A Violent Interlude
The anthracite mine workers’ first union, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, failed; its leaders’ superficial diagnosis of the industry’s sickness made any resuscitation unlikely. More important, the union had failed to take into account the parochialism of the mine workers, their ethnic and occupational prejudices, even though during its brief life the W.B.A. provided some means whereby the mine workers could attack their problems. With the collapse of the union, however, came a vacuum marked by violence.
Violence was not new in the anthracite regions. The high accident rate in the mines was the best example of the cheapness of life. The constant influx of foreigners produced tensions which broke normal institutional restraints. Shorn of restraints, the mine workers vented their frustrations through the use of terror. Many immigrants, it must be remembered, brought with them a heritage of violence. In South Wales a terrorist group known as the “Scotch Cattle” had functioned during the depression years of 1832 and 1842-45.1 But the Irish Catholics were the most experienced in terrorism.
The Irish Catholic peasant led a miserable life in Ireland. Poor and harassed by an absentee landlord’s agent, he often faced eviction. The threat became more pressing after the Napoleonic Wars as English landlords, themselves pursued by creditors, turned from grain cultivation to the more lucrative raising of livestock. If the evicted Irishman sought redress in the courts he found that the law favored the landowner. Denied legal relief he thus resorted to direct action through a secret society.
Secret societies and direct action had had a long history in Ireland. One group, the “White Boys,” gained notoriety during the 1760s by fighting enclosures. In Ulster the “Hearts of Oak” imitated the White Boys. In the early nineteenth century a new secret society, the “Threshers,” fought the tithe collector. Trials and hangings drove most of the Threshers underground, but they soon reappeared as the “Ribbonmen,” in a conspiracy that flourished between 1810 and 1820.
In Ireland in the 1840s a new name—Molly Maguire—became well known between County Clare in the south and Counties Donegal and Tyrone in the north. Judging from the long history and wide range of secret terrorist societies in Ireland, it is reasonable to assume that Irish immigrants to the anthracite fields of Pennsylvania had knowledge of, and perhaps had even participated in such groups. And the terrorist group best known to the immigrants was the Molly Maguires.
In the anthracite fields the Irish immigrant was faced with a situation similar to that in the old country. An often absentee landlord, in this case the mine operator, enjoyed the privilege of arbitrary eviction. He exploited his employees with the ruthlessness of the old landlord’s agent. Protestant Welsh, Scotch, and English miners maintained a monopoly over the more lucrative positions inside the productive system. The Irish immigrant responded in the old-fashioned way by invoking the familiar name of Molly Maguire.
A flurry of violence had been released in the anthracite regions during the Civil War. At a public meeting at Audenried in July 1862, John Kehoe, an Irishman and anti-war Democrat, allowed his political passions to overrule his reason and spat upon the American flag. F.W. Langdon, a mine foreman denounced Kehoe and his friends. Kehoe responded by threatening to kill Langdon. Later that day an unidentified person or group of persons attacked Langdon while he was alone and stoned him. Langdon died the next day.
Opposition to conscription also produced violence. In August 1862 some miners stopped a Harrisburg-bound train loaded with recruits and sent the (unwilling) draftees home. To avoid a confrontation (for political reasons) the federal government accepted bogus affidavits attesting that Cass Township, Schuylkill County, where draft opposition was greatest, had filled its draft quota with enlistments.2 The second murder in Audenried occurred on November 6, 1863, when a mob broke into the home of George K. Smith, a mine operator, and killed him. Apparently Smith had incurred the wrath of the miners by giving a draft officer a list of his employees.
Violence engendered by war passions became a crime wave in the two southern regions. In 1867 the Miners’ Journal reported that between 1863 and March 16, 1867, there were 52 murders in Schuylkill County. Moreover, in the period between January 1, 1867 and March 16, 1867 there were six murderous assaults and 27 robberies. The crime rate in the other counties did not increase so dramatically, but there is evidence that a terrorist gang or gangs operated in Schuylkill and Lehigh regions.
Law enforcement agencies were unable to cope with the terrorism. Whenever the police arrested a suspect, alibis were produced to free the alleged criminal. The ease with which the alibis appeared convinced many that a single and secret society perpetrated all violent acts.
Everyone “knew” the secret society’s identity. Knowledge of the Molly Maguire’s existence in Ireland and a popular belief that the Irish were behind the crime wave led many to conclude that the Irish terrorist organization was active in the anthracite fields.3 Benjamin Bannan, editor of the Miners’ Journal, circulated such a story in the 1850s. According to Bannan the Democratic party controlled the secret society for its own political purposes.4 By 1864 the name Molly Maguire had gained such wide circulation that James F. Wood, Archbishop of the Philadelphia Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, condemned the terrorist group by name in a pastoral letter.
