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Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Four Molly Maguires Hanged, June 21, 1877

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Today in 1877, Alexander Campbell, John Donohue, Michael Doyle and Edward Kelly were hanged in Carbon County, Pennsylvania after being found guilty of murder. To the outside world, these men were known as “Molly Maguires”, members of a secret organization whose origins dated back to the Irish struggle with English landlords. The story of these four men, and of the Molly Maguire group, is today still a source of controversy among historians.

It is not know whether or not Molly Maguire was a real person, but her story was played out many times in the Irish countryside during the 18th and 19th centuries. Soon after becoming a widow, Maguire was kicked off her land by her English landlord. In an effort to seek revenge, she led violent anti-landlord demonstrations all across the nation. Real person or not, the organization which bore her name was officially created in 1843.

Soon after the organization was formed, the Potato Famine struck Ireland and triggered an outflow of millions of Irish who came to the United States to start a new life. Many of them found homes in the coal region of Pennsylvania, an area of seven counties in the northeastern part of the state. The main industry in the area was coal mining, so that was where most of the new immigrants found jobs. The work was back-breaking, dangerous and paid low wages. Often, miners lived in towns completely owned by the mining company. Rent was paid to the company and groceries were bought from the company store. In some ways, it was little different than what most of the Irish had left behind.

Little is known today about how the Mollies, as the Molly Maguires were known, got their start in the United States. Contemporary accounts claims that they were an off-shoot of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a legitimate self-help organization. However, anti-Irish sentiment in the United States was so pervasive at that time that it is impossible to know whether, in fact, this is the truth.

The Coal Region of Pennsylvania saw an increase in violence during the Civil War, possibly because of the federal government’s policies with regard to military conscription. Many Irish immigrants were conscripted into the Union Army despite the fact that they could not yet vote. Furthermore, anyone with $300, an unimaginable sum to most immigrants, could essentially buy his way out of serving. While much has been written about the New York draft riots of 1863, little has ever been told about riots that took place in smaller towns, like those of the Coal Region of Pennsylvania. It during this time that The Mollies probably began to gain power.

The Mollies waged war against the coal companies and their managers by sheer intimidation. Sometimes, a company man who had run afoul of the group would receive a note informing him that he had one week to leave town or face certain death. Other men were simply killed. Over time, The Mollies also began to have influence over the seven county governments in the Coal Region; allegedly, they had enough power to affect the governor’s race in 1875.

The undoing of the group began in the mid-1870’s when Reading Railroad president Franklin Gowen, who also owned coal mines in the area, hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to get inside the organization. Almost everything known today about the operations of the Molly Maguires comes from one man, Pinkerton Detective James McParlan. Over the course of two years, McParlan gained enough evidence to bring 20 men to trial for various crimes, including murder. Before it was over, ten of those men would be executed, including the four who were hanged on June 21, 1877.
It is doubtful that the trials held for those twenty men would pass muster today. Carbon County Judge John Lavelle later wrote:

“The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.”

Today, there are different schools of thought among those who have studied the Coal Region during the second half of the 19th century. There are those who see The Mollies as largely a fictitious group created by those who wanted to cover up for the criminal behavior of the coal companies and used anti-Irish bigotry to their advantage. They say the murders that took place in the Coal Region were acts of desperation by men who acted alone or without oversight by a shadowy organization.

Others believe the Molly Maguires were very real and were a sort of Irish organized crime syndicate that grew in size until they essentially controlled county governments and killed anyone who got in their way. As with most things, the truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Sadly, we will never know for sure.

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