Molly Maguires



The Irish in the Coal Fields

The Irish emmigrated to the United States in search of a better life. Instead, they found wealthy Americans all too eager to take advantage of their desperate need for work. Between 1846 and 1854, 44% of all immigrants to the United States came from Ireland. During this same period, anthracite mining in eastern Pennsylvania was growing at an incredible rate. "Villages spread and towns appeared literally overnight." Coal patches were these towns that sprang up around a coal mine to service the many workers.

Although 80% of the immigrating Irish had a background in farming, only 6% farmed in America. Instead, Irish immigrants sought jobs in the coal mines, where they found the ethnic unity and feeling of community that they desired. English and especially Welsh miners brought a high level of skill and experience to the mines. Each of these miners was assigned several unskilled laborers to help with movement of supplies and digging. These unskilled positions were the ones filled by the Irish.

The owner of the mine would almost always own the coal patch, including the miners' homes and the stores where they bought their supplies. The miners were forced to live in the company houses and buy from the company stores, where prices were at least twenty percent higher than in private shops. Following is a notice posted by a mine operator:


... from this time henceforth we shall take particular notice who deals at the store and who does not. And as the time is near at hand when we shall reduce the number of our men ...not through any force or compulsory measure on our part,but only by keeping such men as will do so of their own free will.


The unskilled mine laborers would, because of inflated supply costs, finish a pay period in debt to the mine owner. This practice of inflating costs and keeping the miners in debt allowed operators to keep the miners from striking or leaving to join another company.

Prejudice Against the Irish Catholics, the Beginning of the Molly Maguire Myth

In addition to the financial and social problems facing all unskilled laborers, the Irish faced further difficulties due to prejudice. Although they were great contributors to the industrialization of America, the Irish Catholic were treated with disdain by the mostly Protestant "native" population of the area. The Irish were called a "massive lump in the community, undigested, undigestible". Riots frequently broke out between Protestants and the Catholic newcomers. Perhaps the worst riot took place in Philadelphia on May 6, 1844 when two Catholic churches were burned and 16 people lost their lives.

Increasingly, it was the Irish in general, not only the Catholics, who were persecuted. The Irish received a reputation for being drunken and quick to violence. Publisher Benjamin Bannan helped enforce this image in Schuylkill County by ending editions of "Miners' Journal" with amusing stories detailing the antics of local Irishmen. The Irish were not entirely innocent of these claims. "Irish Americans were convinced that they were the best Catholics in the world ...." They viewed immigrants from southern and eastern Europe as competition for jobs and often criticized them for their adulterated version of Catholicism and trouble speaking English. The Irish were also the major participants in barroom brawls. It was this violent image that would help turn local community members against the alleged Molly Maguires tried for terrorist crimes.

The Irish Catholics were, of course, excluded from benevolent societies like the Freemasons. They began to form organizations of their own to help immigrants adjust to America. These organizations were for the most part public, since societies requiring oaths of secrecy were officially forbidden by the Catholic Church. However, as the persecution grew worse, secrecy became necessary and the once peaceful societies began to fight back. The pattern of violent retaliation was too much a part of Irish culture for anything else to have happened.

The anti-Irish sentiments of the community resulting from Irish violence made them an easy target for political critics. In 1857, "Miners' Journal" publisher Bannan accused Irish Catholic organizations of voting in the 1856 presidential elections as a block. He also commented on the 55 indictments of voting inspectors in Philadelphia. "Every one of these inspectors were Irishmen, belonging no doubt to the order of 'Molly Maguires' ...." This publication marked the first time the eastern Pennsylvania coal mines saw the term in print. Sleepers and Buckshots would become alternate names for this alleged organization. The Molly Maguires he referred to were certainly the Ancient Order of Hiberians, a benevolent association founded by the alienated Irish Catholics.

Miners Unite, the Myth Grows

The anti-conscription riots of 1862 would also be attributed to the Molly Maquires. The Irish coal miners felt, perhaps correctly, that the Civil War was a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight." Adding to their objection to the war was the belief that the rich men of the North were hoping to bring Blacks to the coal mines where they would work for lower wages. Already competing with other immigrants and against prejudice, it is understandable that the Irish coal miners would not be eager to give their lives for a cause that could only hurt them.

