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Making Sense of the Molly Maguires

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Twenty Irish immigrants, suspected of belonging to a secret terrorist organization called the Molly Maguires, were executed in Pennsylvania in the 1870s for the murder of sixteen men. Ever since, there has been enormous disagreement over who the Molly Maguires were, what they did, and why they did it, as virtually everything we now know about the Molly Maguires is based on Twenty Irish immigrants, suspected of belonging to a secret terrorist organization called the Molly Maguires, were executed in Pennsylvania in the 1870s for the murder of sixteen men. Ever since, there has been enormous disagreement over who the Molly Maguires were, what they did, and why they did it, as virtually everything we now know about the Molly Maguires is based on the hostile descriptions of their contemporaries. Arguing that such sources are inadequate to serve as the basis for a factual narrative, author Kevin Kenny examines the ideology behind contemporary evidence to explain how and why a particular meaning came to be associated with the Molly Maguires in Ireland and Pennsylvania. At the same time, this work examines new archival evidence from Ireland that establishes that the American Molly Maguires were a rare transatlantic strand of the violent protest endemic in the Irish countryside. Combining social and cultural history, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires offers a new explanation of who the Molly Maguires were, as well as why people wrote and believed such curious things about them. In the process, it vividly retells one of the classic stories of American labor and immigration.


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Twenty Irish immigrants, suspected of belonging to a secret terrorist organization called the Molly Maguires, were executed in Pennsylvania in the 1870s for the murder of sixteen men. Ever since, there has been enormous disagreement over who the Molly Maguires were, what they did, and why they did it, as virtually everything we now know about the Molly Maguires is based on Twenty Irish immigrants, suspected of belonging to a secret terrorist organization called the Molly Maguires, were executed in Pennsylvania in the 1870s for the murder of sixteen men. Ever since, there has been enormous disagreement over who the Molly Maguires were, what they did, and why they did it, as virtually everything we now know about the Molly Maguires is based on the hostile descriptions of their contemporaries. Arguing that such sources are inadequate to serve as the basis for a factual narrative, author Kevin Kenny examines the ideology behind contemporary evidence to explain how and why a particular meaning came to be associated with the Molly Maguires in Ireland and Pennsylvania. At the same time, this work examines new archival evidence from Ireland that establishes that the American Molly Maguires were a rare transatlantic strand of the violent protest endemic in the Irish countryside. Combining social and cultural history, Making Sense of the Molly Maguires offers a new explanation of who the Molly Maguires were, as well as why people wrote and believed such curious things about them. In the process, it vividly retells one of the classic stories of American labor and immigration.

30 review for Making Sense of the Molly Maguires

  1. 5 out of 5

    Shaun

    This book is a full-fledged account of one of the more obfuscated labor uprisings in US history. In it's time, "Molly Maguire" activity essentially referred to any violence perpetrated by Irish immigrants in the Eastern Pennsylvania region from the Civil War to around 1890. The Mollies themselves were, more specifically, a conglomeration of twenty Irish men who were hung by the state in 1877 on various murder charges, largely either on fabricated evidence or through the testimony of one Pinkerto This book is a full-fledged account of one of the more obfuscated labor uprisings in US history. In it's time, "Molly Maguire" activity essentially referred to any violence perpetrated by Irish immigrants in the Eastern Pennsylvania region from the Civil War to around 1890. The Mollies themselves were, more specifically, a conglomeration of twenty Irish men who were hung by the state in 1877 on various murder charges, largely either on fabricated evidence or through the testimony of one Pinkerton detective and agent provocateur. They are generally historically understood as a secret society of Irish mine workers who intimidated and assassinated anyone who stood in their way. Kenny goes to great lengths to make the story of the violence attributed to the Mollies actually "make sense". The book traces the violence of immigrant anthracite coal miners to roots in agrarian retributive violence in the Irish countryside. Without going so far as to specifically justify the murders of coal company affiliates in Pennsylvania, Kenny does go to great lengths to illustrate the conditions of hierarchy, racism and open discrimination that new generations of Irish immigrants could expect in the States - and how this frustration led some to desperation and retributive murder. Of particular concern (and contemporary relevance) is the way in which the popular media (and Frank Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad) manufactured a mythology surrounding the Mollies which served to completely obliterate any sense of their motivations, replacing it with a good vs. evil binary which served to expedite rigged murder trials and demonize the working class Irish out of hand. Needless to say, much of this mythology, from leading newspapers, trade papers, and even pulp novels, served as the historical basis for understanding the Mollies for generations after the executions of the twenty convicted men. From the book: "The term mythology is used here to mean a process of conveying meaning that denies history and creates a static world, closed to the possibility of change; and related to this, a belief in essential, timeless catagoris of human nature, like goodness and badness. Mythology empties reality of history and fills it with nature; it denies that things are made rather than found; it claims that it's concepts are applicable in all times and places, rather than seeing them as socially and historically contingent. It is a system of values masquerading as a system of facts. If the discourse on the Molly Maguires can be read as an ideological battle, the form of representation that emerged victorious was mythology. The victory was won, in rhetorical terms at least, by freezing time, by embalming history into static categories of good and evil. If a single theme dominated the myth of the Molly Maguires, it was the absence of any motivation for the crimes of which they stood accused. The crimes were explained in terms of a natural Irish propensity toward violence and savagery. The argument was ahistorical and perfectly circular: the Irish committed all these crimes because they were savage, and the proof of their savagery was that they had committed these crimes. (...) The Molly Maguire trials and executions that followed, in short, were more than a question of enforcing a specific vision of justice. The also involved the construction of a specific kind of meaning, the myth of the Molly Maguires."

