PENNSYLVANIA'S "MOLLY MAGUIRES": FACT VS. FICTION


Anne Flaherty presented this paper at the 33rd annual meeting of the American Conference for Irish Studies-Western Regional [ACIS-West]. The theme of the conference, held in October 2017 at the Davenport Hotel in Spokane, Washington, was “Ireland, Irish America, and Work.”
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Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” history is such an odd blend of fact and fiction, it’s hard to know where to start.
Margaret Kehoe
Eldest Daughter of John Kehoe
Born Schuylkill County, PA
Citca 1868

I came to this work through my relationship to John Kehoe, alleged “King of the Mollies. My mother’s family was descended from Kehoe’s eldest daughter, Margaret. Margaret was about ten when her father was hanged. To give an idea of the scope of this conflict, Margaret was one of at least forty-three children of alleged “Mollies” left fatherless after the executions (nine of the twenty-one condemned men were forty years of age or older).

My grandmother and great-aunts, Margaret’s daughters, said of these prosecutions, “It was political.” They believed the Hibernians hanged as “Mollies” to be innocent, and they believed them to be champions of labor. But they also believed that the moving force behind the prosecutions was political. My mother believed the same.

I used that belief as a guide when I viewed materials in archives and libraries in five states. My search has taken more than fifteen years and has yielded some startling and dramatic finds. I discovered that from 1871 to 1875, Pennsylvania’s Hibernians charged as terroristic “Mollies” had become a social, political, religious, and industrial force.

I’ll highlight a few of the documents that led me to that conclusion.

Revised AOH Charter, Pennsylvania
Filed at Harrisburg, March 1871

All of the alleged “Mollies” belonged to the Irish Catholic benevolent order known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians [AOH]. On their initiation into the order, all received a copy of the AOH constitution and by-laws. The order provided death, disability, and funeral benefits to members. 

In March 1871, Pennsylvania's Hibernians filed a revised AOH charter with the state legislature at Harrisburg. A few facts illuminate that 1871 filing.

Fact #1: Hibernians in New York City and Hibernians in Schuylkill County, at the heart of Pennsylvania’s hard coal region, shared a decades-long history. In 1836, the two groups joined together to secure the first U.S. AOH charter from Great Britain.

Three and a half decades later, Pennsylvania’s AOH men and New York’s AOH men filed an almost identical revised charter with their respective state legislatures. A long chain of relationship bound these two groups together. We’ll see that in a bit with John Kehoe’s relationship to the New York AOH officers.

Fact #2: At least one alleged “Molly” is tied to the filing of this revised AOH charter at Harrisburg. A bizarre series of events that involved a hostile coal region priest and three Hibernians trying to bury a fellow member in consecrated ground yielded the clue that Patrick Hester, AOH officer from Northumberland County later hanged as a “Molly,” was one of the Hibernians who helped lobby Pennsylvania’s revised AOH charter through the state legislature.

The charter’s language is powerful, even profound.

Its preamble contains a poem that begins:

These laws though human,
Spring from Love Divine,
Love laid the scheme—
Love guides the whole design.[1]

Its introduction contains this language:

“Brethren: … the Supreme Being has placed man in a state of dependence and need of mutual support from his fellow man. … the Supreme Being has implanted in our natures tender sympathies and most humane feeling towards our fellow creatures in distress…”[2]
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Two coal region counties—Carbon and Schuylkill—figured prominently in Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” events. I tracked events from 1871 in those two counties to see if anything dovetailed with the AOH chartering.

From 1877 to 1879, Mauch Chunk in Carbon County held seven “Molly Maguire” executions. The following event took place at Mauch Chunk a month after the AOH secured its revised charter at Harrisburg.

New York Herald, April 12, 1871

The New York Herald published this article on April 12, 1871. It describes the “Grand Council” held by miners’ delegates in John Siney’s WBA—the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. The miners’ delegates, opposed to strikes as a means of negotiation, hoped instead to initiate a system of arbitration of wage disputes with the coal operators.

