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.