By Kent Jackson, The
Eckley, PA (AP) – A shadowy band of Irishmen rebelled against authority in the coal region.
They repulsed efforts to draft them into the Union Army during the Civil War.
Slighted in the mines, they dynamited machinery and assassinated bosses who cheated them, just as farmers had harassed English landlords in Ireland.
They took revenge against rival gang members, politicians and police while concocting alibis and terrorizing witnesses to avoid prison.
For parts of three decades, the Molly Maguires defied the law in the region until a secret agent infiltrated their ranks and the hangman’s rope ended their reign.
That story lured movie-makers to Eckley 50 years ago, but historians continue to re-examine the Molly Maguires and their accusers.
Were the Civil War resisters who roused a mob large enough to stop a troop train linked to the small bands of assassins and saboteurs who went on a spree after a bitter labor dispute a decade later?
Was the secret agent serving justice or serving his boss – a coal baron who sought to amass his holdings and suppress the miners while settling an old score in court?
Photo: Agent James McParlan
Did the trials and executions of the Mollies replace violence with the rule of law or did the coal companies marshal the violence of their private police, vigilantes and government troops to overwhelm workers?
Arthur H. Lewis raised those questions in “Lament for the Molly Maguires’’ in 1964.
“While no one in his right mind would deny that the crimes the Mollies committed for which they finally paid the extreme penalty were unspeakable, it is also a fact that charges of inhuman cruelty could be laid against the operators. One ruthless method mine owners used to force workers into near slavery was regulation of the flow of labor into the country,’’ Lewis wrote.
A Philadelphia police reporter, Lewis grew up in Mahanoy City hearing tales of the Mollies.
His book contains stories passed on by people who knew the Mollies and vivid sketches of characters, such as a Welsh miner tending bar at a fireman’s picnic just outside Shenandoah in 1865.
“Gomer James, stripped to the waist, deftly slapped open the spigots of barreled lager, filled seidels of beer as quickly as he could, and almost in one motion slid the shiny glasses of foaming brew over the wet counter to be gripped by eager hands.’’
Moments later, James was shot dead in reprisal for an earlier attack.
When six men chased mine foreman F.W. Langdon, the first victim of the Molly Maguires, in 1862 in Audenried, William R. Davis didn’t try anything heroic.
What did you do? Davis was asked.
“I took another snootful of the whiskey from the bottle I was carrying away, turned around and went home.’’
“Was that all?’’
“No sir,’’ Davis said. “First, I made sure the bottle was empty.’’
A secret agent
Then there was the spy.
James McParlan could hold a drink and throw a punch, two skills that led the Pinkerton Detective Agency to assign him to the case.
Lewis depicted McParlan as an entertainer whose song-and-dance routines ingratiated him into the Mollies’ inner circle and with beautiful women. He had a love affair with barmaid while courting a pretty 17-year-old whom he plied for information about her brother-in-law, a Molly Maguire ringleader.
McParlan began insinuating himself into the Irish community of the coal region in the fall of 1873. He pretended to be James McKenna, a fugitive from Buffalo, New York.
After being inducted into the society, he memorized the passwords and hand gestures that Mollies used when meeting out-of-town members whom they didn’t recognize. He learned that chapters from different towns loaned men to carry out assassinations in each other’s territories.
McParlan took risks to pass reports to his handlers in Philadelphia and kept his nerve after the leaders began to suspect his identity.
He foiled a murder after learning of a plot to kill a German tailor in Tamaqua. While watching the tailor’s house from a nearby tavern, McParlan spotted an operative nicknamed the Cat, because he had thin whiskers.
Sneaking out of the tavern, McParlan followed the Cat through a basement window into tailor’s house. With his gun butt, McParlan KO’d the Cat, hauled him out the window and left him, unconscious, in a creek.
In court when McParlan revealed who he was and testified against Molly Maguires, defense lawyers accused him of provoking violence, such as a riot in Mahanoy City on July 3, 1875. While McParlan equated the Molly Maguires with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, defense attorneys said the Ancient Order existed across the United States and was formed for noble purposes.
Defense attorneys also noted instances where McParlan failed to warn people whom the Mollies planned to kill.
Historians continued the scrutiny.
Anthony Bimba, writing in “The Molly Maguires’’ in 1932, said mine owners and their allies invented the name Molly Maguires to disparage militant Irish miners who belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians and a labor union.
Harold Aurand, who was a history professor at Penn State Hazleton, said McParlan began work with pre-conceived notions. McParlan’s boss Allan Pinkerton had asked him to write a report on Irish secret societies like the Threshers, Ribbonmen, White Boys and the Society of Molly Maguire, and McParlan believed that the Mollies were American offshoots of the Irish organizations.
On his mission, McParlan uncovered at least two other violent groups, a splinter group of Irishmen called the Chain Gang and a Welsh-German gang, the Modocs. Yet he only brought the Mollies to trial, Aurand wrote in “From the Molly Maguires to the United Mine Workers’’ in 1971.
