The most courageous and troublesome of the early labor unionist in the United States sprung from the coal mines, and wherever you stand on unions generally these days, in those days conditions were hellish and in desperate need of reform. For one thing, one of the few "benefits" the widow of a worker killed in a mine was guaranteed was if her husband were killed during the workday, his body would be unceremoniously dumped on her porch that evening, and that she would be expected to move out of the company owned house immediately thereafter. Such a widow might have been named Molly Maguire, and those men who swore to protect her from the cruelty of the mine owners took her name for their underground…shall we say, "activism." Or, these Molly Maguires may have been transported from Ireland under the guise of The Ancient Order of the Hibernians to continue in their informal war against England (and liberally directed at others) in the US. To what extent the Molly Maguires were principled unionists fighting corrupt and grossly unfair corporate interests, or whether they were terrorist thugs flaunting lawful authority, will probably never be known. In the end, the Mollies were dismantled but unions were established, and blood flowed freely in eastern Pennsylvania in the 1860s and 70s.

Indisputably, on June 21, 1877, four men allegedly associated with the Molly Maguires were hung in the Carbon County Prison (in the contemporary town of Jim Thorpe, PA) having been found guilty of murdering two mine operatives. The problem was that the investigation and prosecution, even the arrests, were carried out by representatives of the mine owners. The Pinkerton Agency, the same organization that hunted Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, was employed to infiltrate and destroy the Molly Maguires and other pro-union groups. Their most successful agent spent 44 months undercover with the Mollies, and due largely to his efforts, 20 of their number were eventually charged and executed under Pennsylvania law.

Whether or not the four men were guilty of the murders, their trial was grossly unfair. Not only was all the evidence collected and presented by the Pinkerton Agency, the judge had a pronounced anti-Molly bias, and the jury--while excluding Irish Catholics--included non-English speaking, Protestant, German immigrants, and Welsh immigrants who had notorious distain for their Irish-American neighbors.

Alexander Campbell

The Jim Thorpe Jail

Cell 17--The Handprint is that smudge on the upper right hand side (sorry, it was the best pic I could find)

On his way to the gallows, Alexander Campbell, a bodymaster or recruiter for the Molly Maguires, said, "I am innocent, I was nowhere near the scene of the crime." Then he slapped his hand against the wall of his cell, and continued, "There is proof of my words. That mark of mine will never be wiped out. It will remain forever to shame the county for hanging an innocent man."

And it has remained, though it has been repeatedly scrubbed and painted over. In 1930, a local sheriff named Biegler got so exasperated with the handprint and its attendant notoriety that he had the entire wall knocked out and replaced. The handprint reappeared on the new wall in the same place the very next day. In recent years, a forensic scientist from George Washington University named James Starrs and a police chemist from Maryland named Jeff Kercheval performed a professional analysis of the phenomenon. Though they did "everything short of painting over the print or literally taking it off the wall," according to Starrs, they found no paints or pigments or oils that would explain why the handprint exists, much less why it persists to this day.

The jail was closed in 1995, then reopened as a museum on the 120th anniversary of the hangings with a memorial mass dedicated to the memory of the four men. The handprint in cell 17 is a chief attraction.

Written by Sharon C. McGovern

From Vol. 33
Back to The Cobra's Ghost

For More Information about the Handprint
Visit Jim Thorpe
Undermining the Molly Maguires
The Pinkerton Agency vs. The Molly Maguires