December 18th, 2008 Headsman
On this date in 1878, John “Black Jack” Kehoe was hanged in Pottsville — as Pennsylvania’s anthracite trusts took a victory lap around the corpses of the Molly Maguires.
Even to say what the Mollies were is to take a side in their life-and-death struggle. Irish immigrants fleeing the potato famine had poured into Pennsylvania’s coal mining country in the mid-19th century, where life in the mines was nasty, brutish and short, and the pay wasn’t anything to write home about either.
In a time when capital ruthlessly hunted any intimation of labor organizing and the Irish were a distinctly second-class people, the (apparent, or at least alleged) response of the Mollies was natural: form a secret society, and wring by threat of bodily harm the concessions it could not pursue by collective bargaining. For the recent Irish transplants, the tableau of a Catholic underclass working for a Protestant landlord who owned (and gouged on) everything in sight had a certain familiar feel.
Terrorists? They certainly used violence to achieve political objectives, at least if the testimony of their foes is credited. But they weren’t the only ones.
Mine owners turned public and private violence on Irish radicals pushing for things like the eight-hour day. The notorious strike-breaking Pinkerton Detective Agency was detailed to infiltrate the Mollies.
The main blow against the Mollies was struck over a period of (extrajudicial) vigilante justice in the mid-1870′s, culminating in “Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope” in 1877, when ten supposed members were (judicially) hanged around the Keystone State.
Kehoe, a power broker in mining country with some sway at the capital who was reputed to call the shots among the Maguires, faced the hangman singly a year later for an 1862 cold-case murder so doubtfully ascribed to Kehoe that the governor hesitated to sign the death warrant.
He signed it just the same, marking a sort of ceremonial “end to Molly-ism.” The New York Times exulted two days hence “that the widely-extended and long-continued tyranny and terror of this association is at an end,” and all because the resolute executive had gone and sent a hempen message to “the savage and benighted population of the coal region.”
The lesson taught by the punishment of the Molly Maguires would have been shorn of much of its terror and impressiveness if the energetic and persistent efforts made in behalf of KEHOE, the reputed king of that organization, had resulted in rescuing him from the gallows. If they had even so far succeeded as to have caused his punishment to be commuted to imprisonment for life, the admonitory influence of his fate upon the murderous clain of whom he was the last surviving chief would have been greatly lessened, and the snake of Molly Maguire-ism, of which he was the forked tongue and fangs, might haply have been only scotched, not killed. … The law has shown that it has subtlety enough to hunt [the Molly Maguires] through every possible labyrinth of refuge and strip from them every artifice of disguise, and power enough to wring them out of the desperate grasp of sympathizing constituencies and crush them.
Like we said, violence wasn’t the exclusive resort of one side. But the monopoly of violence … that was held, as always, by the same hands that held the monopolies. Sean Connery as Kehoe reflects on the uneven contest while awaiting his fate in a (fictional) exchange with the Pinkerton mole who condemned him from the 1970 film The Molly Maguires.*
The Mollie Maguire murders, like the agrarian murders in Ireland, and the trades-union outrages, arsons, and machine-breakings in England, were not the work of the so-called criminal classes. They were essentially class murders … If some of the leading spirits of the class had been members of a board of arbitration as representatives of labor, with some of the employers or their agents as representatives of capital, it is not unreasonable to suppose that most of the disagreements that have kept the coal regions in a state of turmoil might have been amicably adjusted, and many of those who were assassinated and of those who have been hanged living to-day.
101 years later, Kehoe received what was thought to be the first and only posthumous pardon in the state’s history. The Mollies’ true extent, purpose and actual actions — even their very existence as anything but a stalking-horse for the more thorough conquest of surplus labor — remain hotly debated to this day, since the public record of this tight-lipped society consists of little beyond the courtroom testimony of a handful of parties thoroughly prejudiced to hostility by class interest or payoffs.
* Written by Walter Bernstein, who had only recently emerged from the Hollywood blacklist for his Communist proclivities.
Also on this date
- 1691: Eleven at Tyburn
- 1529: Desle la Mansenee in the Luxeuil Trial
- 1789: The Canadian Burglars
- 1609: Vicente Turixi, King of the Moriscos
- 1838: Seven perpetrators of the Myall Creek Massacre
Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Activists,Capital Punishment,Crime,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Murder,Notable Sleuthing,Organized Crime,Pelf,Pennsylvania,Power,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions