The Molly Maguires - Trailblazers or Terrorists?
The Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania coal mining country helped bring pivotal changes in the attitudes of the average American toward labor unrest. Until the Civil War, many Americans had the complacent attitude that foreign agitators caused American labor unrest and that average workers should not protest long hours and low wages. The Molly Maguires helped change public attitudes and convince management that it had to change its labor relations style and attempt to meet the needs of workers to benefit everyone.
American historian James Ford Rhodes summed up the idea this way:
"We hugged the delusion that such social uprising belonged to Europe and had no reason of being in a free republic where there was plenty of room and an equal chance for all."
The Molly Maguires, Born of Desperation
The Molly Maguires formed as a secret society in Ireland in the 1840s to stop evictions by ruthless landlord's agents. They took their name from the custom of the members sometimes disguising themselves as women. The Mollies came to America with the major Irish immigration periods in the 1830s, 1840s, and 1850s. According to the 1860 census, over one and a half million Americans claimed to have been born in Ireland. The majority of the Irish immigrants settled in the North, and cities like Boston and New York sheltered enclaves of them.
Their fellow Americans did not readily accept the immigrant Irish. In the periods of severe economic difficulties before and after the Civil War, other Americas singled out the immigrant Irish as scapegoats. A familiar sign above the doors of factories, shops, warehouses, and farms read "No Irish Need Apply." Many Protestant Americans distrusted the Irish because they were Catholic, and there was much opposition in the United States to the Church of Rome.
Desperate Times Produced Desperate Measures
Irish Union veterans returning home in 1865 anticipated a hero's welcome. Their successful soldiering had made them feel a sense of worth and independence, but when they came home, they discovered that things had not changed much after all - economically or socially. Jobs were just as difficult to find, and the old prejudices lingered through generations.
During the Civil War twenty craft unions had been formed and by 1870, there were about thirty of them, each representing skilled workers. In 1866, William H. Sylvis founded the National Labor Union. It claimed a membership of 640,000 that included a variety of union and reform groups that had little ties with labor. After the panic of 1873, the National Labor Union disintegrated and disappeared.
The hard years of the 1870s brewed stormy times for the trade unions. The depression conditions weakened their bargaining power. They faced antagonistic employers eager to destroy them, and the mostly hostile public rejected labor's claim of job security. Several of the disputes turned out to be unusually bitter and violent- some labor's fault and some not. Private and public sentiment often blamed labor for all of it.
They Owed Their Souls to the Company Towns
Many Americans were shocked by the activities of the Mollie Maguires in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. Many miners in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania were shocked that so many Americans didn't know the harsh realities of a miner's life. John A. Fitch described these conditions in The Pittsburgh Survey, a multi- volume Progressive study of working class conditions in America. He traced the feudal system of community control that existed in the coal mines in Alabama, West Virginia, and certain districts in Pennsylvania. The land belonged to the company and the houses on the land belonged to the company.
The company owned the streets in the mining camp and the road leading in an out of the camp, Usually, a miner couldn't buy a house or land. The company had absolute control of a miner's life. Company guards charged with protecting company property patrolled the streets of the town. The guards were the only authority in the camp. They had a free hand to act as policemen, spies, union suppressor and agents for the company stores.
At many camps guards met strangers at the entrance and challenged them before they could enter. Fitch wrote, "And yet these camps are American towns! Many of the inhabitants are American citizens; but they cannot receive in their homes, whether as guests or for business purposes any except those approved tacitly or otherwise by a man of less than ordinary intelligence and more than ordinary brutality."
Workers Wrested A Painful Living
Laborers in late Nineteenth Century America for the most part felt that they were being denied a proper share of the fruits of their labors. They agitated for better hours and wages. In the 1860s, they began to agitate for the eight-hour day, but as late as 1900 about 70 percent of American industrial workers worked ten hours or more every day. Steel workers clocked a twelve-hour day and a seven-day week. Trainmen logged over seventy hours a week. Coal miners put in twelve hour days, seven days a week.
Wages didn't stack up any better. From the 1860s until after World War II, the annual average income of industrial workers was never more than $600, considerably below the money required for a decent standard of living. The treat of unemployment loomed constantly, and even people working rarely worked continuously throughout the year. The brutal conditions affected not only the miners, but their families as well.
