Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Family Ties: The Molly Maguires and the Hanging of Black Jack Kehoe

Maybe it's all the talk about executions in Iraq, but lately I've been thinking about members of my own family who've been hanged. Actually, there's just one that we know of, but what a character: The legendary Black Jack Kehoe - one of the leaders of the Molly Maguires, a gang who fought coal-mining companies in the late 1800s in Pennsylvania. To understand what happened to Jack, you have to revisit the dark history of labor conditions in America.

It's very common to hear Right Wing blowhards pontificate on the dire threat of organized labor - as they reminisce fondly about the Robber Baron days - but just go back and read about those times. See how the workers in this country were treated before they organized. It was brutal and a very bad part of our history. Here's a glimpse of the conditions and the men who rose up against them:

"The Molly Maguires were a secret society established in early-nineteenth-century Ireland to battle British landowners. A number of them, forced to flee their homeland because of the mid-century famine, or because of charges brought against them by colonial authorities, found themselves in Pennsylvania's anthracite coal fields, living under conditions as bad as or worse than those they thought they'd left behind. Miners went underground to hack out coal under primitive conditions. There was no local or federal legislation to protect them. In 1871, 112 men were killed in the anthracite mines, and 332 permanently injured. In seven years, 556 men had been killed and 1,565 maimed or crippled for life. Out of 22,000 miners, more than 5,000 were sixteen years of age or under. . . . Take-home pay was uncertain; deductions were often arbitrary or at the whim of the owners by means of what they called the "bobtail check." A typical week's wages for a miner at the time of the Molly Mcguires was $35; expenses, including rent, groceries, and a new drill, came to $35.03."

To this day we hear about mining accidents where the company has cut corners on safety. It still goes on, but of course, not like back then. Jack Kehoe had suffered a broken back in the mines and began running a bar in Girardville, Pennsylvania, where my father's people lived. Here's a picture of the place taken in 2007.The bar is still in my extended family. Here's a picture of it from 1989. Jack Kehoe's daughter married the brother of my grandfather, whom I never got to meet. Jack was the local leader of the Molly Maguires until the gang was infiltrated by a Pinkerton employee who ratted them out leading to many men being hanged. Our official position is that the charges were a crock and the trial was a sham. The man who set Jack up later committed suicide and the thought is he was haunted by his deeds. Jack was pardoned many years later, and the entire incident was turned into a Hollywood movie called "The Molly Maguires" starring Sean Connery as Jack Kehoe.

"On June 21, 1877, also known as Black Thursday, the first ten of twenty Irish Miners were hung for the murders of 24 mine foremen and superintendants in these Pennsylvania coalfields. Known as the Molly Maguires, this secret band of Irish Miners took revenge against the Reading Railroad and its mine bosses for the terrible conditions at the mines. They were infiltrated, captured, tried and hung by the Pinkertons and the Railroad for these crimes."

This is the interior of the bar where the undercover Pinkerton man spied on the Molly Maguires.

I'm told the movie isn't that accurate. As usual, the really exciting parts of history are blurred by perceptions and myth. One side views Jack as practically a saint, while the coal mining executives probably saw him as a terrorist. There was talk of staged incidents, so perhaps he was a pawn in the game.

What I learned of the place my father grew up was mainly through my aunts and picking up little snippets of conversation. For example, we had a member of the family who had a crease in his head from where a coal car had hit him - or at least that's what I remember hearing as a boy. I also heard that we had relatives in New York because some of the family had to flee after witnessing a murder by the Molly Maguires. There's a lot of legend in with the facts, but the facts are undeniably stunning. So how did my father get out of town?

Harry was an amazingly smart young boy. I never related to that Mark Twain quote about how much smarter his father seemed as the years rolled on. My siblings and I knew from a very early age that my dad was quite a brain. Harry had an air of greatness, and it was his ticket out of town. He came from a large family with the all-too-typical sibling deaths, but everyone realized Harry was something extraordinary, so arrangements were made to send him to New York City to attend Columbia. After Columbia, he landed in World War 2, met my mother in the South Pacific, and went to Arabia where I was born.

Who knows? Another generation, another time, I could have been a young man living in Girardville, working in the coal mines. Maybe after a shift, I would have headed down to the family bar and had a beer with Black Jack Kehoe himself.


