Hometown Tales Podcast

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Girardville, PA - The Molly Maguires

Between the 1840s and 1860s million of Europeans: Polish, German, Russian, Welsh; probably even your very own great grand parents entered New York harbor to be greeted by the message: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." And then there were the Irish who got a completely different message: “Irish need not apply.”

Life back in Ireland was cruel and here it wasn’t much better. The thick brogue, the religion, the poverty and illiteracy all provoked ridicule. Irish Catholics were called a "massive lump in the community, undigested, undigestible". The worst demonstration anti-Irish hatred took place in Philadelphia on May 6, 1844 when two Catholic churches were burned and 16 people lost their lives.

But they’d be welcomed by the mine owners of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal mining region. In fact, the mine owners were only too eager to take advantage of their desperate need for work.

1860 - After a hard day in the mines, many Irishmen sat drinking the night away in the Girardville, PA lodge of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (a benevolent association founded by the alienated Irish Catholics). They would sit, and drink and argue about their unfair treatments. To the Irish working class, drunk and pissed off is not a good combination as the Irish have a rich history of vengeance, of righteous indignation. It was here that the Molly Maguires would be reborn in America. The Molly Maguires go back to the 1700's as a secret brotherhood of Irishmen intent on exacting revenge upon the English landlords who were famously cruel to their tenants: at times killing them or burning their homes so they could raise the rent on the new tenant. The “Mollies” are said to have taken their name from an elderly widow named Molly Maguire who was being cruelly evicted from her home by a wicked landlord. The people who sought to revenge the act called themselves "The Sons of Molly Maguire".

Historians would attribute 12 or more killings between 1860 and 1862 to the Mollies. Most of the victims were mine foremen. Most were beaten to death. In several cases, alleged attackers were arrested, but later freed by mobs. With all the violence in the area at the time, it was unlikely that a proper police investigation could take place.

Enter the Pinkerton Agency, a private detective agency employed mostly by former criminals (they being the best at going undetected). They were hired by mine owners to infiltrate and bring down the Mollies. The willingness of the Pinkerton Agency to resort to any means necessary to destroy the Mollie Maguires lead these undercover detective to go so far as to attack and kill people on the Molly hit list. Of course, another list was being written: a list consisting of Molly Maguires.

On February 5, 1876, Police broke into the homes of seven Mollies in the early hours of the morning. The men were shackled inside their homes and taken to the jail where they would await trial for murder.

June 21, 1877, a day remembered as “Black Thursday” or by others as the “Day of the Rope”, the reign of terror ended when the confessed leaders of the Molly Maguires were hanged.

Justified or callous? Murder or revolution? Heroes of the working class or the first American terrorists? Either way you look at the Molly Maguire, they fought for the rights of the unskilled laborer and in no small way contributed to the creation of our Labor Day Holiday.
Mark Major Interview, Director, Schuylkill County Visitors Bureau
“Unsolved History: The Molly Maguire Files” by Mark Major
“Murder and Mayhem. The Molly Maguires in Tamaqua” by Historic Preservation & Tourism Task Force
Making Sense of the Molly Maguires by Kevin Kenny, Oxford University Press, 1998

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division