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.