the Molly Maguires

The American Irish secret society for labor rights that might not have actually existed.

Late 19th century Pennsylvania was a hotbed of coal mining. The northeastern part of the state was home to dozens of mines extracting anthracite coal (the region is still home to the largest concentrated anthracite deposit in the world). Anthracite coal had become the fuel of choice to heat homes as well as power the American Industrial Revolution. Extracting tens of millions of tons of coal was a dangerous, dirty, and demanding job which fell upon poor immigrants from Europe.

Among these recent immigrants were the Irish. Emigrating in large part to escape the famine of the mid-19th century many Irish settled in Pennsylvania. Trading one disaster for another, by the 1870s the Irish in the coal mines were risking their lives for poverty wages. The remote locations of many of these mines meant workers and their families were tethered to the mines and were rarely in a position to break the cycle of poverty. Children began their mining careers separating slate from coal as “breaker boys”, eventually graduating to working down in the mines.

coal mines
Mining coal was an incredibly dangerous job. Between the long term health problems and the short term concerns of fires and cave-ins, the dangers of the mines were constant and endured for poverty wages.

Deaths were common. In September of 1869 a fire at the Avondale Mine killed 110 coal miners. In Schuylkill County 566 miners were killed over a seven year period. The situation has been summarized as, “Wages were low, working conditions were atrocious, and deaths and serious injuries numbered in the hundreds each year.” The English & Welsh immigrants at the mines tended to be given management positions which frequently meant that the power struggles that had played out between the poor Irish and the English & Welsh landowners in Ireland were played out again in the coal mines of Pennsylvania.

the Molly Maguires

In this depression some of the Irish miners decided to fight back. One method was through organized labor strikes, but more famously they retaliated through violence. Between 1862 and 1875 fourteen mining officials were murdered. This gave rise to the conspiracy theory that, within the regional Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), was a militant group of Irishmen responsible for these organized killings. This group was called the Molly Maguires.

The Molly Maguires had been a secret society in Ireland who used threats & violence to settle disputes. Pennsylvania journalist Benjamin Bannan was the first to use the name Molly Maguires in association with the violence of the area. As the murders began the name Molly Maguires only became more infamous. That said, while the violence in coal country was real the Molly Maguires may not have been – there is no evidence that the Molly Maguires in America ever existed. Bannon pinned the violence on the Molly Maguires but he had no proof.

the Molly Maguires

the Day of the Rope

Franklin Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad (which also owned dozens of mines), hired the Pinkerton Agency to infiltrate the Irish miners. The Pinkertons sent agent James McParland to go undercover and find any evidence of murder plots or other crimes. McParland worked for two and a half years undercover and his information was the primary evidence in the subsequent 1876-1877 trials of nearly 50 alleged Mollies. In a racist miscarriage of justice, the state of Pennsylvania turned over the investigation & prosecution of the alleged Irish criminals to the Reading Railroad company. Company president Gowen even served as one of the prosecutors. No Irish Catholics were chosen to be jurors, most jurors were Pennsylvania Dutch, some of whom didn’t speak English. There was very little evidence and the prosecution’s cases largely hung on establishing that the defendants were members of the AOH and the conspiracy theory that the AOH was a front for the unproven Molly Maguires.

By 1879, 20 alleged Molly Maguires had been found guilty and executed (all of whom were Irish Catholics) while 23 more had been sent to prison. Following these executions all supposed Molly Maguire activity ended, not because all of the guilty parties had been executed, but more likely from fear of retaliation by the mining companies.

Added info: of the executed, one particularly curious case is that of Alex Campbell. As legend has it, before being taken to the gallows he protested his innocence and placed his hand to the wall of his prison cell stating “There is proof of my words. That mark of mine will never be wiped out. It will remain forever to shame the county for hanging an innocent man.” The cell has been cleaned and painted many times, but the handprint can still be seen in his cell at Carbon County Jail in present day Jim Thorpe, PA.

Reading Railroad president and Molly Maguire prosecutor Franklin Gowen later died by gunshot to the head in 1889. Conspiracy theorists question if it was suicide or retaliation by the Molly Maguires.

One final item, the 1915 Sherlock Holmes story The Valley of Fear was inspired by the Molly Maguires. The story’s second half is about a mining town with a largely Irish fraternal organization which has a secret second organization fighting against the mine bosses on the behalf of union laborers. The story even has a Pinkerton agent infiltrating “the Scowrers.”

In Search of History made a great documentary on the Molly Maguires.

The Molly Maguires have become a part of Irish American culture & history thanks in part to both The Dubliners song and the 1970 movie of the same name.

Groundhog Day

Groundhog Day is halfway between the winter solstice & the spring equinox, and has its roots in Candlemas which has even older pagan roots.

Every February 2nd since 1887, people have gathered in the small Pennsylvania town of Punxsutawney for Groundhog Day, the day Punxsutawney Phil (the groundhog) predicts whether there will be six more weeks of winter or an early spring. This idea of marking the transition between winter and spring existed long before Groundhog Day.

