21st June 1877  the Molly Maguires’ Day of the Rope

The Molly Maguires march to their death

The Molly Maguires march to their death

On 21st June 1877, in the anthracite-mining county of Schuylkill, Pennsylvania, ten Irish immigrant men alleged to have been members of an oath-bound secret sect of vigilantes called the Molly Maguires were hanged in what came to be known as “The Day of the Rope”. Twenty members of the group in all would be executed, following a kangaroo court that American historian John Elliot called “one of the most disgraceful episodes in the history of the bench and bar in the United States.” Oppression, exploitation, racial and ethnic bigotry, strikes and union-busting are common enough themes in the American labour movement. But the story of the Molly Maguires and the ruling class’s attempts to destroy these Irish workers is so especially contemptible it has achieved legendary status. Did the so-called Molly Maguires – said to be part of the Ancient Order of Hibernians – even exist?

Molly Maguire might have been a real woman or she may have been a myth. Whatever the truth, she served as an Irish talisman against agrarian oppression in 1840s Ireland. In the wake of famine and land seizures, her symbolic spirit was relocated to the United States – along with two million Irish emigrants. But for these new hopefuls in the land of opportunity, “Irish Need Not Apply” regularly appeared alongside “Help Wanted” ads. For many, the only option was the brutal coalmines of Pennsylvania. The conditions were perilous, the pay pitiful. Workers lived in homes owned by the mining companies, forced to buy all their supplies from company-owned shops at inflated prices, leaving them in debt and enslaved to their employers.

In spite of hazardous conditions that regularly led to death tolls in the hundreds, the mining industry fiercely resisted unionisation. In 1874–1875, after Pennsylvanian coal-miners went on strike, the Molly Maguires allegedly began sabotaging mining equipment and facilities – detonating bombs along rail lines, roads and bridges so that mine owners couldn’t bring in replacement workers. The ruling class called it terrorism, others called it resistance. Industrial leader Franklin B. Gowen called in the notorious Pinkerton Detective Agency, who hired an Irish American to infiltrate the miners. Over the course of two years, James McParlan  – under the alias James McKenna – befriended the Irish community, all the while gathering the evidence that would eventually hang twenty men.

The trials – conducted in an atmosphere of religious and social bigotry fuelled by the national press – were a travesty of justice, and a surrender of state sovereignity. The defendants were arrested by the private police force of Franklin B. Gowen, the same industrial magnate who’d financed the Pinkerton operation. They were convicted on the evidence of an agent provocateur, supplemented by the confessions of several informers who turned state’s evidence to save their own necks. Defense witnesses were blacklisted, evicted from their homes, cut off at the company store and in some cases imprisoned. Catholics were barred from the Jury, while many of the selected jurors were so anti-Irish that they pre-determined a guilty verdict. Most of the prosecuting attorneys worked for the railroads and mining companies. And Franklin B. Gowen himself appeared as the star prosecutor at several trials – his courtroom speeches rushed into print as popular pamphlets. Even by nineteenth-century standards, the arrests, trials, and executions were flagrant in their abuse of judicial procedure and their flaunting of corporate power. Yet only a handful of dissenting voices were to be heard, chiefly those of labour radicals. The Philadelphia Public Ledger encapsulated the national feeling when it previewed Black Thursday as a “day of deliverance from as awful a despotism of banded murderers as the world has ever seen in any age.”

Following the executions, nothing more was heard of the Molly Maguires. No admission of vigilantism was ever offered from the Irish American coal-mining community and, if the Molly Maguires ever existed, they left no evidence of themselves. The only accounts were written by those with hostile interests.

Thirteen years after the Day of the Rope, the unions prevailed and the United Mine Workers was created. Unable to cope with the prospect of treating workers well, Franklin Gowen committed suicide. Several years later, evidence surfaced that suggested Gowen had been behind many of the acts of sabotage attributed to the Molly Maguires. In 1979, a posthumous pardon was granted for the Mollies, with Governor Milton Shapp denouncing Gowen’s “fervent desire to wipe out any signs of resistance in the coal fields.”

All Pennsylvanians, he said, should pay tribute to “these martyred men of labor.”

This entry was posted in Atrocities, Dissent. Bookmark the permalink.

