Molly Maguires

            In the late 1860's, in Eastern Pennsylvania, there was a secret organization called the Molly Maguires. The Molly Maguires were miners from the coal region of Pennsylvania who formed a union during the 1860's and 1870's. Mostly, the Molly Maguires consisted of members that were Irish or sons of Irishmen and they were of the Catholic religion (Pinkerton, 1973). The purpose of the Molly Maguires was to rob, burn, pillage, and kill men and women. The main reasons why this organization did such monstrous crimes were that they wanted a reduction in wages and they had personal grievances against their victims (Moffett, 2002).
          During this time era, wealth was increasing at the same rate as the population, but there was an uneven distribution of wealth. There were extremes of poverty and of wealth. Since the population was increasing, there was an excess amount of coal being produced. As a result, the coal employers benefited while the laborers suffered (Boyle, 2002). In the middle of the 19th century in the United States there were "No-Irish-Need-Apply" signs to indicate the widespread anti-Irish feeling that existed (Coleman, 1969). The employers followed the policy of keeping the Irish in poverty; therefore the Irish refused to bargain for better wages.
       The Molly Maguires was originally started in Ireland. The name "Molly Maguires" came from a woman who led an antilandlord organization during the 1840's (Molly Maguires, 2002). This woman killed several agents of the landlords and her purpose was to eliminate the agents by murder. The ideals of the Molly Maguires coincided with that of the coal workers (Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania, 2002). As a result, they named themselves after her. The Mollies that formed in Ireland dressed in women's clothing as a disguise similarly to the recent Ku Klux Klan clad with their white robes. When the Mollies formed in America they dressed in their own apparel (Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania, 2002). Mollies were drawn from a well-known secret and fraternal organization originally formed in Ireland called the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The AOH existed in Ireland as an organization, which purpose was to combat unjust laws (Coleman, 1969). The AOH existed in America as a guardian to the Irish immigrants and as their church in America. This organization administered their own social welfare program and provided benefits for the widows and their children (Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania, 2002, & Boyle, 2002). After some time, most people began to forget that the Mollies were Hibernians and they became known to everyone as the Molly Maguires.
            The formation of the Molly Maguires came about during the Civil War era when the wages of the coal workers were very low as a result of the effects of the war. The workers began to see that their situation was becoming very similar to the reason why the Irish had left Ireland in the first place, which was to flee from the oppression, starvation, and the tyranny of their homeland. The Great Hunger of the 1849's was the main reason why the Irish had come to America. As time past, the Irish coal workers began to encounter more and more debt to the company and the company store. The Irish coal workers became trapped in a system in which their economic status would be a small amount above the poverty level (Boyle, 2002). The condition of the miners became intolerable. There were no provisions for safety and poor ventilation in the pits. Attempts were made to pass legislation for better working conditions, but were extremely weak and rarely enforced. It was not until a mine operator was killed in Ravensdale Collier explosion that the grievances of the miners were recognized. The Irish workers began to take the law into their own hands because they were well aware that justice in the coal regions was administered by police forces owned by mine operators.

            In 1968, a native of Ireland by the name of John Siney of Saint Clair formed the Workers Benevolent Association (WBA). Strikes were conducted by the WBA, which gave good outcomes. In 1870, the mine owners agreed to recognize the WBA as a legitimate bargaining agent for the coal miners (Boyle, 2002). Irish political power began to grow and many miners started to save to buy businesses. But in 1873, the coal and railroad owners announced a 20% cut in wages. The WBA formed a strike in December of 1874, which became known as the Long Strike that lasted seven months. Violence spread across the coal region as a result of the starvation that the miners and their families faced. The end result was that they came back to work because of the demands of the company and not because of their achievements (Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania, 2002).

            The Molly Maguires committed murders, robberies, assaults, arsons, and political corruption throughout the Eastern part of Pennsylvania. Deaths occurred day after day and the Molly Maguires were becoming a symbol of lawlessness and violence as stated by Pottsville's Miner's Journal. Many superintendents were killed and/or robbed. Among some of the numerous killed were: Henry Dunne, Thomas Edwards, William H. Littlehales, Alexander Mae, Morgan Powell, William Polock, David Muir, Melder Schmidt, and many others were victims of the Molly Maguires (Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania, 2002, Coleman, 1969). In the first three months of 1967, five murders, six assaults with serious injuries, and twenty-seven robberies occurred. Some were killed in broad daylight, on their way to work or to their house, or in some cases on public roads. Robberies would be committed on the day that most victims received their payroll. In 1870, the number of violent deeds done by the Molly Maguires decreased (Coleman, 1969) The Molly Maguires historians state "that this was not an indication of their inactivity, but it explained by the theory that most of their energy was devoted on political pursuits" (Coleman, 1969, p.61). The leaders of the AOH promised the votes of their followers in return for money and assurance for friends' pardons. The Mollies would even intimidate voters to get their way and they would control most of the elections.  The Molly Maguire society was thought to be in complete control in the politics of Schuylkill County at one time (Coleman, 1969). In other political matters, the Mollies would also nominate their own kind for positions such as school directors and higher-level positions. The Mollies would become county commissioners, constables, and chiefs of police (Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania, 2002). On one occasion, a state official paid the Molly Maguires money in exchange for votes to be casted his way. Not only did the Molly Maguires control political matters but they also controlled some of the "Bosses" in their jobs. For instance, the members of the Molly Maguires would be put in the best and easiest job positions. If the "Bosses" did not comply with giving the Mollies these types of jobs they would be killed or assaulted (Moffett, 2002). In political issues concerning labor, "this organization would consistently side with the labor interest and they were actively interested in the bitter contest between labor and capital" (Coleman, 1969, p. 67).