Widespread violence and the equally widespread notion of a secret society called the Molly Maguires forced the popular equation of the two. In the resulting milieu there was an excellent outlet for pent-up frustration. It is easy to conceive of a person who, denied institutional outlets, found an outlet for his anger by evoking the Mollies. It was simple: one sent an anonymous note emblazoned with a pistol or coffin and promising vengeance on the recipient. Superintendents and foremen were the most likely targets in the anthracite regions. Men in managerial positions throughout the nation received similar warnings, but only in the Schuylkill and Lehigh anthracite regions did popular opinion make the receipt of a “coffin notice” a fearful experience. The number of “coffin notices” sent to managerial personnel was sufficient to complete a relationship in which violence equaled Molly Maguires and Molly Maguires equaled labor unions.
Calmer minds, however, could not grant the equation of the Molly Maguires and organized labor. The amount of violence actually declined during the period of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association’s greatest strength. John Eltringman, state mine inspector in Schuylkill County, noted the correspondence of this decline with the union’s advent, and reported that under the W.B.A. the region became “remarkably settled.”5 Mine operators agreed; testifying before the State Senate Committee on the Judiciary General, William Kendrick, the president of the Anthracite Board of Trade, remarked that the W.B.A. prevented crime by controlling “a very bad element.”6 The local newspapers praised the union for destroying “the reign of terror and outlawry that existed here a few years since.”7 A contemporary attorney and writer, F.P. Dewees, sought a connection between the union and the terrorist groups, but admitted that such a charge “is believed to be without foundation.”8
But one important man—Franklin B. Gowen—disagreed. Serving as Schuylkill County’s district attorney during the peak of the Civil War terrorism, Gowen failed to secure a single conviction.9 Gowen had blamed his failure on a secret society. When the W.B.A. brought his actions as a railroad president under legislative scrutiny (see Chapter 8), Gowen identified the secret society which tarnished his legal record with the union. Appearing before the Committee on the Judiciary General, he drew attention to the union’s goal of maintaining wages and prices, and explained its methods of reaching that goal: “In order to accomplish this object in 1869 they [the union] issued an order, from which there is no appeal. The man who appeals from that order must go down into the tomb.”10 A secret society fulfilled the alternative to obedience:
I do not charge this Workingmen’s Benevolent Association with it, but I say there is an association which votes in the secret, at night, that men’s lives shall be taken, and that they shall be shot before their wives, murdered in cold blood, for daring to work against the order . . . I do not blame this association, but I blame another association for doing it; and it happens that the only men who are shot are the men who dare to disobey the mandates of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association.”11
Gowen, as befitting his position, mingled bellicosity with caution. In his mind the Molly Maguires were the labor union, but he had no supporting evidence. Renewed turbulence, however, would give Gowen an opportunity to corroborate his theory with facts.
Violence erupted again in the coal regions after the W.B.A. began to disintegrate. Concerned about the mounting crime wave, Benjamin Franklin, Philadelphia superintendent of Alan Pinkerton’s national detective agency, sent agents already hired by the Philadelphia and Reading into the coal fields. The detectives reported the existence of a group of rowdies known as the Molly Maguires in the vicinity of Glen Carbon. When Franklin sent this information to Gowen, and the outbreaks of violence continued, Gowen and Pinkerton met and decided on an investigation of the Molly Maguires.
Pinkerton took care in selecting his agent, James McParlan, for the case. McParlan, born in Ireland, had emigrated to the United States in 1867, where he first worked as a store clerk and then became a “preventive policeman” of a small Chicago detective agency. In 1871 he joined the Pinkerton force.
Before assigning McParlan to the actual case Pinkerton asked that he produce a research paper on secret societies in Ireland. McParlan’s paper demonstrated a fair knowledge of the “Ribbonmen,” whom he identified as the Molly Maguires. He further noted that the Molly Maguires later “adopted a new name which was called the Ancient Order of Hibernians.”12 Obviously McParlan entered the investigation with preconceived notions as to the villains’ identity.
In October 1873 McParlan left Philadelphia for the anthracite regions. Disguised as a tramp and calling himself James McKenna, McParlan disembarked at Port Clinton and proceeded to the western end of the southern basin. A brief tour of the mining towns of Swatara, Tremont, and Donaldson yielded nothing but rumors that Mollies flourished in the Mahanoy Valley. Emptyhanded, McParlan returned to Philadelphia for further instructions.
