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Area Irish mystery remains unsolved

  • FROM DONALD R. SERFASS COLLECTION The clock was turned back 100 years on Broadway in Jim Thorpe when, in 1968, Paramount Studios filmed "The Molly Maguires," a story of the struggle of Irish immigrant miners.
    FROM DONALD R. SERFASS COLLECTION The clock was turned back 100 years on Broadway in Jim Thorpe when, in 1968, Paramount Studios filmed "The Molly Maguires," a story of the struggle of Irish immigrant miners.
Published March 17. 2014 05:00PM

Many say it remains the all-time classic whodunit.

Perhaps no other single element in the history of the anthracite coal and railroad industries continues to be more storied, more researched and more questioned.

The case of the Molly Maguires, a murderous rampage that swept our area in the 1860s and '70s, remains unsolved and its implications and repercussions are still being felt today.

The saga led to the rise of today's labor unions and resulted in one of the largest official mass executions in U.S. history.

It's generally believed the Molly Maguires were members of a 19th-century secret society composed mainly of Irish and Irish-American coal miners.

But there is much disagreement about many details.

Books have been written, courthouse records examined, trials re-enacted, films and documentaries created, and even a star-studded, $10-million-dollar motion picture produced.

All of this was done in an attempt to extract the full and true story behind the reign of terror that permeated Pennsylvania's southern anthracite coal fields for at least 15 years, beginning about 1860.

During that era, local mining towns erupted into violence as struggles emerged between labor and management.

The assaults and murders were attributed to the Mollies. To get to the bottom of the problem, police went undercover.

Pinkerton infiltration

Between 1874 and 1877, Pinkerton Detective Agency's James McParland infiltrated the Ancient Order of Hibernians, a purely beneficial society chartered by the state and one that denied any connection to the Mollies.

Still, it was observed that while all members of the AOH claimed not to be Mollies, virtually all Mollies arrested up to 1875 were members of the AOH. The prevalent feeling was that these two organizations were one and the same.

McParland eventually testified against other AOH members in a series of criminal trials.

What is not in dispute is the end result.

On June 21, 1877, known as the Day of the Rope, 10 men were hanged by the neck until dead. Six met their fate at the Schuylkill County Prison in Pottsville, and four others perished in the prison at Mauch Chunk, which is now Jim Thorpe in Carbon County.

Over the next two years, 10 more reputed Mollies were executed.

John "Black Jack" Kehoe, 41, alleged Molly leader and former miner, was escorted to the gallows and hanged on Dec. 18, 1878. He had been implicated in the 1862 beating death of mine ticket boss Frank W.S. Langdon.

Some believe Kehoe, a native of County Wicklow, Ireland, and other executed Mollies, might have been innocent.

That debate continues today, 136 years after Kehoe's death.

Opinions vary

What keeps the story poignant and relevant is its timeless cause and the surrounding mystery.

Some believe the legal charges were trumped up and the Mollies were framed. It was impossible for Irish immigrants to receive a fair trial, many say.

An eventual gubernatorial action furthered that line of thought.

On Jan. 14, 1979, Kehoe was granted a posthumous pardon by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania under order of then-Gov. Milton Shapp. A thorough review of circumstances suggested the "trial was conducted in an atmosphere of religious, social, and ethnic tension."

A parole board and district attorney stated the execution of Kehoe was "a miscarriage of justice."

Today, wounds remain and healing continues in Schuylkill and Carbon counties. Opinions vary depending on one's beliefs and, perhaps, one's ethnicity.

Kehoe's great-grandson, Joseph J. Wayne of Girardville, routinely visits his ancestor's grave in Old St. Jerome's Cemetery in Tamaqua. There, at a steep hillside location, Kehoe was buried in a plot owned by his wife's family.

Wayne has presided over tributes at that site, held in cooperation with local AOH chapters. He told the TIMES NEWS that his great-grandfather did not die in vain.

"We must remember from whence we came. It's proper to recognize him for what he did and tried to do. He tried to better his fellow man," says Wayne, who operates the Hibernian House in Girardville, the tavern purchased by Kehoe in 1873.

Wayne believes the time has come for understanding and tolerance.

Sometimes history doesn't give us the information we need. Sometimes records remain open to endless interpretation.

After Kehoe and others were executed, a violent era came to an end.

But the questions were only beginning.

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