            The first encounter that the Molly Maguires had with the law was in the summer of 1962, when drafts for the civil war were occurring. Most of the Mollies refused to go to war so they did what was possible to stay. Many capitalists and mine bosses were beaten and murdered during this time. The most important serious deed in the Molly Maguire history occurred during the drafts. On November 5, 1863, in Audrenned Carbon County, a gang of twenty-five men murdered George K. Smith, a mine owner and operator, the reason behind his murder was because he aided in the enforcement of the draft (Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania, 2002).

As more murders and robberies were occurring, the Pinkerton Detective Agency was hired to undertake the mission of infiltrating the union, known as the Molly Maguires. Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, assigned James McParlen to take care of producing evidence to convict the Molly Maguires. James McParlen was twenty-nine years old at that time (Coleman, 1969, Molly Maguires, 2002,Strike at Mill, 2002). He was of medium height and with facial features that included a well-rounded forehead, a beard, and a moustache a little darker of color than his hair (Pinkerton, 1973). The plan that the Pinkerton Detective Agency had was to obtain secrets of the AOH by making James McParlen a member of the Molly Maguires since this was the only alternative to get the evidence that they needed. James McParlen changed his name to James McKenna and he began to travel from town to town to do rescues, "disarm "drink-crazed" ruffians, grace social gatherings, and gain confidence of virtually all the better known Irishmen of the region" (Colman, 1969). Four months after beginning his mission he was accepted as a member of the Ancient Order of Hibernians known as the Molly Maguires. He was told of secret recognition signs, toasts, and upcoming plans that enabled him to secure the arrest and conviction of the perpetrators (Coleman, 1973). James McKenna would keep Pinkerton updated on the plans of the Molly Maguires to prevent the new crimes from happening. On February 10, 1874 McKenna reached the town of Shenandoah, which consisted mainly of Mollies. McKenna was able to get whatever job he proposed because he had the right connections with the miners and the Mollies. The detective would make daily reports and would give warnings of intended crimes (Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania, 2002). McKenna also found out the system in which the Mollies operated, which was that the Mollies from one district would hire Mollies from another district to do the job so that they could not be easily recognized. In addition, the Mollies would send their victims "Coffin Notices," which were written warnings with knifes and revolvers drawn on it to let them know that this was not a game and that there would be severe consequences. Several of the murders that the Mollies committed were told to the detective including the names of the ones who had committed the crimes. Ultimately, they were hung for their crimes (Moffett, 2002).

            On May 6, 1876, numerous arrests were made and highly dramatic trials followed. Franklin B. Gowen, the president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad conducted the prosecutions of the Molly Maguires (Moffett, 2002). The result of the trials with the evidence provided by McParlen's investigations and testimony brought the complete elimination of the Molly Maguires. Nineteen were hanged, several were put in jail, and others were just killed, which brought the end of these secret organization which originally had formed to get better working conditions in the coal fields and ended up being the most radical and violent organization. It was the first labor movement solely by workers who fought against capital to achieve their purpose of better treatment as they came to America to achieve their dream of better working and living conditions.


 Boyle, Walter. The Ancient Order of Hibernians and its link to the Coal Region; The Molly Maguires and the AOH. Retrieved October 8,2002 from

 Coleman, Walter J. (1969). The Molly Maguire Riot. New York: Arno Press Inc.

Moffett, Cleveland. (1894). The Overthrow of the Molly Maguires [Electronic version]. McClure's Magazine, 90-100.Retrieved October 9,2002 from

Molly Maguires. Retrieved October 8,2002 from:

Organization of Outlaws born in Ireland-Reborn in Pennsylvania. (n.d) Retrieved October 8,2002 from

Pinkerton, Allan. (1973). The Molly Maguires and the Detectives. New York: Dover Publication Inc.

Strike at Homestead Mill: The Hated Men in Black. (n.d) Retrieved October 8,2002 from PBS database on the World Wide Web:

Molly Maguires. (n.d). Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved October 8,2002 from Encyclopedia Britannica Online database, Article no.54597.

This page was written and created by a student enrolled in a course at the University of St.Francis.
The content of this page is the work and opinion of the author, not the faculty or administration of the University of St. Francis.
Neither the University nor its employees are responsible for the content of this web page.