Molly Maguires

Location of the counties in northeastern Pennsylvania where the Molly Maguires were active

The Molly Maguires were members of an Irish-American secret society, whose members consisted mainly of coal miners. Many historians believe the "Mollies" were present in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania in the United States from approximately the time of the American Civil War until a series of sensational arrests and trials in the years 1876−1878. The Molly Maguires were accused of kidnapping and other crimes, largely because of the allegations of one powerful industrialist (Franklin B. Gowen), and the testimony of one Pinkerton detective (James McParland). Fellow prisoners also testified against the alleged Molly Maguires, but some believe these witnesses may have been coerced or bribed.

There is little doubt that some Irish miners conspired to resist their exploitative conditions; however, the trusts seem to have focused almost exclusively upon the Molly Maguires for criminal prosecution. This may be a consequence of Irish miners acting as the core of militant labor union activism during a bitter strike provoked by a twenty percent wage reduction. Violence during the period was widespread, with Irish Catholic miners who reportedly made up the secret organization also falling victim.

Some aspects of the investigations, trials, and executions were unseemly. Information passed from the Pinkerton detective, intended only for the detective agency and their client — the most powerful industrialist of the region — was apparently also provided to vigilantes who ambushed and murdered miners suspected of being Molly Maguires, as well as their families.[1] The industrialist standing to gain financially from the destruction of the striking union acted as prosecutor of some of the alleged Molly Maguires at their trials.

Molly history is sometimes presented as the prosecution of an underground movement that was motivated by personal vendettas, and sometimes as a struggle between organized labor and powerful industrial forces.[2] Whether membership in the Molly organization overlapped union membership to any appreciable extent remains open to conjecture. Much remains uncertain, for the Molly Maguires left virtually no evidence of their existence, and nearly everything that we know about them was written by biased contemporary observers.[3]


Mollies in Ireland

The Molly Maguires originated in Ireland, where secret societies with names such as Whiteboys and Peep o'Day Boys were common beginning in the 18th century and through most of the 19th century. In Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, historian Kevin Kenny traces "some institutional continuity" from the Molly Maguires, back to the Ribbonmen, and previously, to the Defenders.[4] Another organization — the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), with which the Molly Maguires have sometimes been associated — was founded in the United States, and is properly described as a fraternal organization. Although some believe that the Molly Maguires, Ribbonmen, and Ancient Order of Hibernians are different names for the same organization, Kenny has cast some doubt on such linkages, describing the practice of conflating these names as a strategy which "provided an important rationale for [the Molly Maguires'] eventual destruction". Kenny observes that most of the Ireland-based equivalents of the AOH were secret societies, and some were violent. Kenny describes a process of leaders from north-central and northwestern Ireland "[adapting] their AOH lodges to classic 'Ribbonite' purposes".[5]

Even though there was a specific organization called the Society of Ribbonmen, the term Ribbonism became a catchall expression for rural violence in Ireland. The Ancient Order of Hibernians was extended to Ireland by the Ribbonmen, according to the official history of the AOH. Kenny believes, "If the AOH was a transatlantic outgrowth of Ribbonism, it was clearly a peaceful fraternal society rather than a violent conspiratorial one." In some areas the terms Ribbonmen and Molly Maguires were used interchangeably. However, some have drawn distinctions between the Societies of Ribbonmen, who were regarded as "secular, cosmopolitan, and protonationalist", and the Molly Maguires who were "rural, local, and Gaelic".[6]

Agrarian rebellion in Ireland can be traced to local concerns and grievances relating to land usage, particularly as traditional socioeconomic practices such as small-scale potato cultivation were supplanted by the fencing and pasturing of land. Agrarian resistance often took the form of fence destruction, night-time plowing of croplands that had been converted to pasture, and killing, mutilating, or driving off livestock. In areas where the land had long been dedicated to small-scale, growing-season leases of farmland, called conacre, opposition was conceived as "retributive justice" that was intended "to correct transgressions against traditional moral and social codes". The Mollies believed that they were carrying out "a just law of their own in opposition to the inequities of landlord law, the police and court system, and the transgressions of land-grabbers." The Mollies' reaction to "land-grabbers" of the 1840s — surreptitiously digging up the land to render it useful only for conacre — followed similar practices by Whiteboys in the 1760s, and by another group called the Terry Alts in the 1820s and early 1830s.[7]

One area of Molly Maguire activity was Donegal where they practiced rundale, in which land was divided for tenant usage by the tenants themselves, rather than according to the landowner's dictates. For example, the concept of "a cow's grass" acted as a measure of the land which was necessary to sustain one cow through summer grazing and winter fodder. The subdivision of land took into account the quality of grazing, and while some lots of land were frequently subdivided generationally among family members, other land was held in common. Although such practices had existed from "time immemorial", there were no written leases to protect the tenants. As landlords implemented new ways of using the land, such as "highly disruptive" experiments with intensive sheep farming, some tenants in Donegal and elsewhere were moved to resistance.[8]

Most landlords and their agents were Protestant, while the Molly Maguires were Catholic — an exacerbating factor that complicated relations. The victims of agrarian violence were frequently Irish land agents, middlemen, and tenants. Merchants and millers were often threatened or attacked if their prices were high. Landlords' agents were threatened, beaten, and assassinated. New tenants on lands secured by evictions also became targets.[7]

Local Molly Maguires leaders were reported to have sometimes dressed as women, representing the Irish mother begging for food for her children. The leader might approach a storekeeper and demand a donation of flour or groceries. If the storekeeper failed to provide, the Molly Maguires would enter the store and take what they wanted, warning the owner of dire consequences if the incident was reported.[9]

There are a number of folk tales about the source of the Molly Maguires' name. Molly may have been a widow who was evicted from her house, inspiring her defenders to form a secret society to exact retribution. Molly Maguire may have been the owner of a shebeen, an illicit tavern, where the society met. Another story suggests that Molly Maguire was a fierce young woman who led men through the countryside on nighttime raids.

