The Molly Maguries

I was going to talk about Mauch Chunck /Jim Thorpe before coal made it big here but I have found nothing online about it, it seems to be dead era. So I’m going to talk about another chapter in the towns history that most of us many know about even if you are not even from the state you may all ready know about from your history book or tv, it’s group of people called “The Molly Maguires.” Most people will view these group of men a thieves but I don’t feel that they were in fact they were stick up for miners wanting to have better life for themselves and fellow miners because in those times life was not easy it was hard. Keep in mind the context that I’m about to share with you I do not own but borrowed from another website. here is the link to the site


The “Molly Maguires” were miners in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania who organized into a union during the 1860’s and 1870’s. These miners were chiefly, although not exclusively, Irish and the union was called the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. In general, the members of this union were also members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a semi-secret fraternal society, which had its origin in Ireland as a completely secret and anonymous association.

This organization of Irish miners was dubbed the “Molly Maguires,” after a group of Irish peasants who dressed up as women to antagonize their landlords. This group was infamously known as murderers and assassins and the press and police in America applied the name to the Irish miners. The label was used by both the press and the owner-operators of the mining companies to their distinct advantage. They called anyone who was pro-union a “Molly,” inferring that they were criminals at best. This helped to subdue, even if only slightly, uprisings in the work place.


Why were they fighting?

The conditions of the mines were horrendous: there were no provisions for safety nor proper ventilation within the pits. Mine inspectors were figments of the imagination – not until 1870 was legislation passed mandating a second exit for escape in case of explosion, fire, cave-in, etc. The legislature was largely under the influence of the coal mine operators and ignored the workers, as the mine owners perceived them as having no power. The initiative behind the eventual passage of the 1870 legislation was the Avondale fire in 1869, in which 179 men died. Even then, however, it was only in Schuylkill County that this legislation was passed, which stated there must be a second opening, force ventilation, and the appointment of state mine inspectors. These laws were, however, extremely weak and rarely enforced. It was not until a mine operator was one of the men killed in a severe explosion in the Ravensdale Collier in the Pottsville district that a need was finally seen for the grievances the miners had been voicing for years. In Schuylkill County alone, 566 miners were killed and 1665 maimed in seven years. (The Molly Maguires, Anthony Bimba)

Not long after the Avondale fires, however, what had been weak laws turned into simple formalities. The inspector became merely a fixture of the state office and impeded any further progress in the efforts of the miners.

Beyond the conditions of the actual mines, it was the conditions of the worker’s lives that moved them to such extreme action. The bob-tailed check, payment that consisted of goods from the overpriced company store in lieu of money at the end of a work week, was the common form of salary. The wages were miserably low, as were the subsequent living standards. In addition to the meek payment the miners received, they also had extremely long work days. In 1868, 20,000 miners struck for the eight hour work day to no avail. One year later, though, came the formation of the WBA – the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association.


Union Attempts in the Anthracite Region

With the rising influence of big business, the miners came to the realization that locals were not doing what was necessary to take action on the employers. A national miner’s convention was held in January of 1861 and the American Miner’s Association was formed. However, the AMA lacked the unifying bond necessary for the collective action the miners wanted and never became anything more than a loosely knit federation of local units.

The Workingmen’s Benevolent Society of Carbon County, Pa was formed in 1864 and in 1868 the local societies of the southern district united to form the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, with John Siney as President. Siney, a conservative president, promoted law and order and strictly forbade violence. He opposed militancy from the start, as he wanted a “responsible” organization.

The WBA struck first for a minimum base. This strike showed general solidarity even though it was basically unsuccessful in its objectives. The first general agreement between WBA representatives and operators was signed to end this strike. Although the operators denounced it as criminal and outrageous, it fixed details of a sliding wage scale but said that the WBA shall not allow membership for violent, raucous-causing miners.

The name of the WBA was changed to the Miners’ and Laborer’s Association but WBA (the letters) was still used in everyday usage. Another union was formed in 1873 at the second national miner’s convention in Ohio – the Miners’ National Association of the United States of America who also elected Siney as their president. The union disintegrated and disappeared four years later.

