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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1879: James McDonnell and Charles Sharpe

Add comment January 14th, 2009 Headsman

On this date in 1879, two Molly Maguires hanged in Mauch Chunk, Pa., while their reprieve waited for them just outside the door.

John Kehoe may have been the symbolic last chapter in the Mollies‘ suppression, but Pennsylvania didn’t intend to forego its mopping-up operation.

James McDonnell and Charles Sharpe (or Charles Sharp) had been convicted of murdering George Smith in 1863; like other Molly Maguire crimes, this one either (take your pick) languished for 13 years until the criminal enterprise that authored it was toppled, or was plucked from obscurity as a pretext on which to condemn the men on rather doubtful evidence.

It was on the strength of “snitch” testimony from admitted murderers that McDonnell and Sharpe were sentenced to die — McDonnell, a hirsute Irishman straight from barbarian central casting, even tried turning informer himself to save his own life, just as his accusers had done. (He continued to deny responsibility for the Smith murder, including on the gallows in his last statement.)

But as Maguire cases go, these were small fry … and it’s the sad circumstances of their end and the evocative description of the scene under the gallows that attracts our attention today.

An execution which it was thought would be one of the quietest hangings that ever took place in Mauch Chunk has proved the most exciting. A reprieve from Gov. Hartranft arrived here one-half minute after the drop fell — just 30 seconds too late to save the lives of the condemned men.

A scene of great excitement took place in the jail; but, although the condemned men had been hanging only a few minutes, there was no movement made toward cutting them down. The telegraph messenger reached the jail door before the drop fell; but no attention was paid to his knocking and ringing, the wife of one of the men having previously been extremely violent outside. When the drop fell the knocking and ringing continued, and the Sheriff sent out a man to arrest the persons whom he imagined to be creating a disturbance. It was then found to be the telegraph messenger with a reprieve. A brother of McDonnell, who had been kneeling by the scaffold, arose and excitedly charged the Sheriff and the bystanders with the murder of his brother. The excitement spread, and the Sheriff appealed to one of the priests, who exonerated him from blame. Amid this excitement and the reproaches of the maddened brother of McDonnell and the wailings of the bereaved families outside, the hanged men were forgotten, and their bodies remained suspended for 30 minutes after the drop fell. There is no reasonable doubt, however, that both were dead when the reprieve came.

It should be noted that the reprieve was not an outright commutation, only a stay of the sentence for a few more days. Nevertheless, the melodramatic affair led the Times to wax lyrical.

“The evil of this whole case,” it began, clearly not speaking from the point of view of McDonnell and Sharpe, “is that the gallows in Pennsylvania is invested with great uncertainty.”

[F]rom this time out the condemned man at the foot of the gallows may not only hope that a reprieve may arrive for him at any moment, but he may take off his thoughts from the certain doom before him and be agonized with the reflection that the boon which he waits for may come when his life has gone past recall. If a stay of proceedings is to be granted at all, it should be granted while the condemned man’s life may be said to keep the case open. It is a refinement of cruelty to keep hope alive and quivering at the foot of the gallows.

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1878: John Kehoe, king and last of the Molly Maguires

17 comments 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.

Florid.

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.

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