June 21, 2017 marks the 140th anniversary of the mass hanging in Pottsville of the six men labelled as ringleaders of the Mollie Maguires. While it was the largest mass execution in Pennsylvania’s history, it was not the largest mass execution in American history. That ignominious distinction goes to the execution of the 38 Dakota Sioux in 1862 at Mankato, Minnesota.
Six men were hanged on June 21, 1877. Thomas Duffy, James Roarity, Hugh McGeehan, James Boyle and James Carrol were executed for the murder of Benjamin F. Yost and Thomas Munley was executed for the killing of Thomas Sanger of Raven Run. The men in Pottsville were hanged in groups of two. The local hangings coincided with hangings of Michael Doyle, Edward Kelly and Alexander Campbell in neighboring Mauch Chunk in Carbon County for the murder of John P. Jones and hanging of John “Yellow Jack” Donahue for the murder of Morgan Powell. Also, In Wilkes-Barre Andrew Lenahan was hanged alone for the murder of Captain John Reiley on the same day. It was such a busy day for executioners in Northeast Pennsylvania that it is often referred to by many as “the Day of the Rope.”
This anniversary should not be a time to open up old wounds by claiming that one side was entirely blameless and the other side entirely despicable. Benjamin Yost, a Tamaqua patrolman, certainly did not deserve to be shot down as he climbed a ladder to extinguish a street light during his normal rounds of duty. “Blue Lives Matter” is a phrase used today and it mattered in the 19th century also. Most of us would agree with its meaning. Ben Yost was a policeman who died doing his job. However, those arrested for the crimes committed deserved due process under the law and a fair trial, which most historians agree did not happen.
We cannot undo the past but we can try to avoid repeating mistakes. The Mollie saga brings up soul-searching questions that still resonate today. Do private corporations hold too much power in the country? Under what circumstances do people have the right to take the law into their own hands? What about immigration and assimilation? Should even the death penalty be imposed in the 21st century, or is it cruel and unusual? If it is to be imposed, then under what circumstances should it be imposed? Do gangs or vigilantes ever serve a legitimate purpose? When should a criminal trial be moved to a different county? What moral obligations, in general, do we have towards prisoners and those accused of crimes? What is the proper response to domestic terrorism? How should exploitation of labor be handled? Are the judicial sentences harsher on minorities? What about gun control? Wow, historical events really get one’s mind working fast trying to make sense of distant mistakes to create a better present and future for our children and grandchildren. That is only one reason history is so important.
Yes, the morbid stories of executions still intrigue the historically curious today, be in it Salem, Massachusetts or Pottsville, Pennsylvania. For more about this period of our history, please visit the Schuylkill County Historical Society as well as visiting some of the county taverns, cemeteries and coal patches that played a role in the Mollie Maguire era.
In closing, the Society is extremely pleased to announce to return of Tom Dempsey as a volunteer who will take the lead on creating a permanent Exhibit on this fascinating period of County history. He is the Society’s expert on Mollie History. Welcome back Tom Dempsey!