Kevin Kenny believes that the most likely explanation is simply the practice of men dressing up like women and taking a female name both as a disguise and simple form of social transgression. While the Whiteboys were known to wear white linen frocks over their clothing, the Mollies blackened their faces with burnt cork. Kenny notes similarities — particularly in face-blackening and in the donning of women's garments — with the practice of mummery, in which festive days were celebrated by mummers who travelled from door to door demanding food, money, or drink as payment for a performance. The Threshers, the Peep o'Day Boys, the Lady Rocks, and the Lady Clares also disguised themselves as women.[10]

Mollies in the United States

Many historians (such as Philip Rosen, former curator of the Holocaust Awareness Museum of the Delaware Valley[11]) believe that Irish immigrants brought a form of the Molly Maguires organization into America in the 19th century, and continued its activities as a clandestine society. They were located in a section of the anthracite coal fields dubbed the Coal Region, which included the counties of Lackawanna, Luzerne, Columbia, Schuylkill, Carbon, and Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Irish miners in this organization employed the tactics of intimidation and violence previously used against Irish landlords in violent confrontations against the anthracite, or hard coal mining companies in the 19th century.

Historians disagree about the Mollies

A heritage of agrarian violence in Ireland undoubtedly contributed to the crimes in the Pennsylvania coal fields, which continued for well over a decade in the late 19th century. But historian Aleine Austin believes,

The facts show that there was much more terror waged against the Mollys than those illiterate Irishmen ever aroused.[12]

Although a legitimate self-help organization for Irish immigrants existed in the form of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), most mainstream writers accept that the Molly Maguires existed as a secret organization in Pennsylvania, and that they used the AOH as a "front". Yet historians are not even in agreement on this last point. For example, Joseph Rayback's 1966 volume A History of American Labor states that the "identity of the Molly Maguires has never been proved".[13]

Even authors who accept the existence of the Mollies as a violent and destructive group acknowledge a significant scholarship that questions the entire history. In The Pinkerton Story, authors James D. Horan and Howard Swiggett write sympathetically about the detective agency and its mission to bring the Mollies to justice. Yet they observe,

"The difficulty of achieving strict and fair accuracy in relation to the Mollie Maguires is very great. Sensible men have held there never even was such an organization... We do believe, however, that members of a secret organization, bound to each other by oath, used the facilities and personnel of the organization to carry out personal vendettas..."[14]

Such disagreements over a period when "labor was at war with capital, Democrat with Republican, Protestant with Catholic, and immigrant with native"[15] are, perhaps, to be expected. Nevertheless, the mainstream position today is that the Maguires did exist and were affiliated with the AOH.

Media attention

In Labor's Untold Story, Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais put the responsibility for creating the Molly Maguires on industrialist Franklin B. Gowen, observing that,

"A good number of historians now concede that there was never any organization in Pennsylvania known as the Molly Maguires—although any militant miner might have been called a Molly Maguire after the newspapers had spread Gowen's charge far and wide".[16]

Gowen, who was wealthy, powerful, and the District Attorney for Schuylkill County, contributed to such perceptions when he declared,

"The name of Molly Maguire being attached to a man's name is sufficient to hang him."[12]

The arrested men were often explicitly portrayed as guilty in the press prior to their trials, while the term "Molly Maguire" was openly associated with the act of murder. By freely associating murder with anyone linked to the group and by openly associating the men's cultural and religious heritage with both crime and punishment, the coverage most likely exacerbated or directly contributed to a fervor of anti-Irish, anti-Catholic sentiments at the time and may easily have had an impact on current or potential jurors.

"The all absorbing topic of this section is the approaching trial of the Molly Maguire murderers of John P. Jones, mine boss of Lehigh and Wilkesbarre Coal Company, at Lansford, a short distance from Summit Hill, Carbon County."

"One of the murderers has been disposed of, and Tuesday next another will be placed on trial."

"The fight will be an earnest one on both sides, with the chances, from present appearances, very much against the prisoner at the bar. The identification of the murderer has been so complete, all the links in the chain of evidence so close and unassailable, and the cloud of witnesses for the Commonwealth, that there is little doubt in the public mind that Kelly's fate will be that of Doyle."

"What adds interest to this melancholy affair is that national and religious prejudices have been stirred up by the fact that the men now awaiting their doom are Irishmen and Catholics; but this state of feeling will prove no bar to their receiving a patient and impartial hearing before the court, and full justice to their cause."

(New York Times March 27, 1876)[17]


During the mid 19th century, "hard coal" mining came to dominate northeastern Pennsylvania,[18] a region already afforested twice over to feed America's insatiable appetite for energy. By the 1870s, powerful financial syndicates controlled the railroads and the coalfields. Coal companies had begun to recruit immigrants from overseas, luring them with "promises of fortune-making". Herded into freight trains by the hundreds, these workers often replaced English-speaking miners who, according to George Korson,

"...were compelled to give way in one coal field after another, either abandoning the industry altogether for other occupations or else retreating, like the vanishing American Indian, westward..."[19]

Frequently unable to read safety instructions, the immigrant workers,

"...faced constant hazards from violation of safety precautions, such as they were. Injuries and deaths in mine disasters, frequently reported in the newspapers, shocked the nation."[19]

Twenty-two thousand coal miners worked in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.[12] Fifty-five hundred of the mineworkers in the county were children between the ages of seven and sixteen years[20] who earned between one and three dollars a week separating slate from the coal. Injured miners, or those too old to work at the face, were also assigned to picking slate at the "breakers" where the coal was crushed into a manageable size. Thus, many of the elderly miners finished their mining days as they'd begun in their youth.[21]

The miners lived a life of "bitter, terrible struggle."[22]

"The daily routine of the miner was to crawl in the dim light of his lamp, in mud and trickling water, surrounded by coal dust and perhaps powder smoke... the struggle was a difficult one."[12]

Disaster strikes

Wages were low, working conditions were atrocious, and deaths and serious injuries numbered in the hundreds each year. On September 6, 1869, a fire at the Avondale Mine in Luzerne County, took the lives of 110 coal miners. The families blamed the coal company for failing to finance a secondary exit for the mine.[23]

