Twenty Irish mine workers were hanged in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania in the 1870s, convicted of a series of murders organized under the cover of a secret society called the Molly Maguires. Hostile contemporaries described the Molly Maguires as inherently savage Irish immigrants who had imported a violent conspiratorial organization into industrial America. Challenges to this nativist myth produced a counter-myth casting the Molly Maguires as innocent victims of economic, religious, or ethnic oppression. Neither interpretation makes historical sense.
In October 2023, Oxford University Press published a twenty-fifth anniversary edition of Kevin Kenny’s Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. Who were the Molly Maguires, what did they do, and why did they do it? Why did contemporaries describe them in such hostile ways? And what does the subject tell us about the history of immigration and labor in the United States? Here Professor Kenny discusses 10 things that helped him answer the questions at the heart of his book.
1. The Molly Maguires left almost no evidence of their own
Other than two letters, one of them a fragment, no direct evidence survives from the Molly Maguires themselves. Almost everything that is known about them takes the form of hostile, often exaggerated, descriptions by their enemies. How, then, can a historian hope to write their history?
First, I read everything that was written about the Molly Maguires in the nineteenth century and since. Then, I used census records and government reports to determine the class structure of the anthracite region, in particular the different kinds of work performed by different ethnic groups, with British immigrants dominating the skilled positions in the mines and Irish immigrants providing most of the unskilled labor. In these ways, I began to make sense of the Molly Maguires—not only how they were portrayed by others, but also who they were, and why they acted as they did. The pattern of violence in Pennsylvania, moreover, strikingly resembled a pattern of violence I had already encountered in my study of Irish rural history.
2. The Molly Maguires were a transatlantic outgrowth of a distinctive Irish rural tradition
The Molly Maguires first emerged in Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s, the last in a long line of rural secret societies that included the “Whiteboys,” the “Oakboys,” the “Ribbonmen,” and the “Lady Clares.” The men who joined these organizations wore female clothing as a form of disguise and pledged their allegiance to a mythical woman who symbolized their struggle against landlords who raised rents, evicted tenants, or enclosed common land.
3. The Molly Maguires embodied an archaic form of labor protest in industrial America
In an industrial capitalist economy, trade union leaders negotiate with employers to raise wages and improve working conditions, and they can bring production to a standstill by calling a strike. The Molly Maguires took a more direct approach. If a mine operator treated Irish workers unfairly by paying them less for the same work, or by reserving the best jobs for British workers, they delivered a verbal warning. If he did not listen, they nailed a sheet of paper to his door with a coffin sketched on it and the words “this will be yours.” This coffin notice might be followed by a beating. The ultimate sanction was assassination.
“Making sense of the Molly Maguires means trying to understand why, under certain conditions, desperate people resort to violence.”
4. The labor movement in the Pennsylvania anthracite country took two overlapping forms
Organized in the anthracite region in 1868 and open to all mine workers regardless of national origin, religion, or skill, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA) mobilized 35,000 men into one big union. Its leaders were Irish-born. But some of the most alienated members of the workforce, known to history as the Molly Maguires, favored direct violent action instead.
5. The trade union movement condemned violence on moral and tactical grounds
The union leaders insisted that violence was morally wrong and that it would provoke a backlash against the labor movement. Franklin B. Gowen, the president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, targeted the labor movement as a whole by claiming that the Molly Maguires were the terrorist arm of the WBA and, by destroying both institutions, secured monopoly control over the production and distribution of coal in the lower anthracite region.
6. The Molly Maguires became outcasts from their own community
Many of the men convicted as Molly Maguires came to Pennsylvania from the remote northwest county of Donegal. Unlike most Irish immigrants at this time, they spoke Irish as their first language. The alleged ringleaders of the conspiracy were mostly former mine workers who, like their counterparts in rural Ireland, operated taverns. Culturally marginalized to begin with, the Molly Maguires were eventually disowned by the twin pillars of their own ethnic community—the trade union and the Catholic Church—for their secrecy and violence.
7. The Molly Maguires were not depraved killers, but neither were they figments of the nativist or anti-labor imagination
Twenty Molly Maguires died on the scaffold, but 16 other men—mine owners, superintendents, bosses, workers, and public officials—were killed as well. The men who killed them operated within local branches of an Irish fraternal organization called the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In the context of intense anti-Irish prejudice and a protracted conflict between labor and capital in the Gilded Age, contemporaries greatly exaggerated the threat to American society posed by the Molly Maguires. They never existed as the vast conspiracy imagined by their enemies, but they did kill people.
“Historical inquiry requires empathy… but empathy is not the same as sympathy: to explain a historical phenomenon is not to justify it.”
8. Violence was the norm in the mining country, not the exception
The Pinkerton Detective agency sent one of their agents, James McParlan, to work undercover in the anthracite region, posing as a miner. McParlan was almost certainly an agent provocateur. Other Pinkerton agents conducted a fatal vigilante attack on a family suspected of harboring Molly Maguires. Together with the Coal and Iron Police—a private force operated by the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad—the Pinkertons arrested 50 suspected Molly Maguires and delivered them to the authorities for trial. Based largely on McParlan’s evidence, the state of Pennsylvania deployed its control over legitimate violence to execute 20 men.
9. Explanation is not justification
Making sense of the Molly Maguires means trying to understand why, under certain conditions, desperate people resort to violence. Historical inquiry requires empathy, an attempt to see the world from the perspective of others. But empathy is not the same as sympathy: to explain a historical phenomenon is not to justify it. This distinction makes for good classroom discussions in teaching other violent episodes in American labor and immigration history as well, including the Haymarket Affair of 1886 and the Sacco and Vanzetti case of the 1920s.
10. Labor remains central to immigration, and to immigration history, today
In the 25 years since the publication of Making Sense of the Molly Maguires, industrial work and trade unionism have become less prominent in the field of labor history. Immigration history has moved in exciting new directions, covering a much wider range of groups and periods. The tragic events in Pennsylvania in the 1870s were unique in several respects. But the main themes in Making Sense of the Molly Maguires—class, labor organizing, ethnicity, religion, nativism, and history from below—remain central to any understanding of immigration in the past and in the present.
Feature image: “The Strike in the Coal Mines – Meeting of Molly Maguires.” From Harper’s Weekly, January 31, 1874. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.