If he was real at all, or even if he wasn’t, Antonio Mamerto Gil Nunez was an freelance ranchhand gaucho who ditched his conscription into the Argentine Civil Wars for life as an outlaw — flourishing in the classic social bandit guise as a friend to the put-upon peasantry with beneficence extending all the way to saintly healing powers.
Ambushed and captured at last, Gil’s last charity was reserved for the policeman who decided to have him summarily executed — whom Gil warned was about to receive an en-route pardon. The cop didn’t buy this obvious dilatory gambit and slit the bandit’s throat, only to return and find the promised clemency riding on up. As Gil had also prophesied, the policeman’s son had fallen quite ill and now he prayed to the brigand he had just put to death, who posthumously secured the boy a miraculous recovery.
The reports of the duly impressed executioner proliferated and soon fathered a flourishing popular veneration. Although Gauchito Gil is of course entirely unrecognized by the institutional Catholic Church, many devout pilgrims visit his site to pray for, or to offer thanks for, a favorable intercession in life.
On this date in 1878,* Odessa nihilist Ivan Kovalsky was shot by directive of a military tribunal.
A “propaganda of the deed” type, Kovalsky advocated and practiced armed resistance to what one of his leaflets called “this vile government.” When tsarist police raided his printing press in January 1878, Kovalsky dramatically fought back with a revolver and a dagger while his comrades destroyed documents.
They did not slay a policeman in the process of repelling arrest, so the harsh decision to shoot Kovalsky for resisting made him a wholly political martyr — actually one of the very first in Russia’s running internal battle against her revolutionaries.
Two days later, secret police general Nikolai Mezentsov was daggered to death disembarking a carriage in broad daylight by Sergei Stepniak-Kravchinsky, leaving propaganda of the word to match that of his bloody deed: a manifesto titled “Death for Death” and dedicated “to the memory of Martyr Ivan Martynovich Kovalsky, shot by the secret police for defending his freedom”:
The chief of gendarmes, the leader of a gang that has all of Russia under its heel, has been killed. Few have not guessed whose hands dealt the fatal blow. But in order to avoid any confusion, we announce for general information that gendarme chief Adjutant General Mezentsov was in fact killed by us, revolutionary socialists … We tried the perpetrators and inciters of the brutalities done to us. The trial was as just as the ideas we are defending. This trial found Adjutant General Mezentsov deserving of death for his villainous deeds against us, and the sentence was carried out on Mikhailovsky Square on the morning of August 4, 1878. (Source)
* Gregorian date. The date in Russia, still on the Julian calendar at the time, was August 2.
** Submitted without comment: Stepniak’s interview in exile describing the escape from the assassination, which he attributed to “one of my friends”:
My friend rushed upon the General, stabbed him with a knife, and jumped into a carriage which was waiting for him. As you may imagine, the comrade who drove lashed the horse furiously, for rapid flight was the only alternative to being hung. Nevertheless, my friend the assassin took the whip out of the driver’s hand, saying ‘Don’t lash him, the animal is doing what he can.’ And my friend was afterwards pleased with himself for having felt this pity, for he said to himself, ‘After all, I am not altogether a bad fellow.'”
On August 30, 1878, Sevier (aka Severe, Savier) Lewis was hanged in Empire City, Oregon — today known as Coos Bay — for the murder of his much younger half-brother, Zachariah T. “Zack” Lewis on May 22, 1876.
The brothers were two of Hiram Hamilton Lewis’s nine children. Hiram was 74 years old at the time of Zack’s murder, and ambitious in spite of his age: he was running for state legislature.
Sevier, who was in his early fifties, was married and had seven children. Zack was twenty-five, single and still living at home. It was said he’d taken an interest in Sevier’s sixteen-year-old daughter Sylvia. Her father warned him to stay away, but Zack wouldn’t listen and kept coming around pestering his niece with unwanted advances. Finally Sevier had had enough.
Well, that’s one version of the story. Here’s another one:
Sylvia confided to her young uncle that she’d been raped by her father, and become pregnant. Zack went to Sevier and told him to stop the molestation immediately or he would tell the entire family what he had done. He helped Sylvia move in with her grandparents to protect her, and told Sevier that if he touched her again, he would kill him. Sevier touched her again.
These starkly contrasting purported motives may assign which characters, in the ensuing violent tableau, don the white hats and which the black. But either way, one late spring day, Sevier loaded his gun and went to his father’s home where he found little brother working in the fields. Sevier shot him dead, and then took flight.
