Were "The Mollies" of the 1870's real or were they phantoms haunting history? Read this article by Troy Rondinone to find out.

21 Oct 2012 8:45 PM | Posted by GNHLHA

Historical Notes


By Troy Rondinone

Of the many legends of American Labor History, few strike a more defiant pose than the mysterious Molly Maguires.  Haunting the sleep of many a Gilded Age mining capitalist, the Mollies brought terror to the coal fields, beating and even assassinating scabs, destroying company property, and causing general mayhem. Acquiring their name from an Irish rebel woman who “blackened her face and under her petticoat carried a pistol strapped to each of her stout thighs,” the Molly Maguires were made up of Irish American miners who imported anti-British vigilantism to America.

Then again, there may never have been any such group.

Historians cannot be sure whether a coherent, secret group of outlaws calling itself the Molly Maguires was ever real, or whether it was a product of the fevered imagination of coal mine operators bent on breaking unionism in the coal fields.

What is clear is that in the 1870s, violence was rife in Pennsylvania’s anthracite coal country, as miners and owners battled over working conditions in a very dangerous period of labor history. Thousands of workers perished in these years from cave-ins, gas explosions, black lung disease, and assorted other calamities. One miners’ union, the Workers Benevolent Association (WBA), fought to reduce the back-breaking labor required of miners and increase their benefits and overall safety.  The WBA successfully established a miners’ hospital in Schuylkill, PA, provided benefits to widows, and even helped get safety legislation passed. 

Coal baron Frank Gowen was determined to crush the WBA. In 1873 he placed a mole in the miners’ union, and eventually the mole, a man named James McParlan, testified that the Mollies had indeed infiltrated the union and were responsible for numerous murders. Despite the fact that no real evidence connected any of the accused miners to any crimes, twenty men went to their deaths at the gallows. The Philadelphia Inquirer praised the executions as the death of “the most relentless combination of assassins that had been known in American history.”  

Today there is a plaque in the old Schuylkill County prison yard commemorating the largest mass execution of the Mollies (which took place on June 21, 1877). The plaque ends by describing how historians now believe that “the trials and executions were part of a repression directed against a fledgling mineworker’s union of that historic period.”  The plaque only took a little over a century to go up.



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