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[photo] Carbon County Jail
Photograph courtesy of The Old Jail Museum

[photo]
James McParlan (1844-1919), Pinkerton detective, infiltrated the Molly Maguires
Photo from wikipedia.org, in the public domain

The Carbon County Jail in historic Mauch Chunk is an excellent example of 19th-century prison construction, as well as a reminder of the 19th-century labor-management conflicts in the Pennsylvania anthracite coal region. Designed and built from 1869 to 1870, the jail is a two-story rusticated stone building with thick, massive walls and a tower. The jail could hold 29 prisoners. In 1875, the jail was crowded with miners, either Irish-born or the sons of Irish immigrants, who were accused of a series of murders on behalf of what the mine owners, railroad men, the prosecutors, anti-labor and anti-Catholic nativists, and the press described as an ominous terrorist conspiracy—the Molly Maguires.

Mauch Chunk (today Jim Thorpe) was a commercial and transport center for the coal region, and therefore became a center of efforts at organizing mine workers. The Irish immigrants who settled in the coal regions of Pennsylvania faced economic and social discrimination. To help fight discrimination and advocate for better working conditions, they turned to a fraternal, self-help organization, the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), and to an early trade union, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. But a distinct minority of miners also turned to an older, historic pattern of collective communal violence brought from their Irish homeland. In Ireland in the 18th and 19th centuries, this violence was directed against rural landlords and their agents, policemen and judges. In Pennsylvania, this pattern was repeated, but in an area undergoing rapid, modern industrialization, and the violence was directed towards mine owners, superintendents, policemen, justices of the peace, and skilled British miners (who were paid more than the unskilled Irish laborers). In the 1860s and 1870s, 16 men were assassinated, most of them mine officials. The Irish miners who turned to violence were called Molly Maguires, taking their name from the legendary widow Molly Maguire, said to have led anti-landlord resistance in the 1840s.

The violence in the anthracite coal fields occurred during a period when the railroads and coal companies were consolidating their hold on the industry, depressing miners' wages, and working to destroy the coal miners union. While union leaders remained opposed to violence, some miners (which included some union members) turned to intimidation, violence, riot and assassination. The coal interests responded by forming their own private police force and hiring the private Pinkerton Detective Agency to investigate the miners. James McParlan, a Pinkerton detective hired by the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad, infiltrated the Molly Maguires and gathered evidence that led to the convictions and execution of 20 men for murder, and prison sentences for 19 others. The sensational trials were held in Pottsville, the county seat of Schuylkill, and in Mauch Chunk where the accused were held in the Carbon County Jail. Of the twenty convicted Molly Maguires, seven men were hanged at the Carbon County Jail, including Alexander Campbell (an AOH treasurer), John “Yellow Jack” Donohue, Thomas Fisher, Michael Doyle and Edward Kelly, all members of the AOH, and James McDonnell and Charles Sharp(e), while the other men were hanged in Pottsville.

The trials of the Molly Maguires, which received incendiary and biased press coverage, were patently unfair: prosecuting attorneys worked for the railroad or mining companies (not the state); Irish Catholics were not allowed to serve on the juries; some juries consisted primarily of German-speakers who knew little or no English; and in a number of trials, the sole prosecuting evidence came either from James McParlan, who admitted to attending meetings where assassinations were planned, but did not warn the intended victims, or from men who after being convicted of murder, became prosecution witnesses in order to lessen their sentences. The convictions and death sentences crushed the Molly Maguires and the cause of organized labor suffered as a result of the trials and the identification of the Molly Maguires with the mine union movement.

The Carbon County Jail is located at 128 Broadway St., in Jim Thorpe. Now the Old Jail Museum and Heritage Center, the museum is open daily Memorial Day through Labor Day, closed Wednesday; weekends only in September and October. Tours are offered every 20 minutes from 12:00pm to 4:30pm, and last approximately 45 minutes. There is an admission fee. Please call 570-325-5259 for further information.

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