In December 1877, a full year and a half after the shock murder and probably about the time Sevier was getting comfortable with having gotten away with it, a Coos County man chanced to recognize the fugitive in a hotel bar in Seattle and had him arrested.
Sevier’s own father and Sevier’s own son both testified against him at the subsequent trial, traveling 200 miles to to so. His defense attorney didn’t try to pretend he was innocent and only pleaded for a recommendation of mercy. He was convicted of his brother’s murder in June 1878 and sentenced to be hanged by the neck until dead. The judge also ordered him to cough up $830.10 in court costs, including $21 worth of beer he’d been prescribed during his incarceration.
Oregonian, August 31, 1878.
Lewis’s scaffold speech was bitter and disjointed — “bravado and blasphemy on the gallows,” the Portland Oregonian headlined it. He rambled on about how everyone was prejudiced against him, expressed love for his family and added, “If I could die a thousand times and save my daughter I would do it. If I could save her I would be satisfied to die.”
Defiant, stubborn and vindictive, he finally forced Sheriff Aiken to manhandle him closer to the hanging rope. Even as the black cap was pulled over his head and he was being pushed forward he yelled, “What in the hell are you doing that for? I am not afraid to die.”
It was a clean hanging. His neck snapped and Sevier Lewis died within minutes.
What happened to Hiram Lewis’s political aspirations? Well, given the scandal, it’s no surprise that he lost the election. He moved to Lane County after Zack’s murder and died in 1879, supposedly of a broken heart.
What can history tell us about which brother to believe? Was Sevier really trying to protect his daughter, or did Zack pay the ultimate price for his attempt to rescue Sylvia from her predatory father?
Andie E. Jensen, author of Hangman’s Call: The Executions and Lynchings of Coos County, Oregon 1854-1925, studied the available records and notes that Sevier’s youngest child Lucy’s year of birth is unknown — the dates range from 1875 to 1877 — while all his other children had their exact date and place of birth recorded. He speculates that Lucy, said to be the daughter of Sevier and his wife Elizabeth, was in fact Sylvia’s child.
“Fact or fiction,” he concludes, “we will never know for sure. The end result was the execution of Sevier Lewis, whose act of murder victimized more than just his half brother Zack.”
These brothers (their eldest sibling Jim Brassell wisely bowed out of the scheme) and two other buddies got into the whiskey moonshine from the Brassells’ own home still, and decided to knock over a nearby lodging where two guests thought to be heavy with cash were staying.
So the quartet blacked up faces and turned clothes inside out by way of disguise and around midnight tromped up to the Allison Stand Inn wielding pistols.
“Don’t worry!” Russell Allison called to his guests, recognizing his onetime schoolmates. “It’s the Brassell boys!”
Nothing daunted by their identities outed, the moonshine party invaded the log residence. A bedroom melee ensued, and in the course of it Teek Russell shot Russell Allison fatally in the gut; another shot only narrowly missed Mrs. Isbell, the wife of the tax collector W.J. Isbell whom the party was trying to target in the first place.** Isbell wasn’t there at all, and the whole band fled the house not a penny richer, but about to be wanted men.
The next day as Allison lay expiring from his painful wound, the Allison family rounded up its own posse and descended on the Brassell residence. Again, Teek gut-shot an Allison — Russell’s brother Joe — and killed him, too. But the rest of the posse detained the desperados and they were soon hailed to Cookeville Jail. The murder became extremely notorious in the area and the Brassells boys were easily condemned, albeit after nearly two years’ worth of legal continuances.†
We’ve liberally included these youths in our arsenic themed set. Of course, these young men worked their mayhem with firearms and not philters, but in a sense their case underscores the ubiquity of that poison for 19th century crime. Desperate to escape, even the brutally direct Brassell boys turned like dissatisfied housewives and furtive insurance adjusters to inheritance powder: in their case, they managed to have some smuggled to them in jail, which they planned to insinuate into some apples they would share with their guards while being moved between Nashville and Cookville.
As it transpired, the guards caught wind of this scheme and foiled it, along with several other jailbreak attempts. But that was the great thing about that innocuous dust: everywhere someone would profit from some other fellow dropping unexpectedly dead, the first thought was invariably arsenic!
