By Edward T. O’Donnell
One hundred twenty-four years ago this week, on June 21, 1877, 10 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.
As the main supplier of the nation’s coal, the anthracite region of Pennsylvania was a vital component in American’s unfolding industrial revolution. By the 1870s, more than 50,000 miners — more than half Irish or Irish American — toiled in the mines. 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. It was in the struggle of these workers to improve their pay, hours, and conditions that the Molly Maguire saga began.
Irishmen played key roles in virtually every aspect of the conflict. Foremost was Franklin B. Gowen, the 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. Led by Irish-born John Siney, the WBA had won several strikes in the late 1860s and early ’70s that resulted in wage gains and union recognition.
In 1873, as the nation plunged into a severe economic depression that lasted until 1877, Gowen sensed an opportunity to kill the WBA. In January 1875 he triggered a massive miner’s strike by announcing a steep cut in wages (a move quickly followed by the region’s others coal operators). But with Gowen and other operators holding huge coal reserves, the "Long Strike" was doomed. It ended in June with a total defeat for the workers and the destruction of the WBA.
Embittered by their loss, a group of miners turned to an old custom — extra-legal justice, or what some might call vigilantism. As Kevin Kenny has shown in his superb book, "Making Sense of the Molly Maguires" (Oxford, 1998), Irish tenant farmers had long used tactics of intimidation, vandalism, and murder to protest landlord abuses. Indeed, 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 agrarian vigilantism was a firmly rooted tradition.
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Molly Maguire activity first arose in the labor disputes of the early 1860s and subsided with the success of the WBA 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 six people were murdered — all carefully targeted as agents of the mine owners and enemies of the miners.
Having destroyed the WBA, 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. He unleashed a campaign against the secret society in which he branded all labor activists "Molly Maguires" and accused the Ancient Order of Hibernians of operating as a front for the organization. Eventually, he saw to it that more than 50 men, women, and children were arrested and indicted for their alleged roles in the Molly Maguire conspiracy and murders.
The first trials began in January 1876. They involved 10 men accused of murder and were held in Mauch Chunk and Pottsville. A vast army of media descended on the small towns where they wrote dispatches that were uniformly pro-prosecution. The key witness for the prosecution was yet another Irishman, James McParlan. Back in the early 1870s when Gowen had hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to spy on his workers, 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 Irish Catholics and miners excluded from the juries, the verdicts were a foregone conclusion.
All 10 were convicted and sentenced to hang. No doubt seeking to send the most powerful message to the region’s mining communities, authorities arranged to stage 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 major spectacles that drew huge crowds and generated international news coverage (nearly all positive).
Still, the Molly Maguire episode was far from over. Ten more miners would be executed over the next 15 months, bringing the total to 20. In the end, 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, coal miners would continue to fight — both legally and extra-legally — to withstand the oppressive conditions in the mines. What many in the 1870s had branded an "Irish" problem had clearly been an industrial one.
HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK
June 20, 1867: Jerome Collins founds the revolutionary nationalist organization Clan na Gael in New York City.
June 21, 1834: Virginia farmer Cyrus McCormick patents the design for the first successful mechanical reaper.
June 26, 1970: M.P. Bernadette Devlin is arrested for her activities on behalf of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland.
June 20, 1763: United Irishman Theobald Wolfe Tone is born in Dublin.
June 20, 1924: World War II hero and movie actor Audie Murphy is born in Texas.
June 25, 1870: Nationalist Erskine Childers is born in London.
Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@EdwardTODonnell.com.