...the mine owners without one single exception had refused over the years to install emergency exits, ventilating and pumping systems, or to make provision for sound scaffolding. In Schuylkill County alone 566 miners had been killed and 1,655 had been seriously injured over a seven year period...[24]

The miners also faced a speedup system that was exhausting. In its November, 1877 issue, Harper's New Monthly Magazine published an interviewer's comments,

A miner tells me that he often brought his food uneaten out of the mine from want of time; for he must have his car loaded when the driver comes for it, or lose one of the seven car-loads which form his daily work.[25]

As the bodies of the miners were brought up from the Avondale Mine disaster, John Siney, head of the Workingmen's Benevolent Association (WBA), climbed onto a wagon to speak to the thousands of miners who had arrived from surrounding communities:[26]

Men, if you must die with your boots on, die for your families, your homes, your country, but do not longer consent to die, like rats in a trap, for those who have no more interest in you than in the pick you dig with.[26]

He asked the miners to join the union, and thousands of them did so that day.[26]

Some miners faced the additional burden of prejudice and persecution. In the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, twenty thousand Irish workers had arrived in Schuylkill County.[26] It was a time of rampant beatings and murders in the mining district, some of which were committed by the Mollies.[27]

Six years of depression

The period from 1873 to 1879 (see Panic of 1873) was marked by one of the worst depressions in the nation's history, caused by economic overexpansion, a stock crash, and a decrease in the money supply. By 1877 an estimated one-fifth of the nation's workingmen were completely unemployed, two-fifths worked no more than six or seven months a year, and only one-fifth had full-time jobs.[28] But not everyone had been suffering equally:

Labor angrily watched "railway directors (riding) about the country in luxurious private cars proclaiming their inability to pay living wages to hungry working men".[20]

Mine owners move against the union

Pinkerton Detective Agency detective James McParland, seen here some time in the 1880s

Franklin B. Gowen, the President of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, a first generation Irish American Protestant and "the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world", hired Allan Pinkerton's services to deal with the Molly Maguires. Pinkerton selected James McParlan, a native of County Armagh, to go undercover against the Mollies. Using the alias of James McKenna, he claimed to have became a trusted member of the organization. McParlan's assignment was to collect evidence of murder plots and intrigue, passing this information along to his Pinkerton manager. He also began working secretly with a Pinkerton agent assigned to the Coal and Iron Police for the purpose of coordinating the eventual arrest and prosecution of members of the Molly Maguires.[29]

Although there had been fifty "inexplicable murders" between 1863 and 1867 in Schuylkill County,[30] progress in the investigation was slow.[31] There was "a lull in the entire area, broken only by minor shootings".

McParlan wrote:

I am sick and tired of this thing. I seem to make no progress.[32]

The union had grown powerful; thirty thousand members—eighty-five percent of Pennsylvania's anthracite miners—had joined. But Gowen had built a combination of his own, bringing all of the mine operators into an employers' association known as the Anthracite Board of Trade. In addition to the railroad, Gowen owned two-thirds of the coal mines in southeastern Pennsylvania. He was a risk-taker and an ambitious man.[33] Gowen decided to force a strike and showdown.[31]

Union, Mollies, and Ancient Order of Hibernians

One of the burning questions for modern scholars is the relationship between the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, the Mollies, and their alleged cover organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Historian Kevin Kenny notes that all of the men who were convicted were members of the AOH. But "the Molly Maguires themselves left virtually no evidence of their existence, let alone their aims and motivation."[34]

Relying upon his personal knowledge before commencing an investigation, James McParlan believed that the Molly Maguires, under pressure for their activities, had taken the new name "Ancient Order of Hibernians" (AOH). After beginning his investigation, he estimated that there were about 450 members of the AOH in Schuylkill County.[35] While Kenny observes that the AOH was "a peaceful fraternal society", he does note that in the 1870s the Pinkerton Agency identified a correlation between the areas of AOH membership in Pennsylvania, and the corresponding areas in Ireland from which those particular Irish immigrants emigrated. The violence-prone areas of Ireland corresponded to the areas of violence in the Pennsylvania coalfields.[36]

In his book Big Trouble, which traces James McParlan's history, Anthony Lukas has written,

The WBA was run by Lancashire men adamantly opposed to violence. But [Gowen] saw an opportunity to paint the union with the Molly brush, which he did in testimony before a state investigating committee... "I do not charge this Workingmen's Benevolent Association with it, but I say there is an association which votes in secret, at night, that men's lives shall be taken... I do not blame this association, but I blame another association for doing it; and it happens that the only men who are shot are the men who dare disobey the mandates of the Workingmen's Benevolent Association."[37]

Of the 450 AOH members that Pinkerton Agent McParlan estimated were in Schuylkill County, about 400 belonged to the union.[35] Yet Kenny observes that,

Molly Maguireism and full-fledged trade unionism represented fundamentally different modes of organization and protest.[38]

Kenny also notes that one contemporary organization, the Pennsylvania Bureau of Industrial Statistics, clearly distinguished between the union and the violence attributed to the Molly Maguires. Their reports indicate that violence could be traced to the time of the Civil War, but that in the five year existence of the WBA, "the relations existing between employers and employees" had greatly improved. The Bureau concluded that the union had brought an end to the "carnival of crime". Kenny further notes that the leaders of the WBA were "always unequivocally opposed" to the Molly Maguires.[39]

Kenny continues,

Most Irish mine workers belonged to the WBA and roughly half the officers of its executive board in 1872 bore Irish names. But, in addition to the WBA, there existed a loosely organized body of men called the Molly Maguires, whose membership appears to have been exclusively Irish... Both modes of organization... tried to improve conditions of life and labor in the anthracite region. But the strategy of the trade union was indirect, gradual, peaceful, and systematically organized across the anthracite region, while that of the Molly Maguires was direct, violent, sporadic, and confined to a specific locality.[40]

