The last time an American tycoon exploited terrorism
We’re in new terrorism panic, with polls showing Americans’ fear of terror attacks hitting levels not seen since right after 9/11.
And those terrorism fears are being exploited by a flamboyant billionaire businessman, conflated with nativist anxieties over Mexican immigrants and Syrian refugees.
It seems to be an American tradition, these plot elements combining together: Terrorism panic and xenophobia, exploited by a celebrated business tycoon for his own gain. The clearest — and ugliest — example of this was the Molly Maguires terrorism panic that swept America the 1870s: an alleged secret international Irish Catholic conspiracy to terrorize and murder Americans, and spread mayhem across the country in order to destroy our cherished way of life.
The man who whipped up and exploited the Molly Maguires panic for his own ambitious purposes was a young railroad tycoon named Frank Gowen. Forgotten today, but in the 1870s, Gowen was one of the most famous and upwardly-mobile robber barons: president of the world’s first corporate conglomerate, Philadelphia & Reading Railroad (better known by Monopoly fans as just the Reading Railroad), which, under Gowen in the early 1870s, was considered one of the largest companies in the world, valued at some $170 million.
Gowen’s power was such that he was able to fix the Pennsylvania legislature to pass laws giving his railroad company the right to raise a fully deputized and armed private police force, which was used to violently destroy labor union organizers. Gowen then had himself named as chief prosecutor in the capital trials of labor activists, while feeding the national media stories about an international Irish Catholic terrorism conspiracy. Under that panic, Gowen succeeded in hanging 19 Irish Catholics, destroying the labor union, and giving his railroad conglomerate complete control over setting the price of coal and the price of the labor that mined the coal.
There have been some articles equating the xenophobia and hysteria over Syrian refugees today with anti-Irish and anti-Jewish bigotry of the past, but what makes the Molly Maguires story relevant is that it goes deeper than mere animalistic bigotry and xenophobia, which we all know is bad — and gets instead into the deeper and darker politics of terrorism hysteria, at a time of exploding wealth inequalities, mass migrations, and technological revolution.
The Philadelphia & Reading Railroad was one of the first railway lines built in the US, starting in the early 1830s, to transport the anthracite coal from eastern Pennsylvania’s coal region, to Philadelphia on the southeast corner of Pennsylvania. The alleged Molly Maguires conspiracy was centered in Schuylkill County (pronounced “skoo-kl”), the center of the richest anthracite coal region in the world.
In the 1840s and 1850s, waves of immigrants came from British-ruled Ireland, which had just been decimated by the Great Famine, a laissez-faire inspired genocide that reduced the island’s population by a third —a million Irish starved to death even as the British landlords continued exporting Irish crops unabated; another two million Irish emigrated, many to America, where many found grueling work in the northeast Pennsylvania anthracite mines, working under the same ethnic tribe — Scots-Anglo Protestants — that ruled over Ireland.
The first printed reference to “Molly Maguires” in Schuylkill County appeared in the late-1850s, in the county’s main newspaper, Miner’s Journal, whose owner made the short intellectual journey from Whig to Nativist Know-Nothing to Republican Party supporter in the span of a decade. The publisher’s name was Benjamin Bannan, and his anti-Irish Catholic bigotry was as much ideological as it was tribal: He was deeply committed to the republican idea of “free labor” — a robust middle class made up of small-scale independent entrepreneurs, with social mobility based on merit and hard work at the center of it all. Schuylkill County’s anthracite mines had not yet been consolidated in the 1850s and 60s, so the newspaperman’s free-labor idyll seemed to be functioning all around him, as there were hundreds of small entrepreneur-operated mines, many of them owned by former miners. The “free labor” idea seemed to work here: You start off deep in the mine, you work your way up to overseer in one of the safer jobs on the surface, and eventually, you manage or own your own little anthracite mine.
