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150 years later, there are still unknowns surrounding the “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania

Irish coal miners may or may not have been murderers

  • Scott LaMar

Aired; March 13th, 2024.


With St. Patrick’s Day coming up on Sunday, you’ll be hearing a lot of stories about the Irish and many will be celebrating their Irish heritage.

One of the most infamous periods in American history, and certainly here in Pennsylvania, involved the Molly Maguires. The Molly Maguires were a secret organization of Irish coal miners in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania in the late 1800s.

Assassinations and violence grew throughout the area because of poor working conditions in the mines and ethnic tensions, leading to 16 killings. The Molly Maguires were thought to be responsible, and 20 supposed members were executed.

Kevin Kenny is author of the 1998 book Making Sense of the Molly Maguires and a Professor of History and the Glucksman Professor in Irish Studies at New York University. On The Spark Wednesday, Kenny was asked who the Molly Maguires were,”Nobody agreed at the time. Historians haven’t agreed since. I would say we need to avoid, two extremes. One is that they were simply savages who killed people for the sake of killing people. Believe it or not, that’s how they were described in the 19th century. The other is that they were simply innocent victims because 20 men were hanged. But there were 16 other dead bodies on the stage at the end, and somebody killed them.”

Working conditions and ethnic differences were two factors that led to violence, especially after coal miners unionized,”Underground and mining communities are always difficult and harsh. It’s brutal work. People died of miners lung in those days and they still do. I can tell you that the fatality rates and mining accidents were three times as high in the anthracite region of Pennsylvania as they were in Europe. It’s really difficult work. There’s also a division based on class, on ethnicity, because most of the skilled miners and this was really an elite workforce who built the mines and then freed the coal from the coalface. Most of them were were British, English or Welsh. Most of them were Protestant. Some of the skilled miners were Irish, but most of the laborers were Irish. It’s a very important distinction between being a laborer and a miner because it comes down to this. The skilled miner will come in, come into the mine underground in the morning. They will free the coal from from the coal face by using powder to explode it out of the coalface. Then they’ll go home. The Irishman will stay down underground all day loading the coal into carts. It’s a different kind of work. The union brought the two sides together. The Molly Maguires represents the marginalized and the exploited.”

Kenny described what happened,”There were two waves of violence attributed to the Molly Maguires. The first was in the 1860s, during the Civil War. It was a mixture of rudimentary labor organizing and opposition to the military draft to conscription in the same category as the New York City draft riots, which are more famous. Six people were killed in that violence. Nobody was convicted at the time. The second wave of violence was in the middle of the 1870s, and it directly followed the destruction of the labor union. The labor union went down to defeat in the middle of the worst national economic depression the country had ever seen, and the 1870s the labor union, the WBA, was crushed. Into the vacuum stepped the Molly Maguires. Six more killings took place in the summer of 1875. That’s the context in which it unfolds. (The victims were affiliated with the coal companies or those perceived to be enemies of the miners). The killings in the 1860s were traced retroactively to the Molly Maguires and a mopping up operation. They got the big wigs Alexander Campbell out in Carbon County, Patrick Hassler in Northumberland County, and John Kehoe in Schuylkill County. That’s the context. And the explanation is Franklin Gowans attempted to secure monopoly control over the production and distribution of anthracite in the lower region, and eliminating all obstacles in his path.”

The suspected Molly Maguires paid for their alleged crimes with their lives — justly or not as Kenny explained,”The 20 men who were hanged. My sense is, some were guilty as charged. Some were possibly innocent as charged. Others were probably guilty of other, crimes. But my position is that there were Molly Maguires and they killed people. It’s a historian’s question to try and explain, to try and make sense of what happened. I will tell you that, John Kehoe was the alleged ringleader of the whole Molly McGuire thing. He was based on Schuylkill County. He was active in politics. He was a marked man, and he was convicted in 1877 of the very first Molly McGuire killing, which took place in 1862.”

Kehoe was pardoned posthumously by Pennsylvania Gov. Milton Shapp in 1979.



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