On December 18, 1878, John Kehoe, the last of the Molly Maguire’s was executed in Pennsylvania. The Molly Maguire’s, an Irish secret society that had allegedly been responsible for some incidences of vigilante justice in the coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania, defended their actions as attempts to protect exploited Irish-American workers. In fact, they are often regarded as one of the first organized labor groups.
In the first five years of the Irish potato blight that began in 1845, half a million immigrants came to the United States from Ireland. The tough economic circumstances facing the immigrants led many Irish men to the coal fields in the mountains of eastern Pennsylvania. Miners worked under dangerous conditions and were severely underpaid. Small towns owned by the mining companies further exploited workers by charging rent for company housing. In response to these abuses, secret societies like the Molly Maguire’s sprung up, leading sporadic terrorist campaigns to settle worker/owner disputes.
Industry owners became increasingly concerned about t
he threat posed by the Molly Maguire’s. Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to infiltrate the secret society and find evidence that could be used against them. James McParlan, who later became the most celebrated private detective of the era, took the high-risk assignment and went undercover within the organization. For more than two years, he established his place in the Molly Maguire’s and built trust among his fellow members. His activities were eventually discovered and he was murdered. Several Molly Maguire’s confessed to their roles in the murder to McParlan.
In June 1877, 10 Molly Maguire’s were hanged on a single day. In December of the following year, Kehoe was arrested and hanged for the 1862 murder of Frank W.S. Langdon, a mine foreman, despite the fact that it was widely believed he was wrongly accused and not actually responsible for anyone's death. Although the governor of Pennsylvania believed Kehoe's innocence, he signed the death warrant anyway. Kehoe's hanging at the gallows was officially hailed as "the Death of Molly-ism." Though the deaths of the vigilante Molly Maguire’s helped quell the activity of the secret society, the increased assimilation of the Irish into mainstream society and their upward mobility out of the coal jobs was the real reason that protective secret societies like the Molly Maguire’s eventually faded into obscurity.
Michael Thomas Barry is the author of Murder & Mayhem 52 Crimes that Shocked Early California 1849-1949. The book can be purchased from Amazon through the following link: