Monday, August 5, 2013

The Legend of the Molly Maguires: the first worker-only labor movement in American history.

On June 21, 1877, twenty men linked to the secret organization called the “Molly Maguires” were hanged in the Carbon and Schuylkill county prisons for first degree murder. These men were sentenced to death by judges who were heavily influenced by powerful mining companies and the biased testimony of a spy, James McParlan. Today, these hangings have been recognized as unjustified, and in 1979 the state of Pennsylvania gave John Kehoe, the alleged king of the Molly Maguires, a full state pardon over a hundred years after his death. June 21, 1877, the sad day when twenty members of the Molly Maguires were hanged, has since been referred by the state of Pennsylvania as “Black Thursday.”
During the mid-19th century, America saw a huge influx of Irish immigrants. Many of these immigrants moved to the anthracite coal regions of eastern Pennsylvania to find work, specifically in the mines located in Carbon, Schuylkill, and Lehigh Counties. The Irish moved to America hoping they would escape horrible working environments and the brutal tyranny of the English, as well as to find a better life for their families. They soon discovered that the conditions in America were not so different from the conditions in Ireland. They were subject to overwhelming ridicule and discrimination. When searching for work, they would see “Help Wanted” signs, but often followed by the words, “Irish need not apply.” When they were fortunate enough to find jobs, they were working in the most dangerous and horrendous conditions in 19th century America.
With almost no labor or mining laws, the coal mines were extremely dangerous and in decrepit condition. In 1864, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA) was formed in Pennsylvania to help enforce appropriate and safer mining conditions. The WBA strictly forbade violence and opposed militancy. However, this organization catered more to its own interests than the needs of the workers. Due to this self-serving attitude and also due to prejudice that existed within the organization, the Irish decided to form their own group to protect their workers. This group was known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The AOH only allowed Irishmen or sons of Irishmen. They sought to provide fairness for the Irish working class and were willing to punish those who mistreated workers.
Many of the Irish immigrants who relocated to the Anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania originated from oppressed regions of Ireland where the Molly Maguries fought for human rights. It is believed that the Molly Maguires resurfaced in the Pennsylvania coal region in order to fight for the Irish coal miner’s rights, but no concrete evidence has ever been obtained to confirm their existence. However, most historians have since accepted their existence as fact.

During the Molly Maguires trial there were numerous incidents of skeptical testimony that has now been recognized by the state of Pennsylvania as inconclusive evidence. It has been speculated that the witnesses were clearly refutable and the evidence was circumstantial at best. Even McParlan was accused of perjury during the trials, but he was never convicted. The court found 20 men to be guilty for the coordinated murder of John P. Jones, Ben F. Yost and several other mining officials, policeman, and supervisors that took place during The Long Strike. On June 21, 1877, these 20 men were hanged as punishment.
To date, official documentation that the Molly Maguires ever existed in America has never been produced, but their legend will not be forgotten. After the hangings, the coal miners and the Irish community regarded the Molly Maguires as heroes. They admired their courage and determination through one of the most difficult union movements ever recorded. The Molly Maguires are recorded as the first worker-only labor movement in American history.

 By Matt Loy, Spring 2009; supplemented by Matthew R. Hengeveld, Spring 2010.

.I lived in company towns. It was no paradise for anyone involved, believe me. You've hear of the Molly McQuires, right? People do not like being treated like slaves, folks. Sooner or later they fight back.
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. The union advocated an eight-hour workday and opposed the compulsory buying of goods in company stores, employment for children under 14, and the use of hired gunmen to enforce company rules. Even with these regulations, coal mining remained a difficult and dangerous way to make a living, but no longer one that would have to rely on the Molly Maguires and their brand of justice.

Miners were not only required to purchase their home goods at the company store, as they were paid in "script" and only re-deemable at the company store, but they had to buy their own blasting powder, tool handles,and any other equipment needed fr the mining of the coal.

Theories abound about the origin of the Molly Maguires' name, but all refer it back to Ireland. They include stories of peasants who banded together to avenge Molly Maguire, an old woman who had been evicted from her house; a tavern owner of that name who allowed a secret society to meet on her premises; and a fierce, pistol-packing woman who led her male followers on raids through the countryside. Most likely, the name came from groups of Irishmen who called themselves the Molly Maguires, and who engaged in violence against the agents of their English landlords during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These men dressed in women's clothes and blackened their faces, not only as a disguise but to indicate their dedication to a mythical Molly Maguire who symbolized their struggle against injustice. There is no evidence to suggest that the men who acted against the Pennsylvania mine owners named themselves after the Irish Molly Maguires. In 1857 Benjamin Bannan, editor of the Schuylkill County Miners' Journal, brought the name to the attention of the American public when he used it as a term for all the aspects of the Irish character that he found unsavory. He kept the name alive for several years in newspaper articles with headings such as 'A Molly on the Rampage' and 'Molly Beating.' Franklin B. Gowen perpetuated the name during legislative hearings for rate raises for his railroad in 1871. He suggested to the committee that the area was under attack by a group of men he referred to as the Molly Maguires.

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