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The Mollie Maguires, 1860-1875


Story by Thomas Duke, 1910
Celebrated Criminal Cases of America
Part III: Cases East of The Pacific Coast

From 1860 to 1875, the secret organization known as the Mollie Maguires was very powerful in Pennsylvania, especially in the coal mining regions of Schuylkill, Carbon, Columbia and Luzerne Counties.

This order as a whole was composed chiefly of reputable citizens who were unanimous in their abhorrence of the thieves, incendiaries and assassins who appeared to be in control of the order in the counties above mentioned, and who terrorized the community and laughed at justice as they murdered fellow miners, mine superintendents and others because of real or fancied grievances.

On the evening of November 5, 1863, G. W. Ulrich, a clerk in George K. Smith’s store at Audenried, Carbon County, was at the home of his employer when some one knocked at the door. Ulrich opened the door and was confronted by a large, rough-appearing man who stated that he had a letter to deliver to Mr. Smith personally. Ulrich replied that Mr. Smith was sick and could not be seen, whereupon the stranger struck the clerk over the head with a revolver while a gang, which up to this time had remained out of sight, rushed into the house. Mr. Smith came into the hall, where he was immediately surrounded and one of the gang shot him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. The assassins then escaped.

On August 25, 1865, David Muhr, superintendent of a colliery, was shot and killed in broad daylight on a public highway in Foster Township. There were several involuntary witnesses to this murder but when questioned they were afraid to speak.

On January 10, 1866, Henry H. Dunne, another mining superintendent, was killed while driving along a road near Pottsville.

On October 17, 1868, Alexander Rae, a very popular mining superintendent, was shot six times and instantly killed while driving along a road near Centralia in Columbia County.

On March 15, 1869, Superintendent William H. Littlehales of the Glen Carbon Coal Company, was shot to death on a road in Cass township, Schuylkill County, in the presence of several witnesses, who were at the time afraid to tell what transpired.

At 7 p. m. on December 2, 1871, Morgan Powell, assistant Superintendent of the Lehigh and Wilkesbarre Coal and Iron Company, was shot and killed on the public street at Summit Hill, Carbon County. Rev. Allen Morton saw the assassins run away but could not distinguish their features.

In addition to these crimes, F. W. S. Langdon, C. Burns and Graham Powell, all prominent mining men, were killed in Carbon County, but in no instance was the assassin brought to justice—at least not at that time.

The community became paralyzed with fear and the mining industry was seriously injured.

Finally F. B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railway, Coal and Iron Companies, called upon Allen Pinkerton in October, 1873, and after relating the history of the case, asked that the famous detective bring the leaders to the bar of justice. Pinkerton decided that the only way to proceed would be to detail one of his men to disguise himself as a laborer, procure employment in the mines, learn the identity of the leaders of the Mollie Maguires, gain their confidence and eventually gain admission to the order. It can be readily seen that this was a task for no ordinary man.

After carefully considering all of his available operators, Pinkerton finally decided upon James McParland, but he had no assurance that McParland would accept this hazardous detail. At best, it meant indescribable hardships ; months and probably years away from friends and kindred; the constant fear of being suspected, which would mean certain death, and continual association and dissipation with the thieves and murderers in their vile resorts.

Pinkerton realized all this but when he laid his plans before McParland, the young detective was not only willing but anxious to begin operations immediately.

The result was that on October 27, 1873, James McParland, the detective, became Jim McKenna from Denver, a vagabond and fugitive from justice, who was presumed to have killed a man in Buffalo. On this day he took the train for the mining regions, where he immediately made himself a favorite in the saloons because of his ability to sing and dance and tell stories in an entertaining manner.

One of his greatest punishments and which probably had much to do with temporarily undermining his health, was the necessity of being a “good fellow” and seldom refusing an invitation to partake of the “choice” brands of liquor dispensed at these resorts.

It was McKenna’s plan to take soundings in different places and finally settle in the locality most desirable for the work at hand. After seeking “work” at Tower and Mahoney cities, he arrived at Pottsville on November 17, 1873. He took lodgings at a Mrs. O’Regan’s boarding-house, where he met an agreeable young fellow named Jennings, who volunteered to show him the town that night.

They stopped at several resorts, and as they passed a saloon conducted by one Patrick Dormer, in the Sheridan House, McKenna suggested that they go in and get a drink. In a most mysterious manner Jennings drew him to one side and warned him against visiting that resort. When pressed for a reason, Jennings confided to McKenna that Dormer was a “Captain of the Sleepers” or Mollie Maguires, and his resort was their rendezvous.

As soon as McKenna could get rid of Jennings that night he returned to Dormer’s, apparently in a slightly intoxicated condition. The place was crowded and an old fiddler was perched on a whisky barrel scratching away at his instrument for the entertainment of the patrons.

After purchasing a drink, McKenna began to jig to the music. He did so well that Dormer and his patrons applauded long and loudly, and the Captain of the Sleepers treated him and asked his name. McKenna then volunteered to sing a song, which added greatly to his popularity. He was bid to make himself at home and later in the evening he engaged in a card game with Dormer, Dan Kelly and one Frazer. McKenna and Dormer were partners, and during the game the detective caught Frazer cheating and exposed him. This resulted in a challenge to fight, and the bar-room floor was cleared for the occasion. Although smaller than Frazer, McKenna won the battle. After that Dormer was his best friend and told him to be sure and come around the next day.

McKenna became “confidential” and told Dormer that he had killed a man in Buffalo and was a fugitive from justice. Dormer then confided to McKenna his position in the Mollies and introduced the detective to several other shining lights in the order.

Desiring to familiarize himself with more of the country, McKenna began to bemoan his hard luck in failing to procure employment, and expressed his determination to proceed elsewhere. Dormer gave him a letter to Mike, alias “Muff,” Lawler, a leader of the Mollies at Shenandoah, in which he requested that McKenna be provided with employment.

On December 15, 1873, McKenna left for Shenandoah, but made a short stop at Girardville, where he learned through a school teacher named Patrick Birmingham that Jack Kehoe, who conducted a tavern in the town, was a leading Mollie.

By employing somewhat similar methods to those used at Dormer’s, McKenna became well acquainted with Kehoe. Having procured a letter of introduction from “Bushy” Deenan, a prominent Mollie at Pottsville, to Alexander Campbell, a tavern keeper near Tamaqua, McKenna proceeded to that town, ostensibly for the purpose of procuring employment, but in reality to familiarize himself with the surroundings and become acquainted with Campbell, who was a power among the Sleepers.

McKenna then went to Shenandoah, where he took lodgings at “Muff” Lawler’s tavern, and eventually became like one of the family. As this was the hotbed of the Mollies the detective made this town his headquarters.

In February, 1874, Lawler procured a position for McKenna in the mines, but the first day that he worked he wore all the skin off his hands.

On February 17, he met with an accident in the mines which disabled him for some time. On the next day Mrs. Lawler was taken sick and could not attend to her boarders, so McKenna moved to the home of Fenton Cooney.

On April 14, 1874, McKenna was initiated into the order of Mollie Maguires through the influence of Lawler, who was then Body Master, or chief officer of the Shenandoah Division, but was about to seek promotion to the office of County Delegate and wanted McKenna’s support.

After kneeling and taking the obligation, in which there was nothing objectionable, McKenna paid his fee and was instructed in the passwords, etc., commonly called “the goods,” which were changed every three months.

As McKenna’s duty compelled him to constantly mingle with the roughest element, he was frequently forced to participate in many free-for-all bar-room fights, where the weapons consisted of anything the combatants could lay their hands on, and although he had many hairbreadth escapes, the detective was never seriously injured.

In May, 1874, McKenna’s health began to fail, and as work was scarce in the mines, he took advantage of the opportunity to recuperate. Desiring to visit and become familiar with the entire mining district, he procures a traveling card signed by Mike Lawler, the Body Master, and Barney Dolan, the County Delegate, and left Shenandoah on May 15, 1874. When he returned in July he was well received, and as “Muff” Lawler was about to resign his position as Body’ Master,[1] County Delegate Barney Dolan requested McKenna to be a candidate for the position, but he declined.

On July 18, the election was held and Frank McAndrews, who afterwards saved McKenna’s life, was elected Body Master and McKenna was elected Secretary. In addition to giving him a better opportunity to learn what was going on, this position gave the detective much writing to do, thus giving him an opportunity to make out his numerous and voluminous reports to his superiors without arousing suspicion.

Shortly after McAndrews was elected, a county convention of Body Masters was held at Mahoney City, and by the order of State Delegate Gallagher, County Delegate Dolan was expelled from the order because of irregularities in his accounts, and John Kehoe of Girardville was elected in his stead. At this same convention, the lawless element in the order were bitterly denounced by Gallagher for the odium they had cast on an order which was organized for the purpose of assisting the widow and orphan and relieving the distressed.

In October, 1874, Gallagher wrote a scorching letter to Kehoe, in which he declared that if lawlessness did not cease, the Mollies in Schuylkill County would be severed from the order. These denunciations only caused the criminals to intimate that they knew their own business.

There was another notorious organization in this locality called the “Sheet Irons,” and they frequently indulged in open warfare with the Mollies.

On August 14, 1874, a schoolmaster named O’Hare was brutally beaten and his house burned to the ground because he had denounced the Mollies.

On October 31, 1874, the firemen belonging to the Citizens’ Fire Company in Mahoney City were returning from a fire when a general fight occurred between them and another company of firemen, which was composed entirely of Mollies, during which George Major, Chief Burgess, or Mayor, of the town, was shot and killed. Major’s brother, Jesse, believing a prominent Mollie named Daniel Doherty, killed his brother, fired several shots that severely wounded that person. Doherty was subsequently taken to Pottsville, where he was tried for the murder of Major and acquitted.

On November 18, 1874, a man named Patrick Padden was shot and killed at Carbonville. About the same time and in the same locality Michael McNally was found dead on the street with his head almost severed from his body, and in the same county a mining boss connected with the Erie Breaker was beaten and left for dead.

One Michael Kenny of Scranton was brutally murdered and his body thrown down a steep embankment, where it was accidentally discovered.

Shortly after this three Mollies named Charles Hayes, Daniel Kelley and Edward Lawler, were out on a spree one night and entered a saloon kept by an old woman named Downey. They stole her money and helped themselves to liquor, but as she offered violent resistance, Kelley grabbed her and held her face against the hot stove until Hayes, his companion, knocked him down. This resulted in a fist fight between Kelley and Hayes, and the former was badly beaten.

By this time the clergymen of all denominations were constantly denouncing the Mollies from the pulpit.

Because of labor troubles work was practically at a standstill in the mines in the early part of 1875.

During the latter part of March, the telegraph office at Summit Station was burned and shortly afterward a coal train was wrecked.

On May 6, Captain Robert Linden of the Pinkerton Agency was sent to these regions with six men to assist in preserving order and to co-operate with General Pleasants, who was in command of the coal and iron police. As it was desirable that Linden and McParland (or McKenna) have frequent conferences, it was agreed that they would “accidentally” meet in Mike Cuff’s saloon in the presence of several Mollies, where Linden would recognize McKenna as the man wanted in Buffalo for “murder.” After much pleading on the part of McKenna and any other Mollies who chanced to be near, Linden would finally promise not to turn him over to the authorities. The plan worked perfectly and made Linden very popular with the order. As he was then on intimate terms with the other Mollies, no suspicion was aroused when he was seen talking to McKenna.

As Frank McAndrews, the Body Master of Shenandoah Division, was out of work, he went to Wilkesbarre on May 18, 1875, and left McKenna in command of the division.

At the annual election in Girardville in 1875, Jack Kehoe, the County Delegate and recognized Czar of the Mollies in Schuylkill County, was elected Chief of Police.

On Sunday, June 1, 1875, the Mollies held a remarkable convention in the Emerald House in Mahoney City. Czar Kehoe, after offering up a prayer, instructed that Dan Doherty be brought into the room.*[2] When Doherty entered the room he wore the same coat he had on the day he was shot.

Kehoe said: “Dan, take off your coat and show it to us.” Doherty complied with the request and then pointed out the different bullet holes.

Kehoe then asked: “Who do you think did it?” Doherty replied that it was either Jesse Major or “Bully-Bill” Thomas.

It was then decided that Jesse Major and Thomas must be killed and Kehoe instructed McKenna to assign four men to assassinate Thomas. As the militia had been called out to preserve order, McKenna argued that it would be foolish to attempt the assassination then, and he succeeded in having it indefinitely postponed.

In the meantime, McAndrews returned to Shenandoah and relieved McKenna of his position of Acting Body Master. But the sentence of death passed upon Thomas was not to be forgotten.

On June 27, Kehoe issued imperative orders for Tom Hurley, John Morris, Mike Doyle and John Gibbons to proceed immediately to Mahoney City and kill Thomas as he went to work on the following morning. McKenna heard of this and attempted to see Captain Linden and have Thomas warned, but he did not have an opportunity as one Mike Carey remained by his side all that evening and slept in the same bed with him that night.

In the morning, McKenna was about to start out to locate Linden when he saw Doyle coming toward the house with the news that he and the other three had finished Thomas. He explained that they lay in wait for their intended victim and when he left his house and entered the colliery stable, they walked up to the stable and began shooting, and that Thomas, after being wounded, ran behind the horses and fell. They were confident that Thomas was dead when they left him. Subsequently the remainder of the gang made substantially the same statement to McKenna. But “Bully Bill” Thomas was not dead, and although somewhat shot to pieces he was soon up and around looking for the scalps of his assailants, whose identity was then unknown to him.

In July, the detective learned of a plot to kill a mine superintendent named Forsythe, but McKenna had him warned of his danger and he moved away.

In the little town of Tamaqua, in Schuylkill County, were two policemen named B. F. Yost and B. McCarron, who had had considerable trouble with James Kerrigan, the Body Master of Tamaqua Division, and one Tom Duffy. In addition to performing police duty on the night watch, these officers were required to put out the street lights at, specified times.

At 2 a. m. on July 6, 1875, they dropped into James Carrol’s saloon and then went to Officer Yost’s home, where they partook of some light refreshments. Shortly afterward they left the house and went in opposite directions, Yost proceeding to put out a street light near his home. As he was reaching for the lamp, two men suddenly appeared and Yost was shot, receiving a wound from which he died shortly afterward. Hearing the shots, Officer McCarron rushed back and fired at the fleeing men, who returned the fire, but none of the bullets took effect. In his dying statement Yost said that he had seen the men who shot him in Carrol’s saloon that night.

On July 15, 1875, McKenna went to Tamaqua and within a few days learned that Hugh McGehan and James Boyle of Summit Hill had killed Yost for Alex Campbell, the prominent Mollie who conducted the tavern at Storm Hill, and that Campbell had asked these men to do the work because Body Master Kerrigan, who had been arrested by Yost, requested him to do so.

In company with one McNellis, McKenna visited Kerrigan, who admitted being in the background at the scene of the murder. He then produced the pistol the crime was committed with, and asked McNellis to return it to James Roarty of Storm Hill, who loaned it for the occasion. Kerrigan stated that Campbell furnished the two men, with the understanding that he (Kerrigan) would furnish a like number for Campbell when the latter was ready to kill Superintendent Jones of Summit Hill.[3] Kerrigan then took McKenna to the scene of the murder and proudly explained how it was done.

Carrol, the saloonman who was also Secretary of the Tamaqua Division, admitted to McKenna that McGehan fired the fatal shot, and that he (Carrol) loaned his own single-barrel pistol to Boyle for the occasion.

Alex Campbell also admitted to McKenna that McGehan fired the shot, and Roarty admitted that he loaned his pistol to McGehan.

Notwithstanding the fact that Gomer James had been repeatedly warned that his life was in danger, he acted as bartender at a picnic given at Shenandoah on August 14, 1875. At 11 p. m. four men came to the bar and asked for beer. As he had his back turned while drawing the beer, James was shot and killed. McKenna afterward learned that the murder occurred while the Shenandoah Division of Mollies was in session, and that Mike Carey rushed in excitedly and interrupted the meeting by saying in a loud tone of voice, “Tom Hurley has just shot Gomer James.” Body Master McAndrews reprimanded him for making this statement in the presence of all the members present.

Hurley was particularly proud of this job and demanded a reward from County Delegate Kehoe. That “worthy” appointed a committee, consisting of McKenna and Pat Butler, to listen to the evidence submitted by Hurley, and as the latter proved conclusively that he committed the deed, Kehoe suggested that he receive $500 reward.

Owing to the crowded condition of Cooney’s lodging-house, on August 28, 1875, Mike Doyle and McKenna were compelled to occupy the same room. Doyle placed a new pistol on the bureau and McKenna asked him what he intended to do with that. Doyle replied that it was to be used in killing Tom Sanger, a mining boss at Raven Run.

At this particular time Body Master McAndrews of Shenandoah decided that a local boss named Reece must be killed.

At the same time, Body Master James Kerrigan of Tamaqua, who participated in the killing of Policeman Yost, was called upon by Alex Campbell for two men to kill John P. Jones at Summit Hill. It was arranged that McAndrews should furnish the two men needed for the Summit Hill job to Kerrigan and that in return Kerrigan should furnish the men to kill Reece. McKenna was sent with the men for Kerrigan and was to bring back the men to kill Reece.

As soon as he reacher Tamaqua, McKenna sent a message to his superiors at Philadelphia notifying them of what was contemplated and requesting that the intended victims be warned through Captain Linden. As he could not find Kerrigan immediately McKenna felt that this would be a good excuse to send his two men back home and he took advantage of it. Shortly afterward he returned to Shenandoah and went to Muff Lawler’s tavern, where he was informed that Sanger and his friend William Uren had been killed on the morning of September 1, while on their way to work at Heaton & Company’s colliery. The gang who executed the job, namely, Mike Doyle, Friday and Charles O’Donnell, Thomas Munley and Charles McAllister, were at Lawler’s house at the time, and in the presence of McKenna they explained all the little details in connection with the double murder, and exhibited the pistols they used.

Although Superintendent John P. Jones had been warned of the plot against his life, he left his home in Langsford on September 3, 1875, on his way to work, and took the route he had been especially urged not to take. The result was that he was riddled with bullets. Some workmen heard the shots and saw three assassins run over the hill, but they were not at that time apprehended.

McKenna ascertained that Mike Doyle and Edward Kelly fired the shots, and that Body Master James Kerrigan was on the scene, but supervised the work from a distance, the same as he did when Policeman Yost was murdered.

There had been considerable talk of forming a vigilance committee to administer summary justice to the leaders of the Mollies and the assassination of Sanger, Uren and Jones, all of whom were most honorable men, aroused the community to the verge of madness.

As it was part of McKenna’s plan to create the impression, both in and outside the order, that none were more desperate than he, it was commonly reported that he was in danger of being lynched at any moment. It was McKenna alone who saved the life of Foreman Reece, yet that very man, not knowing the true facts, never missed an opportunity to denounce him. A few days later Doyle, Kelly and Kerrigan were arrested for the murder of Jones.

At 3 a. m. on December 10, 1875, a gang of masked men entered the home of Friday O’Donnell, who participated in the murder of Sanger and Uren. This gang killed Mrs. Mc-Allister, and after dragging Charlie O’Donnell into the street, riddled his body with bullets.

On January 18, 1876, the trial of Doyle for the murder of John P. Jones began. The Mollies received another staggering blow when Body Master Kerrigan made a complete confession and testified against his accomplices. All three of the murderers of Jones were convicted. In his confession Kerrigan, implicated Alex Campbell and stated that Jones was murdered because he had blacklisted McGehan and other Mollies.

In addition to having all the evidence against those who committed murder while he was detailed in the mining region, McKenna had complete cases against John Kehoe, John Campbell and Neil Doherty for the murder of F. W. S. Langdon on July 14, 1862.

