Molly Maguires Miners Society of Schuylkill County

Introduction

The workplace environment has evolved over time but seemingly, modern-day workers face almost the same problems as their counterparts from the 19th century. In the 1800s, coal mining was one of the economic mainstays in Pennsylvania, and thus most immigrants trooped into the region in search of job opportunities. An allegedly secretive and controversial group of individuals from Ireland known as Molly Maguires was part of such immigrants, and they started arriving in Pennsylvania in the mid-1800s to look for jobs in the mines, especially those located in Lehigh, Schuylkill, and Carbon Counties.

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The entry of Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania reshaped its history, specifically due to the widespread violence witnessed around the anthracite regions. However, everything known about the Mollies is based on secondary sources of accounts left by other people. Nevertheless, almost all the available evidence paints this group of individuals as invariably hostile. The purpose of this paper is to discuss Molly Maguires based on their history and where they came from, the working conditions and pay rates where they worked, and their relationship with mine managers.

History of Molly Maguires

Molly Maguires was allegedly a secret society that originally emerged in Ireland as an affiliate of other secret societies, such as Ribbonmen and the Whiteboys. In Ireland, the working class formed these groups to address poor working conditions and unwarranted evictions by property owners, and in most cases, they used bloody vengeance to achieve their goals. The Great Hunger, also known as the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, disrupted people’s livelihoods in the country forcing over a million Irish to immigrate to America. In addition, people emigrated en masse to escape the poor working conditions in Ireland and the tyrannical rule of the English.

Therefore, moving to America was reasonable to find better work opportunities and better lives for their families. The anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania was the most ideal destination for the Molly Maguires because finding a job opening was easy given the thriving coal business in the region. However, the Mollies would soon be met with utter discrimination based on their religious background as Catholics and Heritage as Irish. Therefore, the Mollies were forced to accept dangerous and physically demanding jobs in the mines coupled with living under overcrowded spaces, hence horrible working and living conditions.

Mine Managers

The population in the anthracite coal regions of Pennsylvania was stratified based on class and ethnicity. Molly Maguires were classified as the low class and they mainly occupied the larger parts of Schuylkill County where they retained the majority of their folk culture. Given their status, they were not allowed to hold managerial positions in the mines. On the other hand, American-, Welsh-, and English-born miners were considered the middle class, lived in urbanized towns including Pottsville and Tamaqua.

Therefore, mine managers and owners were mainly drawn from this group of individuals and they owned literally everything in Schuylkill County including the workers’ houses, the land, the streets, and the mines (Davies 102). The mining economy was purely capitalistic, and thus mine managers sought to maximize revenues and minimize expenditure including paying workers meager wages.

They also used insidious ways to ensure that they retained most of the earnings by the mineworkers. For example, miners’ lives revolved around company-owned goods and services from housing, retail stores, and health care facilities, and thus almost everything they owned went back to the companies. Edmiston argues that miners could only purchase goods for “their occupation and their lives in company stores. Miners received pay in script or store orders, which could be traded in for cash at a discounted change-over rate or used to buy shoddy company store goods at inflated prices” (39). Consequently, at the end of every month, the majority of miners owed their employees, which compounded the problem of poor working and meager pay.

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Working Conditions and Pay Rate

The working conditions in the mines were extremely poor, even dangerous at times. In addition, child labor was a common occurrence in the mining industry in Schuylkill County. Brennan notes that almost 25 percent of the 22,500 miners working in the region were children, some as young as five years old. Most miners in the region were predominantly Mollies. Apart from receiving meager wages, the Mollies would work under horrendous conditions. The bosses in charge of mining could assign workers jobs that were either hard or soft. The mine superintendents also applied corporate punishment on workers as a way of instilling discipline and work ethic.

Additionally, the safety of the workers was not guaranteed despite calls to the mine owners provide a hospitable working environment. According to Edmiston, the mines did not have light and safety precautions, thus “deaths and injuries were prevalent due to frequent suspensions caused by overproduction, the mines became idle for long periods of time producing poor ventilation, stagnant water, standing gas, and decay of timber in the shafts” (35).