“Perhaps he lost his objectivity,’’ Aurand wrote, “and conveniently forgot the Modocs and the `Chain Gang,’ an oversight also convenient for his employer, Franklin B. Gowen.’’
A coal king
Gowen was a coal baron who hired the Pinkertons to dismantle the Molly Maguires.
The first encounter between Gowen and the Mollies happened during the Civil War in Schuylkill County, where Gowen was district attorney. Although people were murdered – 17 slaying occurred in 1864 alone – and coal mines were dynamited, Gowen couldn’t unravel the alibis of suspects or persuade witnesses to testify. He failed to obtain convictions.
Meanwhile, he watched Irish power in action when a mob prevented a train carrying Schuylkill County draftees from reaching Harrisburg, where the men would have been pressed into Army service. Rather than risk federal troops in battle, the government decided not to force a full complement of soldiers to enlist from Cass Twp., the center of the resistance.
“You can imagine the delight among the Mollies over the fact that they had forced the Federal government to back down,’’ a newspaperman and Civil War buff told Lewis, as quoted in his book.
After his stint as district attorney, Gowen became counsel for the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and within five years rose to presidency of the corporation.
Gowen’s plan for the Reading involved acquiring small coal companies in Schuylkill County and the southern anthracite fields.
He wasn’t stopped by a provision in the Reading’s charter that prevented the corporation from mining coal. The state Legislature erased that for him, and his corporation became known as Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron. Gowen went on a $40 million land-buying spree and formed a cartel with the big mine owners in the northern fields.
“It is no accident that the classic board game Monopoly includes the Reading and other coal railroads,’’ Barbara Freese wrote in “Coal: A Human History.’’
As Gowen amassed territory, a labor union, the Workmen’s Benevolent Association, the WBA, gained a following in the region. The WBA tried to keep wages high and shorten the workday to eight hours while cooperating with owners to stabilize the supply and price of coal. Negotiations failed, as did strikes in 1869 and 1870. The strikes weren’t regional so somewhere between Scranton and Schuylkill County enough mining always occurred to keep down prices and wages.
The WBA expelled known criminals and dampened violence, according to reports of a state mine inspector and testimony that mine owners gave to the Legislature. Even McParlan predicted that violence would mount if the union collapsed.
Gowen, however, disagreed. He said the men targeted for death by a secret association happened to be those who failed to follow the WBA’s directives, but he didn’t have proof, Aurand wrote.
A 20 percent wage cut that Gowen imposed on miners in Schuylkill County triggered the “Long Strike’’ that lasted for the first five months of 1875.
When the strike ended. Gowen and the owners won complete victory. The union was finished. And the most notorious murders of the Molly Maguires era ensued, such as the slaying of Tamaqua policeman Benjamin Yost, who was shot dead as he doused a street lamp in July 1875.
Five of the 20 men condemned in the Molly Maguires’ trials were convicted in Yost’s death.
The trials of the Molly Maguires were “patently unfair,’’ Donald Miller and Richard Sharpless wrote in “The Kingdom of Coal’’ in 1985.
Juries excluded Irish Catholics and featured Germans and Pennsylvania Dutch who had trouble following the arguments in English.
Gowen, historians said, used his corporation to co-opt the legal system, avenge his losses as district attorney and achieve his aim of crushing the union.
In addition to hiring the Pinkerton agency to investigate, Gowen’s private Coal and Iron Police teamed with seven Pinkerton agents to form a squadron that enforced order at the end of the “Long Strike.’’ The squadron might have provided evidence to vigilantes such as the masked men who led the home invasion in Wiggans Patch near Mahanoy City, where one Molly Maguire and the pregnant wife of another were killed. Later the squadron gathered evidence and arrested the Mollies, whom Gowen and other coal company attorneys helped prosecute.
The state only had to provide a courtroom and a hangman, Aurand wrote.
Freese wrote of Gowen: “It would be hard to find another single proceeding in American history where a single corporation, indeed a single man, had so blatantly taken over the powers of the sovereign.’’
Photo: Coal magnate Franklin Gowen
Ten Mollies turned state’s evidence, including Jimmy “Powderkeg’’ Kerrigan, a 4-foot, 11-inch Civil War veteran whose sister-in-law courted McParlan. Kerrigan organized the assassination of Yost because the policeman gave a beating to a Molly Maguire member the year before.
It is impossible to know how truthful the evidence against the Molly Maguires was, given that the coal company hired McParlan and informants like Kerrigan, who corroborated his testimony, took the stand to save their own lives, Kevin Kenny wrote in “Making Sense of the Molly Maguires’’ in 1988.
During the trials, Kenny wrote, public opinion and the jury pool was predisposed against the Molly Maguires.
