The Myth of the Molly Maguires

The Day of the Rope

The Myth of the Molly Maguires became international news on June 21, 1877, when the authorities hanged ten Irish miners in a single day in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. Known as Black Thursday, or Day of the Rope, it was the second largest mass execution in U.S. history. (The largest was in 1862, when the U.S. government executed 38 Dakota warriors). The authorities accused the Irishmen of being terrorists from a secret organization called the Molly Maguires. They executed ten more over the next two years, and imprisoned another twenty suspected Molly Maguires. Most of the convicted men were union activists. Some even held public office, as sheriffs and school board members.

Six of the convicted defendants walking to the scaffold at Pottsville, Pennsylvania from Leslie's Weekly June 21, 1877. By Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper -, Public Domain,
Six of the convicted Molly Maguire defendants walking to the scaffold at Pottsville, Pennsylvania.

The Pinkertons and Agents Provocateur

Dust-jacket of The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle to illustrate an article. By Arthur I. Keller - EN.Wikipedia, Public Domain,
Dust-jacket of The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle

However, there is no evidence that an organization called the Molly Maguires ever existed in the U.S. James McParland, an agent provocateur who worked for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and who provided the plans and weapons the men purportedly used in their crimes, provided the only serious evidence against the men. The entire legal process was a travesty: a private corporation (the Reading Railroad) set up the investigation through a private police force (the Pinkerton Detective Agency) and prosecuted them with their own company attorneys. No jurors were Irish, though several were recent German immigrants who had trouble understanding the proceedings.

Nearly everything people “know” today about the Molly Maguires comes from Allan Pinkerton’s own work of fiction, The Molly Maguires and the Detectives (1877), which he marketed as nonfiction. His heavily biased book was the primary source for dozens of academic works, and for several pieces of fiction, including Arthur Conan Doyle’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, Valley of Fear (1915), and the 1970 Sean Connery film, Molly Maguires.

Irish Origins of the Myth of the Molly Maguires

According to legend, there was a widow living in Ireland in the 1840s named Molly Maguire, who hated the landlords who were abusing the poor tenant farmers. She supposedly carried a pistol strapped to each thigh. She, or her followers, would beat or murder the tyrannical landlords, their agents, and bailiffs, whenever they tried to evict a tenant. No one knows if she ever really existed, but other tenant farmer activists were said to cry out, “Take that from a son of Molly Maguire!” when protesting against unscrupulous landlords.

Ribbon society meeting in 1851.  By William Steuart Trench (1808–1872) -, Public Domain,
Ribbon society meeting in 1851.  By William Steuart Trench (1808–1872)

Prior to this, there had been a long tradition in Ireland of people resisting oppressive policies, like the enclosure of their communal lands by wealthy landlords, exorbitant tithes collected by the church, high rent and evictions by absentee landlords, and sectarian violence by their neighbors. Over the centuries, those in power gave these activists names like Whiteboys, Levellers, Ribbonmen, and, by the early 1800s, Molly Maguires. Many researchers believe that these groups organized themselves into regional lodges, and had a variety of secret greetings and oaths to ensure loyalty and solidarity among members.

The Hunger and Mass Migration to the U.S.

London version of NINA song, Feb. 1862.  By J H Johnson -, Public Domain,

In 1845, millions of Irish fled the famine, the majority coming to the U.S. Nearly half of all U.S. immigrants in the 1840s were Irish. The racism against them was phenomenal. There were the No Irish Need Apply signs outside businesses looking for workers. Anti-Irish nativist gangs, like New York’s Bowery Boys, and Baltimore’s Plug Uglies carried out pogroms in Irish communities. These gangs often affiliated with political parties like the No Nothings and the Republicans. Irish gangs, affiliated with the Democratic Party, began to form for self-defense. At least twenty people died in anti-Irish riots in Philadelphia in 1844.

Sectarian Violence in Pennsylvania’s Coal Country

A "coffin notice," allegedly posted by Molly Maguires in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania. It was presented by Franklin B. Gowen, along with other similar coffin notices, as evidence in an 1876 murder trial. Public Domain,
A “coffin notice,” allegedly posted by Molly Maguires in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania.

In the 1860s-1870s, there was considerable violence in Pennsylvania’s coal country, much of it blamed on the Molly Maguires. In Schuylkill County, alone, there were fifty unsolved murders just in the period of 1863 to 1867. But many of the victims were Irish, suggesting that at least some of the violence was sectarian and carried out by non-Irish ethnic groups. And many of the victims were union activists, suggesting that some of the violence was coming from the mine owners’ hired thugs.

