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.