Kenny observes that there were frequent tensions between British miners, who held the majority of skilled positions, and the mass of unskilled Irish laborers. However, in spite of such differences, the WBA offered a solution, and for the most part "did a remarkable job" in overcoming such differences.[41]

All mine workers, regardless of craft status, national origin, and religious background, were eligible to join the WBA. As a result, the WBA must have included some "Molly Maguires" among its ranks; many of its rank and file were members of the AOH, and there is evidence that some disgruntled trade union members favored violence against the wishes of their leaders, especially in the climactic year of 1875. But there were no Mollys among the leaders of the WBA, who took every opportunity they could to condemn the Molly Maguires and the use of violence as a strategy in the labor struggle. While the membership of the trade union and the secret society undoubtedly overlapped to some extent, they must be seen as ideologically and institutionally distinct.[42]

Whatever the relationship between the WBA and the Molly Maguires, their fates were intertwined — at least in part because there were many in positions of power who chose to see no distinctions.[43]

Vigilante justice

F.P. Dewees, a contemporary and a confidant of Gowen, wrote that by 1873 "Mr. Gowen was fully impressed with the necessity of lessening the overgrown power of the 'Labor Union' and exterminating if possible the Molly Maguires." In December, 1874, Gowen led the other coal operators to announce a twenty percent pay cut. The miners decided to strike on January 1, 1875.[31]

Edward Coyle, a leader of the union and of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, was murdered in March. Another member of the AOH was shot and killed by the Modocs led by one Bradley, a mine superintendent. Patrick Vary, a mine boss, fired into a group of miners and, according to the later boast by Gowen, as the miners "fled they left a long trail of blood behind them". At Tuscarora a meeting of miners was attacked by vigilantes who shot and killed one miner and wounded several others.[21]

Pinkerton Agent Robert J. Linden was brought in to support McParlan while serving with the Coal and Iron Police.[44] On August 29, 1875, Allan Pinkerton wrote a letter to George Bangs, Pinkerton's general superintendent, recommending vigilante actions against the Molly Maguires:

The M.M.'s are a species of Thugs... Let Linden get up a vigilance committee. It will not do to get many men, but let him get those who are prepared to take fearful revenge on the M.M.'s. I think it would open the eyes of all the people and then the M.M.'s would meet with their just deserts.[45]

On December 10, 1875, three men and two women were attacked in their house by masked men. Lukas observes that the attack "seems to reflect the strategy outlined in Pinkerton's memo".[45] The victims had been secretly identified by McParlan as Mollies. One of the men was killed in the house, and the other two supposed Mollies were wounded but able to escape. A woman, the wife of one of the reputed Mollies, was shot dead.[32]

McParlan was outraged that the information he had been providing had found its way into the hands of indiscriminate killers. When he heard some details of the attack at the house, McParlan protested in a letter to his Pinkerton supervisor. He did not object that Mollies might be assassinated as a result of his labor spying — they "got their just deserving". But McParlan resigned when it became apparent the vigilantes were willing to commit the "murder of women and children", whom he deemed innocent victims.[1] His letter stated:

Friday: This morning at 8 A.M. I heard that a crowd of masked men had entered Mrs. O'Donnell's house... and had killed James O'Donnell alias Friday, Charles O'Donnell and James McAllister, also Mrs. McAllister whom they took out of the house and shot (Charles McAllister's wife). Now as for the O'Donnells I am satisfied they got their just deserving. I reported what those men were. I give all information about them so clear that the courts could have taken hold of their case at any time but the witnesses were too cowardly to do it. I have also in the interests of God and humanity notified you months before some of those outrages were committed still the authorities took no hold of the matter. Now I wake up this morning to find that I am the murderer of Mrs. McAlister. What had a woman to do with the case—did the [Molly Maguires] in their worst time shoot down women. If I was not here the Vigilante Committee would not know who was guilty and when I find them shooting women in their thirst for blood I hereby tender my resignation to take effect as soon as this message is received. It is not cowardice that makes me resign but just let them have it now I will no longer interfere as I see that one is the same as the other and I am not going to be an accessory to the murder of women and children. I am sure the [Molly Maguires] will not spare the women so long as the Vigilante has shown an example.[46]

There appears to be an error in the detective's report (which also constituted his resignation letter) of the vigilante incident: he failed to convey the correct number of deaths. James "Friday" O'Donnell and Charles McAllister "were wounded but able to escape".[1] In the note, McParlan reported that these two had been killed by vigilantes. Such notes, possibly containing erroneous or as-yet-unverified information, were forwarded daily by Pinkerton operatives. The content was routinely made available to Pinkerton clients in typed reports.[47]

McParlan believed his daily reports had been made available to the anti-Molly vigilantes. Benjamin Franklin, McParlan's Pinkerton supervisor, declared himself "anxious to satisfy [McParlan] that [the Pinkerton Agency has] nothing to do with [the vigilante murders.]" McParlan was prevailed upon not to resign.[48]

A man named Frank Wenrich, a first lieutenant with the Pennsylvania National Guard, was arrested as the leader of the vigilante attackers, but was released on bail. Then another miner, Hugh McGeehan, a 21-year-old who had been secretly identified as a killer by McParlan, was fired upon and wounded by unknown assailants. Later, the McGeehan family's house was attacked by gunfire.[49]

Union leadership imprisoned

The state militia and the Coal and Iron Police patrolled the district. Union leaders were "excoriated by the press", and were "denounced from altar and pulpit". On May 12, John Siney, the union leader who had addressed miners at the Avondale disaster, and who favored arbitration and had opposed the strike, was arrested at a mass meeting called to protest the importation of strike breakers. An organizer for the miners' national association by the name of Xingo Parkes was also arrested, along with twenty-six other union officials, all on a charge of conspiracy. Judge John Holden Owes instructed the jury that,

...any agreement, combination or confederation to increase or depress the price of any vendible commodity, whether labor, merchandise, or anything else, is indictable as a conspiracy under the laws of Pennsylvania.[50]

