Monday, November 23, 2015

The Mahanoy City Miners and the Poor of the Cities

On March 11, 1871, officers from Pennsylvania’s Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent order, filed a revised charter with the state legislature. Some evidence suggests that AOH officers later charged as “Mollies” helped with this chartering. 

The new charter's introduction included this sentiment: “the Supreme Being has implanted in our natures tender sympathies and most humane feeling towards our fellow creatures in distress, and all the happiness that human nature is capable of enjoying must flow and terminate in the love of God and our fellow creatures.”

The same month that AOH officers filed the revised charter, miners in Mahanoy City, a heavily Irish town in the heart of the hard coal region, published a resolution. A report drafted by Pinkerton operative James McParlan, working undercover a few years later for railroad president Franklin Gowen, gives some clues to the miners’ motivation. In early 1875, McParlan gave Gowen a count of four hundred-fifty AOH men in Schuylkill County. Four hundred, he stated, were union men—members of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA). Mahanoy City housed Irish miners who held combined AOH lodge and WBA union membership.

Of AOH officers later charged as “Mollies,” one had strong family ties to Mahanoy City in 1871. Former coal miner John Kehoe, the father of three at the time, kept a hotel there. Kehoe’s two grown brothers, both mine laborers, lived in town with their parents. Kehoe’s father Joseph, a mineworker, served over the years both as township supervisor for Mahanoy City and as town constable. John would hold the post of high constable in subsequent years in Girardville.

The Mahanoy City miners’ resolution issued from WBA District Five. It addressed the ongoing mineworkers’ strike and the resulting hardship in securing coal. It declared:

“That we, the miners and laborers of this district, hearing that the poor of the Cities of Philadelphia and New York are suffering for the want of coal, will give one or two days’ labor in the mines, free gratis, for the purpose of supplying coal for their pressing need, provided that the operators will give the use of their collieries, and the railroad companies will transport the same free.”

In March 1871, Pennsylvania’s newly revised AOH charter spoke to “humane feeling towards our fellow creatures in distress.” That same month, miners in Mahanoy City, a heavily Irish town and home to future AOH county delegate John Kehoe, offered to work “free gratis”—without pay—to supply the urban poor with coal during wage disputes.

The miners’ offer to supply coal to the poor depended on the matching largesse of the railroads. That winter Franklin Gowen, president of the region’s largest carrier, doubled, and then tripled, his freight rates—an act so outrageous, Governor John Geary called for a legislative investigation into the rate increase. Gowen’s action helped derail the miners’ offer to the poor. The New York Herald declared Gowen's intervention in the legislative investigation “one of the most barefaced frauds that has [ever] characterized the Pennsylvania Legislature. Four years later, Gowen broke the miners’ union.

The language of the AOH charter, its filing the same month that the miners offered their resolution, and future AOH delegate Kehoe's ties to Mahanoy City suggest that the AOH charter and the miners' resolution flowed from the same spring. In late winter 1871, Christian ideology informed industrial action in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region.

Two and a half years after the AOH filed its revised charter, Gowen brought McParlan into the coalfields. Nine murders followed within a two-year period. Those murders drove Gowen’s early “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

A few weeks before McParlan entered the region, newspapers in Boston circulated a letter allegedly written from Mahanoy City. It described the town as one of the scenes of the “dark deeds of the Mollies,” subject to “a perfect reign of terror by the gang."

One Mahanoy City priest challenged the image of his town as a hotbed of terrorism. “I have resided and officiated in this town for four years, and have yet to discover the existence of such a society, much less a single member of such an organization as the ‘Molly Maguires,’” Father Charles McFadden told the New York Herald in late 1874. “On the contrary, the people are peaceable, intelligent and law-abiding. … I had charge of souls in Philadelphia and elsewhere, and I must, in justice, say that the people of Mahanoy City are as pious and good citizens as ever I met with.”

This post was revised on September 1, 2017.

Monday, October 12, 2015

The "Molly Maguires" and the Yellow Press

By A. Flaherty

When reporters for James Gordon Bennett Jr.'s New York Herald stayed with the facts, they left behind some valuable clues into Pennsylvania's “Molly Maguire” events. Some of my best leads came from Herald reporters. One column described railroad president Franklin Gowen's intervention in legislative proceedings as “one the most barefaced frauds that has [ever] characterized the Pennsylvania Legislature.” A second described the contents of John Kehoe's cell on the morning of his execution, including documents that illuminate the Irishman's ideology.

But the Herald's Gilded Age publisher, Bennett, was evidently a law unto himself. His exploits included late-night nude horse-drawn carriage rides. A drunken episode at the family home of Bennett's fiance ended with him, by varying accounts, urinating either into the fireplace or into the grand piano. The stunt caused a duel and ended Bennett's engagement.

