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1870's Mahanoy City: Fire And Riot

As mentioned in a prior post, John Franklin Schoener was the foreman of the Citizens Steam Company, No. 2 until 1874 when George Major, the Chief Burgess of the borough, was elected to the position. His tenure as foreman was short-lived, ending on 3 November 1874. Here is the story of his tragic fate.

In the decade after the Civil War, the country struggled with a variety of social and economic conditions. The Pennsylvania anthracite fields were no different. A great wave of migration had swept the region following the discovery of coal. From frontier confusion there emerged a sharp class division between miners and owners, which was soon expressed in open conflict, especially in the business centers where the banks, manufacturing establishments, general offices of railroad and coal companies, and large stores. These were Scranton, Wilkes-Barre, Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe), Pottsville, Tamaqua and Mahanoy City. Disputes between miners and owners would spill over into the communities and impact the other residents. One of the ways was through arson, directly involving the dedicated fire departments to combat the flames.

On 9 April 1871, a little after nine o'clock p.m. a fire was discovered in a stable on West Centre Street in Mahanoy City that was being used to store furniture. The flames were discovered by the James Ryan, the owner of the stable and the alarm was given. Assistance promptly arrived and extinguished the fire before much damage was done. No sooner had that been accomplished before another alarm was given coming from East Centre Street. This was caused by the burning of another stable, situated near the corner of Railroad and 5th streets. The fire had got such a headway that it was impossible to check it until the entire building was destroyed. Fortunately the night was very calm or perhaps the greater part of the town would have been in ashes the next day. After these attempts to burn Mahanoy City, it was feared that is was the object of "stubborn miners" to burn down anything and everything in the city. Vigilance committees were organized to protect the town and others like it in the area.

Then, at about 11:45 p.m. on Saturday, 31 October 1874, the good people of Mahanoy City were aroused from their rest by the ever terrible and unwelcome fire alarm. In a few moments it seemed that the entire population had turned out of their beds. The Citizens Steam Fire Company No. 2 responded. Two of the members of that company were former foreman John F. Schoener and the new foreman and current Chief Burgess of Mahanoy City, George Major. The fire company was soon actively at work combating the flames. The danger of general conflagration was at once perceived to be very great as fire was in a stable on Railroad Street, or rather on an alley in the rear of Centre Street, in the most thickly built portion of the city. From the stable the flames spread rapidly to and another stable and a warehouse. The buildings were consumed. But for the strenuous exertions of the firemen and the fortunate fact that very little wind was blowing, the destruction of property would have been fearful. The general impression was that the fire was the work of incendiaries.

During the blaze, a rival fire company, the Humane Fire Company, No. 1, had also arrived. It was the public belief that the purpose of the fire was to get up a fight between the two fire companies and, in the consequent confusion, to assassinate Chief Burgess Major.

After the fires had been extinguished and the people had all gone to their homes, the fire companies were getting apparatus ready to be carried off. An effort was then made by some parties to get up a fight and a dispute arose between the members of the fire companies, which quickly turned into a riot. Pistols, billy clubs and all kinds of available weapons were freely used. As Chief Burgess Major was pursuing his line of duty, a man named Daniel Dougherty, a notorious rough and alleged Molly Maguire, drew a revolver and fired at Major, the ball entering his left breast, about two inches above his heart. With great power of will and grit, Major at once drew his revolver, exclaiming "I am shot," and while falling to the ground, fired twice at Dougherty. Dougherty was then shot in the neck by George's brother, William Major. Others were wounded during the fight, but none as serious as George Major. Both William Major and Daniel Dougherty were arrested.

George was picked up at once and carried to a nearby drug store where medical aid was in attendance. He was afterward taken to his home.

All night long it was feared that an attempt would be made to lynch Dougherty, while his friends stood ready to rescue him at all hazards. Armed men paraded the streets, while a guard of sixty protected the prisoner. The town was divided into two factions.