While the WBA and the MLA were of mixed-nationality, the Irish continued their local chapters of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. The AOH consisted of Irish of all classes and was run, both in America and Ireland, by bourgeoisie and Catholic clergy. Because the administration of the organization was chiefly middle and upper class, the Irish workers had a hard time, even with their own “brethren” gaining support for their fight for better working conditions in the mines. The national leadership, later on, supported the coal operators and executions of all those involved in the “terrorist” activities of the “Mollies” and at the national convention of 1877, the AOH leadership publically denounced the “Mollies,” revoked their membership and closed all locals in the anthracite regions. The miners than took it upon themselves to continue their sections of the AOH because it was the only support left – the union was falling apart under conservative leadership.

The destruction of the AOH in these regions became imperative to the coal operators. When the miners involved in the AOH realized that many, if not most, of the companies they were fighting against were heavily invested by British investors, fuel was added to the fire. The Irish-Americans would not easily forget their contempt for the English.


James McParlan

James McParlan was a native Irishman who started with the Pinkerton Detective Agency (the agency employed by the mining and railroad companies as labor spies) in 1872. After about a year of service, McParlan was selected as operative in the Gowen deal.

McParlan assumed the alias of James McKenna. Under the name of McKenna, McParlan alleged that he was from Buffalo, New York where he was a member of the local unit of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. McParlan stationed his headquarters in Pottsville because it was the cener of business in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. At a local pub, McParlan recruited Pat Dormer, a member of the AOH, to unknowingly help him out. After a coming close to being found out, McParlan became a member of the Shenandoah branch of the AOH, the requirements for which is that the applicant be an Irishman, or the son of an Irishman,

source: Patrick J. Hall

professing the Roman Catholic faith. Many of the passwords and toasts of the AOH are in opposition to British rule, which is later used in the trials as an example of the danger the organization posed to society.

The AOH helped McParlan get a job in the Shenandoah region. While on the job, McParlan himself stated that “he prespired and suffered under the unwonted labor.” (The Molly Maguires, Dewees) This is an attest to the horrid conditions of the mines but, of course, was not taken as such. By 1874, McParlan managed to become a member of the Shenandoah branch of the “Mollies.”


The Long Strike

The Long Strike of 1875 was the first important open contest of forces in the coal region. It involved the coalition of the Anthracite Board of Trade, headed up by Gowen’s Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Co. The ABT formed “coal and iron” police, who are known in labor history as the Pennsylvania Cossacks, and who were responsible for many deaths and crimes during the history of the “Mollies”.

On the miner’s side was a weak and passive leadership in the WBA. This executive board would rather lose peacefully than win through violence. Another weakness was the recognition of both sides that the power of the miners to control conditions of work and life was central to the strike, even more so than the actual demands.

From the strike came the definition of trade unionism as a crime which is punishable by jail time. The idea somewhat the impacted the miner’s movement the way the government and the operators were looking for – to scare off some “would-be” unionists. However, it also had an adverse affect – the miners gained the support of workers throughout the country. The Industrial Congress of the US unanimously adopted a resolution in support of the anthracite coal miners. And, although they were defeated, the strike paved the way for struggles to come, against the coal operators and the union’s own straying leaders. The leaders surrendered to the companies unabashedly and those who lead the strike were blacklisted. After the strike ended, wages were cut again and again.

Threats, beatings, train engines and cars thrown off the track, theft, and railroad obstructions are just a few of the many events that characterized the time of the Long Strike. The Pinkerton agency sent McParlan a coadjutor, R.J. Linden, who took the position of captain in the Coal and Iron Police. Linden helped to keep McParlan’s story credible. The lawlessness of the strike was not of sole possession of the “Mollies.”


Struggle for Survival

Despite the defeat in 1875, the militant Irish continued on. The mine owners eventually resorted to simply murdering the aggregates, causing the miners to turn to the omni-present AOH. They utilized the AOH as an organizing and protection center, and as a basis in their effort to reestablished their badly defeated union.

It was at this time that there was the introduction of labor spies by Gowen, who hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The agency sent in many spies, including the infamous John McParlan, to stifle the miner’s struggle. McParlan was a self-confessed murderer who tended to commit crimes and charge them to the miners if he could not find anything on them. He was extremely brutal – even the operators feared and hated him.