Frustrated of this and all other exits from their grim condition, the Brassell boys at last had to face the hemp. It would be the only judicial hanging in the history of Putnam County, Tennessee, and it would not want for ceremony. The execution itself occurred on a Wednesday; on the Sabbath preceding, the local Sunday school’s curriculum included (pdf) a visit to the condemned cells, where prisoners and children sang “Let us cross over the river”.
On hanging-day itself, the boys were up early for press interviews in the jailhouse. Shortly after 11 a.m., they piled into a wagon, grabbed seats on their own coffins, and were taken under guard to the double gallows specially built for them on Billy Goat Hill. Their sister Amanda trailed the wagon, but after a farewell hug she complied with Joe and Teek’s request to leave without seeing them hang.
Amanda had plenty of time to comply. The hanging wasn’t until 1:30!
The Brassells passed their last two hours or so of life on the scaffold. As they sat under their hanging-nooses, a crowd of thousands — some estimates put it as high as 20,000; old folks in the early 20th century would still say that it was the largest crowd Cookeville had ever seen — imbibed a series of preachers and religious songs, the warnings of the condemned duo themselves, and a scene where their intended target Mr. Isbell climbed up on the platform himself and pressed the two for a confession. Joe admitted his guilt. Teek refused until the very end to do so.‡ To cap off the drama, the sheriff, hatchet in hand to chop the fatal rope, counted down the last five minutes.
It seems this whole event, from the murder to the hanging, still survives in Cookeville folklore. There’s a lengthy ballad about the Brassell boys’ crime and execution, available here (pdf). Also see this fantastically detailed web page about the crime, including a blurry restored photograph of the hanging, and this pdf roundup.
A fragment of the Brassell boys’ joint headstone can still be seen at a family plot adjacent to Upperman High School in the small town of Baxter, just outside Cookeville.
* Teek had “George Andrew” on his birth certificate.
** William Jefferson Isbell was a tax collector carrying his proceeds; he had fallen ill that day and had to stop elsewhere. The Isbells and Allisons were related through marriage.
† “Justice, when most severe to him who has offended, is always most mercifully to him who would offend,” the Supreme Court most severely ruled — admonishing the young men not to entertain any hope of reprieve. (Quoted in the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, March 28, 1878)
‡ Teek’s obstinacy on claiming innocence when the evidence against him seemed so overwhelming led to some later speculation that he might have semi-willingly taken the rap for a different Brassell — maybe Jim, the one who supposedly bowed out of the raid, or maybe even Amanda.
Joseph LaPage died on a gallows at Concord, N.H. on this date in 1878 for the horrific murder of Josie Langmaid more than two years before.
The 17-year-old Josie’s disappearance one October morn while walking to her classes at the Pembroke Academy shocked the town of Pembroke and the adjoining village of Suncook. Late that night, frantic search parties found Josie’s body by torchlight in a cluster of trees just off Academy Road — ravaged, mutilated, and headless. (The head turned up the next morning, half a mile away.)
The horror of her murder so shook* Pembroke that it put up a memorial obelisk that still stands today — right near the turn into present-day Three Rivers School. Additional inscriptions on the macabre monument direct the viewer to a little stone pillar 90 feet north at the exact spot her body was recovered … and yet another one 82 rods on where her head was recovered.
All of New England thrilled to the horrific crime, in consequence of which — after a week’s worth of panicky arrests of random tramps and the town’s only African-American — it soon became known that an itinerant French woodcutter named Joseph LaPage who had been suspected of a similar slaying previously in St. Alban’s, Vermont, just so happened to be in the area.
And upon arrest, he was found to have a boot whose bloodied heel appeared to match the shape of a violent gouge found on Langmaid’s severed head.
This is not reliable forensic evidence in the modern sense. But evidence began to exclude nearly every other person who had fallen under early suspicion, and the circumstances implicating Joseph LaPage soon stood out damningly.
Perhaps the most powerful was a history of savage violence against women.
LaPage (born outside Montreal as Joseph Paget) had come to live in the United States by escaping over the Canadian border after raping his sister-in-law, Julianne Rousse. He had escaped the St. Alban’s prosecution in part thanks to alibis provided by his sons, who now recanted their testimony. LaPage was known to abuse his wife, and was thought to have outraged his own daughter.
