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Referred to by some as workers that sparked labor unions, others as cold-blooded murderers, the Molly Maguires has come to mean different things to different people. According to legend, Molly Maguire was a widow in Northern Ireland who, following eviction, was supported by men in the village who reversed the eviction, running off the new tenant, a Scotsman, as “Friends of Molly Maguire.”
In the coal region of Pennsylvania, in a time before labor unions, immigrants to America provided much available coalmine labor. Even first-hand accounts, usually the most reliable, are colored by personal opinion. Some refer to the Molly Maguires as the scum of the earth while others grant them near sainthood. On June 21, 1877, a day known as “Black Thursday” to many, four Molly Maguire members, Jack Donohue, Alexander Campbell, Edward Kelly and Michael Doyle were hanged. The charges for which they were convicted were the murders of mine bosses John Jones and Morgan Powell. Campbell avowed his innocence to the end. A palm print left on his cell’s wall (Cell 17--Carbon County prison) to attest to his innocence has remained over 130 years, despite efforts to clean it off or paint over it (“I am innocent, and let this be my testimony”) A judge later questioned the propriety of the trial; the investigation, arrests and prosecution all were handled by private firms representing coal mine owner’s interests, the special prosecutor appointed for the task just happened to be the president of one of the largest railroad and coal companies in the nation with the state supplying only a place for the trial and subsequent executions.
Articles about Pinkerton detective James McFarland generally characterize the Molly Maguires as bloodthirsty and indiscriminate murderers of women and children.
When the American Molly Maguires reached its zenith in the 1870s, several truisms were with the group: you had to be Irish and you had to be of the Catholic faith; further, members were probably coal miners and probably belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernia. There are those who purport that the Molly Maguires never existed except as a smear campaign by railroad president Franklin B. Gowen. The Molly Maguires probably did form in Pennsylvania. The rapid immigration to America from Ireland, their impatience at the slowness of the wheels of justice and pronounced prejudices against Irish Catholics gave the Molly Maguires the negative perception of vigilantism, deserved or imagined.
Following the potato famine of the 1840s, the exodus from Ireland was great. Many of those became American immigrants. Anti-Irish prejudice led many to seek companionship at the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which, at the time, boasted a larger membership than the Masons. Placards stating “Help wanted” were altered “Irish need not apply.”
Neither side is without blame. The edginess and vigilante nature of the Molly Maguires coupled with the prejudice and greediness of the coalmine and railroad owners made for a volatile mix in 19th century America.



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