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The Mollies' Mark

The Mollies' MarkJason Brauer
00:00 / 04:54


4 minutes



Year of composition

The Molly Maguires were an alleged terrorist organization of mostly Irish Catholic immigrants active in the Anthracite region of Pennsylvania in the 1860s and 1870s. Because they faced religious discrimination and xenophobia, many were forced to work in perhaps the most dangerous, dirty, and low-paying job of the time: coal mining. Since there were few safety regulations or union rights, miners faced absurdly long hours, claustrophobic tunnels, cave-ins, gas fires, and black lung, a disease caused by exposure to coal dust. Furthermore, boys as young as six worked as breaker boys, seperating sharp coal from other rock without gloves.

To combat these terrible working conditions, the Molly Maguires supposedly grew out of previous secret societies into a sort of Irish mafia, burning buildings, threatening mine bosses with “coffin notices,” and murdering enemies. To quell the violence (or, according to some, to eliminate unionizers), Franklin Gowen, president of a local railroad and coal company, hired a Pinkerton detective named James McParland to infiltrate the Mollies. Under the alias James McKenna, he went undercover as a Molly for two years and even gained a secretorial position. Throughout 1876 and 1877, 20 Molly Maguires were charged with murder and sentenced to death in highly unconstitutional trials that relied almost entirely on McParland's testimony.
On “Black Thursday” (June 21, 1877), ten miners were hanged in Pottsville and Mauch Chunk. According to legend, the Molly Alexander Campbell slapped a muddy handprint on his cell wall just before his execution and swore it would remain there forever as a sign of his innocence; although the wall has been scrubbed, painted over, and according to some even knocked down, the handprint remains and can be seen in the Carbon County Jail Museum today. On December 18, 1877, the so-called “King of the Mollies” Jack Kehoe met his end.

This piece depicts the Molly Maguires’ violent acts and demise by combining Irish folk music and industrial clanging. The first section is a Caoineadh (lament) in which the English horn represents the Uilleann pipes, traditional Irish bagpipes that are played by moving bellows with the elbow instead of blowing. In the second section, a demented jig, dissonant harmonies in the brass and percussion clash with variations on the original folk theme in the woodwinds and strings, eventually corrupting the tune into a violent mixed-meter dance. This section is followed by a march to the scaffolds in which the brass play a slow, mournful chorale version of the folk theme while the woodwinds swirl frantically around it as if begging for mercy. The section contains 20 percussion hits, one for each Molly put to death. Finallly, the opening lament returns briefly and fades unresolved to nothing. Though it’s easy to demonize and forget the Molly Maguires, Alexander Campbell’s muddy mark extends far beyond his jail cell wall and continues to remind us that morality, in history and in daily life, is never clear-cut.

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