And it was found that in Pembroke, LaPage had been making unnervingly personal inquiries after the habits of his employer’s pretty young daughter — a Pembroke Academy student herself who customarily walked to school along Academy Road with Josie Langmaid. She might have been LaPage’s intended target, but on the fateful morning she chanced to catch a carriage ride instead.
Though LaPage fought his sentence for two years and even won an appeal overturning the first verdict against him, he was condemned a second time. He confessed on the eve of his hanging to both Langmaid’s murder, and that of Marietta Ball in St. Alban’s — complete with hand-drawn maps for both crimes indicating how he had gone about committing them, and where he had disposed of the remains.
However, because LaPage was not forthcoming with such a confession at the point of trial, and because evidence such as Julianne Rousse’s rape testimony and the suspicions against him from St. Alban’s was excluded as irrelevant, it had been necessary to develop the strongest possible evidentiary case in the Langmaid murder without depending overmuch on the accused’s brutish reputation.
To that end, the LaPage prosecutions also became a bit of a minor forensics laboratory: there had been bloodstains found on some of his clothes, but of course, this could be blood from butchering an animal or from injuring himself in the course of woodcutting, or anything else.
Could one say more than that in the 1870s? A significant subplot of LaPage’s trials consisted of scientists expert in “blood microscopy” explaining their tests on Langmaid’s and LaPage’s clothing, and in particular their suggestion of a tentative match between some of the samples based on restoring with a simulated serum the dried corpuscules to something resembling their living state and examining the dimensions of the corpuscules. The blood on Josie Langmaid’s clothes “resembled in every respect that found upon the clothing of LaPage,” one doctor testified. (St. Albans (Vt.) Messenger — which newspaper heavily reported the course of LaPage’s trial, for obvious reasons — January 10, 1876.)
LaPage’s defense naturally attempted to repel such evidence by arguing against the method of “restoring” corpuscules, against the reliability of their post-mortem characteristics, and against the dependability of the alleged matches between samples. LaPage’s last-minute confession led the St. Alban’s Messenger (March 22, 1878) to exult that
[i]t must be exceedingly gratifying to Drs. Richardson, Treadwell and Chase, to have this confirmation by voluntary confession of the revelations of crime by the microscope. It will no longer do for flippant attorneys to scout** the revelations which modern science gives, at the hands of intelligent, patient, skillful and thoughtful manipulators in microscopy and photography; and the conviction and punishment of such a monster as LaPage, largely by the testimony of blood experts secures another triumph for modern science.
* In addition to the obelisk, a “Suncook Town Tragedy Ballad” (lyrics here) preserves the terrible tale.
** “To scout” has a little-used meaning of “to scorn; dismiss”. This meaning has a completely different etymology from the more usual meaning of searching or reconnoitering.
Reno, Nevada had its only hanging on this date in 1878, and it’s never since been certain whether it was the right man they hung.
J.W. Rover, Frank McWorthy, and Isaac Sharp(e) had come from Oakland to work a sulfur claim in present-day Pershing County (then Humboldt County).
Sharp ended up dead, his body horribly mutilated and its dismembered parts scattered to different burial holes.
A mental health counselor I know is fond of saying of the family dysfunctions he has handled that who is crazy depends upon who gets to the phone first. It turns out that sometimes murder does, too.
McWorthy rode in to Winnemucca and swore out a complaint accusing Rover of the murder. Rover would spend the next three years vigorously but never quite successfully insisting that McWorthy was the one who killed Sharp.
Rover was convicted of murder in July 1875, but because the verdict didn’t mention degree of murder, the case had to be retried. In April 1876, Rover was convicted again, of first-degree murder, thank you very much. But the Nevada Supreme Court overturned that verdict, too, and granted Rover a change of venue to Reno’s Washoe County, where Rover was convicted for a third time in June 1877.
In all these proceedings, Rover never wavered from his claim of innocence, calling God to witness at trial after trial that it was his associate and accuser McWorthy who was the guilty party and wanted to frame up Rover to get his hands on that lucrative sulfur deposit.
Having failed three times over in court, Rover’s lawyers turned as the hanging approached to Section 458, a remote provision of the criminal code permitting a special jury to be impaneled “if after judgment of death there be good reason to suppose that the defendant has become insane.”
Three years and all those hearings on, Rover’s fate would finally rest in the hands of twelve new jurors impaneled on the very eve of his hanging. While Rover passed his final night in the Reno jail, his sanity jury met in a courtroom in an upper-story room.
