Molly Maguires in Nineteenth Century America

Location of the counties in northeastern Pennsylvania where the Molly Maguires were active

June 21, 1877 became known in PA history as the “day of the rope”. It was the day that ten Irishmen were hanged after being convicted for murdering a coal mine manager.

In the early 1800s anthracite coal was discovered in the Pocono Mountains of northeastern Pennsylvania. Soon people from all over were arriving in the small town of Mauch Chunk to work in the coalmines.

Irish Arrive in Coalmines and Labeled as Molly Maguires

During the Civil War Irish immigrants arrived to work in Pennsylvania coalmines. From the moment of their arrival, they were considered outcasts. In the coalmines, they worked with other Europeans from countries such as Wales, England, and Germany.

Because of the history between Ireland and Great Britain the Irish were thought of as trouble makers and soon earned the name of American Molly Maguires. The term Molly Maguire originated in Ireland and is named for a group of Irishmen who went against the English landlords to help a homeless widow woman by the name of Molly Maguire. The Irishmen stole food for her and her children.

Irishmen who were members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians were marked as Molly Maguires. AOH members were Irish Catholics.

Coalminers Protest against the Civil War

The problems began in northeast Pennsylvania when President Abraham Lincoln called for a draft of 300,000 militiamen, 17,000 of those men were to come from Pennsylvania. Women and boys began to protest against the drafters by throwing hot water, sticks, stones, and anything else at them when they came to take a census.

On October 16, 1862, the draft list was displayed and what turned out to be a nonviolent protest soon became violent. In order to end the violence, Colonel Alexander McClure, friend to President Lincoln, asked if the conscripts could be told the quota is filled for Pennsylvania and they do not need to report to duty? Although, it was not true, Lincoln agreed in order to end the violence.

Violence in the Coalmines Grew

By the 1870s the working and living conditions for the coalminers were intolerable. The mine owners refused to improve the conditions. Soon anyone involved in the operations of the coalmines were beaten and/or murdered.

Coalmine owners brought in the Pinkerton Detectives to investigate who was responsible for the violent acts.

James McParland took the name of James Mckenna and infiltrated the AOH, aka Molly Maguires. McKenna soon became a respected member of the group because he was able to read and write.

During his tenure with the group several murders took place including one of a police officer. The Order felt that Benjamin Yost betrayed them when he beat and arrested one of the AOH members, Thomas Duffy.

The murder of Yost took place on July 4, 1875. Hugh McGhen, James Boyle, and James ‘Powder Keg’ Kerrigan waited in a near by cemetery for Yost’s arrival. While climbing a ladder to extinguish a lantern the three man came out of the shadows and shot Yost. He fell to the ground dead.

Several more killings took place and along with them came arrests. The AOH members soon realized there had to be an informer in the group. After confronting the groups leader, Jack Kehoe, McKenna disappeared.

Molly Maguires Arrested for Murder

Arrested for the murders of Morgan Powell, John P. Jones, and Benjamin Doyle were Alexander Campbell, Thomas Duffy, James Roarity, Hugh McGehn, James Carroll, and James Boyle.

Although Alexander Campbell was not arrested for actually killing the men he was considered the master mind behind the murders of Powell and Jones.

Alexander Campbell is Put on Trial

During his trial, James McPharland reappears and testifies that the night before the murder of Jones, Campbell met with Kelly and Doyle at his saloon.

The jurors came to the decision that Campbell was guilty of masterminding the murders and was therefore to be hanged.

Handprint on Cell Wall Suggests Innocence

Before Alexander Campbell was taken to the gallows to be hanged, he placed his hand upon the wall of his prison cell and told the guard that his handprint will remain as proof of his innocence

To this day Campbell’s handprint remains.


  1. Campbell, Patrick. A Molly Maguire Story. Jersey City: P.H. Campbell, 1992.
  2. Kenny, Kevin. Making Sense of the Molly Maguires. NYC: Oxford Press, 1998.
  3. Lewis, Arthur H. Lament of the Molly Maguires. NYC: Harcourt Brace & World, 1964.