Historical Markers
Execution of Molly Maguires Historical Marker
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Execution of Molly Maguires

Philadelphia and its Countryside/Lehigh Valley


Marker Location:
Old Carbon County Jail, Broadway, Jim Thorpe

Dedication Date:
September 9, 2006

Behind the Marker

Gallows in Carbon County Prison in Mauch Chunk, PA, where four Molly Maguires...
On the wall of the old county jail in what was then markerMauch Chunk (today's Jim Thorpe), Pennsylvania, is a handprint that, according to folklore, was made by Alex Campbell, one of four members of an Irish labor organization called the Molly Maguires, executed on June 21, 1877. Insisting he was innocent, Campbell declared that "this is proof of my words. That mark will never be wiped out." And it never has.

Were the Mollies terrorists, working-class heroes, or something in between? To this day, the guilt of the twenty Mollies executed between 1877 and 1879 is hard to discover. Nearly all of the evidence that led to their convictions was provided by James McParland, a Pinkerton detective who infiltrated them. What is not in doubt, however, is the dangerous precedent in the history of Pennsylvania law enforcement that the convictions and execution of these Irish coal miners initiated.
Illustration shows Molly Maguire victim murdered by gang. Woodcut, 1877.
Illustration of a gang of Molly Maguires shooting a victim, from Allan Pinkerton's...

Molly Maguire was, supposedly, the leader of riots in Ireland against exploitative English landowners during the 1840s. In the 1850s, Irish coal miners brought the organization with them when they crossed the ocean to work in the anthracite coal fields of northeastern Pennsylvania. Conditions were terrible in the Pennsylvania mines - safety regulations were non-existent or neglected; breaker boys as young as six worked picking slate; families lived in poor company-owned houses, and were forced to shop at company stores; nothing except a few dollars compensated those injured or the families of those killed in this dangerous trade; and foremen frequently abused workers or undervalued the quantity of coal mined, which determined their wages.

Three quarter length portrait
Pinkerton detective James McParland, circa 1886.
During the Civil War, Irish immigrant miners killed a number of mine supervisors and executives on local draft boards who attempted to induct them into the Union army. After the war, the violence and lawlessness continued. Northeastern Pennsylvania was in many ways like the Wild West. An isolated region with towns that had few, if any, police and constant conflict between the coal operators and their workers, disputes were settled by the men who took action.

We may never know whether the Mollies carried out any murders, and what, if any, connections existed among the Mollies, the murders, the local Democratic Party, the Order of Ancient Hibernians, and the union formed in the coal regions in 1868. What we do know is that Frank Gowen, the ruthless president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, was secretly buying enough mines to gain control of the industry, and had starved miners into submission during the disastrous "Long Strike" of 1875 to break the back of the Workingmen's Benevolent Association. The Mollies, in league with the local Democrats, had their own political machine, which controlled a number of local governments in Schuylkill County.

In the early 1870s, Gowen hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to infiltrate the Molly Maguires and eliminate the last opposition to his control of the anthracite mines.
Head and shoulders, black and white.
Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, circa 1885.
For two and a half years, James McParland, an Irish Catholic from Ulster, worked under cover, working, fighting, and conspiring with his fellow countrymen. After McParland's cover was blown, Gowen himself, serving as the district attorney of Schuylkill County, led the prosecution of the Molly Maguires who were indicted and then convicted largely on McParland's testimony. On June 21, 1877, the last of the Molly Maguires were hanged in the Carbon County prison in Mauch Chunk.
Head and shoulders
flip zoom
John Kehoe, "King of the Mollies," soon before his execution in 1878.

The execution of the Molly Maguires helped cement Gowen's control of the anthracite-coal industry, and crushed union activity in the coal regions for close to a decade. It also won the Pinkerton Agency national celebrity. Indeed, to capitalize on the publicity, and to attract clients, Allen Pinkerton wrote Molly Maguires and the Detectives, a romanticized history of the story, which he published in 1879.  The executions did not, however, intimidate workers elsewhere in the state. Less than a month after the Molly Maguires execution, the marker great rail strike of 1877 erupted in Pittsburgh, and then spread to rail yards across the state.

Despite all the confusion about the history of Molly Maguires, what is not at issue is what the trial of 1877 reveals about the domination of Pennsylvania business interests over the state's political and legal system. What took place, according to historian Harold Aurand, was "one of the most astounding surrenders of sovereignty in American history. 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."

In the decades that followed, railroads, coal companies, and steel companies continued to use Pinkerton agents, deputized under Coal and Iron Police commissions, to enforce their will upon workers and their families.marker Henry Frick, chairman of the Carnegie Steel Company, used them in 1884 to guard his coal fields and strikebreakers, in 1891 to protect Italian strikebreakers, and again, with disastrous results during the markerHomestead Strike of 1892. Only then did the state of Pennsylvania become alarmed that private armies rather than public servants were wielding police powers in William Penn's Commonwealth, including the powers to enter private homes, disperse crowds, and arrest and imprison citizens.
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