If you do research online, you’ll probably find the statement that the alleged “Mollies” had no involvement in Siney’s union, the WBA. I found evidence that at least four men charged as “Mollies” had served as WBA officers.

Two of these alleged “Mollies”—Michael Lawler and Cornelius McHugh—joined in Grand Council proceedings at Mauch Chunk. John Morgan, a Welsh miner, future state assemblyman, and close colleague of Kehoe’s, traveled with Lawler to the proceedings.

At least three men with close ties to the Hibernians have a strong presence at this event. All three voted in favor of arbitration. Lawler and Morgan served primary roles, as two of four signatories to the eventual arbitration agreement.

Five years before the showcase “Molly Maguire” trials began, the New York Herald described this gathering, with at least two alleged “Mollies” in attendance, as an “Immense Politico-Industrial Organization—A New Power Forming in the Land.”[3]

The Herald also said of the group: “This is but the beginning on the part of all the labor unions to consolidate in one great whole and work harmoniously at all future elections, both Presidential and State.”[4]

As Margaret Kehoe’s daughters said, “It was political.”

What was happening in Schuylkill County at this time? That county would see nine “Molly Maguire” hangings.

New York Herald, March 11, 1871

The New York Herald published this on the same day the AOH secured its revised charter at Harrisburg.

One phrase leaps from the coverage: “Attempt of the Reading Railroad Company to Monopolize the Trade.”[5] The “Molly” conflict revolved around the hope of railroad president Franklin Gowen, through his cartel of railroad and coal interests called the “Coal Combination,” to monopolize Pennsylvania’s hard coal trade.

Another fact leaps up. The Herald coverage comes from Mahanoy City, a heavily Irish Catholic town at the heart of the hard coal region.

“The miners,” the Herald reported, “finding their hopes of success from every quarter frustrated, turned, as a last resort, to Governor Geary. They waited until the carrying companies had increased their tolls to such a fearful and unheard of rate that they violated their charters (in the estimation of the miners) and then preferred formal charges against these companies and induced Geary to institute an official inquiry.”[6]

Gowen, as part of his scheme to drive small coal operators out of business, had tripled his freight rates. The miners called on Governor Geary (a Republican governor), to institute a legislative inquiry into Gowen’s right, under his company charter, to cripple the industry overnight with extortionate freight increases. Geary honored the miners’ call.

These miners had a sense of their own empowerment. They were playing chess with the region’s most determined monopolist. Who was in Mahanoy City at that time?
John Kehoe, AOH Delegate
Schuylkill County, PA

At that time, future AOH Schuylkill County delegate, John Kehoe, kept a tavern at Mahanoy City. Kehoe, a father with three tiny children, was a former miner.

Kehoe’s father Joseph, a miner who had been town constable (as Kehoe would be in later years in Girardville), also lived in Mahanoy City with his family. Joseph’s family included two grown brothers of John Kehoe—Michael and Edward. Both were miners.

When the Herald reported from Mahanoy City on the miners’ challenge of Gowen through the state legislature, four Kehoe men—three current miners, one former miner—lived in Mahanoy City. The Kehoe men who were active miners may have been WBA men. They were probably AOH men.

Mahanoy City’s miners feared that the poor of the eastern cities would suffer from higher coal prices due to the work stoppage and Gowen’s tripling of freight rates. The same month the AOH filed its revised charter at Harrisburg, this resolution came out of Mahanoy City’s WBA District 5 of the miners’ union:

Resolved. 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.”[7]

The Mahanoy City miners offered to work in the mines for free to supply the poor with coal during the work stoppage. The resolution came from the town that housed future AOH delegate John Kehoe.

