Molly Maguires

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Molly Maguires

United States 1860-1879


Every movement has its legends, and none is more compelling or controversial in the American labor movement than the group of rough, preliterate Irish immigrants known as the Molly Maguires. Nineteen members of the group were hanged in all—10 of them on the "Day of the Rope," 21 June 1877. Their deeds and even their very existence have become the stuff of legend. The stories of the Molly Maguires merge unionism; acts of individual resistance and vengeance; cultural, political and religious organization; union-busting; and ethnic frictions against the desolate background of the Pennsylvania mining camps to create a complex and dramatic narrative that provokes controversy to the present day.


  • 1861: Within weeks of Abraham Lincoln's inauguration, the U.S. Civil War begins with the shelling of Fort Sumter. Six states secede from the Union, joining South Carolina to form the Confederate States of America (later joined by four other states) and electing Jefferson Davis as president. The first major battle of the war, at Bull Run or Manassas in Virginia, is a Confederate victory.
  • 1862: Victor Hugo's Les Misérables depicts injustices in French society, and Ivan Turgenev's Fathers and Sons introduces the term nihilism.
  • 1863: World's first subway opens, in London.
  • 1864: International Red Cross in Geneva is established.
  • 1865: Civil War ends with the surrender of General Robert E. Lee to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox, Virginia. More than 600,000 men have died, and the South is in ruins, but the Union has been restored. A few weeks after the Confederate surrender, John Wilkes Booth shoots President Lincoln while the latter attends a performance at Ford's Theater in Washington. Andrew Johnson is sworn is as president.
  • 1868: Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which grants civil rights to African Americans, is ratified.
  • 1871: Boss Tweed corruption scandal in New York City.
  • 1873: Financial panic begins in Vienna, and soon spreads to other European financial centers, as well as to the United States.
  • 1874: As farm wages in Britain plummet, agricultural workers go on strike.
  • 1876: General George Armstrong Custer and 264 soldiers are killed by the Sioux at the Little Big Horn River.
  • 1876: Alexander Graham Bell introduces the telephone.

Event and Its Context

The invention in 1833 by Frederick W. Geisenheimer of a process for smelting iron with anthracite coal created an enormous demand for coal in the central counties of Pennsylvania. Coal production increased from one million tons in 1840 to 8.5 million tons in 1859. Combined with terrible famines and land seizures in Ireland, this circumstance created a wave of immigration. Two million Irish families, most of whom were from Donegal in the west of Ireland, came to the United States, and tens of thousands of the new immigrants settled in the coal counties. These immigrants brought with them a tradition of rebellion and organization into secret groups such as the White-boys and Ribbonmen, who protected the Irish tenant farmers from English landlords. A mythical Irish woman, Molly Maguire, was counted among those protectors of the downtrodden masses.

Conditions for these "papes," as the Irish immigrants were called, were desperate. In the mines, the Welsh and British performed the skilled mining work, which left the Irish with the hard, dangerous, and low-paid work of hauling the coal to the surface or sorting out the slag. In one period, 566 mine workers lost their lives in the mines. In Schuylkill County, near Pottsville, Pennsylvania, one-quarter of the workforce was children aged 7 to 16, mainly "breaker boys" who picked rock from the coal. The pit bosses were also British or Welsh; their ethnic slurs characterized the Irish as drunken, lazy, and superstitious and contributed to tensions in the coal fields.

The Irish mine workers lived in "patches," or small mining towns, and were paid in "bobtail check," or mine scrip, which could only be spent at the "pluck-me" stores. The workers' lives centered on two major foci: the Catholic Church parishes throughout the coal counties, and bodies of a cultural group called the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) that were started by the workers and that were later alleged to be a concealment for "the terrorist activities of the Molly Maguires."

The principal representative of the mine owners was Franklin B. Gowen, who, on behalf of investors (many of whom were English), was consolidating an empire that included both railroads and coal mines. Gowen came to the coal counties in 1856 as the manager of a mine in Centralia and later bought a small mine. When the mine went bankrupt, Gowen blamed the rising tide of unionism for driving out the small operators.

In 1862 the Civil War increased the demand for coal and decreased the miners available for the work. This spawned both another surge of immigration from Ireland and the first discussion by Gowen, the district attorney for Schuylkill County, of "a secret body of Irishmen" that he held were responsible for the unsolved murders of 17 men, 11 of them mine, or pit, bosses who had fired miners.