Benjamin Bannan, the conscription officer in Schuylkill County, was able to register men for the draft without much trouble, but when it was time for the conscripts to depart, a mob of 5,000 men formed to stop them and offered to protect the men that did not wish to leave. President Lincoln was eager to have the law "at least to appear to have been executed", so Bannan forged papers that would make it appear as if the county's quota had been filled by registration in other sections of the county. The drafting of troops would again be halted by miners in 1863, when a federal conscription act was passed. Following devastating riots in New York City, officials were uneasy about enforcement of the draft in Schuylkill County. It was reported that an army of 2,000 to 3,000 miners, drilled daily, preparing to resist the draft. This organization threatened to burn houses and coal mines owned by Republicans and gave "cautionary" notices to prominent men including Benjamin Bannan. This incident was one of poor men organizing as a political protest, and although their methods were in no way peaceful, and the men should have been punished, the riots were not the work of a secret terrorist society as Bannan alleged.

During and after the Civil War the Molly Maguires became a more commonly used term in the "Miners' Journal" to refer to retaliatory crimes by the Irish. Later on, historians would attribute 12 or more killings between 1860 and 1862 to the Mollies, but the first killing that would play a role in the coming trials took place in June of 1862.

A 4th of July celebration was being planned in Carbon County when Irish miner Jack Kehoe spit on the American Flag. F. W. Langder, a foreman who was responsible for accepting or rejecting a minerĂs coal, was quick to brand the man a traitor. Kehoe and his fellow miners threatened to kill Langder. Later, the mine foreman was severely beaten and died the next day. There were no arrests made at the time and the murder would be one of many unsolved cases attributed to the Molly Maguires. Langder was murdered, likely by Kehoe and his friends, but it was a simple act of retaliation by miners who felt the foreman had cheated them.

The killing of a George K. Smith, a mine owner fairly popular with the skilled laborers, would also be attributed to the Mollies. Smith was a fair operator, but worked the men hard. His attackers were most likely angered by the fact that Smith had invited draft enforcement officers to his home. Men with blackened faces forced their way into his homoe on November 5, 1863. There they quickly ended his life with a shot to the head. Several of the alleged attackers were arrested, but later freed by a mob. They would not be tried for 14 years. With all the violence in the area at the time, it was unlikely that a proper police investigation took place even then.

Post-War Conditions Spark Violence

After the Civil War, violence in the coal areas rose to even higher rates. The combination of increased anthracite demand and the scarcity of labor due to war service inflated the coal miners' wages to perhaps the best in the nation. The conclusion of the war caused a sharp downfall in demand for all businesses, and affected the coal mines with devastating force. Prices dropped at a stunning rate and miners' wages followed suit. Miners who had been let go during this time were joined by war veterans returning home. Unemployment and therefore violence climbed to pre-war levels.

The concern caused by the increased violence, especially against coal mining officials prompted the establishment of the Coal and Iron Police in 1866. Permission for the institution of this special police force was granted by the state legislature with the intention that the force would protect private property from vandalism and sabotage. The "policemen" were hired, paid, and therefore completely controlled by the coal companies. This private force would be the one that made many of the arrests that would lead to the Molly Maguire executions. The coal companies were given the power to arrest the men that troubled them, and used this power to its fullest extent.

The murder of William Littlehales brought public sentiment boiling to the surface. Littlehales was responsible for transporting a $3,000 payroll. He had recently changed his manner of transportation in response to an increase in robberies. He, however, made the unfortunate mistake of arriving in his traditional manner, although without the money, on March 15, 1867. That night he was killed near his home in an attempted robbery. The murder of a man believed to be carrying 3,000 dollars in a town filled with poor miners should not be surprising, and no secret society would have had to order his killing.

"Miners' Journal" readers were agitated further when Bannan published a list of 50 murders that had taken place between 1863 and March of 1867. Few of these killings could be attributed to the Molly Maguires, but the ones that were Bannan made sure to highlight in the report. By association, the crimes would add to the Molly Maguire reputation. The people were now pushed to new heights of fear, inspired less by the acts of murder than by the media, headed by Bannan and the "Miners' Journal." Bannan managed to convince leaders of the community that the profusion of unsolved crimes was not random, but rather an intricate conspiracy.