Groundhog Day sits halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

Before Groundhog Day

February 2nd sits halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The ancient Celts of Europe marked this solar event with a festival which, after the Celts made it to the British Isles, became the the Imbolc festival. Imbolc began at sundown on February 1st and ended at the following sundown on February 2nd. In Ireland it evolved to honor the pagan goddess Brigid. When Christianity took over Ireland Brigid the pagan goddess became Brigid the Catholic Saint whose feast day (conveniently) was also on February 1st. The church Christianized the following day as well and made February 2nd Candlemas, the day commemorating the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Candlemas has its own customs. People take their candles to the church to be blessed, a reminder that Jesus is the light of the world. For some, Candlemas marks the end of the Christmas season and is the date they take down their Christmas decorations. German speaking areas of Europe also marked Candlemas as “Badger Day”, a folkloric day when a badger would help predict the weather. If a badger was seen in the sun on February 2nd there would be a “second winter”, ie. four more weeks of winter.

Punxsutawney

The tradition emigrated from Germany to North America where the groundhog was substituted for the badger (since badgers aren’t that common where these immigrants settled in the eastern United States – especially Pennsylvania). Similarly, where badgers weren’t common in parts of Europe other regional animals had been used such as foxes and bears.

The small western Pennsylvanian town of Punxsutawney has the most famous observation of this tradition, creating what has become the modern day Groundhog Day. The first “official” event was in 1887, where six more weeks of winter was predicted. Groundhog Day is presided over by a group of men in top hats & tuxes dubbed the “Inner Circle.” This amusing secret-ish society originally began as members of the Punxsutawney Elks Lodge, where the groundhog was not only use for weather prediction, but was also served as food at the lodge.

Phil the groundhog wasn’t a named element of the ritual until 1961. As the tradition goes Phil is the same groundhog year-after-year and is the only groundhog to have ever predicted the weather for Groundhog Day, on account of the “magical elixir” he drinks every year which adds 7 more years of life keeping him alive so long. Otherwise, a normal groundhog has a life expectancy of about 3 years (or up to 14 in captivity). Phil’s popularity as the prognosticator of prognosticators, the seer of seers, has led to many imitators.

Punxsutawney Phil tends to pick “6 more weeks of winter” and has debatable accuracy.

Track Record

Much is made of Phil’s prognostication track record. As of 2021, he has:
• Seen his shadow / 6 more weeks of winter: 105 times (84%)
• No shadow / early spring: 20 times (16%)
• No record of his prediction: 10 times

Stormfax has said that Phil has 39% accuracy in predicting the weather, but the Inner Circle has said that Phil is 100% accurate. Any “wrong” predictions must have been Inner Circle error in interpreting Phil’s prediction.

Added info: the 1993 movie Groundhog Day was filmed not in Punxsutawney but in Woodstock, Illinois. The movie was so popular that Woodstock started hosting their own Groundhog Day festival. Meanwhile the popularity of the film took the Punxsutawney Groundhog Day event from attracting around 2,000 visitors to bringing in tens of thousands each year with the 2020 celebration bringing in an estimated 40,000 people (about 8 times the town’s population).

Groundhog Day and Punxsutawney Phil are so strongly associated with the state of Pennsylvania that in 2004 the state created Gus the groundhog to be the mascot of the Pennsylvania lottery, the second most famous groundhog riding the coattails of Phil.

Centralia

The lost Pennsylvania mining town with an uncontrollable fire raging underground.

For most people who have heard of Centralia they know it as a spooky abandoned ghost-town. They might even know it as the inspiration for the film adaptation of Silent Hill. But before Centralia was abandoned it was a normal small Pennsylvania mining town like most others in the area.

The abandoned Old PA Route 61, now known as the “Graffiti Highway”, before being covered in dirt by the state in 2020 to discourage visitors

The Fire

In the spring of 1962 one of the town trash dumps, which had previously been a strip mine, was set on fire in an attempt to clean it up for Memorial Day. The fire got out of hand and spread down into the abandoned mining tunnels below the town. The fire was not put out.

Given the estimated amount of anthracite coal under Centralia the fire could burn for another 250 years. Temperatures easily exceed 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit. As the fire rages underground it expels gases above ground and causes the ground to shift both up & down. Even as roads buckled and sinkholes collapsed people continued to live in town.

The fire was relatively benign until late 1979 when it was discovered that the basement of Coddingtons gas station had a floor temperature of 136° F and the lot across from the station had steam coming out of the ground. The gas station was in the direct path of the underground fire that was aggressively spreading in multiple directions. In the 1980s hot mine gasses were spewing from the ground and into homes. Residents were sickened by carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.

The fire has spread across multiple fronts generally moving southwest but there is an additional fourth front to the East.

Eminent Domain

In 1980 there were around 1,000 residents of Centralia. As the fire spread across multiple fronts, and the toxic conditions worsened, people began to move out in larger numbers. By 1992 there were only 5 remaining residents. What was left of the town was claimed by the state of Pennsylvania under eminent domain. Per an agreement with the state, as the remaining residents move away or die, the state demolishes their homes.

As of 2017 one of the few remaining homes left in Centralia.

Today there are still a few die-hard residents remaining. Centralia is now a grid of streets with no street signs, only four buildings, and a few cemeteries. Sidewalks are interrupted by the occasional cut-in for driveways which no longer exist. There are walkway stairs that go nowhere. You could drive through Centralia and not even notice. Nature has reclaimed most of the space that used to be people’s homes and businesses as the underground fire continues to burn.

Rather than being a freaky ghost-town, Centralia is a sad story about the end of a small town community. The documentary the Town that Was does a great job documenting the town’s history and its slow disappearance.