The Molly Maguires: An American Story of Truth and Justice Denied

<i> Thomas Flanagan is the author of numerous books, including "The Year of the French" and "The End of the Hunt." He is currently writing a novel set in Ireland in the 1940s</i>

On June 21, 1877, in the anthracite-mining county of Schuylkill, Pa., 10 men, all of them Irish and, so the state charged, members of a secret, oath-bound conspiracy to murder known as the Molly Maguires, were hanged in two batches. Four in Mauch Chunk, a town as gaunt as its name, were hanged together on a special gallows built for the occasion. In neighboring Pottsville, it had at first been intended that the condemned be hanged on a scaffold capable of accommodating all six, but it was later decided to hang them in pairs. All 10 were accompanied by priests, and most of them made well-rehearsed expressions of guilt and contrition. All were buried in consecrated ground in Catholic cemeteries.

Twenty men in all would be executed, but it was the mass hangings on Black Thursday that lingered in the American imagination, like the exorcism of an immense, depraved and unfathomable evil. Great crowds had assembled in the streets of the towns and were kept in order by the heavily armed Coal and Iron Police. History, wrote the Chicago Tribune, “affords no more striking illustration of the terrible power for evil of a secret, oath-bound organization controlled by murderers and assassins than the awful record of crime committed by the Molly Maguires in the anthracite-coal region of Pennsylvania.” And the Philadelphia Public Ledger, published in a city not too distant in miles from Schuylkill but dwelling, it was hoped, in a different moral universe, spoke of a “day of deliverance from as awful a despotism of banded murderers as the world has ever seen in any age.”

The Mollies had acquired and were to retain a powerful, baleful and complex symbolic meaning. Oaths, even wicked ones, were taken seriously, and the wicked ones conjured up the amorphous terrors of dark and lethal conspiracies. Ironically, and with tragic consequences, two organizations that fiercely opposed the Molly Maguires were deliberately branded as their secret puppet masters and made to share their infamy. One was the miners’ legitimate labor union, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Assn., which had inherited the traditions of British trade unionism, which rejected violence. In particular, it shunned Mollyism, which had acquired a national reputation for the use of murder and intimidation as weapons in industrial conflict. The other target was, to all intents, the Roman Catholic Church.

There had indeed been violence and disorder in the mining district ever since the Civil War, and it included the murders--Kevin Kenny prefers to call them assassinations--of some 24 mine foremen and superintendents. The killers formed a loose group that may as well be called Molly Maguires as anything else, but only if the name is used in the subtle and precise manner of Kenny in this remarkably fine work of historical research and analysis:


“The Molly Maguires always existed on two related levels: as a sporadic pattern of violence engaged in by a specific type of Irishman, and as a ubiquitous concept in a system of ideological representation that sought to explain the variety of social problems besetting the anthracite region in the mid-19th century. In other words, the violence in which the Molly Maguires undoubtedly engaged was put to all sorts of uses by contemporaries, most effectively by those who were opposed to Irish immigrants and organized labor. Any reinterpretation of the Molly Maguires today needs to inquire simultaneously into how the Molly Maguires were represented and what they may have been in fact.”

Attitudes toward the Irish had been shaped almost from the hour of their arrival in Schuylkill in the wake of the great famine of the 1840s. Throughout the decades and the turmoil that followed, they were given expression and shape in the nativist pages of Benjamin Bannan’s Miners’ Journal. Bannan, of Welsh descent, held a political vision that was not ignoble: a sober God-fearing industrious republic of free workmen and their employers. His austere Protestant soul, however, was revolted by the spectacle of a “race” that seemed not to respect this vision, as the Irish, to his eyes, did not.

For one thing, they were not Welsh. Work in the mines was divided between the skilled labor and the outside tasks, such as sorting out slate. The skilled and experienced miners were from Wales, trained in mining through generations and with a strong sense of guild solidarity. The unskilled laborers were Irish and came, most of them, from West Donegal, where there were no mines nor much of anything else. The nativists--the racists of that day--of course regarded the difference as evidence of the laziness and ignorance that were part of the Irish essence. The Welsh were inclined to agree.

Muff Lawlor’s shebeen in Shenandoah and Jack Kehoe’s Hibernia House in Girardsville were not places to which Bannan might be tempted to repair for a thoughtful glass of claret. But of course he was never tempted. He had concluded, as had his readers, that the Irish constituted a distinct and abominable branch of the human family. To their laziness were joined other vices: drunkenness, a readiness to fight, blasphemy, primitive superstition and a slavish idolatry of the pope. A fear of the pope and his designs upon American democracy was general, but the Irish peasantry were believed to have brought over the plague in a particularly virulent form.


