Imagine yourself in another century. The date is July 5, 1875. It is late at night and you are walking on Broad Street in the West End of Tamaqua. You notice a policeman just ahead of you climbing a ladder to extinguish the street lights. He has now reached the last light and, as the street goes dark, a shot rings out and he is murdered.
No, this is not the beginning of a story by Edgar Allen Poe or a Gothic murder mystery. But rather the events that lead to a turning point in what has come to be known as the time of the Molly Mcguire's. On Black Thursday, June 26, 1877, six men were hanged in Pottsville, and more in Jim Thorpe, accused of being members of the Molly Mcguires and murderers.
Now come back to the present time, to the same Broad Street and the site of the yet unopened Tamaqua Historical Society Museum. Tucked back in a small corner of the museum surrounded by totem poles and old Tamaqua band uniforms, Dale Freudenberger, President of the Historical Society, is talking about the Molly Mcguire artifacts that are part of the items to be displayed once renovations on the building are completed.
According to Freudenberger, it is rare to find anything original of the Mollies. During renovations to the Schuylkill County Prison, the Historical Society was able to acquire a shackle attached to a piece of cement flooring that had been used to chain a Molly before hanging. Also the door from one of the cells is displayed. A chilling sight, it consists of two pieces of very heavy solid oak paneling separated by a steel plate.
There is controversy over the existence of the Mollies and the guilt of the men hanged. "Black Jack" Kehoe, the alleged ringleader is buried in Old St. Jerome's Cemetery. Other Mollies are buried in various cemeteries throughout town along with many of the men murdered at the time. On display is in the Tamaqua museum is a copy of the 1979 pardon Kehoe was granted. This is thought to be the only posthumous pardon granted in Pennsylvania.
Also on display is an original 1877 book written in Tamaqua describing the Mollies as terrorists out to destroy mining operations. The Molly Mcguires are generally thought to be secret society that was part of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH). The original 1870's membership list of the AOH is also on display, listing the Bodymaster or head and members in the surrounding towns.
The period from 1860 to 1875 was a violent one in the history of the coal regions. There were murders, collieries burned and mine openings dynamited shut, all to disrupt coal operations. There is no dispute that the mine workers, at that time mostly Irish, were in a struggle for better working conditions. With ten to twelve hour work days, miners could not get free of the coal companies. Historians agree, according to Freudenberger, that what happened here was really the story of labor and peoples' rights. The coal companies were very powerful and kept people enslaved to the company as a way to ensure that they had enough labor for their vast operations. Competition pitted one big coal company against the other in a race for supremacy.
Then came the murder of Benjamin Franklin Yost on Broad Street in Tamaqua. His photograph as well as a drawing is displayed in the museum. This incident marked the turning point for the period, Freudenberger continues. Yost was a relative of the Beard family of Tamaqua. The Beards were influential members of the community, owning among other investments, the Beard Hotel which was located on the site of the building that currently houses the Salvation Army on Broad Street. The Beard family, wanting the death of their relative investigated, contacted the Pinkerton Detectives Agency. This lead to Irish immigrant James McParland, a Pinkerton detective, coming to Schuylkill County to infiltrate the AOH and ultimately the Mollies.
Befriending the men, McParland using the assumed name McKenna, worked side by side with them digging for information. When he had enough documentation he would report back to Allen Pinkerton, gradually building a case.
According to Freudenberger, today it is generally accepted that the trials were unfair. The jury consisted of men brought in who had little or no understanding of the English language. In addition the attorneys for the prosecution were powerful lawyers paid for by the coal companies. The result was a very unbalanced case.
The Historical Society exhibits a copy of the Tamaqua Borough Council minutes of July 6, 1875 which tells of the murder of Yost and plans to attend the memorial service. As well as a copy of a "Coffin Notice", a slip of paper nailed to a mine bosses door as a warning.
An original copy of the book written by Allen Pinkerton containing his account of his agency and the Mollies is on display along with some memorabilia from the 1970 film starring Sean Connery as Kehoe and Richard Harris as McParland. In addition, throughout the town of Tamaqua there are 40 historical markers, many related to Molly Mcguires sites.
Reporting on the violence in Pennsylvania's coal regions lead to national and international news coverage. A copy of the New York Times from the period on display features one of many news stories on the activities of the Molly Mcguires. Sir Arthur Conon Doyle even had his great detective Sherlock Holmes involved with the Mollies in his book The Valley of Fear. So it is appropriate that two coffins original to the time round out the display.
Once renovations are completed and the building open to the public, the Tamaqua Historical Society Museum will provide an entertaining and comprehensive look back into our shared past. Not only from the time of the Mollies, but it will be a walk down memory lane for many residents and former residents of Tamaqua.