Who were the Molly Maguires? Did they really exist? These are questions asked by many people today. Some historians wonder if the Molly Maguires really did bring their secret society from England to the United States, or if the incidents blamed on them were just random accidents on which officials needed to place a blame. We may never actually know…
There are many ideas about how the “Molly Maguires” got their name. One of the most popular is that Molly was a poor widow, who was evicted from her home after the landlord’s agent apparently, “severely abused her and her daughter”. The group adopted this name in homage to the Molly and her bravery. Another theory is that Molly’s home was used as the first meeting place of this new secret society, so they used her name as their title. Yet another speculation for this name is that Molly was a huge, fierce Irish woman with a pistol strapped to each thigh, who led gangs of young Irishmen dressed in women’s clothing on night raids. One of the most famous Irish theories is that Molly was a crazy old woman from Count Fermanagh, who imagined that she had great armies and organizations of men under her control. However, no one really knows exactly how the title” the Molly Maguires” came about.
The “Mollies”, as they were sometimes called, were miners in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania who organized into a union during the 1860’s and 70’s. These miners were mostly Irish. Their union was called the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. Many members of this union were also members of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians.
The Ancient Order of the Hibernians was a semi-secret fraternal society, that was begun in Ireland as a completely secret and anonymous association. This group was determined to be the most powerful charitable and immigrant-aid group lodge in the country.
A question the reader may now be asking themselves is, why were they fighting? The Mollies, as stated in the beginning of this paper, were miners who formed unions because of their frustration dealing with their working circumstances. It was not the actual conditions of the mines; it was the conditions of the worker’s lives that pushed them to extreme action. Salary was low, the company store was overpriced, and the living conditions, horrendous. In addition to the low pay, the miners worked extremely long days. In 1868, 20,000 miners protested for the eight-hour workday to unfortunately, no avail. A year later, The Workingmen’s Benevolent Association.
The WBA struck first for a minimum base of objectives (i.e., better hours, better pay, etc). Their strike showed general unification even though it was unsuccessful in achieving basically, anything.
While the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association’s members were of many different nationalities, the Irish continued with their local chapters of the Ancient Order of the Hibernians. The middle and upper classes, although it consisted of all classes, mainly ran the AOH. Therefore the Irish workers had a difficult time, even with their own “brothers”, gaining support for their struggle for better working conditions in the mines.
The destruction of the AOH became essential to the coal operators, because they did not want all of their workers turning against them. When miners involved in the AOH realized that many, if not most of the companies they were fighting against were heavily invested in by British investors, fuel was added to their fire. The Irish-American could not easily forget their hatred for the English.
One may question, what did the Irish have against the English? The answer one will find is, plenty! In Ireland, the landlords and agents and in American there were bosses and mine owners. The landlords in Ireland lived on large estates in the Irish countryside and charged outrageous rates for renting one of the many little shacks they owned. Also, nine times out of ten they would not even come to check up on the tenants or to collect the rent. They would send a messenger to do it for them. In the U.S., the mine owners and mine bosses were extremely cruel. They didn’t want to hear complaints about the hours worked or the pay. If you complained, you were likely to be worked harder. These are some of the many reasons the Irish had such disregard toward the English.
The Pinkerton Detective Agency, an agency employed by the mining and railroad company spies, employed a man by the name of James McParlan in 1872. A year later, McParlan was sent undercover as a spy to find out what the Mollies were really up to. James McParlan under the alias of James McKenna, joined the Shenandoah branch of the AOH, and set to work.
McParlan told of reported threats, beatings, train engines and cars thrown off the tracks as a result of the Long Strike of 1875. As a result of the strike, trade unionism became a crime punishable by jail time. The companies thought this would defer miners from joining the union. As it so happens, it had quite the reverse affect. Miners gained the support of workers throughout the country. Although many leaders of the union surrendered to the companies due to the fact that they would have rather lost peacefully then have won through violence. Those who led the strike were blacklisted. After the strike ended, wages were cut again and again.
The Mollies worked harder then ever to get better living and working conditions for themselves. In return, the coal companies sent in more spies to hopefully upend the union force. Many spies tended to commit crimes and charge them to the miners. Eventually, the owners and miners resorted to guerilla warfare. In the end, force was answered with force.
Although it is unquestionable that the Mollies were a violent, headstrong group, evidence leans toward the idea that many of the suspected “Molly” crimes were actually committed by Pinkerton detectives. These crimes were then blamed on the Mollies in order to, hopefully, suppress their extreme resistance. Many mine owners intimidated miners into complying with what they wanted by maiming and murdering those suspected of union activism.
The trials for those who were believed to be involved with the “Molly Maguires” were merely protocol. Society, the government, and the Catholic Church had already convicted them. The man who acted as the state prosecutor in some of the cases is quoted to have said, “The name of a Molly Maguire being attached to a man’s name is sufficient to hang him”. In many of the trials, the evidence was circumstantial at best and the witnesses were supplying obviously false information.
According to information recently gathered by historians, the men charged were by no means absolutely guilty, although it cannot be proved they were completely innocent. Throughout labor history, there were many strike, as well as many acts of violence committed by both the miners and the mine owners and bosses. Interestingly enough, none of this history is taught in many schools across the country.
In “A History of the United States”, a tenth-grade history textbook, there is only one paragraph stating:
“Miners in the eastern Pennsylvania coal fields organized
a secret society called the “Molly Maguires.” In 1875, on
flimsy and possibly false evidence that private detectives
had gathered for the employers, ten Molly Maguires were
hanged for murder.” (Prentice Hall, pg. 432)
These facts, although accurate, do not go into detail whatsoever about the struggle these miners went through, what they were fighting for, and how they were treated. These men’s memory should be kept alive for the benefit and intellectual advancement of others.
One could learn many things from the struggles of these men. Such as, if you believe in something enough, it will give you the courage to go all the way in order to achieve your goal. It also shows why the laborers of the 1800’s fought so forcefully to achieve small objectives. It was due to the ignorance of the American people the immigrants were treated so poorly and were forced to resort to violent acts.
Society may never know what really went on with the Molly Maguires. Did they really commit the violent acts of murder for which they were charged? Or did the vicious, information-seeking, coal company spies who were so desperate for a morsel of intelligence to bring back to their bosses? Perhaps, that’s for you to decide.
Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998
Broehl Jr., Wayne G. The Molly Maguires. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1965
Hall, Patrick J. Overthrow of the Molly Maguires. Hit on: 11/3/03