In 1877, the Labor Standard described the breaker room in the Hickory Colliery (coal mine and its adjoining buildings) near St. Clair, Pennsylvania.
"In a little room in this big, black shed - a room not twenty feet square - forty boys are picking their lives away. The floor of the room is an inclined plane, and stream of coal pours constantly in. They work here, in this little black hole, all day and every day, trying to keep cool in summer, trying to keep warm in winter, picking away among the black coals, bending over till their little spines are curved, never saying a word all the livelong day.
“These little fellows go to work in this cold dreary room at seven o'clock in the morning and work till it is too dark to see any longer. For this they get $1 to $3 a week. Not three boys in this roomful could read or write. Shut in from everything that is pleasant, with no chance to learn, with no knowledge of what is going on about them, with nothing to do but work, grinding their little lives away in this dusty room, they are no more than the wire screens that separate the great lumps of coal from the small. They had no games; when their day's work is done they are too tired for that. They know nothing but the difference between slate and coal."
The boys in the coal breaker crouched over chutes hour after hour, picking out pieces of slate and other refuse from the coal as it rushed past to the washers. When a boy had worked for a time and began to get round shouldered, his fellow workers would say that "He's got his boy to carry round wherever he goes."
The hard coal caused cut, broken, or crushed fingers. Sometimes a boy got mangled and torn in the machinery or disappeared in the chute to turn up later, smothered and dead. The boys inhaled clouds of coal dust that filled the breakers, paving the way for asthma and miners' consumption. The boys worked for 10-12 hour stretches for sixty cents a day. When they were old enough, the boys graduated from the breakers to the depths of the mine, where they became door tenders, switch boys or mule drivers. At fourteen or fifteen they assumed the same risks as the men and faced the same perils.
Eastern Pennsylvania miners were angered by unsafe, unsanitary working conditions. They objected to unfair hiring practices and prejudice against Irish people. They modeled themselves after the Molly Maguires from Ireland and did whatever they thought necessary to balance things out and seek reform. Most of the time they acted out with strikes, petitions, and walkouts, but almost as often their actions took a violent turn, involving riots, arson and destruction of property.
Jack Keough and the Molly Maguires
Part of Jack Keough’s story is reported in a Wisconsin newspaper, the Oconomowoc Local. The newspaper story with an attitude calls him "The King of the Mollies and the guiltiest of all of the Mollie Maguires."
Jack Keough was a powerful man in the Pennsylvania coal regions in the 1870s. He kept a saloon at Girardville and held the office of high sheriff. As county delegate of the Schuylkill County Molly Maguires, he opened the meetings with prayer. Then when he had finished praying, "He immediately began to discuss the murder agenda for the week with his fellow Mollies."
The Oconomowoc Local, says that Jack Keough had been a member of the Molly Maguires for years and had been involved in violent deeds from the first. For years he had plotted the boldest crimes and discussed and settled the fate of many of his victims in his bar room. He appointed men to commit murders and loudly praised a man capable of doing a "clean job" - killing a victim with the first shot.
The years 1875-1876 were difficult for the Molly Maguires and many of them were arrested. Jack Keough, according to the newspaper story, felt secure. He had seen his men rob and misgovern townships. He had seen his candidate elected to the legislature and politicians had courted and bowed to him. He felt his power and "deemed it sufficient to keep him floating on the swift running tide which was bearing so many of his daring and desperate followers to destruction."
A story in the Brooklyn Eagle reported that after several of the Molly Maguires were hanged, Mrs. Campbell, the wife of one of the executed men, became the dominant force in the group. Another Brooklyn Eagle story revived the Molly Maguire Mystery of the Nathan murder and yet another 1884 story in the Eagle reported with a horrified tone that the murderous Molly Maguires were reviving, despite the heroic efforts of Detective James McParland of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago. McParland infiltrated the Molly Maguires and exposed the operations of the organizations murderous members.
Thanks in part to McParland’s efforts, Jack Keough and several of his followers were arrested for assault and battery with intent to kill William M. Thomas. His first trial took place on August 8, 1876, and just six days later he was tried for conspiracy to murder William and Jesse Major. He was convicted on both charges and sentenced to fourteen months in prison. From his prison cell, Jack watched a score of his friends go to their deaths. "He remained to brag of his power and mock at justice."
