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Ten things to understand about the Molly Maguires

By Kevin Kenny


On this day 135 years ago, John Kehoe was hanged. Convicted in 1877 of murdering a Pennsylvania mine boss 15 years earlier, he was almost certainly innocent of that crime. But Kehoe also stood accused of being the mastermind in a nefarious secret society called the Molly Maguires. The existence of that organization has long been disputed, but some Irish workers in Pennsylvania clearly used violence to advance the cause of labor as they saw it.

(1) Twenty young Irishmen were hanged in the anthracite region of northeast Pennsylvania in the late 1870s, convicted of a series of killings stretching back to the Civil War. The men were said to belong to a secret society called the Molly Maguires. They were convicted of killing as many as sixteen mine owners, superintendents, bosses, and workers.

(2) To gather information against the Molly Maguires, Franklin B. Gowen of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad hired Allan Pinkerton, America’s first private detective. Pinkerton dispatched an Irish-born agent named James McParlan to the anthracite region to infiltrate the organization in October 1873. McParlan spent the next eighteen months working undercover and it was largely on his evidence that the Molly Maguires were convicted.

James McParlan, 188-. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

James McParlan, 188-. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C.

(3) According to McParlan, the Molly Maguires acted behind the cover of an otherwise peaceful Irish fraternal organization called the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), which had branches throughout the United States, Britain, and Ireland. The leader of the local AOH was John Kehoe.

(4) The Molly Maguires took their name from a rural secret society in Ireland. The Irish Mollys were so-named because their members (invariably young men) disguised themselves in women’s clothing, used powder or burnt cork on their faces, and pledged their allegiance to a mythical woman — Mistress Molly Maguire — who symbolized their struggle against injustice.

(5) The American Mollys Maguires were a rare transatlantic outgrowth of this pattern of Irish rural protest. They did not disguise themselves in women’s clothing, though some of them “blacked up” for disguise. Like their Irish counterparts, they were led by tavern keepers and called on strangers from neighboring “lodges” of the AOH to carry out beatings and killings, pledging to return the favor at a later date.

(6) There were two distinct waves of Molly Maguire activity in Pennsylvania. The first wave, which included six assassinations, involved a combination of resistance to the military draft and rudimentary labor organizing. It was only during the trials of the 1870s that these killings retrospectively traced to individual members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The first killing, that of the mine foreman Frank W. Langdon in 1862, was pinned on John Kehoe in this way.

(7) The second wave of violence occurred in 1875, after the collapse the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), a labor union that united Irish, British, and American workers across the lines of ethnicity and skill. When the miners’ union went down to defeat in 1875, the Molly Maguires stepped into the vacuum. Six of the 16 assassinations attributed to them took place that summer. With union defeated, Franklin B. Gowen then crushed the Molly Maguires.

(8) The Molly Maguires were arrested by the private police force of Franklin B. Gowen’s Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. They were convicted on the evidence of an undercover detective whom the defense accused of being an agent provocateur, supplemented by the confessions of informers who turned state’s evidence to save their necks. No Irish Catholics served on the juries. Most of the prosecuting attorneys worked for railroads and mining companies. Franklin B. Gowen appeared as the star prosecutor at several trials, and he published his courtroom speeches as popular pamphlets.

(9) The first 10 “Molly Maguires” were hanged on a single day, 21 June 1877, known to the people of the anthracite region ever since as “Black Thursday” or “the day of the rope.” Six men were hanged in Pottsville and four in nearby Mauch Chunk (today’s Jim Thorpe). Ten more went to the gallows over the next three years.

Mauch Chunk, PA

View of Mauch Chunk, Carbon County, Pennsylvania, a wood engraving sketched by Theodore R. Davis and published in Harper’s Weekly, September 1869. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

(10) The Molly Maguires have been the subject of several novels, stage plays, and a movie. Allan Pinkerton published the first book on the subject, The Molly Maguires and the Detectives, in 1877. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who met Pinkerton’s son on an Atlantic crossing, based the plot of his Sherlock Holmes novel The Valley of Fear (1904) on the Molly Maguires, in which the fictional Detective John McMurdo does battle against the “Scowrers,” a murderous secret society operating within the Eminent Order of Freemen and presided over by “Black Jack” McGinty. Both of these works glorified the detective-informer and vilified the Molly Maguires but the movie The Molly Maguires (1968) turned the tables, with John Kehoe (Sean Connery) as the hero and McParlan (Richard Harris) as the anti-hero. The director, Walter Bernstein, who had been blacklisted in the McCarthy era, saw his film as a partial response to Elia Kazan, a “friendly witness” in the HUAC investigations, whose hero in On the Waterfront informs against his corrupt union bosses.

Kevin Kenny is Professor of History at Boston College. His principal area of research and teaching is the history of migration and popular protest in the Atlantic world. His books include Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, Diaspora: A Very Short Introduction, Peaceable Kingdom Lost: The Paxton Boys and the Destruction of William Penn’s Holy Experiment, and The American Irish: A History. He is currently researching various aspects of migration and popular protest in the Atlantic world and laying the groundwork for a long-term project investigating the meaning of immigration in American history.

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One Response to “Ten things to understand about the Molly Maguires”
  1. [...] Kenny, who specializes in the history of migration and popular protest in the Atlantic world, lists ten factoids that can help readers better understand the Molly Maguires and their place in US history. [...]

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