Home History Labor Day: The Molly Maguires

Labor Day: The Molly Maguires


The coal industry in northeastern Pennsylvania is dormant today, but in the 1870s the area was bustling with the dangerous business of coal mining. It was a profitable business for the bosses and owners of the mines, for the workers, the job was deadly and poorly paid. The growth of unions was correlated with better conditions for workers, but the unions were actively combatted by the owners of the mines. 

In time, a secret society emerged in the Pennsylvania coal mines that resembled the secret agrarian societies in Ireland that protected tenant farmers from British landlords. In Pennsylvania they came to be known as the Molly Maguires.

The coal mines were often the only employment in certain areas, with whole families employed by the mine owners. This included the children of miners in these days before child labor laws. One of the common jobs of teenagers was as the driver of a mule. It was expected that, by this age, they should have several years of underground experience as door tenders. The drivers were assigned a specific animal and were responsible for its care and feeding. Drivers used no reins to control the mules, but rather stood on the front bumper of the lead coal car and employed a short braided whip nicknamed the “black snake.” Slowing down the car was the job of a second boy known as a spragger, or runner. Using thick, pointed sticks called sprags, he ran beside a coal car and with a quick thrust shoved the sprag into the spokes of the car’s wheel causing it to lock and drag. (Anthracite Heritage Museum) As one can imagine doing this job in the dark, injuries were common, and no financial protections existed for these young people who could potentially be permanently maimed.

Meanwhile, the grown men started work before dawn, went down into the mines, and continued work until dusk. Broken tools were charged out of the mens’ salaries, as were lost or damaged goods. In some instances, between being charged for work materials and damage to their tools, men ended up owing money to the mine owners at the end of the work week. Injuries were common, and long-term illness expected – there were no government standards on air quality, so many miners suffered from black lung disease. 

Irish immigrants arriving in north east Pennsylvania in the Civil War and post-War period, often from County Donegal, gravitated towards this work opportunity, despite the associated risks. As greater numbers of Pennsylvania coal miners unionized in the late 1870s, the mine bosses began a campaign against them, bringing in the Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate the unions and their alleged illegal activities.

As a secret society, the Molly Maguires did not leave many clues to their existence, motives, or membership. However, both the undercover Pinkerton detective James McParland (aka McKenna) and historian Kevin Kenny noted a relationship between the Molly Maguires and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). Kenny compared the work of the Mollies with the open work of the mostly-Irish union Workingmens’s Benevolent Association, Both modes of organization… tried to improve conditions of life and labor in the anthracite region. But the strategy of the trade union was indirect, gradual, peaceful, and systematically organized across the anthracite region, while that of the Molly Maguires was direct, violent, sporadic, and confined to a specific locality. (Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires) The Molly Maguires were credited with issuing “coffin notices” to “scabs” who chose to work mining jobs during strikes against management. The Mollies were accused of followed up on those death threats, resulting in the deaths of approximately 25 mine supervisors and foremen.

However, the violence was not confined to the union side of the conflict. The information gathered by McParland was allegedly used by Pinkerton assets to assassinate individuals connected to the Molly Maguires. Among the victims was the O’Donnell family, originally from Gweedore, County Donegal. 

In a final, twisted conclusion, McParland’s information was used in a trial against accused members of the Molly Maguires – who were to be prosecuted by Franklin B. Gowen, who also happened to be President of the Reading Railroad Company and the man who had hired the Pinkerton Agency to investigate the coal miners’s unions. As a result of this obvious corruption, 20 men were sentenced to death in the trials of the Molly Maguires in 1877-78. 

Over 100 years later, the state of Pennsylvania pardoned “Black Jack” Kehoe, the supposed leader of the Molly Maguires. Today, their name is reminiscent of the early struggles union leaders faced in America, and the intrinsic link between the Irish working class and American organized labor.

Contributed by TGA Editorial Staff. See Kevin Kenny’s “Making Sense of the Molly Maguires” for an in-depth academic book, and the Molly Maguires movie for a popular culture depiction featuring Sean Connery.

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