On June 21, 1877, in Schuylkill County, Pa., 10 Irish immigrants
were hanged for terrorism and murder in the region's coalfields.
According to the prosecution, the men were members of a secret
organization, the Molly Maguires. Before they were hanged, the
condemned men swore their loyalty to the Catholic Church.
Soon, another 10 men would be executed. The Chicago Tribune
editorialized, history "affords no more striking illustration
of the terrible power for evil of a secret, oath-bound organization
controlled by murderers and assassins than the awful record of
crime committed by the Molly Maguires in the anthracite-coal region
of Pennsylvania." A Philadelphia newspaper expressed thanks
at the "deliverance from as awful a despotism of banded murderers
as the world has ever seen in any age."
Violence in the coalfields began during the Civil War and grew
in intensity during the 1870s. Altogether, about 24 mine foremen
and superintendents had been murdered in Pennsylvania's mining
district. In 1873, Pinkerton's, a private detective agency, reported
rumors about the existence of "the 'Molly Maguires,"
a band of roughs joined together for the purpose of instituting
revenge against anyone whom they may have taken a dislike."
The Reading Railroad, which controlled mining in the region, hired
Pinkerton's to investigate. For two-and-a-half years, a Pinkerton
detective, an Irish Catholic immigrant named James McParlan, worked
undercover in the coalfields and later testified against the 20
accused men. The trial itself was a mockery of judicial process,
with coal company attorneys prosecuted the case in court.
Apparently, a scattering of Irish immigrant coal miners did
engage in violence in the coal fields, though a majority of the
men executed as assassins were probably innocent of the murder
charges. The Mollies were apparently modeled after impoverished
Catholic farmers in West Donegal County Ireland who disguised
themselves wearing women's clothes who staged nocturnal raids
against Protestant landowners. According to one tale, Molly Maguire
was a woman who wore pistols strapped to her thighs and led bands
of men through the countryside.
Alarm over the Molly Maguires helped mine operators crush the
miners' union, the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, eliminating
unions from the coal field for many years. Fear of the Mollies
also led Catholic bishops to excommunicate any Catholic who remained
a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a fraternal order
to which some violent Irish miners belonged.
In 1979, Pennsylvania's governor issued a posthumous pardon
to John Kehoe, the last of the accused Mollies to be hanged.
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