When he sentenced two of the union officials, Judge Owes addressed them,

I find you, Joyce, to be president of the Union, and you, Maloney, to be secretary, and therefore I sentence you to one year's imprisonment.[50]

The strike fails

The union was nearly broken by the imprisonment of its leadership and by attacks conducted by vigilantes against the strikers. Gowen "deluged the newspapers with stories of murder and arson" committed by the Molly Maguires. The press produced stories of strikes in Illinois, in Jersey City, and in the Ohio mine fields, all inspired by the Mollies. The stories were widely believed.[50]

In Schuylkill County the striking miners and their families were starving to death. A striker wrote to a friend,

Since I last saw you, I have buried my youngest child, and on the day before its death there was not one bit of victuals in the house with six children.[50]

In his history of the American coal miner, Andrew Roy recorded,

Hundreds of families rose in the morning to breakfast on a crust of bread and a glass of water, who did not know where a bite of dinner was to come from. Day after day, men, women, and children went to the adjoining woods to dig roots and pick up herbs to keep body and soul together...[50]

After six months the strike was defeated and the miners returned to work, accepting the twenty percent cut in pay. But miners belonging to the Ancient Order of Hibernians continued the fight.[51] McParlan acknowledged increasing support for the Mollies in his reports:

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 association for help.[52]

Lukas observes that the defeat was humiliating, and traces the roots of Molly violence in the aftermath of the failed strike:

Judges, lawyers, and policemen were overwhelmingly Welsh, German, or English... When the coalfield Irish sought to remedy their grievances through the courts, they often met delays, obfuscation, or doors slammed in their faces. No longer looking to these institutions for justice, they turned instead to the Mollies... Before the summer was over, six men—all Welsh or German—paid with their lives.[53]

Boyer and Morais argue that the killing wasn't all one-sided:

Militant miners often disappeared, their bodies sometimes being found later in deserted mine shafts.[51]

McParlan penetrates the "inner circle"

After months of little progress, McParlan reported some plans by the "inner circle". Gomer James, a Welshman, had shot and wounded one of the Mollies, and plans were formulated for a revenge killing. But the wheels of revenge were grinding slowly. And there was other violence:

November was a bloody month what with the miners on strike... In the three days around November 18, a Mollie was found dead in the streets of Carbondale, north of Scranton, a man had his throat cut, an unidentified man was crucified in the woods, a mining boss mauled, a man murdered in Scranton, and three men of [another Molly Maguires group] were guilty of a horror against an old woman, and an attempt to assassinate a Mollie, Dougherty, followed and [Dougherty] at once demanded the murder of W.M. Thomas, whom he blamed for the attempt.[54]

On the last day of the month, with Gowen's strikebreakers pouring in, the Summit telegraph office was burned, a train derailed, and McParlan advised [his Pinkerton supervisor] to send in uniformed police to preserve order.[54]

A plan to destroy a railroad bridge was abandoned due to the presence of outsiders. The Irish had been forbidden by the English and Welsh to set foot in a public square in Mahanoy City, and a plan for the Irish to occupy it by force of arms was considered then abandoned.

In the meantime a messenger reported that Thomas, the would-be killer of one of the Mollies, had been killed in the stable where he worked. McParlan reported that he, McParlan, had been asked to supply the hidden killers with food and whiskey. Horan and Swiggett write,

The probability is that as a man, Bully Bill Thomas, a Welshman, was no better than his enemies, but he was remarkable in other ways. His killers, leaving him for dead in the stable door, were not aware until two days later that he had survived.[55]

Another plan was in the works, this one against two night watchmen, Pat McCarron and Borough Patrolman Benjamin Yost. Accused Mollies Jimmy Kerrigan and Thomas Duffy were said to despise Yost, who had arrested them numerous times. Yost was shot as he put out a street light, which at that time necessitated climbing the lamp pole. Before he died, he reported that his killers were Irish, but were not Kerrigan or Duffy.

McParlan recorded that a Molly by the name of William Love killed a justice of the peace by the name of Gwyther in Girardville. Unknown Mollies were accused of wounding a man outside his saloon in Shenandoah. Gomer James was killed while he tended bar. Then, McParlan recorded, a group of Mollies reported to him that they had killed a mine boss named Sanger, and another man who was with him. Forewarned of the attempt, McParlan had sought to arrange protection for the mine boss, but was unsuccessful.[56]

While there was concern whether enough evidence was collected on reprisal killings and assassinations that sufficient arrests of the Mollies could be made, McParlan's identity had been discovered.[57]

The trials

Franklin B. Gowen (1836-1889), District Attorney for Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company

When Franklin Gowen first hired the Pinkerton agency, he had claimed the Molly Maguires were so powerful they had made capital and labor "their puppets".[58] When the trials of the alleged puppet-masters opened, Gowen had himself appointed as special prosecutor.[59]

The first trials were for the killing of John P. Jones. The three defendants, Michael J. Doyle, Jimmy Kerrigan and Edward Kelly, had elected to receive separate trials. Doyle went first, with his trial beginning January 18, 1876, and a conviction for first-degree murder being returned on February 1. Before the trial completed, Kerrigan had decided to become a state's witness, and he gave details about the Jones and Yost murders. Kelly's trial began on March 27 and also ended in conviction on April 6.[60]

The first trial of defendants McGeehan, Carroll, Duffy, James Boyle, and James Roarity for the killing of Benjamin Yost commenced in May 1876. Yost had not recognized the men who attacked him. Although Kerrigan has since been described, along with Duffy, as hating the night watchman enough to plot his murder,[61] Kerrigan became a state's witness and testified against the union leaders and other miners. However, Kerrigan's wife testified in the courtroom that her husband had committed the murder. She testified that she refused to provide her husband with clothing while he was in prison, because he had "picked innocent men to suffer for his crime". She stated that her speaking out was voluntary, and that she was interested only in telling the truth about the murder. Gowen cross-examined her, but could not shake her testimony. Others supported her testimony amid speculation that Kerrigan was receiving special treatment due to the fact that James McParlan was engaged to his sister-in-law, Mary Ann Higgins.[62] This trial was declared a mistrial due to the death of one of the jurors. A new trial was granted two months later. During that trial Fanny Kerrigan did not testify. The five defendants were sentenced to death. Kerrigan was allowed to go free.

