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1870's Mahanoy City: The Molly Maguires, Part 3

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The year of 1876 saw a flurry of Molly Maguire trials and convictions. In the entire series of Molly trials, not a single Irish American was empaneled on a jury. Instead, the fate of the alleged Molly Maguires was decided largely by German immigrants, many of whom admitted to a limited understanding of English.


The first trial began in Mauch Chunk (renamed Jim Thorpe) on 18 January when Michael Doyle of the Molly Maguires' Laffee district was charged with the murder of superintendent Jones. The trial established a pattern for the several Molly trials that followed. With an unsympathetic judge and a jury of German immigrants, Doyle's fate was sealed. It did not help the defendant that the prosecution convinced James "Powder Keg" Kerrigan, in exchange for leniency, to testify. On 1 February, the jury returned a verdict of guilty on the first-degree murder charge.


On 5 February, murder warrants were issued for the arrest of 17 Molly Maguires based upon a 210 page confession by Kerrigan. He identified members of the Molly Maguires and named the men responsible for the murder of police officer Benjamin Yost.


In March, Edward Kelly went on trial for his part in the murder of superintendent Jones. He, too, was quickly convicted and sentenced to be hanged. Alex Campbell, owner of the Storm Hill tavern where the Jones murder was allegedly planned, was also successfully prosecuted and found guilty, despite remarkably flimsy evidence.


Learning that John Kehoe planned to have him killed, James McParland boarded a train on 7 March and headed to Philadelphia.


He returned on 6 May, guarded by fellow Pinkertons, to testify in Pottsville at the Benjamin Yost murder trial. McParland proceeded to tell jurors that three of the defendants had confessed to him firsthand and that Thomas Duffy was the chief conspirator in the murder plot. With McParland's testimony concerning the plot against Yost, plus the testimony of Kerrigan, convictions were handed down against Duffy, James Carroll, James Roarity, Hugh McGehan, and James Boyle.


On 27 June, the trial of Thomas Munley for the murders of Thomas Sanger and William Uren opened. The prosecution rested almost entirely on McParland's testimony. The only other evidence of Munley's guilt came from a woman who testified that she saw Munley at the murder scene, gun in hand. Munley was convicted and sentenced to death.


Then the most celebrated and controversial of the Molly Maguire trials opened on 8 August 1876. Jack Kehoe, "the King of the Mollies," and eight others faced charges of attempted murder for the wounding of William Thomas.


During the trial, William Thomas identified John Gibbons, one of the defendants, as the man who shot him in the neck. In his testimony, McParland described the inner workings of the Molly Maguires and outlined the plot to kill Thomas. He stated that Kehoe "advocated that the best plan was to get a couple of men well armed, and go right up to him on the street and shoot him down in daylight, or any time when they can get him." In a desperate attempt to escape the death penalty, one of the defendants, Francis McHugh, corroborated key parts of McParland's testimony and admitted to attending a meeting where the decision to murder Thomas was made.

The defense tried to make the case that it was in fact McParland who was the chief instigator of the crime and he was now accusing others in an attempt to escape blame. However, McParland withstood the interrogation and proved to be a strong and credible witness.

They next tried to provide a multitude of character witnesses, but they proved less than persuasive. One even admitted that when defendant Gibbons "had liquor in him he was a little wild" and another testified that he never saw Gibbons do much but drink.


The defense's final attempt was to turn on Thomas and portray him as someone who was hardly a valuable member of the community and that got what he deserved. While Thomas was an easy target, the move to disparage the intended victim did not sit well with the jury. It took them only twenty minutes to decide the case, returning a guilty verdict against all twelve defendants and recommended mercy for Frank McHugh.


With the exception of McHugh, they were sentenced to serve the maximum term of seven years for attempted murder.


However, the powers that be were not satisfied with Jack Kehoe receiving only prison time. In late 1876, charges were levelled against Kehoe for the June 1862 murder of Frank Langdon, a mine foreman accused of ripping off miners.

