Ancient Order of Hibernians

All of Pennsylvania’s Irish Catholic men charged as “Molly Maguires” belonged to the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent society that remains active today. In the 1870s, the order had divisions throughout the United States, the British Isles, and Canada.

AOH officers charged as “Mollies” showed a talent for electoral politics. They helped naturalize Irishmen as U.S. citizens, with the right to vote in local, state, and national elections. Some alleged “Mollies” helped sway the Irish vote toward liberal Republican candidates, marking a radical change in the voting habits of Pennsylvania’s large Irish Catholic electorate.

By 1876, the second year of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” prosecutions, estimates for AOH membership ranged to more than seven hundred thousand Irishmen countrywide. The society collected dues from members and paid them out as benefits: in Pennsylvania’s coal region, as disability, death, or funeral benefits. Delegates held meetings, dispensed disciplinary action, oversaw the recruitment of new members, and led their men in the order’s annual St. Patrick’s Day parade.

Parade_lrge AOH Parade, New York City
March 17, 1875
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, April 3, 1875
Enoch Pratt Free Library Collection

Many AOH men charged as “Mollies” served as AOH officers. The substantial intelligence, skill, and charisma of these Irishmen helped them achieve elected office. As least four alleged “Mollies” served as AOH county delegates. At least four served as divisional presidents in the regional mineworkers’ union. At least four served as school directors. Others served as tax collectors, tax assessors, and township supervisors. At least one executed Hibernian served as overseer of the poor. They were church-goers and family men, deeply embedded in their communities.

AOH divisions in New York City and Pennsylvania’s Schuylkill County, site of nine “Molly Maguire” executions, shared strong historic ties, including the order’s U.S. genesis. In 1836 their combined efforts secured the first AOH charter to govern U.S. divisions.

Thirty-five years later, AOH men in Pennsylvania and New York filed almost identical revised charters with their respective state legislatures. In 1876, when the “Molly Maguire!” arrests were in full cry, New York’s AOH officers tried unsuccessfully to raise and distribute a thirty thousand dollar defense fund for Schuylkill County’s Irishmen charged as “Mollies.”

In 1871 Pennsylvania’s AOH men filed this revised charter with their state legislature. It showcases the spirit embraced in their political and labor advocacy:

AOH Revised Charter Report of the Case of the Commonwealth vs. John Kehoe et al., 167.

The prosecution in Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” trials sullied the entire AOH order with the corrosive “Molly Maguire!” label. The prosecutions devastated AOH strength, both in Pennsylvania and countrywide. In 1876, at the height of the trials, AOH membership numbers in Pennsylvania totaled—by varying accounts—from thirty-five thousand to as many as sixty-three thousand Irish Catholic men. Nine years after the trials started, Pennsylvania’s membership numbers had plummeted—by a report from an AOH national meeting—to seven thousand members.

From 1876 to 1884, the years during and following the “Molly Maguire” trials, AOH membership numbers dropped from seven hundred thousand members nationwide to less than one hundred fifteen thousand U.S. members.

Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” trials tainted AOH standing for every member at that time. The Kehoe Foundation seeks to bring forward materials that suggest that Pennsylvania’s alleged “Molly Maguires” in fact honored their revised 1871 AOH charter—the charter where “Love guides the whole design.”