In early spring 1878 John Kehoe, former Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) delegate for Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County, wrote a letter from Pottsville Jail. Seeking support for his upcoming Board of Pardons hearing, Kehoe wrote to his friend Ramsay Potts, a Quaker attorney and former Republican representative to Pennsylvania’s State Assembly. Of the prosecution witnesses in the so-called “Molly Maguire” trials, Kehoe said in a postscript to Potts: “I never thought that men would Be so wicked they swore every way they wanted them … I would sooner die than swear a wilful [sic] lie on my fellow man.”[1]

At Pottsville Jail, “Molly Maguire” prosecutors had tried to persuade Kehoe to testify to corrupt political practices on the part of Pennsylvania’s sitting governor, John Hartranft. Kehoe told Potts: “[If] I had sworn that Lie on Gov hartranft [sic] I would be pardoned long ago … they offered … Both Money & Pardon if I would do it … they all know that I am inocent” [sic].[2]

Six years before his incarceration for alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes Kehoe, born in Ireland’s County Wicklow, declared his intention to run for Pennsylvania’s State Assembly. At the time of his arrest, Kehoe served as high constable of Girardville and as county AOH delegate. In that capacity, he oversaw the printing of AOH charters at the press of the Shenandoah Herald. Kehoe distributed the charters to all AOH divisions under his authority. All initiates into the benevolent order received a copy of the document. Schuylkill County’s AOH initiates included James McParlan, an undercover Pinkerton operative who, as “James McKenna,” underwent a sham initiation into the AOH at Shenandoah in April 1874.

“Love guides the whole design,” a line from the preamble of the AOH charter advised.[3]

At the height of the “Molly Maguire” trials the AOH, a power in Pennsylvania, numbered more than 700,000 members nationwide. All of Kehoe’s “Molly” co-defendants belonged to the order. Many were AOH officers.

In fall 1875, with newspapers countrywide conflating AOH membership with so-called “Molly Maguire” terrorism, Kehoe described the order to a local editor: “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.”[4] Of a coal region correspondent who called for violence against suspected “Molly Maguires,” Kehoe said: “it would be more charitable for him or any other correspondent to encourage brotherly love instead of sowing seeds of antagonism which sooner or later may lead to bloodshed.”[5]

Like his fellow AOH defendants charged as “Mollies,” Kehoe embraced the tenets of the Labor Reform Party. In a direct threat to the commercial interests of the “Molly Maguire” prosecutors, the party’s ideology included a pro-union stance and a call for the exclusion of British capital from U.S. industry.

Franklin Gowen, chief prosecutor during the trials, served as both president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and Coal and Iron Company, and head of a cartel of railroad and coal interests. During the trials, Gowen’s usurpation of the criminal justice process included the wholesale use of Pinkerton operatives along with a private police force, the packing of juries with non-Irish (in some cases, non-English-speaking) jurors, the appointment of special prosecutors tied to coal interests, and the removal of the authority of Pennsylvania’s governor to grant pardons.

Kehoe and Gowen stood at the center of the “Molly Maguire” conflict. In a June 1877 interview with Philadelphia Times reporter Cathcart Taylor, Kehoe described Gowen as “a man of restless, arbitrary ambition, with such grasping tendencies that no obstacle, however sacred, was ever allowed to interpose between him and his end.”[6] Taylor may also have chronicled Kehoe’s execution at Pottsville Jail. Fifteen months after the Philadelphia Times published a detailed account of Kehoe’s hanging, Taylor committed suicide.

In 1878, at Gowen’s office in Philadelphia, Pottsville priest A. J. Gallagher told Gowen that he did not believe that Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons or Governor Hartranft would hang Kehoe on the evidence against him. Gowen jumped up, struck the desk with his fist, and shouted: “‘D—n the governor! If he don’t hang Kehoe, we will hang him!’”[7]

Pottsville Jail

In the coal region’s seventeenth of twenty-one “Molly Maguire” executions, the commonwealth hanged Kehoe on the morning of December 18, 1878. The Philadelphia Times described two Masses celebrated at Pottsville Jail on behalf of the condemned man. “In one corner of the corridor,” the reporter said, “in a large, double cell used as a sort of storehouse for the shoes made by the convict laborers, the Sisters had erected a small altar. As I entered this in the dark hours of the morning the chill look of the prison was left behind and there in a convict cell was a perfect fac-simile of a convent chapel. … The shoe-shelves had been concealed and the dingy room brightened up by plentiful drapery of white muslin, covering every wall. This the Sisters, who had made all these arrangements, had festooned and ornamented with evergreens. On the altar were lighted candles.”[8]

“The priest,” the account continued, “wore vestments of gold cloth and this fact bore, at least to Jack Kehoe, a special significance. Gold, in the Church’s parlance, is pure spotless white, and white is the color of the Blessed Virgin. After the last service had been concluded Kehoe 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.”

