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The Molly Maguires: An American Story of Truth and Justice Denied

MAKING SENSE OF THE MOLLY MAGUIRES, by Kevin Kenny (Oxford University Press: 368 pp., $39.95 cloth, $18.95 paper)

April 05, 1998|THOMAS FLANAGAN | Thomas Flanagan is the author of numerous books, including "The Year of the French" and "The End of the Hunt." He is currently writing a novel set in Ireland in the 1940s

On June 21, 1877, in the anthracite-mining county of Schuylkill, Pa., 10 men, all of them Irish and, so the state charged, members of a secret, oath-bound conspiracy to murder known as the Molly Maguires, were hanged in two batches. Four in Mauch Chunk, a town as gaunt as its name, were hanged together on a special gallows built for the occasion. In neighboring Pottsville, it had at first been intended that the condemned be hanged on a scaffold capable of accommodating all six, but it was later decided to hang them in pairs. All 10 were accompanied by priests, and most of them made well-rehearsed expressions of guilt and contrition. All were buried in consecrated ground in Catholic cemeteries.

Twenty men in all would be executed, but it was the mass hangings on Black Thursday that lingered in the American imagination, like the exorcism of an immense, depraved and unfathomable evil. Great crowds had assembled in the streets of the towns and were kept in order by the heavily armed Coal and Iron Police. History, wrote the Chicago Tribune, "affords no more striking illustration of the terrible power for evil of a secret, oath-bound organization controlled by murderers and assassins than the awful record of crime committed by the Molly Maguires in the anthracite-coal region of Pennsylvania." And the Philadelphia Public Ledger, published in a city not too distant in miles from Schuylkill but dwelling, it was hoped, in a different moral universe, spoke of a "day of deliverance from as awful a despotism of banded murderers as the world has ever seen in any age."

The Mollies had acquired and were to retain a powerful, baleful and complex symbolic meaning. Oaths, even wicked ones, were taken seriously, and the wicked ones conjured up the amorphous terrors of dark and lethal conspiracies. Ironically, and with tragic consequences, two organizations that fiercely opposed the Molly Maguires were deliberately branded as their secret puppet masters and made to share their infamy. One was the miners' legitimate labor union, the Workingmen's Benevolent Assn., which had inherited the traditions of British trade unionism, which rejected violence. In particular, it shunned Mollyism, which had acquired a national reputation for the use of murder and intimidation as weapons in industrial conflict. The other target was, to all intents, the Roman Catholic Church.

There had indeed been violence and disorder in the mining district ever since the Civil War, and it included the murders--Kevin Kenny prefers to call them assassinations--of some 24 mine foremen and superintendents. The killers formed a loose group that may as well be called Molly Maguires as anything else, but only if the name is used in the subtle and precise manner of Kenny in this remarkably fine work of historical research and analysis:

"The Molly Maguires always existed on two related levels: as a sporadic pattern of violence engaged in by a specific type of Irishman, and as a ubiquitous concept in a system of ideological representation that sought to explain the variety of social problems besetting the anthracite region in the mid-19th century. In other words, the violence in which the Molly Maguires undoubtedly engaged was put to all sorts of uses by contemporaries, most effectively by those who were opposed to Irish immigrants and organized labor. Any reinterpretation of the Molly Maguires today needs to inquire simultaneously into how the Molly Maguires were represented and what they may have been in fact."

Attitudes toward the Irish had been shaped almost from the hour of their arrival in Schuylkill in the wake of the great famine of the 1840s. Throughout the decades and the turmoil that followed, they were given expression and shape in the nativist pages of Benjamin Bannan's Miners' Journal. Bannan, of Welsh descent, held a political vision that was not ignoble: a sober God-fearing industrious republic of free workmen and their employers. His austere Protestant soul, however, was revolted by the spectacle of a "race" that seemed not to respect this vision, as the Irish, to his eyes, did not.

For one thing, they were not Welsh. Work in the mines was divided between the skilled labor and the outside tasks, such as sorting out slate. The skilled and experienced miners were from Wales, trained in mining through generations and with a strong sense of guild solidarity. The unskilled laborers were Irish and came, most of them, from West Donegal, where there were no mines nor much of anything else. The nativists--the racists of that day--of course regarded the difference as evidence of the laziness and ignorance that were part of the Irish essence. The Welsh were inclined to agree.

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