Our Division was named in honor of
John J. (Black Jack) Kehoe (1837-1878);
a heroic Irish-American pioneer of workers’
rights and active member of the Ancient
Order of Hibernians.
In 1849, at the age of 12, John J.
Kehoe and his family emigrated
from County Wicklow, Ireland, to
the United States during the height
of the Great Famine (Irish Potato
Famine). Kehoe’s early life was
spent laboring as an anthracite coal
miner. After settling in Girardville,
Schuylkill County, he opened up a
tavern and quickly became a well-respected businessman in the community, as well as becoming a High Constable. This was an unheard of accomplishment in the “Big Business” dominated region, which was largely anti-Irish-Catholic.
During this time, Kehoe met and married Mary Ann O’Donnell, and the two had several children together. They had the American dream, and what seemed to be a flourishing future, but John Kehoe never forgot his experiences in the mines. Many years of enduring ruthless wage cuts and horrific working conditions, which claimed the lives of many workers, led Kehoe to become an outspoken proponent for miner’s rights.
Kehoe’s efforts to rally for the unionization of workers of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, a subsidiary of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, lead to an alleged affiliation with the Molly Maguires and the moniker of “King of the Mollies.” The papers portrayed the Molly Maguires as a clandestine, renegade group that terrorized the coal companies and their officials, while using the Ancient Order of Hibernians as a front. Word quickly traveled to the president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, Franklin B. Gowen.
In 1873, Gowen hired the Pinkerton National Detective Agency to dismantle the Molly Maguires. Pinkerton employed an Irish immigrant by the name of James McParland, under the guise “James McKenna” to go undercover and infiltrate the Mollies. McParland provided the information that aided in sending ten men to the gallows on June 21, 1877, “The Day of the Rope.” The following year, on December 18th 1878, John Kehoe was condemned to hang for his alleged complicity in the murder of mine foreman Frank W.S. Langdon, fifteen years earlier.
Over one hundred years later, in early January of 1979, Governor Milton J. Shapp issued a full pardon to John J. Kehoe, thanks in great part the efforts of his great grandson. He refused to accept the verdict and worked tirelessly to have his great grandfather's name cleared.