Two weeks before, the AOH had secured a revised charter at Harrisburg that contained this language: “the Supreme Being has placed man in a state of dependence and need of mutual support from his fellow man. … the Supreme Being has implanted in our natures tender sympathies and most humane feeling towards our fellow creatures in distress …”[8]

Five years before the “Molly Maguire” trials began, religious feeling drove industrial action in Pennsylvania's hard coal region. That action included an Irish Catholic benevolent order that organized in Harrisburg under the tenet “Love guides the whole design,”[9] and a call from Carbon County for a national party of workingmen. From Schuylkill County, it included the securing by the miners of a legislative investigation against the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and an offer to work for free to provide the poor with coal.

One final fact: the AOH was a powerful order, both in Pennsylvania and nationally. By 1876, the year of the “Molly” trials, it numbered more than 60,000 members in Pennsylvania and 700,000 nationwide. It had the organizational power to back a national workingmen’s party.

Four months after AOH men in Pennsylvania and New York filed their revised charters, an illustration by Thomas Nast appeared in Harper’s Weekly. Nast’s illustration accompanied an article that described the so-called “Orange Riot of 1871,” where Orangemen clashed with Irish Catholics in a New York City parade. The event left more than sixty dead.

Nast’s cartoon animates the nativists’ fear of the “Irish influence”: the unwashed masses, the Irish brute, the violent, drunken animal threatening the American way of life. Nast’s Irish ape stands ready to plunge his knife into Lady Liberty’s breast. She, with her hand at the beast’s throat, fends him off with a whip labeled “Law.”

Illustration, Thomas Nast
Harper's Weekly, July 29, 1871

Nast’s image helped coal region jurors sentence twenty-one alleged “Molly Maguires” to death. Some of the jurors, German farmers, spoke little English. But they could apprehend the danger that Nast caricatured here.
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From 1871 to 1875, alleged “Mollies” joined in numerous labor and political activities. I’ve documented some of that activity in the section titled “ESSAY COLLECTION” posted to [this] blog, From John Kehoe’s Cell.

Those activities included involvement in Richard Trevellick’s National Labor Union, and in the burgeoning Greenback Labor Reform movement.

Two dramatic events, both related to these reform efforts, took place in 1874 for Hibernians charged as “Mollies.” That year, Schuylkill’s Hibernian officers joined the national political debate.

In January 1874, U.S. Congressman John Killinger, later named by Kehoe as a “Good old”[10] friend, made a speech on the floor of Congress that called for cooperative ownership of the U.S. railway system. Killinger asked for authorization for groups of as few as ten men to own and operate railroads nationwide, along with a uniform system of gauges.

In August 1874, Schuylkill County’s Hibernians elected John Kehoe as county delegate and Christopher Donnelly as county treasurer. That month Donnelly, a former Labor Reform delegate and future school director, attended a Democratic nominating convention at Pottsville. Donnelly delivered thirty-nine votes to the nomination of James Reilly to U.S. Congress. That November, Reilly won the election.

In the midst of this intense half-decade of Hibernian activity from 1871 to 1875, Allan
Allan Pinkerton, President
Pinkerton National Detective Agency
Pinkerton, head of a national detective agency, found himself on the verge of ruin. In May 1873, Pinkerton wrote to his New York manager and described his woes. He told his manager to “go to Franklin Gowan [sic] occasionally … suggest some things to Mr. Gowan [sic] about one thing and another which would be possible, and I have no doubt he will give us work.” Pinkerton added: “I must have money and God knows where it is to come from.”[11]

Two days later, Pinkerton confided that though he had enough money due him to cover his debts, “yet still I am unable to raise scarcely enough to buy a dinner.”[12] Pinkerton’s men succeeded in their pitch to Gowen. Gowen eventually hired more than twenty of their operatives for the “Molly” caseload. In October 1873, five months after Pinkerton told his men to seek out Gowen, Pinkerton operative James McParlan entered the coal region undercover as “James McKenna.”
James McParlan
Pinkerton Operativ
e

After McParlan entered the coal region, nine murders took place. These drove the first arrests. The nine murders were added to a list of older, unsolved murders that eventually made up the “Molly Maguire” caseload.

