Jun 22, 2020
This week at In The Past Lane, the American History podcast, we
take a look at a legendary labor uprising by a mysterious group
known as the Molly Maguires. They were Irish and Irish American
coal miners in Pennsylvania in the 1870s who used vigilante
violence to fight back against the powerful and exploitative mine
owners. But in the end, the mine owners used their dominance over
the political and legal establishment to see to it that 20 men,
most of whom were likely innocent, were executed by hanging.
Feature Story: The Molly Maguires Hanged
On Thursday June 21, 1877 – 143 years ago this week - ten men went to the gallows in Pennsylvania. They were known as Molly Maguires – members of an ultra-secret society that used violence and intimidation in their bitter struggles with powerful mine owners. Arrested for their alleged role in several murders, they were convicted and sentenced to death on the basis of very thin evidence and questionable testimony. “Black Thursday” would long be remembered by residents of the Pennsylvania coal fields as an extraordinary example of anti-labor and anti-Irish prejudice.
The story of the Molly Maguires was one very much rooted in two specific places: rural Ireland and the anthracite region of PA. The latter was the main supplier of the nation’s coal, making it a vital component in American’s unfolding industrial revolution. By the 1870s, more than 50,000 miners – more than half of them Irish or Irish American – toiled in the region’s mines. It was hard, brutal work. They worked long hours for low pay in extremely dangerous conditions. Every year cave-ins, floods, and poison gas claimed the lives of hundreds of miners. In one fire alone in 1869, 110 miners were killed. It was in the struggle of these workers to improve their pay, hours, and conditions that the Molly Maguire saga began.
Irish immigrants and Irish Americans played key roles in virtually every aspect of the conflict, from the lowliest miner to the most powerful capitalist. Foremost was Franklin B. Gowen, the wealthy Irish American president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Tough and ambitious, he ruthlessly drove his competitors out of business in an effort to dominate the state’s two principle industries, coal and railroads. The only thing he hated more than rival businessmen was organized labor, especially the main miners union, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA). Led by an Irish-born man named John Siney, the WBA had won several strikes in the late 1860s and early 1870s that resulted in wage gains and union recognition. Even though he shared an Irish heritage with most of his miners, Franklin Gowan had little sympathy for them. In industrializing America, class interests trumped everything, including ethnicity and culture, and Gowan treated his workers like they were the enemy.
Gowan waited for the right moment to attack, and that came in 1873 when the nation plunged into a severe economic depression that lasted until 1877. The hard times hurt his bottom line, but Gowen saw a silver lining: hard times also provided an opportunity to kill the miners’ union. In January 1875, Gowan announced a steep cut in wages, a move quickly followed by the region’s others coal operators. The wage cuts triggered a massive miners’ strike throughout the region that paralyzed coal production. But Gowen and other operators had prepared for the strike by stockpiling huge coal reserves that allowed them to continue to sell coal and wait out the desperate and half-starved striking miners. The “Long Strike,” as it came to be known, was doomed. It ended after five months in June with a total defeat for the workers and the destruction of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA).
And here’s where rural Ireland figured into the story. Embittered by their loss, a group of Irish miners turned to an old custom – extra-legal justice, or vigilantism. Irish tenant farmers had for centuries used tactics of intimidation, vandalism, and murder to protest landlord abuses, primarily rent hikes or evictions. These types of tactics of resistance by powerless peasants have been called by anthropologist James Scott, “the weapons of the weak.” According to tradition, the original “Molly Maguire” had been a woman who thwarted her landlord’s attempts to evict her during the Famine. Many of the Irish miners in the Pennsylvania coal fields came from counties in Ireland where periodic agrarian vigilantism was a firmly rooted tradition.
Molly Maguire activity first arose in the anthracite region in the labor disputes of the early 1860s. But it subsided with the WBA’s success in gaining better wages and conditions for the miners. Now in the wake of the defeat in the Long Strike, the Mollies returned with a vengeance. Between June and September 1875, six people were murdered – all carefully targeted as agents of the mine owners and enemies of the miners.
Having destroyed the WBA, Franklin Gowen saw in the return of the Mollies an opportunity to permanently wipe out any miner opposition to his plans to consolidate power and wealth. And so, he unleashed a sweeping campaign against the secret society in which he branded all labor activists “Molly Maguires.” He also accused an Irish fraternal organization known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians of operating as a front for the organization. Eventually over fifty men, women, and children were arrested and indicted for their alleged roles in the Molly Maguire violence and murders.
