Researchers have spent more than a century trying to piece together the mystery that comprises Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict. These trials lasted for more than a half decade, from 1875 to 1882. The conflict left twenty-one Irish Catholic men dead on gallows in five counties, at least thirty-nine of their children fatherless, more than fifty Irish Catholic men in at least eight Pennsylvania counties imprisoned for alleged “Molly” crimes, and at least seventeen murder victims—many of them also family men.
Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” conflict remains one of the most under-examined, misunderstood, and misreported events in U.S. history. The trials took place in a virulent climate of anti-Irish prejudice. A cartel of railroad and coal interests— with three successively defeated gubernatorial candidates among them—combined with a hostile regional clergy, a hostile regional press, and the near-bankrupt Pinkerton National Detective Agency to send Irish Catholic men to the gallows for alleged “Molly Maguire” crimes on testimony given, or strongly influenced, by hired Pinkerton operatives. Then the Pinkertons wrote the first drafts of history.
When the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania executed John Kehoe in December 1878, newspapers countrywide declared him “King of the Molly Maguires.”
Kehoe lived one of the most dramatic lives in U.S. history. Yet his story has never been told. Kehoe’s experience illuminates the dangerous mix of ethnic, religious, social, political, and industrial tensions that fueled his arrest—and all of Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.
All of the Irishmen prosecuted as “Mollies” served as officers or members in the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent society legally chartered with Pennsylvania’s state legislature. Historians have continually overlooked evidence that shows that these AOH men—many of them married men with large families—had in fact organized through their society and through political venues to shape a dramatic program of political, labor, and social reform. These AOH men—in sharp contrast to their vicious portrayal by the press—may well have embodied some of our nation’s highest ideals.
The Kehoe Foundation seeks to honor the courage of these Hibernians. Their ethic of hard work and community and political leadership left an enduring mark on American culture. Their tragic struggle deserves a place in the long arc of historic battles that represents the ongoing march for human rights.