In a typical episode, a dispute arose on 14 June 1862, in Audenreid, Pennsylvania, during a celebration to raise more volunteers for the war effort. Frank Langdon, a pit boss often accused by the miners of shortweighting them, had a public dispute with a young miner named John Kehoe. Later that night, Langdon was stoned to death by "persons unknown." On 18 December 1878 the miner, then called "Black Jack" Kehoe and reputedly the head of the Molly Maguires, was hanged in Pottsville for Langdon's death.

Under pressure from Gowen, the Pennsylvania state legislature passed a most remarkable law. The Act of 27 February 1865, which Gowen himself wrote, was a reaction to Gowen's complaints that public officials were not protecting the property and interests of the mine operators. This law authorized the formation of private police forces, allowed the armed Coal and Iron Police to patrol the coal fields, and suspended constitutional guarantees. A deputy commission for the Pennsylvania Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in 1874 that the coal operators had created "absolute personal government in the midst of a republic."

A great concern was the organization in the coalfields of unions in the mines and on the Pennsylvania Railroad. The defeat of the Workingman's Benevolent Association (WBA) in the strike of 1870 and the subsequent Long Strike of 1875 were accompanied by waves of violence in which mines were dynamited and stores were burned. The lurid myth of "the avenging Mollies" spread.

On 1 September 1869 Gowen became president of the Reading Railroad, retaining his elected position as district attorney. He worked to control the coal fields by creating an association of operators called the Anthracite Board of Trade, which managed both the rates charged for coal and the wages paid to miners. The antiunion zeal of this board was so severe that Gowen doubled the freight rates for any mine operator who bargained with the WBA.

In the midst of the Panic of 1873—in which the country endured an economic crash followed by a severe depression—Gowen moved in another direction to wreck the organizations of the Irish miners. He confirmed with Allen Pinkerton, head of the Pinkerton Detective agency, a contract that would place dozens of "labor spies" in the coal fields. Pinkerton's agency was virtually bankrupt so this new line of work seemed both promising and enormously profitable, as Gowen paid an alleged $100,000.

Gowen and Pinkerton tried to place a tone of social improvement on this deal. According to Pinkerton, Gowen wanted "laboring men, of whatever creeds or nationalities, protected in their right to work to secure sustenance for their wives and little ones, unawed by outside influences."

The most famous—or infamous—spy and agent provocateur provided by the Pinkerton agency was another Irish immigrant named James McParlan. Adopting the pseudonym of James McKenna, he moved in January 1874 to Shenandoah, Pennsylvania, and rented a room from a miner named Michael "Muff" Lawler who was later to become a prosecution witness against the Molly Maguires. He also began to go out with a woman named Molly Malloy, the sister-in-law of James "Powder Keg" Kerrigan, who also became a public witness against the Molly Maguires in the trials of 1877. With an unlimited expense account provided by the Pinkerton agency and a boisterous personality, McParlan became immediately popular among the men. He was sworn in as a member of the AOH on 14 April 1874 by Alexander Campbell, who would be hanged on 21 June 1877 as a result of McParlan's testimony. Even though he was elected secretary of an AOH body, McParlan had great difficulty for several years finding any proof of the existence or activities of the Molly Maguires, a failure that threatened his income and the solvency of the Pinkerton Agency. Under pressure from Gowen after the Long Strike of 1875, however, McParlan miraculously discovered a series of "murderous plots."

In fact, violence became a characteristic of the coal field. The operators and their Coal and Iron Police were brutal to the miners, who responded with individual acts of retribution. The miners had brought from Ireland the practice of sending "coffin notices" to warn possible targets to leave the area. Sensationalistic and vindictive newspaper reports also contributed to the historical record. The Daily Herald in Shenandoah cried for vigilante actions and "lamp post elevation" against "these foreigners who come to this country and undertake to tamper with our free institutions."

The Catholic Church also announced its opposition to the Molly Maguires. Although some local priests supported the AOH, Bishop Wood, a close personal friend of Frederick Gowen, stated in The Catholic Standard on 17 October 1874, "The Molly Maguires is a society rendered infamous by its treachery and deeds of blood—the terror or every neighborhood in which it existed … the disgrace of Irishmen … the scandal of the Catholic Church."

According to McParlan's testimony, members of the Mollies protected their identities by trading executions with other chapters. The targets of these executions were coal company managers who had committed offenses such as firing and blacklisting of employees.

The most prominent individual murders involved a Tamaqua policeman named Benjamin Yost, who was allegedly targeted for arresting and beating a miner named Thomas Duffy. Yost was shot in Tamaqua as he extinguished a streetlight on 5 July 1875. Duffy, James Boyle, James Carroll, and Hugh McGehan, all members of the AOH body in Shenandoah, were hanged on 21 June 1877.