  2. 5 out of 5

    Ann

    A detailed look at the Molly Maguires. The Mollys, as they were called, was an Irish mafia that existed in the mid-late 1800s in central Pennsylvania. Linked to the coal industry, the Mollys established a fascinating network of fear and respect.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Walt

    This was a very interesting read. Writing through the prism of the 1990s this book takes a decidedly different track than the previous scholarly studies of the 1950s. Earlier studies were based on the first person accounts by the Pinkertons who pursued the Mollys. Kenny skillfully challenges the existence of the Mollys in America. He does this by analyzing the rise and fall of miners' union movements. Ultimately, he concludes that the conspiracy was little more than violent remnants of failed un This was a very interesting read. Writing through the prism of the 1990s this book takes a decidedly different track than the previous scholarly studies of the 1950s. Earlier studies were based on the first person accounts by the Pinkertons who pursued the Mollys. Kenny skillfully challenges the existence of the Mollys in America. He does this by analyzing the rise and fall of miners' union movements. Ultimately, he concludes that the conspiracy was little more than violent remnants of failed unionism seeking to rectify some of the injustices of the era. He does this with timelines showing that Molly Maguire violence arose when the first proto-unions were forming and when the first miners' union was destroyed. He then examined each of the murders to show that the victims were mostly due to personal grudges, ethnic rivalry, or just plain banditry. Based on this foundation of skepticism that the Mollys were a structured conspiracy in America, Kenny then studies the Pinkertons and their persecution of the Mollys. Leaders in the Irish community were especially targeted because they rallied opposition to the Reading Railroad and the mine owners. Kenny persuasively argues that the Molly trials were sham trials, and that some of the convictions were vacated a century after their executions. A more detailed analysis of the trials would have been helpful. Otherwise, this is a very good study of early labor-management relations in 19th Century America. Fascinating reading.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Arminius

    This is the definitive Molly Maguire book. It covers all aspects from racism, abhorrent working conditions, to the politics of the day. It gives a fair view of events rather than the socialistic view that Anthony Bimba gave in his book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Scott Pomfret

    Historian Kevin Kenney reexamines the mythology of the notoriously violent "secret society" of Irish Americans from western Ireland who committed a handful of murders over fifteen years from the Civil War to 1875 in the coal mining counties of Pennsylvania. Kenney does not attempt to deny "Molly Maguirism" existed, and that its participants operated out of bars and lodges of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. However, he deftly contextualizes this violent activity (which was not nearly so widespre Historian Kevin Kenney reexamines the mythology of the notoriously violent "secret society" of Irish Americans from western Ireland who committed a handful of murders over fifteen years from the Civil War to 1875 in the coal mining counties of Pennsylvania. Kenney does not attempt to deny "Molly Maguirism" existed, and that its participants operated out of bars and lodges of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. However, he deftly contextualizes this violent activity (which was not nearly so widespread as the mythology suggests) against relations between labor and capital in the coal mines, so that the violence is seen as an expression of labor's resistance (especially after the dominant union failed in 1875) when other more peaceful avenues were blocked. Capital here gets rough treatment from Kenney. Indeed, he describes in detail how the president of the monopolistic Reading Railroad not only hires the Pinkerton detectives and private police that arrests the Mollies, he also serves as the prosecutor at their trial. That the trials were grossly unfair (Irish Americans excluded from juries, liars put on the stand, the Ancient Order of Hibernians described as synonymous with Molly Maguirish) is clear from Kenney's account. What is most interesting is Kenney's analysis as to how the idea of the Molly Maguires was put to nativist and anti-labor political uses. It sounds very much like the use to which the term "Antifa" is put in modern times. Neither is truly an "organization" in any sense of the word (especially when compared to the then-existing labor unions); both "Molly Maguire" and "Antifa" are rather convenient tropes and mythologies, which ignore context, are selective about facts, and create good versus evil stories that belie reality. My quibble with the book is that the first third is greatly repetitive and feels like a journal article expanded to fill a book's covers. Kenney himself is able to sum up the material in his conclusion in about four paragraphs.

