|Old Movie fans will remember the 1970 big-budget epic The Molly Maguires with Sean Connery as Pinkerton detective and spy James McParlan and Richard Harris as a leader of the secret society of Irish coal miners.|
You may remember a sentence or two in your high school American history book about the Molly Maguires—that they blew things up and terrorized bosses in the Pennsylvania coal mines before be rooted out by a Pinkerton spy and given their just deserts on the gallows. Those of a certain age and inclination might recall the 1970 mega-budget Paramount box office flop, The Molly Maguires starring Sean Connery as the tough miner bent on revenge for a thousand injustices and Richard Harris as James McParlan the conflicted but heroic Pinkerton who befriends him and then betrays him.
The shadowy Molly Maguires emerged in the anthracite coal fields of eastern Pennsylvania in the post-Civil War era when a rapidly industrializing nation relied on the production of the mines for fuel and to feed the insatiable steel blast furnaces. Unable to find enough Yankee farmers sons to descend into hell for dangerous jobs with scant wages, mine owners increasingly relied on immigrant labor—first the skilled and experienced coal miners of Wales and Lancashire but ultimately on the abundant unskilled displaced peasants of Ireland.
Attempts to form a union, The Workers Benevolent Association (WBA), were led by the skilled American and Welsh workers were repeatedly squelched by mine owner violence and intimidation. Although as many as 80% of the region’s miners, including the mostly Irish pit men who did the hardest and most dangerous labor, had little voice within the union largely because the leaders shared the same disdain of the Micks as their bosses.
Those Irish miners died regularly in cave-ins and explosions, who were cast aside like rubbish when injured or maimed, jammed into barely habitable shanties, in perpetual debt to company stores, and subjected to cuts in their meager wages with every downward economic tic—cuts that were never restored when things began to hum again. Yet they seemingly had no recourse.
But they did have a tradition brought with them from the Auld Sod. Over there a tradition of secret societies arose under the oppressive rule of the British, their imposed nobility and large landlords. Called at various times and under various circumstances Whiteboys, Peep o’ Day Boys and Ribbon Men these groups protested rack rents, evictions, and other injustices with frightening visits from masked and disguised men, beatings, tar and feathering, and occasional arson and murder. Although hunted by authorities, strict secrecy avoided most prosecutions and the terror that they inspired in local landlords often led to at least temporary concessions and relief. In the rural environs of the big cities like Dublin, Belfast, and Cork these groups also had nationalist sympathies and character and included both Catholic and Protestant tenants.
|The Whiteboys were one of several Irish secret societies that took revenge on landlords, tax collectors, and other oppressors.|
In the rural and Gaelic speaking west similar secret societies sprang up in the 1840’s in reaction to a wave of evictions and in reaction to the wide spread misery of the Potato Famine. These groups had little or no connection to the nationalist movement and were exclusively Catholic and sectarian in as far as many big landowners were Protestants and Anglo-Irish. By 1845 there was a document outlining the rules of a secret society under the name title Address of “Molly Maguire” to her children which was published in Freeman’s Journal. By the 1850’s and ‘60’s groups identified as Molly Maguires were operating in Liverpool, the English destination of many rural laborers fleeing devastated Ireland and the jumping off port for many Irish immigrants to America.
Historians are divided on whether the Pennsylvania miners brought a formal secret society with them and simply re-established it in the new country or if the Mollies of Ireland and Liverpool inspired a copycat movement as conditions in the mines deteriorated during and after an 1873 Panic. Most suspect the latter, although some men might have been involved in the earlier societies and been familiar with their structures and oaths. Although episodes of violence and retribution had been retroactively blamed on the Molly Maguires since the mid-1860’s there had been a lull, almost extinction, of outburst until the crash and subsequent depression.
|Franklin B. Gowen, President of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Co.was the man behind plans to break the Union and stir up then smash the Molly Maguires.|
At the same time the major mine bosses united under the leadership of Franklin B. Gowen, the President of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company and decided to use the opportunity of widespread unemployment to break the union at its weakest spot—the mistrust and hostility of the conservative skilled workers for the Papist Irish. To accomplish this Gowen engaged the services of the Pinkerton Detective Agency which had a well-established record of breaking unions. He assigned the company to work with the Pennsylvania Coal and Mine Police, a semi-private, semi-official paramilitary police used to terrorize and persecute the union and its supporters.