Newspapers reacting to McParlan’s revelations at trial referred to the Mollies as “scum,’’ “lawless wretches’’ and a conspiracy of “lawlessness, bloodshed, plunder and general anarchy.’’
Since 1856 when Benjamin Bannan first printed their name in the Miners’ Journal of Pottsville in an article raising suspicions of voter fraud in Philadelphia, the Molly Maguires had been blamed for various social problems.
“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,’’ Kenny wrote.
Even within the Irish community, the Mollies had detractors. Catholic priests sermonized against the Molly Maguires, taking instructions from Philadelphia Bishop James Frederick Woods, who excommunicated them. The union also excluded known Mollies.
Against that backdrop, Kenny wrote that at least three of the Molly Maguires shouldn’t have been convicted of the charges brought against them, including the group’s leader, John “Black Jack’’ Kehoe.
Kehoe had been elected constable twice in Girardville, where he owned the Hibernia House saloon and was the leader or bodymaster of the borough’s branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
He had been sentenced to 14 years for conspiracy in two earlier Molly trials. But in his final case, Kehoe faced the death penalty. He was charged with first-degree murder in the death of Langdon, the mine boss attached by a mob 15 years earlier in Audenried as Davis watched while draining a whiskey bottle.
For the trial, Gowen resumed his former role as prosecutor and tried a case that he didn’t have enough evidence to bring to court when he was district attorney. Gowen, who had earlier tarred the WBA union with the Molly Maguires’ crimes, also presented Kehoe as a link between the recent murders and the Civil War-era violence. Another prosecutor underscored the point by wearing his Army uniform to the trial, for which the Reading corporation’s Coal and Iron Police and the Pinkertons helped gather new, circumstantial evidence.
Weeks before Langdon died, Kehoe allegedly called Langdon a son of a bitch and said Langdon cheated Irish miners. On the night that Langdon died, he spoke at a pro-draft rally where Kehoe spit on an American flag. Later that night, someone noticed red splotches on Kehoe’s shirt as he entered a bar.
No evidence placed Kehoe at Langdon’s beating. Defense attorneys said the mob attack was unplanned so the appropriate charge against Kehoe should have been second-degree murder.
“It is difficult to imagine how, under normal conditions, a verdict of guilty could have been reached in this case. But the conditions in Schuylkill County were not exactly normal,’’ Kenny wrote.
The jury convicted Kehoe, who was hanged in 1878.
Ten defendants were hanged on June 21, 1877, the Day of the Rope, in Pottsville and Mauch Chunk, a borough now named Jim Thorpe.
One condemned Molly Maguire proclaimed innocence while mashing a dirty handprint into the wall of his cell, where he said it would remain as long as the Mauch Chunk jail kept standing.
Today his prophecy brings tourists to the jail, which has become a museum.
Kehoe received a state pardon a little more than a century after his death.
“While it would be facile for the historian to set himself up as judge and jury over the Molly Maguires, it is quite obvious that they were tried under remarkably adverse conditions,’’ wrote Kenny, whose book handed down this indictment of the opponents of the Molly Maguires. “In the 1860s and 1870s, the bulk of the violence came from capital rather than labor in the form of private police forces, undercover agents, vigilante groups and military intervention by the state.’’
Because the Molly Maguires kept secrets, their stories were written by hostile authors, such as Allen Pinkerton’s “The Molly Maguires and the Detective’’ and reports that McParlan mailed to Gowen.
Gowen remained at the helm of Reading for a decade after the trials, but lost control to an even more powerful capitalist, J.P. Morgan, in 1886. Three years later, Gowen killed himself.
McParlan kept working for Pinkerton, but his dealings with the Molly Maguires hurt him during a trial 30 years later.
While investigating the assassination of a former governor of Idaho, McParlan persuaded the suspect to confess to additional crimes, which the man said he committed under orders from “Big Bill’’ Haywood and other leaders of a labor union, the Western Federation of Miners.
Attorney Clarence Darrow undercut McParlan on the witness stand by exposing his tactics with the Mollies and with the Idaho defendant, who confessed to crimes that he couldn’t have committed, including murders that were actually accidental deaths.
Haywood and the other union leaders were acquitted.
After facing Darrow in real life, McParlan encountered Sherlock Holmes in fiction.
Arthur Conan Doyle, the author of the Holmes sagas, used McParlan as the model for the central character in the 1915 novella, “The Valley of Fear.’’
When Paramount Pictures made “The Molly Maguires’’ in 1968, Richard Harris portrayed McParlan.
Co-star Sean Connery, already famous for playing a secret agent in the James Bond movies, took the role of Kehoe and offered his own lament for the Molly Maguires. Just before the film came out, Connery told The New York Times: “Unless you give a man something, aside from malnutrition, you’re going to get retaliation, terrorism. I know what it’s like. Members of my family worked in the mines in Scotland.’’
Top Photo: Depiction of the hanging of John Kehoe