How the Molly Maguires’ Executions Gave Birth to a Legend

How the Molly Maguires’ Executions Gave Birth to a Legend

Posted by Olivia O’Mahony on 31st Aug 2018

“They were Irish,” the voiceover states. “They were Catholic,” it continues as the camera pans down the tracks of a coal elevator. “They were rebels.” For most Americans outside of Pennsylvania’s northeastern coal region, this would have been their first introduction to a secret vigilante labor society so entrenched in Pennsylvania lore that some historians have questioned the extent of its existence and influence at all—the Molly Maguires. The voiceover comes from the trailer for 1970’s The Molly Maguires movie, starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris at career peaks, as well as Golden Globe winner Samantha Eggars. Despite poor box office numbers, the film reignited greater national interest in the “Mollies,” as they were known colloquially, and their role as one of the first non-union labor rights groups in the U.S.

Still, their existence in the United States is shrouded in mystery, having (unsurprisingly) left no records, documentation, or membership roster. (The Molly Maguires came to prominence in Ireland in the 1830s as an agrarian agitation movement for tenant farmers’ rights and later spread to England, then the U.S.) Those convicted and executed for crimes attributed to the Mollies denied their activities and association with the group, and much of the evidence for the 20 executions of alleged members between 1877 and 1879 came from a sole private detective working for the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, known for strike breaking, union busting, worker intimidation, and worse on behalf of the country’s largest corporations throughout the Gilded Age.

For this reason, their mythology has lived on, and the Molly Maguires are today cited as having fought the first labor war in the U.S. as well as inspiration for future labor organizing efforts in the early 20th century. But who were the Mollies really? What brought them together? And most importantly, what did they want?

James McParland, the Pinkerton detective who infiltrated the alleged Molly Maguires and whose testimony led to 20 executions. (Library of Congress)

The story of the Molly Maguires began in 1835, when more poor Catholic tenants were being made homeless by the day. These small-scale potato farmers were suffering in face of growing trend of fencing off and pasturing of land, a practise known as “enclosure” from which only landlords and the wealthiest tenants could benefit; unable to keep up with the rent expected of them, the less well-off were evicted from their homes. From this inequality, a kind of agricultural rebellion blossomed: fences were ripped down and livestock were often killed or severely injured by cover of night. Those who profited from this new, unjust system were made to live in fear as payment for their immoral conduct. The rebels behind these radical acts called themselves the Molly Maguires.

In an August 25 1845 issue of The Times, writer Thomas Campbell Foster noted that the first act of so-called Molly Maguireism was committed upon a Lord Lorton, in retribution for the unfair eviction of his Irish tenants in Ballinaluck, Longford in 1835—the first incident of many. Some reports even tell of rebel group leaders dressing up as ailing women and begging land agents, middlemen, and rich tenants for spare change with which to feed their children; when they were turned away (and almost always this was the case), the Molly Maguires would strike, stealing from, threatening, and often beating the victim for his heartlessness.

Almost two months before Campbell Foster’s article, however, another piece relating to the Mollies had appeared in The Freeman’s Journal; and for all that the Molly Maguires were careful to conceal their identities (usually by blackening their faces with burnt cork) when they were in action, the text’s contents, though anonymous, were uncompromisingly upfront.

“Address of Molly Maguire to Her Children” contained 12 key rules that all Mollies must commit to live by. The address was tied to the non-existent Molly Maguire, her residence listed as Maguire’s Grove in the Parish of Cloone, Co. Leitrim. The mysterious Mother Molly’s instructions were as follows:

  • To allow no landlord more than fair value for his tenure.
  • That no rent must be paid until harvest time.
  • And not even then without an abatement, where the land is too high.
  • No undermining of tenants, or bailiff's fees to be paid.
  • No tenant may be turned out unless two years of rent has gone unpaid.
  • To provide moral aid to landlords in rent collection.
  • To cherish and respect good landlords and agents.
  • To avoid traveling by night.
  • To never take arms by day or night against any individual.
  • To avoid interaction with the police or military (for “they are only doing what they cannot help.”)
  • Not to discriminate against anyone for their religion, but to judge them by their actions only.
  • To forgive and forget where prudent; “but watch for the time to come.”

