On October 27, 1873, a slightly built, bespectacled, and unshaven man calling himself James McKenna alighted from a train at the station in Port Clinton, a small community on the southern border of Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County. It was coal-mining country, a rough part of the world suffering from the effects of what one newspaper had called a ‘reign of terror’ orchestrated by a shadowy organization dubbed the Molly Maguires. Since 1862 the Mollies had been blamed for numerous murders, beatings, knifings, armed robberies, and incidents of arson.

The exploits of the Molly Maguires had been detailed in many colorful newspaper articles throughout the country, but that hadn’t discouraged McKenna. In fact, he arrived in Schuylkill County determined to join the secret society. He wasn’t sure how, but he was confident that his naturally friendly demeanor and quick wit would help him make the proper contacts.

His Irish background would help too. The Mollies were all Irish Catholics, drawn mainly from the desperately poor men who worked in the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania. Theirs was a hard life of cave-ins, explosions, flooded mines, and long hours of back-breaking labor in the darkness, all for wages that were barely sufficient to support a family. The mine workers even had to buy their own work tools and dynamite at the company store for elevated prices. The terrible conditions led many of the miners to join the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, a trade union that fought for better conditions in the mines. The mine owners, however, were equally determined to smash the union. The resulting conflict between workers and owners sparked the creation of the Molly Maguires, who vowed to fight the exploitation of the workers by predominantly Protestant mine owners and supervisors.

It was in this tense atmosphere that James McKenna found himself when he stepped off the train. At first he wandered through the region’s small towns, seeking out Irishmen who might have Molly Maguire connections, but he couldn’t get more than a passing word from anybody. After reaching Pottsville in December 1873, he began to frequent the Sheridan House, a popular saloon run by a loquacious Irishman named ‘Big Pat’ Dormer. McKenna soon became a popular character around the bar, entertaining customers by spinning tall tales and dancing Irish jigs. In conversation, McKenna let it be known that he was wanted for murder and counterfeiting in Buffalo, New York. He proved himself to be handy with his fists and soon gained a reputation among the rougher elements who drank at Dormer’s bar. His standing was secured after the Coal & Iron Police, a private constabulary raised by the mine owners and railroad operators to help protect their interests, arrested McKenna at the bar, interrogated him, and roughed him up.

Dormer himself was impressed with McKenna, and in February 1874 took him to the neighboring town of Shenandoah to meet fellow saloon-keeper Muff Lawler. With Lawler’s backing, McKenna got work at the Indian Ridge Shaft and later at the West Shenandoah Colliery. Lawler also took McKenna to see–or more accurately to be seen by–John ‘Jack’ Kehoe. Jack Kehoe ran the Hibernian House saloon in Girardville, an important Molly headquarters, and was a kingpin in the organization. Without McKenna knowing how, Kehoe secretly signaled his approval of the newcomer, and McKenna soon received an invitation to a secret meeting of the Ancient Order of Hibernians.

The A.O.H. was a nationwide fraternal organization whose membership was limited to those of Irish-Catholic descent. In the coal region, however, the A.O.H. served as the cover organization for the Molly Maguires. Although not all members of the local A.O.H. lodges were Mollies, all of the Molly Maguires eventually tried and convicted of crimes were members of the A.O.H.

At an A.O.H. meeting on April 14, 1874, as McKenna later related, he was ‘ordered to go to my knees, and take my hat off, and there was a document read to me by the Division Master, Mr. Lawler . . . the substance of which that I obey my superiors in everything connected with the organization, in things lawful and not otherwise. It also contained a clause that I should keep everything secret pertaining to this organization. I then kissed the Test, the same as I would a Bible in a Court of Justice.’ When he rose, McKenna was a confirmed member of the Molly Maguires.

McKenna rose high in the organization over the next two years, in large measure because he could read and write, accomplishments not shared by many of the brethren. He became secretary and later bodymaster (president) of the Shenandoah lodge and a trusted advisor in many matters. On one occasion, when members of the Shenandoah lodge planned to strike a blow against the mine owners by dynamiting the Ringtown bridge, a railway bridge used by coal trains, McKenna warned them that the authorities kept a close watch on the structure. Fearing arrest, the men abandoned the plan.

