The Day of the Rope

On Black Thursday, June 21, 1877, in eastern Pennsylvania ten coal miners were hanged by the neck until they were dead. They were called Molly Maguires. They were born in Ireland coming over during the Famine, or their parents had, but one hesitates to call them Irish-American, since both terms of the copulative were being debated in relationship to these coal-miners, or Molly Maguires. Over the next two years ten more were hanged, making twenty all in all.

Six hanged at Pottsville (James Carroll, James Roarity, Hugh McGehan, James Boyle, Thomas Munley, Thomas Duffy) and four at Mauch Chunk (Edward Kelly, Michael Doyle, Alexander Campbell, John Donahue) where they all swung at once. In Pottsville the Sheriff hanged them successively two by two rather than build a special gallows. An immense crowd gathered covering the surrounding hills. Screams and sobbing as husbands and fathers were bid goodbye. Boyle carried a blood-red rose and McGehan two roses in his lapel. Carrol and Roarity declared their innocence from the scaffold. In co. Donegal McGehan’s relatives met in the kitchen and, it was said, the sky blackened at the moment of hanging.

(In 1953 Mauch Chunk [an Indian name meaning Bear Mountain] in an effort to attract tourism changed its name to Jim Thorpe, and this is how you’ll find it today on the map. An Indian from Oklahoma, Jim Thorpe was widely considered the greatest athlete of the first half of the 20th century though he died broke and a charity case.)

There’s quite a lot of local history about the Mollies as well as some very useful academic monographs (Broehl and Kenney). The best way to start their history is through the books of George Korson who tramped the mining patches in the 1920s talking to old-timers and collecting their stories and songs. “What Makes Us Strike,” “The Avondale Mine Disaster,” “The Sliding Scale,” “The Long Strike,” “The Big Hole in the Ground” “Jimmy Kerrigan’s Confession,” “Michael J. Doyle,” “Muff Lawler, the Squealer,” ” The Doom of Campbell, Kelly, and Doyle,” “Thomas Duffy,” “Hugh McGeehan.”

Theirs was not the largest mass execution in American history. 303 Sioux were sentenced to hang after the Mankato Uprising in Minnesota in 1862. Lincoln pardoned 265 leaving thirty-eight to hang. In the Denmark Vesey slave plot of 1822 thirty-seven were hanged according to Herbert Aptheker. So strictly by the numbers the Native Americans have the most hanged at a single time followed by the African Americans in second place by only a single corpse. The Mollies come in third.

The concept of the mass hanging does not depend on numbers; it depends upon political impact which in turn depends on the specific conjuncture between historical circumstances and the dramaturgy of the hanging. For Vesey the circumstances were international – to drive a sea-wall between mainland slave rebellion and those of the Caribbean – and economic – to ensure quiet on the expanding cotton plantations of the Old South. For the Lakota people the circumstances were continental – to smash obstacles to the expansion of empire across the plains – and military – to prevent diversions of military strength from the Civil War. For the Molly Maguires the circumstances were the provision of hydrocarbon energy for the industrialization of Atlantic capitalism.

Just as we learn of pan-Atlanticism from the Vesey rising, or as we learn of the abiding struggle of the indigenous people for their commons from the mass hanging of the Lakota, so the hanging of the Molly Maguires raises issues that go beyond the narratives of labor or local history, vibrant as they are. John Elliott of the Philadelphia bar concluded, “Unfortunately, the vast socio-economic-political implications of the Mollie Maguire era have not yet received the objective, widespread scrutiny they deserve. It is the stuff of heroism and high history which should be plumbed by all who would seriously undertake the difficult task of advancing human understanding and social justice.”

They were coal miners or hydrocarbon energy workers. They worked in a milieu of intense terror. It is this combination that makes them of special interest to us as we grapple against the war in Iraq.

Before approaching this “high history,” a personal remembrance. I’d helped bring a whole carload of canned goods from Rochester, New York, to Dilly’s Bottom, Ohio, in support of the coal miners during the 110-day strike of 1977-78. What can we give you in return? asked Ken Wagnild and Tony Bumbico, rank-and-filers of the UMWA. Well, I’ve never been down in a mine So it was that I learned of the celebrated workers’ control in the mines and that I made the journey, down, down, down (in the words of the old song).

