Franklin Gowen, the fifth son of a Irish immigrant, was born in Philadelphia in 1836. James Gowen was a successful grocer and was able to educate his son at the famous John Beck's Boys Academy. Gowen became a lawyer and at twenty-six was elected district attorney of Schuylkill County.
In 1864 Gowen joined the legal department of the Reading Railroad, the main transporter of coal from the two southern fields in Schuylkill County to Philadelphia. Two years later Gowen was responsible for an impressive court victory over the Pennsylvania Railroad company. The directors rewarded him by making him president of the Reading Railroad.
Gowen pursued an aggressive policy and over the next two years purchased 100,000 acres of coal lands for the Reading Railroad. Gowen became increasing concerned about the activities of John Siney, an Irish immigrant who had formed the Workingmen's Benevolent Association (WBA). Gowen's company now owned a large number of coal-mines of Schuylkill County and feared that the activities of the WBA would reduce profits.
In 1873 Gowen approached Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, about the best way of destroying the union. Pinkerton was paid $100,000 to arrange for spies to join the WBA. One of Pinkerton's agents, P. M. Cummings, actually managed to become a WBA official. Another spy sent to Schuylkill County was the Irish immigrant, James McParland. Assuming the alias of James McKenna, he found work as a laborer in Shenandoah. Soon afterwards he joined the Workingmen's Benevolent Association and the Shenandoah branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an organisation for Irish immigrants run by the Roman Catholic clergy.
After a few months of investigations, James McParland reported back to Allan Pinkerton that some members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians were also active in the secret organization, the Molly Maguires. McParland estimated that the group had about 3,000 members. Each county was governed by a bodymaster who recruited members and gave out orders to commit crimes. These bodymasters were usually ex-miners who now worked as saloon keepers.
Over a two year period James McParland collected evidence about the criminal activities of the Molly Maguires. This included the murder of around fifty men in Schuylkill County. Many of these men were the managers of coal mines in the region.
In 1875 Gowen and other mine-owners in Schuylkill County reduced wages by 20 per cent for contract miners and 10 per cent for laborers. As expected, this action resulted in a strike. Gowen now employed Allan Pinkerton to provide him with new team of workers and a company police-force. After five months on strike, union members were starved into submission. Those who were not blacklisted, had to leave the WBA and accept the 20 per cent pay cut.
With the evidence accumulated by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Gowen was now ready to deal with the Molly Maguires. The first trial started on 18th January, 1876. Gowen was the special prosecutor and James McParland the star witness. Over the next two years twenty members were found guilty of murder and executed. This included Jack Kehoe, a former union leader who was convicted of a murder that had taken place fourteen years previously.
There was a great deal of controversy about about the way the trial was conducted. Irish Catholics were excluded from the juries while Protestant immigrants from Germany who could not speak English were accepted. Welsh immigrants, who had for a long-time been in conflict with the Irish in Schuylkill County were also well represented on these juries.
Most of the witnesses who provided evidence in these cases were like James McParland on the payroll of the railroad and mining companies who were attempting to destroy the trade union movement. In other cases, defendants were persuaded to turn state's evidence to help convict their alleged collaborators.
It was also pointed out that most of the murder victims were employees of small coal companies that were later taken over by the Philadelphia and Reading company. Some historians have suggested that it was the company run by Gowen that had the most to gain from these murders and the destruction of the emerging trade union movement.
In 1883 Gowen left his post as president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and returned to his private law practice. Gowen appeared to be doing well but on 13th December, 1889, he locked himself into his hotel room and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Rumours circulated that Gowen had been murdered by the Molly Maguires. Another story claimed he had killed himself because of the guilt he felt about the way he had framed union members.