The Molly Maguires and the Early Struggle of Labor

Dr. Seamus Metress PhD.

On “Black Thursday”, June 21, 1877, ten men were hung, six in Pottsville, Pennsylvania and four in Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, the first of 20 alleged Molly Maguires who were executed between 1877 and 1879 for being pro-miner and anti-company. According to John Elliot of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society the trials were “one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the bench and bar in the United States”. The trials were conducted in an atmosphere of religious and social-economic bigotry. The press presented the case from anti-miner, anti-catholic, anti-Irish perspective. Defense witness were blacklisted, evicted from their homes, cut off at the company store and in some cases imprisoned Catholics were barred from the Jury while many Jurors could not speak English or had already determined the men guilty.

The Molly Maguires are depicted historically as a secret society of Irish miners that terrorized the anthracite coal-fields of Pennsylvania in the mid to late 1800s. They have been popularly judged as everything from labor heroes to bloodthirsty terrorists. Scholarly views are just as variable. James Ford Rhodes, a retired businessman and early business historian said “true to his Irish Roman Catholic blood” the Molly” hated the capitalist and had a profound contempt for law”, while Professor Wayne Broehl Jr. of Dartmouth College claims that the Mollies had their roots In Irish agarian secret societies. Anthony Bimba sees them at the forefront of a class struggle in which the ruling class attempted to exterminate its most threatening enemies. Early labor historian Louis Adamic felt Molly violence was justified by the owner’s actions while modern labor historian Herbert Gutman views the Mollies as a symptom of a socioeconomic struggle between the laborer and the employer.

Schlegel, a biographer of Franklin B. Gowan, claimed it was unnecessary “to assume the existence of a secret society in order to account for the conditions in the Schuylkill region”. Some researchers believe that the Molly Maguires were created by the corporations to weaken and destroy the development of unions in the coal-fields it is the opinion of many researchers that no such formal organization ever existed. Molly Maguire was simply a collective label given to militant Irish miners.

In order to understand the Molly Maguire episode it is necessary to understand the social conditions extant in the anthracite coal-fields. Large numbers of Irish immigrants came to the anthracitic fields to do unskilled labor. By 1870 the Luzerne and Schuylkill counties had 38,075 Irish born residents and a large number of second generation Irish- Americans The miners lived and worked under abominable conditions characterized by poor pay, high rents, poor housing, high prices at the company store and dangerous, unhealthy working conditions.

Anglo-Americans were either indifferent to the conditions under which the Irish lived or they were actively hostile towards the Irish presence in America. The Irish were stigmatized for being Catholics and stereotyped as drunks and criminals. Yet, they were feared because many thought they would take political control of the region as they had In New York and Boston.

The Irish of the coal-fields, however, did not form the powerful organizations found in the eastern cities. This was probably due to the fact that the Irish were not numerically strong in the coal-fields. For example, in 1870 they accounted for only 11.7% of the population of the five anthracite counties. Further, coal-field geography divided the mining communities leading to local loyalties rather than regional solidarity. Poor communities among the scattered and isolated communities did not encourage unity or class consciousness.
The main Institution of law and order in the coal-fields was the coal and Iron police. They were brutal, pro-company and hated by the people of the coal-fields. They were assisted in specific situations by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. This agency was well known for its union busting rather than its dedication to fighting crime. Unscrupulous mine owners sought to exploit the miners for private profit, while all of the political parties chose to ignore the plight of populations well hidden from the public eye.

The miners began to organize by founding the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association In 1868 with John Siney, an Irishman from Belfast as its leader. The association was founded after the Avondale Mine disaster of 1868 in which 169 miners were killed. The union had problems from the very beginning due to ethnic disunity. Often the German, English and Welsh members disagreed with the Irish members. Also, mine conditions and wages varied from one part of the region to another. The Schuylkill area which was heavily Irish had older, deeper mines, with lower profits and newer more profits and hence, the lowest wages. The Lackawanna-Wyoming region had newer more profitable mines with relatively higher wages. The former area was very pro-union while the latter area was less committed to unity. In the “Long Strike” of 1875, the northern miners (Lackawanna-Wyoming) worked the southern miners (Schuylkill) stayed out for 5 months. Furthermore, many leaders like Siney disapproved of strikes and aggressiveness and preached harmony with the owners.

The mine owners led by Franklin B. Gowan, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Philadelphia Coal and iron Company, hated the WBA and sought to destroy it. Gowen wanted to own the railroad and the coal-fields so that he could control the market price of coal. He kept up the steady stream of anti-labor propaganda with the help of the anti-labor press. In 1870 the railroad gained control of the Schuylkill fields and when faltering companies started to give in to the union he raised their rail transport costs so that they could not afford the concessions.
It was Gowen who hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency that sent an Irishman, James McParlan, to infiltrate and spy on the Mollies. McParlan was to collect evidence to bring the Mollies to trial. McParlan himself was involved in the instigation of violence. Gowan thought by associating the apparent organized violence of the Mollies with the union, he could destroy the union.

The Catholic Church leadership was divided and failed to aid the miners, Archbishop James Wood, of Philadelphia, thought the Irish were a liability to the Church. He hated the Ancient Order of Hibernians and in 1875 excommunicated them. Bishop William O’Hara of Scranton was more supportive and encouraged the formation of the AOH but, he eventually succumbed to pressure and excommunicated them in 1877.

Because the AOH was associated with the alleged violence of the Mollies, some “more respectable” Irish Americans founded the Emerald Beneficial Association. At the same time the national AOH tried to disassociate itself from the county organizations In Luzerne and Schuylkill. This competition between Irish-American organizations and the lack of national support further weakened the possibility of collective action.

After the Mollies were arrested on evidence presented by James McParlan, Gowen was appointed special district attorney for the case. Irish-Catholics were barred from being on the Jury. With the press, the jury, and the witnesses rigged against them the trial was a mockery of Justice and the Mollies were convicted and condemned to die. As an interesting footnote, McParlan, the chief witness, was later found guilty of perjury in another labor trial involving Bill Haywood and the Western Miners Federation This would seem to cast serious doubt on the integrity of the prosecution’s chief witness. Clarence Darrow noted a great deal of similarity between the Molly Maguire case and 1906-1907 case on the Western Miners Federation in Idaho.
Prior to the executions the Jailhouse was opened to let the public roam through it in a carnival atmosphere. They were also allowed to mock, bait and generally abuse the condemned men. Ten men died on the gallows tree on June 21, 1877, 6 at Pottsville in Schuylkill County and 4 at Mauch Chunk in Carbon County. Their coffins marked “The Wages of Sin Is Death” were displayed throughout the region as a warning to those who might follow in their footsteps. The Mollies went their death bravely and proclaiming their innocence. Meanwhile, Franklin Gowen toured England assuring English investors that their investments were safe. Corporate owners found that they could fight labor with new tactics of spying and rigged courts.

As a postscript to this story, on Jan. 21, 1980, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania issued a posthumous pardon to Jack Kehoe, so called “King of the Mollies”, who was executed on Dec. 18, 1878. A plaque was placed-on the wall of the Schuylkill prison cell that held Kehoe 101 years ago. It is an admission by the State of Pennsylvania that he and by association the Mollies died not for guilt but for being Irish, Catholic, and pro-miner.  

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