The trial of Tom Munley for the murder of mine foreman Thomas Sanger and his friend, William Uren, relied entirely upon the testimony of James McParlan, and the eyewitness account of a witness. The witness stated under oath that he had seen the murderer clearly, and that Munley was not the murderer. Yet the jury accepted McParlan's testimony that Munley had privately confessed to the murder. Munley was sentenced to death.[63]

Another four miners were put on trial and were found guilty on a charge of murder. The testimony against them came from only two sources: James McParlan, and "Kelly the Bum". McParlan had no direct evidence, but had recorded that the four admitted their guilt to him. Kelly the Bum was being held in a cell for murder, and he had been quoted, "I would squeal on Jesus Christ to get out of here." In return for his testimony, the murder charge against him was dismissed.[64]

A "coffin notice", allegedly posted by Molly Maguires in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. It was presented by Franklin B. Gowen, along with other similar coffin notices, as evidence in an 1876 murder trial.

In November McAllister was convicted.

McParlan's testimony in the Molly Maguires trials helped to send ten men to the gallows. The defense attorneys repeatedly sought to portray McParlan as an agent-provocateur who was responsible for not warning people of their imminent deaths. (Kenny 232-33) For his part, McParlan testified that the AOH and the Mollys were one and the same, and that the defendants were guilty of the murders. (Kenny 234-5)

Many years later in preparation for a different trial, James McParlan would tell another witness, a confessed mass murderer by the name of Harry Orchard, that Kelly the Bum not only had won his freedom for testifying against union leaders, he had been given one thousand dollars to "subsidize a new life abroad". McParlan was attempting to convince Orchard to accuse the leadership of an entirely different union, the Western Federation of Miners (WFM), of conspiracy to commit another murder.[65] Unlike in the case of the Molly Maguires, the union leadership of the WFM was acquitted. Orchard alone was convicted, and spent the rest of his life in prison.

The executions

On June 21, 1877, six men were hanged in the prison at Pottsville, in Schuylkill County, and four were hanged at Mauch Chunk, in Carbon County. A scaffold had been erected in the Carbon County prison. State militia with fixed bayonets surrounded the prisons and the scaffolds. Miners arrived with their wives and children from the surrounding areas, walking through the night to honor the accused, and by nine o'clock "the crowd in Pottsville stretched as far as one could see." The families were silent, which was "the people's way of paying tribute" to those about to die. Tom Munley's aged father had walked more than ten miles (16 km) from Gilberton to assure his son that he believed in his innocence. Munley's wife had arrived a few minutes after they closed the gate, and they refused to open it even for close relatives to say their final good-byes. She screamed at the gate with grief, throwing herself against it until she collapsed, but she was not allowed to pass.

Four members of the Molly Maguires, Alexander Campbell, John "Yellow Jack" Donahue, Michael Doyle and Edward Kelly, were hanged on June 21, 1877 at a Carbon County prison in Mauch Chunk (renamed Jim Thorpe in 1953), for the murder of mine bosses John P. Jones and Morgan Powell, following a trial that was later described by a Carbon County judge, John P. Lavelle, as follows:

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.

Allegedly, Alexander Campbell, just before his execution, slapped a muddy handprint on his cell wall stating "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." Despite many efforts to remove the mark, including tearing down and rebuilding the wall, the handprint remains in the same spot.[citation needed]

Michael J. Doyle and Hugh McGeehan were led to the scaffold. They were followed by Thomas Munley, James Carroll, James Roarity, James Boyle, Thomas Duffy, Edward J. Kelly, Alexander Campbell, John Donahue. Judge Dreher[66] presided over these trials.

Ten more of the condemned men, Thomas P. Fisher, John "Black Jack" Kehoe, Patrick Hester, Peter McHugh, Patrick Tully, Peter McManus, Dennis Donnelly, Martin Bergan, James McDonnell and Charles Sharpe, were hanged at Mauch Chunk, Pottsville, Bloomsburg and Sunbury over the next two years.

James Ford Rhodes' account of the Mollies

Many accounts of the Molly Maguires that were written during, or shortly after, the period offer no admission that there was widespread violence in the area, that vigilantism existed, nor that violence was carried out against the miners.

In 1910, industrialist and historian James Ford Rhodes published a major scholarly analysis in the leading professional history journal:[67]

The question of justice

Some have declared unequivocally that justice was done. An industrial spokesman proclaimed after the last trial,

Peace once more reigns in the anthracite coal regions. Mollie Maguireism is practically dead. The inhabitants of the anthracite coal regions are now enjoying the blessed peace which has recently come to them. God rules, justice must reign, and right must triumph.[68]

Others do not seem so certain. Horan and Swiggett, ever supportive of the Pinkerton cause that is the subject of their book, declare that "evil men had conspired for years to do evil things and the law had at last overtaken them." Yet a footnote suggests that their verdict concerning the trials that condemned the Molly Maguires is heavily qualified. They write, "There was much, of course, in the practices and outlook of the times which is abhorrent today." The footnote to this observation explains,

At the trials, special assistants to the district attorneys were supplied by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, the Lehigh and Wilkes Barre, and the Lehigh Valley. Professor Schlegel in his Ruler of the Reading (1947) calls "the Mollie trials and their aftermath among the least creditable incidents of [Gowen's] life". Professors Allan Nevins and Henry Steele Commager of Columbia University, both distinguished scholars, concur in the veracity and soundness of Professor Schlegel's research and conclusions.[69]

Horan and Swiggett also note that others have argued,

...punishment had gone too far, and that the guilt of some of the condemned was that of association more than participation and but half established by other condemned men seeking clemency for themselves.[22]

