Thursday, December 18, 2014

Pennsylvania's "Molly Maguires"

Irish Terrorists - or Christian Martyrs?

In January 2015 Fordham University Press will release The Sons of Molly Maguire. Mark Bulik’s upcoming work is the latest in a line that characterizes Pennsylvania’s alleged “Molly Maguires” as Roman Catholic men influenced by an alleged Irish form of violent reprisal that had its origins in alleged secret society activity.

But historical evidence shows that all of the Irishmen charged as Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires” belonged, not to a secret society, but to the benevolent order known as the “Ancient Order of Hibernians” (AOH). Many were county delegates.
Pennsylvania’s twenty-one AOH men hanged from 1877 to 1879, and dozens more imprisoned, moved under a legal charter filed in 1871 with their state legislature. Their prosecutions took place not just in five counties in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region, but in three soft coal counties as well.
Their 1871 AOH charter included the motto “True Christian Charity, by doing to each other, and all the world, as we would wish they should do unto us.” The charter that governed Pennsylvania’s alleged “Molly Maguires” embraced the Golden Rule. Historical evidence suggests that Hibernians charged as “Mollies” helped draft that charter.
In 1874 Daniel McDermott, a hostile parish priest, covertly accused Patrick Hester, AOH county delegate later hanged as a “Molly,” as one of two Hibernians “who lobbied the charter through the Legislature.” Hester’s political acumen reinforces this probability.
At the height of the Pennsylvania trials the Philadelphia Times ran a column that included this statement: “The constitution book, it is alleged, until lately had printed in it, after the conclusion of the by-laws, the names of the framers of the charter of the organization. The books, as printed at present, contain no such names. It is merely hinted that this is because some of the framers of the charter are at present awaiting trial or sentence for murder.”
The most likely “framers of the charter of the organization” included county delegates Hester, Thomas Fisher, and John Kehoe, all charged and executed as “Mollies.” All three were charged with capital crimes that had taken place in the past—in Kehoe’s case, the far distant past. All three asserted their innocence.
Adherence to their Roman Catholic faith defined these men. Events proved them willing to die for it.
Kehoe, high constable for Girardville and former hopeful for state assembly, left behind in his prison cell a biography of St. Alphonsus Liguori, the persecuted founder of the Redemptorist order. In spring 1878, Kehoe wrote to a friend from Pottsville Jail: “I would sooner die than swear a wilful [sic] lie on my fellow man.”
On the morning of Kehoe’s execution, at the close of the second Mass said on his behalf—celebrated in a prison work cell transformed by six nuns—Kehoe, father of five young children, “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 he approached the gallows, Kehoe wore a rosary around his neck. In one hand, he carried a blessed, lighted candle.
AOH county delegate Fisher showed similar fortitude. In addition to his AOH duties, Fisher served as treasurer to the Summit Hill division of the Emerald Benevolent Association, a Roman Catholic order that had issued a call for Catholic colleges worldwide. Shortly before Fisher’s arrest, an area editor named him as likely successor for county tax collector.
“Of course whatever is the will of God I will abide by,” Fisher told a reporter a few days before his execution. “I am ready whenever God calls me.”
Fisher died alone on the gallows at Mauch Chunk. His was the fifteenth of twenty-one “Molly Maguire” executions—executions driven by a corrupt industrialist, a hostile press, a hostile regional clergy, a near-bankrupt detective agency, and a region in the grip of ethnic hatred fueled by local nativist lodges and a vicious ethnic caricature.
An older married man, Fisher had no children. But his nephew, J. S. Fisher, served as secretary to Carbon County’s division of the national Greenback Labor Party.