The particular interest that English publications held for stories about the Molly Maguires stemmed from the fact that it was in their country, too, that members of the secret society walked among the civilian population. In the United Kingdom, the Mollies were most highly concentrated in Liverpool, where countless Irish families settled in the 19th century, with many more passing through the city as part of their longer journey to North America. The Mollies’ presence in Liverpool was first noted on May 10, 1853 in the local Liverpool Mercury:

“A regular faction fight took place in Marybone amongst the Irish citizens in that district,” it read. “About 200 men and women assembled, who were divided into four parties—the ‘Molly Maguires,’ the ‘Kellys,’ the ‘Fitzpatricks,’ and the ‘Murphys,’ the greater number of whom were armed with sticks and stones. The three latter sections were opposed to the ‘Molly Maguires,’ and the belligerents were engaged in hot conflict for about half an hour, when the guardians of the peace interfered.”

The Liverpudlian branch of the Molly Maguires, it was clear, had left behind their original goal of forcefully promoting the welfare of the Irish people. Instead, they became known for their gangsterism, a network whose primary function was to come to the defense of its members whenever they broke the law—which they did, and often.

Through violent means, the Mollies sought out righteousness in Ireland and power in the United Kingdom. What, then, became of the faction of Mollies for whom England was only a stepping-stone, the first leg of their journey to a continent across the vast ocean? In some ways, they were the most notorious subgroup of all.

Slate pickers in an anthracite mine near Scranton, PA, 1905. Though the Molly Maguires were busted, their efforts eventually led to industry-wide reform of working conditions. (Boston Public Library / Flickr)

During the mid-19th century, the hard coal mining industry had begun to dominate the state of Pennsylvania. Eager to draw in more labor, coal companies began hiring immigrants from abroad with the intention of paying them less than their current American employees, all the while dangling the false promise of “fortune-making” in front of their noses. But for most of these immigrants, even a livable amount of money was impossible to amass. Instead, they worked themselves to the bone in the coal mines, where one false move could mean injury or death and brought home a pittance at the end of each long, hard day. Between the 1840s and 1860s, some 20,000 Irish migrants had fallen victim to this way of life.

Beginning in 1873 and continuing for six long years, one of the worst depressions to ever strike the United States left an estimated one fifth of the working population without employment. Another fifth, the privileged ones, kept full-time jobs. It was a time of rampant inequality, and for those Irish immigrants with ties to the Mollies, a cruel echo of the land conflicts in Ireland years before. While the masses starved, a small few luxuriated; fury ensued, and with it came acts of arson, kidnapping, and murder.

Through Franklin B. Gowan, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and Coal and Iron Companies (as well as the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world at the time), Pinkerton private detective James McParland, himself a native of Co. Armagh, was selected to go undercover against the Mollies, infiltrating the group to bring them to justice from the inside. Under the name “James McKenna,” he became a valued member of the organization in order to furnish his employers with information on murder and kidnapping plots. But, frustratingly, leads were few and far between. He wrote: “I am sick and tired of this thing. I seem to be making no progress.”

By this time, an unhappy 85 percent of Pennsylvania miners had joined the union to fight for their welfare. Wishing to put an end to this and secure future cheap labor for his empire, Franklin B. Gowan took a gamble and forced a worker’s strike, which began on January 1, 1875. Around this time, McParland came up with the theory that the Molly Maguires, beginning to worry about the repercussions of their their violent actions, had taken on a new name, the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a public and peaceful-seeming organization. Out of their 450 members, 400 belonged to the union.

Franklin B. Gowen, district attorney for Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, who prosecuted many of the crimes attributed to the Molly Maguires.

Edward Coyle, the leader of the union and Ancient Order of Hibernians, was mysteriously murdered that March. Later that year, three men and two women, all known Mollies identified by James McParland, were attacked in their home by masked men. Two, a man and a woman, were killed. Horrified, James McParland theorized the masked attackers to have been vigilantes hired by his employers. It is important to note that his outrage did not lie with the idea of male Mollies being killed as a result of their crimes; the cold-blooded murder of women and (potentially) children, however, was more than he could bear. He took the issue up with his employers. Despite these protests, the vigilante attacks continued.

