18 December 1878: the end of the Molly Maguires

On this day in 1878, the Molly Maguires – a secret society formed in Ireland – ceased to exist with the hanging of the last of 20 condemned members of the group in the United States.

During the 18th and 19th centuries, the focus of Irish agriculture shifted from potato farming to livestock rearing, leading to widespread eviction of tenant farmers. Many emigrated to England or America; others starved in the famine of 1845 to 1852. But some formed secret societies to fight back. The Molly Maguires were one of the best known.

While pledging to "cherish and respect the Good Landlord, and Good Agent", they were accused of assault and even murder. Their efforts were generally unsuccessful in stopping evictions, but the publicity generated inspired many in the Irish diaspora to emulate them including in the far-flung coal fields of Pennsylvania, in the United States, where brutal conditions and hefty wage cuts (resulting from the Great Panic of 1873) had brought labour relations to boiling point.

Mine workers, some of whom earned as little as $1 a week ($20.40 in 2014), organised themselves into a trade union and launched a series of strikes. What happened next is still disputed. the mine owners claimed that a militant group of workers had reformed the Molly Maguires as a criminal gang, violently extorting money and concessions from employers. Others argue that this was merely an attempt to smear legitimate trade unions.

While historians largely agree that the Maguires did exist in some form, the mine owners were little better, organising attacks on striking workers and encouraging anti-Irish vigilantes. In any case, the Maguires disappeared after 20 people were convicted (then executed) for various crimes, on the testimony of the Pinkerton detective, James McParland, who had infiltrated the organisation. The final hanging took place in December 1878.

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