On the gallows Fisher, as did so many condemned Hibernians, carried a crucifix before him. It was fashioned of ebony and gold. As the Coal and Iron policeman pulled the rope over his head, Fisher prayed aloud. He continued to pray as the sheriff knotted the rope around his neck. When hoisted, Fisher prayed until he had no breath left to pray.
AOH county delegate Hester, grandfather and former school director, tax collector, township supervisor, and overseer of the poor, had four grown daughters. All four served as area schoolteachers. In February 1878, Hester wrote to his wife “it appears to me that there was some great foul dodge worked in this Business but Everything has to Come as God wills it.” In March, Hester comforted his co-defendants, urging “may God prepare us for the next and better world.” Hester asked God’s forgiveness for those who drove his arrest and prosecution.
Of his upcoming execution, Hester told his co-defendants: “as for death, I am not afraid, for I am almost tired of this sinful world … All that troubles me about dying is, to die of what I am not guilty of … may God in His mercy do what is just and right to all.” Hester carried a small ivory crucifix before him on the gallows.
Kehoe died rather than swear a lie against his fellows. Fisher and Hester shared Kehoe’s fortitude. Fisher, Hester, and Kehoe all governed younger Irish Catholic men under the charter of their benevolent organization—a charter they likely helped draft. Their stoicism, their willingness to die rather than perjure themselves, their utter lack of cynicism, their steadfast faith—all prove more enduring than a century and a half of continued attempts to portray these Hibernians as alleged “Molly Maguires.”

Monday, December 1, 2014

A Plea to Historians

Search for the Facts

Mark Bulik’s upcoming work, The Sons of Molly Maguire, is the latest in a long line that characterizes Pennsylvania’s Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men charged as “Molly Maguires” as transplanted Irish terrorists.

The Oxford University Press website gives Bulik’s theory of Pennsylvania’s Hibernians: “A secret society of peasant assassins in Ireland that re-emerged in Pennsylvania’s hard-coal region, the Mollies organized strikes, murdered mine bosses, and fought the Civil War draft.”

In the 1870s Franklin Gowen, the bombastic and delusional railroad president who hoped to monopolize Pennsylvania’s entire hard coal trade on a small amount of borrowed capital, was the original promoter of this conspiracy theory: that the AOH, an Irish Catholic benevolent order legally chartered with Pennsylvania’s state legislature, and the “Molly Maguires,” an alleged Irish terrorist organization, were one and the same.

It looks like Bulik’s upcoming work, like so many previous works, also ignores discoverable facts. Many of the Irish Catholic community leaders charged as Pennsylvania’s “Mollies” were skilled political and labor advocates who actively promoted nonviolence, not murder.

Bulik’s upcoming work (again, from the Oxford Press website) tells of the peasant “folk justice” of Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies.” But in 1871 John Slattery, one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent Hibernians charged as a “Molly,” narrowly missed an election as associate judge for Schuylkill County’s criminal court. Peasant justice did not enter into Slattery’s Democratic candidacy for judgeship—nor into his election as school director, his election as township supervisor, or his colleagues’ consideration of him, in 1873, as a senatorial Labor Reform nominee.

Many prominent Hibernians charged as “Mollies” were on their way up the political ladder. The Roman Catholic ideology that shaped their AOH charter also shaped their political and labor advocacy.

In October 1875, Bernard Dolan, Schuylkill County hotelkeeper and former AOH delegate targeted as a “Molly,” publicly spoke the AOH creed: “to assuage the sufferings of the poor laboring class …”

Prominent Schuylkill County AOH delegate John Kehoe, executed as the “King of the Mollies,” publicly advocated nonviolence. Hotelkeeper, high constable for Girardville, and 1872 contender for Democratic nomination to state assembly, Kehoe pleaded in 1875 with area nativists thirsting for violence “to encourage brotherly love instead of sowing seeds of antagonism which sooner or later lead to bloodshed.”

In 1873 Christopher Donnelly, future AOH county treasurer charged as an alleged “Molly,” served as delegate to the county Labor Reform convention that considered Slattery as a nominee. In Pennsylvania in 1873, “Labor Reform” meant removing seven-year-old boys from slate-picking rooms and placing them in classrooms. A few months before his arrest as a “Molly,” voters elected Donnelly, a miner, as school director for New Castle.

At least four Hibernians charged as “Mollies” served as area school directors. Two of them were miners.

Patrick Hester, hotelkeeper and prominent Northumberland County AOH delegate executed as a “Molly,” served as school director, tax collector, township supervisor and—in keeping with the AOH creed—overseer of the poor.