Rover’s lawyers and the District Attorney made their arguments to the jury until midnight that night, then adjourned, and then re-assembled at 7:30 on the morning of the scheduled execution. Rover couldn’t sleep a wink, passing the night rambling emotionally with reporters — at one point breaking down as he read them a letter from his sister.
“As he lay there he formed an object at once of pity and interest,” one scribe wrote for the newspaper of nearby silver mining boomtown Virginia City.*
He was reclining upon a rude bed covered by a coarse blanket. His pillow had no case, and his hair was unkempt and rough-looking. His beard had the appearance of being about one month’s growth. The cell was narrow, and was lighted by the feeble rays of a tallow candle held by a Deputy Sheriff.
Once or twice, he would furtively ask the reporters’ estimation of his chances with the proceedings upstairs. The reporters didn’t know. The jury didn’t either.
That morning, as crowds besieged the courthouse seeking one of the 200 visitors’ permits for the “private” execution, the jury huddled inside it making its final deliberations over four long hours. At last, at noon, it came down seven votes for sane, five for insane.**
Seventy minutes after that vote, Rover was escorted to the gallows supported by two men and a stiff drink of whiskey. This was nearly a two-hour theater in its own right: after a 20-minute recitation of the death warrant, Rover spoke for 50-plus minutes, continuing to insist upon his innocence:
I am so prostrated by this long prosecution that I am unable to say what I want to say …
Gentlemen, McWorthy has got away, but if I had my liberty the face of the world would not be large enough to hide him. I would search him out and bring him to justice, and if the law could not reach him I would find a strong arm of justice that would reach him …
I must be hung; you will be sorry for it some day, but what good will that do me when I am dead and gone? Good-by. My heart is with you.
By the end, Rover could barely hold up. He took a drink of water. “Oh, gentlemen, I cannot realize that I am to be hung!” he cried as his limbs were pinioned at last, and had to be supported lest he swoon. The Catholic priest finally had to settle him down from his last babbling.
“Not guilty,” he insisted one last time. Then to the sheriff: “Go on and do your duty.”
Rumors of Rover’s innocence persisted for years after his hanging, not excluding claims that his ghost was on the haunt.†
In 1899, a newspaper reported that “It afterward developed that Rover was innocent of the crime for which he suffered. McWorthy died a few years ago in Arizona, and on his deathbed confessed that he was the murderer of Sharp.”
McWorthy might or might not have been the guilty party. But that story was not accurate — McWorthy was still alive at the time in Oakland, California.
* The newspaper in question was the Territorial Enterprise, notable for employing the young Mark Twain in the early 1860s. Indeed, it was here that the writer Samuel Clemens first employed that nom de plume. Ten years before Rover’s hanging, Clemens/Twain actually witnessed and wrote about a public hanging in Virginia City.
** Not as close as it sounds: Rover needed a unanimous verdict.
† The present-day Washoe County Courthouse, not built until many years after Rover’s hanging, allegedly has a haunted jail whose spook might be Rover.
On this date in 1878, “gunfighter” Bill Longley was hanged for murder in Giddings, Texas.
This flim-flam man was an anti-hero of the Wild West, a near-exact caricature of everything disreputable about his milieu. Remorselessly homicidal, virulently racist, and pathologically unfaithful to any bond of honor or friendship: “an idle boaster, a notorious liar and a man of low instinct and habits,” in the estimation of an officer of the army cavalry regiment from which Longley deserted.
And he was a relentless self-promoter pleased to exaggerate both the quantity and the valor of his sixguns’ conquests.
Longley’s end at the end of a rope — for murdering his childhood friend in solidarity with some uncle’s ill-founded grudge — makes a fittingly puerile end to a repulsive career, and not least because Longley’s family later circulated rumors* that Longley had connived with his executioners to escape the noose and been spirited away under a false name.
Recent DNA testing proved that story false, but most of the Longley mythos is regrettably forensic-proof.
The outlaw himself was his own Homer, perhaps consciously playing catch-up with the legendary bandits already afoot in the land.** It’s certainly the case that he was a wanted killer, and a renowned marksman. Upon these gifts, Longley spun preposterous tales of his exploits in 1860s-70s Texas: being shot out of a noose at an attempted lynching;† slaughtering men and women (particularly blacks: his favored prey) in bunches; riding with the Cullen Baker gang; killing people in fair fights and not for their money.
