The Molly Maguires

In 1970, my mother asked me to accompany her to see the movie The Molly Maguires, featuring Sean Connery who played the character of John Kehoe, “The King of the Mollies”.  It had been almost 100 years since the Reading Railroad, which owned substantial interests in coal mines as well as railroads, employed its private Coal and Iron Police and the Pinkerton Detective Agency to crush labor agitators among the oppressed Irish coal miners in Pennsylvania.  There was often trouble in the coalfields.  Irish miners had no rights.  Attempts to organize and strikes were crushed by violence and starvation.

The Reading Railroad corrupted the criminal justice system in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, supplanting the local authorities.  The Railroad, a private business, “investigated” alleged crimes with its private police force and prosecuted criminal cases itself.  It rallied ethnic and religious hate against Irish Catholics to obtain convictions and hung twenty Irishmen, including Sean Connery’s character John Kehoe.

Kehoe’s lawyer was my mother’s great uncle, Martin L’Velle, and he was no push over.  L’Velle was sergeant major of his infantry regiment in the Army of the Potomac and he won a battlefield promotion to lieutenant before the Confederate surrender at Appomattox Court House.  It did not matter.  The Reading Railroad rigged the system against the Irish coal miners so Kehoe and nineteen other Irishmen died on the gallows. Carbon County Pennsylvania judge, John P. Lavelle (no relation to Martin L’Velle) condemned the corruption of the criminal justice system writing, long after the events, that:

“The Molly Maguire trials were a surrender of state sovereignty. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency. A private police force arrested the alleged defenders, and private attorneys for the coal companies prosecuted them. The state provided only the courtroom and the gallows.”

A century after John Kehoe was hung, Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp, gave the final and posthumous victory to John Kehoe and his lawyer my great great uncle Martin L’Velle .  Kehoe was pardoned.  The governor remarked that the Molly Maguires "were martyrs to labor and heroes in the struggle to establish a union and fair treatment for workers.  It is impossible for us to imagine the plight of the 19th Century miners in Pennsylvania's anthracite region and that it was Kehoe's popularity among the miners that led [the Reading Railroad] to fear, despise and ultimately destroy him".

Martin L’Velle is the first lawyer in my family in America but since his time there have been many others.  My cousin Francis McGill graduated from law school in 1956 and there is an endowed scholarship at Villanova Law School in his name. My brother Raymond graduated from law school in 1965.  After his service in the Marine Corps in World War II, my uncle Joseph Burke practiced law in Schuylkill County Pennsylvania.  His father, my grandfather, Patrick Henry (PH) Burke registered as a student of the law in 1899 and was admitted to practice in 1906.  He practiced law in Shenandoah Pennsylvania, where most of the scenes in The Molly Maguires took place.  PH’s older brother Martin was admitted to practice in 1892.   There are very memorable examples in American history of how lawyering was a way up and out of poverty and misery and so it was in my family.

PH, my grandfather, did not have a college education and he did not go to law school.  After elementary school, he got his higher education in the coal mines in the late 1800s.  As a breaker boy, PH worked long hours, six days a week, in very unhealthy conditions, picking slate from the coal as it speed down the chutes under his legs.   He dug himself out of these miserable conditions to become a lawyer and eventually became the president of the Miners National Bank of Shenandoah Pennsylvania.  

I became a lawyer in 1973, almost one hundred years after the events portrayed by Sean Connery in The Molly Maguires.  I am continuing the line begun by Martin L’Velle.  After me, there have been many more lawyers in my extended family.  Neither of our children are lawyers but our son-in-law Richard Parry is admitted to practice in the United Kingdom, in Grand Cayman and in California.  

I am proud of my family’s lawyer predecessors and of all of the many lawyers in my family who are practicing law today.  I am grateful for my career, my place in the line of lawyers going back to Marin L’Velle and the Molly Maguires.  I recognize the privilege that I live in a land, with all of its imperfections, that is still striving for a more perfect justice, under the law.

I want to thank our readers for the self-indulgence and the diversion of this personal reminiscence and I hope that you will share a little of the joy in my remembering.

Content prepared by Edmond McGill. © Edmond McGill, 2017


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