But anti-Irish Catholic discrimination by the Welsh and English miners who were there first and who held the commanding jobs meant that no matter how long Irish Catholics worked at the bottom of the mining labor pyramid, they never advanced. There was no social mobility for Irish Catholic miners. This of course, upset Bannan’s neat mechanistic ideology of how the republic should function—so rather than blaming the flaw in his model on the model itself or on workplace discrimination, he did what a lot of people still do, and blamed it on the despised new immigrant group, with its alien religion and its alien habits. So Bannan’s newspaper attacked Irish Catholics for,
“their drunkenness and general waywardness, their poverty and laziness, their criminality and insanity, their undemocratic religion and their perverse insistence on taking the wrong side in the great moral crusades of the day....”
Put another way: Irish Catholics in the northern states voted for the Democratic Party, while the nativist anti-Catholics voted Whig, then Know-Nothing, and then Republican. Much like today’s xenophobic anxiety over Mexican immigrants swelling the ranks of the Democratic Party voting base, Nativist anti-Catholics saw Irish immigrants as altering the values of American culture partly because of their lazy Papist alien ways, and partly because they voted Democrat.
So when Democrats won the presidency in 1856, and the Pennsylvania governor’s race in 1857—with help from Schuylkill County’s overwhelmingly pro-Democratic Irish Catholic vote — the main newspaperman Bannan went FoxNews on the Irish and blamed the election results on Irish Catholic voter fraud. And to make the vote fraud more plausible and more menacing, Bannan’s newspaper claimed that the chief conspirators belonged “to the order of ‘Molly Maguires,’ a secret Roman Catholic association” which he said was based in Boston, and which controlled the Democratic Party from there. Bannan’s newspaper also accused the Democratic candidate for governor, William Packer, of being “supported by this Secret Roman Catholic Association.”
Later, Bannan’s newspaper would be the central media organ promoting the Molly Maguires terrorism hysteria, an hysteria picked up by the press across the country. But it’s instructive to note (for parallels today) that 150 years ago, another violent xenophobic terrorism hysteria was rooted in power-politics and culture politics, the accusation that the Irish were too culturally and religiously antithetical to America’s culture and republican ideals, and therefore posed an unalterable genetic threat. It’s a claim used often against Mexican immigration, and against Muslim immigration.
During the Civil War, when Lincoln instituted a draft and set up local county draft boards, the man named to head the Schuylkill County draft board was none other than Benjamin Bannan, the anti-Irish Catholic newspaperman. Naturally, most of those drafted out of Schuylkill County were Irish Catholics, sparking outrage and attacks on census takers, and mobs blocking railroad tracks to keep the largely Irish Catholic draftees from being taken away. Bannan used his newspaper to blame the backlash on “Molly Maguires” which, Bannan claimed, posed a greater threat than Confederate rebels, and which had a secret sleeper cell force of “3000 men” it could call up to threaten or attack anyone at anytime,
“If these high-handed outrages are permitted to go unchecked, property in the County will depreciate in value, and life will be more unsafe than it is among the savage guerrillas of the South.”
As demand for anthracite coal boomed during the Civil War, sporadic strikes for higher wages broke out in mines in Schuylkill County and nearby. But some of the largest local mine owners, such as Charlemagne Tower, also happened to be named Provost Marshal — essentially head of the military police, in charge of hunting down and rounding up draft resisters and evaders. Conveniently, these mine owners conflated labor activism with treason, and were able to bust up Irish Catholic organizing in the mines by shipping them out to war, and by smearing them as “Molly Maguire” revolutionaries out to subvert the Union.
One person who didn’t have to worry about the draft was Frank Gowen, who was in his mid-20s when the Civil War broke out. But Gowen was also very wealthy, one of the Schuylkill County’s most successful lawyers, scion of a wealthy Ulster Protestant immigrant family, and Schuylkill County district attorney during much of the Civil War. But the real reason he was able to evade the draft was the 1863 law allowing wealthy northern citizens to pay $300 to hire a “substitute” to serve for you in the Civil War—easily affordable for Gowen, prohibitive for the Irish Catholic immigrants. By contrast, laborers in the anthracite mines made anywhere from 6 to 12 dollars per week.
