Molly Maguires

The facts of this history strongly suggest that “Molly Maguire” was a fictional smear used to brand influential Irish Catholic men as terrorists.

Decades of research suggest that the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and a hostile press used this pejorative term to persuade a credulous public that a gang of Irish outlaws—the so-called “Molly Maguires”—had banded together in the 1870s to terrorize the Pennsylvania coalfields. The prosecution’s theory was simple: in Pennsylvania’s coal regions, a terrorist group called the “Molly Maguires” and the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish Catholic benevolent society, were one and the same.

KehoeFnd_1 Illustration, Joseph Becker
Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, February 6, 1875
Enoch Pratt Free Library Collection

If fictional, the legacy of the term “Molly Maguire!” maintains a stranglehold on contemporary definitions.

A number of Pennsylvania’s AOH officers executed as “Mollies” denied the existence of any such group. But they lived in a time of vicious anti-Irish prejudice best typified in this cartoon by Thomas Nast. Nast’s cartoon appeared after an 1871 Orange Parade in New York City—another event that reverberated with Anglo-Irish conflict—left more than a hundred people dead. Nast’s cartoon appeared just four months after AOH men in New York and Pennsylvania filed almost identical revised charters with their respective state legislatures.

The biographies, never before documented, of many of Pennsylvania’s AOH officers condemned as “Mollies” reflect an Irish Catholic ideology of compassion, courage, and fierce advocacy. These AOH officers, with their histories of small business ownership and community leadership, their political and family involvement, and their religiosity—reflected in both their actions and in the documents that governed their order—bore no resemblance whatever to Nast’s Satanic Irish beast—nor to a thuggish “band of assassins” who allegedly terrorized Pennsylvania’s coalfields.

KehoeFnd_2 Illustration, Thomas Nast
Harper’s Weekly, July 29, 1871
Library of Congress Collection

In 1906, the Appeal to Reason sent a reporter to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, to commemorate the thirty-year anniversary of the landmark “Molly Maguire” trials. Fred Warren, the newspaper’s editor, wrote: “Never in the history of capitalism was the law more completely throttled, or justice outraged, than in the memorable trial of the ‘Mollie Maguires’ of Pennsylvania, thirty years ago. Never in all the history of criminal jurisprudence was there a more deliberate conspiracy to ‘railroad’ innocent men to the gallows than was enacted in the anthracite region of the Keystone state. For flagrant disregard of human life, cold-blooded perversion of simple justice and deeply wrought conspiracy this event caps the climax in the tragedies of industrialism.” 1

The Kehoe Foundation seeks to bring forward a large body of materials that suggests that the damaging and corrosive label “Molly Maguire!” was a fictional smear used to remove influential Irishmen from Pennsylvania’s nineteenth-century political arena—and to destroy, both statewide and countrywide, the burgeoning political and electoral power of the AOH.

1. Appeal to Reason, “The Story of the ‘Molly Maguires,’” August 18, 1906.