The Molly Maguires originated in Ireland and were known to many Irish immigrants before leaving Ireland, where their semi-legendary organization was a vigilante group that had fought Irish landlords for tenant rights.
The group’s name supposedly came from a widow named Molly Maguire, who after being evicted by her landlord led anti-landlord agitations of a violent and destructive nature in the 1840s. The organization first formed officially in 1843. She may, however, only have been a mythical figure.
In the 1880’s the Molly Maguires in Ireland slowly merged with a newly evolving society, the Ancient Order of Hibernians becoming in turn themselves a secret society retaining the second front name of Molly Maguires, or The Mollies. They spread under the cloak of the Hibernians and with the approval of the Irish parliamentary Party into every county and corner of Ireland. Their strongest opponents were the All-For-Ireland League. The Mollies radicalized the Irish political scene with sectarian violence and intimidation up until the outbreak of War in 1914 and were largely responsible for the ultimate partition of Ireland.
In the nineteenth century Irish immigrants transplanted a form of their Molly Maguire organization into America and continued its activities as a clandestine society. Irish miners in this organization employed the tactics used against Irish landlords of intimidation and violence in a violent confrontation against the anthracite, or hard coal mining companies in the 19th century. They were located in a section of the anthracite coal fields dubbed the Coal Region.
This Irish coal mining heritage contributed to their wave of violence, and continued well over ten years in the late 19th century in the United States. Although a legitimate self-help organization for Irish immigrants existed in the form of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, the Molly Maguires existed as a secret organization behind this front. Both groups fought discrimination against Irish and Catholics. In the case of the Mollies, the fight took the form of violence and destruction, mimicking the attacks against English landlords in Ireland, and the later sectarian intimidation of political and religious opponents in the first decades of the 20th century.
Many of the Mollies were miners and the mode of working the mines lent itself to their peculiar policy. Miners were paid by the cubic yard, by the mine car, or by the ton, and in the driving of entries by the lineal yard. In the assignment of places which was made by the mining boss there were “soft” jobs and hard. If a Molly applied for a soft job and was refused, his anger was aroused and not infrequently in due time the offending boss was murdered. If he got employment, there was constant chance for disagreement in measuring-up the work and in estimation of the quality of the coal mined, for it was the custom to dock the miners for bad coal with too much slate and dirt, and a serious disagreement was apt to be followed by vengeance. Little wonder was it that, as the source of the outrages was well understood, mining bosses refused to employ Irishmen, but this did not insure their safety as they might then be murdered for their refusal. A good Superintendent of any colliery would, in his quality of superior officer, support an efficient mining boss and would thus fall under the ban himself. John T. Morse, Jr., who made a contemporaneous study of the Molly Maguires, wrote in his vivid account of their operations: “The superintendents and ‘bosses’ in the collieries could all rest assured that their days would not be long in the land. Everywhere and at all times they were attacked, beaten, and shot down, by day and by night; month after month and year after year, on the public highways and in their own homes, in solitary places and in the neighborhood of crowds these doomed men continued to fall in frightful succession beneath the hands of assassins.”
The murders were not committed in the heat of sudden passion for some fancied wrong: they were the result of a deliberate system. The wronged individual laid his case before a proper body demanding the death, say, of a mining boss and urging his reasons. If they were satisfying, as they usually were, the murder was decreed; but the deed was not ordered to be done by the aggrieved person or by any one in his and the victim’s neighborhood. Two or more Mollies from a different part of the county or even from the adjoining county were selected to do the killing because, being unknown, they could the more easily escape detection. Refusal to carry out the dictate of the conclave was dangerous and seldom happened, although an arrangement of substitution, if properly supported, was permitted to be made. The meeting generally took place in an upper room of a hotel or saloon and, after the serious business, came the social reunion with deep libations of whiskey.
In attempting to give precise figures some writers have undoubtedly exaggerated the number of murders by this order from 1865 to 1875; but no one can go through the evidence without being convinced that a great many men were killed to satisfy the revengeful spirit of the Molly Maguires. Some of the victims were men so useful, conspicuous and so beloved in their communities that their assassination caused a profound and enduring impression, In some cases, so Dewees (who has written a very useful story) asserts, robbery was added to murder; superintendents, who were carrying the money for the monthly pay of the miners and laborers, were waylaid as they drove along some lonely road in the desolate country. While the murders were numerous, still more numerous were the threats of murder and warnings to leave the country written on a sheet of paper with a rude picture of a coffin or a pistol and sometimes both. One notice read: “Mr. John Taylor-We will give you one week to go but if you are alive on next Saturday you will die.” Another, to three bosses, charged with “cheating thy men” had a picture of three pistols and a coffin and on the coffin was written, “This is your home.” In other mining districts and in manufacturing localities during strikes and times of turbulence similar warnings have been common and have been laughed at by mining bosses, superintendents and proprietors; but, in the anthracite region between 1865 and 1876 the bravest of men could not forget how many of his fellows had been shot and suppress a feeling of uneasiness when he found such a missive on his doorstep or posted up on the door of his office at the mine. Many a superintendent and mining boss left his house in the morning with his hand on his revolver, wondering if he should ever see wife and children again.