The highlight of the poor and dangerous working conditions was on September 6, 1869, when a terrible mine fire claimed the life of 179 miners at the Avondale Mine, located in Luzerne County. The local company had not provided its workers with safety precautions. Failure to provide an escape route or even to finance the construction of a second entrance by the company in charge raised concerns. The Mollies believed that giving miners exits would have saved lives (Morris 297). Thousand of Schuylkill and Luzerne miners invaded the Avondale miners hoping to reach out to any miners who were still alive. They believed in the creation of a second exit. Nevertheless, the 179 miners were later found dead.

As mentioned earlier, the pay rate for immigrant miners was below the minimum wage standards at the time. Different factors could be attributed to such meager wages including industry dynamics and competition and the fact that immigrants could be easily exploited because they did not have structured systems to raise their concerns. For instance, in 1842 the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad was completed, which introduced stiff competition in the coal transportation business with players torn between the railroad and the canal industries.

In a bid to survive in such an environment, competitors resorted to slashing transportation costs of coal and mining companies also cut their prices. Consequently, the coal market was flooded due to the unprecedented surge in supply, which meant that prices dipped significantly. With declining coal prices, mining companies had to cut wages significantly to remain afloat and competitive in the market.

In addition, most workers were laid off or employed partially and come companies would suspend paying in cash and instead resort to paying employees in kind using merchandise from their stores. In a quickly changing work environment, “Operators made agreements with store owners for advanced credit, against which they wrote orders for merchandise. Operators redeemed these orders as soon as they received cash for their coal” (Edmiston 40).

On average, weekly wages for miners dropped from $6.00 to $5.25 and $4.20 for miners and laborers respectively. Therefore, with the deteriorating work environment accompanied by declining earnings, Molly Maguires had to act and counter the situation before they were rendered working mendicants. At this point, forming a union to champion workers’ rights was a viable idea, and thus, in 1849, the Mollies joined other workers in the Bates Union, but the organization would collapse soon afterward (Aurand 132). Nevertheless, the Mollies did not give up, and in 1857, for the first, time they became fully involved in an industrial go slow in what was common known as the Panic of 1857 when workers in Ashland went on a strike to demand higher wages and better working conditions.

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Unionization and Violence of Molly Maguires

When a Molly was turned down after applying for a soft job, the boss in question had to be murdered. Mollies typically sought vengeance when their bosses intervened in a serious disagreement (Hughes 81). Some areas of concern at the time revolved around docking of payment when a boss queried the anthracite coal quality retrieved from the mine. The failure of mining bosses to hire Irishmen caused security challenges. Companies never provided security to their bosses, however.

The refusal of bosses to offer employment opportunities provoked the Mollies to murder bosses they did not like. When someone did something wrong, the Mollies were never quick to engineer murders. Instead, they would organize coordinated meetings in a saloon or a hotel room. Relevant authority allowed the wronged individual to explain his or her situation. In most cases, murders would be decreed since the reasons for wrongdoing were satisfying.

Anyone associated with the victim or the aggrieved person never ordered the killing (Edmiston 42). At least two Mollies who hailed from different parts of the Schuylkill County or those who lived in the adjoining county could engineer the killing. Since they were unknown, they would quickly escape being detected. Proprietors, superintendents, and bosses responsible for coordinating mining had “coffin notices” posted on their doors from anonymous Mollies. The notices provided a fair warning that a proprietor, superintendent, or a boss would be killed eventually.

In 1867, John Siney, an Irishman who had arrived in Schuylkill County to work in the mines in 1862, realized that the only way miners would make their voices heard and their ideas respected was by forming an organization with a treasury (Edmiston 59).