Ken said turn off your light. I did. You’d keep waiting for your eyes to get used to the dark but they never did. And then you’d wait even more and still you couldn’t see a glimmer. It was that dark. Then there was the creaking and groaning. No one could explain it. Completely unearthly and totally spooky: I was scared and very glad I didn’t work there. But more generous men I’ve never met. They gave me a whole bunch of lore, a lamp, and a brass disc for my key ring hand-stamped with my initials. I still carry it, and I remember the miners. They made a lasting impression.

So, come all you CounterPunchers and listen to this tale
Of how the handprint of a Molly Maguire remains in Jim Thorpe jail!
If you think its superstition and magic I don’t blame you one bit,
For like the shroud of Turin, or a splinter of the cross, it runs against the materialism of the modern securlarist.

But here’s the fact and here’s the shame on this anniversary day
For Black Thursday brings back up long suppressed deeds and ways.
Sure, some’s folk-lore, and more’s our labor history, but there’s something real stupid too,
I’m talking of peak energy, that capitalist bugaboo.

Here’s a theory that’s good for tenure, and Al Gore as well,
It says that Mother Nature is all peaked out just burning like in H-l.
But underground is where Jonah dwelt among the beasts and whales
And there we’ll find an energy, fellow critters all, that’ll make the capitalists wail.

For down there are the CounterPunchers, Mollies, and !Si Se Puedes! just itching to rise
They don’t believe in surplus value, money, war or G-d D-n your Eyes.
They say there’s more than enough to go around:
Planetary doctor’s visits, good water, healthy hiking trips, and commons on the ground.

The Mollies were tried in a series of show trials between 1876 and 1878. “The trials and hangings were staged with all the glamour and sensationalism of a mystery show,” writes Anthony Bimba. The press was a rabid with bigotry, slander, hatred, and murder. The juries excluded Catholics. Their prosecutors wore full military regalia. Defense witnesses were evicted from their homes, cut off from the company store, blacklisted, or imprisoned. The chief witness against them was an informer. None of the twenty hanged was apprehended in an act of violence. Informers, agents provocateurs, backroom deals for pardons for snitches, re-organized Republican-Democratic politics, and unmitigated capitalist cruelty was the order of the day.

In a few hundred square miles is the largest concentration of high ash anthracite of any place on earth. It burns longer, slower, and hotter than bituminous coal. Anthracite fueled the blast furnaces that smelted iron. It was the energy of the industrial revolution and its wars, particularly the U.S. Civil War. The railways were made of steel. The locomotives too were made of iron and steel. It was mined in eastern Pennsylvania by picks, shovels, hammers, and riddles while up top breaker boys separated coal from slate in the purest drudgery ever made by man for children.

The wages were low, for the miner in 1848 $1.25 a day and for the laborer 83 cents. But this is misleading as the workers were not paid in money, but in commodities. The “bob-tailed check” was one in which after the deductions were made from the sliding scale the bottom line on the miners pay-check read zero or less. The breaker boys did not get more than one dollar a week!

The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad carried the coal to market the barges in Philadelphia, the forges. Gowen, an Episcopalian, belonged to a Philadelphia society for the relief of Irish emigrants. He rose to become district attorney but never prosecuted any for the assaults and murders of the Civil War period. He became president of the Reading Railroad. Gowen bought thousands of acres financed by London stockholders. The controlling interest in the mines were the McCalmont Brothers, a firm of British financiers. The Reading would own 100,000 acres, more than double any other corporation. 75 per cent of the collieries in the district had passed to the Reading Railroad by 1870. Plus, he fixed the prices with the other carriers New York and New Jersey railroads.

Class struggle, heroes, traitors, and death, mystery abound. Jack Kehoe, the immigrant Irish labor and political leader versus Franklin B. Gowen, the acquisitive president of the Reading Coal and Iron Company. As the Schuylkill County delegate of the Ancient Order of Hibernians and the elected Democratic high constable, Kehoe represented a rising Irish political power which in 1875 defeated Gowen’s choice for governor, Judge Pershing, who later presided at Kehoe’s trial and pronounced death sentence in 1878 for an alleged crime committed in 1862 without witnesses. Langdon, the victim, had been the inspection boss at a mine employing many of Kehoe’s family. Langdon’s duty was to dock miners pay if the refuse content of their loads was too high. Kehoe’s pay had been docked three weeks prior to Langdon’s murder.