In fact just about every major businessman in the American Industrial Revolution bought their way out of the Civil War the same way as Gowen, despite being of fighting age: John D Rockefeller, Jay Gould, J.P. Morgan, Andrew Carnegie, Philip Armour and James Hill, who were all in their early 20s when Lincoln called on them to save the Union, all avoided serving; while Leland Stanford and Collis Huntington were both in their 30s when the war raged, and they too were able to dodge the draft.
When Thomas Mellon—founder of the Mellon Bank fortune—found out that one of his fighting-age sons was doing the unthinkable— joining the Union Army—he immediately telegraphed a letter forbidding his son from enlisting even in behind-the-lines duty, and offered a brutally instructive lesson on the meaning of patriotism for the one-percent:
“I had hoped my boy was going to make a smart, intelligent business man and was not such a goose as to be seduced from duty by the declamations of buncombed speeches. It is only greenhorns who enlist. You can learn nothing in the army. . . . Here there is no credit attached to going. All now stay if they can and go if they must. Those who are able to pay for substitutes, do so, and no discredit attaches. In time you will come to understand and believe that a man may be a patriot without risking his own life or sacrificing his health.
“There are plenty of other lives less valuable or others ready to serve for the love of serving.”
My how times have changed...
Which brings me back to Frank Gowen, who took advantage of the postwar turmoil in the anthracite coal industry to forge some big firsts in American industry: After the Civil War ended, Gowen became general counsel for the Reading Railroad, and then was named president in 1869, when Gowen was just 33 years old. Gowen saw the angles on the power that his railroad held over anthracite coal pricing and markets, and he schemed to roll up most of the region’s small-operator owned mines at the same time that a new and impressive young labor union for miners was gaining hold: the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association (WBA).
The WBA was better organized and more moderate in its demands than earlier failed unionizing attempts. Its leaders believed that labor and owners had mostly harmonious interests—stabilizing and raising the price of anthracite coal. That mean deals could be done with a shrewd tycoon who saw how this could work to his advantage.
On the other end of the bargaining table, Gowen organized the anthracite mine owners into what is considered perhaps the first industry pool in America: The Anthracite Board of Trade, which would agree on fixing the anthracite market by agreeing on how much each mine would produce, thereby limiting the supply and stabilizing the price. And as a union of employers, they were able to set wages with the union of employees. In 1870, the Gowen-led employers’ association signed a labor contract with the WBA, which by now represented 85 percent of Pennsylvania’s anthracite miners, setting the wages for the different jobs on the mines, and tying the wages to the price of anthracite—under the assumption that the price could only go up if all agreed to limit and control supply. It was the first ever signed agreement with a miners’ union in US history.
Once Gowen had the anthracite industry roughly organized under his sway, he lobbied and bribed Pennsylvania’s legislators into changing the laws so that railroads could also own the coal mines. Antitrust laws had barred that until Gowen went to Harrisburg with sacks of cash and his famous gifts of persuasion. With the law changed, Gowen quickly set about crushing, gobbling up, and vertically consolidating the anthracite coal mines under the Reading Railroad.
Squeezing the numerous small entrepreneurs was the easiest and quickest part. As soon as the labor agreement was in place, Gowen amassed a huge war chest to buy up the anthracite mines by taking out massive loans, with Morgan has Reading Railroad’s main creditor. Any small anthracite entrepreneur who refused to sell at Gowen’s price suddenly found that the cargo rate they paid to Gowen’s railroad tripled in price, or simply stopped transporting their anthracite altogether, due to “train shortages.” The small-owner mines had no power, without the ability to distribute their product. The power was in the hands of the railroads, as farmers and so many others across the country were starting to learn. Almost overnight, Gowen’s railroad conglomerate became the largest capitalized corporation in the world, owning two-thirds of the anthracite mines in the richest condensed anthracite region in the world.