Incredibly, the state of Pennsylvania played almost no role in this process. None other than Franklin Gowan served as the county district attorney and oversaw the investigation and prosecutions. A private company – the Pinkertons – conducted the investigation. A private police force employed by the mining companies carried out the arrests. And Gowan and coal company attorneys conducted the trials. As one historian commented, “The state only provided the courtroom and the hangman.”
The first trials began in January 1876. They involved ten men accused of murder and were held in the towns of Mauch Chunk and Pottsville, PA. A vast army of national media descended on the small towns where they wrote dispatches that were uniformly pro-prosecution. In an era of rising hysteria over labor radicalism, and the growing popularity of socialism and anarchism – much of it fueled by sensational stories in the mainstream press - the Molly Maguire story proved irresistible. And the coverage was universally negative. The NYT, for example, wrote about “the snake of Molly Maguire-ism,” while the Philadelphia Inquirer condemned the men as “enemies of social order.”
The key witness for the prosecution was yet another Irishman, James McParlan. He was an agent of the infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, an organization that would be more accurately described as a private army for hire that specialized in labor espionage and strikebreaking.
Franklin Gowan had hired the Pinkertons in the early 1870s as part of his masterplan of destroying the WBA. James McParlan had gone under cover to infiltrate the Mollies and gather evidence. And gather he did – or at least he claimed he did during the trials. On the stand he painted a vivid picture of Molly Maguire secrecy, conspiracy, and murder. With this testimony, combined with the fact that Irish Catholics and miners had been excluded from the juries, guilty verdicts were a foregone conclusion.
All ten defendants were convicted and sentenced to hang. And in order to send the most powerful message to the region’s mining communities, authorities staged the executions on the same day -- June 21, 1877 – in two locations. Alexander Campbell, Michael Doyle, Edward Kelly, and John Donahue were hanged in Mauch Chuck, while James Boyle, Hugh McGehan, James Carroll, James Roarity, Thomas Duffy, and Thomas Munley met a similar fate in Pottsville. Although the hangings took place behind prison walls, they were nonetheless stages as major spectacles that drew huge crowds and generated international news coverage, nearly all of it condemning the Mollies as murderous monsters who got what they deserved.
Still, the Molly Maguire episode was far from over. Ten more miners would be tried, convicted, and executed over the next fifteen months, bringing the total to twenty. While evidence suggests that some of them men were guilty of murder, the great majority of those executed were likely victims of hysteria and a profoundly unjust legal process.
In the end, Franklin Gowen and his fellow mine operators succeeded in stamping out the Molly Maguires, but not the violent clashes between labor and capital they represented. For more than a generation following the executions, miners in Pennsylvania and many other states would continue to fight -- both legally and extra-legally -- against oppressive conditions in the mines. And the mine owners, as they did with the Mollies, did their best to dismiss the agitation as foreign radicalism brought to America by misguided immigrants who did not understand the inherent goodness and justice of industrial capitalism. The miners, of course, knew better. They understood that unregulated capitalism, backed by the full weight of the law, the government, and the media, was neither just, nor democratic. It was exploitation, pure and simple.
Anthony Bimba. The Molly Maguires (International Publishers, 1932).
Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The Molly Maguires (Harvard University Press, 1964).
Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (Oxford University Press, 1998).
IrishCentral.com, “Molly Maguires Executed, June 20, 2020 https://www.irishcentral.com/roots/history/molly-maguires-executed#.XvEIkuOULEA.twitter
For more information about the In The Past Lane podcast, head to our website, www.InThePastLane.com
Music for This Episode
Jay Graham, ITPL Intro (JayGMusic.com)
The Joy Drops, “Track 23,” Not Drunk (Free Music Archive)
Sergey Cheremisinov, “Gray Drops” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Tribute to Louis Braille” (Free Music Archive)
Alex Mason, “Cast Away” (Free Music Archive)
Squire Tuck, “Nuthin’ Without You” (Free Music Archive)
Ketsa, “Multiverse” (Free Music Archive)
The Rosen Sisters, “Gravel Walk” (Free Music Archive)
Soularflair, “Emotive Beautiful Irish Feel Gala” (Free Music Archive)
Dana Boule, “Collective Calm” (Free Music Archive)
Ondrosik, “Breakthrough” (Free Music Archive)
Cuicuitte, “sultan cintr” (Free Music Archive)
Blue Dot Sessions, "Pat Dog" (Free Music Archive)
Jon Luc Hefferman, “Winter Trek” (Free Music Archive)
The Bell, “I Am History” (Free Music Archive)
Executive Producer: Lulu Spencer
Graphic Designer: Maggie Cellucci
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© In The Past Lane, 2020
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