For several days it was reported that Dougherty was too ill to be moved to the county jail in Pottsville as he recovered from his wound, but he was eventually slipped out of the hotel and taken to the depot in a carriage, where the Shamokin Guards, who had been telegraphed for, were in line of battle. A surging mass of people filled the streets, fully armed, and had an attempt been made to either rescue or lynch Dougherty, it was impossible to conceive what the result might have been. Upon arriving in Pottsville, the prisoner was conveyed through alleys and back streets to the jail, where there was no fear of lynching or rescue.

George died of his wounds on 3 November 1874 at the age of 33. He had lived in Middleport, PA, southeast of Mahanoy City where he learned the blacksmithing trade. On 8 August 1862 he enlisted as a private in Company G of the 129th Pennsylvania Regiment, engaging in all the battles in which the regiment participated, including action at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He mustered out on 18 May 1863, returning to blacksmithing until 18 July 1864 when he enlisted as a sergeant in Company K of the 194th Pennsylvania Regiment. After the war he married and lived in Sunbury and Shamokin until the spring of 1872 when he became a resident of Mahanoy City. In early 1874 he was elected Chief Burgess and under his administration, the borough was orderly and the ordinances carried out to the letter. Although he was a resident of Mahanoy City for a little over two years, he had won the esteem of all law-abiding citizens. His wife and two children were left to mourn his loss. The youngest was a little girl who would turn five years old on the Sunday before her father's funeral.

It was estimated that about two thousand people attended the funeral. It was by far the largest funeral that had taken place in Mahanoy City. All places of business were closed at 11:30 a.m. and remained closed for the day. The Shamokin Guards, of which George had been the color bearer for over four years, attended the funeral.

The minutes of a 5 November 1874, special borough council meeting state that Major “was assassinated while in the discharge of his duties, losing his life in defense of law and property.” It also honored him as “a most efficient, fearless and impartial chief magistrate whose services were as valuable as his patriotism and courage were unabounded.”

The trial took place at the end of April 1875 in Lebanon County since it was perceived Dougherty would not receive a fair trial in Schuylkill County. During the testimony, John F. Schoener was mentioned as being present during the fire, but had left before the shooting. He was not called as a witness.

When the witnesses for the defense took the stand, they had a well-constructed story. There was, it appears, another man in Mahanoy City who was so much like Dougherty that he might have been his doppelganger; his name was John McCann and on him these witnesses fixed the guilt of Major's murder, with startling unanimity.

Dougherty was later acquitted. Even after his acquittal, plenty of people believed that the law was cheated of its dues and that Dougherty ought to have been hung. The triumphal reception given him by his friends on his return after the verdict was regarded as a public insult by the friends of Major and generally regarded as very impolitic. That feeling seemed to be shared by the majority of the residents of Mahanoy City and vicinity.

An attempt to avenge Major's death was made the evening of Sunday, 23 May 1875. Dougherty was walking on Main Street, accompanied by two ladies when we has fired at twice by a man who stood on the curb as he passed. One shot passed in front of Dougherty, cutting his coat lapel, the second pierced his clothes and grazed the skin on his back. The remarkable escape of the ladies was accounted for by Dougherty being slightly in advance of them when the first shot was fired and their sudden flight after hearing the first shot, leaving him fully exposed to the aim of the assassin. No arrest was made, nor did anyone seem to know who perpetrated the deed. If Dougherty knew, he refused to make the man's name public. After the attempt on his life, his friends assembled around him in large numbers on the street, armed with revolvers and walked along calling out defiantly to anyone to try it again. The constable arrested one of the noisy crowd but they compelled his release at the muzzle of their pistols. The Chief Burgess subsequently appeared on the scene with a posse and through their efforts peace was once more restored. It was generally believed that it would be prudent for Dougherty to no longer remain in Mahanoy City since his life would be in constant danger. The attempt to avenge George Major's death was viewed as an insult to his memory, for he was considered to much of a man to defend assassination in any case.

The trial of Daniel Dougherty drew considerable attention. There was little indication about William Major's trial for the alleged shooting of Dougherty, but it would appear that he was acquitted as well. Regardless of whether it was Dougherty or McCann who shot George Major, the killing was most often attributed to the Molly Maguires.


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