Sometimes Bennett's reporters strayed into fantasia. These scenarios ranged from fictional “Molly Maguire” outrages in Pennsylvania to a fictional outbreak of wild animals at Central Park Zoo.

On November 9, 1874, the Herald published an article headlined: “AWFUL CALAMITY. The Wild Animals Broken Loose From Central Park.” It told of ‘TERRIBLE SCENES OF MUTILIATION,” “A Shocking Sabbath Carnival of Death. SAVAGE BRUTES AT LARGE ... THE KILLED AND WOUNDED ... PROCLAMATION BY THE MAYOR.”

The Herald offered specifics: forty-nine people killed, but only twenty-seven identified. Twelve man-eating beasts still on the loose. It named victims, including an “unfortunate sewing girl,” along with the address of the precinct house that held her body. Escaped animals included “Lincoln, the Numidian lion,” a rhinoceros, a puma, a black wolf, and a Bengal tiger. Three regiments had been called out to fight the wild beasts. 

At the article's end, it declared itself fiction. Not everyone read to the end. Some, convinced the mayor had declared a state of emergency, locked their doors and stayed home. Others, brandishing pistols, rushed out to defend their neighborhoods.

The New York Times called Bennett’s fake news a “gross outrage.” Prominent men demanded action from the district attorney. Lawyers discussed whether those responsible for the article could be indicted for conspiracy to defraud.

On August 4, 1874, two months before it ran the zoo hoax, the Herald published a similar article from Scranton, Pennsylvania. Its headline ran: “THE COAL REGIONS. General Prevalence of Riot, Robbery and Murder. BODIES HORRIBLY MUTILATED. Ku Klux Notices Served on Obnoxious Citizens. Vigilance Committees Organized.”

Like the zoo hoax, the article from Scranton described many horrors. It gave victims' names and sites of murders. It named, in particular, Luzerne and Schuylkill counties--two locales where Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) lodges were particularly strong.

All these outrageous proceedings,” the Herald said, “are attributed to the ‘Molly Maguires,’ a band of cutthroats who are said to ply their trade of robbery and murder in the mining country. The Herald mentioned the Schuylkill towns of Mahanoy City and Shenandoah, noting: “Reports come in from the mountain towns that bodies are found frequently, showing the fearful brutality at the hands of fiends that roam unmolestedly the surrounding country. A Herald editorial published in the same edition called for vigilantism, as law and order had supposedly failed.

AOH political activity preceded the Herald's report. The day before Bennett published the “Molly” hoax, a Democratic nominating convention had taken place in Pottsville, county seat for Schuylkill County. Christopher Donnelly, a future school director later charged as a “Molly, was elected that month as AOH county treasurer. At the Pottsville convention, Donnelly delivered 39 votes to the nomination of James Reilly, a young Irish Catholic from Schuylkill County running for U.S. Congress. With Donnelly's action, Schuylkill's AOH entered the national political arena.

“The Democratic primaries this year were captured, swept from their moorings by a tidal wave of Irish national feeling and bias, created by the candidacy of Mr. Reilly,” a Shenandoah paper declared. “The young Irish American element of the Democratic party, who, for the past few years, has been coquetting with the Labor Reform movement ... adopted him as their protege ... Mr. Reilly's friends were in the majority and controlled the convention.

As AOH influence grew, so did newspaper accounts tying the Irishmen to supposed “Molly” activity. “The criminal classes,” Bennett's Herald said the day after after Reilly's nomination, “have the power to control all elections in the coal country.” Schuylkill County housed the coal region's most influential AOH lodge. The Hibernians who elected Donnelly as their treasurer in 1874 also elected John Kehoe as county delegate. Kehoe, later hanged as a “Molly,” served at the time as high constable for Girardville. In 1872, he had placed his name in consideration for state assembly.

In early November, Reilly won the federal congressional seat. A few days later, on the same day the Herald published the zoo hoax, Bennett ran a second column on Pennsylvania's “Mollies.” This headline ran: “THE MOLLY MAGUIRES. The Lawlessness in Pennsylvania--Brigands Infesting City and Country--Cruel Murders and Robberies--Ku-Klux Outrages.

By November 1874, undercover Pinkerton operative James McParlan had been in the coal region for a little over a year. This time, the Herald embedded two recent murders--actual murders--in its report of fictional “Molly” atrocities: those of John Reilly at Wilkes-Barre and George Major at Mahanoy City.

With coal region violence on the rise, AOH electoral gains, including the celebration of James Reilly's congressional seat, were lost in the upcoming press clamor against “Molly Maguire” terrorism. Within the next four years, the same town that hosted Reilly's nominating convention would witness seven more regional murders, all ascribed to the shadowy “Molly Maguires. Pottsville would hold nine “Molly Maguire” hangings of AOH men. Testimony from Pinkerton operative McParlan, accused by defense counsel as a murderer, would help hang all of these Irish Catholic men.

