The Molly Maguires: White or Black Hats?

by Molly Matthews in


Child laborers known as “breaker boys” — one of many injustices of 19th Century coal mining.

Child laborers known as “breaker boys” — one of many injustices of 19th Century coal mining.

The Molly Maguires were Irish activists, some would say vigilantes, that started in Ireland and then transplanted to America with Irish immigrants. The Mollies spawned fierce conflicts in anthracite coal mining communities  pitting coal miners against mine bosses and owners.  Several members of this secret society were executed by hanging in 1877-78 after (possibly false) murder convictions.

Writing Irish Luck, Chinese Medicine, I struggled about how to depict the Molly Maguires. My own grandfather worked as a “breaker boy” in the 1880’s just after the family came to Pennsylvania. He is depicted in the book watching miners eat sandwiches covered in coal dust, too tired and hungry to wash. The coal dust coated the men’s stomachs and their lungs. 

There is a long history of gangs and crime families that gestate in immigrant communities and often no easy way for vulnerable communities to assimilate. If my great grandparents had not become financially solvent, at least enough to send their boys to school, he may have been forced to join the Molly McGuires. (Family lore has it that a distant uncle ran away rather than accept a murder for hire assignment.)

Were the Mollies downtrodden coal miners, overworked, underpaid and in debt to the “company store.” Did they have little choice but fight against despotic owners and corrupt politicians? Or were they men who perpetrated violence, murder, and committed terrorist acts? What do you think?

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