Defense attorneys accused McParlan as both a murderer and an agent provocateur.

At least five alleged “Mollies” had been elected as school directors; others as constables, tax assessors, tax collectors, township supervisors and, in at least one instance, overseer of the poor. Delegates in convention suggested one alleged “Molly,” John Slattery, as their nominee for Labor Reform senator. Very little of this information made its way into McParlan’s reports.

McParlan’s infiltration of numerous AOH lodges and his compilation of extensive membership lists gave Gowen the names he needed to conduct his “Molly Maguire” arrests. The arrests ran to dozens of AOH men and included all prominent regional officers.

In McParlan’s trial testimony, painstakingly crafted and archived, the detective stated that dozens of “Mollies” had conspired to murder, had traded murders, and had rewarded members for murder. McParlan’s trial testimony was carefully crafted fiction.

Two corrupt AOH members, self-confessed killers James Kerrigan and Daniel Kelly, bolstered McParlan's testimony through numerous trials. Prominent AOH men accused of capital crimes, including WBA officers Michael Lawler, Cornelius McHugh, and John Slattery, did the same to save their own lives. The use of these influential men as prosecution witnesses helped decimate reform efforts.

The Hibernians charged as “Mollies” were politically active. If born in Ireland, they had renounced their allegiance to Queen Victoria when they obtained their naturalization papers for U.S. citizenship. A generation before, they had witnessed Britain's seeming indifference to mass starvation during Ireland's Great Hunger. As U.S. citizens they wanted all men, not corporations backed by foreign capital, to benefit from this country's vast resources.

One of the tenets of Greenback Labor Reform, backed by many alleged “Mollies,”
Franklin Gowen, President
Philadelphia and Reading RR
called for the exclusion of British capital from U.S. industry. In the run-up to the centennial of the American Revolution, these naturalized Irish Americans were calling for a second American revolution, with complete freedom from British influence. Gowen relied on a firm of London financiers, the McCalmont Brothers, to back his plans for expansion in the coalfields.

That brings us to March 1875. Pennsylvania’s hard coal miners are on the march against Gowen again. They’ve brought a second legislative challenge against Gowen and his company. This one protests Gowen’s right to own coal lands under his railroad’s charter.

Five coal counties—Carbon, Columbia, Luzerne, Northumberland, and Schuylkill—sent miners’ delegates to the 1875 Anti-Monopoly Convention at Harrisburg. Within four years, all five counties would hold “Molly Maguire” executions.

At least one alleged “Molly,” Michael Lawler, served as an anti-monopoly delegate at Harrisburg.

The convention’s most impassioned language came from Tamaqua, in Schuylkill County. In three years, Tamaqua would serve as John Kehoe’s burial site. In Harrisburg, convention delegate Jack O’Brien of Tamaqua wrote a poem that survives as the era’s anthem. It harked back to the American Revolution, when “Sons of Liberty” in 1773, led by Samuel Adams, dumped a cargo of British tea into Boston Harbor.

A hundred and two years later, O’Brien’s poem invoked Adams’s revolutionaries. The coal region Irishman urged delegates to stand against Gowen's tyranny:

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.[13]

 
AOH Parade, New York City
March 17, 1875

Two weeks after the Harrisburg Anti-Monopoly Convention, at the height of their order’s power, AOH men paraded in New York City.[14] Mayor Wickham tipped his hat to the officers—an indication of their political heft.

Ten weeks before this parade took place, John Kehoe had hosted New York’s AOH officers at his tavern in Schuylkill County. Though the revised AOH charter required members to march on St. Patrick’s Day, the coal region clergy forbade marches by its parishioners. The same day AOH men paraded in New York City, Kehoe, despite clerical opposition, led a companion parade through Mahanoy City. The clergy’s response to Kehoe’s parade showed the depth of its animus against the benevolent order.

