Things were rough if you were Irish in the 19th century. The Great Potato Famine hit in the 1840s and approximately a million of people starved and a million more left home for what they hoped were greener pastures in America. What they found was a new level of poor.
For a nation of immigrants, we’re never very kind to the newly arrived. The Irish were met with prejudice and unopened arms. “Help wanted. No Irish” signs we a common sight in many cities. Many Irish migrated to the coal mines of Pennsylvania and West Virginia to find work. They took the most dangerous and demanding jobs for meager pay. They were forced to live in company housing, buy from the company store and go to company doctors. Most people owed money to the company on payday not the other way around. Something had to give.
By the 1860s, a secret society sprung up. Sometimes called the “White Boys”, the “Buckshots” or the “Sleepers”, they were commonly called the Molly Maguire. The name Molly Maguire came from a widow who headed a tenant protest in the 1840s. The group demanded better working conditions and when they weren’t met, murder followed. “Coffin notices” were served as death threats to mine supervisors and anyone else they felt weren’t doing what they should. The Civil War was raging at this time as well, and most of the miners felt it was “rich man’s war, poor man’s fight”. The miners rebelled harder and went on strike several times. The company tried to bring in scabs, and the scabs got “coffin notices” too.
They operated in utter secrecy and worked under the umbrella of “The Ancient Order of the Hibernians”. The AOH was a legal organization that had more members than the Freemasons. The Mollies were not above using intimidation and violence, and caused serious injury and death to anyone who stood against them.
The system was quite clever. Each village had its own “body”, with a hierarchy and “brethren”. If a brother had a problem with someone, the body would meet and discuss it. If it was decided a beating or murder was needed, the job was farmed out to Mollies from a different body. All the locals would make sure to have very visible alibis at the time of the incident. The perpetrators would fade into the woods and head home. Bodies would return favors for each other. The system worked for years.
By the 1870s, working conditions had still not improved despite the violence in the mines. There were many ugly incidents and a total of 24 mine supervisors were assassinated. The Mollies had gone too far.
In 1873, the president of the Reading Railroad, Franklin B. Gowin, got serious and brought in the Pinkerton Detective Agency. These guys did not play. Gowin was driven not by concern of loss of life but by the fact the union organizing was cutting into railroad profits. Swell guy.
The Pinkertons hired James McParlan, who lived and worked in the coal mines for two years and a half years gaining the community’s trust. Under the name James McKenna, he infiltrated the Molly Maguires observed their crimes then turned state’s evidence. Unbelievably, Franklin Gowin was the prosecuting attorney at the subsequent trials. I’m no lawyer, but that seems like a conflict of interest. Twenty men were found guilty, including Jack Kehoe, the “king” of the Molly Maguires. On June 21, 1877, ten of those men were hung. This went down as Black Thursday.
The Molly Maguires have been debated up to this day and seen by heroes of the labor movement to some and terrorists to others. One hundred years after his conviction and hanging, the state of Pennsylvania pardoned Jack Kehoe.
Sources available on request