by Hal Smith
At the rise and decline of the American labor movement, the media and courts saw demons among the working people: “Molly Maguires” and Communists. Who were these radical “conspirators,” and what was their “crime?” Theirs is the transatlantic story of militant workers, and the law as their masters wield it.
The Molly Maguires began as a group of Irish Catholic peasants who resisted British landlords. Since Britain yoked Ireland in the 1600’s, the Irish served as peasants on semi-feudal British estates. In the 1840’s, the Great Hunger devastated Ireland, while Britain exported its food. Landlords evicted starving peasants, whose poverty forced them into the worst mines of America and England. Among the Irish immigrants were nationalist revolutionaries like Fenians and “Mollies.”
In England, companies labeled miners’ attempts to pass pro-labor legislation “mistaken humanity,” which committed the “injustice of interfering between the laborer” and his employer. Lord Londonderry and other big mine owners who controlled Parliament defeated the proposals. In America, companies ignored the few safety regulations and didn’t provide accident insurance. America inherited England’s common law system, whose “combination laws” banned unions. Miners in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal-fields included Chartists from England. They formed America’s first big union, the Workers’ Benevolent Association. They struck in 1875 over wages below $2/day. Companies destroyed the union and lowered wages further. In response, miners burned 10 mines around Mount Carmel and Locust Gap, PA. The New York Times claimed in 1876: “The Molly Maguires have long been suspected of many violent crimes… The trades-unions of England have resorted to murder, assassination, and arson… This root of evil has been planted on American soil, and in the numerous dark crimes committed in the mining regions of Pennsylvania we see its legitimate fruit.”
The Reading Railroad owned most of Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal and a private police force. Two-thirds of its stock belonged to the McCalmont Brothers bank at 15 Philpot Lane, London. The McCalmont bankers were Ulster Protestants. Hugh McCalmont was one of the richest people in British history. Britain’s Lord Chancellor McCalmont-Cairns later headed the bank’s committee to manage the railroad. The Reading Railroad claimed the Mollies were a secret terrorist organization hiding in the “Ancient Order of Hibernians,” America’s biggest Irish Catholic fraternity. The Hibernians’ accident insurance made them popular and Mount Carmel elected its AOH president, Patrick Hester, as its tax assessor.
In 1876 Reading coal police procured a confession from a jailed illiterate homeless robber, Manus Kull A.K.A. “Daniel Kelly,” accusing Hester, AOH delegate Peter McHugh, and unionizer Patrick Tully of mine boss Alexander Rea’s murder. Kull’s robbery was pardoned. He was given new clothes, cigars, whiskey, $1,000 and never prosecuted, yet remained in jail to ensure his cooperation.
Railroad police arrested Hester, Tully, and McHugh, who were tried before a jury lacking Irish Catholics in Bloomsburg. 2 jurors declared they already had an impression or opinion on guilt. Kull testified he wasn’t given incentives to testify. Kull said Hester told him, McHugh, and Tully that Rea would carry a $18,000 payload one Saturday, and gave Kull a gun. Kull said Hester wasn’t at the robbery, but that Kull, McHugh, and Tully were drunk and shot Rea when he tried to run away. Kull contradicted himself about whether Kull or others shot first. Rea had $60. Kull took the biggest share of the loot, leaving none for Hester. Actually, Hester probably didn’t plan the robbery because as tax assessor he knew the payload was delivered Fridays, and Kull already had a gun.
Prosecutors claimed the AOH was a tyranny that ordered crimes. Actually, the AOH wasn’t a centralized organization. Railroad spy James McParland became the AOH president in Shenandoah and reported it was extremely difficult to dissuade his men from sabotage. Plus, the AOH had expelled Kull for his robberies. In Girardville AOH president Jack Kehoe’s trial, Reading Railroad president and prosecutor Franklin Gowen accused Hibernians of being un-American and obeying a “society in a foreign land,” the “so-called Board of Erin,” with delegates from Ireland and England. In Hester’s trial, the Railroad’s chief counsel Francis Hughes, serving as chief prosecutor, pleaded “not for the lives of the slain,” but the AOH’s destruction. Hughes declared the Hibernians didn’t belong in America “where no man’s rights are withheld him.” Hester believed the trial worked some “foul dodge.” Jurors convicted in two hours. While railroad police guarded Hester’s jail, Gowen prosecuted against Hester’s appeal to the Supreme Court, and Hughes prosecuted against his appeal to the pardon board.
