243 – Molly Maguires

The mine workers lived under the complete control of the coal companies. It was a relationship much like the oppression from English landlords they had suffered in Ireland.

Working conditions in the mines were controlled by the owners, and they were terrible. Child labor was exploited. Injury meant menial future employment or none at all. If a worker died, his body was delivered to the family house. No further ado.

Renting a company house and buying at the company store often created permanent indebtedness.

Company guards kept strict order, administering justice as accuser, enforcer, judge, and jury.

Retributive justice

Occasionally the workers tried to organize to air their grievances, but the mine owners put down these attempts with force.

In response, some Irish mine workers committed disruptive or violent acts against those they blamed for their oppression. They operated in secret, administering revenge and “justice” to mine bosses, ranging from beatings to murder. The perpetrators considered it “retributive justice.”

Retributive justice is a theory of punishment that when an offender breaks the law, justice requires that they suffer in return, and that the response to a crime is proportional to the offence.

Retributive Justice – Wikipedia

Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, was an area rife with violence. Between 1861 and 1875, a series of violent assaults, arsons and murders was blamed on a secret society of Irish immigrants known as the Molly Maguires.

Who Were the Molly Maguires – history.com

Molly Maguire origins

The Molly Maguires had origins in northwest Ireland, particularly in west Donegal.

In the 1840s, the Mollies in Ireland were among other groups that rebelled against landlords and other authorities. Other groups were named the Ribbonmen, Whiteboys, etc. Whiteboys, or Whitefeet, operated in Kilkenny.

We’ve seen how landlords in Ireland “squared” the countryside by eliminating the Rundale system, leaving families without land for succession. We’ve seen how families were evicted and their houses taken down. Sometimes, there would be retribution, the violence or beating or killing of a landlord’s agent or other authority.

The violent acts came to be blamed on the Molly Maguires. Some say the perpetrators struck at night, dressed in women’s clothing to avoid identification. Others say the movement began after a woman name Molly Maguire was wronged by her landlord.

The Molly Maguires followed the Irish immigrants to the anthracite coal fields of Pennsylvania.

Other gangs

The Mollies were the most infamous of the secret vigilantes. But there were others. They organized around their Irish clans and counties. Recall that there was distrust between those from Donegal and those from Kilkenny.

In Jackson Patch lived several Kilkenny Irishmen, who belonged to a gang known as the Sheet Iron Gang. Between these men and the Mollies a deadly feud existed, and collisions were not infrequent. On one occasion the Sheet Iron men beat some Mollies in Mahanoy City.

National Police Gazette – October 5, 1876

The Mollies decided to take revenge. They planned to burn the houses of the Kilkenny men and shoot them as they tried to escape. Deborah Large Fox’s grandparents Richard and Teresa Large lived in Jackson’s Patch at that time. Richard worked in the mines.

Fortunately, the plan didn’t come to fruition.

Ancient Order of Hibernians

The Ancient Order of Hibernians is America’s oldest Irish Catholic Fraternal Organization founded concurrently in the coal-mining region of Pennsylvania and New York City in May,1836. The Order can trace its roots back to a series of similar societies that existed in Ireland for more than 300 years

Ancient Order of Hibernians

There were numerous fraternal organizations of Irish, both in Ireland and America. In 1836, groups from New York and Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania merged their organizations, and in 1838 changed their name to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). It became, and still is, the leading fraternal organization for Irish Catholics.

Some claim the Molly Maguires were a secret sect of the AOH. While the AOH is a respectable association to this day, the truth about the Molly Maguires is still unknown and debated.

Was Patrick Gallagher a member of the AOH? Many of the Irish Catholic mine workers were members of the Hibernians, so perhaps Patrick was too.

Interestingly, a half-century later in 1906, our ancestor Will Riley in Sedalia organized and was president of the Pettis County, Missouri chapter of the AOH.

A plan to eliminate the Mollies

James McParlan

In 1873, the Reading Railroad and the coal mine operators began a campaign to eliminate the Mollies. They hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency.

James McParlan, a Pinkerton detective and an Irish Catholic, set out to infiltrate the Molly Maguires. He took on the persona of James McKenna. Over two years, McKenna became an entrusted member of the secret organization.

In 1876, based on McParlan’s evidence, charges were brought for crimes dating back fifteen years. Dozens went to trial for murders and assaults.

The trials were a sham. The juries were all protestant and non-Irish. The defense lawyers were no match for the railroad’s lawyers.

Dozens of men were convicted. Many went to jail, and over twenty men were hanged.