Irish World (5 August 1876) T.A. Devyr writes that the Phila. And Reading Coal and Iron Company project “a monopoly so immense that they are forced to fraternize, or conspire, with the millionaires of London to enable them to carry it out. These millionaires furnish $20,000,000 as their share of the pool, and, armed with this resource, their agent [Gowen] returns to Pennsylvania, buys up and gets a bad title to the coal fields, and sets to work the white slaves that live by wages in that region.”

The first anthracite strike was in 1842. The American Miners’ Association formed in 1861 included in its constitution, as I learn from Fred Thompson in an essay in the just-published The Big Red Songbook, this song:

Step by step the longest march
Can be won, can be won;
Single stones will form an arch
One by one, one by one.

And by union, what we will,
Can be accomplished still,
Drops of water turn a mill,
Singly none, singly none.

In 1868 John Siney became the elected president of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association of Schylkill County. He was from Co. Queen’s in Ireland (now co. Laois). His father was evicted and took his family to Lancashire where young Siney became a cotton spinner at the age of seven. The WBA was criminalized by the Anthracite Board of Trade. The Miners’ Journal reported murders


and blamed the WBA. Molly Maguires linked to terrorism with the Civil War in 1862.

1868 20,000 anthracite miners struck for the 8-hour day. The owners denounced the strike of 1868 as “criminal” and “outrageous.” “The owners clearly recognized that the militant Irish miners provided the leadership. “They attached to them the epithet “Molly Maguires and pictured a ‘secret conspiracy’ deliberately planning a campaign of terror and crime.” Whenever the miners resorted to force the owners played it as evidence of a secret criminal ring. Most of those charged with being Molly Maguires were union men. Most of the outrages “were against capital as represented by property or the persons of superintentends or bosses.”

In the 1869 Avondale fire the toll of miners’ lives was one hundred and seventy-nine. One hundred and ten were asphyxiated. All fires, floods, accidents liable to be called acts of terrorism. But in this case blaming the Irish miners didn’t stick; the world was shocked and even Queen Victoria contributed to the relief fund. Not until 1870 were mine owners compelled by law to provide a second exit to allow for escape when the main shaft was blocked by explosion, fire, or cave-in. In 1871 in Schuylkill county 112 were killed and 339 permanently injured. In that year the whole region shut down in strike as men women and children starved and children died. By the end of the century it was calculated that thirteen thousand men, women, and children suffered fatally from the anthracite mines.

The strikes were rough. Beating up mine supervisors, derailing of railroad cars, burning of coal tipples, handing out “coffin notices”.

Gowan gloated after the hangings in England in 1877. “We had to content with a powerful and unscrupulous trades’ union which at one time controlled the entire coal fields, and which consisted of from 30,000 to 40,000 men, who by their office established such a price for their labor as enabled a man of the meanest capacity to earn good wages, and then prevented any other man with more industry, or of greater skill, from doing more work than just sufficient to earn the same amount which the shiftless and inefficient required for his daily pay. There was no telling to what this system might have led, and we saw plainly that although we had acquired the ownership of the fee simple of the property, still we should not obtain practical ownership of it unless we were permitted to do what we liked with our own.” It took him four years to crush the union of miners whose leaders were “either under sentence and awaiting execution, in prison at penal servitude, or held in custody for future trial.”

The miners sang,

There’s Pat Mullaly who never kept tally,
He would work a mule’s work to get two men’s pay.
Let us all get together and write him a letter,
The quicker the better to get him out of the way.

Allan Pinkerton was ten in Scotland when his father, a Glasgow police sergeant, was crippled during a Chartist strike. He came to America where he worked for Union intelligence for eighteen months during the Civil War. Then Pinkerton organized policing against peculation by railroad conductors. Pinkerton was also a publicist. Published in 1877 The Molly Maguies and the Detectives as a sales piece of Pinkerton’s strikebreaking talents his book is full of lies. In the year of the rope it provided the gloat: “with half-closed eyes he saw the scene in which the wrong was done, read every movement of the criminals, and reached invariably the correct conclusion as to their conduct and guilt.”

