaign that flowed north to Luzerne County and westward to the counties of Allegheny, Fayette, and Westmoreland.

Wherever the benevolent order called the “Ancient Order of Hibernians” had strength in Pennsylvania, the Pinkertons conducted their so-called “Molly Maguire” campaign.

Pinkerton’s dime novel—and Broehl’s retelling of these events—both dramatically undersold the true scope of the Pinkerton Agency’s efforts against the Hibernians.

Both Pinkerton’s dime novel and Broehl’s authoritative history relied heavily for their telling on the reports of Pinkerton operative James McParlan. The credibility of the prosecution’s entire caseload—and the subsequent telling of the “Molly Maguire” history—rested heavily on one remarkably fragile support: the credibility of McParlan’s reports.

Coming Next: Did McParlan Lie?

This post, first published on May 1, 2013, was the third in a series of six offered in support of a lecture series given by A. Flaherty through the OLLI program at UMass, Boston.