The union was all but shattered by the loss of its leaders and continuing attacks on its strikers. Stories began to spread of similar attacks in mining communities beyond Pennsylvania, in Illinois, New Jersey, and Ohio. Fear claimed the season, and after six months, the strike came to an end. The miners returned to work worse off than before with a 20 percent cut in pay leaving them beyond destitute. Those who were members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (and, ostensibly, the Molly Maguires), however, weren’t willing to give in so easily.

After the atrocities their group had suffered, public support for the Mollies had begun to mount. McParland wrote, “Men, who last winter would not notice a Molly Maguire, are now glad to take them by the hand and make much of them. If the bosses exercise tyranny over the men, they appear to look to the organization for help.” And help they did. The coalfield Irish could no longer trust the legal system to settle their grievances, and so beef with lawyers and policemen was turned over to the ruthless Mollies for handling. Bodies began to pile up, and from his place within the inner circle of the Molly Maguires, James McParland saw it all.

So began the trials of those at the heart of the organization, those who Franklin B. Gowan referred to as the “puppet-masters.” Determined to bring the Mollies to an end, he appointed himself as a special prosecutor.

Schuylkill County Jail, where 10 alleged Molly Maguire members were hanged in 1877. The jail has a sign marking the occasion and murky events that led to the executions. (Jo Guldi / Flickr)

With death on the line in a court setting, McParland proved more comfortable. Ultimately, his testimony in the trials helped send ten men to the gallows for the crimes they were charged with. He argued firmly that the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the Molly Maguires were indeed one and the same, and all defendants guilty of their murders.

On June 21, 1877, six men were hanged at the prison in Pottsville. Miners, along with their wives and children, had walked through the night from surrounding areas to pay homage, and by 9am “the crowd in Pottsville stretched as far as one could see.” The people were completely silent in order to pay due respect to those about to die. Ten more men were hanged at a Carbon County prison in Mauch Chuk (present day Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania).

One man, Alexander Campbell, is reported to have slapped a muddy handprint on the wall of his holding cell being being removed from it, loudly proclaiming “There is proof of my words. That mark of mine will never be wiped out. It will remain forever to shame the county for hanging an innocent man.” Ten more of his fellow Molly Maguires died in the same spot over the next two years, including local A.O.H. leader John Kehoe and supposed “king” of the Mollies (played by Sean Connery in The Molly Maguires).

Whether the Molly Maguires existed as a unified and organized society in Pennsylvania in the second half of the 19th century is almost beside the point. As Boston College historian Kevin Kenny notes, “some Irish workers in Pennsylvania clearly used violence to advance the cause of labor as they saw it.” And today, the executions and violence inflicted upon Irish coal miners is correctly identified as one of the worst perversions of the American justice system of the century.

The Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe, PA, where many of the Molly Maguires were held and some executed. (Google Streetview Screenshot)

Nine years after The Molly Maguires was released in theaters and more than 100 years after the trials, Pennsylvania governor Milton Shapp posthumously pardoned John Kehoe, calling the Mollies “martyrs to labor” and arguing that far from actual criminal activity, it was instead Kehoe’s enviable leadership of the miners that caused Franklin Gowan “to fear, despise and ultimately destroy [him].”

“[I]t is impossible for us to imagine the plight of the 19th Century miners in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region,” Shapp wrote. “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.”

Writing in 1994, Carbon County judge James P. Lavelle put the Molly Maguire courtroom proceedings into even starker terms: “The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.”

Their legacy lives on in the many worker-led disruptions of industry throughout the 20th century, and their “organization” such as it was, is considered the first “worker-only led labor movement in American history.”

And though there has never been any official primary documentation of the society in the U.S., you can still visit and view all the archives related to the court proceedings at the Pennsylvania State Archives. Who knows, maybe there’s something there just waiting to be discovered that can settle the question once and for all.

Anyone interested in learning more should also visit the Old Jail Museum in Jim Thorpe, where visitors can walk around the same halls and rooms where the Mollies were imprisoned and hanged. You can even still see Campbell’s handprint on the wall. (The museum is also currently for sale for the especially curious.)

Happy Labor Day.