James MacParlan was a native of co. Armagh, Ulster. He worked in Durham and Belfast before coming to the US in 1867. His first task for Pinkerton was to write a report on Irish secret societies. During the famine those asserting the moral economy “immediatedly organized under the name of Molly McGuire. The objects were to take from those who had abundance to give to the poor who were then dying by hundreth with hunger.” McParlan joined AOH, Ancient Order of Hibernians. He became bodymaster forcing him to plan and execute crimes. He is an agent provocateur. Broehl writes that “both Gowen and Pinkerton felt that the only way to bring order to the coal region was through well-publicized convictions. Hopefully, these might be convictions for past crimes.”

Unless the issue of secrecy is dealt with on both sides, unless the issue of violence is dealt with on both sides, then we easily fall into the whodunnit mode of history writing. History becomes a “case”, and as such it belongs to Allan Pinkerton, to the police. Economic forces, cultural life, art and music, social differences and relations, all the struts and beams that form an epoch of history not to mention the grounding and atmosphere, are excluded when history is reduced to the courtroom, and the historian becomes a stenographer for contending litigators.

What is state terrorism? Creation of fear, management of an emotion, disintegration of human values of mutuality or solidarity. Actual guilt or innocence of crime committed is incidental to the function of terror. Hence, the importance of collateral damage.

The terrorism was linked with Ireland. Broehl, the historian, perpetuated that link. “seemingly random attitudes and devices in the Pennsylvania story actually had deep roots in Irish history.” “On both sides of the Atlantic the antagonists of the Irish were the same ­ the English. In Ireland they were landlords and agents; in Pennsylvania they were mine owners and mine bosses.” This is a good example of the Fallacy of Essentialism as though in England there were no agricultural laborers, no tenants at will, poor miners, no working class, and as if in Ireland there were no native squires, gombeen men, squireens, upstarts, and other deputies and deputies of deputies of the ascendant rulers. Not all English were landlords, not all Irish were poor tenants.

In Ireland anthracite was called “Kilkenny coal” because the coal mine of Castlecomer in co. Kilkenny produced it as well as miners limber to work lying down and sideways with pick and shovel in the low tunnels. It wasn’t the behavior of the canary that warned them of danger; they studied the rats who lived underground. The hurriers and thrusters on their hands and knees dragged sledges of coal along the three foot high tunnels. Kilkenny men were the only skilled miners from Ireland; they lived in coal patches a few miles west of Shenendoah.

The Fallacy is necessary to the argument because it prepares us for the following: “the secret society itself was a revered, though clandestine, Irish institution.” Then there is a discussion of agrarian disturbances from the Whiteboy movement of the 1760s on through the Hearts of Oak, the Steelboys, and those under the name of Captain Thresher, or Captain Rock, Captain Rouser, and the Ribbon Socieites of the 19th century. By the end of the 18th century “secret societies were well embedded in both South and North.” But what does embed mean if not that they were put there, introjected, rather than grown by a kind of epigenesis. “This terrible device [as Broehl calls anonymous agrarian resistance] began to loom ever more importantly. The 19th century was the heyday of the agrarian secret society.” The shopkeepers “they daren’t charge a penny over the market price,” remembered an old-timer from Donegal before the 1961 Irish Folklore Commission. This is the moral economy.

The young men donned women’s clothing, blackened their faces, and shooed away the process-servers, grippers, and grabbers. On the Shirley estates as the tenants “loathingly swallow their last fetid ‘lumpers'” as their houses were pulled down by crowbar and battering ram. Meanwhile the owner Shirley issued a handbill recommending frugality, industry, patience, and promptitude in the payment of rent. Thomas Foster and English journalist wrote to the Times about his travels in Ireland from 1845 to 1846. “What is the ‘Molly Maguireism which has disturbed the country?” “It is the embodyment of the spirit of discontent; it is an old existing malady with a new name.” He traces its beginning to Lord Lorton, Ballinamuck, co. Longford in 1835, when he razed a whole village.

In the years of famine, one million died, one and a half million migrated: the population was diminished by 20 per cent.

Mystery, mythology, lost in the mists of Celticism, tinkling of a harp. The bank was the secret society of the 19th century. Who were the stockholders of New York and Philadelphia? One wants not just fraternal organizations, like Skull and Bones or the Freemasons, but their legal ownerships, like the private company itself. And here too as any anthropologists will tell us there is the arcane etiquette which signify position, status, wealth in that complex of signs which provides material for the upper class novel, theatre, movie, and which requires at least a dip into the Ivy League.

