By Chris Mahin
As they mounted the scaffold together, the two miners joined hands. The older man said to the younger one: “Let’s die like men.” Then the trapdoor was pulled from under their feet, and two bodies dangled in the air.
“The degree of nerve of both men … was extraordinary,” a newspaper reported. The gallows were cleared. Four more leaders of the miners’ struggle were executed in rapid succession. On the same day, on another Pennsylvania scaffold, four other miners were hanged.
Ten union leaders were executed in eastern Pennsylvania on 21st June 1877. These men were accused of committing various murders, and of belonging to a secret, violent, conspiratorial organization -- the ‘Molly Maguires’. During their time, these men were denounced by the powerful as “terrorists.” Today, most historians agree that they were the first martyrs in the fight to build industrial unions in the United States, and that, in fact, no such organisation as the Molly Maguires ever existed.
The story of how these men came to be framed and executed has much to teach us about the nature of the justice system in the United States, the lengths to which capital will go to thwart workers’ fight for a better life, and the role that immigrant workers play in the labour movement.
During the 1840s, 1850s, and 1860s, some 20,000 Irish workers made their way to Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Like millions of workers before and since, they came to the United States fleeing hunger and political persecution in their native land. And like millions of others before and since, they found that they would have to fight here against injustice just as they fought in their birthplace.
Hard coal was first discovered in Pennsylvania by Abijah Smith in the first decade of the 19th century. At the beginning of the mining industry, there were no provisions for safety or proper ventilation within the pits. Mine inspectors were unheard of. (Until 1870, mine owners were not even required to build second exits in mines.) Often, miners ended up owing so much to the company stores that they did not receive any wages at all.
Miners crawled underground in mud and water, breathing coal dust and smoke. If they were not blasted to death or maimed on the job, they emerged from beneath the ground and returned to homes unfit for human beings to live in. Meanwhile, the mine owners and the investors in coal companies were making huge profits.
After the American Civil War, industry expanded rapidly, the demand for coal grew, and the conditions of miners worsened. Naturally, the workers fought back.
In 1864, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Society of Carbon County, Pennsylvania was formed, and in 1868, the local societies of the southern district were united in the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA) of Schuylkill County.
Many of the leaders of the miners during this time were English, Welsh, and Irish immigrants who had taken part in the labour movement in the British Empire and the fight against the injustices of the British crown.
In addition to the WBA, which included miners of all nationalities, the Irish miners had their own semi-secret organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The AOH had been founded in Ireland, where it was part of the fight of Irish peasants against English landlords. In Ireland, the AOH had no choice but to be a strictly secret society.
All these economic and social factors gave the miners’ struggle a particularly bitter quality. In 1868, nearly 20,000 anthracite miners went out on strike for the eight-hour day. They stayed on strike for four months. In 1871, there was another strike. Then, in 1875, came what has gone down in history as ‘The Long Strike’.
Even before the Long Strike was defeated, the coal operators had made up their minds to crush the miners’ union. In the first phase of this campaign, they used what has since become a time-honoured tactic. They moved to isolate the workers’ leaders – by accusing them of being thugs, criminals, communists, and terrorists. In particular, the coal operators charged the leaders of the miners’union -- many of whom were Irish immigrants or of Irish descent – with being part of a secret criminal gang –the Molly Maguires.
The Pittsburgh Gazette of 9th May 1876 summed up the propaganda stance of the owners: “The Molly Maguires represented the spirit of French Communism and enforced their views by secret murders. The principle involved was simply that of permitting them to dictate the operations of labour.Their men were to be employed, their prices admitted and their directions obeyed. …
“The absolute extinction of the spirit of lawlessness and murder is essential … and the full disclosure and punishment of the band under consideration is an absolute necessity.”
The effects of this propaganda campaign were described well by a reporter for the Irish World in its 1st June 1876 edition. Writing from the coal country, the correspondent pointed out that the mine owners had created such a hue and cry about “terrorism” that they obviously wanted “to make Molly Maguirism such a frightful bugaboo that no workingman will henceforth dare to protest against any act of the boss, however arbitrary and unusual, lest the awful charge should be hurled at him: ‘You are a Molly!’ ”
At the same time that the coal operators attacked the miners with propaganda, they also attacked them with a new method of subversion: the labour spy. Two years before the Long Strike, a leading representative of the coal operators contacted Alan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency and asked for his help in destroying the miners’ union. For a starting fee of $100,000, Pinkerton obliged by arranging for one of his agents – a 29-year-old native of Ireland named James McParlan – to infiltrate the AOH.
When McParlan was unable to get incriminating information on the leaders of the miners’ union, he resorted to making things up. At a series of trials, he testified that various leaders of the miners’ union had freely confessed to him that they had committed various murders. His testimony was corroborated by various prisoners at several of the county’s jails – men even less trustworthy than McParlan.
One of the men who confirmed McParlan’s testimony was a figure named ‘Kelly the Bum’, an individual who cheerfully admitted that he would “squeal on Jesus Christ” to get out of prison. Another was a shady character named Jimmy Kerrigan. Kerrigan’s own wife testified in court that Kerrigan had killed a policeman, the very policeman that Kerrigan accused mine union leaders of murdering!
The trials of the miners were marked by serious violations of legal procedure. In one case, a man was tried a second time for a murder for which he had been previously tried and acquitted. Despite all this, ten labour leaders went to their deaths in 1877.
The list of the executed includes Tom Munley, who had fled Ireland in 1864 at the age of 19 after fighting for his homeland’s freedom; Hugh McGeehan, a young Irish miner who had been blacklisted for his activities during the Long Strike of 1875; Mike Doyle; James Carroll, who was born in the United States of Irish miner parents; Thomas Duffy; James Boyle, an American who for five years before his arrest had been employed at the No. 5 colliery in the Panther Creek Valley; Andrew Campbell; Edward Kelly; “Yellow Jack” Donahue; and James Roarity, who had come to the United States from Ireland in 1869.
These men died with their heads held up. Huge crowds of silent miners surrounded the two jail yards where they were executed.
The struggle waged by the Pennsylvania coal miners of the 1870s should not be forgotten. It was in that struggle that labour’s enemies developed some of their worst methods, particularly fear-mongering, wholesale slander, and the industrial spy system. Just as capital continues to use the methods it introduced in the ‘Molly Maguire’ era, so labour should learn the lessons of what happened then.
The era of the ‘Molly Maguires’ labour war vividly demonstrates that the immigrant workers have always been part of the labour movement, and often produce the first leaders of the labour movement. That era shows that the wealthy of this country are willing to use provocateurs to destroy the movement for a better life. Today, defending the working class means defending the immigrant worker and opposing all attacks on civil liberties. It means moving decisively to prevent the isolation of our leaders when they are under attack. If we take those lessons to heart, we will pay homage to those who died so bravely on the gallows in eastern Pennsylvania in June 1877.