Fearing that local citizens would endeavor to form vigilante groups in the face of the newest wave of violence, the Pennsylvania legislature passed the Court, Police and Jury Act. The bill set up a new court district, its borders including Schuylkill and three other counties. Two new jury commissioners took office and a Marshal of Police was appointed to lead a force of up to 100 men. This may have contributed to the decline in crime during the late 1860s, but most likely the credit should be given to the Workingman's Benevolent Association.

New Unions and the Reading Railroad

The fall in coal prices confronted the mine owners with a very real lack of funds. The Eagle Colliery attempted to execute a ten percent pay cut but, in January, 1868, the miners struck. The mine owners could not afford to allow the other mines to continue working while the Eagle was not in operation, so the operators were forced to comply with the miners' wishes. The strike itself was not important, but it led to the formation of the Workingman's Benevolent Association under the leadership of John Siney.

The new union was plagued by problems. The northern miners and southern workers of the Schuylkill area were competing for business. Although leaders from both areas agreed on paper to support each other's strikes, distrust and personal greed prevented the unity so urgently needed. In 1871 the southern and northern fields finally agreed to strike together. The operators were unable to ship out any coal and eagerly accepted the miners' terms. Franklin B. Gowen, however, ensured that the miners' moment of triumph was a short one.

Gowen had been elected Attorney General during the period of violence in the early 1860s. He failed to prosecute many of the crimes because the Irish had been major supporters of the Democratic ballot he was elected on. He retired from politics in 1864 and became the legal director of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, soon to rise in rank and head the entire operation.

The Reading Railroad held an almost complete monopoly over the transport of coal out of the Schuylkill mines. Following the apparent union victory during the strike of 1871, he doubled the price of shipping coal to market. He intended to make it impossible for the mine operators to pay the increased wages and ship the coal. The plan succeeded and miners went back to work.

The state investigated Gowen's right to raise rates so drastically, but the case was quickly dismissed. Much like he would six years later, Gowen used his skills as an orator to build emotion and sway the opinions of the public. He actually used this trial to his advantage when Siney was called on to testify. The railroad owner, who was at that point a private citizen, questioned the union leader and spoke on the union's connection to the Molly Maguires. "There never, since the middle ages, existed such a tyranny like this on the face of God's earth." Gowen stated that he did not blame the WBA, but pointed out that the only men killed were those opposed to the union. The union was forced to defend itself and lost much of its ability to unite miners.

Ignored by the state, but not by Bannan and union leaders, was an operation by Gowen that would severely endanger the coal trade. The Reading Railroad's charter forbid it to own coal lands, so until this barrier could be removed, Gowen headed a group of friends and private investors in buying coal land.

Gowen tried for many years to slip a clause allowing his railroad to purchase coal lands into unrelated legislation, but the clauses were spotted and stricken by the anti-monopoly senators of the time. A bill was finally passed to allow Gowen to hold the lands but under questionable circumstances. The clause Gowen had placed within the bill was removed in a morning vote by a vote of 17 to 15. Another vote was called in the afternoon and three of the senators opposed to the bill were absent while another had reversed his vote. The bill so necessary to Gowen's plans passed under conditions that strongly suggest that Gowen worked this miracle himself, with bribes. The plan succeeded and while the increased transport prices devastated mine operators, Gowen bought land at an unbelievable rate. By 1875, he owned 150 square miles of anthracite mining land, which amounted to 80 percent of the Schuylkill and 1/3 of the entire coal field. The Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company was born. His fear of the Molly Maguires possibly disrupting his coal monopoly spread to his investors, who were also powerful in the community.

"Miners' Journal" publisher Bannan had long been against unions. In 1835, boat workers staged a strike that "... consisted mainly of a few pelting of strikebreaker boats with rotten eggs ...", but Bannan called a "reign of terror". Obviously Bannan was so strongly against the unions that he lost reason when he spoke against them. The Molly Maquire killings had occurred years before the union was instituted, and it discouraged violence among its members. The WBA mediated disputes and gave the miners a sense that they could at least try to do something against the powerful men who controlled their lives. Bannan was set in his ways and worked hard to keep the Molly Maguire reputation going through the years of decreased violence by convincing the readers the WBA and Mollies were one and the same. The effect it had on the literate and powerful population when they read in the Journal Bannan's belief that all the Molly Maguires belonged to the WBA and were, in fact, the executioners for the union can not be overstated. He used his influence to frighten the public, and when men were hanged, the public was too relieved to question the convictions.