Several highly publicized murders took place during McKenna’s stay in the coal region, including that of Benjamin Yost, a police officer who had crossed the Mollies by arresting and beating member Thomas Duffy. In the early morning hours of July 14, 1875, three men waited in a cemetery near the end of Yost’s beat in Tamaqua. As the police officer climbed a ladder to extinguish a street lamp, Hugh McGehan and James Boyle stepped forward and shot him. Yost fell mortally wounded while his attackers, along with their guide, James ‘Powder Keg’ Kerrigan, made their escape.

The organization sometimes asked members from one lodge to carry out violent assignments in another lodge’s jurisdiction, the advantage being that Mollies from outside the area would not be recognized. The plot to kill Yost was allegedly hatched in the Tamaqua tavern run by James Carroll and carried out by McGehan and Boyle of Summit Hill. After the Yost killing, two Mollies from the Laffee district, Michael J. Doyle and Edward Kelly, were commissioned to gun down Welsh mine superintendent John P. Jones of Tamaqua. The Mollies had accused the superintendent of blacklisting miners who had taken part in a strike. On September 3 Jones was shot in the back as he walked along the pipeline that led to the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company mine in Lansford, Carbon County.

In a similar fashion, Thomas Sanger, foreman of Heaton’s Colliery in Raven Run near Girardville, and miner William Uren had been gunned down two days earlier as they walked along an empty street to work. Sanger died because of an alleged workplace grievance, while Uren, who boarded with the Sanger family, was slain to eliminate him as a witness.

The violence, however, was not all one-sided. The most noteworthy case of the tables being turned took place in Wiggans Patch, near Mahanoy City. Early in the morning of December 10, 1875, a group of armed and masked men burst into the home of the three men believed to be involved in the deaths of Sanger and Uren. The vigilantes killed suspected murderer Charles O’Donnell and also the pregnant wife of Charles McAllister. (McAllister was wounded but survived.) Moreover, in the frenzy and confusion, one of the attackers pistol-whipped McAllister’s mother-in-law. The true identity of the Wiggans Patch attackers was never established, but rumors blamed the attack on a group of irate valley residents trained by Captain Robert Linden of the Coal & Iron Police.

The Wiggans Patch incident came as a shock to the Molly Maguires. How had the attackers known that McAllister and O’Donnell had been involved in the Sanger and Uren killings? The organization was further shaken by a series of recent arrests, indicating that there was an informer within the Molly Maguires. On February 23, Shenandoah bodymaster Frank McAndrew warned McKenna that Jack Kehoe was laying bets that he, McKenna, was the spy among them. Instead of fleeing for his life, however, McKenna confronted Kehoe at his bar in Girardville and demanded that he call a conclave of the organization’s leaders so that McKenna could defend himself. Kehoe agreed to the meeting but secretly assigned men to murder McKenna instead. Two weeks later, James McKenna disappeared from the region.

The first of the Molly Maguire trials was held in Mauch Chunk (renamed Jim Thorpe in 1954) in January 1876 and in Pottsville in May, after the Coal & Iron Police had rounded up dozens of men on charges ranging from beatings to murder. During the Pottsville trial of James Carroll, Thomas Duffy, James Roarity, Hugh McGehan, and James Boyle for the murder of Benjamin Yost, the prosecution announced a surprise witness. On May 6, 1876, an impeccably dressed, clean-shaven man strode into the courthouse, took the stand, and testified. ‘My name is James McParlan,’ he said. ‘I came into Schuylkill County in October 1873 under the name of James McKenna. I am a detective. I belong to the National Detective Agency commonly known as Pinkerton’s Detective Force. I was sent here by Major Allan Pinkerton of Chicago, the chief. I came to discover as to who were connected with an organization known as the Molly Maguires.’

Before a stunned courtroom, McParlan recounted how Yost’s murder was planned in Carroll’s bar. He testified that some time after the murder Hugh McGehan showed him the pistol he had used to kill the police officer. When defense lawyers accused the detective of being an agent provocateur who participated willingly in Molly outrages, McParlan responded that he was often unable to forewarn intended victims in time and was forced to appear to participate in the Mollies’ plans in order to protect not just his undercover mission but very probably his life.

McParlan had been hired through the efforts of the sworn enemy of the Molly Maguires, Franklin Benjamin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad. Gowen’s company held a monopoly on rail transport in and out of the southern anthracite region. Determined to forestall the rise of a strong union movement and break the Mollies, Gowen turned to Allan Pinkerton, the head of America’s most famous private detective agency.