In June, 1877 Thomas Powell, of the London Firm of Hesseltine and Powell, introduced Gowen to a stockholders’ meeting at the City Terminus Hotel on Cannon Street, London, saying Gowen attacked “one of the most terrible and unscrupulous bodies of trades’ union bullies and assassins that ever infected any region in the world.” Gowen, a master orator with a fake British accent, declared that the union would deprive them of “practical ownership” of property “unless we were permitted to do what we liked with our own.” The media reported the stockholders’ “unqualified endorsement.” The next month saw the first ten of over twent hangings of Hibernians. Another thirty were imprisoned. The November 1877 stockholders’ report said “The stockholders are to be further congratulated upon… the downfall of… the infamous Molly Maguire Society” and the executions. In March 1878, over thirty railroad police supervised Hester, Tully, and McHugh’s hanging. Hester’s last words were “I did not plot the murder of Rea.” The execution didn’t use the “standard drop,” so they strangled for between nine and twelve minutes.
The basic plotline of three centuries of imperialism held fast like the rope: people in fine suits and boardrooms congratulate themselves on fine decisions, and people in far-off places like Pennsylvania and South Africa suffer. It may be no coincidence that after the executions Kull left for Britain’s South Africa colony. Years later, Kull, a “well-dressed gentleman” approached the daughter of defense attorney Wolverton walking on London’s Strand. Kull’s masters cared for him.
Meanwhile, the executed Hibernians were condemned by the W.B.A. union, and their branches closed by the AOH. In 1869, Baron Monsell, who was Britain’s Under-Secretary of State for Britain’s Colonies and a personal friend of the pope, had persuaded the Vatican to excommunicate the Fenians. Consequently, some Hibernians like Kehoe were buried in unconsecrated ground.
The press was vicious. Macmillan’s Magazine said it was inconceivable that anyone would even consider how these “human tigers were destroyed.” The railroad’s anti-Hibernian novels monopolized the trials’ history, and became the basis for more novels like Sir Conan Doyle’s “Valley of Fear.”
The first historian to criticize the trials was Communist miner Anthony Bimba in 1932. Bimba disputed whether a miners’ organization calling itself the “Mollie Maguires” existed. He said companies smeared Hibernians as “Mollies” because they were the “backbone of the union.” He wrote that Communists reject terrorism because their “struggle is not against this or that individual… but against the bourgeoisie as a class.” But Hibernians resorted to sabotage because “The horrors of mining were literally indescribable.” Thousands died in pitch black, while bosses caned children picking coal. So the “age-old struggle between English capitalists and Irish peasants” continued in America. Hester’s trial was “the most high-handed and brutal of them all.”
Steve Nelson, a Communist organizer around Mount Carmel in the 1930’s, said the Reading Railroad spent millions to frame the Hibernians, whose real crime was union organizing. The trials’ effect was to break miners’ resistance and prevent unionizing. In the 1930’s, “The same company continued to rule with the same ruthlessness” as before. Communist historian Phillip Foner wrote that railroads hired Pinkerton spies in the 1870’s “to spread terror,” and “subsidized secret armed vigilante societies in Pennsylvania to murder miners.”
The Hibernians’ story warned Communists in the 20th century. Bimba compared newspaper attacks against Hibernians to “present-day anti-Red harangues.” In 1926, Bimba was convicted of sedition for advising an audience in Brockton, Massachusetts “to overthrow the capitalistic government by revolution.” Unlike the Hibernians, Bimba organized civil rights demonstrations, and prosecutors dropped the conviction on appeal.
Meanwhile, Company vigilantes ambushed Communists or machine-gunned them at marches. Chicago police strapped Nelson to a chair and beat him senseless for leading an unemployed march. When Nelson lived in Wilkes-Barre, PA in 1931, he spent each weekend in jail uncharged. In Shamokin, his wife was fined for speaking without a permit. Winston Churchill’s “Iron Curtain Speech” inaugurated the Cold War in 1946. Soon after, the American Legion expelled Communist WWII veterans like screenwriter Walter Bernstein. Unions and the Catholic Church excommunicated Communists. Anti-Communist investigations made daily headlines. FBI agents followed Communists and persuaded their employers to enforced a blacklist. Bernstein was blacklisted from 1950-1959.
In 1951, Nelson was convicted for advocating government overthrow under the Pennsylvania Sedition Act. The judge was a board member of Americans Battling Communism. Paul Crouch’s film “I Was a Communist for the FBI,” depicting Nelson as a murderer, played across from the courthouse. The ABC’s local leader received 40% of the profits. Nelson generally had to be his own lawyer. On cross-examination, Crouch admitted not knowing of a single assassination ever by the Communist Party (CPUSA). Nelson’s defense was that he favored a democratic revolution over a violent one. The judge declared it “illegal to circulate” Lenin’s writings. The juror who disagreed with prosecutors was severely beaten. In prison, Nelson spent weeks hungry and naked in the “hole,” a row of unlit rancid bed-less punishment cells. From 1949-1957, over ninety CPUSA leaders and sympathizers were convicted of the federal Smith Act for sedition, or Contempt for refusing to answer questions, imprisoned up to 5 years, and fined up to $10,000.
