John Kehoe was born on July 3, 1837, in Ireland’s County Wicklow. Kehoe’s father and mother, Joseph and Bridget, emigrated to the United States sometime between 1842 and 1844, before the widespread potato crop failure led to Ireland’s Great Hunger. They settled their family in Pennsylvania.
The Kehoe men—Joseph and his sons Michael, John, Joseph, and Edward—worked at anthracite coal collieries in Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill and Carbon counties. Their work history left them no strangers to the dangers of hard coal mining.
On September 11, 1865, Schuylkill County’s Court of Common Pleas granted John Kehoe’s petition, at age twenty-eight, for U.S. citizenry. His father Joseph stood as his sponsor. Joseph’s elected positions at Mahanoy City included constable, township supervisor, and justice.
On September 30, 1866, John Kehoe married Mary Ann O’Donnell, who was born in Pennsylvania. Together, the couple had five children who lived to adulthood.
By the time of his marriage, Kehoe had worked his way out of the mines and into ownership of a small hotel in Mahanoy City. He bought a tavern in Shenandoah, and then moved his growing family to a small hotel in Girardville that he named “Hibernian House.”
Like his father Joseph, John Kehoe showed strong leadership capability. In 1872, his name appeared on a list of potential Democratic nominees for the Pennsylvania State Assembly. In 1874, Schuylkill County’s Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) men elected Kehoe county delegate. In 1875 and 1876, the citizens of Girardville elected Kehoe high constable.
In 1873 Franklin Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, head of the regional “Coal Combination,” and chief prosecutor during the “Molly Maguire” trials, brought Pinkerton agent James McParlan into the hard coal region. Gowen instructed this operative from the struggling detective agency to infiltrate area AOH lodges. McParlan did so under the alias “James McKenna.” McParlan’s statements tying AOH men to criminality drove the entire “Molly Maguire” caseload.
During violent upheaval in 1875, Kehoe strenuously defended the AOH against charges of “Molly Maguire” violence. He wrote: “the Ancient Order of Hibernians … is a chartered organization, recognized by the commonwealth, and composed of men who are law-abiding and seek the elevation of their members … nothing can be more unjust than to charge the order with any acts of lawlessness …”1
In May 1876, a second Pinkerton in Gowen’s hire issued arrest warrants for Kehoe and other prominent AOH men. Private Coal and Iron policemen in Gowen’s hire made the arrests. The commonwealth used McParlan’s statements to charge all AOH defendants with alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes. Special prosecutors for the coal interests, including a number of failed politicians, spearheaded the trials.
During his imprisonment, Kehoe protested his innocence in a letter written in spring 1878 from his jail cell at Pottsville. In this letter, Kehoe named a number of political reformers as personal friends. They included U.S. Congressman John Killinger and Welsh miner John Morgan, a member of the Pennsylvania State Assembly. In the letter, Kehoe also stated his unwillingness to commit perjury to save his own life.
One hundred years after Kehoe’s execution, in January 1979, Pennsylvania Governor Milton J. Shapp signed a letter memorializing Kehoe’s posthumous pardon. Despite the issuance of Kehoe’s posthumous pardon, historians still passionately debate the guilt or innocence of scores of convicted AOH men. The Kehoe Foundation, named in John Kehoe’s honor, seeks to bring forward a large body of materials that suggests the innocence of many of Kehoe’s fellow Hibernians. All were charged under the corrosive “Molly Maguire!” label.
1. Letter to editor dated October 22, 1875, published in Shenandoah Herald, June 9, 1876.