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Mollie Maguires: Movie Compari Essay, Research Paper

Lance Fulton

Molly Maguires:

Movie Comparison

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

Western Europe.

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

92,000. 3

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

and Newport.10

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

9 Ibid.

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

entire operation.22

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

23 Ibid.

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

definitely there.

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.

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