Death Warrant for John J. Kehoe November 18, 1878
The case of John J. ("Black Jack") Kehoe brings into focus several serious problems in nineteenth century American history. Kehoe was an Irish Catholic who owned a bar at a time when many Americans opposed both. He lived in the anthracite (hard) coal region of east central Pennsylvania that was dominated by "big businessmen" who owned the mines and employed English and Welsh as foremen and the Irish as laborers. His neighbors lived and worked in miserable conditions. He and some other Irish coal miners opposed the United States government's efforts to draft his neighbors in the Union army, believing that the Civil War was a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight." The Union victory in the Civil War seemed to people like Kehoe to strengthen the industrialists who did whatever they could to prevent laborers from joining together to improve their situation. Kehoe incurred the wrath of Franklin B. Gowen, president of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, by supporting the Workingmen's Benevolent Association, the anthracite miner's union.
The basic facts of the case are clear. As the "Death Warrant" indicates, Governor John F. Hartranft ordered the execution of John Kehoe. In l877, he had been tried by the "Court of Oyer and Terminer," a "court of criminal jurisdiction" and was found guilty of the murder of Frank W.S. Langdon, a mine foreman, fifteen years earlier. He was sentenced to death by hanging. Kehoe's attorney appealed the decision to the State Supreme Court, which supported the lower court. Governor Hartranft signed Kehoe's death warrant in February 1878. As a last resort Kehoe's attorney issued three pleas for clemency to the Pardon Board, which also denied his appeals. The Governor eventually signed a second death warrant on November 18, 1878. Kehoe was executed before a large crowd in Pottsville on December l8, l878.
The prosecution's case revolved around an incident that it claimed occurred in l862. In Audenried, Carbon County, Pennsylvania, at an Independence Day celebration, several coal miners considered members of a group called the Molly Maguires, expressed their opposition to the war. Kehoe allegedly participated by spitting on the American flag. Langdon was said to have rebuked him, whereupon Kehoe and others were charged with threatening to kill him. Not long afterward, Langdon was attacked. He died a short time later.
The history of the Mollies is shrouded in secrecy and obscured in legend. If there were such an organization, it may have been descended from groups in Ireland who took revenge upon the agents for their absentee English landlords who raised rents and then evicted them. One of the groups took the name of a presumed heroine--Molly Maguire. When violence erupted in the "coal region" during the Civil War, local officials attributed it to the Molly Maguires. According to the Miners' Journal, of l867, there were 52 murders in Schuylkill County between l863 and l867. Many victims were the American counterparts of those who had oppressed the Irish in their homelands, especially the English and Welsh mine and colliery bosses. Nevertheless the public was outraged. By l864, the alleged Mollies had gained such notoriety that the Catholic Archbishop of the Philadelphia Dioceses issued a pastoral letter condemning them. Possibly because the assailants cared for each other, prosecutors seldom secured convictions. One frustrated Schuylkill County prosecutor during this period was Franklin B. Gowan.
When Gowan became president of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company that owned many of the coal fields, he equated the Mollies with the Workingmen's Benevolent Association. He determined to break both. He hired a detective from the Pinkerton agency, James McParlan to infiltrate an Irish society called the Ancient Order of Hibernians that he considered a front for the Mollies. McParlan therefore gained evidence to use against the Mollies.
It has been charged that Gowan secured not only his own evidence but also his own judge, a prosecutor, witnesses, and juries. His influence might have extended even farther up the state and local political hierarchy. Twenty alleged Mollies were convicted eventually and hanged in Pottsville and Mauch Chunk (now Jim Thorpe).
To Gowan, Kehoe was the "King of the Mollies." He was more than a hotel keeper and coal miner; he was a local leader of the ancient Order of Hibernians and was at least somewhat influential in Pennsylvania politics in which he may have blocked Gowen's ambitions. Probably even more irritating to Gowen was Kehoe's support of the miners in the coal strikes of the early l870s. Kehoe became a marked man. Despite the lack of testimony that placed Kehoe at the scene of the attack on Langdon, and using as evidence only the threat that Kehoe was said to have exclaimed, Kehoe was convicted.
Governor Hartranft hesitated to implement the sentence, explaining that he thought Kehoe should be punished but not hanged. In a letter to the state's attorney general, requesting an official definition of his power to change the sentence, he noted that men more directly involved in the attack on Langdon were convicted only of second, not first, degree murder. He noted also that Kehoe's opponents had charged him with crimes for which he had never been indicted in order to prejudice the public against him, and that prosecutors had "pushed technicalities to the extreme to secure a conviction and execution for a crime of fifteen years standing." He pointed out also that "two of the Board of Pardons had voted to commute and that at one time, a majority, if not all, of the members of the Board had entertained serious doubts of the grade of the offence…." Unfortunately for Kehoe, the Attorney General gave as his interpretation of Pennsylvania's Constitution of 1873 that upon the refusal of the Board of Pardons to recommend commutation or pardon, the Governor's legal authority was limited to setting the date for the execution. Hartranft waited until after the fall election and then signed a second death warrant. Historian Harold Aurand charged that the Molly Maguire trials constituted "one of most outstanding surrenders of sovereignty in American history." The coal company's employees conducted the investigation, identified the "alleged offenders," and prosecuted them. "The state provided only the courtroom and the hangman." Kehoe died on the gallows proclaiming his innocence.
Justice was done posthumously. Kehoe's great grandson refused to accept the verdict and worked tirelessly to have Kehoe's name cleared. In early January of l979, Governor Milton J. Shapp issued a full pardon to John J. Kehoe.