Digital History

Industrialization and the Working Class

The Molly Maguires Previous Next
Digital History ID 3190



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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