But then came the Panic of 1873, and the floor fell out from under the anthracite market (and all other commodities). For Gowen, this turned out to be a blessing. It helped weaken mine owners who hadn’t yet sold out, and it weakened the labor union that he had helped empower, and whose wages he wanted to slash in order to pay back all the loans he took for his acquisitions. Under the terms of their contact, the unthinkable was happening—as anthracite prices collapsed, so did the miners’ pay, plunging from 30-50 percent or more.
As Gowen continued borrowing heavily to finance Reading’s acquisitions of the marketing end of the anthracite industry in Philadelphia and New York, he pressed hard on the WBA union in Schuylkill County to accept deeper cuts, but after accepting the first cuts, they finally reached a point where they refused to cut wages more. But Gowen had another trick up his sleeve.
After the Civil War, in the late 1860s, Pennsylvania passed a new law allowing private corporations to raise their own fully-deputized police forces, answerable not to the public, but to the corporation. Gowen created a notoriously brutal police force for the railroad’s anthracite subsidiary, known as the Coal & Iron Police of the Reading Railroad. Then in 1873, as the economic depression first set in and Gowen decided to break up the miners’ union, he hired on retainer the most notorious of all of America’s private police forces — the Pinkerton Detective Agency—to infiltrate the labor activists union with spies.
Gowen wanted to destroy the WBA trade union, but his problem was that although he got on reasonably fine with the union’s leadership, the leadership couldn’t overrule their own activist rank-and-file, which refused to cave in to Gowen’s wage-slashing demands. It was these Irish Catholic immigrant miners who were the problem, and they remained tight through their own community, particularly their churches, and the big Irish Catholic fraternal lodges of the day, called “Ancient Order of Hibernians” — a sort of Mason or Elks Club for working class Irish Catholic immigrants. From his experience as county DA and lawyer, Gowen knew that anti-Irish Catholic bigotry ran strong, and that the public had already been conditioned by the media to believe in secret violent Irish Catholic conspiracies, the Molly Maguires, to commit everything from voter fraud to random murder and terror, simply because they were wild Irishmen beholden to a Roman Caliphate rather than to the America of Anglo republicanism.
Pinkerton inserted a snitch named James McParlan into the Schuykill County mines, and he was soon accepted into the local Ancient Order of Hibernians lodge. For over two years, McParlan gained the labor activists’ confidence, acted as a provocateur, lied and invented crimes, and in other instances, organized crimes of his own that led to at least one or two murders, which he then used as evidence to condemn labor activists to death. In this way, a company-hired spy became the central witness in a series of capital murder cases prosecuted by the company’s president, under the power of company-owned police.
With so many forces — private police, spies, the squeeze of the economic depression — converging on the workers, Gowen presented the miners with another massive wage cut, and in January 1875, the miners put down their tools in what was called “The Long Strike”—lasting six months. Throughout the six months, without pay, the miners kept their discipline even as they were under growing violent attack from vigilante groups organized by Pinkerton and by the Coal & Iron Police.
By the end of the six month walkout, the striking miners were defeated. Gowen and the railroad had too much money to last it out, and the miners’ families were literally starving to death. They went back to work at whatever pay was offered. By the end of the “Long Strike,” in the summer of 1875, the WBA labor union was utterly destroyed. As one miner later described it:
“How bitter, how very humiliating was the defeat sustained by the miners in 1875 is hard to impress upon those who did not experience it. The pain of having to yield was only exceeded by the hunger and suffering produced by a struggle of six months, during which time nothing was earned to provide bread for the miners' families. Famine drove men into submission."
After the WBA trade union was broken, a few of the miners in the region snapped in a kind of “going postal” way — seemingly random acts of violence, usually against mine supervisors or operators. Later it was learned that at least a couple of the unsolved murders were incited and organized by the Pinkerton agent provocateur, McParlan.