Irish born operative James McParlan was assigned to go undercover and infiltrate both the union and any secret societies operating in the region under the alias James McKenna. McParlan, in his detailed reports to his superiors, claimed that he easily gained the full confidence of both Union leaders and certain Irishmen with influence over their fellow workers. But he rued slow progress—he was unable to make any connection to a secret society and violence in the region continued its long lag.
|An illustrated newspaper illustration imagined a secret Molly Maguire meeting in 1974.|
That ended soon enough with a sharp rise in assaults, and even murders. Some historians believe that at least some of this violence can be attributed to Pinkerton and Coal and Iron Police activity in order to arouse alarm about an alleged Molly Maguire threat. They point out that many of the victims were leading union men and Irishmen who were painted as informers. The deaths of the union men increased the alienation between the union leadership and the Irish. Others believe that McParlan and other agents acted as agents provocateurs goading miners into the violence. A minority of ideologically business friendly historians totally buy McParlan’s claims that he eventually ferreted out a major conspiracy without contributing to it.
|Pinkerton spy James McParlan in the 1880's.|
McParlan identified a secret organization with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an open and legal benevolent society similar to many others established by immigrant groups. He inferred that the AOH and the Mollies were in reality one and the same organization and acted in concert with the Union to attack its enemies. Others believe that the miners used the cover of the Hibernians, who could meet openly, to conduct the separate affairs of the secret society. The trouble is that no trace of that secret society, not a single document, confirms the existence of the Mollies or another society. The AOH, which is still in existence, has always stoutly denied that their Pennsylvania lodges and the Molly Maguires were associated. All we do know is all of the men eventually arrested and charged via McParlan’s investigation were members of the Hibernians.
McGowan, according to documents, decided to force the union into a strike which began on January 1, 1875 and then break it by a combination of brute force by the Coal and Iron Police, and dividing the men along ethnic lines. Alan Pinkerton himself suggested the formation of vigilantes to attack supposed and identified Mollies. After a spate of killings and assaults, including the suspicious murders of union men, a vigilante group did stage an attack on a home killing one man and one woman and wounding two who got away. The house had been identified by McParlan in his reports as belonging to a Molly. The spy, however, was so outraged that the vigilantes had used his intelligence to kill a woman that he angrily turned in his resignation. Pinkerton mollified him with claims that they had not shared his information and was induced to stay on.
Meanwhile the Coal and Iron Police arrested and imprisoned most of the union leadership on charges of conspiracy in May. By July miner’s families were starving and vigilante attacks on union men were spreading fear. The strike was broken and the men forced to return to work with a devastating 20% pay cut.
McParlan noted that only after the strike did many rank-and-file Irish miners swing their allegiance to the supposed Molly Maguires. Even after continue attacks by vigilantes, the Mollies were slow to respond. McParlan, now claiming to have “infiltrated their inner circle,” likely egged on plans for revenge. Finally there was a spate of killing attributed to the Mollies.
|Four of the accused Molly Maguires are marched to their execution on June 21, 1877.|
Based on McParlan’s testimony a number of men were arrested by the Coal and Mine Police. Three men accused of killing Benjamin K. Yost, a Tamaqua Borough Patrolman, went on trial separately. One, James Kerrigan, who was the brother of McParlan’s fiancé, turned state’s evidence and implicated three more men. Franklin Gowan personally prosecuted the cases which hit a snag when Kerrigan’s wife testified that he had committed the murder and had tried to save himself by pinning it on innocent men. The trial ended in a mistrial. At a second trial Mrs. Kerrigan was mysteriously unavailable to testify and all five men were sentenced to hang while Kerrigan was set free.
McParlan’s testimony also resulted in the conviction of five men in other cases. In all ten men were sentenced to hang. The sentences were carried out in two groups on June 21, 1877—six men were hanged in the prison at Pottsville and four at Mauch Chunk in Carbon County under the protection of heavily armed Pennsylvania Militia. But it was not over. Ten more men were hanged over the next year.
|The Molly Maguire Memorial in Mahanoy City, Pennsylvania depicts a single miner awaiting the noose.|
Labor “peace” was thus restored in Pennsylvania coal fields—at least until the rise of the United Mine Workers and the work of Mother Jones led to new campaigns—and suppressions—in the 1890’s and beyond.
McParlan, celebrated as a great hero in the popular press, had a long career with Pinkerton, by the turn of the Century he was in charge of western operations out of the Denver office. He employed cowboy/gunman Tom Horn, who killed ten men and a boy for Wyoming cattle barons at war with small ranchers. Horn was famously hanged, but McParlan and the Pinkertons escaped blame for the murders.
Later he famously Kidnapped Big Bill Haywood and two other officers of the Western Federation of Miners and transported them in sealed train from Denver to Idaho to serve time for the bomb murder of Idaho ex-governor Frank Steunenberg in 1905. But his plan to frame the men for a conspiracy was foiled by defense attorney Clarence Darrow. They were acquitted and the actual, undisputed bomber, known as Harry Orchard who had been induced by McParlan to implicate them, was convicted of the murder.