A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency; a private police force arrested the alleged offenders; the coal company attorneys prosecuted them. The state only provided the courtroom and hangman.

The Molly Maguires Historical Marker

Was Patrick Gallagher a member of the Molly Maguires? We don’t know. His name isn’t on McParlan’s list of several hundred. But there wasn’t any formal membership or initiation or identification for Mollies.

Jack Kehoe

Jack Kehoe

One of the most sensational trials was that of John “Jack” Kehoe, the alleged “King of the Mollies.” The trial opened on August 8, 1876. Kehoe and seven co-defendants were found guilty and sentenced to seven years in prison.

Jack Kehoe had immigrated to Schuylkill County with his family in 1849. He, like his father, became a miner. Kehoe met and married Mary Ann O’Donnell, a native of Gweedore, Donegal. In 1970, Kehoe quit the mines and opened Hibernian House, an inn and tavern in Girardville. He became a respected businessman, local constable, and active in local politics.

For the railroad and coal operators, imprisoning Kehoe was not enough. He went to trial again in1877, was accused of the murder of Frank Langdon in 1862, fifteen years earlier. He was convicted and sentenced to death.

Jack Kehoe was hanged the week before Christmas 1878. He was buried in St. Jerome’s Cemetery in Tamaqua.

Kehoe’s death left his widow Mary Ann and five daughters and Hibernian House. Mary Ann continued to operate the inn, and passed it down to her daughter. Hibernian House is still open today, run by Jack Kehoe’s descendants.

Hibernian House – 1880 and today

In 1979, a hundred years after his death, Jack Kehoe received a posthumous pardon from Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp.

Molly Maguires helped save Eckley

In an ironic twist, the Molly Maguires were instrumental in Eckley’s survival.

The Molly Maguires entered popular culture via the 1970 movie “The Molly Maguires”, starring Sean Connery.

The movie location

The film’s art director, Tambi Larsen began scouring Pennsylvania for possible locations. According to the Huntingdon Daily News, Larsen selected Eckley and “its one street lined with dreary buildings” after having toured 700 miles of Schuylkill, Carbon and Luzerne counties.

Coal Patch, Take Two: The Preservation of Eckley Miners’ Village

Eckley had another advantage. The entire town was owned by George Huss, so the movie lease negotiations were with only one entity. Huss had acquired the town and land and intended to make an open pit strip mine.

Eckley was chosen as the movie location.

Larsen and his team set about restoring the town to its 19th century looks. Telephone and electrical lines were run underground. TV antennas were removed. Shrubs and landscaping were removed. Any paving was covered with dirt and then a layer of coal dust.

Twenty buildings were added for the studio’s makeup, storage, production office, etc.

The 86 residents of the town were reimbursed six months’ rent, and each was promised a part in the movie.

The movie

Sean Connery played Jack Kehoe, the “King of the Mollies.” Samantha Eggar played Kehoe’s wife Mary Ann. Richard Harris played James McParlan, the Pinkerton detective.

Sean Connery, on Eckley’s Main Street
Connery and Eggar in the Catholic Church of Immaculate Conception. Could be Patrick and Ellen Gallagher
Connery and Harris in front of Eckley breaker
Connery and Harris on set

Eckley to the State of Pennsylvania

Inspired by the movie studio’s plans for Eckley, citizens of Hazleton and Luzerne County began to raise money to purchase and protect Eckley. They formed the Anthracite Historic Site and Museum Corporation, a nonprofit corporation that could raise funds to preserve the historic town.

In 1969 the corporation announced that it had arranged to buy the 73-acre town and its buildings from the strip mine operator for $100,000. The corporation raised $61,000 from local residents’ donations and another $25,000 from Paramount. The studio also provided the final $14,000 based on anticipated profits from the film.

On April 8, 1970, two months after The Molly Maguires premiered, the corporation presented Eckley to the state in exchange for a token payment of $1.

Coal Patch, Take Two: The Preservation of Eckley Miners’ Village

The Eckley Miners’ Village is administered by the Pennsylvania Heritage and Museum Commission. http://eckleyminersvillage.com/

We’re lucky

It’s rare to be able to see where and how our grandparents lived in the mid-19th century. In all our genealogical travels, Eckley is unique.


One thought on “243 – Molly Maguires

  1. deborahlargefox0764 October 20, 2022 / 10:52 am

    Well-done post, especially since the Molly Maguire era is still controversial to this day. And, you are so right about how lucky we are to have Eckley preserved. I have been there several times, and each visit is special. I walk along the road and think how blessed I am to be truly walking in my ancestors’ footsteps. Thanks again for your wonderful blog.


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