When the services ended, Kehoe parted from his wife Mary Ann. Father Gallagher removed the sobbing woman from her husband’s arms. Kehoe returned to his dungeon cell. There, four Sisters of St. Joseph from Pottsville, two Sister of St. Francis from neighboring St. Clair, and Fathers Gallagher and Brennan joined him in his final prayers.

At twenty minutes past ten, Kehoe entered the yard of Pottsville Jail. Storm clouds had threatened snow all morning. As he walked through the jail’s door, a sudden rush of wind drove a heavy fall of snow before it.  Snow fell on the rosary Kehoe wore around his neck and on the “button-hole bouquet” in his lapel, a final gift from his wife. “In one hand,” the reporter noted, “he carried a blessed candle, lighted.”

Two to three hundred spectators gathered to witness the execution. Kehoe walked to the gallows between the two priests, with Father Gallagher praying the Kyrie Eleison. When the trio reached the gallows’ steps, a gust of wind extinguished Kehoe’s candle. He mounted the steps alone and stood beneath the noose.

“Then occurred,” the Times said, “what probably no other execution conducted with clerical attendants ever witnessed—the utter absence of religious services upon the scaffold.” Father Gallagher, deeming a public display too cruel, had conducted the last rites in Kehoe’s cell. “At the foot of the hangman’s instrument,” the reporter continued, “both priests knelt upon the ground and as the snow fell about them and on their uncovered heads they prayed aloud.”

Then the priests ascended the steps. Gallagher drew Kehoe to him in an embrace and kissed him on the lips. Brennan grasped Kehoe’s hand. The priests withdrew, and Kehoe gave his statement. “I am not guilty of the murder of Langdon,” he said. “I never saw the murder committed.” As Sheriff Matz secured the noose and dropped the hood over Kehoe’s head, Gallagher, now situated below, prayed the Pater Noster.

Kehoe died a slow death through strangulation. After the trap fell, while Kehoe struggled above them, Brennan prayed the Confetior while Gallagher granted the dying man a plenary indulgence.

The Philadelphia Times also listed the contents of Kehoe’s small prison library. Among the volumes left behind in the cell, the reporter found a biography of St. Alphonsus Liguori, the Italian monk who founded the Redemptorist order to minister to the poor; and The Poor Man’s Catechism, the treatise from the 1798 Irish Rebellion. “I BELIEVE in the IRISH UNION,” that document began, “in the supreme majesty of the people, in the equality of man, in the lawfulness of the insurrection, and of resistance to oppression.”[9]

In 1978, one hundred years after Kehoe’s execution, Pennsylvania’s Board of Pardons issued Kehoe a posthumous pardon. In a letter commemorating the event, Governor Milton Shapp said, “we can be proud of the men known as the Molly Maguires because they defiantly faced allegations which attempted to make trade unionism a criminal conspiracy.”[10]


[1] John Kehoe to W. R. Potts, circa March 1878, John Kehoe File, M 170.18 MI, Schuylkill County Historical Society.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Report of the Case of the Commonwealth vs. John Kehoe et al., stenographically reported by R. A. West (Pottsville: Miners’ Journal Book and Job Rooms, 1876), 167.
[4] Kehoe’s letter, written on October 10, 1875, was published in the Shenandoah Herald on June 9, 1876.
[5] Miners Journal (Pottsville, PA), October 22, 1875.
[6] Philadelphia Times, June 27, 1877.
[7] Chicago Tribune, September 7, 1878.
[8] For this account of Kehoe’s execution, see Philadelphia Times, December 19, 1878.
[9] The Union Doctrine, or Poor Man’s Catechism: Union Creed,” Labour History 75 (1998): 33.
[10] Letter of Governor Milton J. Shapp, 6 September 1978, John Kehoe File, M 170.18 MI, Schuylkill County Historical Society.

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