The Molly Maguires
Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill
Make way for the Molly McGuires
They’re drinkers, they’re liars, but they’re men
Make way for the Molly McGuires
You’ll never see the likes of them again
The above lines are taken from a well known folk song. Less well known however, is who the Molly McGuires actually were. While the Irish are extremely popular in America these days it was quite the opposite in the nineteenth century. Thousands of Irish had fled the post famine Ireland, but they were less than welcome in their new homeland and were palced at the lowest level of society.
The Irish worked what jobs they could find and in Pennsylvania this was in the anthracite coal mines, which included counties such as Luzerne, Carbon, Lackawanna and Northhumberland. Conditions in the mines were atrocious to say the least and the mine owners showed little interest in improving them. Not only that but the foremen, usually Welsh, English or German were inclined to cheat the Irish of their wages and this was largely tolerated.
The miners were paid only once a month and most if not all their wages went to the ‘pluck-me’ or company run general store, which they were obliged to use and where they ran up a tab. The debt owed never seemed to be paid in full and customers were not permitted to see the ledger, not that it would have made much of a difference as most of the Irish would have been illiterate.
Out of this discrimination emerged the Molly Maguires or Mollies as they were more commonly known which was strongest between the Civil war and 1876. The origin of the term Molly Maguire is somewhat murky, but it more than likely originated in Ireland, a country with several secret organisations in the eighteenth century. It has been suggested that Molly was a widow evicted from her home and her supporters took on the name when as they sought revenge. She may also have been the owner of a sheebeen where the group met. As with the secret societies of the old country the activities of the Mollies included intimidation, beatings and even murder. Most, if not all, of the Mollies were also members of the legal Ancient Order of Hibernians.
The legal system as well as the police force was mostly Welsh, German, or English, who had little sympathy for the Irish or their grievances, leaving the Mollies as the only form of support and as the grievances increased so too did Molly activity. There were fifty unsolved murders between 1863 and 1867 in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania and neither the public nor authorities seemed interested in solving them, such was the strength of the Mollies.
McParlan first frequented the Mollie hangouts dressed as a vagrant with very limited success. He then posed as a dandy called James McKenna and claimed to have killed a man in Buffalo. He was something of a natural entertainer and was soon a member of the secret of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which in Pennsylvania also meat being a Molly. He soon met the ‘King of the Mollies’, John Kehoe from Wicklow and James ‘Powder keg’ Kerrigan his lieutenant. Kerrigan participated in several Molly murders but once arrested wrote a two hundred page confession which would save himself from the hangman but condemn others. Thus he never had to answer for any crimes and became known as ‘the squealer’.
Unlike many Mollies, McParlan could read and write and his Molly brothers appointed him secretary. His new position was ideal as he could now take his notes without arousing suspicion.
In 1874 wages for the miners were cut by 20% and a strike was declared. It lasted six months and the company run shops would not serve striking families women and children had to forage for food in the woods. As families starved the men were compelled to return to the mines with no concessions offered. Molly violence did not however desist. In July of 1875 Benjamin Yost, a police man was murdered as he extinguished a street light. He had previously arrested a Molly which made him a marked man. Not long after this, two eighteen year old Mollies Michael J. Doyle and Edward Kelly were commissioned to assassinate Welsh mine Superintendent John P. Jones of Tamaqua. They were caught and unlike previous occasions the witnesses were not to be intimidated and over a hundred people testified against them and they were sent to the gallows in 1877.
Thomas Sanger, foreman of Heaton's Colliery in Raven Run near Girardville, and his childhood friend miner William Uren were shot dead on their way to work. Sanger died because of an alleged workplace incident and Uren was murdered so no witness would remain.
The frequency of murders stirred an anti Irish sentiment among the English and Welsh miners. It was suspected that the culprit in the Sager-Uren murder was a Charles O’Donnell though nothing could be proven. Patrick O’Donnell was of this family and history remembers him as the man who killed James Carey, who had informed on The Invincibles following the Phoenix Park murders. A vigilante mob went to his house and murdered him, and two children. The pregnant wife of Charles McAllister, another suspect the vigilantes seemed to know about, was murdered and her mother severely beaten.
All this time McParlan had been passing on information to his superiors and Captain Robert Linden of the Coal & Iron Police. The vigilantes, though never publically identified had all been trained by Linden and McParlan was horrified to learn that his information was being passed on to vigilantes who murdered innocent people.
The operation was drawing to a close as the Mollies suspected that an informer was in their ranks. Instead of fleeing McParlan confronted Kehoe about the allegations and asked that a meeting of the Mollies be convened where his fellow brothers could judge him. It would also be a suitable opportunity to get them arrested. When this did not work Gowen had his Coal & Iron Police arrest Kehoe and other member they could catch.
It was at the trial that McParlan revealed who he really was, much to the devastation of his friends who had trusted him. Support for the Mollies began to dwindle. Labour leaders did not wish to be associated with them and they were denounced from the pulpit.
The outcome of the trial resulted in twenty men facing the hangman, though in some cases the evidence was weak and some they may have been completely innocent. Alexander Campell for example was hanged for the murder of John P. Jones in 1875, but the evidence was based solely on the statement of Kerrigan who was out to save his own skin.
There were other irregularities about the whole affair. Although America was a sovereign nation the Mollies had been arrested by private policeman and prosecuted by mining and railroad company lawyers. Indeed, the only thing the state of Pennsylvania had provided was the courtroom and the hangman.
Ten of the Mollies were hanged–four at Mauch Chunk and six at Pottsville–on21 June 1877, a date remembered as 'Black Thursday.' More were to follow and at each execution the Irish community waited in respectful silence outside the prison walls. Jack Kehoe was hanged in 1878 at Pottsville for the 1862 murder of foreman Frank W. Langdon. He was pardoned by the Pennsylvania Governor Milton J. Shapp in 1979, who said of him 'we can be proud of the men known as the Molly Maguires, because they defiantly faced allegations which attempted to make trade unionism a criminal conspiracy’.
James ‘the squealer’ Kerrigan went to live in Virginia, living under his wife’s name, where he died in 1898.
Conditions for miners were slow to improve and it was not until United Mine Workers of America was founded in 1890 that an eight hour shift was introduced, children under 14 could no longer work in the mines and workers no longer had to buy at the company run shops.
Since the executions opinion has been divided on how to judge the Mollies. Ancient Order of Hibernia members who were also Mollies were written out of the organisation’s history. The Mollies terrorised entire communities and murdering anyone who crossed them, though it was through great injustice that they came to be in the first place. A movie called The Molly Maguires was made in 1970 starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris.