Mollie Maguires: Movie Compari Essay, Research Paper
On October 27, 1873, a man calling himself James McKenna emerged
from a train at the station in Port Clinton, a small community on the
southern border of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County. It was coal-mining
country, a rough part of the world suffering from the effects of what one
newspaper had called a “reign of terror” orchestrated by a shadowy
organization dubbed the Molly Maguires. Since 1862 the Mollies had been
blamed for numerous murders, beatings, knifings, armed robberies, and
incidents of arson. The story of the Molly Maguires is a well known segment
of the history of industrialization in the United States. In 1970, Sean
Connery starred in a film called The Molly Maguires, in which he played Jack
Kehoe, the lead Mollie, opposite to Richard Harris James McKenna. The
comparison between the film and the actual real life events will be the topic
of this paper. Whether or not the film accurately portrays the Molly
maguires as they really were, though, is not the key interest here. Of
primary concern is the ways in which the film describes the plight of Irish
immigrants to the coal mines of Pennsylvania; how accurately does it portray
the story behind the Mollies? This terrorist group did not appear overnight;
it was created. Therefore, they must have been created for a reason, and
this is the focus of the investigation.
In order to understand the factors that led to the formation of the
Molly Maguires, one must understand something about the lives of the
people that comprised the Mollies: Irish immigrants. This is best
accomplished by first taking a look at the reasons for the massive number of
Irish to immigrates to the U.S. in the nineteenth century. From 1820 to
1920, over four and a quarter million Irish immigrants came to the United
States. One cause for this extraordinarily heavy emigration, was the
constant pressure of population on the resources of the Emerald Isle, for in
Ireland the density of population was greater than in any other country of
The dominant industry of Ireland was agriculture. It was under the
control of an aristocracy, many of whom were absentee landlords who
rented their land to scores of small farmers or cotters; who, in turn, farmed
with the most antiquated implements and backward methods. As a result,
Ireland witnessed a progressive deterioration of its farming class, from 1815,
to well past the middle of the century. Taxation, finance, and the courts were
under the control of the landed aristocracy. The normal wage in Ireland was
sixpence a day, including one meal; and eightpence a day without food. The
food of the peasant, in his happiest and most prosperous times, consisted of
nothing more than potatoes, a little milk, and occasionally, fish. Meat was so
scarce that many families never saw it from one year to the next. The
peasant s hut, in which he usually reared a large brood of children, was
filthy, damp, cold, and smoky. It had but one room to house the whole
family; which, at least in some instances, included the family pig. 1
Education, even of the most rudimentary sort, was impossible for
hundreds of families. Drinking, and its natural accompaniment, rioting,
constituted the prevailing curse of the Irish people. The slums of Dublin were
notorious for poverty, disease, and filth in the early decades of the
1 MacManus, Seumas. The Story of the Irish Race: a popular history of Ireland, Rev. ed.,(Old Greenwich,
Conn.: Devin-Adair, 1992, c1966), 87-145.
nineteenth century. If one adds to these distressing conditions, exploitation
by a foreign power, England; and the denial of political privileges to the
native Irish; and the burden of paying tithes for the support of a Church
establishment which Irish Catholics hated, it is obvious why Ireland was a
fertile recruiting ground for immigrants in the nineteenth century, and why
the immigrant tide to the United States could not be stopped once it had
begun to flow. 2 Between 1815 and 1830, the more substantial farmers
constituted the bulk of the Irish immigration to America. After that date, the
flood gates were open to all.
The Irish emigrant trade really began in the years 1816 and 1817.
From 6,000 to 9,000 Irish sailed for America in each of these years. In
1818, the number more than doubled. Vessels began to be chartered for the
specific purpose of transporting emigrants; although, as a general practice,
vessels that had brought American cargoes of cotton or timber to Ireland,
departed with human cargoes for the return voyage. In 1827, the Irish
immigration to America reached 20,000. By 1831 and 1832, it exceeded
65,000. After 1835, with the exception of 1838, there were never less than
30,000 Irish crossing the Atlantic in any one year. In 1842, the total reached
2 Ibid., 147.
3 Bimba, Anthony. The Molly Maguires. 1932: International Publishers, 1950.
Potato famines had always meant disaster for a population such as
Ireland s, which constantly bordered so close on starvation. There had been
famines before 1845, but that year marked the beginning of a succession of
cold, damp summers; with the resultant potato rot; a plant disease which
destroyed practically the whole crop. Pestilence, fever, starvation and death
descended upon the Irish countryside, and nearly one fourth of the
population succumbed. Relief ships from America provided little aid. The
figures for the period of the Irish famine immigration mounted to startling
totals: 1846= 92,484; 1847= 196,224; 1848= 173,744; 1849= 204,771;
1850= 206,041. 4
The census of 1850 reported 961,719 Irish in the United States; by
1860, the total had reached 1,611,304.5 These were to be found in greatest
numbers in New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Illinois, Ohio, and New
Jersey. An organization in Philadelphia, in six months, collected $48,000 in
cash, and $20,000 worth of articles; and sent seven relief ships to Ireland.
American Protestant churches appealed for aid for the stricken Irish.6 At the
same time, those interested in promoting immigration, circulated handbills,
and maintained agents in the principal towns of Ireland. Hope inspired the
voyagers across the Atlantic, but for many, it vanished like the rainbow,
when the actual conditions of life in America had to be faced. Almost all Irish
immigrants had to begin in the United States as unskilled labor, and most
never made it any farther than that.
4 MacManus, 150-2.
5 Bimba, 98.
6 Ibid., MacManus.
Although 80% of the immigrating Irish had a background in farming,
only 6% farmed in America. Instead, Irish immigrants sought jobs in the
coal mines, where they found the ethnic unity and feeling of community that
they desired. English and especially Welsh miners brought a high level of
skill and experience to the mines. Each of these miners was assigned several
unskilled laborers to help with movement of supplies and digging. These
unskilled positions were the ones filled by the Irish.7
The owner of the mine would almost always own the coal patch,
including the miners’ homes and the stores where they bought their
supplies. The miners were forced to live in the company houses and buy
from the company stores, where prices were at least twenty percent higher
than in private shops.8 The unskilled mine laborers would, because of
inflated supply costs, finish a pay period in debt to the mine owner. This
practice of inflating costs and keeping the miners in debt allowed operators
to keep the miners from striking or leaving to join another company.
The Irish laborer in the middle nineteenth century frequently found
himself in difficulties because of shameless exploitation and bad working
conditions, and because of the resentment harbored against him by native
Americans who feared his competition; although apparently few Americans
had any wish to do the heavy, dirty, unskilled labor that fell to the lot of the
7 Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford UP, 1998, 42.
8 Bimba, 98-102.
Irishman with his pick and shovel. Irish longshoremen were employed at
the docks in all the leading sea and Lake Ports. They bitterly resented the
invasion of the Negroes, who were often brought in expressly to depress the
wage scale. Riots between Irish and Negro dock workers were not
infrequent. It is this economic competition that helps to explain the strong
hostility of the Irish toward the abolitionist movement, and the New York
draft riots during the Civil War.9
In the 1840 s and 1850 s, little “Dublins” sprang up in the factory
towns of New England and in the Middle Atlantic states, for the Irish were
invading the mill centers. The Irish population of Boston tripled in a decade.
Often, the mill population was the residue from the labor supply that had
dug the canals, or constructed the millrace. In Rhode Island, for example,
the first Irish mill workers were recruited from those who had built the
railroad between Providence and Boston, and the Woonsocket Irish Catholic
settlement was due to the construction of the Blackstone Canal. Irishmen
went into the mill towns of Pawtucket and the “coal pits” between Fall River
In addition to the financial and social problems facing all unskilled
laborers, the Irish faced further difficulties due to prejudice. Although they
were great contributors to the industrialization of America, the Irish Catholic
10 Coleman,James Walter. The Molly Maguire Riots: Industrial Conflict in the Pennsylvania Coal Region.
Richmond: Garrett & Massie, 1936, 17-25.
were treated with disdain by the mostly Protestant “native” population of
the area. The Irish were called a “massive lump in the community,
undigested, undigestible”. Riots frequently broke out between Protestants
and the Catholic newcomers.
Increasingly, it was the Irish in general, not only the Catholics, who
were persecuted. The Irish received a reputation for being drunken and
quick to violence, and the newspapers of the middle of the last century are
full of graphic accounts of their bloody battles. After reading the many
accounts of brawling and fighting among Irish workingmen that appear in the
American newspapers, one becomes aware of the fact that not all the trouble
was due to the Irishman s belligerent temperament, his love for the bottle,
or his belief that contentiousness is the spice of life. Much of this rioting was
the result of intolerable labor conditions. The brawls were often efforts,
however misguided and unwise, to achieve an improvement in labor
standards at a time when the labor movement had hardly begun. There were
strikes for higher wages on internal improvement projects, many of which
led to a display of force, particularly when contractors later refused to
respect the agreements they had been forced to accept.
The Anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania had a mushroom growth in
the 1830 s, with immigrant labor, poor housing facilities, and all the evils of
company towns and company stores as natural concomitants of this rapid
expansion. The region suffered from the evils of overdevelopment, and
frequent business slumps, which weighed especially heavily upon the Irish
coal miners. Working conditions in the mines were terrible; with no safety
requirements, inspection, or proper ventilation. From 1839 to 1848, wages
were $1.00 to $1.25 a day for miners, and 82 cents a day for ordinary
laborers. In 1869, a peak of $18.20 a week was reached, but by 1877, the
wage had declined again to $9.80 a week. “Breaker boys”, aged 7 to 16,
worked like slaves in the breakers under mine bosses whose character left
much to be desired.11
The Irish Catholics were, of course, excluded from benevolent
societies, so they began to form organizations of their own to help
immigrants adjust to America. These organizations were for the most part
public, since societies requiring oaths of secrecy were officially forbidden by
the Catholic Church. However, as the persecution grew worse, secrecy
became necessary and the once peaceful societies began to fight back. The
pattern of violent retaliation was too much a part of Irish culture for anything
else to have happened.
Irish benevolent societies were formed to deal with some of these
problems. The Ancient Order of Hibernians, a semi-secret organization,
became the backbone of the miners unions. In a very long story of real class
war, the responsibility for violence in the Pennsylvania coal fields seems to
be pretty well divided. By 1860, the Mollie Maguires terrorized the whole
Anthracite region; elected sheriffs and constables, and resorted to arson,
blackmail, and murder.12 The organization was not finally broken up until
1877, when, because of the detective work of James McParlan, 19 were
hanged after trials held in an atmosphere of great excitement and prejudice.
11 Ibid., Bimba.
12 O Dea, John. History of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and Ladies Auxiliary. 3 vols. Philadelphia:
Keystone Printing Co., 1923, vol.2, 866-69.
The incident, for a long time, blackened the record of Irish-Americans, and
many refused to see the industrial conditions which had provoked such
criminal action. Furthermore, it must be added that the better elements
among the Irish population denounced the Mollie Maguires, particularly the
Church, which threatened the leaders of this organization with
The anti-Irish sentiments of the community resulting from Irish
violence made them an easy target for political critics. In 1857, “Miners’
Journal” publisher Bannan accused Irish Catholic organizations of voting in
the 1856 presidential elections as a block. He also commented on the 55
indictments of voting inspectors in Philadelphia. “Every one of these
inspectors were Irishmen, belonging no doubt to the order of ‘Molly
Maguires’ ….” This publication marked the first time the eastern
Pennsylvania coal mines saw the term in print. Sleepers and Buckshots
would become alternate names for this alleged organization.13 The Molly
Maguires he referred to were certainly the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a
benevolent association founded by the alienated Irish Catholics.
The anti-conscription riots of 1872 would also be attributed to the
Molly Maguires. The Irish coal miners felt, perhaps correctly, that the Civil
War was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight.” Adding to their objection
to the war was the belief that the rich men of the North were hoping to bring
Blacks to the coal mines where they would work for lower wages. Already
competing with other immigrants and against prejudice, it is understandable
13 Kenny, 88.
that the Irish coal miners would not be eager to give their lives for a cause
that could only hurt them.14
Benjamin Bannan, the conscription officer in Schuylkill County, was
able to register men for the draft without much trouble, but when it was time
for the conscripts to depart, a mob of 5,000 men formed to stop them and
offered to protect the men that did not wish to leave. President Lincoln was
eager to have the law “at least to appear to have been executed”, so Bannan
forged papers that would make it appear as if the county’s quota had been
filled by registration in other sections of the county. The drafting of troops
would again be halted by miners in 1863, when a federal conscription act
was passed. Following devastating riots in New York City, officials were
uneasy about enforcement of the draft in Schuylkill County. It was reported
that an army of 2,000 to 3,000 miners, drilled daily, preparing to resist the
draft. This organization threatened to burn houses and coal mines owned by
Republicans and gave “cautionary” notices to prominent men including
Benjamin Bannan. This incident was one of poor men organizing as a political
protest, and although their methods were in no way peaceful, and the men
should have been punished, the riots were not the work of a secret terrorist
society as Bannan alleged.15
During and after the Civil War the Molly Maguires became a more
commonly used term in the “Miners’ Journal” to refer to retaliatory crimes by
the Irish. Later on, historians would attribute 12 or more killings between
14 Kenny, 81-4.
15 Coleman, 43-5.
1860 and 1862 to the Mollies, but the first killing that would play a role in
the coming trials took place in June of 1862. A 4th of July celebration was
being planned in Carbon County when Irish miner Jack Kehoe spit on the
American Flag. F. W. Langdon, a foreman who was responsible for accepting
or rejecting a miner s coal, was quick to brand the man a traitor. Kehoe was
heard to say the words, You son of a bitch, I ll kill you. Later, the mine
foreman was severely beaten and died the next day.i6 There were no arrests
made at the time and the murder would be one of many unsolved cases
attributed to the Molly Maguires. Langdon was murdered, likely by Kehoe
and his friends, but it was a simple act of retaliation by miners who felt the
foreman had cheated them.17
The killing of George K. Smith, a mine owner fairly popular with the
skilled laborers, would also be attributed to the Mollies. Smith was a fair
operator, but worked the men hard. His attackers were most likely angered
by the fact that Smith had invited draft enforcement officers to his home.
Men with blackened faces forced their way into his home on November 5,
1863. There they quickly ended his life with a shot to the head. Several of
the alleged attackers were arrested, but later freed by a mob. They would
not be tried for 14 years. With all the violence in the area at the time, it was
unlikely that a proper police investigation took place even then.18
16 Ibid., 40.
17 Kenny, 85.
18 Ibid., 85-6.
After the Civil War, violence in the coal areas rose to even higher
rates. The combination of increased anthracite demand and the scarcity of
labor due to war service inflated the coal miners’ wages to perhaps the best
in the nation. The conclusion of the war caused a sharp downfall in demand
for all businesses, and affected the coal mines with devastating force. Prices
dropped at a stunning rate and miners’ wages followed suit. Miners who had
been let go during this time were joined by war veterans returning home.
Unemployment and therefore violence climbed to pre-war levels.19
The concern caused by the increased violence, especially against coal
mining officials prompted the establishment of the Coal and Iron Police in
1866. Permission for the institution of this special police force was granted
by the state legislature with the intention that the force would protect
private property from vandalism and sabotage. The “policemen” were hired,
paid, and therefore completely controlled by the coal companies. This private
force would be the one that made many of the arrests that would lead to the
Molly Maguire executions. The coal companies were given the power to
arrest the men that troubled them, and used this power to its fullest
The fall in coal prices confronted the mine owners with a very real lack
of funds. The Eagle Colliery attempted to execute a ten percent pay cut but,
in January, 1868, the miners struck. The mine owners could not afford to
19 Ibid., 96-102.
20 Ibid., 107-9.
allow the other mines to continue working while the Eagle was not in
operation, so the operators were forced to comply with the miners’ wishes.
The strike itself was not important, but it led to the formation of the
Workingman’s Benevolent Association under the leadership of John Siney.
The new union was plagued by problems. The northern miners and southern
workers of the Schuylkill area were competing for business. Although leaders
from both areas agreed on paper to support each other’s strikes, distrust
and personal greed prevented the unity so urgently needed. In 1871 the
southern and northern fields finally agreed to strike together. The operators
were unable to ship out any coal and eagerly accepted the miners’ terms.
Franklin B. Gowen, however, ensured that the miners’ moment of triumph
was a short one.21
Gowen had been elected Attorney General during the period of
violence in the early 1860s. He failed to prosecute many of the crimes
because the Irish had been major supporters of the Democratic ballot he was
elected on. He retired from politics in 1864 and became the legal director of
the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, soon to rise in rank and head the
Gowen tried for many years to slip a clause allowing his railroad to
purchase coal lands into unrelated legislation, but the clauses were spotted
and stricken by the anti-monopoly senators of the time. A bill was finally
passed to allow Gowen to hold the lands but under questionable
21 Ibid., 116-17.
22 Ibid., 137-49.
circumstances. The clause Gowen had placed within the bill was removed in
a morning vote by a vote of 17 to 15. Another vote was called in the
afternoon and three of the senators opposed to the bill were absent while
another had reversed his vote. The bill so necessary to Gowen’s plans
passed under conditions that strongly suggest that Gowen worked this
miracle himself, with bribes. The plan succeeded and while the increased
transport prices devastated mine operators, Gowen bought land at an
unbelievable rate. By 1875, he owned 150 square miles of anthracite mining
land, which amounted to 80 percent of the Schuylkill and 1/3 of the entire
coal field. The Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company was born.
His fear of the Molly Maguires possibly disrupting his coal monopoly spread
to his investors, who were also powerful in the community.23
Franklin Gowen approached detective Allan Pinkerton during October of
1873. The Pinkerton Agency was already famous for their work towards
capturing outlaws in the West. Pinkerton recorded in his diary that Gowen
told him: “… we want people to sleep unthreatened, unmolested, in their
beds, … we want the laboring-men … protected in their right to secure
sustenance for their wives and little ones …” 24 The records of the Ancient
Order of Hibernians, an established Irish secret society, often accused of
being Molly Maguires, quoted Gowen quite differently.
I want you to send a man … to join the Mollie Maguires and become its
leader. … I want him to precipitate strikes … and make the lives of the
24 Ibid., 154.
mine managers a burden. I want him to lead bands against the
English, Welsh and German miners and mine bosses, beat and kill
them off, until the collieries will be unable to run for want of competent
Although neither quote probably records the exact words of Gowen, the
latter records feelings more appropriate to his prior actions.
The Molly Maguires were created out of necessity. It was not the
unruly, drunken Irishmen that created them though, it was people like
Gowen and Bannon with their politics and greed. With the laissez-faire
economy that allowed people like Gowen to become infinitely wealthy in the
absence of government intervention, came the need for a social cure. As
far as the film goes, it was pretty accurate in its portrayal of the hardships
that coal miners endured every day, and it provided a glimpse of the
dictatorial atmosphere that plagued nineteenth century industry. Although
the film portrayed the Mollies as guilty as hell , it did accomplish the task of
relaying the message of the unusually harsh lifestyle Irish immigrants were
forced to endure. 26 Even though it did not deal too much with the history
behind the formation of the Mollies, it intimated that a distinct history was
25 Ibid., O dea.
26 Zaniello, Tom. Workers, Stiffs, Union Maids, Reds and Riffraff: An organized guide to films about labor.
Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996, 165.