Spotlight: Day of the Rope
On June 21, 1877, 10 alleged members of a reputed, oath-bound, secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners - the Molly Maguires - were hanged in prisons in Mauch Chunk and Pottsville.
Nobody today was alive when it happened.
Yet it’s a day people still talk about. And no wonder. It was one of the largest official mass executions in American history.
As a result, the eyes of the world were on Schuylkill and Carbon counties on the Day of the Rope, 24 hours of history that will never be forgotten.
Among those who lost their lives in the Reign of Terror
and subsequent hangings of alleged Molly Maguires:
“Yellow Jack” Donahue
“Long John” Donahue
Michael J. Doyle
John P. Jones
Ellen O’Donnell McAllister
George K. Smith
Benjamin Franklin Yost
It came after what is called the Reign of Terror, from 1860 to 1875, around Tamaqua, Lansford, Mahanoy City, Shenandoah and other towns of Pennsylvania’s Southern Anthracite coal fields.
The events were blamed on the men of the Mollies, a subject of controversy to this day.
Were the Mollies heartless, murderous villains? Or were they framed for the crimes? Were they unsung heroes? Or perhaps martyrs who spawned America’s organized labor movement? Everyone has an opinion.
It’s not a matter of rewriting history, say students of the era. Instead, it’s a complicated task to figure out.
“Interest in the Molly Maguire story during the era of 1860 to 1875 across the coal region is stronger than it ever was as researchers and historians dig deeper into official records and find more details about truths and mistruths of what actually happened during this tumultuous time in our region,” said Dale Freudenberger, president of the Tamaqua Historical Society.
Tamaqua was the geographic hub for the Reign of Terror, when a series of violent assaults, arsons and murders ripped through the area.
Fittingly, the community also has been the center of staged events and street theater commemorating what took place.
Freudenberger said the historical society conducted a 1998 re-enactment of the hangings, an event that brought to Tamaqua reporters from The New York Times.
“We also re-enacted Kehoe’s Molly funeral procession from the train station to Old St. Jerome’s Cemetery, the shooting of officer Benjamin Yost on West Broad Street, the funeral procession of Yost to Odd Fellows Cemetery in a horse-drawn hearse, an Irish wake at the Tamaqua Museum, and Haunted Spirits of Tamaqua Ghost Tours at Halloween, visiting graves of numerous Mollies and their alleged victims.”
The events are always popular and interpretation is important.
“Jack Kehoe didn’t commit the murder, but they said he set it up,” said Schuylkill County Judge John Domalakes, historian, during a 2015 Molly Meander walking tour of Tamaqua sites. At that event, held the day after a February snowstorm, 45 attendees made their way through town guided by Domalakes and “Porcupine Pat” McKinney, environmental education coordinator of the Schuylkill Conservation District.
Freudenberger pointed out that the Molly saga has many and varied components.
“It truly is a fascinating story about struggling and oppressed immigrant coal miners, rich and powerful coal companies, and the beginnings of organized labor in America. Many of the original locations as well as grave sites can still be seen today following the Molly Maguire Auto Tour that was created in the 1980s or through self-exploration in local communities rich in history.”
In the meantime, the legendary hangings are woven into the fabric of local culture.
In 2010, The Day of the Rope was memorialized in a bronze statue and memorial erected on the corner of Centre and Catawissa streets in Mahanoy City. The statue depicts a hooded man bound by wrists and ankles, a sculpture created by artist Zenos Frudakis.
In 2017, a play by local historian and playwright Bobby Maso, representing the last three days of the convicted men’s lives, was presented as part of the Tamaqua Heritage Festival for the 140th anniversary of the hangings, performed by the Tamaqua Heritage Players.
Part of the allure of the story is the fascination with a day that was macabre by any standard.
In 1877, The Philadelphia Inquirer covered the Day of the Rope:
“About one hundred and fifty persons in all were present in the jail yard before and during the executions, the total being made up of visiting and local officials, physicians of Schuylkill County, members of the juries and a force of deputies selected by the sheriff, and some 50 journalists, representing all the newspapers of Schuylkill County and the leading journals of the great cities.”
In total, about 50 people died as a result of the Reign of Terror and Day of the Rope.
When the dust settled, six were hanged at Pottsville: James Carroll, James Roarty, Hugh McGeehan, James Boyle, Thomas Munley and Thomas Duffy.
Four others walked gallows at Mauch Chunk: Edward Kelly, Michael Doyle, Alexander Campbell and John Donahue.
Over the next two years, 10 more alleged Mollies were hanged, making 20 in all.
While many disagree about specifics of the Molly story, most concur that June 21, 1877, was the darkest day in the history of Schuylkill and Carbon counties.
Interestingly, in 1979, Gov. Milton Shapp issued a full pardon to John Kehoe, reputed Molly leader. A few retrials held a century later resulted in acquittals.