The Pinkerton Detective

Franklin Gowen approached detective Allan Pinkerton during October of 1873. The Pinkerton Agency was already famous for their work towards capturing outlaws in the West. Pinkerton recorded in his diary that Gowen told him: "... we want people to sleep unthreatened, unmolested, in their beds, ... we want the laboring-men ... protected in their right to secure sustenance for their wives and little ones ..." The records of the Ancient Order of Hiberians, an established Irish secret society, often accused of being Molly Maguires, quoted Gowen quite differently.


I want you to send a man ... to join the Mollie Maguires and become its leader. ... I want him to precipitate strikes ... and make the lives of the mine managers a burden. I want him to lead bands against the English, Welsh and German miners and mine bosses, beat and kill them off, until the collieries will be unable to run for want of competent men.


Although neither quote probably records the exact words of Gowen, the latter records feelings more appropriate to his prior actions.

Gowen, while acting as district attorney, failed to prosecute in countless cases, certainly not protecting the common man. But he certainly had tried other mechanisms to force mine owners to sell at low prices. He was also seeking to connect the Workingman's Benevolent Association, which peacefully furthered the cause of the oppressed laborer, with a terrorist organization. This connection would allow him to destroy the WBA and all organized opposition to his unfair business practices and control the coal industry completely.

Pinkerton's agency employed mostly former criminals, they being the best at going undetected. An Irish spy was needed, and an informer being the most hated man in Irish society, "a being that had touched the nethermost depths of degeneracy" was needed.

On October 27, 1873, James McParlan, alias James McKenna, arrived in the coal mines. McParlan befriended an alleged Molly, Patrick Dormer. McParlan sought a sponsor to join the Ancient Order of Hiberians, a society founded on the basis of "Friendship, Unity, and True Christian Charity" yet which the detective felt was the first step to infiltrating the Mollies. He was accepted into the AOH and reported that he was initiated into the Molly Maguires on April 14, 1874. After entering the AOH, McParlan was told by suspected Mollies that in order to join the even more secret union, he was required to be working in the mine. The Mollies could have actually been an early trade union, whose secrecy led others to give it a more diabolical reputation.

McParlan's first meeting as a Mollie provided less than a terrible picture of the terrorist organization. The meeting's main purpose was to collect the overdue dues of 35 cents a month in order to raise the nine dollar fee assessed to each AOH lodge to help send a delegate to the national convention. This was followed by a round of drinking. Somehow, despite this disappointment, McParlan was soon able to provide the names of 12 leaders of the Mollie Maquires.

This quick and unlikely development was suspect not only because of Gowen's motives, but because the Pinkerton agency was struggling financially. At the time of the investigation, Pinkerton's main concern was bringing in clients. "We are in great want of money, on every hand I am in debt..." Pinkerton also described his own detectives as, in general, "totally devoid of principle." It is not unlikely that a man willing to spy on his own countrymen and whose job was in jeopardy if the investigation failed, would be willing to entrap suspects, and even lie when testifying against them. The fact that only McParlan could gather the evidence to bring a trial, while other detectives sent by Pinkerton were unable to even supply names of Molly Maguires, further impugns the integrity of the investigation.

The willingness of the Pinkerton Agency to resort to any means necessary to destroy the Mollie Maguires is best illustrated by the massacre at Wiggan's Patch. While McParlan worked undercover, other Pinkerton men, along with the coal company controlled Coal and Iron Police prepared to fight back during the labor riots of the Long Strike of 1875. Allan Pinkerton wrote to his Philadelphia office: "... get up a vigilance committee. ...pounce upon the M.M.'s when they meet ...". On December 10, 1875 a group of men attacked an Irish miner's house at three in the morning. There resided John and Charles O'Donnell as well as James McAllister, all identified by McParlan as murderers. The wife of the local AOH delegate, Jack Kehoe, also lived there. The attackers failed to capture or kill the men, but in the assault, 18 year old Ellen McAllister, John and Charles's sister, was killed.

