Molly Maguires Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Molly Maguires illustrate the frustrations and disappointments that certain groups of immigrants encountered in the United States as they found harsh working conditions and a quality of life little better than that in their homeland.

The Molly Maguires were a secret brotherhood of Irish Roman Catholics;and Molly Maguires[Molly Maguires]Roman Catholic miners who were believed to have used threats, bashings, and murder to intimidate mining supervisors in the Coal industry;PennsylvaniaCoal industry;Irish inanthracite coalfields of eastern Pennsylvania in the 1860’s and 1870’s. The Molly Maguires sought both revenge for unfair treatment and better working conditions. Molly Maguirism in the region came to an end when the leaders were arrested, tried, and executed for murder in a court proceeding that took place entirely under the authority of the coal companies.Molly MaguiresPennsylvania;Molly MaguiresIrish immigrants;Molly MaguiresSecret societies;IrishMolly MaguiresPennsylvania;Molly MaguiresIrish immigrants;MollyMaguiresSecret societies;Irish[cat]EUROPEAN IMMIGRANTS;Molly Maguires[03590][cat]LABOR;Molly Maguires[03590][cat]ADVOCACY ORGANIZATIONS AND MOVEMENTS;Molly Maguires[03590]

Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, hired Pinkerton, AllanAllan Pinkerton’s detective agency to investigate the activities of the miners and paid a private police force to arrest them. The agency sent McParlan, JamesJames McParlan to infiltrate the Molly Maguires and gather evidence regarding their activities. Posing as James McKenna, McParlan succeeded in gaining the trust of the miners and testified at the trials that he had participated in their meetings and activities. McParlan’s testimony, corroborated by other witnesses who were employees in the mines, stated that the accused men committed the murders. Gowen served as special prosecutor at the trials. The jury, containing not a single Irish Catholic but made up primarily of non-English-speaking Pennsylvania DutchPennsylvania Dutch, found the men guilty. In 1878, they were sentenced to death by hanging. The execution of the convicted Molly Maguires not only eliminated the violence in the Coal industry;Irish incoal mining region but also brought union activityto a halt.

According to McParlan, all the society members were Irish or sons of Irishmen and were Catholics. Members also belonged to the Ancient Order of HiberniansAncient Order of Hibernians (AOH), a benevolent society whose purpose was to provide financial aid to any of their members who were in need. In addition, they belonged to the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA), the union founded by John Siney in 1868. Both the AOH and the WBA were dedicated to improving the lives of the miners and their families, but neither advocated the use of violence and Terrorism;and Molly Maguires[Molly Maguires]terrorism. There were accusations that the AOH was simply a front organization for the Molly Maguires. McParlan stated that any Molly Maguire who had a grievance against a mine supervisor or official could ask for retribution in the form of beating or murder. The membership voted and a Molly was assigned to carry out the punishment. This was usually a Molly from another county in the region.

Historians fail to agree as to the actual existence of the Molly Maguires in the eastern Pennsylvania mining region. The Molly Maguires left no tangible evidence of their existence. Molly Maguires did exist in Ireland as a secret society of Irish Catholic tenant farmers who retaliated against wealthy Protestant landowners, both Irish and English, in the agrarian conflict over land usage. The Molly Maguires dressed in disguise as women, painted their faces with cork, and used intimidation and violence. Many of the Irish miners in Pennsylvania were from the regions of Ireland where the society was active. As mine laborers, they faced much of the same hardships and lack of fair treatment that they had fled. Dangerous working conditions, frequent disasters resulting in deaths, long hours, low wages, payment in scrip, and the policy of firing any miner who dared to complain appear reason enough for these workers to again unite as Molly Maguires.Molly MaguiresPennsylvania;Molly MaguiresIrish immigrants;Molly MaguiresSecret societies;Irish

Further Reading
  • Dubofsky, Melvyn, and Foster Rhea Dulles. Labor in America: A History. Wheeling, Ill.: Harlan Davidson, 2004.
  • Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Coal industry


Fenian movement

Great Irish Famine

Immigrant aid organizations

Irish immigrants

Labor unions


Pinkerton, Allan

Settlement patterns

Categories: History