Alleged as an exchange for the murder of Yost, mine superintendent James P. Jones was also killed on 3 September 1875, for firing and blacklisting McGehan. After shooting Jones on a main street, Kerrigan and two compatriots were captured by a posse and jailed in Mauch Chunk. Kerrigan's betrayal of his friends at their trial led to the first capital conviction of a Molly Maguire, and both were hanged on 21 June 1877.

Another important assassination involved the murders of Thomas Sanger, a superintendent of a nonunion mine, and William Uren, a young Welsh miner, as they walked to work on 3 September 1875. For this crime, McParlan pointed to James Doyle, Tom Munley, Charles McAllister, and two brothers, Charles and James O'Donnell, who lived in a small area called Wiggans Patch. As an example of the conditions faced by the Irish miners, an armed vigilante mob assassinated Charles O'Donnell, his daughter, and young son, on 9 December 1875 near their house in Wiggans Patch. No one was ever arrested for this crime.

The inexorable "legal" attack on the Molly Maguires began on 18 January 1876, with the trial of Michael J. Doyle for the murder of James P. Jones. This trial, established a pattern for the series of show trials that would ultimately convict and sentence to death more than 20 miners. The commonwealth "borrowed" Franklin Gowen to serve as prosecutor and installed a jury of German-American citizens, who had difficulty understanding the testimony. More important, Gowen convinced "Powder Keg" Kerrigan to testify against his friends in exchange for mercy.

Doyle's immediate conviction on 1 February 1876 allowed Gowen to issue an additional 17 murder warrants for the murders of Yost, Sanger, and Uren. Kerrigan helpfully provided a 210-page confession, but the real damage was done when McParlan appeared in court to "finger" the Mollies. In the trial in May for the murder of Yost, both Kerrigan and McParlan testified for the prosecution. MacParlan appeared in court surrounded by Pinkerton bodyguards and spent almost a full day detailing the inner workings of the Molly Maguires, creating a hysteria in the area.

The convictions continued in the same pattern. Despite witnesses who testified that the accused men were elsewhere, the juries—from which all Catholics were excluded—voted consistently to convict. Gowen even indicted Alex Campbell, whose tavern was allegedly used for planning meetings, as "an accessory before the fact" in the murder of John P. Jones. The subsequent conviction of Campbell, on the flimsiest of evidence, was considered a major blow to the organization.

The most prominent target for Gowen, however, was Jack Kehoe, who had risen from poor immigrant miner to prosperous tavern owner and elected politician. Identified by McParlan as the head of the Molly Maguires, Kehoe was first tried with eight other men for the June 1875 murder of a Welsh miner.

The trial opened on 8 August 1876 with Gowen as the prosecutor and a jury of German-Americans. The trial has been called "the most highly publicized of all the trials staged in the anthracite region." Once again, Gowen relied on a defendant, named Frank McHugh, to betray his fellows in exchange for mercy. Four days later, the jury required only 20 minutes to find all of the other defendants guilty. The sentence was seven years in prison.

Convicting Kehoe on a capital offense was Gowen's final desire, and the trial for the murder of Frank Langdon provided the opportunity. Even though all of the evidence was developed by the Coal and Iron Police, and no witness could place Kehoe at the scene of the beating, the jury convicted the "King of the Mollies" of first degree murder on 16 January 1877. Kehoe was sentenced to hang.

In January 1877, the annual report of the Reading Railroad gloated that "a landed estate of 250 square miles had to be taken from the control of an irresponsible trade-union and its inhabitants rescued from the domination of an oath-bound association of murderers."

Thursday, 21 June 1877, is known as "Black Thursday" or "Pennsylvania's Day of the Rope." On that day 10 of the convicted miners were hanged in a mass execution. Surrounded by weeping relatives, crowds of spectators under military guard, priests, newspaper reporters, and politicians, four men hanged in Mauch Chunk and six in Pottsville. As Alex Campbell was led from his cell, he pressed his hand to the wall of Cell 17; legend has it that his handprint is still visible as a sign of his innocence.

Subsequent executions stretched out over the next 19 months; following the denial of his handwritten appeal to Governor Hartranft, Jack Kehoe mounted the gallows in Pottsville on 18 December 1878.

Unionism suffered serious setbacks in the Pennsylvania coal fields, but ironically, Black Thursday was also when the strike against the B and O Railroad in Baltimore, the first national strike in the United States, gathered force.