Boyer and Morais wrote,

McParlan agreed to testify, and did testify, that all those whom Gowan wanted removed had freely and voluntarily confessed to him that they had committed various murders. His word was to be corroborated by various prisoners at various of the county's jails, freedom the reward for corroboration. Among those who buttressed McParlan's testimony at the ensuing trials was a prisoner known as Kelly the Bum, who admitted that he had committed every crime in the calendar. This person was another prisoner was one Jimmy Kerrigan whose wife testified that he himself had committed the murder with which he was charging the miners of the AOH.[51]

Joseph G. Rayback, author of A History of American Labor, has observed:

The charge has been made that the Molly Maguires episode was deliberately manufactured by the coal operators with the express purpose of destroying all vestiges of unionism in the area... There is some evidence to support the charge... the "crime wave" that appeared in the anthracite fields came after the appearance of the Pinkertons, and... many of the victims of the crimes were union leaders and ordinary miners. The evidence brought against [the defendants], supplied by James McParlan, a Pinkerton, and corroborated by men who were granted immunity for their own crimes, was tortuous and contradictory, but the net effect was damning... The trial temporarily destroyed the last vestiges of labor unionism in the anthracite area. More important, it gave the public the impression... that miners were by nature criminal in character...[70]

The union point of view is expressed by the Miners' Journal of June 22, 1877, which asked simply:

What did they do? Whenever prices of labor did not suit them, they organized to proclaim a strike.[68]

The aftermath

When organized labor helped to elect Terence V. Powderly mayor of Scranton, Pennsylvania two years after the Molly Maguire trials, the opposition vilified his team as the "Molly Maguire Ticket".[71]

In 1979, Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp, a liberal Democrat, granted a posthumous pardon to Jack Kehoe. The Pennsylvania Board of Pardons recommended the pardon after investigating Kehoe's trial and the circumstances surrounding it. Governor Shapp praised Kehoe and the men "called Molly Maguires" as "heroes" in the struggle to establish a union.

In popular culture

  • The modern day American League baseball team from Cleveland went by the name the "Cleveland Molly McGuires" from 1912 to 1914 before finally settling on the "Indians" in 1915.
  • A movie based on these events called The Molly Maguires, starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris, was released in 1970.
  • The Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear is partly based on the Molly Maguires.
  • A 1965 episode of a USA western television series The Big Valley titled "Heritage" portrayed the Molly Maguires as active at a fictitious mine in the Sierras of the State of California in the 1870s. The Irish miners protest the use of Chinese laborers during a mine strike.
  • George Korson, a folklorist and journalist whom became fascinated with the livelihood of Pennsylvania's miners, wrote several songs and other writings regarding the topic—best showcased in his composition "Minstrels of the Mine Patch", which has a section specifically on the Molly Maguires: "Coal Dust on the Fiddle".
  • Irish folk band The Dubliners have a song called "Molly Maguires".
  • Irish-American Folk Band "The Irish Balladeers" wrote and recorded "The Sons of Molly" based on this history. This song was later covered by the Irish-Canadian band "The Peelers".
  • The Irish folk music/ska band Molly from Sweden was originally called "Molly Maguire".
  • A popular Irish/Bluegrass/Cajun band in Liverpool, UK 1990 were named after The Molly Maguires.
  • A musical was performed near Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania that told the story of the Molly Maguires. It was very popular in the area.
  • A bar in Olyphant, Pennsylvania bears the name Molly Maguires.
  • In the 2003 computer game Freelancer, the Mollies are a group of former asteroid miners turned criminals who fight for control of the gold fields in the Dublin system.
  • In the short story "Bulldozer" by Laird Barron, the main character (Jonah Koenig), a Pinkerton detective, is famous for infiltrating the Molly Maguires and testifying against them.
  • The song "The Ballad of the O'Donnell House"[2] and novel The Pipes Are Calling [3] by Loretta A. Murphy focus on the Mollie Maguire years and the true story of the Wiggans Patch Massacre.
  • "Lament for the Molly Maguires" is a song by the band The Irish Rovers that can be found on their album Upon a Shamrock Shore.
  • The Irish folk band Hair of the Dog's song "Ghosts of Molly Maguires" can be found on their album At The Parting Glass [4]
  • In the historical novel Mine Seed, Lucia Dailey using primary sources, oral history and other historical records casts serious doubt on the mine owners' portrayal of the "violent" "Mollies". The book exposes narratives by industrialists against workers and unionists in the anthracite region (and elsewhere), including inflammatory terms and epithets such as "communist" and "Molly Maguire" used to depict union leaders and strikers as violent and dangerous. Also detailed are biased courtrooms and procedures and a decades long campaign of vigilante and military suppression of unions, including events leading up to the 1877 execution of those accused "Mollies" in Schuylkill County, PA. During the Anthracite Strike of 1902, President Theodore Roosevelt (and Clarence Darrow) intervened on behalf of the coal miners. Threatening a government takeover of the mines, Roosevelt brought industrialists to the arbitration table for the first time in US history. It was also the first time the government sided with workers over owners and disavowed the use violence, or threat of violence, against workers to "settle" a strike. (Cit., Mine Seed, bibliography)

See also

  • Scotch Cattle, miners in 19th-century South Wales who would attack colleagues who continued to work during strikes.


Primary sources

  • Dewees, Francis P. The Molly Maguires: The Origin, Growth, and Character of the Organization (1877; 1964)

Scholarly secondary sources

  • Adams, Sean Patrick. "The US Coal Industry in the Nineteenth Century". EH.Net Encyclopedia, August 15, 2001 scholarly overview
  • Broehl, Jr., Wayne G. The Molly Maguires, Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1964; excellent scholarly study
  • Gudelunas, Jr., William Anthony, and William G. Shade. Before the Molly Maguires: The Emergence of the Ethnoreligious Factor in the Politics of the Lower Anthracite Region: 1844-1872. New York: Arno Press, 1976. ISBN 978-0405093395. On local politics and ethnic conflicts
  • Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, New York: Oxford University Press (1998)
  • Kenny, Kevin, "The Molly Maguires in Popular Culture", Journal of American Ethnic History (1995) 14(4): 27-46. Looks at 8 novels and a film to show how popular depictions have moved from negative to positive.
  • Kenny, Kevin. "The Molly Maguires and the Catholic Church", Labor History 1995 36(3): 345-376. Reports the bishops vigorously attacked the Mollies and the AOF (Hibernians) to expel violence from the Irish community and make it law-abiding.
  • Morn, Frank. The Eye that Never Sleeps: A History of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency ;;(1982)
  • James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States of America, From the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896: Vol 8: 1877-1896 (NY: Macmillan, 1919) Chapter 2. online version
  • Bimba, Anthony, The Molly Maguires. New York: International Publishers, 1970
  • Foner, Phillip, A History of the Labor Movement in the United States. 4 vols. New York: International Publishers, 1947-1964.

