Search for the Facts
Mark Bulik’s upcoming work, "The Sons of Molly Maguire," is the latest in a long line that characterizes Pennsylvania’s Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) men charged as “Molly Maguires” as transplanted Irish terrorists.
The Oxford University Press website gives Bulik’s theory of Pennsylvania’s Hibernians: “A secret society of peasant assassins in Ireland that re-emerged in Pennsylvania’s hard-coal region, the Mollies organized strikes, murdered mine bosses, and fought the Civil War draft.”
In the 1870s Franklin Gowen, the bombastic and delusional railroad president who hoped to monopolize Pennsylvania’s entire hard coal trade on a small amount of borrowed capital, was the original promoter of this conspiracy theory: that the AOH, an Irish Catholic benevolent order legally chartered with Pennsylvania’s state legislature, and the “Molly Maguires,” an alleged Irish terrorist organization, were one and the same.
It looks like Bulik’s upcoming work, like so many previous works, also ignores discoverable facts. Many of the Irish Catholic community leaders charged as Pennsylvania’s “Mollies” were skilled political and labor advocates who actively promoted nonviolence, not murder.
Bulik’s upcoming work (again, from the Oxford Press website) tells of the peasant “folk justice” of Pennsylvania’s alleged “Mollies.” But in 1871 John Slattery, one of Pennsylvania’s most prominent Hibernians charged as a “Molly,” narrowly missed an election as associate judge for Schuylkill County’s criminal court. Peasant justice did not enter into Slattery’s Democratic candidacy for judgeship—nor into his election as school director, his election as township supervisor, or his colleagues’ consideration of him, in 1873, as a senatorial Labor Reform nominee.
Many prominent Hibernians charged as “Mollies” were on their way up the political ladder. The Roman Catholic ideology that shaped their AOH charter also shaped their political and labor advocacy.
In October 1875, Bernard Dolan, Schuylkill County hotelkeeper and former AOH delegate targeted as a “Molly,” publicly spoke the AOH creed: “to assuage the sufferings of the poor laboring class …”
Prominent Schuylkill County AOH delegate John Kehoe, executed as the “King of the Mollies,” publicly advocated nonviolence. Hotelkeeper, high constable for Girardville, and 1872 contender for Democratic nomination to state assembly, Kehoe pleaded in 1875 with area nativists thirsting for violence “to encourage brotherly love instead of sowing seeds of antagonism which sooner or later lead to bloodshed.”
In 1873 Christopher Donnelly, future AOH county treasurer charged as an alleged “Molly,” served as delegate to the county Labor Reform convention that considered Slattery as a nominee. In Pennsylvania in 1873, “Labor Reform” meant removing seven-year-old boys from slate-picking rooms and placing them in classrooms. A few months before his arrest as a “Molly,” voters elected Donnelly, a miner, as school director for New Castle.
At least four Hibernians charged as “Mollies” served as area school directors. Two of them were miners.
Patrick Hester, hotelkeeper and prominent Northumberland County AOH delegate executed as a “Molly,” served as school director, tax collector, township supervisor and—in keeping with the AOH creed—overseer of the poor.
Prominent Carbon County Democrat Thomas Fisher, hotelkeeper and AOH delegate executed as a “Molly,” served as township tax collector. At the time of his arrest as a “Molly,” Fisher stood in line for election as county tax collector. During the Long Strike, Fisher advocated—with a sympathetic priest by his side—on behalf of the mineworkers’ wage. Fisher’s actions, too, promoted the AOH creed: “to assuage the sufferings of the poor laboring class.”
The Irishmen charged as “Mollies” who sat in jails in eight Pennsylvania counties and swung from gallows in five used their growing political power, before their untimely deaths, on behalf of those less fortunate.
With so much discoverable fact, it remains a mystery why contemporary scholars, historians, and authors continue to portray Pennsylvania’s Hibernians as members of a transplanted Irish terrorist group—the same fiction promoted by a hostile nineteenth-century press and a near-bankrupt detective agency. Gowen purchased this fiction to remove influential Irish Catholics from the political and industrial arena. Gowen’s plan worked. His “Molly Maguire” prosecutions effectively destroyed the burgeoning power of the AOH, along with the reforms that it threatened.
We have a mandate to examine our history—however dark that history may be. Historians who investigate Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguires” would be better served if they resisted the lure of sensation and nineteenth-century nativist rhetoric, searched for discoverable facts about the Irish Catholics persecuted in eight Pennsylvania counties, and followed the trail of those facts—wherever that trail might lead.
To help honor this extraordinary history, visit www.KehoeFoundation.org.
Reprinted from the blog From John Kehoe’s Cell. All rights reserved.