Elsewhere in the same county, the poverty of West Donegal was spoken of with pity, and British gazettes could scarcely describe it without a shudder: “The coast, over the greater part of the distance, is singularly broken and intersected. . . . [T]he sea-board is almost a chaos--a dismal wilderness of bog and pond, of barren sand and naked rock--a tract of desolation in which moors, ponds, shivering torrents, drifting sands and denuded granite are mingled in utter melee, and severally striving for the mastery.” The largest landlord, the marquis of Conyngham, governed from the distant pasturelands of County Meath. He was represented on the scene by agents and overseers, who prefigured the mine foremen and superintendents of Schuylkill, first as perceived oppressors and then as targets.

In Donegal, as well as in many other regions of Ireland, a tradition of violence against agents and middlemen had been developing for a century under a variety of picturesque names--Rockites, Whiteboys, Terry Alts, Ribbonmen. And Molly Maguires. The West Donegals had taken little part in these episodes, but they knew all about them; violence was part of the texture of their lives. Violence in Schuylkill, a product of the same culture, with its tradition of retributive justice, began during the Civil War, as a savage reaction against conscription into what was seen as “a rich man’s war.” But it grew during the 1870s, as Kenny shows, as a response to worsening industrial conditions created by the expansion of capitalism.

It is an irony of the Molly Maguire’s history, as distinguished from its historical moment, that the more capable the historian the more likely he is to conclude that we will never learn much about the actual Mollies, beyond their names and the dates of the particular murders for which they were hanged. And we may not even know that, for several of the men hanged were innocent of those crimes. We know so little partly because until recent years, we knew so little about the laboring classes and partly because we have accepted the vivid and melodramatic near-fictions of their enemies.

In October 1873, a superintendent of Allan Pinkerton’s National Detective Agency reported to Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad--which under his vigorous leadership controlled mining as well as transportation--"the rumored existence at Glen Carbon of an organization known as the ‘Molly Maguires,’ a band of roughs joined together for the purposes of instituting revenge against anyone against whom they may have taken a dislike.” Within the month, Gowen was meeting with Pinkerton.


Molly Maguire, so Gowen revealed to a supposedly horrified Pinkerton, was a “noxious weed” transplanted from Ireland. The “band of roughs” in Glen Carbon had within days expanded to stretch across the continent. “Wherever in the United States iron is wrought, from Maine to Georgia, from ocean to ocean--wherever coal is used for fuel, there the Molly Maguire leaves his slimy trail and wields with deadly effect his two powerful levers--secrecy and combination.” Galvanized by this threat to an industrialized nation’s very existence, which seems to have escaped the attention of the head of a national detective agency, the two men vowed to join their efforts.

Pinkerton seems not to have noticed Gowen’s eccentric manner of conveying information by rodomontade, possibly because he himself, we discover, spoke in an identical way. They determined that they must send an undercover detective into the field, and as Pinkerton--or, rather, his ghostwriter, says: “It is no ordinary man that I need in this matter. He must be an Irishman, and a Catholic, as only this class of people can find admission to the Molly Maguires.” And he insisted that none of his agents “shall ever be required to appear and give evidence on the witness stand.” Hamlet himself faltered before the conditions his father’s oath laid upon him, but Gowen, in a species of pentameter, accepted the stipulation.

The man Pinkerton chose, James McParlan, a young native of County Armagh in Ulster, entered the Schuylkill region in 1873 under the name of James McKenna and, at the same moment, entered American folklore. For 2 1/2 years, he lived in the constant company of men who cheerfully murdered informers and left that company only to testify at their trials. Of his courage and his quick-wittedness, there can be no question, but the narrative shaped from his thrilling experiences is a different matter. Even before the final executions, Pinkerton had produced his long exposition, copiously illustrated--with crude woodcuts--"The Molly Maguires and the Detectives.” To the present day and until Kenny’s study, nearly all subsequent accounts have derived from this work and from its numerous imitators. The only real attempt to break what Kenny calls Pinkerton’s narrative mold was James Coleman’s Marxist study in 1936.

Kenny, like most historians these days, has an austere distrust of narrative, which is regarded as inherently simplistic and, in the case of the Molly Maguires, with good reason. “McParlan’s activities in the anthracite region need only be briefly summarized here,” he says with a touch of donnish hauteur, “as the job of reconstructing his movements has already been done well and often.”


A chapter giving some consideration to the conventions and purposes of the narrative tradition, of which Pinkerton’s book is an instance, might have taken Kenny off his path, but it might have been worth the diversion. It is a bizarre but far from unique example of mid-19th century popular culture, which finds room not only for its central narrative of murder and detection but for accounts of how cocks are trained for fighting, the nature (albeit bowdlerized) of an Irish wake, the furnishings of a priest’s parlor, choruses and verses of Irish music-hall songs, reports of prize fights. But it is a narrative that moves inward through layers of secrecy to the center of a conspiracy. Small wonder that Arthur Conan Doyle drew upon McParlan’s adventures for one of the Sherlock romances, “The Valley of Fear.”

