What Nerved Brutus to Slay Caesar: James McParlan and the 'Molly Maguires'

Beau Riffenburgh’s biography of James McParlan, titled “Pinkerton’s Great Detective: The Amazing Life and Times of James McParland” [sic], documents the life of a detective so slippery, observers cannot even agree on the spelling of his name.

Young James McParlan was noted as “J. McF” in early Pinkerton reports, known undercover in Pennsylvania as “James McKenna,” and in later years spelled his name “James McParland.”

Riffenburgh visited an impressive list of archives in support of this work. But of McParlan’s long career, Riffenburgh concludes: “… there are more questions than answers. It is just this elusiveness that is the essence of the Great Detective, who was, is, and will forever more remain, an enigma.”

Was McParlan “an enigma,” or was he simply a con man? Observers can agree on this: the truth of McParlan’s career—and of his character—live on in the buried details of his caseload. As that truth lived in the hearts and minds of men, long buried, who purchased his services.

In Pennsylvania during the 1870s, a triumvirate of disappointed gubernatorial candidates helped mount the cornerstone of McParlan’s career: the “Molly Maguire” caseload. Three successive defeats in six years of Democratic Party candidates with close ties to anthracite coal and railroad interests had left that party’s conservative leaders scrambling for purchase. The politicians who suffered these losses played both direct and indirect roles in the subsequent “Molly Maguire” trials. Simply put, these men hanged their political enemies.

In 1869 Asa Packer, president of the Lehigh Valley Railroad, suffered the first of these stinging defeats. A half decade later, Packer sent his attorney, Allen Craig, to help prosecute the “Molly Maguire” caseload.

In 1872 Charles Buckalew, special prosecutor during the 1877 “Molly Maguire” Rea trial, lost a bitter campaign for the governor’s chair. One coal region editor described Buckalew’s allegiance: “Charles R. Buckalew is acknowledged to be the attorney of the Reading railroad Company. He was their agent while in the Senate, and Frank Gowen’s right-hand man generally.”

Gowen, Buckalew’s promoter, served as president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and chief special prosecutor during the “Molly Maguire” trials. Gowen’s company purchased the services of both McParlan and of a score of Pinkerton operatives who infiltrated the coalfields and the state capital at Harrisburg during this volatile time.

In 1875 Pennsylvania’s voters crushed the gubernatorial bid of Cyrus Pershing, the third candidate with close ties to Gowen. The following year, Pershing served as Schuylkill County’s president judge during the “Molly” trials. According to the New York Times, Democratic Party elder Francis Hughes “engineered” Pershing’s nomination. The year after Pershing’s defeat, Hughes served as yet another special prosecutor in the “Molly Maguire” trials.

In 1871, smack in the midst of the struggling candidacies of these coal region politicians, tens of thousands of Pennsylvania’s Irish Catholic men organized under new official state charter of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). Most were also Democrats. But the political views of these AOH men, champions of the workingmen, directly challenged those of the Gilded Age politicians—Packer, Buckalew, Pershing and Hughes—who carried out the “Molly Maguire” trials under Gowen’s hand.

This conflict in Pennsylvania left behind more than 15 alleged "Molly Maguire" murder victims. It devastated families on all sides of the conflict. It destroyed a nascent labor union and left a political reform movement in tatters. It shattered the political influence of Pennsylvania’s AOH and tainted AOH influence countrywide. That influence threatened to grow exponentially after Pennsylvania’s 1871 official state chartering.

Men caustically—and continually—disappointed in their political ambitions mounted the “Molly Maguire” trials. Those trials pivoted around the purchased testimony of Pinkerton detective McParlan. McParlan’s testimony declared the AOH and a shadowy group called the “Molly Maguires” one and the same.

Riffenburgh says of McParlan: “… most of those who have evaluated his character based on what he did in relation to the Molly Maguires have not truly produced assessments that withstand impartial analysis of the full facts.”

And yet, after almost a century and a half, historians have not yet brought forward the facts of these frustrated politicians who helped Gowen mount his “Molly Maguire” campaign.

More than 135 years have passed since McParlan gave his “Molly Maguire” testimony. That testimony sent dozens of influential Irish Catholic men to prison and more than a score—including four AOH county delegates—to the gallows. Yet McParlan’s most recent biographer, Riffenburgh, can declare this detective only “an enigma.”

If McParlan lied in his “Molly Maguire” testimony, his long career as “Pinkerton’s Great Detective” marks one of the most effective and murderous cons in history.

“‘What nerved Brutus to slay Ceasar [sic]?’” defense attorney Daniel Kalbfus asked a jury of McParlan in 1876. “‘Why did Booth kill Lincoln? … ambition, that which threw Satan over the walls of heaven.’”


© 2013 Anne Flaherty – All Rights Reserved

Anne Flaherty is a great-great-granddaughter of John Kehoe, hanged as the “King of the Mollies.” In February 2104, Flaherty  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: AOH, McParlan, Molly Maguires,, Pinkertons

Comment by Rónán Gearóid Ó Domhnaill on December 30, 2013 at 6:57am

innocent people were murdered on information he provided.

Comment by Ryan O'Rourke on December 31, 2013 at 6:18am

Most interesting, Anne.  I'd like to learn more about "The Mollies," and your blogs are helping me and encouraging me to do so.  Thanks ... hope to read more from you in the days ahead.


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