The new modus operandi called for McParlan to return to the coal fields and establish a base at Pottsville. In Pottsville he became acquainted with Patrick Dormer, proprietor of the Sheridan House and, rumor held, a leader of the Molly Maguires. Ingratiating himself with Dormer by demonstrating his dancing, drinking, and fighting abilities, McParlan carefully built his cover story. He was, the detective informed the gullible Dormer, a fugitive from justice, an active counterfeiter, and once a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. When challenged on the latter claim, he escaped exposure by feigning a drunken stupor. While at the Sheridan House, McParlan met reputed Mollies from Mahanoy Valley, the most important of whom was Michael Lawler.
“Muff” Lawler kept a tavern in Shenandoah and was a Body-master in the A.O.H. When Lawler invited McParlan to visit him in Shenandoah, McParlan gladly accepted. He remained there for more than a year.
McParlan’s travels through the coal regions were enlightening. On March 25, 1874 he reported his first case of violence—the fatal shooting of a man named Lanahan in Centralia. But Lanahan, a Molly Maguire, had been killed by another terrorist group called the “Chain Gang.”13 Also known as the “Sheet Irons,” the Chain Gang consisted of renegade Mollies, “Young Irish Americans,” and “Kilkenny men.”14 Thus not one but at least two secret societies existed in the coal region. Moreover, the violence appeared to be the result of intra-ethnic feuding rather than a labor union’s attempt to insure total obedience to its dictums.
But a connection between the dreaded Molly Maguires and organized labor might still be drawn. The detective reported that “Muff” Lawler was on strike. When McParlan expressed a desire to rejoin the A.O.H., Lawler told him that if he could get a job he would have no difficulty attaining membership. Following Lawler’s advice, McParlan found work in a mine. On his first day of work a man named Mullany demanded that McParlan show his W.B.A. traveling card. McParlan explained that he had just begun mining, and Mullany told him he would have to join the union if he wished to keep his job.
While McParlan was learning that the W.B.A. maintained a closed shop, other Pinkerton detectives—P.M. Cummings, William McCowan, “W.R.H.,” and H.B. Hanmore—infiltrated the union. Whether the detectives functioned as labor spies or sought a connection between the W.B.A. and the Mollies is unknown, but P.M. Cummings, a member of the Saint Clair District Board and soon to be elected vice president of the local, reported that Thomas R. Nash, once secretary of the local, was serving a prison term for killing his stepfather, who allegedly was a Molly Maguire, and Nash’s brother kept a house of ill-repute in Philadelphia.
There was little evidence that the labor union and the terrorist group were connected. If Gowen persisted in his belief that they were, McParlan punctured the belief by telling Gowen that the W.B.A. expelled known criminals. A case simply could not be made against the union as a fomenter of crime. Nevertheless, violence, which continued to occur in the coal region, could be the work of a secret society.
McParlan had begun his investigation firmly convinced of the existence of the Molly Maguires and of their connection with the Ancient Order of Hibernians. Through Lawler’s efforts the Shenandoah lodge initiated the detective into the A.O.H. McParlan found the Order to be anything but a center for terrorism; at his first meeting only seven members attended, the treasury was empty, and the members grudgingly paid their dues. Traveling now as an insider, McParlan learned the names of the various Body-masters throughout Schuylkill County, reporting them to Philadelphia.
McParlan soon uncovered the relationship between the A.O.H. and violence in the coal region. Members presented grievances to the Body-master, who appointed the necessary men to redress the injury, all without the knowledge of the lodge as a whole. The actual terrorist group was an inner circle of A.O.H. Body-masters, and McParlan went after them.
But the next Molly Maguire murder did not follow the previous pattern. In Mahanoy City a group of Welsh and Protestant Germans known as the “Modocs,” organized a fire company. The Irish had their own fire company too. Both companies answered calls from the town’s central district, usually engaging in a fight in the course of duty. On October 31, 1874 a fire broke out in the center of town, whereupon the two companies indulged in the usual brawl. During the fight George Major, the chief burgess, tried to restore order, with disastrous consequences; he shot a dog and someone shot him. As Major fell he fired twice at his assailant. An Irishman named Daniel Dougherty was found shot in the head (it was apparently a glancing blow, which left a bullet in Dougherty’s head but did not kill him). Dougherty was arrested and identified by the dying Major as the man who had shot him.
Feelings ran high both for and against the accused man. Dougherty was a member of the A.O.H., which came to his aid. Firmly believing in Dougherty’s innocence, the Order raised a defense fund, while the Miners’ Journal, thinking of the Molly Maguires, urged a hanging. Dougherty’s defense received a change of venue to Lebanon. At the trial the defense dramatically removed the bullet from Dougherty’s head in the courtroom and showed that it had not been fired from Major’s gun.15 Dougherty was found not guilty.
