From NY Times
ONE of the ugliest chapters in the history of American labor is the story of the Pennsylvania coal mines in the 1870's. Child labor, starvation wages which could be spent only at company stores, racial discrimination (chiefly against the Irish), rule by company police and every other tyrannous tactic of unregulated management were regularly employed by the mines and the railroads that owned them. The Irish retaliated with their own kind of terror, to the extent that murders of English and Welsh bosses, of policemen and even of other Irishmen were commonplaces in the Schuylkill Valley.
This much everyone will agree upon, but the most melodramatic aspect of this historical chapter remains controversial. In 1873 Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Reading Railroad, hired the Pinkerton Agency; and Allan Pinkerton sent into the mining district his operative James McParlan, a fast man with a drink, a song, a jig or a fist who soon made himself popular among the Schuylkill Irish. The murders went on, and in 1875 Gowen pounced. As special prosecutor, he convicted and hanged 20 Irishmen, chiefly on the evidence of McParian. In his brilliant and dramatic speech at the first trial, he made clear his belief, substantiated by McParlan, that there existed, under the guise of the elsewhere respectable Ancient Order of Hibernians, a secret terrorist society known as the Molly Maguires, dedicated to murder. From then on it needed hardly more than the identification of a defendant as a Molly (usually by McParlan) to secure a verdiet of guilty.
“UNLESS you. have lived in the hard coal regions of Pennvania,” Lewis writes, “it is difficult to conceive of the power enjoyed by the Molly Maguires. As early as 1862, this societty was so strong that it was able to defy the President of the United States, who retreated rather than subject two regiments of Army regulars to the bloodshed their appearance in Cass Township, fountainhead of the Mollies, would have caused.”
In 1877 Allan Pinkerton (or more probably a ghost writer) set down McParlan's perilous adventures in infiltrating this society in “The Molly Maguires and the Detectives,” a long and almost impenetrable work hovering between fact and fiction, which Conan Doyle superbly shaped and condensed into “The Valley of Fear.” From then till now the argument has
In the only impartial work on the subject that I know of, Marvin W. Schiegel's “Ruler of the Reading: The Life of Franklin B. Gowen” (1947), the assistant state historian of Pennsylvania reached the conclusion that “on the face of the evidence the facts hardly correspond with [Gowen's] tradition” and that “it scarcely seems necessary to assume the existence of a secret society in order to account for conditions in the Schuylkill region.”
Arthur Levais's “Lament” marks an unquestioning return to the version of Gowen and Pinkerton, with McParlan as hero and a careful suppression . of any evidence that his role was ever less than admirable. It makes an exciting thriller in this form (though Doyle told it better); but it is not especially persuasive as history, particularly since the principal documentation is a long narrative which McParlan told to somebody's grandfather 50 years ago.
As Schlegel notes, “Even today men and women [in the region] still divide by race and class on the Mollies as sharply and as vigorously as they did in 1876.” Mr. Lewis, in the extensive researches listed in his foreword, has obviously listened to only one side of the division, and thereby produced an interesting contribution to Pennsylvania's folklore rather than to her history. The book contains no bibliography—and badly needs one, since the author is capable of giving the same book different titles on different pages, or citing Pinkerton's quasi‐novel as “his autobiography.”