At 8:42 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Bill....another wonderful, fascinating post!!!
I have heard of the Molly Mcguires, but really did not know that much about them. Thanks for filling in the gaps of my knowledge. I found your whole post very informaive.
Keep up the good work and I will be looking forward to more of them.
Eugene, Oregon
P.S. Absolutely loved your post about your adventure going to Seattle. Even made my husband sit down and read it just to prove to him politics are not all that I read and enjoy about the Net.

At 9:47 AM, Blogger Bill McDonald said...

Thanks for the kind words, Mam.

At 4:53 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Nice story. You might be interested in an interesting website: www.coalregion.com . Check out the link on the main page called "Coalspeak". It might add some light to phrases and word usage your dad took with him from the coal region. You're probably aware that Black Jack is buried in Tamaqua, Schuylkill County, PA.

Mark, Lemon Springs, NC (originally from Tamaqua)

At 11:22 AM, Blogger Douglas said...

When I was a young boy in Mahanoy City, Girardville was a Sunday trip.Being that my Mother was born there on the 4th of July.Her mother's sister,my Great Aunt,was married to Jack Kehoe's Grandson.I still can look back and see myself in the bar with him and her. I miss all of them.

At 11:52 AM, Blogger Adam said...

Hi Bill,

Another member of the Sheehan clan here. I was doing some research on my own about Jack Kehoe and stumbled across your blog. It's really interesting. I used to live just north of you (in Seattle) but have since moved back to Pa. Reading your post makes we want to take a day trip up to Girardville. I'll let you know if I do.


Adam Richter

At 5:53 PM, Blogger ldingman1 said...

Bill, another branch heard from. I just came across this site today after talking to Gene Batman. My grandmam was orphaned early and she and siblings were raised by Jack and Mary Ann. My grandpap ran the Never Sink Hotel in
trevorton. My mother told us stories of those times and find Kevin Kenny"s book closest to her version which was probably the truth, Grandparents never uttered a word. She had a sister in Atlantic City and one in Philly. The movie was a joke. Lois D.

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At 9:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

my name is kelly kehoe. my dad and grandfather jack kehoe. my grandfathers sister "aunt sissy" contributed journels and other findings when they made the movie. a limo came and picked them up for the premere. i was very young. i beleive these guys were heros and deserve more recognition than they have got. they are truely saints in my family and survived an era that most people today could'nt even imagine. aunt sissy said the movie was nothing more than "hollywood" garbage. These men will forever be in our hearts.

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Hi I think I'm related to you. I'm fascinated in the story and I would love to know more about my families history.

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At 5:42 AM, Blogger Kim Weber said...

I am a descendant of his sister Bridget. She is my 4x Great Grandmother. I have been working on the family tree and I came to a dead end with their parents. I have done reports on Uncle Jack in school as a child. I found sad that it took till my life time for him to get the well deserved pardon. When people call me bullheaded I tell them its my Kehoe blood.Now its 2013 and I fear that his death may have been in vain if something doesn't change in our society.

At 5:43 AM, Blogger Kim Weber said...

I am a descendant of his sister Bridget. She is my 4x Great Grandmother. I have been working on the family tree and I came to a dead end with their parents. I have done reports on Uncle Jack in school as a child. I found sad that it took till my life time for him to get the well deserved pardon. When people call me bullheaded I tell them its my Kehoe blood.Now its 2013 and I fear that his death may have been in vain if something doesn't change in our society.

At 6:34 PM, Blogger 42JKB said...

I was born and raised in Girardville.

I found many of posts to be well informed and interesting. You may want to check the spelling of the term Molly Maguires.



John Blase
Age 67
Tualatin, OR


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At 7:36 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is great to see this blog. Yesterday a 11 of my family members drove to the hiberian house. Unfortunately it was closed but my uncle and aunt (Ginley) still told us stories of jack keohe. Jack's daughter Ellen keohe Ginley was married to my grandmas great uncle Byran Ginley. We tried to find the Ginley plots at the old St Joseph cemetery but it was too overgrown. I'm fascinated with any info. My email is jillbk26@gmail.com

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At 1:04 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

one of the men that was a member of the so called molly maguires put his hand print in the jail cell as he was hung. does anyone know what this mans name was or if the hand print remains to this day?

At 2:48 PM, Anonymous Chris, neighbor of the jail said...

The handprint still exists today April 12, 2017 despite it being painted over, cleaned and dug out. It remains. It was left by Alexander Campbell who was hanged in 1877, or to Thomas Fisher, hanged in 1878. It was left by the man to proclaim his innocence. It can be seen when touring the jail, now a museum in Jim Thorpe, PA. The jail is located at 128 West Broadway.


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