Archive for June 21st, 2017

1877: Pennsylvania’s Day of the Rope

Add comment June 21st, 2017 Headsman

This date in 1877 was Pennsylvania’s “Day of the Rope”, a Thursday blackened by the execution of ten Irish coal miners as labor radicals.*

These are supposed “Molly Maguires”, others of whom we have previously met in these pages.

Though the term is now best associated with these anthracite miners of eastern Pennsylvania, it enters the textual record earliest in Great Britain right around 1845 … which, no coincidence, was the dawn of Ireland’s Great Famine.

Where tenant farmers starved even as absentee landlords exported crops, militancy naturally ensued — intrinsically criminal and therefore secretive, inevitably characterized as terroristic by its foes. For this desperate movement the fictitious heroine “Molly Maguire” would be name and watchword, a mythic resistance character in the tradition of Captain Swing or Ned Ludd; legend — perhaps reality? — would hold that her earliest followers had desolated a lord’s land after he turned subsistence farmers off it in favor of cash crops by murdering new tenant after new tenant until nobody dared occupy the tract. Newspapers began to denounce her followers proportional to the publication’s proximity to London capital.

A sympathetic domestic description is provided by the Cork Examiner of July 9, 1845, which contends that Molly McGuireism is nothing but “the tenant creed.”

The spirit and letter of legislation are all for ramparting round the rights of property. The meaning of this plainly is — legislating for themselves, whilst the population of the country may perish. Hence, stone walls and bogs, and houses and fields, with all dead matter, are cared for and legislated upon by landlords, whilst the living and producing beings — the Christian inhabitants of the country, who are formed to make up the sum of its riches, naturally and artificially, are exterminated, expatriated, famished, or shot down like dogs. What is the necessary consequence of this infamous state of things? Circumspice. Look around you and behold the monument raised to the desolating idol. Its history and its effects are written in the hovelled mud, and the squalid wretches and the naked children, which form the social and rural beauties of the soil of Ireland.

Well, the people feel and say — they would be stupid and brutal if they did not — that legislation or legislators will do nothing for them. They are thus thrown upon their own resources and their own energies. By the midnight lamp they write their own fearful enactments. If the code of their specified rights be written in blood, it is awful, but it is not unnatural.

And in Pennsylvania’s coal fields, during the depression of the 1870s, this was much the condition of Irish immigrant miners — no few of whom had been driven there by the very famine that spawned the original Molly Maguires.

Since verifiable documentary evidence of Molly Maguireism as an organized movement is very scant it’s an open question for posterity to what extent we behold the traces of an international Irish Catholic labor militancy or the hysteria of the boss. In whichever dimensions, the ghost of Molly Maguire crossed the Atlantic and haunted the violent carbon-harvest business in Pennsylvania … a ghost that rattles its chains ever so faintly whenever your Monopoly piece takes a ride on the Reading.

Though it’s difficult to think it today, the Reading Railroad company was one of the world’s largest corporations in the 1870s. The firm’s captain of industry, Franklin Gowen, figures as the antagonist and perhaps the concoctor of the Mollies, whose appearance as a criminal offshoot of the fraternal Ancient Order of Hibernians he alleged as a calumny against the union he fought blood and nail.

In the course of an 1871 strike, Gowen complained that the union’s ability to achieve general compliance with the work stoppage could only be the result of a shadowy association of foreign agitators “which issues orders which no one dare disobey.”

There has never, since the middle ages, existed a tyranny like this on the face of God’s earth. There has never been, in the most despotic government in the world, such a tyranny, before which the poor laboring man has to crouch like a whipped spaniel before the lash, and dare not say that his soul is his own … I say there is an association which votes in secret, at night, that men’s lives shall be taken, and that they shall be shot before their wives, murdered in cold blood, for daring to work against the order. (Source)

Fired by his public-spirited humanitarianism, Gowen went to work against the despotism of refusing his wage by retaining the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Its agent, James McParland, would make his name** famous or infamous with his claim to have infiltrated secret Molly meetings orchestrating routine political assassinations (assassinations he notably failed to prevent). His (thrilling) allegations, supplemented by confessions of alleged Mollies who turned state’s evidence to save their own lives,† were decisive in noosing the Mollies as murderers. For this McParland would receive both laurels and death threats, and also inspire a character in the Sherlock Holmes adventures.


Cincinnati Commercial, June 22, 1877.

The hysteria Gowen, McParland et al orchestrated was so self-confirming in the moment that newsmen wrote as categorically about the Mollies as they would in our era about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, and their terroristic reputation would be freely wielded to bludgeon the miners’ union. But curiously these existential menaces, once prosecuted, vanished with nary a footprint from their former rollick … so was the whole network phenomenally thorough about its secrecy, or was there never any such Hibernian Black Sabbath at all? There’s never been a historical consensus save that their trials by political allies of Gowen were at the very least travesties of justice — if not outright frame-ups.

Three weeks after the Day of the Rope, deep wage cuts for railroad workers triggered the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 which soon gave the Reading Railroad company its second bloody association in as many months: the Reading Railroad Massacre.

* Six hanged in Pottsville, and four in Mauch Chunk (since renamed as Jim Thorpe). Andrew Lanahan also hanged for murder on the same day at Wilkes-Barre, giving Pennsylvania 11 executions overall for its day of the rope; Lanahan’s was not one of the Molly Maguire cases but owing to his own Irish heritage there was never-proven conjecture that his crime was “inspired” by Maguireism. Accordingly, one can find different sources claiming either 10 or 11 Mollies hanged on this occasion. After this date’s harvest, ten additional supposed Molly Maguires were hanged by Pennsylvania during the next 18 months.

** McParland is the subject of a recent biography, Pinkerton’s Great Detective.

† Pennsylvania deployed demonstrative ferocity here: a 15-year-old who gave an alibi for her uncle got slapped with a thirty-month perjury sentence for contradicting a Pinkerton detective.

On this day..

Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Mass Executions,Murder,Pennsylvania,Racial and Ethnic Minorities,Terrorists,USA,Wrongful Executions

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