This allowed Gowen to cut down the defeated labor union while they were defeated, and exterminate them for good. With Gowen’s massive arsenal — monopoly on the coal mines, the railroads, the private police, and the huge reserves of cash from all the money he’d raised — he was able to fan old nativist flames and spread panic across the country about an alleged international Irish Catholic terrorism conspiracy, the Molly Maguires, as behind everything bad that went on everywhere: Any mine that caught fire, any robbery or beating or murder that took place in the surrounding counties, was attributed to the feral alien Irish Catholic terrorists, whose aim, Gowen said, was to destroy America’s way of life.
When Gowen first hired the Pinkertons in 1873, he explained to them exactly what he wanted the world to believe about his uppity Irish labor activists. Gowen told Allan Pinkerton:
“Wherever in the United States iron is wrought, from Maine to Georgia, from ocean to ocean—wherever hard coal is used as fuel, there the Molly Maguire leaves his slimy trail and wields with deadly effect his two powerful levers, secrecy and combination.”
And so in 1875, after the official labor was destroyed and sporadic acts of violent and robbery followed, newspapers began calling for vigilante justice to be unleashed on Irish Catholic “Molly Maguires.” One local newspaper blamed a burned coal breaker on Molly Maguires, and demanded in response,
"[W]e must have some kind of a vigilance committee, and the sooner it is organized the better for the whole region. These men deserve no mercy, and should be strung up wherever they are caught.”
The Shenandoah Herald in late 1875 published a series of articles demanding the sort of “gloves off” “not politically correct” mass murder that the Donald Trumps and Ted Cruzes are calling for today:
"[T]his state of affairs has lasted too long, and something has got to be done immediately. A remedy that will strike terror into the hearts of such cowardly assassins, is what is wanted and must be had.”
Not coincidentally, the Pinkertons were busy organizing a vigilante attack of their own. Boston College history professor Kevin Kenny found evidence of letters from Allan Pinkerton himself, secretly organizing a lynch mob, instructing them to wear masks, providing a list of names and addresses, and ordering them to terrorize and kill their suspected “Molly Maguire” labor activists. In one incident, a mob of 30 masked vigilantes broke into the home of an extended Irish Catholic family where three alleged Molly Maguires lived. They pistol-whipped one suspect’s mother-in-law as she answered the front door, shot and killed his pregnant wife as she came downstairs, shot a man as he fled, and put 15 bullets into the head of Charles O’Donnell, one of the alleged Molly Maguires they were targeting.
And then a strange thing happened. To quote professor Kenny:
“The immediate effect of the incident ... was renewed criticism of the Molly Maguires, rather than a wave of sympathy for the victims. Without them, so the theory went, there would have been no vigilantes in the first place.”
This was immediately followed by an excommunication order from the Archbishop of Philadelphia, which was then read out to all the churches in the anthracite coal regions—excommunicating any members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, and specifically calling on all Irish Catholics to suspend any emotions or empathy they may have for whatever might soon come of anyone who belonged to the fraternal lodge. That meant cutting them off completely from the Irish Catholic immigrant community just as Gowen was preparing to haul them before the courts.
Just a month after the members of the fraternal lodge—the core rank and file labor activists — were excommunicated, in January 1876, the arrests and trials of the alleged Molly Maguires terrorists began.
If you want to know what a libertarian justice system in its purest form would look like, the Molly Maguires trials and executions were it. As described by one historian,
“The Molly Maguire investigation and trials marked one of the most astounding surrenders of sovereignty in American history. A private corporation initiated the investigation through a private detective agency, a private police force arrested the supposed offenders, and coal company attorneys prosecuted—the state provided only the courtroom and hangman."
Not a single Irish Catholic served on a single jury in any of the trials; instead, many of the jurors in the trials were drawn from the nearby German communities, many of whom spoke either poor English or no English at all. And the chief prosecutor in the main show trials in Schuylkill County was none other than the railroad tycoon himself, Frank Gowen.