Both sides, the miners and the owners, resorted to guerilla warfare. The miners, because of starvation; the owners, because of the innate desire to wipe out all resistance, especially the AOH. Through propaganda, the owners tabooed the label “Molly Maguires,” which they had created in the first place, by describing the “reign of terror” the “Mollies” were inflicting. The purpose was to intimidate any and all workers from joining any type of resistance coalition for fear of being called a “Mollie.” Although it is not disputed that the “Mollies” were a militant and sometimes violent group, evidence leans toward the idea that many “Mollie” crimes were actually committed by Pinkerton detectives. Many owners intimidated miners into submission by maiming and murdering those suspected of union activism. Pinkerton himself openly admits that members of the AOH were “quietly murdered.” (The Molly Maguires, Anthony Bimba) There is no doubt that force was answered with force – even the conservative MNA called its members to arm themselves in self defense.

In the struggle, the determined militant Irish miners used mass picketing and armed defense against the police and company hired thugs. There were actually many more miners killed in the struggle than there were corporate employees. Despite this, the Catholic Church actively supported the operators. Archbishop Wood of Philadelphia excommunicated all AOH members in the anthracite area. Operators used this to their fullest advantage: for millions of Catholics, the Church’s condemnation was enough to prove the miners guilty of all.

John Kehoe was one of the miners who was executed during 1877. As the Schuylkill County delegate of the AOH, Kehoe was widely known as a fearless leader of the miners and as an incredible fighter. The AOH was kept afloat so long as Kehoe was around. He and eight others were brought to trial and imprisoned for the conspiracy to kill William Thomas. While in jail, he was tried twice more. The first time for conspiracy to kill Jesse and Williams Major, despite the fact that neither man had been attacked, and the second time, he was sentenced to death for the murder of FWS Langdon, who had died fourteen years prior to the trial.

The Trials

The trials for those who were believed to be involved with the “Molly Maguires” were mere formalities. Society and government, as well as the Catholic Church, had already convicted them. Gowen, who acted as state prosecutor in some of the cases (conflict of interests?) is quoted as having said, “The name of a Milly Maguire being attached to a man’s name is sufficient to hang him.” (Bimba, 83)

Many of the trials in which convicitons were handed down were farces, in that the witnesses were obviously refutable, and the evidence circumstantial at best. Some of these cases were those of Michael J. Doyle, who was arrested with Edward J. Kelly and John Kerrigan for the murder of John P. Jones, a mine superintendent. Another was the case fo the murder of police officer Benjamin F. Yost, during which trial James Carroll and four others were convicted. This was the first trial in which Gowen appeared in court against the AOH. A third was Thomas Munley’s trial for the murder of Thomas Sunger. Munley was convicted on the basis of being active in teh Shenandoah division of the AOH. There were many flaws in the prosecution’s side; the witnesses contradicted each other and the plea of the prosecution. However, Munley was found guilty and sentenced to death.


The nineteen men who were convicted of “Molly” crimes and executed during 1877 are: James Boyle, Alexander Campbell, James Carroll, John Donahue, Michael J. Doyle, Thomas Duffy, Thomas P. Fisher, Patrick Hester, John Kehoe, Edward J. Kelly, Andrew Lanahan, Hugh McGeehan, Peter McHugh, Peter McManus, Thomas Munley, James Roarity, and Patrick Tully. All of these men had been practicing Catholics and were excommunicated from the Church (before the trials) and denied a Christian burial.

Although it cannot be argued that these men were completely innocent of all of the crimes with which they were charged, it should be clear from the preceeding data that they were by no means absolutely guilty, either. Throughout labor history, there have been many strikes as well as many acts of violence, on both the account of the laborers and the owners. However, it is intolerable that none of this history is taught in schools, with the exception of special topics courses (i.e. PSC 468 at Providence College).

These events changed the course of history, not only for the Irish mining community in the anthracite regions of Pennsylvania, but for the labor movement everywhere because it was the first large movement solely by workers. The Irish were not treated with the “Wages of Whiteness” that David Roediger speaks of in his work of the same title. They were, in fact, considered lower than blacks in some areas and just about equal to in others. This movement and treatment of the Irish-American workers is just one example of what some immigrants found in The Land of Promise. It is important that the memory of all of those who fought be kept alive today, as well as what it was that they were fighting for.


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