19 Responses to 21st June 1877 – the Molly Maguires’ Day of the Rope

  1. MICHELEPESSUTO says:

    Muy bueno este recuerdo de mártires, que no se hace la mínima mención en el estudio de la historia en las escuelas: es hora (es tarde) que salgan a la luz estos crímenes de la humanidad para ver si se pueden frenar los actuales crímenes de guerra, de trata de personas, de comercio de droga y de cualquier otra adicción (tabaco, jugo de azar…)

  2. zmariusz berowski says:

    This disgraceful episode brings to my mind the dreary reality of the 1870s (much further west though) so evocatively depicted in the masterpiece of pop-culture historical fiction – Deadwood…

  3. tjj says:

    A brilliant piece of historical writing – thank you!

    • Enrique says:

      Conan-Doyle in his Valley of Fear told also this story from the point of view of the mine owning magnates making the union men, as Dorian pointed, look like terrorists. Great blog.

  4. Pingback: On the cusp of a revolution | The "Great" American Novel: 1900-1965

  5. Robert McGinley says:

    I am related to one of the Molly Maguire’s Edward Kelly. He was my Grandmother’s great uncle. She lived in Ashland, Pa. and her name was Gertrude Kelly until she married a McGinley.

    • Kay Keating says:

      Good morning,
      I am also a relative to Edward Kelly on my mother’s side of the family. He was about a 1st cousin 4x removed (I think). I have Edward as the grandson of Mike Kelly (the immigrant Kelly) of Parish Kilconnell, Co. Galway, Ireland about 1840. Contact me if you’d like to compare information on the Kellys.
      Kathryn Kelley Keating
      kay.keating@gmail.com

  6. Ann Bridget Eddy says:

    I am a relative of Dennis Bucky Donnelly, he was my great grandmothers brother, my name is Bridget, I was named after my great grandma…..Her name was Bridget Donnelly Tierney. LONG LIVE IRELAND……..EMERALD!!!

  7. THANKS TO THE SACRIFICE OF THESE MEN AND MANY OTHERS SUCH AS THEM IN THE EARLY LABOR MOVEMENT WE ALL REAP THE BENEFITS OF A LIVABLE WAGE,MEDICAL BENEFITS,WEEKEND’S OFF, EIGHT HOUR WORK DAY,VACATION,PENSION,AND THE PRIDE THAT COMES WITH BEING ABLE TO TAKE CARE OF YOUR FAMILY. SOLIDARITY FOREVER…

  8. Ann Bridget Eddy says:

    MAY THEY REST IN PEACE.

    • Joe 'HAP' Anthony says:

      my great great grandfather ‘s best man at his wedding was alexander campbello
      of jim thorpe. they were maried at st. joseph’s church, summit hillh

  9. John "Duke" Wayne says:

    Great piece. It’s hard to even imagine the hardships they had to endure back then with all the luxury’s we have today and having a choice to what career path we want in life today. I am proud to say that my great grandfather jack kehoe did not die in vain and so much has come from his death along with the other men that were hung with him. My uncle Joseph Wayne fought hard to get that pardon from Governor Shapp and from what I was told it was the last thing the Governor did before leaving office because of fear of any repercussions for doing so. Even in 1979. Which is hard to imagine but I guess people that were powerful back then still maybe even today.

  10. Ron Krause says:

    I always felt John Kehoe and the guys were railroaded by the coal agency. The railroads, the coal owners, the doctors and lawyers of the coal regions always kept the coal areas suppressed. After the hangings, their stranglehold kept out unions, progress, and maintained such a hold on the Anthracite area that it remained a depressed area even to this day. Towns like Tamaqua never became areas where the young wanted to live and stay.

  11. Frank says:

    It is not quite accurate to say the Mollies disappeared after the trrials and hangings.
    I’ve known people who lived in the coal fields who verified the “spirit” of the Mollies lasted many years after the executions. I believe, after much reading and speaking with these older folks, that Gowan, MacParlan & Co. concocted the Molly Maguires to validate their persecution of the miners who were pushing for better conditions. What they didn’t expect was their myth taking on a life of its own and lasting well into the early 1900s.

  12. oliver o neill says:

    was a great film i saw years back , the molly mcguires , with sean connery. anyone rem.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.