In the case of Morgan Powell, murdered at Summit Hill on December 2, 1871, the detective learned that “Yellow Jack” Donohue, Thomas Fisher, Patrick McKenna, Alex Campbell and Patrick O’Donnell were the guilty men.

In the case of the murder of Alexander Rae on October 17, 1868, McKenna learned that Pat Tully, Peter McHugh and Dan Kelly, alias “The Bum,” were the assassins, and that Pat Hester originated the job and loaned Kelly his pistol for the occasion. It was believed that Rae would have about $18,000 with him and it was the original intention only to rob him as he came along the road, but as he had but $60 and some jewelry, and as McHugh feared that Rae would prosecute them, Tully shot him back of the ear and then the others fired, riddling his body with bullets.

Finally it became apparent to the Mollies that the prosecution knew every move they had made for years, and they began to look for the “traitor.” McKenna was openly accused by Jack Kehoe and others of being a “spy,” but the detective expressed great indignation and demanded that he be tried before a convention.

Some days later, Body Master McAndrews told McKenna that there was a gang of Mollies, operating under instructions from Kehoe, who intended to kill him at the first opportunity. Shortly after this Jim McKenna left the coal regions and went to Philadelphia. When he returned with bodyguards to give his testimony at the trials, he was James McParland, the detective.

The Pinkertons had their evidence prepared and their forces swept down on the criminals, making the arrests almost simultaneously.

Mr. F. B. Gowen, President of the Railroad, Iron and Coal Companies, which engaged Pinkerton, acted as leading prosecuting attorney, and his closing argument in the case of Thomas Munley for the murder of Sanger attracted so much attention that it was printed in pamphlet form and widely circulated.

As if by magic, this bold and defiant band of assassins became a trembling, shrinking lot of wretches, each begging for mercy and many pleading for an opportunity to save their own necks by turning informer on their associates in crime. At the same time the law-abiding citizens, who had been terror-stricken by this gang for years, breathed a sigh of relief and rejoiced when they realized that law and order again reigned supreme.

In his address to the jury, President Gowen, in referring to the changed conditions, said: “And to whom are we indebted for this security which we now boast? Under the Divine Providence of God, to whom be all the honor and all the glory, we owe this safety to James McParland, and if there ever was a man to whom the people of this county should erect a monument, it is James McParland, the detective.”

The following was the final outcome of the numerous trials:

Convicted of murder and executed—Jack Kehoe, Thomas Munley, Buck Donnelly, James Roarty, James Boyle, Hugh McGeehan, James Carroll, Thomas Duffy, James McDonald, James Bergen, Michael Doyle, Edward Kelly, Thomas Fisher, Alexander Campbell, “Yellow Jack” Donohue, Pat Hester, Pat Tully, Peter McHugh.

The following were also convicted of murder but as they testified and otherwise rendered valuable assistance to the prosecution, they were granted immunity:

James Kerrigan, Dan Kelly, “the bum,” Charles Mulherrin, Patsy Butler, Frank McHugh.

The following were convicted of conspiracy to murder: Frank O’Neill, Mike O’Brien, Chris Donnelly, Jack Morris, John Gibbons, Cornelius Cannon.

The following were convicted of accessory after the fact: Thomas Donohue, “Muff” Lawler and Pat McKenna.

After those sentenced to imprisonment had served a few years it was unanimously agreed that justice had been satisfied, and they were pardoned, Detective McParland being an active worker in their behalf.

John Gibbons, one of the conspirators, escaped from jail and was never recaptured.


[1] On the night of August 3, 1873, a miner named Tom Jones was knocked down and beaten on a street in Shenandoah by Edward Cosgrove, a prominent Mollie. Gomer James, a friend of Jones, ran to his rescue and in the general fight which followed, Cosgrove was killed. James was arrested but exonerated. This made Cosgrove’s friends in the order furious and they swore vengeance. They demanded that Body Master Lawler should make a requisition on another county for some Mollies unknown in that neighborhood to come and assassinate James, but as he took no action, he was forced to resign.

[2] This was the individual who was shot at the time Mayor Major was killed.

[3] The object of having men from other localities do the killing was to prevent the assassins from being recognized.