The young men of the order were selected for the commission of murder; above them were older heads holding high office and, in a variety of ways, displaying executive ability. They were quick to see what a weapon to their hand was universal suffrage, and, with the aptitude for politics which the Irish have shown in our country, they developed their order into a political power to be reckoned with. Numbering in Schuylkill county only 500 or 600 out of 5,000 Irishmen in a total population of 116,000, the Molly Maguires controlled the common schools and the local government of the townships in the mining sections of the county. They elected at different times three county commissioners and came near electing one of their number, who had acquired twenty thousand dollars worth of property, associate Judge of the Court of Oyer and Terminer. In one borough a Molly was chief of police; another in Mahanoy township, Jack Kehoe, was High Constable.
In the elections were fraudulent voting, stuffing of the ballot-boxes and false returns; in the administration of the offices, fraud and robbery. In Mahanoy township $60,000 were drawn for the schools and eleven-twelfths of it stolen. Exorbitant road taxes were a fruitful means by which township officials robbed the taxpayers and put the money in their own pockets. In August 1875 an ex-county commissioner, a Molly, and two commissioners then in office, not actually belonging to the order but in sympathy with it, had been convicted of stealing the county funds and each had been sentenced by a full bench [September 6] to two years’ imprisonment. At the fall election for governor in this year  the Molly Maguires, who were naturally Democrats, foresaw Republican success and sold their vote in Schuylkill and Luzerne counties to the Republicans for a certain amount of money in hand and an implied agreement that these convicted commissioners and other criminals who were called by a leading Molly “our men” should be pardoned. It is hardly to be supposed that the Republican politicians who made this bargain were aware of the thoroughly criminal nature of the Molly Maguires, for they had astutely covered themselves with a virtuous cloak, securing from the Legislature in 1871 a charter for the Ancient Order of Hibernians whose motto was “Friendship, Unity and Christian Charity.” On October 10, 1875 in a letter to the Shenandoah Herald Jack Kehoe denied with indignation that the Molly Maguires were synonymous with the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which latter was “composed of men who are law abiding and seek the elevation of their members.” Kehoe was crafty enough to see the advantage of throwing dust in the eyes of the public and, when the outside world was bargained with, the A.O.H. was put forward, but, as matter of fact, it was the old story of ravening wolves in sheep’s clothing.
One agent, James McParlan, using the alias of James McKenna, became a trusted member of the organization. On 10 February 1875, Captain R.J. Linden, a fellow Pinkerton operative with McParlan, captured Thomas Munley at his home in Gilberton. Charles McAllister was apprehended at the same time. McAllister demanded a separate trial and George Kaercher, Esq., the District Attorney, elected to try Munley first.
McParlan testified in numerous Molly cases, and his evidence helped to send ten men to the gallows. The defense attorneys repeatedly sought to portray McParlan as an agent-provocateur who was responsible for not warning people of their imminent deaths. (Kenny 232-33) McParlan testified that the AOH and the Mollys were one and the same, but most historians disagree.
The wonderful address of Mr. Gowen, and those of General Charles Albright, Hon. F.W. Hughes, and Guy E. Farquhar, Esq., added just the argument which the jury required to find a just verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.”
In November McAllister was convicted. Munley was hanged in the Pottsville jail August 16, 1876 and McAllister was hanged later.
About twenty members of the group were hanged after being convicted of complicity in the murders of about twenty-four mine managers.
From 1865 to 1875, post-war recession combined with a crime wave in the Coal Region to create a decade marred by murder, assault and arson.
Four members of the Molly Maguires, Alexander Campbell, John “Yellow Jack” Donohue, Michael Doyle and Edward Kelly, were hanged on June 21, 1877 at a Carbon County, Pennsylvania prison in Mauch Chunk (renamed Jim Thorpe in 1953), for the murder of mine bosses John P. Jones and Morgan Powell, following a trial that was later described by Carbon County judge, John P. Lavelle, as follows:
The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.
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