Popular books

  • Burke, William H, Anthracite Lads: A True Story of the Fabled Molly Maguires. "You should all run out and buy a copy and get the real deal scoop on the Mollies." -- Patrick Campbell, foremost Molly Maguire historian and grand nephew of hanged Molly leader. [5]
  • Samuel P. Orth, The Armies of Labor (1920)-Chapter 4 has a good overview of late 19th century labor history.
  • Zinn, Howard, A People's History of the United States (1492–Present) (1980; 2003)
  • Dailey, Lucia, Mine Seed, (2002). Reviewed by Howard Zinn, who called it something extraordinary in literature. Uses oral histories and primary sources on labor struggles presented from the miners' viewpoint.


  1. ^ a b c Horan, pp. 151-152.
  2. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, page 3.
  3. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, page 5.
  4. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, page 16.
  5. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 10, 14-17, 23, and 80.
  6. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pp 16-18.
  7. ^ a b Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 18-21.
  8. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 31-39.
  9. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pp 20-21.
  10. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pp 22-23.
  11. ^ Celona, Thomas (2010-10-22). "Philip Rosen lectures on the Molly Maguires in Fort Washington". Montgomery News, Montgomery County, Pennsylvania. Retrieved 2010-10-22. 
  12. ^ a b c d Cahn, William (1972). A Pictorial History of American Labor. Crown Publishers. pp. 126. ISBN 978-0517500408. 
  13. ^ Rayback, Joseph G (1959-1966). A History of American Labor. The Free Press, MacMillon. pp. 126. 
  14. ^ Horan, James David (1952). The Pinkerton Story. Heinemann. pp. 129. 
  15. ^ Horan, p.126.
  16. ^ Boyer, Richard O and Morais, Herbert M (1955-1974). Labor's Untold Story, published by United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of America (UE), p. 50
  18. ^ "Stories from PA history". WITF, Inc.. Retrieved 12 Jun 2011. 
  19. ^ a b Cahn, p. 124.
  20. ^ a b Horan, p. 127.
  21. ^ a b Boyer and Morais, pp. 51-52.
  22. ^ a b Horan, p. 125.
  23. ^ Boyer and Morais, pp. 44-45.
  24. ^ Boyer and Morais, pp. 46.
  25. ^ Boyer and Morais, pp. 47.
  26. ^ a b c d Boyer and Morais, pp. 45.
  27. ^ Horan, pp. 126-129.
  28. ^ Rayback, p. 129.
  29. ^ Horan, pp. 130-133.
  30. ^ Morn, pp. 94-95.
  31. ^ a b c Boyer and Morais, p. 51.
  32. ^ a b Horan, p. 151.
  33. ^ Boyer and Morais, pp. 48.
  34. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 5 and 10.
  35. ^ a b Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, pages 179 and 182.
  36. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 17-18 and 25-26.
  37. ^ Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, page 178.
  38. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, page 111.
  39. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, page 112.
  40. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 112-113.
  41. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 116-117.
  42. ^ Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 117.
  43. ^ For one example, see: Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, 1998, pages 119-120.
  44. ^ Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, pages 183-184.
  45. ^ a b Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, page 184.
  46. ^ Horan, p. 152. In the letter, McParlan referred to the Molly Maguires as "Sleepers".
  47. ^ Pinkerton operatives were required to send a report each day. The daily reports were typed by staff, and conveyed to the client for a ten dollar fee. Such a process was relied upon to "warrant the continuance of the operative's services". Morris Friedman, The Pinkerton Labor Spy, 1907, page 14. The process of Pinkerton reportage very likely resulted in the inclusion of occasional, unverified content in reports routinely conveyed to the client.
  48. ^ Horan, pp. 152-153.
  49. ^ Horan, pp. 153 and 157. McGeehan lived with Mrs. Boyle, a "young widow".
  50. ^ a b c d e Boyer and Morais, p. 52.
  51. ^ a b c Boyer and Morais, p. 53.
  52. ^ Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, page 182.
  53. ^ Anthony Lukas, Big Trouble, 1997, page 183.
  54. ^ a b Horan, p. 139.
  55. ^ Horan, p. 143.
  56. ^ Horan, pp. 143-149.
  57. ^ Horan, p. 154.
  58. ^ The Pinkerton Story, James D. Horan and Howard Swiggett, 1951, page 130. Horan and Swiggett described the power Gowen attributed to the Mollies as "sway".
  59. ^ Labor's Untold Story, Richard O. Boyer and Herbert M. Morais, 1974, page 54.
  60. ^ Jensen, Richard (September 2001). "Rhodes Molly Maguires (1909)". University of Illinois at Chicago. Retrieved 31 August 2011. 
  61. ^ Horan, p. 144.
  62. ^ Boyer and Morais, pp. 54-55.
  63. ^ Boyer and Morais, pp. 55-56.
  64. ^ Boyer and Morais, p. 55.
  65. ^ Roughneck, The Life and Times of Big Bill Haywood, Peter Carlson, 1983, page 91.
  66. ^ [1]
  67. ^ Originally published in American Historical Review. (April 1910), copyright expired.
  68. ^ a b A Pictorial History of American Labor, William Cahn, 1972, page 128.
  69. ^ Horan, pp. 124-125.
  70. ^ Rayback, p. 133.
  71. ^ Rayback, p. 138.

External links

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