When it came time to pay them, Langdon gave a speech, expressing strong pro-Union sentiments. Kehoe was in the audience that day and, along many other Irish miners, shared anti-Union sentiments. He allegedly stepped on the American flag, spit on it and said, "I'll do worse than that before this night’s over." Shortly after Langdon finished his speech, an angry mob beat him to death. Witnesses claimed to have heard Kehoe say, “You son of a bitch, I’ll kill you!” It was Kehoe's second threat against Langdon in a matter of weeks, the first coming after the foreman docked Kehoe's pay. However, no witness placed Kehoe at the scene of the attack and one witness specifically testified that he was not among the gang of men who beat Langdon. Jack Kehoe was convicted of first-degree for a crime committed fifteen years earlier. It was described as "unquestionably the most dubious of all the verdicts handed down to the Molly Maguires."


Appeals proved unsuccessful and on 21 June 1877, ten men were hanged, four (Campbell, Michael Doyle, Donahue, Kelly) at the Carbon County Jail in Mauch Chunk for the killing of John Jones and six at the Schuylkill County Jail in Pottsville for the murders of Yost (Boyle, Carroll, Duffy, McGehan, Roarity) and Sanger and Uren (Munley). The day came to be known as "Black Thursday" and "The Day of the Rope." Miners, along with their wives and children, had walked through the night from surrounding areas to pay homage, and by 9am "the crowd in Pottsville stretched as far as one could see." The people were completely silent in order to pay due respect to those about to die.

"The Day of the Rope" - 21 June 1877

John “Black Jack” Kehoe, was spared the Day of the Rope. On 17 December 1878, the Pardon Board refused to reopen the case of Jack Kehoe. The next day, 18 December, one week before Christmas, Kehoe was hanged in Pottsville, leaving behind his wife, five daughters and his bar, the Hibernian House in Girardville.


With the executions, a measure of peace returned to Mahanoy City and the surrounding anthracite coal region.


Although the existence of the Molly Maguires as an active secret society and guilt or innocence of the men hanged is still debated, most historians now agree that the trials and executions were an outrageous perversion of the criminal justice system. Not one defendant was arrested during the commission of a crime. However, as one historian noted, "some Irish workers in Pennsylvania clearly used violence to advance the cause of labor as they saw it."


There is a strong belief that there was no society in America calling itself the Molly Maguires and that this name was tagged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians by the commercial press whose purpose it was to help the coal operators crush all organization in the mining industry. It was politically motivated and orchestrated by Franklin Gowen and the Philadelphia and Reading Company who hired the Pinkerton Agency not to save society from a band of terrorists but to spread terror instead.


Perhaps the media played a part in fanning the flames as well. After the trials ended, John Swinton, chief of the New York Sun's editorial staff addressed a group of fellow pressmen at a dinner in New York. "The business of the New York journalist," he told them, "is to destroy the truth, to lie outright, to pervert, to vilify, to fawn at the feet of Mammon, and to sell his race and his country for his daily bread. You know this and I know it, and what folly is this to be toasting an 'Independent Press?' We are the tools and vassals of rich men behind the scenes. We are the jumping- jacks; they pull the strings and we dance. Our talents, our possibilities and our lives are all the property of other men. We are intellectual prostitutes."


In 1979, more than 100 years following his hanging, John Kehoe, the supposed "king" of the Molly Maguires, was granted a full pardon by the state of Pennsylvania. In his letter commemorating Kehoe’s posthumous pardon, Governor Milton Shapp said: "we can be proud of the men known as the Molly Maguires because they defiantly faced allegations which attempted to make trade unionism a criminal conspiracy. These men gave their lives in behalf of the labor struggle. For this reason, all Pennsylvanians today join with the members of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society in paying tribute to these martyred men of labor."


The Irish in the anthracite area never forgave Frank Gowen's persecution of the the Molly Maguires. Gowen died of a gunshot wound to the head on 13 December 1889 at Wormley's Hotel in Washington, D.C. Although it was officially ruled a suicide, there are still doubts about whether or not it was in fact the Irish finally getting their revenge.


Also, if anyone is a fan of Sean Connery and/or Richard Harris, you might be interested in Hollywood's take, the 1970 movie "The Molly Maguires."

Richard Harris as James McParland and Sean Connery as John Kehoe

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