The Mollies may have seemed a localized attack, but it was part of a well-coordinated campaign against unionism in the period following the Civil War. For decades, unions suffered the reputation of being descendants of the Molly Maguires as management and politicians attempted to discredit any workers' organization. Organizations that formed as secret bodies, such as the early Knights of Labor, also suffered from comparisons to the Molly Maguires. The Catholic Church, ever staunch in its condemnation of secret organizations, had become an enduring component of unionism. Terence V. Powderly, a Knights of Labor leader, devoted considerable efforts to enlist Cardinal James Gibbons to persuade the pope that the organization was legitimate and not a successor to the Molly Maguires.

The events of the coal fields also created the labor spy industry, which Pinkerton used to build his company back to prosperity. The most famous episode came during the Homestead Strike in 1892, when the Pinkertons were driven from the town. The Senate hearings, under the direction of Senator Robert La Follette in 1936, exposed the durability of the labor spy industry; in 1998 General Motors signed a $1.2 billion contract with the Pinkerton agency to provide plant security.

In many ways, the case of the Molly Maguires has never closed. For decades, their guilt was publicly accepted. When James McParlan returned to public view in 1906, however, and prepared a perjured witness named Harry Orchard in the trial of "Big Bill" Haywood, Charles Moyer, and George Pettibone for assassinating the governor of Idaho, all of McParlan's testimony in the Pennsylvania trials became suspect.

By the end of the twentieth century, the controversy over the Molly Maguires had come full circle. Under pressure from the grandchildren of John Kehoe, the Pennsylvania Board of Pardons issued a posthumous pardon for Kehoe in January 1979. Governor Milton Shapp joined the Pennsylvania Labor History to issue a tribute to the Molly Maguires. A Hollywood production company, filming The Molly Maguires with Sean Connery as Jack Kehoe, rebuilt part of a mining village in Eckley, Pennsylvania, which now offers—in a kind of "terrorism to tourism" circle—tours of the mining camp and a history of its inhabitants, the Molly Maguires.

Key Players

Gowen, Franklin Benjamin (1836-1889): In 1869 Gowen became the president of the Reading Railroad, which controlled more than 100,000 acres of coal country. After destroying the Molly Maguires, he drove the Reading into bankruptcy. On 13 December 1889 he committed suicide in a Washington, D.C., hotel room, although newspapers tried to prove that he had been assassinated by a supporter of the Molly Maguires.

Kehoe, John (1837-1878): Also known as "Black Jack,"Kehoe was born in County Wicklow, Ireland and emigrated to the United States with his parents and 10 siblings in 1849. He settled in Girardville as a politically ambitious "b'hoy" and ran a tavern called the Hibernia House. Elected high constable in the county and called "the King of the Mollies," Kehoe was tried for murder and hanged in December 1878. There are still divisions of the Ancient Order of Hibernians that are named for him.

McParlan, James (1844-1919): McParlan left County Armagh in 1860 and began to work for the Pinkerton Agency in 1873 to infiltrate the Molly Maguires. He continued working for the Pinkertons and became the head of the Denver office, then was involved in the Haywood-Moyer-Pettibone trial in Idaho. He died peacefully in Denver.

Pinkerton, Allen (1819-1884): Pinkerton developed the modern detective agency. After working as a deputy sheriff in Cook County, Illinois, he opened the agency in 1852 with the motto, "The Eye That Never Sleeps," which led competitors to describe themselves as "private eyes." He discovered a plot to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln and founded the Secret Service. With the help of seven ghost writers, he published 18 books on his agency, including one based upon James McParlan's reports. He retired from his agency in 1882 and died of a stroke on 1 July 1884.

See also: Homestead Lockout; Knights of Labor; Panic of 1873; Railroad Strike of 1877; Workingman's Benevolent Association.



Bimba, Anthony. The Molly Maguires. New York:International Publishers, 1970. Original work published 1932.

Broehl, Jr., Wayne G. The Molly Maguires. Cambridge, MA:1964.

Dewees, F. P. The Molly Maguires: The Origin, Growth and Character of the Organization. New York: B. Franklin, 1969. Original work published 1877.

Gutman, Herbert G. "Trouble on the Railroads, 1873-1874."In Work, Culture and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-class and Social History.New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

——. "Two Lockouts in Pennsylvania, 1873-1874." InWork, Culture and Society in Industrializing America: Essays in American Working-class and Social History.New York: Vintage Books, 1977.

Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Lens, Sidney. "The Molly Maguires." In Strikemakers and Strikebreakers. New York: Dutton, 1985.

Lewis, Arthur H. Lament for the Molly Maguires. New York:Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964.