Though the papers described Kehoe’s marchers as “strikingly dignified and manly,”[15] a parish priest retrieved the flag used to head Kehoe’s parade. The priest took the flag to his church, displayed it before his Sunday congregation, and set it on fire.

While Kehoe prepared his marchers for St. Patrick’s Day, and miners’ delegates prepared for the Harrisburg Anti-Monopoly Convention, someone hired Joseph Becker to travel from New York to Pottsville, site of nine future “Molly Maguire” hangings. From Pottsville, Becker sketched illustrations for Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Though “Molly Maguire” arrests would not take place for eight months, Becker gave the public its first glimpse of “Molly Maguire” prisoners.

Illustration, Joseph Becker
Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, February 6, 1875

The following year, Gowen mounted the “Molly Maguire” caseload and served as special prosecutor. Pinkertons in Gowen’s employ filled out arrest warrants. Gowen’s Coal and Iron police made the arrests. Using McParlan’s conspiracy theory, Gowen charged that AOH men and the “Molly Maguires,” a shadowy Irish terrorist group, were one and the same. Numerous special prosecutors with ties to the coal men argued the same. The commonwealth included McParlan’s theory in its official trial transcript.

Official Trial Transcript, August 1876
Conflating AOH Men With "Molly Maguires"

Over a four-year span, prosecutors in five hard coal counties used McParlan’s theory to convict dozens of AOH men as “Mollies.” Pinkerton operatives oversaw these cases and helped craft prosecution testimony. Local nativist newspapers, including Benjamin Bannan’s Miners’ Journal in Pottsville and Thomas Foster’s Shenandoah Herald, kept the public well inflamed with their coverage of “Molly Maguire” terrorists. National newspapers did the same.

The “Molly” cases tried on McParlan’s conspiracy theory violated the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868. In 1954, Thurgood Marshall successfully raised the Equal Protection Clause to argue Brown v. Board of Education. As the “Molly Maguire” cases never rose to the level of federal scrutiny (Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court upheld the convictions), the caseload's constitutionality was never officially questioned.

On January 25, 1879, a Boston Pilot columnist captured the power of the “Molly” terrorist image. “At the time of their conviction,” he said of two of the later trials, “it was a very dangerous thing to be called a Molly Maguire—about as bad as it is for a dog to be called mad in the streets. ... what if these men had no part in the Smith murder at all, but were hounded down by a mob spirit ... simply because they were believed to have belonged to the Molly Maguire Order?

If Gowen’s “Molly Maguire” caseload was part of a white supremacist effort to decimate the AOH, it succeeded. A report from an 1880 AOH convention stated that from 1876 to 1880, membership numbers in Pennsylvania dropped from 63,000 to 7,000. A report from an 1884 convention stated that by that year, national membership had dropped to 114,000-plus members. At the order's height, it had numbered 700,000 members nationwide.

Gowen also demolished the miners’ union at the end of the “Long Strike” of 1875. With both the AOH and the WBA destroyed, and reformers silenced by the “Molly” trials, Gowen surged ahead with plans for monopolization. While Gowen's accrual of coal lands led one newsman to describe his “huge but elegant monopoly,”[16] Gowen’s dream of great wealth ended in the eventual bankruptcy of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and his removal as company president.

In 1889, Gowen committed suicide in a Washington, D.C. hotel. A Mahanoy City newspaper that reported Gowen’s death said the miners would never forget “that he used all the means in his power, both fair and foul, to crush out their spirit of independence as men and citizens of America.”[17]

In addition to acquiring the “Molly” caseload in 1873, Allan Pinkerton
The Mollie Maguires and
the Detective
By Allan Pinkerton, 1877
opened a dime novel press in 1874. In 1877, he published The Mollie Maguires and the Detective, a blend of fact and fiction. Pinkerton’s “penny dreadful” continued the work of the cartoons of Thomas Nast and Joseph Becker. Between Pinkerton's resurrected detective agency and his new dime novel press, he died a wealthy man.