The killing of Major touched off an explosion of violence. During November there were beatings and more fires. In December Franklin B. Gowen forced the “long strike” on the W.B.A. (it is noteworthy that the union’s destruction came about after the period of violence in Schuylkill County).
As the institutionalized methods of response failed, the frustrated men turned to direct action. Vandalism against the Philadelphia and Reading increased, and “coffin notices” gained wide circulation. Gowen next ordered P.&R. field officers to forward reports of all incidents to him. Gowen presented the reports as “A List of Outrages” to a joint committee of the Pennsylvania legislature which investigated the Reading during the summer.16 The wily railroad president succeeded where his detectives had failed: by implication he again linked the W.B.A. with the Molly Maguires.
While Gowen attacked the union McParlan uncovered plans for another Molly murder. Although acquitted, Daniel Dougherty remained guilty in the eyes of Major’s friends. One evening two men shot at Dougherty and two bullets pierced his clothing. Dougherty identified the men as Jess Major, George Major’s brother, and William M. (“Bully Bill”) Thomas. The Molly Maguires agreed that their “brother,” Dougherty, would not enjoy peace while Major and Thomas lived. Jack Kehoe, Schuylkill County Delegate of the A.O.H., appointed McParlan, who was now a de facto leader of the Shenandoah lodge, to engineer the murder of Thomas.
Obediently, McParlan, a member in good standing in the A.O.H., notified members of a meeting. At the meeting, Thomas Hurley, Michael Doyle, and John Gibbons volunteered to go to Mahanoy City to eliminate Thomas. The three men invited McParlan to join them, and he agreed. In Mahanoy City McParlan convinced the others that they should postpone their task because of the troops sent there to maintain peace during the strike.
After his return to Shenandoah McParlan became ill, using his illness as an excuse for not participating in the job. But the project was postponed and on the night of June 27 McParlan met Hurley, Gibbons, Doyle, John Morris, and Frank McAndrew and learned that an attempt on Thomas’s life would take place the following day. McParlan, however, did not tell anyone. On the morning of the 28th Doyle met McParlan and took him to Ringtown Mountain where they joined Morris, Hurley, and Gibbons. There the excited men told the undercover agent that they had killed “Bully Bill” Thomas.17
One week later Benjamin Yost, a policeman at Tamaqua, was murdered. Extinguishing the street lights was part of Yost’s duties. He was shot as he mounted the ladder to put out the last light. Due to Yost’s adverse relations with James Kerrigan, Body-master of A.O.H.’s Tamaqua lodge, popular consensus attributed the murder to the Molly Maguires. Kerrigan had been arrested several times by Yost and at least once the policeman used his club on Kerrigan. On the night of his death Yost and his fellow officer, Barney McCarran, stopped for a drink at James Carroll’s tavern, reputedly a Molly Maguire rendezvous, and joined Kerrigan at the bar. While there the officers noticed two strangers whom Yost before he died identified as his assailants. But both Yost and McCarran cleared Kerrigan of the shooting.
Yost’s murder created a popular outcry. An enraged populace organized a citizens’ committee which went to Philadelphia and talked to Benjamin Franklin. The committee left with assurances that the Pinkerton Agency would assign an unannounced operative to the case—McParlan naturally. His reputation as the toughest of the Mollies preceding him, McParlan went to Tamaqua where he learned the facts from fellow Mollies. Kerrigan had sought revenge for a beating Yost gave him during the summer of 1874, and he enlisted James Roarity, Body-master at Coaldale. Roarity agreed to help Kerrigan kill Yost, but soon dragged his feet. When Kerrigan pressed him, Roarity finally offered two men, Hugh McGehan and James Boyle, if the Tamaqua lodge would return the favor with the murder of John P. Jones, a Lansford mine boss.
Kerrigan agreed. Hugh McGehan and James Boyle appeared in Tamaqua on the evening of Yost’s murder. The host Body-master showed the two assassins an escape route and planted them where they could get a clear shot at Yost. Kerrigan then returned to Carroll’s bar, where he joined Yost in his last drink.18
Later Kerrigan approached McParlan for help in fulfilling the obligation to Roarity. Nothing came of it. The A.O.H.’s County Convention discussed the issue, but came to no decision. The proposed murder of Jones, however, became intertwined with the projected murder of a mine boss named Reese. Some members of the Shenandoah lodge wanted Reese eliminated. Frank McAndrews, the Body-master, decided the job could be done safely only with an exchange of personnel. At a lodge meeting he proposed that the Shenandoah group fulfill Kerrigan’s deal; in return the Tamaqua lodge would supply Reese’s murderers. The Body-master appointed John McGrail, Mike Darcy, and Thomas Munley as Jones’s assassins, and instructed McParlan to go to Tamaqua and seal the bargain with Kerrigan.