Therefore, that summer he convinced several small unions in the region to come together and form the Workingman Benevolent Association (WBA) with the central purpose of providing health and death benefits to its members. Later the union initiated efforts to bargain for better pay for its members but it failed on this task. After the Avondale fire tragedy of 1869, Siney addressed fellow miners passionately about the need to join hands and create a strong labor union to advocate for their rights in the workplace. He said, “Men, if your life should be claimed while at work, then die for your country, homes, and families. You do not have to die like trapped rats for a section of people who show no interest in your endeavors…” (Boyer and Morais 45).

Miners were later encouraged to join the union. The next day, thousands of miners saw the sense of associating with WBA by signing for membership and the Molly Maguires joined the WBA movement. Notable Molly Maguires in the WBA movement, which focused on proving their worth at the time, were Tom Duffy, Hugh McGeehan, Jim Carroll, Ed Kelly, Mike Doyle, Tom Munley, and John “Black Jack” Kehoe. The miners believed that it was necessary to stage a fight against Franklin B. Gowen, their primary opponent, who served Philadelphia and Reading Railroad as a president. Being an anti-union, Franklin B. Gowen never liked the advancements the WBA made.

Born in 1847, John “Black Jack” Kehoe lived in Ireland before shifting to the United States. He was mainly identified as “The King of the Mollies” since he was a focused miner. Later, John Kehoe led the Mollies as a High Constable. Today, the Hibernian House ran by John Kehoe, is still under the management of Joe Wayne, the greatest grandson to John Kehoe (Edmiston 84). In the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), Jack became an active member.

He continued to provide the Molly Maguires of Schuylkill County with the support they needed. In the process, the Molly Maguires provided respect to John Kehoe. Meanwhile, born in 1836, Franklin Benjamin Owen lived in the Mount Airy area of Pennsylvania. He enrolled in law studies in Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Franklin Benjamin Owen was duly elected to head Schuylkill County as a District Attorney in 1862. As a leader, he had the authority to coordinate operations in the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad from 1863. In 1868, he began leading the railroad company as the president.

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At first, John Siney and Frank Gowen collaborated. Frank, on the other hand, believed he would use his position to further his plans. The 1873 depression affected the pay that miners were supposed to receive. Wages to be paid to miners always went down when the price of coal continued to depreciate (Morris 300). Siney took an active role in setting minimum wages that coal workers received. When coal prices depreciated to about three dollars for every ton mined, miners would not suffer from wage cuts. Frank believed it was necessary to subject miners to wage cuts, but his intention was to ensure the destruction of labor unions. James McParlan, who was affiliated to the Pinkerton Detective Agency, was hired by Frank in the process.

James McParlan was given orders to destroy and also to infiltrate the Molly Maguires from the inside out. While interacting with the Molly Maguires, he used the name, McKenna. The owner in charge of the detective agency, Allan Pinkerton, gave McParlan specific instructions to remain in the fields until some key members managing the Molly Maguires were killed. Gowen’s confidant, F.P. Dewees, later noted that Mr. Gowen felt happy when the power of the Labor Union began weakening. Mr. Gowen believed that it was necessary to have the Molly Maguires eliminated (Loy).

In December 1874, 20 percent imposed on the miners’ payment happened under Gowen’s directives (Loy). Such sabotage provoked miners to strike on January 1, 1875. However, miners were gunned down by a secret organization called the Modocs, which was the brainchild of Gowen.

The “Bloody Summer of 1875” is associated with the killing of a large number of miners. In Mahanoy County, a bystander died in a shootout that involved James Dugan and Thomas. John P. Jones, William Uren, and Thomas Sanger died in the summer too. The Mollies, on the other hand, accused Thomas Sanger of not only favoring but also giving the Welsh better jobs. Since Thomas Sanger was in charge of some of the coal mines, he too received coffin notices from the Mollies. William Uren was murdered since he was associated with Thomas Sanger. On September 1, 1875, William Uren and Thomas Sanger were killed by five men as they approached the mines. Jones was gunned down two days later as he strolled at the Lansford train station. The Schuylkill Mollies were strategic in all the murders they engineered.