The Herald published yet another column in November 1874. Originating from Mahanoy City, its headline read: “CRIME IN THE COAL FIELDS. Horrible deeds of the Molly Maguires. Women Outraged in the Streets.” A local priest wrote back in protest. But “Molly Maguire” columns sold a lot of newspapers. The torrent of print rushed on undisturbed.

The New York Times, the New York Sun, diocesan newspapers in Boston, Erie, Philadelphia, and New York, and newspapers in Philadelphia, Harrisburg, and the coal region all labeled influential Irish American politicians, long before their arrests as “Mollies,” as banded terrorists. Though the Irishmen's goals included keeping seven-year-old boys in classrooms and out of slate-picking rooms, the reporters “Molly” coverage helped sway coal region juries.

The year of Pottsville's mass executions, Bennett moved to Paris. In the 1890s, still in control of the Herald, the publisher moved his paper from lower Manhattan to Midtown. Stanford White designed the new building. It  became the heart of Herald Square. When asked why he secured only a thirty-year lease, Bennett replied: “‘Thirty years from now the Herald will be in Harlem, and I’ll be in hell!’”

A former version of this post appeared under the title "The Herald Seduces the Public." The post was last revised on September 5, 2017.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Enduring Power of Nativism

Nativist rhetoric in the United States, culled from a
vocabulary of hatred, fear, intimidation, and exclusion, reverberates in weird echoes across the centuries.

“We do not accept Jews, because they reject Christ!” the fictionalized character Clayton Townley ranted in Alan Parker’s 1988 film Mississippi Burning. “We do not accept Papists, because they bow to a Roman dictator! We do not accept Turks, Mongrels, Tartars, Orientals nor Negroes because we are here to protect Anglo-Saxon democracy and the American way!”

Parker’s film dramatized the deaths of the three Civil Rights workers killed in Neshoba County, Mississippi, on the night of June 21, 1964. The bodies of James Chaney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner remained undiscovered until early August 1964. Their efforts to register African Americans as voters during “Freedom Summer” led to their murders.

Eighty-seven years before to the day, on June 21, 1877, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania hanged the first eleven of an eventual twenty-one Irish Catholic men for alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes. Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) officer Patrick Hester died on the gallows in March 1878.

Before his arrest Hester, a grandfather and former school director, township supervisor, tax collector, and overseer of the poor, had worked for the naturalization and enfranchisement of Irish Catholic mineworkers. An editor, horrified at Hester’s efforts toward suffrage at the local courthouse, described Hester as “one of the acknowledged leaders of what is called the Democratic party in the Coal region, who with a number of his countrymen … just arrived from the temple of Justice, where they had been invested with the rights of citizenship …”

The editor warned: “Let native and Protestant American citizens ponder before they surrender their dearest rights to the rule of the Pope, or to the aggressions of the agents of foreign potentates.”

In Mississippi in 1964, the White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan drove the murders of Civil Rights workers. During the “Molly” trials in the mid-1870s, nativist lodges honeycombed Pennsylvania’s hard coal region. They went under cover of patriotic-sounding names.

A few weeks after the June 21 executions, a correspondent from Mahanoy City, a heavily Irish area, wrote to the Boston Pilot: “… we have got the ‘Junior Sons of America,’ ‘Mechanics,’ and many other secret societies, calling themselves Young Americans. The ‘Junior’ boys tell their fathers that they have not the same right here as [their sons] have, because they were not born in this country.”

Two Pinkerton agents who drove the “Molly” caseload, James McParlan and Robert Linden, took up residence in towns that housed prominent nativist factions. McParlan lodged in Shenandoah, home to Washington Camp No. 112 of the Patriotic Order Sons of America. The year after McParlan entered the region, Shenandoah formed a secret society under this disturbing name: “Sons of America, Shenandoah Commandery No. 14, Master Americans.”

Linden, McParlan’s supervisor, lodged in Ashland, home to Ashland Camp No. 84 of the Patriotic Order Sons of America. The Ashland division housed a subdivision with another troubling name: the “White Degree council.” The possible influence of McParlan and Linden with these groups has never been investigated.

At the issuance of the “Molly” death warrants in May 1877, the Shenandoah Herald published a column under the jocular heading “Girardville Giblets.” It carried a bald nativist taunt: “All our peace and order loving citizens were made happy this evening on the appearance of the Herald, containing the information that a beginning was to be made at disposing of the ‘Mollie’ murderers. All were happy to know that Governor Hartranft had determined to enforce the law, and that in the future, as at the present, ‘Mollieism’ has got to take a back seat, while white men say what shall be done.”