McParlan and two of the others (McGrail was unable to go) went to Tamaqua but could not find Kerrigan. Munley and Darcy returned home, and McParlan sought his Pinkerton contact, Robert J. Linden, whose cover was captain in the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Police. Unable to find Linden, McParlan wrote a long report to Benjamin Franklin, the most interesting aspect of which was McParlan’s interpretation of the relation between the W.B.A.’s destruction and the renewed outbreak of violence. At one point he congratulated himself: “Now you can see yourself how this is, and what I predicted—at the time of the suspension—that if the Union would fail there would be rough times.” McParlan later became more explicit: “there was very little killing a doing whilst [the] Union stood, but now it is quite the reverse.”19
McParlan discovered later why he did not find Kerrigan. At Carroll’s tavern he was told that Kerrigan had made his own plans to kill Jones. The next day Kerrigan put his plan into operation. Two strangers approached Jones as he mounted the steps of the Lansford train station and shot him. Unfortunately for the gunmen, a student named Samuel Beard returned to Tamaqua with the news, and someone remembered seeing Kerrigan with two strangers west of town. Taking a telescope to the Odd Fellows’ Cemetery which overlooked the valley, Beard and the other man spied Kerrigan and his friends enjoying a picnic lunch. Gathering a posse in Tamaqua they proceeded to the spot and arrested them.
The trial went badly for Kerrigan and his accomplices. The prosecution, strengthened by the services of General Charles Albright, attorney for the Lehigh-Wilkes-Barre Coal Company, F.W. Hughes of the Philadelphia and Reading, and Allen Craig of the Lehigh Valley, decided to try Doyle first. The prosecution built its case on circumstantial evidence supplied by 200 witnesses. Anticipating every move by the adversary, the prosecution successfully stymied the defense. Such anticipation did not stem from an astute knowledge of courtroom strategy, nor was it the result of clairvoyance. McParlan, as a high-ranking Molly, was privy to the defense’s plans, which he relayed to the prosecution. Finding themselves hopelessly outmatched, the defense did not call witnesses. On February 1, 1876, the jury returned a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.”20
During Doyle’s trial Kerrigan broke. Locked in solitary confinement, the Tamaqua Body-master became apprehensive and decided to save himself by turning informer. He called his Coal and Iron Police guard and confessed. The guard quickly notified Albright and Hughes, apparently overlooking the district attorney in his excitement. The prisoner repeated his confession before Albright and Hughes. The confession contained the principal outlines of McParlan’s reports of the plans to kill Jones and their relation to the Yost murder. Now the authorities could bring that case to trial.
A telegram to Philadelphia brought Benjamin Franklin to the coal regions. Franklin and Linden formed a posse and arrested Carroll, Duffy, Roarity, McGehan, and Boyle. The arrests created a flurry of rumors. Fearing that others involved would leave the area, Coal and Iron Police rounded up additional Mollies. Since Kerrigan did not know the men arrested by the second posse, the Molly Maguires suspected the existence of a second informer.
About a week after the arrests, McParlan learned that some Mollies considered him a traitor. Frank McAndrew later told McParlan that some Mollies were placing bets on his being a detective and that Jack Kehoe warned the group to beware of McParlan. McParlan demanded and got a trial before the County Convention to confront the county delegate at his home in Girardville. While there McParlan talked to Father Daniel O’Conner, who, according to Kehoe, had informed Kehoe of the detective’s true identity. Leaving O’Conner, McParlan went by train to Pottsville; from there he left the coal regions only to return as the prosecution’s star witness at the “Great Molly Maguire Trials.”
The trial of Edward Kelly for the murder of John P. Jones proceeded admirably for the Commonwealth. The prosecution felt that their case against Kelly was so strong they did not need Kerrigan’s confession. They were right; the jury found Kelly guilty of first-degree murder, and the judge sentenced him to be hanged. Attention then focused on Schuylkill County.
As in Carbon County, the district attorney, George Kaercher, had ample assistance. Guy E. Farquhar, a prominent local lawyer, joined the prosecution, and completing the team was no less a light than Franklin B. Gowen. Thus armed, the Commonwealth tried the Yost murder case.
On the first day of the trial District Attorney Kaercher announced that the prosecution would present as its key witness James McParlan, a Pinkerton detective, alias James McKenna. On May 6, 1876 McParlan took the stand and repeated his earlier reports. On the second day of McParlan’s testimony the prosecution shifted the court’s attention to the A.O.H., or Molly Maguires, instead of the defendants. Despite the defense’s objections, the prosecution was successful. In the afternoon, Gowen had McParlan recite the A.O.H.’s ritual and organization. Finally McParlan gave the most damaging testimony when he stated that the Order had only one objective, that of protecting and avenging its members.
