“A reign of lawlessness” – A violent week in Schuylkill County in 1870

In the coal dust blackened boom towns of northern Schuylkill County, the sounds of gunshots mixed freely with the sounds of steam engines, train whistles, and the roar of machinery in the years after the Civil War.

Mahanoy Valley Collieries
Collieries in the Mahanoy Valley (The Getty)

In April 1870, a resident of Pottsville penned a letter to a Philadelphia newspaper documenting the violent outrages tallied in a single week in the towns north of the Schuylkill County seat. “Two arsons, two murders (at least)… and a half-a-dozen more attempted,” wrote the anonymous correspondent. “These are the murderous assaults that have come to light within a week. How many there were that were never heard of in town it is impossible to estimate.”

What follows is that letter, published on April 20, 1870. It details the attacks on a colliery superintendent, a German farmer, a boardinghouse owner and his wife, and a random bystander. The infamous “Molly Maguires” even make an appearance.

Each of the attacks took place north of Broad Mountain – Mahanoy City, Shenandoah, and Girardville and their environs. These communities were counted among the most dangerous places in the Coal Region, if not the entire country in the 1870s.

Our Pottsville Letter

A series of crimes and catastrophes – murders and attempted murders – a reign of lawlessness in Schuylkill County

Pottsville, April 18, 1870

Two arsons, two murders (at least) accomplished, and half-a-dozen more attempted, make up the published record of higher-grade crimes for the week just ended. A colliery stable and the breaker of the Silliman Colliery, at Mahanoy City – the latter making certain a long suspension at one operation – at least, are the extent of the fires – both incendiary. A report was indeed current, during the high wind of Friday evening, that Mahanoy City was in flames, a catastrophe which, under such circumstances, could not but be fatal to that wooden town; but the rumor proved false.

The most important murder was that of Patrick Burns, clerk and superintendent at the colliery of F. DeSocarrez & Co. Burns, notwithstanding his name, was an American, and had in some unknown way given offense to some of the rough characters with whom he had to deal. About a month ago, he was assaulted in his own house and badly beaten; and about two weeks ago he handed his revolver to Mr. DeSocarrez, and request him to bring it to Pottsville and procure cartridges for it, as he feared certain persons, whom he named, would kill him, if they had the chance. On Friday morning, as he was walking up to the colliery, he was shot from behind a tree, apparently with a rifle or musket, two balls passing entirely through his head. He was then dragged four or five yards into the bushes beside the road and left. When found, a few hours after, he was dead. There is no clue to the murderer or murderers that would avail in a court of justice though his Honor Judge Lynch would probably have little difficulty in identifying them.

In the next case, his Honor’s jury would certainly return a verdict of “served ‘em right” without leaving their seats. Three strikers, named Dixon, Williams, and another whose name I have not learned, went on  a drunk on Tuesday night last, and kept it up until Wednesday morning, when they undertook to prevent Bast’s workmen at Big Mine Run, near Ashland, from going to work.

Among others, they attacked an honest Dutchman named Henry Buhl, knocked him down, and were, apparently, about drawing their revolvers to finish him, when his son Frederick, who was twenty or thirty yards in advance, came to his rescue with a grubbing hoe, and used it to such good effect that he and his father were soon left masters of the situation. Dixon was subsequently arrested and lodged in the county prison; Williams died on Friday, and the third man is still missing, but is supposed to be dead also. The Buhls gave themselves up, entered bail in the sum of $2,000 to answer any charges that might be brought against them, and went their way. Future assailants will do well to ascertain if there are grubbing hoes handy before attacking these plucky Teutons.

How much a man can endure without being killed was the subject of an interesting experiment at the “patch” connected with Atkins Bros.’ furnace colliery, near Shenandoah City, on last Thursday evening. Mrs. James Harvey had reason to suspect that one of her boarders was connected with the “Molly Maguires,” a secret society of cutthroats, whose mission on earth – for all things have their uses – is to irritate the people of Schuylkill County into forming  a Vigilance Committee to sweep all such vermin off the face of the earth – at least three feet. The suspected party promptly admitted the soft impeachment, and was as promptly invited to leave by the irate lady, who said she never had boarded a “Molly,” and never would.

At this the “Mollies” in turn became indignant, and on Thursday evening fifteen of them called at Mr. Harvey’s to remonstrate against the further use of such language. Harvey and a boarder named Hugh Toole were sitting on the porch when the party came up, for it was not yet dark, and the evening was pleasant. What was the first argument advanced has not transpired, but the discussion is represented as having been quite animated. Mr. Toole, after receiving a bullet in his leg, and having his brains nearly knocked out with a billy, withdrew from the contest by rolling off the porch and dropping into the cellar, where the “Mollies” lost him.

They accused Mrs. Harvey of knowing his whereabouts, and on her denying it, cut her head open with a billy. It is to be hoped she will entertain a better opinion of the “Mollies” in future.

Harvey was then dragged off the porch and into the bushes, where he was pounded with billies, hacked with knives, and riddled with bullets – over a hundred shots being fired into and around him. They left him for dead, and his friends picked him up and went for the doctor; but no doctor could be induced to risk his neck in that vicinity until after daylight, next morning, and when one did come he found Harvey a mass of wounds from head to foot, but still living; and at last accounts he was living yet, not withstanding the Journal killed him, this morning. “No arrests were made.”

Neither was the man arrested who, at Girardville, one night about a week ago, stepped up to a stranger as he stood quietly at a corner of the principal street in town, and drawing a revolver, fired at him with as much nonchalance as if it was quite an everyday affair. And so it was; for such things have grown so common in Girardville that nobody thinks it worth his while to report them, and I only gleaned the facts in the case by happening to meet a communicative friend from that locality. The ball, after passing through the man’s hand, glanced from a vest button, and did not further harm. He did not know his assailant, but thought he could have identified his features if he had not been afraid to say something!

Girardville, PA
A later photograph of Girardville, Pennsylvania (Girardville, Pennsylvania)

But the engineer who, in self-defense, shot a man in the hip yesterday, at Tuscarora, was brought to town by the first train this morning and bundled into the jail as quickly as possible. He evidently does not belong to the “Molly Maguires.”

These are the murderous assaults that have come to light within a week. How many there were that were never heard of in town it is impossible to estimate; for unless the injured man dies, nobody considers the assault worth noticing, and it is only by accident that it finds its ways into the papers.

The Girardville case strikes me as particularly racy. Imagine how you would feel if, some fine night, you should step out on the pave of Chestnut Street, and while gazing at the show-window over the way, a half-drunken individual suddenly pokes  a revolver in your face an fires – knowing well that, even if some lucky accident should save your life, you would not dare to prosecute him. If there is anything that will scare a man out of his seven senses quick than that, I have not yet discovered it.


As I referenced in a previous blog post, aren’t these stories (and the many others that can be found from the same time period) worthy of a television drama?

Featured Image: Shenandoah in the 1870s (The Getty)

Featured Image: Residents of Shenandoah at Filipek’s Bar in Shenandoah, Pennsylvania in 1938 (Library of Congress)

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