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1870's Mahanoy City: The Molly Maguires, Part 1

Now to follow up on a prior post (click here) and discuss the Molly Maguires.

"Molly Maguires", from a Harper's Weekly 1874 edition

The history of the "Molly Maguires" in Pennsylvania history is an odd blend of fact and fiction. It is believed that the prosecutions were political and the men alleged as "Mollies" were innocent champions of labor.

The name "Molly Maguires" can be traced back to early 19th century Ireland. Molly Maguire was an Irish widow who protested against English landlords who tried to steal peoples land in the 1840's. She led a group called the “Anti-landlord Agitators”, who were best known for getting into bloody fist fights with their landlords in order to maintain their land and their dignity. The cry “Take that from a son of Molly Maguire!” was frequently heard after they delivered their beatings. They became infamous in Ireland and took on the name of their leader, proudly named themselves "Molly Maguires", becoming another offshoot of a long line of rural Irish secret societies.

Ireland's Great Famine (1845–1849), which was caused by the failure of the Irish potato crop and British government inaction, resulted in more than a million Irish emigrating to America. A large concentration of them settled in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania in search of work, many of them originating from oppressed regions of Ireland where the Molly Maguires operated.

Irish Catholics were routinely met with discrimination based on both their religion and heritage and often encountered help wanted signs with disclaimers that read, "Irish need not apply." As a result, they accepted the most physically demanding and dangerous mining jobs.

The Molly Maguires first appeared during the Civil War. Angry at being drafted into war and frustrated by terrible working conditions, Irish immigrants lashed out at mine officials. Things settled down in the late 1860's when the mineworkers joined a labor association.

With almost no labor or mining laws, the coal mines were extremely dangerous and in decrepit condition. The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA) was formed in Pennsylvania in 1864 to help enforce appropriate and safer mining conditions and successfully negotiated higher wages. The WBA strictly forbade violence and opposed militancy. However, this organization catered more to its own interests than the needs of the workers. Due to this self-serving attitude and prejudice that existed within the organization, the Irish decided to turn to their own group to protect their workers. This group was known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The AOH only allowed Irishmen or sons of Irishmen. They sought to provide fairness for the Irish working class and were willing to punish those who mistreated workers.

Mine workers faced horrific conditions in the 1870's. Schuylkill County employed 22,500 miners, including over 5,000 children as young as five. With few safety regulations, working in the mines took a deadly toll. Owners also wrung profits from the miners by forcing them to live in overcrowded company-owned housing, shop at company-owned stores and visit company-owned doctors. Many workers ended the month owing money to their employers rather than making any wages.

On 6 September 1869, a fire at the Avondale Mine in Luzerne County, took the lives of 110 coal miners. The families blamed the coal company for failing to pay for a secondary mine exit. Over the years, mine owners refused to install emergency exist, ventilating and pumping systems or sound scaffolding. In Schuylkill County alone, 566 miners were killed and 1,655 seriously injured over a seven-year period. Families would receive only a few dollars as compensation. Foremen frequently abused workers or undervalued the quantity of coal minded, which directly impacted their wages.

Frank B. Gowen

By 1872 the Reading Railroad was the biggest mine company in the anthracite region. It used its monopoly on the railroads to take over 70,000 acres of the best coal lands. The company's president was Frank Gowen. Gowen established a private police force, called the "Reading Coal and Iron Police." Between 1871 and 1875 Gowen borrowed $69 million to pay for his empire. But he and the other railroad barons had overestimated the demand for train service and over-invested. Debts forced them to fire many workers, resulting in a nationwide depression, known as the "Panic of 1873." As a result, the following six years were marked by one of the worst depressions in the nation's history, caused by economic overexpansion, a stock market crash, and a decrease in the money supply.

In 1874 a third of Pennsylvania's workforce was unemployed. The Reading Railroad cut train workers' wages by 10%, resulting in an unsuccessful strike. In 1875 only 1 in 5 of American workers had full-time jobs. Some people vented their frustration by damaging tracks, trains, and mines.

When Gowen lowered mining wages to 54% of their 1869 level, miners began the "Long Strike" of 1875. It started in January 1875 and lasted 170 days. Gowen had stored enough coal to outlast the strike and crushed the miners' union by firing its members.

Under Gowen’s harsh rule, the Molly Maguires reappeared, along with their violent methods. The Molly Maguires targeted three groups: mine owners, policemen hired by the owners, and strikebreakers. They threatened scabs who took over their jobs and assaulted mine supervisors. The newspapers portrayed the Molly Maguires as a clandestine, renegade group that terrorized the coal companies and their officials, while using the Ancient Order of Hibernians as a front.