The Modocs were a Welsh gang, affiliated with the local Republican Party, who served as their enforcers during elections. Historians blame them for considerable violence, as well as some murders. The Modocs frequently clashed with Irish residents, especially those affiliated with the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a legal and state-recognized fraternal organization that had ties with the local Democratic Party. (The etymology of the Modoc name is obscure. Some believe they named themselves after the California/Oregon indigenous tribe. Others believe it comes from the legend of Madoc, a Welsh prince who supposedly came to America in 1170 and married an Indian princess.)

The Mine Owners Promotion of Racial Violence

The mine owners, themselves, stoked sectarian violence by pitting the different ethnic groups against each other. Indeed, they designed a workplace structure that encouraged ethnic mistrust and sowed division. At the top of the hierarchy, and the pay scale, were superintendents and foremen, usually native-born, or English immigrants. They had the power to fire and blacklist workers, and some of the region’s violence was in retaliation for this. Next came the contract miners, generally Welsh and German immigrants.

The lowest paid workers, who were mostly Irish, were the laborers. The owners sometimes broke strikes by offering the contract miners a small raise to break solidarity and get them back to work. This betrayal would outrage the laborers. The owners also liked to hire Welsh miners, particularly Modocs, to moonlight as Coal and Iron Police (C&I), to harass and bully Irish labor organizers. (The Pinkerton Detective Agency created the C&I in 1865 and operated them without state oversight.)

Nativism, Union Busting and Molly Maguirism in the U.S.

American political cartoon by Thomas Nast titled "The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things", depicting a drunken Irishman sitting on a barrel of gunpowder while lighting a powder keg and swinging a bottle in the air. Published 2 September 1871 in Harper's Weekly. By Thomas Nast -, Public Domain,
American political cartoon by Thomas Nast titled “The Usual Irish Way of Doing Things”

The first known use of the term Molly Maguires in the U.S. was an October 3, 1857 article by Benjamin Bannan, in his Miners Journal newspaper, accusing them of election fraud. Bannan was a Republican, and an anti-Catholic nativist, who feared the growing political influence of the Irish newcomers to Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, who tended to vote Democratic. For years he had been blaming the Irish for the election of pro-slavery Democrats. He regularly used his paper to warn of the “Catholic threat,” and attacked the Irish for their “drunkenness, laziness, and ignorance.” And from 1857 onward, his paper led the battle cry against the Molly Maguires.

Bannan was also rabidly anti-union, and wrote hysterically about all forms of worker protest. In 1835, for example, he described a boat workers strike, in which workers threw rotten eggs at strikebreakers, as a “reign of terror.” He repeatedly accused the miners’ union, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), of being controlled by Molly Maguires. Yet, the first Schuylkill County murders he blamed on the Mollies occurred during anti-draft protests of 1862 and 1863. However, the WBA didn’t form until 1868. And much of the violence in that period was directed at mine superintendents and foremen, suggesting that it was rooted in grievances over pay and working conditions. But blaming a secret society of crazed, slavery-loving Irishmen was a convenient way to deflect public criticism of the mine owners, with whom Bannan was aligned.

Escalation of Union Busting and Violence

Franklin B. Gowen, District Attorney for Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania and president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company. PD-US,,
Franklin Gowen

The most violent period in Schuylkill County occurred after 1873, when Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad (which owned the majority of the collieries), hired the Pinkertons to destroy the WBA. Gowen claimed that Molly Maguires controlled the union, using the AOH as a front. The Pinkertons initially found no evidence of Maguirism in the union or the AOH. So, their agent, James McParland, infiltrated the AOH and encouraged its members to murder Modocs, as well as mine superintendents and foremen. This led to a sectarian tit-for-tat battle that worsened during the Big Strike (1873), and the Long Strike (1875), when the colliery owners used the C&I and the Modocs to attack Irish union activists. The most notorious of these attacks was the 1875 murder of Ed Coyle, a gifted WBA organizer and AOH member.