The Molly Maguires were “a fiction created in the course of a fierce class battle.” “No where in our investigation have we found it possible to lay hands on a single authentic document which showed the existence of a group or organization calling itself the MM”. The nationalist New York newspaper, The Irish World wrote “There are people who believe in fairies and hobgoblins. There are people who will accept any story, no matter how absurd” (June 30, 1877). In April 1877 the Ancient Order of Hibernians denounced them in the strongest terms, denied their membership in the fraternity” It became a synonym for militant working class struggle. The New York Times (May 14, 1876) wrote “The Pennsylvania authorities owe it to civilization to exterminate this noxious growth, now that its roots have been discovered.”

The Mollies and the miners were up against the violence of the local militias, the violence of mining architecture, the violence of the vigilante committees, the violence of hunger, the violence of explosion, fire, and oxygen depletion, the violence of gang warfare, the violence of the sale of police power to the private sector, the violence of the National Guard, and the violence of deliberately unsafe mining (“robbing the pillars” they called one of these practices, the pillars being stands of coal left to hold up the ceiling).

Bimba writes, “The government, the press, the church, the power of millions of dollars were at the service of the operators.” “They formed the coal and Iron Police, that private army, clothed with the police power of the state, which has long been infamous in labor history as the Pennsylvania Cossacks.” The owners organized armed bands and vigilante committees to terrorize miners into submission. Pinkerton admits that members of the A.O.H. were quietly assassinated. The ‘Long Strike’ of 1875 was defeated.

Well, we’ve been beaten, beaten all to smash
And, now, sir, we’ve begun to feel the lash,
As wielded by a gigantic corporation,
Which runs the commonwealth and ruins the nation.

James Fintan Lalor (1807-1849), like Siney, was from co. Laois. More than any one else among the Young Irelanders of the 1840s he made the land question, or landlordism, central to politics. He linked social revolution to national independence for the first time since the defeat of ’98. Addressing the landlords in 1847 two years before his famine-related death he wrote, “If you persevere in enforcing a clearance of your lands you will force men to weigh your existence, as landowners, against the existence of the Irish people.” The existence of one-fifth of the Irish people ceased and privatization of land followed. It was the famine that disgorged hundreds of thousands of Irish bodies into the maw of industrializing America. At the same time the famine provided the condition of a landgrab. The Poor Law Guardians of Castlecomer, for instance, granted assistance to those migrating to be sure, but it was on condition that they forfeit their leases to the land.

Denis Mahon was a major in the 9th Lancers and heir to the Hartland estate, thirty thousand acres in central co. Roscommon. He had evicted nine hundred tenants. About five hundred of them sailed on the coffin ship Virginius out of Liverpool on arriving at the infamous Grosse Isle nor more than six or eight were well enough to disembark on their own. He was assassinated in November 1847 in Strokestown. (More than a century later Ireland commemorates the famine with a museum, an excellent one, in Strokestown.) All the occupants of the townland where he was shot were ejected. Other tenants were given a chance to remain as long as they turned in the assassin. A poor cottier was duly produced. James Hasty was hanged before a crowd of four thousand confessing guilt and denouncing “that accursed system of Molly Maguirism.”

Coercion Acts (thirty-five were passed between 1800 and the Famine), tithes, high rents, cesses on the one side, and on the other, night prowling, boycotts, cattle maiming, secret oaths, anonymous threats were the means of agrarian warfare in 19th century Ireland. What was to protect private property from the fairies of the night? Hobgoblins were on the prowl. There is a kind of struggle, even politics here, which we have yet to fully comprehend.

Terror, as Edmund Burke explained long ago, is associated with the sublime as one of its constituents and causes. Recently Luke Gibbons has placed this discussion in the context of imperial rule and has coined “the colonial sublime” in order to account for it. Its lack of specificity is one of its powers; it spills over the forms, cultural, legal, aesthetic, which usually contain it. It will re-appear unconsciously, so to speak, bursting the bonds that repress. It shows itself in irrationality, secrecy, ambiguity, and anonymity. It provides an emotional milieu of action, rather than a tactic, whether as a ‘weapon of the weak’ or as a deliberate policy of the strong. It arises from massive land dispossession where redress is impossible by other means such as among the Whiteboy peasant unrest in Ireland during the 1760s and whose discourse remained expressive but mysterious or opaque to the dominant discourses of the Enlightenment or political economy which when hostile dismissed it as savage or when more favorably inclined developed romantic characterizations.

