March 17, 2005

The Myth of the Molly Maguires

I thought it might be an interesting commemoration of my Irish heritage to do a post about work conditions that my forebears faced as they immigrated to U.S. shores after the potato famine. Many were involved in the hard labor of building out the impressive canals, dams, and public works projects of the era. But as can easily happen in web wanderings, my searches took me a bit further afield, yet turning up some documents of note, such as an article in the Irish Examiner entitled "They’re filthy, violent spongers who should be sent home - the Irish!", which paints a colorful picture of the bigotry that immigrants faced. Other interesting documents turned up too - one about the No Irish Need Apply (or "NINA") phenomena, and another disputing the claims of NINA as being largely a myth of victimization.

But the real find of my evening, and one that has kept me riveted, is the story of the Molly Maguires, a clandestine society of Irish miners who struggled against the brutal work conditions in the Pennsylvania coal mines. The story revolves around work conditions and work safety in the late 1800s, the early labor union movements, immigrant pitted against immigrant, murder, execution, and more. Depending on who tells the story, it is a tale of criminals or heroes.

For a balanced account and a fascinating read, I recommend an excellent series on the The Myth of the Molly Maguires by Seamus McGraw in the Court TV Crime Library. The series opens with a profile of Alex Campbell in his jail cell listening to the gallows being built for his execution. He was one of four sentenced to death:

"The four had been convicted of Molly Maguirism and murder, their convictions based almost exclusively on the testimony of a single Pinkerton detective, a man who decades later would be widely discredited, and secured by a prosecutor specially appointed for the task, who also happened to be the president of one of the largest railroad and coal companies in the nation at that time."

One of the precipitating events leading to the violence was the 1868 Avondale Mining Disaster, in which 179 immigrants perished when a cave-in and a fire occurred in the mine.

For an alternative viewpoint of the Molly Maguires, read an 1894 rather lurid account of events. This is part of a larger historic site sponsored by Ohio State University with great articles and resources on Coal Mining in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era.



Thanks for a good bit of labor history. We rarely see this. My labor relations students hate the chapters on labor history. But it's good to remember where we came from!

And thank you for the words of encouragement, Diane. By the way, all of us at LR enjoy your blog very much - keep those posts coming!

There is also a book written by Alex Campbell's great great grand newphew I found it at the Ashland Mine, in PA. Totally discredits, the lying scoundral James MacPharland......


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This page contains a single entry by Julie Ferguson published on March 17, 2005 11:31 PM.

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