A massacre happened at Wiggans Patch in the street identified as 140 Main Street on December 9, 1875. Ellen O’Donnell McAllister resided here with her mother, Charles – her husband, and her two brothers – James and Charles (Edmiston 117). Ellen was awakened at exactly one in the morning by strange noises and before anyone could react, twenty men that had hidden identities entered her residence. Gunshots were fired in the process and Charles was frog-marched out of the house before being shot eighteen times. Ellen’s husband escaped narrowly through the window, leaving Ellen behind (Morris 307). A blank shot was aimed at Ellen, who focused on finding a way out downstairs. However, different theories continue to paint how the attack happened.

Authorities liaised with McParlan, by the end of 1875, to help monitor the activities of the Mollies. The murder of John P. Johns was presented for hearing before the relevant authorities on January 18, 1876, and Michael Doyle was summoned for the killing. At least 17 Molly Maguires were arrested by McParlan, who relied on a 210-page confession, which Powder Keg Kerrigan had provided.

Edward Kelly was also associated with the John P. Johns murder case. James Boyle, Hugh McGehan, James Roarity, James Carroll, and Thomas Duffy were in the list of the many Mollies who had murder cases. It was discovered that Thomas Munley had killed William Uren and Thomas Sanger. The prosecutor in charge of administering punishment, Frank Gowen, added that Thomas Munley had also killed hundreds of victims in Schuylkill County. Most of the murders, which Thomas Munley engineered, happened in secret rock ledges, dark mountain areas, silent paths, and hidden areas.

Conclusion

Molly Maguires immigrated into Pennsylvania from Ireland to escape the brutality of the English colonizers, poor working conditions, and the Irish Potato Famine that had threated their existence in 1845. However, after reaching Pennsylvania, specifically Schuylkill County, they found that the working conditions were not any better than what they had run away from back in their country. Besides working under dangerous conditions, the Mollies were supposed to buy goods from company stores and rent houses owned by the mine managers. These conditions were untenable, and thus the Mollies started using violence to achieve their goals of finding employment with better remuneration.

Efforts to form functional union failed and thus violence was the only way that the Mollies could be heard and their decisions respected in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania. Ultimately, most leaders of Molly Maguires were prosecuted, found guilty of violence and murder, and hanged as punishment. Interestingly, some of the workplace problems that the Mollies faced in the 19th century, such as poor pay and unfair recruitment processes are being experienced in modern-day organizations.

Works Cited

Aurand, Harold. The Anthracite Mine Workers, 1869-1897: A Functional Approach to Labor History. Dissertation. Pennsylvania State University, 1969.

Boyer, Richard, and Herbert Morais. Labor’s Untold Story: The Adventure Story of the Battles, Betrayals and Victories of American Working Men and Women. United Electrical, Radio & Machine Workers of Amer, 1979.

Brennan, Cathal. The Molly Maguires, 2013. Web.

Davies, Edward. The Anthracite Aristocracy: Leadership and Social Change in the Hard Coal Regions of Northeastern Pennsylvania, 1820-1930. Northern Illinois University Press, 1985.

Edmiston, Samantha. Black Gold: Molly Maguireism, Unionism, and the Anthracite Labor Wars, 1860-1880. Dissertation. Old Dominion University, 2017.

Hughes, Kyle. “The Sons of Molly Maguire: The Irish Roots of America’s First Labor War.” Immigrants & Minorities, vol. 35, no. 1, 2017, pp. 81-83.

Loy, Matt. The Legend of the Molly Maguires, 2010. Web.

Morris, David. “Gone to work to America”: Irish step-migration through south Wales in the 1860s and 1870s.” Immigrants & Minorities, vol. 34, no. 3, 2016, pp. 297-313.

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StudyCorgi. (2021, June 29). Molly Maguires Miners Society of Schuylkill County. Retrieved from https://studycorgi.com/molly-maguires-miners-society-of-schuylkill-county/

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"Molly Maguires Miners Society of Schuylkill County." StudyCorgi, 29 June 2021, studycorgi.com/molly-maguires-miners-society-of-schuylkill-county/.

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