Captain Rock who summoned Irish poor to nocturnal resistance during the 1820s was like Captain Swing in England who led the opposition to the threshing machine in the 1830s or Captain Ludd who led the resistance to the impoverishment and lay-offs consequent on textile mechanization in the industrial revolution, or like “Rebecca’s Daughters ” who led the Welsh coal and iron workers in the 1839-1842 against the privatization of transport. These captains were the people’s mythical leaders, and it Vmakes sense to see the Molly Maguires in continuity with them. They were spiritual guides in the negotiations of modernization rather than avatars of primitivism to be swept aside by progress as obsolete. They could seem to be ‘a force of nature’ inasmuch as they were unpredictable, dangerous, hidden, and laws of science could not predict them nor the laws of the state contain them.

The theorists of capitalist development responded to them on this level, as a natural force. David Ricardo, the classical economist, located the class crisis within the scarcity of Nature and his solution was to intensify mechanization. Similarly, William Stanley Jevons, the Liverpool son of iron industry. His first book in 1865 on The Coal Question and the Probable Exhaustion of our Coal Mines came in response to the struggles of the miners. He was responsible for the “marginalist revolution” in economics in 1871-1874. No engine is more efficient than the steam engine, and it is always limited by the cost of coal. This is the ‘peak coal’ phenomenon, the background to our own ‘energy crisis’ for the solution to it was precisely the opening of oil wells from Tulsa to Baku.

John Elliot Cairnes (1823-1875), the political economist, wrote after the Famine which had taught him that laissez-faire economics was not a law of nature. He anticipates policies of state intervention. Laissez-faire was the sum and substance of political economy. It could succeed in Ireland only under “the arbitrament of armed force.” He advocated extension of tenant right, fixity of tenure, and arbitration courts. He was the first economist to explode this malign myth of laissez-faire, and it is entirely significant that he was Irish.

“I have told ye the Mind of the children of Mistress Molly Maguire,” read an anonymous letter, “all we want is a fare Days wages for a fare Days work, and thats what we cant get now By a long shot.” This is language which combines the unionist demand with the subsistence expression from the mountain woods. It suggests another template of interpretation than co. Donegal? The Delaware Indians, or Lenape people, had lived in these regions and this simple expression signifies a return of repressed memory of their destruction.

In 1797 the American novelist, Charles Brockden Brown, published Edgar Huntly, or Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker in the midst of fierce debate that would result in the passage of the Alien and Sedition Acts. This is a gothic tale, or an expression of powerful emotion, inchoate action. Like the story of the Molly Maguires this is a story set in the hills of eastern Pennsylvania, and like it the crucial events literally are underground. It is also a story of murder and dispossession both in Ireland and in America.

“These ancient inheritors of the soil reluctantly submit to the discipline and shackles of civilized life, and in general have shewn contempt for our customs and manners.” Little Turtle was asked by Brown how he obtained suitable vessels for boiling the considerable amounts of maple syrup, and affecting a grave countenance, answered “that the unfortunate affair of St. Clair had furnished them with a considerable number of camp kettles which answered the purpose very well.” Brown comments that it was his leadership which defeated the U.S.A. general St. Clair “with immense slaughter and the loss of camp equipage.” It is not a well-known story, St. Clair’s Defeat, yet it needs to be as it was the first battle of the new federal government. Maple syrup is thus a mnemonic for Little Turtle’s triumph.

His novel takes place in a wilderness of forest and mountain in the Allegheny mountains. The sleep-walker loses sense of time and reality while imprisoned in a cavern underground. Only a year or two before the discovery of anthracite. The lead characters come from Ireland. The story of dispossession of Armagh or the central Ireland is misremembered or suppressed. Nevertheless, it comes up in an odd way. Although the Lenape Indians have largely been forced to abandon their hunting lands to travel into the Ohio valley, a woman among them remains behind refusing to abandon land. “The English were aliens and sojourners,” in her view. Her companions were three wolves. Her employment was a small corn patch and hunting. “Known among her neighbours by the name of Old Deb. Some people called her Queen Mab.” This is where the sleep-walker found shelter. In the novel she comes to personify the Indian Delaware much in the same way that Queen Mab in the Ulster cycle where she was queen of Connaught came to personify Ireland and underground or hidden Ireland in the 18th century. Delegations of younger males visited her once a year as a Queen. Mab is a warrior, a bringer of dreams, and presides at childbirth.