James McParlan submitted his resignation on that day. "Now I wake up this morning to find I am the murderer of Mrs. McAllister. Did the Sleepers in their time shoot down women." His resignation was refused.

It was after the end of the Long Strike that McParlan began to report murders and attempted murders he had discovered. McParlan himself should have hanged with the men he testified against. In two cases, resulting in the jailing of several men, McParlan himself, acting as a Molly leader, had approved and helped to plan the killings.

Although McParlan supplied Pinkerton and therefore Gowen with the names of murderers, his reports failed to back up the image of a highly organized band of assassins Gowen and Bannan had painted. McParlan described the administration of the AOH contained Mollies as giving street gangs a superficial sense of disiplne. He reported that the Mollies fought within the organization as well as with other Irish, and that chosen assassins often refused their assignments.

On February 5, 1876, the Coal and Iron Police broke into the homes of seven Mollies in the early hours of the morning. The men were shackled inside their homes and taken to the jail where they would await trial for murder. Because of several such arrests, Molly Maguire leaders began to suspect that a spy was in their midst. McParlan successfully remained under cover until March 7, 1876, when he finally fled from the coal fields.

Along with McParlan's testimony, a 210 page confession of a Molly helped convict those arrested by the Coal and Iron Police. Jimmy Kerrigan was himself arrested as a Molly Maguire, and although his confession supported most of McParlan's claims, the truthfulness of a man facing death if he did not cooperate must be questioned, not to mention Gowen's past history of "miracles". Kerrigan's confession also provided enough evidence to try and convict Jack Kehoe for the murder of Frank Langder. Other confessions convicted James McDonnell and Charles Sharp of first degree murder in the Littlehales case.

The Pinkerton Agency's Account of Events

The Trials and Executions

Seventy two jurors took part in the Molly Maguire trials, and 68 percent confessed previous knowledge of the case. No Irish Catholics were permitted on juries. Perhaps the jury selection could also be attributed to Gowen.

It became clear that murderers were not on trial, but rather that their convictions would symbolize condemnation of organized resistance to Gowen and the mine operators. Gowen, one of the most skilled orators of the time, spoke on the history of the Ancient Order of Hiberians, and painted a violent image of how they had evolved in the coal fields. He spoke at length about the sufferings of the victims' widows and mothers, a matter which evoked great emotion, but had no relevance to the case. The investigation was conducted by detectives hired by Gowen, the suspects arrested by Reading's private police force, and the prosecution was headed by Franklin Gowen himself. The trials, headed by a superb orator, and resulting in hangings, were just the huge public event Gowen needed to take the public's mind off the horrible social conditions.


On ... the first day of the summer of 1877, two young Irishmen, ... their expressions serene, ... walked slowly down an old brick path ... Twenty minutes later both men were dead, hanged ... . Within two hours, four more Irishmen would walk the same path, kiss their priest's hand, touch heir lips to the crucifix, ... mount the same gibbet, and die.


Four more men would be hanged that day forty miles away inside a newly constructed jail, thus ending the largest mass execution in American history. Ten more men would hang in the following months.

These men, Molly Maguires, acted out of anger and murdered mine owners and officials, a group they felt had denied them their rights for generations. Organizations like the WBA and AOH sought to overcome oppression by peacefully lobbying as a group. However, the power that would have given them was too much. Men like Franklin B. Gowen, more concerned with money than the men who slaved in the mines, drove men to murder and assault by systematically destroying the union.

The murders and assaults were perpetrated by a loose knit group of miners called the Molly Maguires, but Gowen and publisher Benjamin Bannan built up the image of intricate assassination conspiracies, sending the public into a period of terror. He then used his own resources to put these men on trial and get the convictions no one else had been able to. Perhaps his intentions are best stated by a quote recorded in the records of the AOH. "With the execution of these fellows two results will be accomplished: I will be looked upon as a savior of the coal region ... and organized labor will be given a black eye from which it will never recover." Regardless of the guilt of the Mollie Maguires, it is clear that they were executed in order to further the goals of the Reading Railroad by destroying organized labor.