The trials had successfully taken a new turn. Now an entire secret society, the same secret order which had so terrorized the coal regions during the Civil War, was to be tried. To dramatize the connection, General Albright appeared in court wearing his old military uniform. If the jury was unable to grasp the uniform’s symbolism, Gowen would not hesitate to draw the direct line. When, during one of the trials the defense tried to portray McParlan as an agent provocateur, Gowen objected, drawing attention to the murders of George K. Smith in 1863, David Muir in 1865, and others during the great crime wave.21
The effect was startling. The public had always thought that a secret society was responsible for coal region violence; now Gowen and others confirmed the belief. But still there was no direct evidence linking the secret society so active during the Civil War and the order the coal companies had uncovered. John Kehoe’s trial for the murder of F.W. Langdon in 1862 was the missing link. Langdon, it will be remembered, was killed after an encounter with Kehoe. At the time, Kehoe was believed guilty, but there was so little evidence that the case was dropped without coming to trial. Fourteen years later witnesses suddenly appeared. Kehoe and four others were indicted for the 1862 crime. Two men, Neil Dougherty and John Campbell, were found guilty of second degree murder; the other two, Columbus and Michael McGee, were declared innocent. Kehoe alone faced a first degree murder indictment. Despite conflicting testimony on both sides, the jury found him guilty and the judge sentenced him to hang. Kehoe’s trial completed the circle—the county delegate of 1875 had committed the first Molly murder in 1862!
The last trial took place in Columbia County. Daniel Kelly, a self-confessed perjurer, promised to turn state’s evidence against Patrick Hester, a widely celebrated “Molly” at Locust Gap, for robbing and murdering Alexander Rea in 1868. The state arrested Patrick Hester, Peter McHugh, and Patrick Tully for the crime and convicted them on Kelly’s uncorroborated testimony.
The Molly Maguire investigation and trials ended with the eventual execution of 20 men, but the meaning of the episode is still open to interpretation. McParlan undoubtedly uncovered a relatively small group of desperadoes operating in the eastern end of the southern basin. But he also discovered the existence of other terrorist groups. Indeed, the first murder he reported was that of a Molly Maguire by the “Chain Gang”; McParlan feared a gang war would break out between the two organizations. The Pinkerton detective knew and reported the existence of three underworld organizations, but unfortunately he brought only one—the Molly Maguires—to trial.
This selectivity is puzzling. McParlan went to the coal regions believing that the Molly Maguires, alias the Ancient Order of Hibernians, was the only Irish secret society operating there. Perhaps he lost his objectivity and conveniently forgot the Modocs and the “Chain Gang,” an oversight also convenient for his employer, Franklin B. Gowen.
Gowen sought to identify the mine workers’ first union, the Molly Maguires, as a secret terrorist group. Not known beyond their immediate locale, neither the Modocs nor the Chain Gang could be that. But the Molly Maguires had had wide notoriety since the Civil War. Moreover, the arrest and conviction of the Molly Maguires would vindicate Gowen’s failure as district attorney of Schuylkill County.
The trials reflected Gowen’s needs. The trial of an entire terrorist group rather than a few offenders gave credibility to his earlier charges of a secret society, and, as already noted, Kehoe’s trial provided the necessary connection between the two crime waves. The same logic was the basis of Hester’s arrest. Prior to his apprehension and indictment the Molly Maguires were thought to be geographically restricted, but during the trial of the Locust Gap Hibernian the Mollies took on the image of an organization encompassing the entire Schuylkill region. At Hester’s trial F.W. Hughes, the Philadelphia and Reading attorney on loan to the state, sought to impress upon the jury that they were trying the same terrorist group that had been tried in Mauch Chunk and Pottsville: “I want you men of Columbia County to help in this movement that has become a necessity for life in the coal regions of Pennsylvania, to help exterminate this hellborn organization, and send it back to the Prince of Darkness whence it came.”22
Gowen also used the trials as a rostrum for his opinions. His implying of a connection between the W.B.A. and the Molly Maguires allowed Martin L’Velle for the defense to describe the trials as an antiunion attack. During the trial Gowen paused to repair his tattered reputation by remembering his disappointments as district attorney and announcing: “I made up my mind that if human ingenuity, if long suffering and patient care, and toil that stopped at no obstacle, and would confront every danger, could succeed in exposing this secret organization to light of day and bringing to well earned justice the perpetrators of these awful crimes, I would undertake the task.”23 Seen in this light, the Molly Maguire episode becomes a story of Gowen’s personal success rather than a tale of justice triumphing over evil.