Prominent Carbon County Democrat Thomas Fisher, hotelkeeper and AOH delegate executed as a “Molly,” served as township tax collector. At the time of his arrest as a “Molly,” Fisher stood in line for election as county tax collector. During the Long Strike, Fisher advocated—with a sympathetic priest by his side—on behalf of the mineworkers’ wage. Fisher’s actions, too, promoted the AOH creed: “to assuage the sufferings of the poor laboring class.”

The Irishmen charged as “Mollies” who sat in jails in eight Pennsylvania counties and swung from gallows in five used their growing political power, before their untimely deaths, on behalf of those less fortunate.

With so much discoverable fact, it remains a mystery why contemporary scholars, historians, and authors continue to portray Pennsylvania’s Hibernians as members of a transplanted Irish terrorist group—the same fiction promoted by a hostile nineteenth-century press and a near-bankrupt detective agency. Gowen purchased this fiction to remove influential Irish Catholics from the political and industrial arena. Gowen’s plan worked. His “Molly Maguire” prosecutions effectively destroyed the burgeoning power of the AOH, along with the reforms that it threatened.

We have a mandate to examine our history—however dark that history may be. Historians who investigate Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires” would be better served if they resisted the lure of sensation and nineteenth-century nativist rhetoric, searched for discoverable facts about the Irish Catholics persecuted in eight Pennsylvania counties, and followed the trail of those facts—wherever that trail might lead.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

A Notice to Readers

Kehoe Foundation

Since its inception in June 2011, this blog has received more than 14,000 hits worldwide. Interest has come from the United States and Europe, and from countries throughout the world struggling with religious and ethnic conflict.

Irish Catholics in the United States during Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict navigated a river of ethnic hatred. In 1871, a bemused correspondent for the Irish Times noted that “native” Americans, those born on U.S. soil, wanted Irish immigrants only as “hewers of wood and drawers of water.”

In 1871 the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent society working under newly revised charters in New York and Pennsylvania, sought to enhance the standing of Irish Catholic men. In the words of John Kehoe, AOH delegate for Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County hanged as the “King of the Mollies,” the order’s members comprised Irishmen “who are law-abiding and seek the elevation of their members.”

Exhaustive research shows that AOH officers charged with “Molly Maguire” crimes in the Pennsylvania coalfields embraced an agenda of wide-ranging reform that included political, labor, social, and even financial initiatives. The combined efforts of these AOH men generated a powerful hybrid—one that combined American individualism with the AOH creed of friendship, unity, and support to those less fortunate. In Pennsylvania’s coal region, a region gripped by cruel Gilded Age practices, AOH advocacy included labor reform to benefit mineworkers of all ethnicities.

This extraordinary movement, born of American political optimism and colored with Irish Catholic principles of equity and compassion, never came to flower. Twenty-one AOH men charged as “Molly Maguire” terrorists died on gallows in five counties. At least sixteen of them left behind statements of innocence.

I have spent more than a decade researching and documenting this conflict. In October 2013, I formed the Kehoe Foundation to help support this work. The foundation’s website is currently under construction. I’ll post its web address here as soon as it becomes available.

In a world torn with ethnic strife, the nonviolent advocacy embraced by many of Pennsylvania’s nineteenth-century Irishmen condemned as “Molly Maguires” deserves a fair hearing.

Anne Flaherty

Visit the Kehoe Foundation at

Sunday, March 2, 2014

In 1875, a Historic St. Patrick's

John Kehoe’s Hibernians “stand up to the mark like men”

By A. Flaherty
In 1875, St. Patrick’s Day in Pennsylvania’s Mahanoy City broke cold and clear. But conflict gripped the hard coal region. Festivities that honored Ireland’s patron saint would highlight a longstanding war between Irish priests under the authority of Archbishop James Frederick Wood and Irish Catholic men who marched under society banners.

Long-buried accounts of those festivities help reveal this historic truth: John Kehoe, jeered countrywide three years later as “King of the Molly Maguires,” had a history of nonviolent leadership.

In early 1875, three unsolved murders from the previous year had left the press trumpeting tales of the dreaded “Molly Maguires.” The murders had exacerbated tensions between Schuylkill County’s Irish and Welsh residents. By March, the third month of the mineworkers’ “Long Strike,” newspapers were also giving out lurid reports of outrages by striking mineworkers.

