The hardened forms of the old miners stepped free of the shadows cast upon them by the shanty jailhouse. They marched shackled wrists, and ankles to one another, each grasping a single red rose in his blackened, calloused hands. Each gazing at the foreboding gallows realizing he was only steps away from his final breath. The executions of twenty Irish Americans brought about the end of the Molly Maguires, and the beginning of their legacy, what some have called a “legacy of brutality”.
The story of the Molly Maguires began in the early nineteenth century, while Ireland was gripped in the thralls of the potato famine, and death was a constant companion. Fear and desperation gripped the populace. Not to miss an opportunity, American coalmine bosses sent ‘headhunters’ to Ireland to recruit men for labor. Men desperate, or ignorant enough to climb their way into the bowels of the earth, and dig out anthracite coal. A job so treacherous that these mines constantly had labor shortages do to the high death rate among workers.
Imagine the renewed hope of those impoverished Irishmen as those wide grinning ‘American dream’ salesmen offered them a better life in America, where they would have high wages, big homes, and schools for their children. With their ship passage paid, thousands of these unschooled farmers trotted down to the docks, and braved the coffin ships for a chance at a dream.
The dream most discovered was a nightmare. Upon arriving at the decrepit shanty towns they now called home, no big houses, or schools for their children awaited them, their pay was an insult, and their world belonged to the mineboss. The dilapidated shacks belonged to the mines, the poorly stocked stores all belonged to the mines, and eventually they realized that they themselves belonged to the coalmines. Those farmers from Ireland were now slaves in America.
Slaves in debt, as their living expenses and rent were docked from their pay most families lived in constant debt. A debt that was passed to the children upon the fathers death. Most boys began working the mines at five years of age as ‘breaker boys’. They would sit alongside the long, flimsy coal chutes and pick slate, and stone from the coal. Their hands were like grubby, blackened claws by the time they were six. At age ten they became men, working from dawn till dusk in the dark pits digging at the dirt, inhaling the dreaded coal dust, that would soon clog their lungs and drastically shorten their dreadful lives. Escape meant imprisonment for debts owed the mine company, imprisonment meant heavy fines and harsh mistreatment of the worker, and his family upon his return. The law was against the working man.
As more shafts sank, and more miners died, more men gathered in secret to discuss ways in which to improve the lives of laborers, and their families. Talk of a union was suggested as a way for them to form a united front against the mine bosses. So the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association was formed, and the first strike took place in 1847 in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.
Mine owners quickly crushed the unions attempt to defend themselves by importing thugs from New York, and Philadelphia to attack the strikers. In the end those who weren’t killed were fined, classed as upstarts, and placed on a blacklist, as soon as new immigrants came along they would lose their jobs and be replaced, while retaining their debts. Most were harassed, and hunted by Detectives, and Policemen for the rest of their lives.
Once again the men gathered secretly in dimly lit rooms, only now retribution burned like fire in their hearts. If they could have no union, then they would have an army, a silent brotherhood was formed calling itself the Molly Maguires, named for a similar organization in Ireland that rebelled with violence against oppressive British landlords. The fraternity was named after an Irish widow with five children that was evicted from her home by a cruel English landowner, and later helped lead the anti-landlord rebellion in the early 1840’s.
Unlike the union, only an elite few could join the ‘Mollies’ and when they met all business was discussed in Gaelic, ‘the native language of Ireland’. Members watched each other, insuring that no one would leak any information about them. If you talked, you were dead before the moon was half lit. Their campaign of revenge began in the early 1860’s with a series of fires, beatings, and shootings. Dynamite was thrown into some mines, causing terrible explosions that rendered the mines inoperable. Some of the fires they ignited burned for more than twenty years, feeding off the hot coals.
Finally in the 1870’s the mine owners had enough. They contacted the Allan Pinkerton Detective Agency, forebearer of the United States Secret Service. The company motto was
” The eye that never sleeps”. Pinkerton called upon James McParlan an Irish immigrant who had worked in the mines of Ireland. He was quoted as saying ” I’m Irish, I know how bad the Irish have been treated. I’m sure that sometime laws will be made to protect them. But, I’m against violence. I have heard of some of the things these Mollies have done, and I’ll do all I can to stop them.”
McParlan changed his name to McKenna and went to work in the coal mines. He played the part of an upstart Irishman perfectly, he joined workers demonstrations, even going so far as to incite a riot in one of the mines. After four long years living among his prey he met with Jack Kehoe, leader of the Mollies. Soon the two became friends and McKenna (McParlan) was invited to join the Molly Maguires. In a secret ceremony held in the cellar of Kehoes’s house, McKenna signed his name in his own blood and became a member of the secret brotherhood.
In the two years he served as a Molly Maguire he took part in many burnings, explosions, and beatings. When killings were discussed at meetings he would secretly let the authorities know in order to protect the target. For that two years he amassed as much evidence as possible, and in 1878 he testified in Mauch Chunk, the county seat of Carbon County. His testimony condemned over twenty men to death by hanging.
The Molly Maguires memory may have faded, but they have been called the predecessor to the United Mine Workers of America, one of the most powerful unions in America today, and still some gather in dimly lit rooms to sing an old song from that bygone era:
“So let the toast go merrily round,
each Irish heart conspire,
those tyrant hounds will be crushed down
by matchless Molly Maguire!”