Who were the Molly Maguires; what did they do and why? It is the third of these questions that the Pinkerton narrative and subsequent books fail entirely and mysteriously to answer. The currently accepted theory, expressed for example in Wayne Broehl’s “The Molly Maguires,” as Kenny says in summary, holds that “on both sides of the Atlantic, the antagonists of the Irish were the same--the English. In Ireland they were landlords and agents; in Pennsylvania they were mine owners and mine bosses.” A romantic notion but one that lacks particularity; the Mollies knew they were Irish all right, but they were not motivated by primordial ethnic passions.

What then? In a scene in Pinkerton’s book, one among many, a Molly reveals to McParlan a plan to wreck one of the trains of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Co. on the general ground that “the Company would be greatly injured,” as though Schuylkill was a kind of Sherwood Forest and the company a kind of Sheriff of Nottingham to be tormented on general principle.

Buried within “Making Sense of the Molly Maguires,” there is a counter-narrative, and a most persuasive one. Its central figure is not McParlan or Kehoe, the “King of the Mollies,” but Gowen, described by an admirer as “one of the great architects of industrial capitalism,” and a figure straight out of Theodore Dreiser. By 1873, using the well-known methods of the robber barons, he had driven out of Schuylkill the independent mine owners and the middlemen. Two forces from the emerging labor movement remained to be confronted: the Workingmen’s Benevolent Assn. and, distinct from it, the shaggily organized, mute and murderous band of roughs known as Molly Maguires. They left behind them only a few badly written notes of warning, a few rough ballads and a curiously powerful legend.


Gowen shattered or at least thoroughly demoralized the workingmen’s trade union by a three-branched campaign: providing welfare benefits by which it was undercut, defeating it in the long strike that it attempted and insinuating its identity with the Mollies. By 1875, with the strike in ruins, the Mollies alone lay in the field against Gowen. Their notions of retributive justice, as Kenny rather primly calls it, looked to less dispassionate eyes like terrorism and murder. Gowen’s problem and Pinkerton’s, and the problem of nativists in America in general, was to explain how these murderous roughnecks constituted parts of a conspiracy so wide that it threatened the republic.

The answer lay at hand. The Molly Maguires had taken control of the Schuylkill branches of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which served as their front. In the world beyond, membership in the AOH was shared by hundreds of thousands of boisterous Irishmen with an array of passwords, secret winks, arcane rituals, perfervid Catholic piety, highflying mumbo jumbo--parts of that urge to join societies that Alexis de Tocqueville had remarked upon as peculiarly American and identical to such Protestant equivalents as the Knights of Pythias and the Odd Fellows. And as innocent.

By preying upon nativist fears and paranoia, the enemies of the Mollies were able to insinuate the notion--despite the fierce and unequivocal denunciation of the Molly Maguires by the Catholic hierarchy--that the Schuylkill branches of the order were merely the entering wedge of a vast scheme. Indeed, as Kenny persuasively suggests, the Black Thursday processions to the gallows of prisoners and priests, the public admissions of guilt and prayers for forgiveness may have served, beyond religious need, the ideological function of establishing a distance between the church and these shamefully errant sons.

By 1878, the Molly Maguires were gone from Schuylkill, never to return there but continuing to linger in the American imagination. History itself, as sometimes it does, wove that imaginative lingering. The trials were a mockery of any judicial process. As one historian put it: “A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency, a private police force arrested the supposed offenders, and coal company attorneys prosecuted--the state provided only the courtroom and hangmen.” Gowen was the preeminent prosecutor, and his long closing speech is a marvel, with great swatches of verse by Bulwer-Lytton and even more dreadful poets and playwrights. In 1889, on a Friday the 13th, he took a hotel room in Washington and blew his brains out. Legend created a belated act of retributive justice by the Mollies.


McParlan became a Pinkerton superintendent and, 30 years later, persuaded a man named Harry Orchard to implicate the Western labor agitator Big Bill Haywood in a conspiracy that murdered a former governor. Clarence Darrow, Haywood’s lawyer, destroyed him in cross-examination, using as material the methods he had employed with the Molly Maguires. In “Big Trouble,” the late J. Anthony Lukas’ book on the Haywood episode, Lukas speaks derisively of McParlan as “the Great Detective.”

In 1979, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons recommended a posthumous pardon for Jack Kehoe, “the king of the Mollies,” and the governor, Milton Shapp, denounced Gowen’s “fervent desire to wipe out any signs of resistance in the coal fields.” All Pennsylvanians, he said, paid tribute to “these martyred men of labor.”

In the pages of Pinkerton’s book, Jack Kehoe displays from time to time a sardonic, indeed a mordant, wit. These recent developments may have brought a smile to his hard-bitten lips. Wherever he is.