As his trial got underway, the local and big city press were whipping up panic and fear about the Molly Maguires as the worst international terrorism threat in the history of mankind. The Philadelphia Inquirer wrote:
"When the inner history of the Mollie Maguires shall have been written, it will embody the harrowing details of a conspiracy such as the world has rarely known. This history has been making itself through years of lawlessness, bloodshed, plunder...”
The New York Times agreed, warning,
“The Pennsylvania authorities owe it to civilization to exterminate this noxious growth, now that its roots have been discovered.”
It is sure that nearly all, if not all, of the accused Molly Maguires were innocent of the crimes they were accused of; and that the Molly Maguires as a terrorist organization was an invention of Frank Gowen. That at most, some desperate violence — robberies, looting a store, a few murders carried out in retribution or in ethnic clashes between Irish Catholics and local Welsh — did happen, but they were not part of an organized international terrorist conspiracy to subvert America’s freedoms.
The most obvious instance of injustice was the prosecution of one of the rare examples of a successful upwardly-mobile Irish Catholic in Schuylkill County—John Kehoe, a tavern owner who happened to have been named county delegate to the Ancient Order of Hibernians just before Gowen’s crackdown. Kehoe was a community leader with a political future, cut down by Gowen and his press dogs.
Gowen’s longwinded, melodramatic court speeches—turned into pamphlets—accused the Ancient Order of Hiberians of being one and the same with the Molly Maguires—and both of those indistinguishable with labor union activism:
"The purpose [of the Molly Maguires] was to make the business of mining coal in this country a terror and a fear,” Gowen declared in court—and they threatened to turn the coal mining regions into "the lazar-house of the United States, controlled and ruled by a class of men to whom human life was no more sacred than the life of the worm they trod beneath their heel.”
He claimed the Molly Maguires had grown to 30,000 terrorists, spread from Boston to England, Ireland, New York and across the continent. As Kenny describes Gowen’s court argument,
Throughout history, he concluded, there had never existed "in any society claiming to be civilized," such an "infernal tribunal" with "instruments of vengeance as ghastly and horrible" as those wielded by the Ancient Order of Hibernians.
And in a closing argument, he told the jury that if only the Reading Railroad had more time, it could have struck at the root of the international terror conspiracy:
“You have had the pleasure, I believe, of hanging some men who are not citizens of Schuylkill County. We would have got at the head of this order at Pittsburgh, and we would have got at its head in New York; we would have got to its source in England, Ireland, and Scotland, and I believe established the affiliation of the head of the society with these murderers and with the killing of their victims, and show how they help criminals to escape.”
The first condemned Molly Maguires were executed in a mass hanging—10 on a single day. The state militia was brought in to parade around the county towns with bayonets fixed, joined alongside the railroad company’s private Coal & Iron Police force. Special double-hanging gallows were constructed for the occasion.
The hangings took place in the prison yard, while outside the prison walls, hundreds of people gathered. First, four men were hung at once—but two of the four hangings went bad. John Donahue’s neck “was not broken, and he struggled for about thirty seconds, rattling his manacles by the rapid motions of his hands and feet.” After the drop fell, Donohue “drew up his legs and threw them forward four times in succession. Then, hanging quietly for an instant he drew up again, and quivering so that the rope was shaken he relapsed and hung quietly at full length.”
After their bodies were cut down, Donohue’s shirt front was covered in blood. His heart stopped after six minutes, while another’s heart kept beating a full 15 minutes after the drop fell.
Most of the condemned said in their final statements that they were innocent of the crimes they were convicted of, and that they forgave their accusers. Most went bravely to death. The last two on that first day of mass hangings, Thomas Duffy and Thomas Munley, couldn’t even muster up magnanimous last words. Duffy, when given his chance to say his last words, merely said: “There is no point”; Munley answered: “It’s too late now.”
After the 10 were hung, the national press rejoiced. The Philadelphia Inquirer called the Molly Maguires,
"the most relentless combination of assassins that had been known in American history"
The Philadelphia Ledger hailed the mass execution as “a day of deliverance from as awful a despotism of banded murderers as the world has ever seen in any age,” claiming that the (non-existent) Molly Maguires’ “main purpose was 'terrorism' and revenge; and these were accompanied by brutal beatings, incendiary fires, and assassination.”