Nelson was right that Communists’ resistance was nonviolent. In the 1930s, he led thousands of demonstrators to Pennsylvania’s capitol where they succeeded in getting unemployment reforms. But Communists did advocate a socialist revolution and spread revolutionary literature. The Soviet Union’s economic power in the midst of a global depression showed them Socialism’s strength. Bimba wrote that from 1928-1932, the USSR’s national income rose 67%, while US industrial production fell 50%. The USSR passed unique reforms like free healthcare and the 7-hour workday. It went beyond nationalizing companies- state capitalism, and transformed the operations of market forces into a planned economy. Nelson compared the USSR to a “big union where the boss is no longer around.”
Nelson’s comparison fits because just as bureaucracies can control unions, Stalin’s bureaucracies controlled the USSR and Communist Parties. Bimba wrote that the leadership “wiped out factionalism,” and he blamed the Trotskyist opposition for supplying “capitalist apologists with ammunition for their anti-Soviet campaign.” The accusation confirms Bernstein’s explanation that Communists suffered from a “siege mentality.” Bernstein said their distrust of the capitalist press blinded them to Stalin’s frame-up trials. While the CPUSA was an open organization, part was driven underground or into hiding. Nelson said the Party’s idea of democratic centralism was “if you don’t agree, you’re out.” When the Party severely attacked screenwriter Albert Maltz for defending Trotskyist novelists, Bernstein sadly observed: “after the party’s ukase, discussion ended.”
Despite the leadership’s “bureaucratic,” “heavy-handed” style, many members wanted inner-party democracy. Nelson had disagreed with Trotsky’s expulsion, and learned a “broad, flexible approach” from the unemployed councils. Bimba privately complained that the party’s editors seemed to think the newspaper was “their private institution.” Bernstein admired the “Socialist Pluralism” of Yugoslavia, where workers managed their own cooperatives. In 1956 Khrushchev exposed of Stalin’s purges and the CPUSA’s convention passed democratic reforms. But the leadership ignored them, and two-thirds of its members left, including Nelson and Bernstein.
Later, the Supreme Court ruled sedition only applied to immediate threats, not mere advocacy. The hysteria ended but its effects remained. Production companies restrained movies to “acceptable liberalism.” Bernstein’s 1970 movie “Molly Maguires” changed public perceptions of the Hibernians. It followed the railroads’ version of events, but portrayed both the Hibernians and railroad agents as flawed heroes.
In 1991-1993, Yeltsin’s bureaucrats in the USSR staged a capitalist coup and dispersed their parliament with tanks. They found it more profitable to “evict” socialism than to maintain themselves as a bureaucratic caste. In 2006, Pennsylvania’s legislature recognized that the Reading Railroad’s control of the “Molly Maguire” trials violated Due Process. Today, Pennsylvania’s coal towns are shells of their former selves. The railroad companies’ revenue and industrial jobs have “emigrated,” but the people remain.
In retrospect, persecution of “Mollies” and Communists followed a similar pattern. Spies, company police, mass media, and biased courts generated hysteria and harsh sentences. Unlike the AOH, the CPUSA was an open, nonviolent, centralized, bureaucratic organization. While Hibernians were Irish nationalist revolutionaries seeking better working conditions, Communists were socialist revolutionaries. One represented the labor movement’s desperate rise, the other represented its stagnant decline. They shared a strong resistance to capitalism, which prosecutors admitted to be the trials’ real cause. The Hibernians’ and Communists’ story warns us that if the labor movement resurrects and threatens corporate ownership, capitalists will be the first to suspend the constitution.
The author is a descendant of English Quakers, and a member of Youth for Socialist Action, which belongs to the “United Secretariat of the Fourth International,” and the American “Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.”
Of the following books, all but the last 2 attack the Mollies. The coal owners may have found London publishers since the owners were based in England.
“Verbatim Report of the General Meeting of the Share and Bondholders of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, June 6, 1877,” London, 1877.
Allan Pinkerton, “The Molly Maguires and the Detectives,” London, 1877.
C.E. Lucy, “The Molly Maguires of Pennsylvania,” CE England, G Bell & Sons, London, 1882
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, “The Valley of Fear” Smith, Elder, London, 1915.
Arthur Lewis “Lament for the Molly Maguires,” London, 1965
Anthony Bimba, “The Molly Maguires,” Martin Lawrence, London, 1932.
Kevin Kenny, “Making Sense of the Molly Maguires,” Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998.