  6. 5 out of 5

    Wesley Fox

    This is one of the few books I could find on the Molly Maguires, a violent Irish secret society originating in the poorest parts of northern Ireland in the 18th century and then emerging again in the coal mining country of Pennsylvania just after the Civil War. This book is a well-documented, objective, empirical look at this mysterious group and tries to put together an honest truthful account. The author is not a natural storyteller nor did he do much to maintain the non-academic reader's atte This is one of the few books I could find on the Molly Maguires, a violent Irish secret society originating in the poorest parts of northern Ireland in the 18th century and then emerging again in the coal mining country of Pennsylvania just after the Civil War. This book is a well-documented, objective, empirical look at this mysterious group and tries to put together an honest truthful account. The author is not a natural storyteller nor did he do much to maintain the non-academic reader's attention. It is a dry read that lacks flow and tends to belabor the same points over and over. Be prepared for a tough march. There are also plenty of places you can skim. My interest on the subject originated from rumors that one of my ancestors was a Molly Maguire and participated in the labor violence back in Pennsylvania. I wanted to learn more about the Irish part of my family and this book definitely helped fill in a lot of detail into what they went through and why they came into the 20th century tough-minded, cynical, and bitter toward the Catholic Church and big business politicians. Family and community mattered more than any sense of national identity. Still not sure my ancestors actually killed anyone. The surname does not match up with any of the known killers documented in the book. Worth the read for me personally, but Kenney is more of an academic author and lacks ability to write for a broader audience.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Susan

    This book was really well written. The author does not side-step the violence involved in this region and the era but he addresses so many of the misconceptions and prejudicial ideas behind this. I appreciated his explanation behind why the Mollies acted the way they did and the way they were railroaded (no pun intended) was heartbreaking. I learned a lot from this book. While the research was clear and scholarly, Kenney's writing style was engaging and kept my interest! Thank you Mr. Kenney. This book was really well written. The author does not side-step the violence involved in this region and the era but he addresses so many of the misconceptions and prejudicial ideas behind this. I appreciated his explanation behind why the Mollies acted the way they did and the way they were railroaded (no pun intended) was heartbreaking. I learned a lot from this book. While the research was clear and scholarly, Kenney's writing style was engaging and kept my interest! Thank you Mr. Kenney.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Zara Tickner

    Very interesting, very dense. Not used to reading academic material, but I loved learning about the history of my hometown!

  9. 4 out of 5

    Bob

    Highly detailed, well researched. There was far more to the Molly Maguires than their quest for fair treatment of coal miners. They were part vigilante, part terrorist, part a lot of other things. Their central theme seems to have been protection of the rights of Irish people, when forced off their land or when working under brutal mine owners. Looking at their story, from a distance of many decades and from a position of NOT living in utter poverty, I can see how history views the Molly Maguires Highly detailed, well researched. There was far more to the Molly Maguires than their quest for fair treatment of coal miners. They were part vigilante, part terrorist, part a lot of other things. Their central theme seems to have been protection of the rights of Irish people, when forced off their land or when working under brutal mine owners. Looking at their story, from a distance of many decades and from a position of NOT living in utter poverty, I can see how history views the Molly Maguires with an element of disdain. Or at least with great mistrust. Yet, had I been in their position, I would have seen things the same way as those who joined that group.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Rick

    I have little respect for the Molly Maguires and their brand of violent retributive "rough Justice" in the 19th century mining regions. They were borderline terrorists. In a way they undermined (pun intended) the work of legitimate unions. But it's important to understand them, where they came from, and why they behaved the way they did. This book does that. I have little respect for the Molly Maguires and their brand of violent retributive "rough Justice" in the 19th century mining regions. They were borderline terrorists. In a way they undermined (pun intended) the work of legitimate unions. But it's important to understand them, where they came from, and why they behaved the way they did. This book does that.

  11. 5 out of 5

    Amber

    This book is good for anyone who is interested in Irish history. However the author does make note that there was no evidence to really go off of. Instead he makes use of census data and testimonies at the trials.

  12. 4 out of 5

    seemsbleak

    My favorite part was when Kenny said "understanding [something academic] is essential to make sense of the Molly Maguires." yeah. My favorite part was when Kenny said "understanding [something academic] is essential to make sense of the Molly Maguires." yeah.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Molly

  14. 5 out of 5

    Zulfiqar

  15. 4 out of 5

    Ed

  16. 4 out of 5

    Bridget

  17. 5 out of 5

    Erin Coyle

  18. 4 out of 5

    Patrick

  19. 5 out of 5

    Andrew Marc

  20. 4 out of 5

    Cyrus

  21. 4 out of 5

    N. Lafave

  22. 5 out of 5

    Ryan

  23. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth

  24. 4 out of 5

    Ann Conway

  25. 5 out of 5

    Elizabeth Jaeger

  26. 5 out of 5

    Kevin

  27. 5 out of 5

    Christine

  28. 4 out of 5

    Don Keninitz

  29. 4 out of 5

    Quincy Lehr

  30. 5 out of 5

    Glen

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