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Monday, April 22, 2013


In late 18th Century Ireland there was a woman named Molly Maguire, a Catholic and a widow. When absentee English Protestant landlords attempted to evict her from her cottage for being Catholic, the men of the area rebelled, and violence ensued. These men called themselves the “Molly Maguires” in her honor. When the “Mollies” attacked the landlords, they would shout, “Take that from a son of Molly Maguire!”
These were dark times of persecution for Irish Catholics, and things changed little when the masses of Irish immigrants crossed the Atlantic to America. Scores of Molly Maguires were also part of the influx. Many settled in Pennsylvania, where “help wanted” signs frequently read “Irish Need Not Apply.” These American “Mollies” lived secretly beneath the cover of the large fraternal organization known as “The Ancient Order of the Hibernians” (which was even larger than the Masons).The Mollies were almost all full-blooded Irish Catholics and as a result, they were prohibited from all occupations except for the most menial labor. Many sought employment in the anthracite coal mines of northeastern Pennsylvania to feed their families. It was a time before minimum wage laws, suitable standards for working conditions, or any organized labor unions.
In anger and frustration, the American Mollies used violence and terrorism to combat the atrocious conditions in the mines. They began inflicting reprisals on the police, mine supervisors, and mine owners. They blew up railroad cars full of coal, organized riots, and issued threats to anyone who spoke out against them. The violence started during the Civil War and reached its peak during the 1870’s. While some tactics might have been understandable if the Mollies were struggling for Irish equality, but they were not. They showed little appreciation for the plight of the average immigrant, and were not driven by a desire for equality and justice. Instead they used revenge to further their own power. At one time, 24 mining foremen and supervisors were murdered. The level of violence even eclipsed that of the old west gunslingers.
A Chicago Tribune editorial said, “History affords no more striking illustration of the terrible power for evil of a secret, oath-bound organization controlled by murderers and assassins than the awful record of crime committed by the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania.”
The leader of the Mollies was John “Black Jack” Kehoe, who was called “The King of the Mollies;” and he oversaw the actions of the group (ironically, Kehoe was not a miner at all, but a saloon owner). The Mollies would meet to decide the fate of those who opposed their plans. Decisions were made by vote. If a person was selected for a beating or murder, the job was assigned to a member who lived in another county, while local Mollies arranged their alibis. Later, a return of the favor was granted to the man who did the deed.
In 1873, Franklin Gowen, the owner of the Reading Railroad, a former District Attorney, and a man familiar with Molly violence, hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to have an agent of theirs infiltrate the Molly Maguires and gather evidence by which the group could be prosecuted. The agent selected was James McParlan, an Irish Catholic immigrant himself. Under the name James McKenna, he spent almost four years operating within the Moll Maguire organization. He was able to stop some crimes from being committed (without blowing his cover) and reported the group’s inner workings to authorities.
After accumulating enough evidence, the most infamous Molly members were arrested and tried. McParlan was the chief witness against them. He had undermined one of the tightest terrorist organizations ever seen in America. Twenty years of rule by the Molly Maguires came to an end. 
It seemed that proving a man was a member of “The Ancient Order of the Hibernians” was enough for Pennsylvania Dutch juries to find him guilty. Twenty men were sentenced to death by Judge Cyrus Pershing. On June 21, 1877, the first ten men were hanged in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. The other ten, including John “Black Jack” Kehoe, were hanged soon after.
To the consternation of the coal barons, efforts to stop the rise of labor unions in the coal mines failed. By 1890, the United Mine Workers was formed which did have the welfare of the workers as its primary goal.
(note: Some of you may recall the 1970 motion picture “The Molly Maguires” which starred Richard Harris as agent James McParlan and Sean Connery as John “Black Jack” Kehoe, the “King of the Mollies.” It was filmed in the Pennsylvania coalfields.)

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