Charles Brockden Brown visited what would become the anthracite region. In 1801 his brother purchased 20,000 acres of land around Catawissa which would become target of attack when McParlan with some dissident miners of Shenendoah wanted to blow up the key bridge on the Catawissa & Williamsport line.

My point is this: Brown’s novel suggests a connection between the later struggles in anthracite country and the prior dispossession of the indigenous people which subsequent academic divisions of knowledge have made it hard to see. The connection is partly maintained by transmissions usually consigned to folklore, such as speech, myth, dreams, night-work.

The young scholars of the Firoda National School, co. Kilkenny, have produced a splendid website providing a people’s history of the Castlecomer mining communities. In the nineteen twenties a miners’ leader named Nicholas (Nixie) Boran emerged. He was sent into the pits while still a child. In his teens he joined the I.R.A. and took the republican side in the Civil War in which he was wounded and hospitalised in Limerick. So, although still a very young man in 1930, in the Castlecomer area he was something of a folk hero. Boran was a man of intelligence, courage and determination, a man with a mission, to improve the working and living conditions of the Kilkenny miners.

Nixie was attracted to communism and a branch of the Revolutionary Workers’ Group was formed in the mines in 1930. The miners were invited to send a delegate to the Congress of the Red International of Labour Unions, held in Moscow in August 1930. Boran was selected as a delegate but was refused a visa by the Government, against which he had fought during the Civil War. However, he was smuggled out of the country, on a ship with a cargo of cement and succeeded in reaching Russia where he stayed for three months. During these months he traveled extensively in the country, up to the great mineral centre of the Urals, to Samara where he visited collective, state and commune farms and then down to the coal mining area in the Donetz Basin. In between he lived in either Moscow or Leningrad where he met and talked to revolutionaries, including Irish students at the Lenin School in Moscow. When he returned to Ireland church and state tried to prevent him from speaking. They could not prevent him from forming a union however which was officially launched on the evening of Wednesday December 3, 1930.

What else?

Gowen lost the presidency, then regained it, the English stockholders bailed out, Vanderbilt of the New York Central, bought it up, then it fell into receivership, and J.P. Morgan took it over. Gowen committed suicide in 1889. The union of the miners recovered. They joined to create the United Mine Workers in 1890, one year after Gowen’s suicide, the most powerful labor force seen. “The miners are on the march,” Bimba remembers in the 30s. This was a tactic in the 1870s, hundreds would march from pit to pit gaining momentum and mass as they went. “The miners are on the march” causing a famous catena, the New Deal.

The Catholic Church and the Ancient Order of Hibernians purged themselves of the Mollies and helped to purge the Irish-American identity of its violent and unorthodox elements which, while it preserved the memory of social trauma of the Famine when its memory was neglected in Ireland, it did all that it could to attain middle-class respectability by the removal of all hints of “illegal” direct action among working people from the Whiteboys to the Mollies.


Native to co. Donegal, Ireland, Alexander Campbell was convicted of being an accessory to murder in 1877, but proclaimed his innocence to the bitter end. As he was led out of his jail cell for the final time, he slapped a grimy handprint on the wall of cell number 17 in the Mauch Chunk [now Jim Thorpe, Penna.] prison. He declared it would remain there forever as a reminder of the injustice that took his life. Over the years, superstitious sheriffs in Carbon County, PA have painted over the ominous wall and even knocked it down. But the cursed handprint reappeared, leaving a lasting impression.

“There’s no logical explanation for it,” says James Starrs, a forensic scientist from George Washington University who’s investigating the bizarre mark. “It looks like a child’s handprint on a white wall. In 1930, a sheriff named Biegler wanted to put an end to the legend,” says Starrs. “He had the county road gang tear down the wall and put in a new one. Biegler went to sleep, certain that he had forever removed the so called miracle. But when he woke up the next day, he was shocked to see the handprint had reappeared!” Thirty years later, Sheriff Charles Neast tried to cover over it with green latex paint. “But it soon became clearly visible.” says Neast.

