Franklin B. Gowen - Running The Reading Railroad - "Long Strike" and Mollie Maguires

"Long Strike" and Mollie Maguires

The "Gowen Compromise" of 1870 did not end strife over wages and other conditions in the coal region. Neither did the imposition of wages through the anthracite combination's exerting control over coal prices at market. Neither, to be certain, were mining disputes the beginning or end of labor upheavals in America in the 1870s.

From his first tangles with the Workingmen's Benevolent Association through the end of his life Franklin Gowen was a bitter and outspoken opponent of organized labor, which was still struggling to get on its feet. His long-term campaign to eliminate the WBA dovetailed into a series of murder trials in two counties—Schuylkill and neighboring Carbon—resulting in 19 hangings. His efforts against the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers—especially a striking local in Reading, Pennsylvania—figured significantly in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877; they will be discussed in the following section.

As noted above, in the 1871 legislative investigation of coal field agitations and the Reading Railroad, Gowen portrayed the WBA as having at its core a murderous, secret association. In his 1875 testimony before another investigative committee, he characterized this same core of the union as "Communists."

In September 1873, the failure of Jay Cooke & Co. precipitated first the Panic of 1873 and in its wake the worst U.S. financial depression up to that time, which resonated with the concurrent transatlantic Long Depression. Initially, northeastern U.S. anthracite markets were not badly affected, largely due to controls put in place by Gowen's coal pool. In 1874, in addition to shoring up this coal pool's internal checks to make sure all members played by the rules, Gowen also organized Schuylkill County's independent coal operators into the Schuylkill Coal Exchange. By autumn 1874 it was common knowledge that these operators (including the Coal & Iron Co.) were intent upon precipitating a ruinous miners' strike by which to destroy the WBA (by this time renamed the Miners and Laborers Benevolent Association, or M&LBA). Such a strike was indeed brought about by severe slashes in wages offered to miners (20% cut) and mine laborers (10% cut). Known as the "Long Strike", the work stoppage lasted through June 1875, ending in the collapse of the union.

Meanwhile, in October 1873, Gowen met in Philadelphia with Allan Pinkerton. Pinkerton's published account of the meeting depicts Gowen laying out in some detail the existence, background and nature of a criminal secret society called Mollie Maguires, transplanted from Ireland to the coal region of Pennsylvania.

Pinkerton's detective agency was already an established presence in the coal fields, having been active supervising the Coal and Iron Police, a private police force authorized by the state of Pennsylvania in 1865, paid for by railroad, mining and iron interests. Pinkerton was glad to take on additional work for the Reading Railroad.

Most famously, one of his detectives, James McParland, infiltrated what he testified was the Mollies' innermost circle and provided, as a surprise witness, what proved to be damning evidence in several murder trials.

A series of murders July and September 1875, following the breakdown of the WBA and its Long Strike, led to several arrests over the next year of men identified as Mollie Maguires. Arrests, trials, convictions and hangings of Mollie Maguires occurred in the adjoining counties of Schuylkill and Carbon, in 1876–1878. Irish Catholics were excluded from juries. Gowen himself acted as special prosecutor in more than one trial in Schuylkill, most notably in 1876 at that of John "Black Jack" Kehoe, whom he characterized in his summation as "chief conspirator, murderer, and villain" and "with having made money by his traffic in the souls of his fellow-men." In this same summation he speculated that had detective McParland had one more year to complete his undercover investigation, the jury "would have had the pleasure ... of hanging some men who are not citizens of Schuylkill county," such as "the head of this order at Pittsburg, and ... its head in New York"; and suggested further that the ultimate source and directive force behind the secret order would have been found in England, Ireland and Scotland. Kehoe was initially tried and convicted of conspiracy, and subsequently of a murder that had occurred during Gowen's term as District Attorney—despite another man's signed admission of guilt for the murder. Kehoe was posthumously pardoned by Pennsylvania's governor in 1979.

Controversial at the time, circumstances and events surrounding both the Long Strike and the Mollie Maguire prosecutions and hangings have grown even more so with the passage of time. Gowen's multi-faceted role in particular—from his 1871 and 1875 testimonies positing a Mollie-like criminal enterprise at the heart of the WBA, which he also rhetorically linked to Communism; to the coincidental timing of the hopeless Long Strike precipitated by the Schuylkill Coal Exchange that Gowen had organized, on one hand, and his bankrolling the undercover anti-Mollie machinations, on the other; plus partially substantiated claims that McParland or other Pinkertons essentially on the Reading Railroad payroll instigated both Mollie-like activities and anti-Mollie vigilantism—has eluded historical consensus.

Read more about this topic:  Franklin B. Gowen, Running The Reading Railroad

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