A half-decade before, the editor who so feared the enfranchisement of regional Irish Catholics had urged: “Every opponent of the Irish supremacy in this county should make it a point to examine the list and see if he is registered. … If the full vote is brought out the result will be a complete overthrow of that faction which is attempting to bind our county hand and foot to the Irish power.”

Within eight years of that publication, nativist rhetoric had helped destroy the power of “that faction.” The AOH in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region was broken. Its leaders had died on gallows in five counties, sat serving long prison sentences, or had long since fled the region.

To further explore the history of Pennsylvania’s Hibernians prosecuted as “Molly Maguires,” visit

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Pennsylvania's Hibernians and the Clergy

Roman Catholic clergy figured prominently in Pennsylvania’s
“Molly Maguire” prosecutions. During the 1870s, Archbishop James Frederick Wood of Philadelphia, Bishop Jeremiah Shanahan of Harrisburg, Bishop Tobias Mullen of Erie, Father Daniel McDermott of New Philadelphia, Father Joseph Koch of Shamokin, Father Daniel O’Connor of Mahanoy Plane, Father Joseph Bridgeman of Girardville, and many more, massed together to declare Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men and alleged “Molly Maguire” terrorists one and the same. Archbishop John Williams of Boston, Cardinal John McCloskey of New York, and Archbishop Patrick Ryan of St. Louis joined with Pennsylvania’s clergy in condemning the AOH men.

The clerics published their views in diocesan newspapers from Boston to New York to Philadelphia to Erie. Press coverage in the eastern cities echoed the clerics’ views and prepared the ground for the trials to come.

John Kehoe, AOH delegate for Schuylkill County executed in 1878 and posthumously pardoned in 1979, tried to cut through the resulting clamor. In fall 1875, from his seat as Girardville's high constable, Kehoe wrote to a local editor to protest the press’s conflation of the AOH with the “Molly Maguire” label.

Kehoe said: “… the Ancient Order of Hibernians … is a chartered organization, recognized by the commonwealth, and composed of men who are law-abiding and seek the elevation of their members. … Now, nothing can be more unjust than to charge the order with any acts of lawlessness, and nothing can be more inconsistent with the wishes of the people than the agitation of this matter by the leading papers of this country. The articles which have appeared on this matter have done an incalculable amount of harm, and, as a friend to law and order, I would advise their cessation.”

A few hardy clerics supported the AOH and the mineworkers’ cause. Just months before Kehoe wrote his letter from Girardville, Father James Brehony of St. Joseph’s Church in Summit Hill joined forces on behalf of the mineworkers with Thomas Fisher, AOH Carbon County delegate subsequently hanged as a “Molly.” The priest and the AOH delegate sat down together with Charles Parrish, director of the Lehigh Coal and Navigation Company, to negotiate the wage issue.

Their meeting proved unsuccessful. The following year, Fisher sat in Mauch Chunk Jail, charged with an alleged “Molly Maguire” crime. 

By January 1877 numerous AOH leaders, including Fisher and Kehoe, had been imprisoned, tried, and convicted. Within months, they would be sentenced to death. 

By February 1877, mineworkers’ wages had fallen to such a point fathers were unable to feed their families. Father Brehony organized a “Catholic colony” movement, in his words, “to enable Catholics who wish to leave the coal regions, to form a colony and thus avoid the disadvantages of separate removal to a distant part of the county.”

A reporter for Archbishop Wood’s diocesan newspaper described the mineworkers’ plight: “Removal or starvation are the alternatives that now stare thousands of the coal region broadly in the face. The expectation of bettering their condition there, of even obtaining a decent livelihood for themselves and their families is plainly hopeless.” The wages now being paid the men “simply place them in a condition of slow starvation …”

At the height of the “Molly” trials, an unnamed priest from Ohio addressed a group of Hibernians in Philadelphia. This priest shared Father Brehony’s passion and his willingness to confront those in authority. The unnamed priest gave a scathing assessment of Archbishop Wood’s actions against the AOH. Newspapers in Philadelphia and Shenandoah refused to give this priest’s name, his parish, or the name of his bishop. They identified him only as “connected with a prominent church in Ohio.”

The unidentified priest “denounced the action of Archbishop Wood in anathematizing the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and held that the members are the most fervent supporters of the Catholic faith.” Of Archbishop Wood's order of excommunication against AOH men in the Philadelphia diocese, the Ohio priest told Hibernians assembled in Philadelphia: “My bishop, through the official organ of his diocese, pronounced the action of the Philadelphia hierarchy as an injustice that was only worthy of the despot of Russia.”

Of the wholesale identification of the AOH with alleged “Molly Maguire” violence, the unnamed priest from Ohio concluded: “The movement against you is a Know Nothing strike at every Irish organization, and every man concerned in it deserves to be loaded with execration.”

To further explore this history, visit