A blend of fact and fiction wrote the “Molly Maguire” history. Historians used Pinkerton’s dime novel when they came to gaps in the research.

The Molly Maguires: The Origin, Character, and Growth of the Organization
By F. P. Dewees, 1877

Palpable bias also wrote this history. Francis Dewees drafted the authoritative text on which much of the “Molly” history is based. Dewees was a nephew of special “Molly” prosecutor Francis Hughes. In his acknowledgements, Dewees thanked the Pinkertons, the special prosecutors, and the most virulent of the local nativist press.

Fiction, along with pejorative nicknames, helped carry the “Molly” myth into the twentieth century. In 1914, with the publication of Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear, Kehoe went from “King of the Mollies” to “Black Jack McGinty,” a notorious coal region murderer. 

On the morning of Kehoe’s execution, a New York Herald reporter described the contents of Kehoe's small prison library. These included, among other items, The Poor Man’s Catechism and a biography of St. Alphonsus Liguori.

The Life of St. Alphonsus Liguori
By P. O'Shea, 1874

An 1874 telling of the life of St. Alphonsus, the Italian monk condemned by slander and hounded by the clergy, shows Alphonsus founding the Redemptorist Order to minister to the poor. The Poor Man’s Catechism, the treatise from the 1798 Irish Rebellion, speaks of the “lawfulness … of resistance to oppression.”[18]

Both volumes call for advocacy backed by Christian brotherhood. Both reflect the ideology contained in the 1871 revised AOH charter, where “Love guides the whole design.”[19]

The Hibernians executed as Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires” were men of faith. They were condemned to death in illegal trials. Before their arrests, they used legal channels to advocate on behalf of the oppressed. The elucidation of their ordeal could provide a broader understanding of ethnic, religious, political, and industrial conflict, and of the Irish American identity.

I would urge future Irish Studies scholars to examine the documents left behind in Kehoe’s cell, along with the revised 1871 AOH charter and the resolutions from the 1875 Anti-Monopoly Convention. These leave behind clues into the Hibernians’ aims and ideology. The entire “Molly Maguire” history, with its inherent drama and pathos and its broad-ranging implications for the study of the Irish American identity, could provide a seminal guide for a new direction in Irish Studies.  

This column was updated June 14, 2018.
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Not included in this presentation: the discussion of Pennsylvania’s three failed Democratic gubernatorial candidates from 1869 to 1875 who helped conduct the “Molly” caseload. Asa Packer (defeated in 1869) sent his corporate attorney to the Carbon County trials. Charles Buckalew (defeated in 1872) served as a special prosecutor in Columbia County. Cyrus Pershing (defeated in 1875) was Schuylkill County’s most active hanging judge. The careers of all three candidates show evidence of white supremacist leanings.



[1] 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.
[2] Ibid.
[3] New York Herald, April 12, 1871.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid., March 11, 1871.
[6] Ibid.
[7] WBA resolution published in the Boston Pilot, March 25, 1871.
[8] Commonwealth vs. Kehoe, 167.
[9] Ibid.
[10] For Kehoe’s letter containing this reference to Killinger, see John Kehoe to W. R. Potts, circa March 1878, John Kehoe File, M 170.18 MI, Historical Society for Schuylkill County.
[11] Allan Pinkerton to George Bangs, 18 May 1873, Pinkerton MS, Box 47, Folder 7, Library of Congress.
[12] Ibid., 20 May 1873.
[13] Harrisburg Patriot, March 4, 1875.
[14] NYC AOH parade illustration published in Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 3, 1875.
[15] Shenandoah Herald and Philadelphia Times, March 20, 1875.
[16] Bloomsburg Columbian, January 8, 1875.
[17] Unnamed newspaper source in private collection (includes advertisements for Mahanoy City), December 18, 1889.
[18] “The Union Doctrine, or Poor Man’s Catechism: Union Creed,” Labour History 75 (November 1998): 33.
[19] Commonwealth vs. Kehoe, 167.

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