Irish Ghosts of America: The Molly Maguires, Pennsylvania

Alexander Campbell’s handprint; supposedly placed on a cell wall on the day he died.

There is a handprint on the wall of the Carbon County Jail in Carbon, Pennsylvania, that they say cannot be scrubbed off. It is supposed to have been left there by a man named Alexander Campbell, who was to be hanged that day of  June 21, 1877. “This handprint will remain as proof of my innocence,” he is supposed to have said, and so it has, to this day, when the former jail is now a museum.

There are a lot of stories of ghost at the old County Jail, and most of them revolve around Campbell and his cohorts, who were collectively known as the Molly Maguires. The name originated in Ireland, where it was a secret society bent on agrarian rebellion. Their story is a tangled one, and some historian dispute that they even existed. But they were thought to be present in the “hard coal,” or anthracite mining communities of Pennsylvania during the late nineteenth century.

This was brutal labor, with low pay and high risk, including the possibility of death — as many as a hundred anthracite miners died per year; as an example, in September 6, 1869, a fire in Luzerne County killed 110 miners. When miners tried to organize, mine owners hired agents from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to suppress the unions. Molly Maguires, or Mollies, in the rank and file were supposed to have responded with violence, and even murder. The Pinkertons sent a man undercover, an Irish native named James McParland, and increasingly mine owners felt that eliminating the Mollies would do much to undermine the unions. Alan Pinkerton, head of the agency, argued for vigilante justice, and suddenly miners began to suffer attacks. Some were shot. Some were attacked in their homes by masked thugs. Several were shot dead. All had been identified as Mollies by McParland.

Among the dead was a woman, the wife of one of the supposed Mollies, and McParland resigned in disgust; his superiors begged him to return. After a failed strike, McParland reported that frustrated miners were increasingly supporting Mollies, who supposedly stepped up a campaign of murder against any who opposed them, including mine bosses, policemen, even judges.

What followed were a succession of arrests and trials. Some turned against their compatriots, and six were sentenced to hang. On June 21, 1877, the day of the handprint, six were hanged in Pottville and four in Carbon County. Miners surrounded the scaffolds during the hangings, and the event had to be protected by state militia ready with bayonets.

Over the next two years, ten more men were hanged. In the following years, relations between bosses and workers sometimes seemed like all-out war, including 19 miners shot to death in 1897. And, in the following years, reports of haunting started to appear at the Carbon County Jail, documented in a book called ” Ghosts of the Molly Maguires?” by Betty Lou McBride and Kathleen McBride Sisack. A sample story from the book:

Alicia stopped her tour just outside the door to the cell block to check that the previous tour group had moved on from the cell block. She pulled open the door to glance inside, and as she did, a young girl on her tour looked past her to the gallows at the far end and quietly asked, “Why are there four men hanging up there?” Startled, Alicia quickly turned to look at the gallows, but there was no one on the gallows.

He couldn’t do an irish accent, but my God Sean Connery made a great-looking Irish miner.

We don’t need to go to Pennsylvania to see the Molly Maguires on the gibbet — the story has been repeatedly dramatized, starting in 1914 when their story inspired Arthur Conan Doye’s final Sherlock Holmes novel, “The Valley of Fear.” Their story also inspired a 1970 film, “The Molly Maguires.” starring Sean Connery, a descendent of Irish immigrants to Scotland who never could master an Irish accent, and Richard Harris, a native of Limerick who could never speak with anything but.

Their story has also been adapted to song, by George Korson, The Dubliners, and The Irish Rovers. The Irish Baladeers had a song by Chuck Rogers called “Sons of Molly,” and it included the following lyrics:

when the wind blows wild at night past the breaker melancholy
if you stand in the dark with your ears to the wind
you can hear the sons of molly.
deep in the dark of the old mine shaft you can smell the smoke and the fire and
the whisper low from the mine below is the ghost of molly maguire

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Max Sparber

Max Sparber is a playwright, journalist, and history detective in Omaha, Nebraska.