In the 19th century, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, became an important source of anthracite coal. Most of the men who worked in these mines were immigrants from Wales, England, Germany and Ireland.
In 1868 John Siney, an Irish immigrant who had been working in coal-mines in England, formed the Workingmen's Benevolent Association (WBA). Siney's main objective of trying to improve pay and working conditions. The conditions in the mines were horrendous and the men had to endure accidents, floods, fires and explosions. In one seven year period in Schuylkill County, 566 miners were killed and a further 1,665 were seriously injured.
One of the worst disasters took place at Avondale colliery in 1869 when a fire killed 179 miners. This resulted in Schuylkill County passing legislation that stated that all mines had to have more than one opening and that it was the responsibility of the mine-owners to provide effective ventilation. State mine inspectors were employed but because of the power of the mine-owners this legislation was rarely enforced.
John Siney was a moderate trade unionist who believed in negotiating with the employers and strictly forbade the use of violence by his members. The Workingmen's Benevolent Association threated strike action and after a short dispute the coal-mine owners agreed a small wage increase. Part of the deal involved Siney promising that he would not allow miners who used or advocated violence to remain a member of the union.
Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, was unhappy about the increasing power of the WBA. Gowen's company 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.
Allan Pinkerton decided to send the Irish immigrant, James McParland to Schuylkill County. Assuming the alias of James McKenna, he found work as a labourer 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.
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 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.
John Kehoe, one of the leaders of the Molly Maguires became suspicious of James McParland and began to investigate his past. McParland was tipped off that Kehoe was planning to murder him so he fled from the area.
In 1876 and 1877 McParland was the star witness for the prosecution of John Kehoe and the Molly Maguires. Twenty members were found guilty of murder and were executed. This included Kehoe, a former union activist 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 immigrants 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 & Reading Railroad Company. Some historians have suggested that it was the company run by Franklin B. Gowen, and the man who initiated the original investigation, 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 company 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.
After a long campaign, Joseph Wayne managed to persuade the Pennsylvania governor, Milton Shapp, to grant John Kehoe, a posthumous pardon in 1980. Wayne was Kehoe's great-grandson.