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Make way for the Molly Maguires
They're drinkers, they're liars but they're men
Make way for the Molly Maguires
You'll never see the likes of them again

Down the mines no sunlight shines
Those pits they're black as hell
In modest style they do their time
It's Paddy's prison cell

From Molly Maguires by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter


In the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania during the 1860's and 70's, a group of Irishmen, upset over labor practices in the coalmines, took justice into their own hands. They became known as the Molly Maguires. The Mollies were reputed to be a group of terrorists who would stop at nothing to rule the region with tyranny and mayhem - or alternately as heroes who fought for justice.

The name Molly Maguires comes from Ireland -- where a band of poor Catholic Irishmen terrorized the landlords in County Cavan. The original Molly Maguire was a widow who was being evicted by her landlord. When her son came to her aid, he was coldly murdered by the landlord's agents. In Molly's name a group of local men rose up against the injustice of the landowners. Over the years they were thought responsible for many incidents of looting, burning, rioting and shooting levied against those who ruled and deprived poor tenant families of basic human rights.

The Great Irish potato famine forced many Irish to flee their country. Thousands ended up in the coalfields of Pennsylvania. They didn't find America to be much better than Ireland. The 1860's and 70's were a time when political powers were allied against workers, and also when anti-Irish and anti-Catholic sentiment ran at a fever pitch. The courts were also stacked in the favor of big business.

Many work places sported signs that read, "No Irish Need Apply." The work they could find was usually menial, low-paying, or dangerous. Ostracized by their new American communities, the immigrant Irish formed their own social clubs and took what jobs they could -- for many that meant the dangerous, often fatal jobs in the mines.

In this nascent world of Dickensian industrialism, labor was just starting to organize. The Worker's Benevolent Association , to which most of the miners belonged , had made minor advances in achieving better working conditions and compensation for their toil . These advances were abruptly halted by the coal barons. In December of 1874 pay was reduced by 20%. Very soon after that another 10% cut was levied upon the miners.

At the same time, Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, called the major coal companies to a meeting in New York in order to fix the price of coal. Not only were the miners being taken advantage of, but the general public was at the mercy of this cartel and it's greed. Coal was fixed at a price of $5 a ton -- the first case of price-fixing in the United States. The miners were blamed for the outrageous price of coal. As a result, the general public had no sympathy whatsoever for the miners and their plight.

The miners went out on strike for seven months, but Gowen had been informed that the miners were going to strike and managed to stockpile enough coal to meet the winter demand. The workers lost, and those that could returned to their jobs. Many of the men who supported the strike were singled out by the coal operators as troublemakers and were not called back to work.

Some of the mine foremen and superintendents became targets for the unemployed and desperate. Frank Gowen made use of this violence to recoup the sympathy of the citizens living in the region -- German, Welsh and Irish alike. He linked the names of the men who led the efforts of the "Great Strike" to a secret organization he called the Molly Maguires. For two decades almost any crime in the anthracite regions was routinely placed on the doorstep of alleged Mollies. Despite the hysteria and accusations of a great wave of criminal wrongdoing, an examination of the actual crime rate in the area before and after the Molly era indicates no significant change.

Ironically, at the time of Gowen's accusations, there was no Molly Maguire organization in the United States - but there soon would be. As the coal bosses tried to tighten their control, in collusion with the clergy and the courts, the Irish mineworkers systematically began doling out their own vigilante justice.

Franklin Gowen wanted these men out of his mines and out of the area for good, to be punished and locked up forever in the jails of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. So, in 1873, Gowan hired the Allan Pinkerton Detective agency to infiltrate the coalfields and expose the men who were at the core of all this mayhem. The most successful detective sent in was one James McParlin, alias Jamie McKenna.

In the three years McParlin worked undercover he gathered or fabricated enough evidence to permanently remove 20 or so Irishmen from their families and friends forever. Among them were John Kehoe and Alexander Campbell. These men were both very respectable, educated and influential citizens of the region. They commanded much respect among their peers.

Historians feel the Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows. -- Judge John P. Lavelle, 1994
History has proven some of these men to be completely innocent of their crimes. Anti-Irish prejudice prevented these men from a fair trial. They were pronounced guilty in the newspapers even before their day in court. The reporting of many of the nation's newspapers called for convictions before the trial even began. And not one Irish Catholic was selected for jury duty.

On "The Day of the Rope," June 21, 1877, six convicted Molly Maguires were hanged in Pottsville, PA while four more were hanged at the old jail in Mauch Chunk -- under what some described as a carnival atmosphere. Among them, Alexander Campbell, who left a legendary handprint that can still be viewed today in cell 17 of the Mauch Chunk Jail -- his last declaration of innocence before being taken to the gallows. Nearly 120 years later, in 1994, a mock trial held in the very same courthouse acquitted him.

In all, twenty men would hang from the gallows in Pottsville and at the Mauch Chunk jail. It seemed proving a man a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish social organization, was enough for the often non-English speaking Pennsylvania Dutch juries to find a man guilty. And the presiding judge was more than happy to see them hang.

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