But the episode had much wider ramifications than one man’s success or failure. The hanging of 20 men in the southern anthracite regions proclaimed a new order—the corporation-dominated society. By beating down labor in 1875, the corporation provided what neither labor union nor state seemed capable of providing: protection from and prosecution of criminals and terrorists. F, P. Dewees signaled the corporation’s new role:
To counteract the influence of terrorism the efforts of the civil authorities, backed with the money, the power, and the influence of the Lehigh and Wilkes-barre [sic] Coal Company, were evoked; and as the assassination of Yost had been perpetrated by men from Carbon County in consideration of the murder of Jones, the cost of their prosecution was also assumed by the company.24
If the Molly Maguire episode represented corporation dominance to the anthracite regions in general, it represented something more ominous for labor. Gowen successfully tarred labor with the name of terrorism. Many people would henceforth not only equate with terrorism any response of labor to industry problems, but would see labor itself as the source of terrorism—as terrorism itself. Indeed, within a year the Molly Maguires were being used as justification for the shooting down of mine workers in the street.
Wages plunged as the depression deepened during 1877. In July the monthly pay of employees of the Pennsylvania Coal Company averaged $30. John Mucklow, a contract miner in Taylorsville, reported that he received only 63 cents for each car of coal he sent to the top.25 Dissatisfaction over low wages smoldered until the great railroad strikes fanned it into an open flame.
The railroad strikes of 1877 began early in July on the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad after the company announced a reduction in wages. The strike quickly spread to the other major lines and on July 23 reached the Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western Railroad. From the D.L.&W. the strike spread to the other roads serving the Wyoming and Lehigh regions. Since coal could not be transported, the mines shut down.
Thrown out of work, the mine workers decided to press their claims for higher wages by refusing to return to work when the railroad strike was over. On July 25 the D.L.&W. miners demanded a 25 percent pay increase. The Lackawanna Coal and Iron Company miners joined the strike the next day. The Lehigh men walked out with the railroaders, and the miners in the Shamokin area also struck. As would be expected, the railroad strikes of 1877 created a series of uncoordinated and violent coal strikes.
With violence enveloping the anthracite regions in 1877, memories of the Molly Maguires were revived. Furthermore, the railroad and coal strikes began just as the Pittsburgh riot ended.26 Shocked by the attack on private property which this riot represented, the middle class citizenry of the anthracite regions determined that their towns would not become other Pittsburghs. Their fear and determination quickly became a volatile mixture requiring only the smallest spark to burst into violence.
The first explosion occurred in Shamokin. During the evening of July 25 vandals broke into and looted the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad station. An armed group of townspeople fired a volley at the looters, killing one person and wounding several others.27 After the shooting two vigilante committees patrolled the streets for two weeks.28
There was also a vigilante committee, nominally directed by the mayor, in Scranton. Feeling that the city’s ten-man police force was inadequate, Mayor Robert H. McKune had asked the city council to create an emergency force to protect Scranton during the crisis. The council rejected McKune’s request. McKune then appointed an advisory committee of seven citizens who agreed to raise a special police force.
Unknown to the mayor, there was already an incipient private police force. McKune received most of his support from workingmen, “and hence held a questionable position in the confidence of the great mass of law-abiding citizens.” Believing that “when civil authority is overcome and defied, the honest citizen is a law unto himself,” the skeptical citizens secretly formed a “Citizens’ Corps,” which met at the Forest and Stream Sportman’s Club.29 After the appointment of the advisory committee, the Citizens’ Corps placed itself at McKune’s disposal.
Although deputized as the mayor’s Special Police Force, there was little doubt as to who had inspired the vigilante committee. The Special Police Force met and trained in a room over the Lackawanna Coal and Iron Company’s store, the same company which provided nearly all of the Special Force’s weapons and ammunition. The L.C.&I. went even further by furnishing 30 of the 46 special policemen. It was inevitable, then, that W.W. Scranton, general superintendent of the company, should take command of the special force when the expected trouble came.
At a mass meeting on August 1 the Scranton strikers decided to enlist new recruits in their cause. Marching in a body, they had some success at the silk mill and at the L.C.&I.’s blast furnaces, and were heading for the Dickson Manufacturing Company when they encountered the mayor. McKune stepped into the street to stop the crowd, but was seized and wounded. Suddenly the Special Police, commanded by W.W. Scranton, appeared.
