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This Day in Labor History: June 21, 1877

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On June 21, 1877, ten alleged members of the Molly Maguires, an Irish secret society blamed for labor radicalism in the anthracite country of Pennsylvania, were executed.

The Molly Maguires began in Ireland before their members immigrated to the United States. In both places, they became known for radicalism (in Ireland, primarily over land tenure issues) and violence, especially against employers and their enforcers. The extent to which we can really call this a labor movement is debated, but they definitely stuck up for their interests as miners. The group probably came over to the United States sometime around the Civil War, although this is conjecture. Historians don’t even know all that much about the movement since they didn’t leave written records. To quote the historian Kevin Kenny, it’s not possible to “disentangle the strands that went into the violence, from rudimentary trade unionism, and from draft resistance to robbery, intimidation, and drunken brawling.”

Northeastern Pennsylvania became a major supplier of industrializing America’s coal in the mid 19th century. By the 1870, this was full-fledged coal country. Conditions, like those experienced by most of industrial labor, were terrible. Occasional violence occurred against mine operators and their interests. Between 1862 and 1868, six mine operators or supervisors were murdered. The extent of Molly Maguires involvement in these particular cases is unknown, but they were accused of the killings later on, as they would be of other mine official deaths and just any random industrial violence across the region. Of the 22,000 miners working in Schuylkill County, about 5500 were under the age of seventeen, some as young as seven. Disasters happened all the time. Sometimes 1 or 2 workers died. On September 6, 1869, 110 died in the Avondale mine fire in Luzerne County. A union formed in the area called the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. Thousands joined in the aftermath of Avondale. Many of these were Irish miners who were also members of the Mollies. Probably 85% of the workforce joined the union by the mid 1870s. The WBA had some initial success, including forcing the companies to raise wages.

Like much about the Irish, the Molly Maguires scared Anglo-Saxon Protestant Americans. Being Irish, Catholic, and secret confirmed all the fears the forces of order had against these recent immigrants. Add unionization, well that was too much. The Panic of 1873 gave employers added ammunition to destroy worker resistance to employer demands. Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, consolidated control over the region’s mines during the early 1870s. Now the leading anthracite mine owner, Gowen hired Allan Pinkerton to crack down on the union and the Mollies. Pinkerton made his name in 1861, shepherding Abraham Lincoln to Washington under a serious assassination threat. Like the rest of the Republican Party, Pinkerton moved seamlessly to supporting the plutocracy in the 1870s. Pinkerton sent his rising detective James McParland to lead the investigation. McParland, an Irish immigrant himself, joined the organization when his liquor store burned in the Great Chicago Fire of 1871.

In December 1874, Gowen announced a 20% pay cut, knowing the union would strike, which would allow industry to eliminate it. Gowen ordered McParland to target the Mollies, writing, “The M.M.’s are a species of Thugs… Let Linden get up a vigilance committee. It will not do to get many men, but let him get those who are prepared to take fearful revenge on the M.M.’s. I think it would open the eyes of all the people and then the M.M.’s would meet with their just deserts.” On December 10, 1875, 3 men and 2 women, identified by McPharland as Mollies, were attacked and killed in their home by the Pinkertons, satisfying Gowen’s desire for blood.

Gowen fed newspapers around the region made up stories about Mollie violence. Some random fire in Indiana? Mollies! He also had the police arrest the strike leaders. Then McParland managed to infiltrate the Mollies. The strike collapsed after six months with arrests of the strike leaders. The workers took the 20% pay cut. But the Mollies kept up the fight. Support grew for the underground organization. With the courts, police, and mine owners all controlled by the English and Welsh (or their descendants) and the crushing of the union, the miners and their families were humiliated, poor, and desperate. At least according to McParland’s testimony, the Mollies were planning violent revenge. But as these things often go, this moved slow, most plans were aborted, and those attempted were botched. Finally, they managed to kill a couple of cops they particularly hated. One was killed while changing a streetlight at this location in Tamaqua, Pennsylvania. The sign is very exciting. I saw it when I was there in January.

I really need to take that Mollie Maguires driving tour.

In addition, a mine boss, bartender, and justice of the peace all died, possibly killed by Mollies. At least McParland said so and that’s all that mattered. The cops conducted mass arrests. The trials were a total farce. The District Attorney for Schuylkill County, where the trials took place? Why one Franklin Gowen, mine plutocrat! Gowen named himself special prosecutor for the trial. McParland’s personal testimony was enough to get someone a death sentence. One Mollie went state’s witness, but it’s entirely possible he was lying the whole time to save his skin. His wife was so disgusted with him for doing so, that she accused him of a murder on the witness stand. Who knows who did what. Twenty men were given death sentences. Ten were executed on Black Thursday, June 21, 1877. An additional ten were executed over the next year.

Mining interests used the Mollies to taint any labor organizing among Irish miners, whether in Pennsylvania, Leadville, or Butte, as Molly terrorism, an effective tool in the public relations battle against unionization.

The anthracite miners of Pennsylvania continued to suffer in poverty, die on the job, and be murdered by coal barons and their thugs for several decades.

McParland would go on to be the Pinkertons’ top labor crusher. He worked for Jay Gould to suppress the Knights of Labor railway strike in 1886. He later headed the Pinkertons’ Denver office, where he placed spies in the Western Federation of Miners and United Mine Workers. This included sabotaging union relief programs during a strike, ensuring that workers starved and the union was divided. He also trumped up the charges that led to the arrest of Bill Haywood and others for the murder of former Idaho governor Frank Stenuenberg. Arthur Conan Doyle created a character in The Valley of Fear based on McParland.

In other words, James McParland is one of the most horrible human beings to ever live in the United States.