Born in Scotland, Pinkerton had come to the United States and eventually settled in Chicago, where he founded the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1850. While working for the Illinois Central Railroad, Pinkerton met the line’s vice president, George B. McClellan, who later employed him to handle intelligence for the Army of the Potomac during the Civil War. As General McClellan’s intelligence chief in the Peninsula Campaign, Pinkerton substantially overstated the enemy’s numbers, reinforcing the general’s belief that he faced overwhelming odds. McClellan eventually lost his command, so Pinkerton returned to detective work and opened agency branches in Philadelphia and New York. He concentrated on railroad robberies and security but also became involved in helping industrialists fight labor disputes.

Gowen and Pinkerton decided that the best way to bring the Mollies to heel was to plant a trusted Pinkerton detective within the organization. Pinkerton reasoned that the man for the job would have to be an ‘Irishman and a Catholic, as only this class of person can find admission to the Mollie Maguires. My detective should become, to all intents and purposes, one of the order, and continue so while he remains in the case before us.’ Pinkerton decided that 29-year-old James McParlan was the best man for the assignment.

Born in Ulster’s County Armagh in 1844, McParlan came to the United States in 1867. He made his way to Chicago, where he filled a number of billets, ranging from entertainer in a German beer garden to ‘preventive policeman’ with a small Chicago detective agency. He joined the Pinkerton National Detective Agency in 1871 and once went undercover to expose pilferers on the streetcars of Chicago.

What the Irish detective lacked in experience he made up for in other ways. McParlan possessed an outgoing personality, with a good sense of humor and a knack for quickly ingratiating himself to those he met. He was an excellent boxer and an even more effective rough-and-tumble fighter, a nimble dancer of Irish jigs, a sweet-voiced tenor, a ladies’ man of considerable sophistication, and a man who could drink unbelievably large quantities of whiskey and retain his faculties. McParlan put these ‘talents’ to good use during his undercover work, although the full story of McParlan’s more than two years in the coal region will probably never be known. The detective, who died in 1919, never set down a full account of his adventures. Historians consider Pinkerton’s own version, The Mollie Maguires and the Detectives, to be semi-fictional.

The only person in the coal region who knew McParlan’s true identity was Captain Linden of the Coal & Iron Police. Linden was also employed by Pinkerton, and his arrests and interrogations of McParlan were orchestrated opportunities to exchange information. Whenever possible, McParlan used Linden to pass word of upcoming outrages and to warn victims. At other times, such as in the case of the Ringtown bridge episode, he sought to scuttle or at least delay plans. McParlan reported on numerous Molly crimes by train mail sent to the head of the Pinkerton office in Philadelphia. His cover was nearly blown when a letter from the Philadelphia office arrived at the Pottsville post office addressed to James McParlan instead of James McKenna.

The strain of undercover work took a toll on McParlan’s health. He suffered from several bouts of illness but steadfastly continued his work until he learned of the Wiggans Patch incident. The detective became so incensed that he tendered his resignation in a letter to Benjamin Franklin of the Pinkerton office in Philadelphia, saying he was not ‘going to be accessory to the murder of women and children.’ Franklin immediately wrote a letter to Pinkerton: ‘This morning I received a report from ‘Mac’ of which I sent you a copy, and in which he seems to be very much surprised at the shooting of these men; and he offers his resignation. I telegraphed ‘Mac’ to come here from Pottsville as I am anxious to satisfy him that we had nothing to do with what has taken place in regard to these men. Of course, I do not want ‘Mac’ to resign.’ In the end, McParlan decided to see the assignment through.

Once the arrests began, McParlan faced his final crisis. When he made his bold demand for a meeting of the organization’s leaders, ostensibly to defend himself against charges of being an informer, he was actually planning a mass roundup of the Molly bosses. Unaware that Kehoe never planned to hold the meeting, McParlan notified Captain Linden by slipping an invitation to him along with those mailed to Molly leaders. When he learned that Kehoe planned to have him killed, McParlan left the region on March 7, 1876, on an early morning train bound for Philadelphia.