PETER LINEBAUGH teaches history at the University of Toledo. He is the author of two of CounterPunch’s favorite books, The London Hanged and (with Marcus Rediker) The Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic. His essay on the history of May Day is included in Serpents in the Garden. He can be reached at:

* See Daniel Cassidy: How the Irish Invented Slang

Croak, v., to murder, to kill; to die; to hang.
Croch (pron. croc), v., to hang, crucify; to execute; to destroy, fig. to kill. Duine a chrochadh, (pron. din? a croc?), to hang someone. Croch, n., a cross, a gallows. Ar an gcroch, on the gallows. Crocadh ard chugat lá gaoithe, (pron. croc? árd cugat lá gíh?), may you hang high on a windy day. (Ó Dónaill, 320, Dwelly, 275 267.)

“Steve: ‘…It ain’t any of your business. She’s my goil.’
“Tim: ‘…Git outa’ here before I croak yuh.'” (O’Neill, The Web, 1913, 20.)

“When asked why he did not apply at the County Hospital for aid, the old vagrant replied, ‘I got a chance outside, but they’ll croak me sure there.'” (Jim Tully, Beggars of Life, 1924, 80.)

Croaked, pp., hanged, executed, killed, murdered, died.
Crochta (pron. croct?), adj., pp., hanged; crucified; executed; destroyed, fig. murdered, died.

“Croaked, hanged. A flash term among keepers of prisons, who, speaking of a thief that was executed, observe, ‘He was croaked.'” (Pierce Egan, Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, 1823 edition.)

“Cora (gaily): ‘Hello, bums. (She looks around) Jees, de Morgue on a rainy Sunday night! (She waves to Larry ­ affectionately) Hello, Old Wise Guy! Ain’t you croaked yet?'” (O’Neill, Iceman Cometh, 615.)

In England, the penalty for stealing a swell’s handkerchief was to be croaked (crochta, hanged). If you were an Irish patriot ­ like young Robert Emmett in 1803 ­ the English crochaire (pron. crocir?, hangman, executioner) would draw and quarter you after he croaked (crochta, pron. croct?, hanged) you.

Croaker, n., a doctor or surgeon. (Cant.)
Crochaire (pron. crocir?), n., a hangman, executioner, a gallows’ bird, a wretch, a villain, fig. (U.S. slang), a doctor, a sawbones. Croker, crocus, n., a doctor. (Irish Traveller Cant.)

The croaker (crochaire, pron. crocir?), a hangman, an executioner was the name for the doctor that the poor could not afford to see until they were already croaking. A “croaker” brought death with him like the hangman. “Nora: ‘We’ve no money for doctors. They’re bad luck, anyway. They bring death with them.'” (O’Neill, A Touch of the Poet, 1939, 147.)

“Beat it downstairs and tell the old ghost that a guy’s dyin’ up here. Tell her to send for a croaker.” (Jim Tully, Beggars of Life, 1924, 15.)

“Don’t say ‘croaker’…say ‘doctor.'” (Nelson Algren, The Man With the Golden Arm, 1951, 94.)

Anthony Bimba, The Molly Maguires (International Publishers: New York, 1932)

Wayne G. Broehl, Jr., The Molly Maguires (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1965)

Charles Brockden Brown, Edgar Huntly; Or, Memoirs of a Sleep-Walker (1797), edited by Philip Barnard and Stephen Shapiro (Hackett Publishing Company, Indianapolis, 2006).

Seamus Deane (ed.), The Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing, volume ii (Field Day Publications: Derry, 1991)

Luke Gibbons, Edmund Burke and Ireland: Aesthetics, Politics, and the Colonial Sublime (Cambridge University Press, New York, 2003)

Archie Green, David Roediger, Franklin Rosemont, Salvatore Salerno (eds.), The Big Red Song Book (Charles H. Kerr Publishing Company: Chicago, 2007)

Kevin Kenny, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires (New York: Oxford UP, 1998)

George Korson, Minstrels of the Mine Patch: Songs and Stories of the Anthracite Industry (1938) and republished by Folklore Associates, Hatboro, Pennsylvania, 1964

John P. Lavell, The Hard Coal Docket (Lehighton: Times News, 1944)

Allan Pinkerton, The Molly Maguires and the Detectives( 1877), introduction by John M. Elliott (Dover Publications: New York, 1973)

Robert James Scally, The End of Hidden Ireland: Rebellion, Famine, & Emigration (Oxford University Press: New York, 1995)



Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: