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.

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1768: Seven coal-heavers to crush the London port strike

Add comment July 26th, 2012 Headsman

On this date in 1768, a year of tremendous labor agitation in London, seven coal-heavers were hanged near the Shadwell dock.

With food prices surging,* the city’s hard-pressed urban proletariat was at peak militancy — which also lent violent energy the cause of hunted radical politician John Wilkes, who had returned from exile this year to stand for Parliament. Two principal loci of labor insurgency in 1768 were the Spitalfields weavers, whose struggle we have already observed, and the “coal heavers” — the men who did the grueling labor of offloading coal from Thames barges.

Coal-heaving was ill-paid and dangerous, and it was notoriously sensitive to fraud: workers (largely Irish: they’d been imported to hold down wages) being paid by the “sack” or the “vat” fought supervisors at riverside over just how fully loaded with coal such a sack or vat should be. Workers had their own recourse to “indirect Practises,” pilfering a few coals on the side to supplement pay up to within hailing distance of subsistence. The boss would call “theft” this grey-area practice harkening to labor traditions ancient and still-current. The rope would help him define it so.

Peter Linebaugh’s magisterial social history The London Hanged dramatically treats the fraught and violent months of the spring of 1768, when Irish workingmen were “bringing river traffic to a stand-still … [and] stopped the imperialist artery.”

Dockside taverns doubled as fraternal entities and regiments in the unfolding dock war. One John Green, keeper of a pub on New-Gravel Lane (not as scenic as the nearby Cutthroat Lane)

organized scab labour from [his] Roundabout Tavern. It was attacked in April with gunfire. A shoemaker bled to death on the pavement, a coal-heaver took a bullet in the head, ‘dropped down backwards, and never stirred’. The taverns were besieged, their furnishings destroyed. Gunfire was frequent. Green was acquitted of murder. Those testifying for him were mobbed and one witness had her jaw broken. The coal-heavers were as violent in word as in deed. ‘They would have Green’s Heart and Liver and Do for him’; ‘they would have him joint from joint’; ‘they would have his heart and liver, and cut him in pieces and hang him on his sign’; ‘they would hang him over his sign Post & cut him into Beef Stakes’.

Our seven — by name John Grainger, Daniel Clark, Richard Cornwall, Patrick Lynch, Thomas Murray, Peter Flaharty, and Nicholas McCabe — were indicted on grounds that they “with force and arms, with certain guns loaded with gunpowder and leaden bullets, feloniously, wilfully, and maliciously did shoot off at John Green.” Not quite cut into Beef Stakes, but it’ll get the job done.

Though the trials of Green, and then of Green’s assailants, were weeks apart, they concerned the very same disturbance on the night of April 20-21, when Green’s residence had been besieged by angry coal-heavers and Green with others had shot out the windows and killed at least two … but managed to hold his foes at bay during what must have been a harrowing night. Green wasn’t hurt, and gave evidence at the “shooting off” trial.

The London Irish had by 1768 an unparalleled knowledge of arms and armed struggle. They contributed to an insurrectionary impulse within the London working class. At the same time, as a consequence, the Irish had close knowledge of violent death. The intimacy of that knowledge was expressed in vivid euphemisms designed to reduce the terror of hanging. Seven coal-heavers received the ‘cramp jaw’ at the Old Bailey only after a new interpretation was placed upon the Waltham Black Act. The seven danced ‘a new jig without music’ on 26 July 1768. This particular ‘crack neck assembly’ was located in Sun Tavern fields, Shadwell … The move from Tyburn was designed to terrify the poor and working people of the river parishes. The ‘breath stopper’ was witnessed by 50,000 spectators, perhaps the largest crowd at such a scene since the hanging of the Earl of Ferrers eight years earlier. The Government anticipated disorders, if not rescue attempts, when these seven were to dance ‘tuxt de ert and de skies’. From 6 a.m. more than 600 soldiers patrolled the streets of Wapping and Shadwell. The Sheriff ordered all the constables of the Tower and Holborn divisions to assemble at the hanging site and to come armed with their staves. Thomas Turlis, the hangman, had stolen coal from a neighbour’s cellar five years earlier. But, that his work might not be interrupted, the Sheriff quickly obtained a pardon for him. He did his duty upon the coal-heavers, sent ‘a-spinning like a whirligig’. Once they had ‘peacably’ exited the world, many of the spectators may have gone for a drink as was customary:

Wid a facer we coddled our blood
For de wind id blows cold from de gibbett.

… The hanging at Sun Tavern Fields … taught a hard lesson about collective bargaining: attempts to counteract the rise in the price of provisions by improving wage rates would not be allowed. … the insurrectionary vanguard of the river proletariat was broken.

Or, as a more sanguine observer put it, after the hangings “the tumults immediately ceased, and peace and industry was happily restored.” And they all lived happily ever after.

* Bread prices doubled in 1768, leading to work stoppages, hoarding, and food riots throughout the city. Representative slogan shouted by desperate rioters: “We might as well be hanged as starve.” (George Rude, “The London ‘Mob’ of the Eighteenth Century,” The Historical Journal, Vol. II, no. 1 (1959))

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