In 1875, a letter supposedly from a Molly Maguire was published in the Shenandoah Herald. "I am against shooting as much as ye are," the letter read, "but the Union is broke up and we have got nothing to defend ourselves with but our revolvers and if we don’t use them we shall have to work for 50 cents a day."

The Long Strike of 1875 was the first important open coal dispute in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. It was the scene for some of the most violent crimes in labor history. Both the unions and the coal companies were responsible for numerous violent acts during the strike including violent brawls, sabotage, and even coordinated murder. To combat the union violence, the coal authorities formed a police force, described by some as the “Pennsylvania Cossacks,” whose sole purpose was to kill violent strikers.

In July 1875, Gowen presented "A List of Outrages in the Schuylkill and Shamokin Regions" to Pennsylvania's legislature, including:

  • March 25, 1875 – Locust Summit telegraph burned, 32 coal cars dumped on tracks at Locust Gap

  • March 26–29 – coal cars dumped at Locust Gap Junction

  • March 29 – coal trains stoned near Locust Gap

  • March 31 – between Locust Gap and Alaska stations, men stoned and fired upon a train. The men boarded the train, drove out the crew, damaged the engine, and blocked tracks

  • April 29 – provisions stolen from Mount Carmel freight depot

  • May 1 – flour and feed stolen from freight car in Locust Gap

  • May 6 – attempt to blow up trestle in Locust Gap

  • May 7 – hose cut from water columns at Locust Gap and Summit

No one stood in graver danger than mine superintendents and bosses. If one were to seriously cross a Molly Maguire "body-master" (or secretary), his life was as good as over. Often, the soon-to-be victim would receive a "coffin notice," a written warning depicting a coffin. Typically, the body-master of one "district" would ask the body-master of a nearby district to send a team of men over to carry out the murder. This system was designed to make identification of the perpetrators less likely. After the successful completion of a violent mission, the assassins usually received a small monetary reward and treated to drinks.

A Coffin Notice

On 13 August 1874, two supporters of a priest opposed to the Molly Maguires were killed by unknown assailants.

On 31 October 1874, Chief Burgess George Major was murdered by an alleged member of the Molly Maguires, as discussed in a prior post (click here).

On 18 December 1874, mine watchman Frederick Hesser was murdered while working.

During the early morning hours of 6 July 1875 in Tamaqua, PA, Patrolman Benjamin F. Yost was murdered as he climbed a ladder to extinguish the street lamp when he was shot. It was later discovered that Patrolman Yost was killed because he had previously arrested a member of the Molly Maguires and, in retaliation, two men were assigned to assassinate him.

On 14 August 1875, Justice of the Peace Thomas Guyther and bartender Gomer James were murdered by alleged Molly Maguires.

On 1 September 1875, Thomas Sanger, mine foreman, and miner William Uren were shot as the walked on an empty street.

On 3 September 1875, mine superintendent John P. Jones, accused of blacklisting striking miners, was shot in the back while walking along a pipeline in Carbon County.

In all, twenty-four mine foremen and supervisors would be assassinated.

Gowen once said of the pervasive fear of the time: "Men retired to their homes at eight or nine o'clock in the evening, and no one ventured beyond the precincts of his own door. Every man engaged in any enterprise of magnitude, or connected with industrial pursuits, left his home in the morning with his hand upon his pistol, unknowing whether he would again return alive. The very foundations of society were being overturned."

The church, the labor unions and the general public were appalled when they read about the Molly Maguire's alleged crimes. "They are scum and a disgrace to us Irishmen and American citizens," said Father Daniel O’Connor of Mahanoy City.

Eventually, the violence got out of hand and the coal companies needed to put a stop to the chaos. But a plan had already been put into motion, almost 2 years prior.

In May 1873 Allan Pinkerton, president of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, stood on the edge of bankruptcy. Pinkerton urged George Bangs, his New York superintendent, to solicit business from Gowen. The plan was that since the Molly Maguires was a secret group and it was believed that the AOH was their cover, then once an Irishman had proven himself in the AOH, he could then be inducted into the Molly Maguires. Once inside the secret society, a person could gather information and evidence to destroy it. "I have the very man for you," Pinkerton told Gowen. That man was James McParland, a young man who had advanced rapidly up the Pinkerton ranks. McParland would earn $12 per week plus expenses and would be required to file daily reports. His orders from Allan Pinkerton were clear: "You are to remain in the field until every cut-throat has paid with his life for the lives so cruelly taken."

On 27 October 1873, Pinkerton operative James McParland, calling himself "James McKenna," arrived in Port Clinton to begin his undercover operation to infiltrate the secret ranks and destroy the Molly Maguires.


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