In November, 1876, Jack and five of his companions were indicted for murder. Still, Jack didn't worry. The Oconomowoc Local story said that he bragged to his jailor, "The old man at Harrisburg will never dare to go back on me. I shall never hang."
Presumably, Jack meant Pennsylvania Governor John F. Hartranft. Jack calmly awaited his trial, convinced he would be pardoned. This time, Jack had been indicted for the murder of Frank W.B. Langdon, a ticket boss at a coal mine in Andenreid. On the day of the murder, June 14, 1862, miners and their families had gathered at Andenreid to prepare for a Molly Maguire picnic on the Fourth of July. War fever ran high. During the day, in a moment of excitement, someone spit on the American flag.
Not many people liked Frank Langdon, so when he stood on the hotel steps and denounced the person who had defaced the flag, angry looks and mutterings stirred the crowd. Langdon's friends told him to go home and let the excitement die down, but he didn't take their advice. Around dusk, he left the hotel and traveled down the road a short distance. A mob followed, attacked him with sticks and stones, and left him for dead. Circumstantial evidence showed that Yellow Jack Donahue administered the death blow.
Jack Keough’s Legal Tribulations, Trials, and Execution
Over a decade later in 1876-1877, when Langdon’s murderers were indicted, Jack Keough chose to be tried separately. Testimony at his trial revealed that he had taken an active part in the murder. Jack was convicted of murder in the first degree and Yellow Jack Donahue was executed. Testimony at his trial also revealed that Jack Keough had criminal knowledge in a number of other murders in Schuylkill County. Jack’s lawyer fought for a new trial, but the full court refused his petition and the supreme court upheld its ruling.
In March 1877, a death warrant was issued against Jack Keough, but immediately withdrawn to give the Board of Pardons a chance to review the case. On April 5, 1877, the Board refused to interfere by a tie vote. The warrant was not reissued, and in September 1877, the Board was indicted to reconsider the case.
Jack Keough's lawyers welcomed this delay. If they could prolong the case until Governor Hartranft's term of office expired in January 1878, Jack would probably be safe, because gubernatorial etiquette would keep the new governor from signing the warrant. The Board of Pardons decided that the fate of Jack Keough remained in Governor Hartranft's hands. The case became a campaign issue. The Democrats charged that Hartranft was bound to save Kehoe's life in payment for the Mollie vote.
After the election was over, the new Pennsylvania Governor Henry M. Hoyt, wrote a letter to the State Attorney General. He said that he wished the Democrats to enjoy what political capital they could out of the case, expressed some doubt about Keough’s guilt, and asked for instructions. The Attorney General replied that according to law, the Governor must sign the death warrant. The Governor did so on November 18, 1878. Another witness was found for Keough to establish an alibi, but the Board of Pardons refused to interfere. On December 18, 1878, Jack Keough, King of the Molly Maguires, was hanged at Pottsville, Pa.
The Molly hanging attrition continued. Martin Bergin, Alexander B. Sayre, James McDonald and Charles Sharpe were sentenced to hang in January, 1879. The Molly executions began on June 21, 1877, when ten of them were "dropped into eternity" in one day. Altogether there were 21 convictions within three years. It seemed that the government had ruthlessly flattened the Molly Maguire movement.
Perhaps the Molly Maguires were "terrorists" as some history books and newspaper accounts contend, but they contributed to the determination of the ordinary coal miner to better his condition and to the national consciousness of laborers. The Mollies, often in spite of themselves, pioneered significant events in the labor movement in the last half of the Nineteenth Century.
Bimba, Anthony, The Molly Maguires. New York: International Publishers, 1970.
Broehl, Jr., Wayne G. The Molly Maguires, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1964.
Burke, William H., Anthracite Lads: A True Story of the Fabled Molly Maguires. Erie County Historical Society, 2005.
Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press (1998)
Foner, Phillip, A History of the Labor Movement in the United States (4 volumes). New York: International Publishers, 1947-1964.
Rhodes, James Ford. History of the United States of America, From the Compromise of 1850 to the McKinley-Bryan Campaign of 1896: Vol 8: 1877-1896 .New York: Macmillan, 1919. Chapter Two.