“His hot temper, his fondness for liquor, and unsettled conditions during reconstruction led him to become one of the most daring gunslingers of his day,” is how a Texas state grave marker reckons him, with a warmth the Lone Star State does not reserve for its present-day “daring gunslingers.” No doubt “unsettled conditions” have been involved in many of those crime sprees as well.
Anyway, such of Longley’s record that can be substantiated better resembles a string of ambushes and uncomplicated murders, perpetrated to start with against freedmen during Reconstruction (Longley’s first known killing was of an uppity former slave in 1867, during a highway stickup), and then almost willy-nilly for plunder, race hatred, or personal pique against defenseless targets misfortunate enough to cross his path. His most “romantic” exploit was over a love rivalry … not a Capulet-and-Montague affray, but the killer bursting in on the reverend father of the girl who frustrated his designs, and wasting him with a shotgun.‡ (His actual rival got off with a pistol-whipping.)
Longley’s last arrest in 1877 removed him from these pursuits long enough to burden the local Giddings Tribune (and anybody else who would listen) with a steady supply of letters trumpeting his ferocity … and as his fate became apparent, his eventual treacly and apparently sincere contrition. “My first step was disobedience; next whisky drinking; next, carrying pistols; next, gambling, and then murder, and I suppose the next step will be the gallows.” The classic fall and redemption story.
After an escape attempt and a foiled scheme to bribe the guards, Longley gamely took his redemption in a botched hanging that dropped him so far that his feet reached the ground. The executioners had to muscle the rope back up into the air and keep it there for 11 minutes to get him where he could choke to death.
There’s an excellent HistoryNet article describing “Bloody Bill” Longley’s times and crimes in great detail here. There’s a wee genealogy, including the interesting tidbit that Longley’s father helped bury the dead of Goliad, here.
* Apparent cause of the rumor: the mom couldn’t deal with Longley’s wicked character and dishonorable death, so the family deceived her, even forging letters from “Bill Longley”.
** Most particularly, John Wesley Hardin. Longley eagerly claimed responsibility for killings that might not even have happened, in an apparent attempt to top Hardin’s body count (27 or 28) with his own (allegedly, 32). Just prior to his execution, influenced by redemption or hope for clemency or whatever, Longley downgraded his career notch count to “only” eight.
† This most famous and fantastic of all Longley’s “exploits” seems to be sourced to nobody but Longley himself; notwithstanding that prima facie credibility deficit, it’s still retailed as fact on a number of online Longley bios.
‡ This last episode was among the crimes of Longley’s last three years’ liberty that might have been prevented had not the Lone Star State refused in 1874 to honor a reward posted on the outlaw by that carpetbaggers’ Reconstruction regime. Un-paid, Longley’s captors simply turned him loose instead. That’s federalism at its finest.
On this date in 1878, journeyman tinsmith Max Hödel was beheaded in Berlin’s New Prison for taking a potshot at Kaiser Wilhelm I.
Nothing daunted by the prospect of trading his life for an 81-year-old* man’s, this propagandist of the deed tried to kill the conservative German emperor in May of 1878. He missed his target, but killed a bystander.
(Hodel’s cover story that he was just trying to blow his own brains out, not shoot the emperor, was belied by a number of hints he had given to others prior to the attack — e.g., telling a photographer who took his picture that the photo would soon be worth thousands.)
Just weeks after Hodel’s miss, another unsuccessful attempt to kill the emperor was undertaken by Karl Nobiling. Though Nobiling died of self-inflicted injuries, Hodel had to make do with decapitation.
Germans having taken a front-row seat to the Paris Commune just a few years before, Chancellor Otto von Bismarck had no intention of allowing radical organizing of any variety to pick up any steam.
Coincidentally, our day’s protagonist shares an execution date with the next generation’s (better) anarchist assassin, Sante Geronimo Caserio — guillotined 16 Aug. 1894 for killing the French president.
* And he was right: nature didn’t take its course with Kaiser Wilhelm for nine more years; he missed outliving his own son and heir by a mere three months.
** Engels — writing polemically, of course — reckons over 11,000 political prisoners arrested from 1879 to 1880 alone.
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 Timesexulted 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.*
Pennsylvania Gov. John Hartranft left office a few weeks later, and reflected in his outgoing address on the lessons “the manufacturers and operators” ought to draw from the late unpleasantness.
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.