Scranton was not averse to violence; he wanted a confrontation with labor. On the eve of the riot, commenting on the possibility of troops being sent into the city, Scranton had said: “I trust when the troops come—if they ever get here—that we may have a conflict, in which the mob shall be completely worsted. In no other way will the thing end with any security for property in the future.”30 The troops did not arrive in time, and Scranton ordered his Special Police “to shoot low, and to shoot to kill if they shot at all.”31 Scranton’s men did just that; they fired into the crowd, killing six and wounding 54.
Immediately after this incident 5,000 members of the Pennsylvania National Guard were sent to Scranton from Harrisburg. The Guard entered the coal regions with a great display of power. A crew with a Gatling gun preceded the trains, while skirmishers surrounded the town of Plymouth, arresting everyone in sight. Despite the miners’ request that the troops be withdrawn, the Guard, now partially relieved by the United States Army, occupied the area for the duration of the strike.
The strike continued, spreading despite the presence of troops. In mid-August the Hazleton men walked out, making the strike in the Lehigh region complete. The Schuylkill region, however, remained on the job. There had been some hope that the Schuylkill men would join the effort in early August when the miners around Shenandoah met to discuss the strike. But the Philadelphia and Reading miners refused to sanction any strike call. Meeting again on August 10, the Shenandoah men voted against the strike.
Not discouraged, the northern mine workers continued their strike. By September events apparently had vindicated them. The Hazleton men returned to work with a promise that wages would be restored when coal prices increased. Employees of independent mine operators near Wilkes-Barre won a restoration of their wages. The Lehigh Valley Railroad at first refused to haul coal from the reopened mines, but public protest forced the railroad to move the coal.
With the smaller operators surrendering, employees of the large corporations felt they could safely open negotiations. A committee of miners from the Delaware and Hudson; Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western; and Pennsylvania Coal Companies went to New York to confer with the companies’ presidents. The initial efforts of the committee failed—the presidents of the Delaware and Hudson and Pennsylvania Coal refused to see them. The committee was finally received two days later, but during the ensuing conference the corporation heads announced that the depression would not allow them to grant a wage increase.
The committee returned home, where the strikers greeted their report with mixed emotions. The Delaware, Lackawanna, and Western men voted 1,262 to 144 to continue the strike. The Delaware and Hudson mine workers also refused to work. But the Pennsylvania Coal Company employees could not sustain the strike and returned to work.
The Wyoming-Lackawanna miners supported their strike by a variety of methods. Some sought work in the Schuylkill region. The strikers also canvassed the southernmost region for relief funds. After the Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre miners had returned to work they contributed to the strike fund. But the support was not enough; in October the Pittston relief committee could distribute only 14 ounces of flour, a half-bushel of potatoes, and four pounds of fish per week per family. “Hundreds of families are suffering the pangs of hunger,” reported the British Consul.32 Faced with starvation, the miners capitulated.
The trial of the Scranton Special Police provided an epilogue to the 1877 strikes. A coroner’s inquest determined that the deaths of the riot victims were the result of murder, and ordered the arrest of the Citizens’ Corps. In the trial the jury returned a verdict of not guilty.33 Some historians have questioned the verdict, but the Pennsylvania legislature agreed with it:
Too much praise cannot be awarded the mayor and citizens’ special police force of Scranton for the admirable organization they created, and for the prompt and vigorous measures taken when the emergency arrived. Had the action of the City Council been approved and its advice taken, no special force would have been raised, or had there been timidity among them when called out, Scranton would, no doubt, have suffered as badly as did Pittsburgh; for nowhere in the State was there a harder set of men than at Scranton and vicinity, many of the Molly Maguires, driven out of Schuylkill County, having gathered in and about that city, besides the scores of other hard cases who had been there for years.34
The verdict of not guilty in the Scranton vigilante trial may be interpreted as the guilty verdict in the Molly Maguire cases was—as a personal success story. W.W. Scranton and Franklin B. Gowen took advantage of violence to achieve their own ends. But this, of course, does not explain the presence of violence in the first place.
The violence is understandable only in terms of an institutional breakdown. The economic collapse of 1873 forced wages down at the same time the weakening of the W.B.A. left the mine workers with no reasonable means of protesting poor working conditions or low pay. Denied these means, the miners turned to direct, violent action. Superficially poles apart, the Molly Maguire episode and the Scranton riot reflected the institutional vacuum.
The mine workers quickly learned that in a violent confrontation management commanded overwhelming power. The Molly Maguire episode resulted in the Coal and Iron Police becoming the most effective law agency in the area. Vigilante action in both the Molly Maguire episode and the strikes of 1877 demonstrated that recourse to terrorism sent local businessmen into the operators’ corner. Finally, the use of the National Guard to protect private property showed that the state was aligned with management. Thus outgunned, the mine workers again turned to the idea of a union to resolve their problems.