Monday, April 11, 2016

Pennsylvania's Sons of Liberty

During the 1870s, rhetoric from Irishmen in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region arose from two towns—Mount Carmel and Tamaqua—that housed taverns or homes of Hibernians later charged as "Molly Maguires." At its most poetic, that speech invoked the American Revolution.

In late winter 1875, John Shanahan, a Northumberland County union man, spoke out against the British stockholders of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. "They pay their presiding officer $25,000 per year, and that man, once poor and penniless, says [less than] $1.25 per day is too much for labor!," Shanahan said of railroad president Franklin Gowen, who later conducted the "Molly" trials. Of the newsmen’s ongoing hostility toward mineworkers, Shanahan said: "They forget we are men; that we are only resisting powerful corporations and a moneyed aristocracy." 

Shanahan aired his protests in New York's Irish World in advance of his attendance at the Anti-Monopoly Convention held that March in Harrisburg. He wrote from Mount Carmel, where Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) officer and alleged "Molly" Patrick Hester kept a home, and a few miles from Locust Gap, site of Hester's Junction House. Like many alleged "Mollies" who kept hotels or taverns, Hester served in political office—as tax collector, township supervisor, school director, and overseer of the poor—for many years.
Thirty miles east of Hester's home town,  Jack O’Brien of Tamaqua wrote a poem to rouse the anti-monopolists. "You sons of liberty awake," O’Brien’s poem began. "Your hearths and altars are at stake." 

America's "sons of liberty" hailed back to 1765 and debates over the Stamp Act. British parliamentarian Isaac Barré used the term to describe colonists who opposed British rule. Barré, an Irish soldier and politician of French descent, declared that British oppression had "planted" the revolutionaries in America. 

In Boston, the group gathered at the Green Dragon Tavern. On the night of December 16, 1773, "Sons of Liberty" under Samuel Adams walked into the annals of history when they dumped a cargo of British tea into Boston Harbor.
A century later, Pennsylvania’s miners protested "the tyrant’s" monopolization of the coal trade. Of the poet Jack O’Brien’s address to the anti-monopolists at Harrisburg, a newsman said: "He … poured out such a strain of narration and melody that the whole house gave up its rigid tactics and exchanged business for jollity. … He pictured in language of the purest Celtic all the wiles and misdoing of monopolies, corporations and politicians."
Of O'Brien's address at Harrisburg, only his poem remains:
You sons of liberty awake,
Your hearths and altars are at stake;
Arise, arise, for freedom’s sake,
And strike against monopoly.

Your American eagle is [not] dead,
Again his giant wings are spread
To sweep upon the tyrant’s head,
And down with usurping monopoly.
What soul but scorns the coward slave;
But liberty is for the brave;
Our cry be Union or the grave,
And down with usurping monopoly.

The views of Shanahan and O'Brien at Harrisburg reflected those of tens of thousands of workingmen in Pennsylvania and, per their convention, "the one hundred thousand voters whom it represents." At the convention, the greatest representation of miners came from Pennsylvania’s Carbon, Columbia, Luzerne, Northumberland, and Schuylkill counties. Within the next four years, those five counties would hold "Molly Maguire" executions.

"Our cry be Union or the grave," O’Brien said. He penned his poem from Tamaqua, home to alleged "Molly" and Labor Reformer James Carroll. Before his execution, Carroll owned a Tamaqua hotel he christened "Union Hotel." 

Less than four years after the miners held their Harrisburg convention, a Roman Catholic cemetery in Tamaqua served as the burial site for John Kehoe, alleged "King of the Mollies." During the attendant trauma of twenty-one "Molly" executions in five counties in two years, anti-monopoly fervor died, along with the rhetoric that roused a hundred thousand voters.

Of Carroll's execution, Kehoe said from Pottsville Jail: "'I'm sorrier for Carroll than any man I ever knew. He was a decent man and was raised up to decency and ought not to have been hung on such men's evidence."

From Pottsville Jail, Kehoe carried forward the "sons of liberty" theme. "'British gold was poured into his coffers,'" Kehoe told a reporter of Gowen's efforts to monopolize the hard coal trade. Of Gowen's character, Kehoe said, "'His whole course as president of the Reading road has shown him to be a man of such grasping tendencies that no obstacle, however sacred, was ever allowed to interpose between him and his end.'"

This post was revised on September 1, 2017.