But Schuylkill County’s mineworkers had just returned triumphantly from their Anti-Monopoly Convention, held in Harrisburg early that month. Their effort against Franklin Gowen’s Philadelphia and Reading Railroad had succeeded. Gowen, accused of gross monopoly by even conservative newsmen, wielded monolithic power as head of the region’s “Coal Combination.” Schuylkill’s mineworkers had successfully contested that power. They’d helped mount a legislative challenge to Gowen’s railroad charter.

Irish names studded the Anti-Monopoly roster. At least one member of the county’s Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), Michael Lawler, had joined in the Harrisburg battle. Schuylkill’s Hibernians had something to celebrate.

By this time, 450 men swelled the ranks of Schuylkill’s AOH divisions. Pennsylvania’s AOH constitution, filed in 1871 with the state legislature, named March 17 “a National Holiday of this Order, to be celebrated by a public procession of its members.” But a hostile press continually labeled these Irish Catholic men as “Molly Maguires.” Tensions threatened even their St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Schuylkill’s AOH parade would take place in Mahanoy City. It would form on Main Street, led by the St. Clair Union Cornet Band. Kehoe would march at its head. The Girardville Flute Band, from Kehoe’s home town, would lead one division.

Reports filed by undercover Pinkerton detective James McParlan detail tensions between the AOH and the clergy at this time. Like the hostile press, McParlan routinely used the “Molly Maguire” smear to identify AOH men. McParlan’s report, written before the 1875 parade, tells of Shenandoah pastor Father O’Reilly calling down “God’s curse, and his curse … on all the Molly Maguires, and their families, and on every one who [goes] to Mahanoy to see the parade.”

McParlan’s reports also document the planning behind this proud display of solidarity. One tells of AOH treasurer Christopher Donnelly, a miner who served on New Castle’s school board, purchasing “green ribbons & fringe for Regalia & flags” for the 1874 parade. It tells of Donnelly’s hope “to have a grand turnout.”

In 1875, despite Father O’Reilly’s curse, Schuylkill’s Hibernians marched under the AOH banner. On that cold morning in March, members from divisions throughout the county traveled by train to Mahanoy City. Escorts met them and took them to Metz Hall. McParlan reported: “nearly all the Body’s [sic] of Molly Maguires were represented.”
McParlan’s report documented the meeting:

“County Delegate Kehoe made a speech and said that the parade was looked upon by the Citizens of Mahanoy, as a foreboding of bloodshed, and murder, and that he (Kehoe) wanted to inform them (the MM’s) that if any of them got drunk, or misbehaved, he (Kehoe) would strip them of their regalia, that he wanted to show to the Clergy and the public, that although they bore a bad name, they were by no means deserving of it.”

Kehoe urged the AOH marchers: “when they were opposed to, by any other party … they must all stand up to the mark like men, and not act like boys.”

Kehoe’s words took hold. Area newspapers described their effect: “The much-talked of parade of the Ancient Order of Hibernians was carried out with great éclat … The conduct of the large crowd was good throughout, and the appearance of those who took part in the demonstrations, was strikingly dignified and manly.”

Subsequent events blasted Kehoe’s hopes of taming clerical hostility. In a diocesan newspaper, a correspondent who signed himself “Obedience” revealed the day’s unlikely denouement: a conflict with yet another Irish priest.

“Obedience” told of a flag that belonged to St. Kieran’s parish in Heckscherville, a flag “borrowed from Father O’Brien for the St. Patrick’s Day parade.” The AOH men had “paraded with it in Mahanoy City and refused to return it.”

“Obedience” told the fate of the flag from St. Kieran’s, carried through Mahanoy City by Kehoe’s men on St. Patrick’s Day: “Father [O’Brien] … succeeded in recovering the flag on the 7th of May … he burned it on Sunday, May 9th, in presence of the congregation.”

Note: This would be the last AOH parade for some time in Schuylkill County. Arrests of AOH men for alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes started six months later. Of the Hibernians mentioned above, Lawler was arrested and gained immunity by testifying against fellow Hibernians, Donnelly served many years’ imprisonment, and Kehoe was hanged.