Pinkerton, Alan. The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives.With a new introduction by John M. Elliott. New York: Dover, 1973. Original work published 1877.


Ancient Order of Hibernians in America. 2002 [cited 1August 2002]. <>.

Budget Technologies. "The Molly Maguires." 21 October2001 [cited 1 August 2002]. <>.

The Molly Maguires. Feature film directed by Martin Ritt.1970.

Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau. [cited 1 August 2002].<http://www.schuylkill.orgs>.

—Bill Barry

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MOLLY MAGUIRES. The Molly Maguires were a group of Irish mine workers who terrorized the anthracite region of Pennsylvania from about 1865 until a series of sensational murder trials between 1875 and 1877. The Molly Maguires was neither an ordered secret society nor a vast conspiracy. Rather, the workers engaged in sporadic collective violent protest characteristic of particular rural areas of Ireland from 1760 to 1850. In Ireland the protests were directed at landlords and their agents who disrupted traditional land use practices; in Pennsylvania the protests were directed at agents and conditions of industrial exploitation—the Welsh miners for whom the Irish worked, mine officials, the bob-tailed check (payment by means of goods from the overpriced company store instead of cash), and figures of local authority. The Molly Maguire protests included industrial sabotage, beatings, and assassinations. Violence directed against them included gang warfare, deployment of local militias and the National Guard during labor disputes, vigilante committees, and execution by hanging. The name Molly Maguires has become a bogeyman deployed in some efforts to demonize and suppress trade-union activism in the area.


Aurand, Harold W., and William Gudelunas. "The Mythical Qualities of Molly Maguire." Pennsylvania History 49 (1982): 91–105.

Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.


Cynthia R.Poe

See alsoCoal Mining and Organized Labor ; Irish Americans ; Labor ; Secret Societies .

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In 1854 Irish American coal miners in eastern Pennsylvania organized a secret society called the Molly Maguires to wage a campaign of violence against mine owners and operators. The name of the group came from a society in Ireland that used physical force to fight ruthless landlords. The miners were determined to defeat their oppressors at all costs. Their numbers grew and in the decade following the American Civil War (18611865) the Molly Maguires were active both as agitators and assassins. In 1875 the group incited a coal miners strike. The strike was broken by the detective work of Irish American James McParlan (18441919). McParlan was a Pinkerton guard hired by Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company to infiltrate the Molly Maguires. He revealed the identities of gunmen responsible for the deaths of nine mine company foremen. Several members of the secret society were arrested, tried, and convicted in 1876. They were hanged for their crimes in 1877.

U.S. sympathies for the plight of the miners were diminished by the headlines proclaiming the terrorist activities of the Molly Maguires. The society dissolved by 1877. Their presence however was long felt in the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania, where company police monitored activities in the mines and effectively intimidated many miners from organizing.

See also: Coal Industry, Pinkerton, United Mine Workers (UMW)

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Molly Maguires (məgwī´ərz), secret organization of Irish-Americans in the coal-mining districts of Pennsylvania. Its name came from a woman who led an extralegal, antilandlord organization in Ireland during the 1840s, and its membership was drawn from the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-American fraternal society. For several years, especially from c.1865 to 1875, the Molly Maguires dominated the mining industry of E Pennsylvania. The movement arose to combat the oppressive industrial and living conditions. Since the police and the forces for law and order were entirely controlled by the mine owners, the Molly Maguires often resorted to intimidating or murdering the police. Agents and superintendents were continually molested. The Mollies reached the height of their power c.1875, when they managed to organize a union in a region otherwise virtually unorganized and to call a strike. Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading RR, which had extensive mining interests, hired the Pinkerton agency to infiltrate the union, and the power of the Molly Maguires was finally broken by the spying activities of James McParlan, a Pinkerton detective. Ten of the Molly Maguires were hanged. McParlan's secret reports were released for study in 1947.

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Molly Maguires ★★½ 1970 (PG)

Dramatization based on a true story, concerns a group of miners called the Molly Maguires who resort to using terrorist tactics in their fight for better working conditions during the Pennsylvania Irish coal mining rebellion in the 1870s. During their reign of terror, the Mollies are infiltrated by a Pinkerton detective who they mistakenly believe is a new recruit. It has its moments but never fully succeeds. Returned less than 15% of its initial $11 million investment. 123m/C VHS, DVD . Sean Connery, Richard Harris, Samantha Eggar, Frank Finlay; D: Martin Ritt; W: Walter Bernstein; C: James Wong Howe; M: Henry Mancini.