In the years since the accused Mollies went on trial, opinion about the organization has been divided. At the conclusion of the court proceedings, scholarly writer Francis P. Dewees summed up the era of the Molly Maguires as ‘a reign of blood . . . . [T]hey held communities terror bound, and wantonly defied the law, destroyed property and sported human life.’ Other writers have characterized the Mollies as more sinned against than sinning, the victims of mine owners bent on destroying the nascent labor movement. The trials were held at a time of strong anti-Irish prejudice and were often preceded by prejudicial newspaper accounts. Labor leaders, the clergy, and hierarchy of the Catholic church, afraid of being linked with the Molly Maguires, were quick to condemn them as well. The juries in many of the trials were composed largely of German immigrants, some of whom readily confessed that their limited knowledge of English made it difficult for them to follow the proceedings. Not a single Irish American was empaneled on any of the juries. Sympathetic judges allowed Gowen, who conducted several of the prosecutions himself, to rant on endlessly about the Molly Maguires, often painting an even more sinister picture than the facts supported. As Carbon County Judge John P. Lavelle noted in his 1994 book, The Hard Coal Docket, ‘[A]ny objective study of the . . . entire record of these cases must conclude that they [the Molly Maguires] . . . did not have fair and impartial juries. They were, therefore, denied one of the fundamental rights that William Penn guaranteed to all of Pennsylvania’s citizens.’

All told, 20 men were found guilty of murder and were sentenced to death. Ten of them were hanged–four at Mauch Chunk and six at Pottsville–on June 21, 1877, a date remembered as ‘Black Thursday.’ Some Molly Maguire members were probably innocent of the crimes for which they were accused. One of the more questionable convictions was that of Alexander Campbell, who was charged with masterminding the slayings of mine superintendent Morgan Powell in 1871 and John P. Jones in 1875. A prominent tavern owner and A.O.H. lodge treasurer, Campbell was never proven to be connected with the actual perpetration of any Molly Maguire crimes, but the testimony of ‘Powder Keg’ Kerrigan, who turned state’s evidence and escaped punishment, sent Campbell to the gallows.

Jack Kehoe was hanged in 1878 for the 1862 murder of mine foreman Frank W. Langdon. A century later Pennsylvania Governor Milton J. Shapp granted Kehoe a posthumous pardon, prompted by the efforts of some of Kehoe’s relatives and several members of the Pennsylvania Labor History Society. The governor wrote, ‘. . . [I]t is impossible for us to imagine the plight of the 19th Century miners in Pennsylvania’s anthracite region,’ and that it was John Kehoe’s popularity among the miners that led Gowen ‘to fear, despise and ultimately destroy [him].’ Shapp continued, ‘We can be proud of the men known as the Molly Maguires, because they defiantly faced allegations which attempted to make trade unionism a criminal conspiracy.’

The Molly Maguire hangings ended the first wave of violence in the Pennsylvania coal regions. Labor relations throughout the United States remained turbulent, however, and the battle between mine owners and mine workers continued. Frustration on both sides led to violence through intimidation, beatings, industrial sabotage, and military intervention, but the founding of the United Mine Workers of America in 1890 ultimately changed the lives of the miners. The union advocated an eight-hour workday and opposed the compulsory buying of goods in company stores, employment for children under 14, and the use of hired gunmen to enforce company rules. Even with these regulations, coal mining remained a difficult and dangerous way to make a living, but no longer one that would have to rely on the Molly Maguires and their brand of justice.

Theories abound about the origin of the Molly Maguires’ name, but all refer it back to Ireland. They include stories of peasants who banded together to avenge Molly Maguire, an old woman who had been evicted from her house; a tavern owner of that name who allowed a secret society to meet on her premises; and a fierce, pistol-packing woman who led her male followers on raids through the countryside. Most likely, the name came from groups of Irishmen who called themselves the Molly Maguires, and who engaged in violence against the agents of their English landlords during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. These men dressed in women’s clothes and blackened their faces, not only as a disguise but to indicate their dedication to a mythical Molly Maguire who symbolized their struggle against injustice. There is no evidence to suggest that the men who acted against the Pennsylvania mine owners named themselves after the Irish Molly Maguires. In 1857 Benjamin Bannan, editor of the Schuylkill County Miners’ Journal, brought the name to the attention of the American public when he used it as a term for all the aspects of the Irish character that he found unsavory. He kept the name alive for several years in newspaper articles with headings such as ‘A Molly on the Rampage’ and ‘Molly Beating.’ Franklin B. Gowen perpetuated the name during legislative hearings for rate raises for his railroad in 1871. He suggested to the committee that the area was under attack by a group of men he referred to as the Molly Maguires.

This article was written by Joseph Bloom and was originally published in the April 2000 issue of American History magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!