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 Post subject: Legend of the Molly Maguire
PostPosted: Mon Oct 31, 2011 10:10 am 
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Joined: Thu Apr 02, 2009 7:16 pm
Posts: 478
Location: Anthracite Region of PA
According to legend, the handprint was placed there in 1877 by Alexander Campbell, an immigrant Irish miner and liquor distributor from Lansford, Carbon County. He was also an alleged member of the Molly Maguires, sentenced to death for the killings of mine superintendents Morgan Powell and John P. Jones.

On the morning of his execution, Campbell declared his innocence, insisting that he was "nowhere near the scene of either crime." Then he slapped his right hand against the wall of the cell leaving a dirty handprint. "There is proof of my words," he added. "That mark will never be wiped out. There it will remain forever to shame the county that is hangin' an innocent man."

Today, Campbell's handprint can still be seen by visitors to Cell 17 of the old jail, which is now a museum. The mark appears to give credibility to Campbell's declaration of innocence as well as the interpretation of those historians who call the Molly Maguire trials "a travesty of justice."

The Molly Maguires were members of an Irish-American secret society of coal miners. In a series of sensational arrests and trials during the 1870s, the Mollies were accused of destroying coal company property as well as murdering mine officials in the ongoing struggle between organized labor and a powerful anthracite industry.

But their crimes are open to conjecture. The Molly Maguires left virtually no evidence of their existence and nearly everything that we know about them is based on biased contemporary accounts, including those of Franklin B. Gowen, a wealthy coal magnate, and James McParland, the Pinkerton detective he hired to infiltrate the secret organization.

The Molly Maguires came to Pennsylvania's anthracite coalfields in the 1850s after a succession of poor harvests and the need for work in their native Ireland. They quickly discovered that their living conditions were not that much better.

Throughout the anthracite region, laborers faced unchecked exploitation due to the intense demand for coal as a fuel source for industrial, commercial and domestic use. Miners worked in poorly ventilated mine shafts, with constant threat of suffocation, runaway coal cars and explosions.

The operators, bent on maximizing their profits, refused to spend the additional money necessary to provide for safer working conditions. Nor were they compelled to do so by state law since their representatives dominated the Pennsylvania legislature.

Workers were also exploited financially, being held in submission with low wages. In 1870, a coal miner earned $1.25 a day. Subtracted from his earnings were rent, working supplies, groceries and other household items, all of which were purchased at a company-owned store where prices had been inflated from 10 to 15 percent more than at an independent store.

Miners were forced to live in ramshackle company housing rented on a day-to-day lease. Reduced to wage slaves, the miners and their families had an extremely poor quality of life.

To combat these intolerable conditions, miners organized a union called Workingmen's Benevolent Association in 1868. The WBA was successful in transcending the ethnic barriers that divided the miners by appealing to their common circumstances. During the next few years, the WBA's membership increased.

Some of the Molly Maguires belonged to the union in spite of the WBA's condemnation of violence.

Challenged by a united rank-and-file, the coal operators recognized the WBA as a formal bargaining agency. In 1870, they agreed to a sliding scale of wages based on the prevailing price of coal, and to a fixed minimum wage. But, by 1875, the operators were determined to restore their profits by abolishing the minimum wage and destroying the union as well.

Led by Franklin B. Gowen, president of the powerful Anthracite Board of Trade, the coal operators antagonized the union by importing strikebreakers and employing the Coal and Iron Police.

After the coal operators crushed the WBA, the miners needed some vehicle through which they could continue the struggle against Gowen and the allied coal operators. Many of the Irish miners used their membership in a national fraternal Irish society called the "Ancient Order of Hibernians" to re-establish their union. The local delegate of the Hibernians was Jack Kehoe, who had also been involved with the WBA.

Gowen and the Anthracite Board of Trade sought to eradicate this local chapter of the Hibernians as they had the WBA. Whenever any miner resorted to violence, the act was attributed to the Hibernians, regardless if the miner was a member of the group or not.

With the aide of the newspapers, Franklin Gowen tagged the Ancient Order of Hibernians with the name, "Molly Maguires," making the two organizations synonymous. In fact, not all members of the Hibernians were in collusion with the Mollies.

Gowen's use of the term "Molly Maguires" to brand rebellious Irish miners was consistent with the widespread discrimination of the Irish among native-born Americans, mostly of English and Welsh ancestry.

The term "Molly Maguires" was being used by nativists in the anthracite region as early as the 1850s to refer to Irish social depravity. According to the nativists, the Irish were a scourge on civil society because of their uncleanliness, drunken behavior, laziness, poverty and political corruption.