This is the 66th post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • mark maguire

    Yes! I was hoping you’d cover the Molly Maguires in this series…I grew up in this area, and my great-granfather and great*2 grandfater both worked (and died) in the anthricite mines. There are a lot of locals who can give you a tour of Molly-related stuff (read: take you to the Molly-related bars.)

    You may have noticed while you were in the area, but the place is still an environmental disaster because of the strip-mining (Centralia is nearby; also, the river behind my childhood house was orange with mine runoff). Interestingly, though the area is socially conservative, because of the Molly’s history there’s still strong support for labor, which has of late kept the area Democratic.

    • I’m always fascinated by mining landscapes so driving around that area for a day was very interesting. I didn’t expect it to be quite so stark, probably because my previous experience in the area was just driving through it on I-80 and you don’t see anything from the interstate. Which is one of many reasons I prefer to avoid interstates when I can.

      • witless chum

        Upper Michigan where I grew up is interesting for the mining landscape, particularly the Copper Country, because it’s been almost 50 years since the last mine closed down and 90 years since the heyday, so you kind of have to know what your looking for to see the industrial ruins because they’re so grown over. But you can walk into the very wild-looking woods and often find old mine sites in various states of decomposition. But apparently, beaches of black stamp sand don’t occur in nature?

        • rea

          the very wild-looking woods
          Scrubby second growth–the UP was all logged off a century or so ago.

          • DrDick

            The whole freaking state was clear cut in the 19th century (mostly for railroad ties). Michigan has nothing but secondary forest.

            • rea

              Which, of course, is why all the trees are just the right height.

              • JoyfulA

                +1

            • joel hanes

              Read “The Last Good Country” by Hemingway (collected in The Nick Adams Stories) for a fine elegy for the Michigan old-growth forest.

            • Linnaeus

              There is a 50-acre stand of old-growth white pine in Hartwick Pines State Park in northern lower Michigan. Just a speck compared to what was once there, of course.

          • witless chum

            One of the last stands of white pine that wasn’t logged is up in the Keeweenaw peninsula.

            After the log-off, of course, came the fires. You could walk out into the woods where I grew up north of Baraga and find burned white pine stumps that had been preserved because they were pretty much charcoal.

    • Kathleen

      My great grandfather was born in Pennsylvania and according to my grandmother he worked in the mines when he was 9 years old. He went on to have a rather mysterious life as a union organizer in Butte, Montana, was arrested in Canada, and died while serving as labor commissioner in the state of Wyoming (appointed by Nelly Taylor Ross). It’s been suggested to me that perhaps he was a
      “double agent” who worked for a security firm. Very few of my family members are eager to connect any dots.

  • cpinva

    I can’t recall the name of the movie, but I do remember seeing it as a child, it was about the allan pinkerton and his famous detective agency. it was a paen to pinkerton & his detectives, highlighted by his safe passage of Lincoln, his work for the union army during the war, and how he kept the railroads safe afterwards. it may well have been a Disney movie. it wasn’t until many years later, that I learned what thugs pinkerton and his agents were, how inept they were at intelligence during the war, and the violence they wreaked on the unions and their members after the war, while in the pay of such as gowen. basically, a thoroughly disreputable bunch.

    • rea

      his work for the union army during the war

      Was a friggin’ disaster. He repeatedly overestimated the size of the army of Northern Virginia by about a factor of 3 (admittedly, he was telling McClellan what McClellan wanted to hear).

    • Wow, I should look that up.

    • Davis X. Machina

      I have dim recollections of a “Wonderful World of Disney” movie on the theme. The list is long, but the episodes are all collected here. I can’t find it in a cursory searc…

    • liberalrob

      The Pinkertons were the Blackwater of their time.

  • DrDick

    Yet another timely reminder of the libertarian paradise that the Republicans call “the good old days.”

  • Gary K

    A nitpick: can the anthracite region really be described as part of “northeastern Pennsylvania”? It’s mostly south of the midline.

    • It’s not Milford certainly, but it seems northeast to me. But then I’m not from there. I do find it interesting how state populations divide up their states mentally. Eastern Oregon is the eastern 2/3 of the state. West Texas seems to begin about 50 miles west of Austin, leaving a mere 500 miles to go to El Paso.

    • JoyfulA

      Yes, because “southeastern Pennsylvania” is Philadelphia and its PA suburbs (which yesterday somebody was trying to tell me now extend to Reading, which I doubt).

  • Immanuel Kant

    Was Pinkerton actually a Republican? I would have thought his close association with McClellan might indicate he was a Democrat.

    • rea

      Pinkerton was more a hired hand than a political activist. He had prewar dealings with both McClellan and Lincoln, back when all three worked for the Illinois Central RR.

  • If I recall correctly, the depiction of the Pinkertons in “Valley of Fear” is absolutely glowing.

  • liberalrob

    There is of course this movie, starring Sean Connery and Richard Harris.

  • Ralph Hitchens

    What rea said is right on — Pinkerton certainly contributed to General McClellan’s timorous approach to warfare, most evident at Antietam where a bloody draw was snatched from the jaws of victory. But Pinkerton somehow escaped censure by his contemporaries and went on to further outrages.

    The movie about the Mollies, with Sean Connery & Richard Harris, was pretty good, IMO. Everyone needs reminding that today’s Republicans are determined to bring back those golden days of capitalism.

  • ChrisTS

    You should definitely go to Mauch Chunk (Jim Thorpe) and see the jail and the museum. You can also tour one of the mines – quite an eye-opener as to the depravity of the owners and the misery of the people.

  • Bruce Vail

    “Big Trouble” by J. Antboby Lukas (1997) has a lot good material about Pinkerton. The book is about the trial of Haywood in the Steneunberg murder, but the picture of Pinkerton drawn by Lukas is pretty complete.

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