The Chicago Tribune agreed:
"Modern history affords no more striking illustration of the terrible power for evil of a secret oath-bound organization controlled by murderers and assassins than the awful record of crime committed by the orders of the Mollie Maguires in the anthracite-coal region of Pennsylvania.”
In the next round of hangings in early 1878, the sheriff in charge of the executions got so drunk he could barely walk. One of the condemned, Patrick Hester, twitched for six minutes at the end of his rope after the drop fell.
John Kehoe, that rare example of a successful Irish Catholic immigrant in Pennsylvania coal country, had fought and appealed his murder conviction, which even some of the local bigots agreed was an implausible charge. At one point he was almost saved when the Pennsylvania Parole Board voted to commute Kehoe’s sentence to life—but at that same meeting, they also voted to delay their decision until after another trial of another 4 alleged Molly Maguires. By the time the Pardon Board met again a few months later, it had new members on the board, and they voted against pardoning him.
As John Kehoe was brought onto the scaffold, his last words were simple and short:
"I am not guilty of the murder of Langdon; I never saw the crime committed; I know nothing of it."
Twelve minutes after the drop fell, Kehoe’s body started to suddenly convulse. He had died of strangulation—the rope had slipped, opening up a gash on his chin and lacerating his right eyeball.
100 years later, in 1979, the state of Pennsylvania formally pardoned and apologized to Kehoe.
In all, nineteen alleged Molly Maguires “terrorists” were hanged in a two year period.
If you’re still wondering what fully privatized criminal justice system looks like, this was it. As I wrote in Pando, one of the top Koch lieutenants, Robert Poole of Reason magazine, proposed a blueprint back in the 1970s for privatizing the police departments and the criminal justice system. The final utopian goal is privatizing every single function, as Frank Gowen’s railroad monopoly was able to; the midway compromise is Ferguson’s offender-funded criminal justice system. You would be surprised how many libertarian activists have been busy promoting the privatization of police and criminal justice—from sites like CopBlock, co-founded by a former CATO institute flak, whose goal is to be the “Yelp” of private police forces — to longtime CATO Institute flak Radley Balko, a fan of privatizing juries and crime labs.
What Gowen wanted in pursuing the Irish Catholic labor organizers into the grave was not only a bigger chunk of the anthracite revenues, but also a kind of celebrity status among the new railroad barons — the hero who took on and destroyed a labor union unlike anyone before him. And it worked. When a new wave of strikes swept through the Pennsylvania coal regions, Schuylkill County was one of the only places where miners didn’t join in.
Repression works. But for whom?
There is a grim nihilistic moral to this story.
Frank Gowen peaked early. He saddled the Reading Railroad with mountains of debt as he tried to grow the railroads as fast and far as possible. The Reading was the one of the very first railroad trusts, concentrated in the fastest-growing heart of the Industrial Revolution in eastern Pennsylvania. But Gowen couldn’t grow it fast enough to keep up with the debts and acquisitions, and other, more fearsome predators were pushing past him—Henry Frick, Andrew Carnegie, and John D Rockefeller.
Gowen’s creditor was JP Morgan, a far fiercer predator than any of them, only without Gowen’s public bluster and showmanship. Morgan called in the bonds, the Reading was pushed into bankruptcy and taken over, and Frank Gowen was forced out of the railroad company in the early 1880s, just a few years after hanging his last Molly Maguire.
In 1889, as the fast-paced Industrial Revolution passed him by and it was clear he’d never regain his glory, Gowen checked into a hotel in Washington DC, put a gun up to his head and killed himself. And that is how one of the first great corporate innovators of the American Industrial Revolution lived and died.
[More reading: “Labor’s Untold Story” by Richard Boyer and Herbert Morais; and “Making Sense of the Molly Maguires” by Kevin Kenny]