By the early 1860s, a "marked propensity for violence" was added to the list because of the Mollies' vocal membership in the Workingmen's Benevolent Association. The negative stereotype became more fixed among the public with each and every murder that was committed in the anthracite coal region, whether it was committed by the Irish or not.

Between 1862 and 1875, 16 murders were attributed to the Molly Maguires. Alexander Campbell was charged with two of them. The first was the murder of Morgan Powell at Summit Hill, Carbon County, on Dec. 2, 1871.

Powell, a Welsh immigrant, had risen through the ranks to become a superintendent at the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company. Though nobody was arrested at the time of the killing, Campbell, along with John Donahue and Thomas Fisher, were convicted of the crime in 1876. Campbell allegedly wanted Powell killed because he favoring Welsh miners with preferable jobs. The second murder was that of John P. Jones, a Welsh mine superintendent for the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company, on Sept. 3, 1875. Jones was also killed because he discriminated against Irish workers, including Michael Doyle and Edward Kelly, who were charged with the crime along with Campbell.

To put a stop to the violence, Gowan hired James McParlan of the Pinkerton Detective Agency. A self-confessed murderer who openly boasted that he had killed a man in Buffalo, N.Y., McParlan was ordered to infiltrate the Mollies in order "to plot, to counsel, and to perpetrate murders in the coal fields of Pennsylvania."

The 29-year-old informant circulated among the miners by assuming the identity of "James McKenna." He claimed to be a miner from Colorado who was seeking work in the East and used his Irish birthright to join the Ancient Order of Hibernians. McParlan befriended Jack Kehoe, the alleged mastermind of the Mollies, and would later testify against him and other members of the organization in court.

McParlan was on board by 1875 when the Jones murder occurred. In fact, he later testified that he was assigned as one of the Mollies to kill Jones until he was replaced by Campbell late on the night of the assassination.

Serious questions surround McParlan's role in the Jones assassination, a murder than had been planned months in advance. Several reports by Captain Robert Linden, another Pinkerton operative under cover with the Coal and Iron Police, in July and August confirm that the Pinkertons had received advanced warning of the plan to kill Jones in early September.

Why didn't McParlan act to prevent the Jones murder? Did he allow the murder to take place so he could accumulate irrefutable evidence against the Molly Maguires?

In fact, McParlan had participated in planning other murders attributed to the Mollies, that he knew about several of them in advance, and that he did little to prevent them or warn the victims. While that may not make him a provocateur, it does speak volumes about the measures that were taken to bring the Molly Maguires to justice in the violent summer of 1875.

Ultimately, McParlan held the lives of the Mollies in his own two hands. The Pinkerton detective served as the prosecution's key witness at the trials of the Mollies, which took place between 1876 and 1878. As a result of his testimony, 20 men were found guilty of first-degree murder and hanged between 1877 and 1878.

Although Alexander Campbell only admitted to being an accessory to the murders of John P. Jones and Morgan Powell, he was convicted of the crime by a judge with an anti-Molly bias and a jury of non-English speaking, Protestant, German and Welsh immigrants known for not getting along with their Irish neighbors.

Campbell, along with the other Molly convicts, was taken to Carbon County Jail where he was placed in cell No. 17. For days he listened to the noise of the gallows being built outside in the courtyard.

On the morning of his execution, when the guards went to fetch Campbell, he tried one last time to proclaim his innocence. When they refused to let him go, he put his hand in the dirt, marked the wall with it, and declared that it would remain forever as a sign of his innocence. Shortly after, he was hanged.

Campbell's handprint has remained, though it has been repeatedly scrubbed and painted over. In 1930, a local sheriff became so exasperated with public curiosity over the mark that he had the entire wall knocked out and replaced. But the handprint reappeared on the new wall in the same place the very next day.

The jail was closed in 1995, but reopened two years later as a museum on the 120th anniversary of the hangings. On that occasion, a memorial Mass was conducted, dedicated to the memory of the four Mollies hanged in the courtyard. Since then, both branches of the Pennsylvania legislature have passed resolutions (House Resolution No. 527, Session of 2005, and Senate Resolution No. 235, Session of 2006) recognizing the trials of Alexander Campbell and the other accused Molly Maguires as being inherently unconstitutional, and charging then-governor Ed Rendell to do the same. To date, the governor has not acted on those resolutions.

No doubt, Campbell's handprint will remain visible until he does.

William Kashatus teaches history at Luzerne County Community College. He can be contacted at

Scott K
"Watch Your Top"

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