December 18, 2013, marked the 135th anniversary of the execution of John Kehoe at Pottsville, Pennsylvania. On that day in 1878, newspapers country-wide reported the scheduled death of the “King of the Molly Maguires.”

On that morning in 1878, an unnamed reporter for the Philadelphia Times sent to cover Kehoe’s execution also described the transformation by six nuns of the cell at Pottsville Prison used to host two Masses said on behalf of the dying man:

“Shortly after 7 o’clock this morning Father Gallagher entered Kehoe’s cell and a few minutes later began the celebration of the Mass. In one corner of the corridor, in a large, double cell used as a sort of storehouse for the shoes made by the convict laborers, the Sisters had erected a small altar. As I entered this in the dark hours of the morning, the chill look of the prison was left behind and there in a convict cell was a perfect fac-simile of a convent chapel.”

The reporter described in detail the “MASS IN A PRISON CELL.” The six nuns, four from St. Patrick’s Church in Pottsville and two from the neighboring town of St. Clair, had draped every wall of the dingy storeroom with white muslin draperies. They had brought in branches of evergreen to mount against the white backdrop. They had brought in ornamental white plaster candleholders to place on the small altar. They had lighted the altar with candles.

Those assembled for the two Masses that morning knelt on the room’s cold floor. Father Gallagher, dressed in vestments of gold and white, performed the first service. Two acolytes attended the priest, who celebrated the “low” Mass. All prayed “for the grace of a happy death for Kehoe.” All received Holy Communion. Father Brennan conducted the second service.

“After the last service had been concluded,” the reporter said, “Kehoe expressed his satisfaction that the day was one of the Virgin Mary’s feast days, for, he said, he had great confidence in her intercessory power.”

The account in the Philadelphia Times also included the details of Kehoe’s execution, a grim affair that involved a slipped knot in the ropes and a prolonged strangulation in a snowstorm. While Kehoe struggled for breath on the gallows, Father Gallagher, stationed below him, spoke the words of the plenary indulgence. The Times reporter gave details, too, of that ritual: “for the indulgence to have its full effect perfect charity must exist, and there must be in the heart and mind of the man a destruction of all affection, not only to grievous sins but also to venial or lighter ones.”

Kehoe, Schuylkill County delegate to the Ancient Order of Hibernians, had twice been elected high constable of Girardville and was named, in 1872, as a nominee to Pennsylvania’s State Assembly. He left behind a wife and five children. At the time of his death, Kehoe was 41 years old.

The Philadelphia Times account from the day of the execution contained no byline. A year and a half previously, a Philadelphia Times reporter who signed himself simply “C. CATH.” had interviewed Kehoe at length in his cell at Pottsville Prison.

Fifteen months after the unnamed Philadelphia reporter witnessed Kehoe’s execution in the snowstorm at Pottsville, C. Cathcart Taylor, city editor for the Philadelphia Times, committed suicide at his home in Philadelphia. At the time of his death, Taylor was 34 years old. Whether Taylor had witnessed the two Masses said in the prison cell and Kehoe’s subsequent death on the gallows is not known.

Kehoe’s body was transported by train to his home in Girardville. His burial took place at St. Jerome’s cemetery in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County. Two of Kehoe’s in-laws, victims of an 1875 vigilante attack, also lay buried in the cemetery there that overlooked the town.

A carved hand grasping a cross and a bloom of spring flowers decorates Kehoe’s gravestone. Its inscription reads:

“Sacred to the memory of John Kehoe

A native of the County Wicklow

Ireland.

Died Dec. 18, 1878,

Aged 41 Years, 5 Mos. & 15 Ds.

May his soul rest in peace.

Whilst in this silent grave I sleep,

My soul to God I give to keep.”

In January 1979, Pennsylvania's governor, Milton J. Shapp, issued John Kehoe a posthumous pardon.

In February 2014, Anne Flaherty, a great-great-granddaughter of John Kehoe, will present a three-lecture course titled “Pennsylvania’s ‘Molly Maguires’: Prosecution or Witch Hunt?” through the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) program at American University.

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Tags: Molly Maguires, Pennsylvania, Philadelphia

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on December 18, 2013 at 5:18pm

Great article, Anne.  Thanks for sharing it here.  I watched the Sean Connery film which, I guess, was loosely based on some of the dealings of Kehoe.  Good film.  Very interesting learning about the Molly Maguires given the secretive and debated nature of their existence.

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on December 21, 2013 at 7:27am

If I am not mistaken though a member of the AOH Kehoe was airbrushed out of the organisation's history. I have written about the Mollies in my book.

Comment by Jim Goulding on December 21, 2013 at 5:59pm

Thank you for an insider's recounting of this sad episode of Pennsylvania Irish history. I lived in Schuylkill county in the 1970's and ever since have had great interest in this period of Pennsylvania Irish history. I do go back every so often to that area and the next time will look up Jack Kehoe's grave in Tamaqua and say a prayer. Anne, any chance that you might have your three lectures at American University filmed and put up on WG or YouTube or at least if you might put up a synopsis in a blog here on the WG page? Thanks again for your enlightening presentation.

Comment by Jim Goulding on December 24, 2013 at 8:39am

Margaret E. Fitzgerald and Joseph A. King's  The Uncounted Irish in Canada and the United States quotes Pennsylvania Governor Milton J. Shapp on the day he granted the pardon to Jack Kehoe in January 1979: 

"We can be proud of these men known as the Molly Maguires because they defiantly faced allegations to make trade unionism a criminal conspiracy. These men gave their lives on behalf of the Labour struggle."

In saecula saeculorum. Amen

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