Franklin Gowen, the fifth son of a Irish immigrant, was born in Philadelphia in 1836. James Gowen was a successful grocer and was able to educate his son at the famous John Beck's Boys Academy. Gowen became a lawyer and at twenty-six was elected district attorney of Schuylkill County.
In 1864 Gowen joined the legal department of the Reading Railroad, the main transporter of coal from the two southern fields in Schuylkill County to Philadelphia. Two years later Gowen was responsible for an impressive court victory over the Pennsylvania Railroad company. The directors rewarded him by making him president of the Reading Railroad.
Gowen pursued an aggressive policy and over the next two years purchased 100,000 acres of coal lands for the Reading Railroad. Gowen became increasing concerned about the activities of John Siney, an Irish immigrant who had formed the Workingmen's Benevolent Association (WBA). Gowen's company now owned a large number of coal-mines of Schuylkill County and feared that the activities of the WBA would reduce profits.
In 1873 Gowen approached Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, about the best way of destroying the union. Pinkerton was paid $100,000 to arrange for spies to join the WBA. One of Pinkerton's agents, P. M. Cummings, actually managed to become a WBA official. Another spy sent to Schuylkill County was the Irish immigrant, James McParland. Assuming the alias of James McKenna, he found work as a laborer in Shenandoah. Soon afterwards he joined the Workingmen's Benevolent Association and the Shenandoah branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an organisation for Irish immigrants run by the Roman Catholic clergy.
After a few months of investigations, James McParland reported back to Allan Pinkerton that some members of the Ancient Order of Hibernians were also active in the secret organization, the Molly Maguires. McParland estimated that the group had about 3,000 members. Each county was governed by a bodymaster who recruited members and gave out orders to commit crimes. These bodymasters were usually ex-miners who now worked as saloon keepers.
Over a two year period James McParland collected evidence about the criminal activities of the Molly Maguires. This included the murder of around fifty men in Schuylkill County. Many of these men were the managers of coal mines in the region.
In 1875 Gowen and other mine-owners in Schuylkill County reduced wages by 20 per cent for contract miners and 10 per cent for laborers. As expected, this action resulted in a strike. Gowen now employed Allan Pinkerton to provide him with new team of workers and a company police-force. After five months on strike, union members were starved into submission. Those who were not blacklisted, had to leave the WBA and accept the 20 per cent pay cut.
With the evidence accumulated by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, Gowen was now ready to deal with the Molly Maguires. The first trial started on 18th January, 1876. Gowen was the special prosecutor and James McParland the star witness. Over the next two years twenty members were found guilty of murder and executed. This included Jack Kehoe, a former union leader who was convicted of a murder that had taken place fourteen years previously.
There was a great deal of controversy about about the way the trial was conducted. Irish Catholics were excluded from the juries while Protestant immigrants from Germany who could not speak English were accepted. Welsh immigrants, who had for a long-time been in conflict with the Irish in Schuylkill County were also well represented on these juries.
Most of the witnesses who provided evidence in these cases were like James McParland on the payroll of the railroad and mining companies who were attempting to destroy the trade union movement. In other cases, defendants were persuaded to turn state's evidence to help convict their alleged collaborators.
It was also pointed out that most of the murder victims were employees of small coal companies that were later taken over by the Philadelphia and Reading company. Some historians have suggested that it was the company run by Gowen that had the most to gain from these murders and the destruction of the emerging trade union movement.
In 1883 Gowen left his post as president of the Philadelphia & Reading Railroad and returned to his private law practice. Gowen appeared to be doing well but on 13th December, 1889, he locked himself into his hotel room and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. Rumours circulated that Gowen had been murdered by the Molly Maguires. Another story claimed he had killed himself because of the guilt he felt about the way he had framed union members.
Is there a man in this audience, looking at me now, and hearing me denounce this association, who longs to point his pistol at me? I tell him that he has as good chance here as he will ever have again. I tell him that if there is another murder in this county, committed by this organization, every one of the five hundred members of the order in this county or out of it. who connives at it, will be guilty of murder in the first degree, and can be hanged by the neck until he is dead. I tell him that if there is another murder in this county by this society, there will be an inquisition for blood with which nothing that has been known in the annals of criminal jurist prudence can compare.
And to whom are we indebted for this security, of which I now boast? To whom do we owe all this? Under the divine providence of God, to whom be all the honor and all the glory, we owe this safety to James McParland; and if there ever was a man to whom the people of this county should erect a monument, it is James McParland the detective. It is simply a question between the Molly Maguires on the one side, and Pinkerton's Detective Agency on the other; and I know too well that Pinkerton's Detective Agency will win. There is not a place on the habitable globe where these men can find refuge and in which they will not be tracked down.
The origin and development of the Molly Maguires will always present a hard problem to the social philosopher, who will, perhaps, find some subtle relation between crime and coal. One understands the act of an ordinary murderer who kills from greed, or fear, or hatred; but the Molly Maguires killed men and women with whom they had had no dealings, against whom they had no personal grievances, and from whose death they had nothing to gain, except, perhaps, the price of a few rounds of whiskey. They committed murders by the score, stupidly, brutally, as a driven ox turns to left or right at the word of command, without knowing why, and without caring. The men who decreed these monstrous crimes did so for the most trivial reasons—a reduction in wages, a personal dislike, some imagined grievance of a friend. These were sufficient to call forth an order to burn a house where women and children were sleeping, to shoot down in cold blood an employer or fellow workman, to lie in wait for an officer of the law and club him to death. In the trial of one of them, Mr. Franklin B. Gowen described the reign of these ready murderers as a time "when men retired to their homes at eight or nine o'clock in the evening and no one ventured beyond the precincts of his own door; when every man engaged in any enterprise of magnitude, or connected with industrial pursuits' left his home in the morning with his hand upon his pistol, unknowing whether he would again return alive; when the very foundations of society were being overturned."