The Wiggans Patch Massacre

Pinkerton Detective Agency detective James McParland, in the 1880s. By Unknown author - Cleveland Moffett. "The Overthrow of the Molly Maguires." McClure's Magazine, December 1894, p. 91., Public Domain, By Unknown author - Cleveland Moffett. "The Overthrow of the Molly Maguires." McClure's Magazine, December 1894, p. 91., Public Domain,
Pinkerton Detective Agency detective James McParland, in the 1880s

In 1875, Allan Pinkerton called for vigilante actions against Irish miners he accused of being Molly Maguires. Benjamin Bannan, of the Miners Journal, and Thomas Foster, of the Shenandoah Herald, used their papers to call for vigilante violence against the Mollies. On December 10, 1875, thirty masked men, heavily armed, broke into the Wiggans Patch (Mahanoy City) home of Ellen O’Donnell, shooting and beating residents. They killed 18-year-old Ellen McAllister, who was pregnant, as well as Charles O’Donnell.

The Pinkertons denied any connection to the Wiggans Patch Massacre. However, James McParland was outraged that an innocent woman was killed. He the raid wouldn’t have been possible if someone hadn’t leaked his intelligence to the vigilantes. As for the O’Donnells, he said, “I am satisfied they got their just deserving.” They did arrest Frank Wenrich, a first lieutenant with the Pennsylvania National Guard and a former mayor of Mahanoy City, as the leader of the vigilantes, but released without charge.

The Molly Maguire Trials

The prison in Pottsville, with a state historical marker for the Molly Maguires execution visible near the entrance. By JJonahJackalope - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,
The prison in Pottsville, with a state historical marker for the Molly Maguires execution visible near entrance.

By the end of 1875, the owners had crushed the Long Strike and defeated the WBA. And in January, 1876, the Molly Maguire trials began. The first trial was for the murder of a Welsh mine foreman named John P. Jones. One of the suspects, Jimmy Powder Keg Kerrigan, turned state’s witness, pinning the murder entirely on his two co-defendants, Michael Doyle and Edward Kelly, both union leaders. However, Kerrigan’s wife testified that her husband committed the murder. She also refused to bring clean clothes to him in jail because he had blamed innocent men for his crime. Several people have speculated that Kerrigan got special treatment because his sister in-law was engaged to marry McParland. In the end, Kerrigan walked away, free, while the state convicted and executed his comrades.

Molly Maguire memorial plaque. By Dennis.  Uploaded on December 15, 2007
Attribution-NonCommercial (CC BY-NC 2.0)
Molly Maguire memorial plaque.

The authorities won several other murder convictions based solely, or predominantly, on the testimony of McParland. They won numerous other convictions based on his claim that the defendants had secretly confessed to him. In one case, an eye witness testified that he clearly saw the murderer of Thomas Sanger and William Uren, and that the defendant, Thomas Munley, was not him. Yet the authorities still convicted and executed Munley based on McParland’s claim of a secret confession. Kelly the Bum, another Molly charged with murder, supposedly said, “I’d squeal on Jesus Christ to get out of here.” The authorities dropped his charges in exchange for his testimony. Tavern owner Muff Lawler also turned state’s witness to get his charges dropped.

Muff Lawler

I portrayed Muff in my recent novel, Anywhere But Schuylkill. He was a union leader who served on the WBA bargaining committee during the Big Strike. Lawler also attended the Anti-Monopoly meeting in Harrisburg, in 1873. He may also have been involved in the early organizing of the Greenback Party. He later opened a tavern and raised game cocks. His nickname comes from his favorite breed, the muff. From what I could gather, he was charismatic and probably mentored many younger union members. Muff also had a large family, with several very young children. This likely influenced his decision to betray his comrades.

The following is the first stanza from the song-poem, Muff the Squealer, composed by Poet Mulhall:

When Muff Lawler was in jail right bad did he feel,

He thought divil the rooster would he ever heel,

“Bejabers,” says Lawler, “I think I will squeal.”

“Yes, do,” says the judge to Muff Lawler.

Martin “Poet” Mulhall was 16 years old in 1876, when the first ten Irish miners were hanged as “Molly Maguires.” He was a miner himself, who had only two years of official schooling. Mulhall had taught himself to sing and compose music. He was so moved by the tragedy of the Molly executions that he composed a song for each of the martyrs. After that, he traveled from mine town to mine town, hopping freights. There he sang his songs and sold broadsheets of the music to support himself. In my upcoming novel, Red Hot Summer in the Big Smoke, he is the boyfriend of my main character, Tara Doyle. She is the kid sister of Mike Doyle, the protagonist of Anywhere But Schuylkill.

(The Historical Fiction Blog originally published this article on on February 11, 2024)

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