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The Molly Maguires: Secret and Murderous

The Molly Maguires were a secret organization of coal miners in the anthracite regions of eastern Pennsylvania and West Virginia. Also known as the "Buckshots," "Sleepers," and "White Boys," the name "Molly Maguires"was taken from a famous widow who had headed a tenant protest in Ireland in the 1840s. By the 1860s, there was much unrest among coal miners. Working conditions were abysmal and hiring discrimination was common. The workers had little recourse since the mine operators controlled the workplace, housing, stores and often the police and courts. Inability to improve their conditions eventually led the workers to violence that was most often directed against mine owners and supervisors. The activities of the Molly Maguires were often shielded by the Ancient Order of Hibernians, an Irish-American fraternal group. Secrecy was strictly enforced. When reform demands were not met, mining equipment was destroyed, officials intimidated and sometimes killed. The end of the Mollies came in the mid-1870s when Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia Coal and Iron Company, decided that the Mollies had to be put down. He hired a Pinkerton detective, James McParlan as an infiltrator. McParlan joined the organization and rose to become secretary of his division. When after a particularly heinous murder in 1875 led to the first capital conviction of a Molly, suspicion began to build that the nature of the testimony introduced at trial pointed to the likelihood of a traitor in their midst. McParlan began to look suspiciously like the best candidate. Despite a plot to murder him, McParlan was able to last a while longer and then slip away. In later murder trials, his testimony resulted in the conviction and hanging of 10 alleged members of the Molly Maguires. Those harsh sentences and public fear of radicalism led to the group’s rapid demise. The secrecy of the Molly Maguires was so strictly enforced that their activities are still shrouded in mystery.