DECEMBER 10, 1875

Franklin Gowen and His Silver Bowl

Franklin B. Gowen, in his hatred of the Irish miners and their attempts to unionize, is linked forever to the Wiggans Patch murders. Letters and communications between he, Allan Pinkerton, and Captain Linden of the Coal and Iron Police have surfaced through the years.  These documents strongly suggest that the Massacre was not only premeditated and executed with military precision but funded by coal and railroad company money.  It is thought that millionaire Asa Packer fronted a goodly portion of that financial backing.  Packer's mansion still stands today high on a hill overlooking historic Jim Thorpe/Mauch Chunk. 

The President of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, and of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, Gowen was dubbed "the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world."  He hired Allen Pinkerton to get rid of those miners who were leading the efforts to unionize.  Pinkerton, in turn, assigned James McParland, an Irish immigrant, to the job. Although James McParland was an Irish Catholic like those he would be investigating, he and his brothers had been the only Catholic boys at a Protestant schoolParts of County Armagh, from where McPharland hailed, along with County Antrim and parts of County Down, had the highest living standard in Ireland. On the other hand, North Leinster, south and west Ulster, and north and east Connacht, from which most of the Molly Maguires emigrated, were the most impoverished.

McParland allegedly was successful in infiltrating the secret organization, becoming a secretary for one of its local groups. McParland turned in reports daily, eventually collecting evidence of murder plots and intrigue, passing this information along to Benjamin Franklin, his Pinkerton manager. He also began working secretly with Robert Linden, a Pinkerton agent assigned to the Coal and Iron Police, specifically for the purpose of coordinating the eventual arrest and prosecution of members of the Molly Maguires. When he learned what had happened at the Wiggans Patch Massacre, McParland was outraged that the information he had been providing through his infiltration efforts had found its way into the hands of killers. McParland protested in a letter to his Pinkerton overseer which declared, in part:

Now I wake up this morning to find that I am the murderer of Mrs. McAlister. What had a woman to do with the case—did the [Molly Maguires] in their worst time shoot down women. If I was not here the Vigilante Committee would not know who was guilty and when I find them shooting women in their thirst for blood I hereby tender my resignation to take effect as soon as this message is received. It is not cowardice that makes me resign but just let them have it now I will no longer interfere as I see that one is the same as the other and I am not going to be an accessory to the murder of women and children. I am sure the [Molly Maguires] will not spare the women so long as the Vigilante has shown an example.

McParland was cajoled not to resign. Butcher Frank Winrich, a first lieutenant with the Pennsylvania National Guard, was arrested as the leader of the attackers, but quickly released on bail. Then another Molly Maguire, Hugh McGehan, a twenty-one year old who had been secretly identified as a killer by McParland, was fired upon and wounded by unknown assailants. Later, the McGehan's house was attacked by gunfire.Eventually enough evidence was collected on reprisal killings and assassinations that arrests could be made and, based primarily on McParland's testimony, eventually 20 Molly Maguires were sent to the gallows.

Some writers declared that justice was done. Others disagreed, arguing that .... punishment had gone too far, and that the guilt of some of the condemned was that of association more than participation and but half established by other condemned men seeking clemency for themselves.

The author of A History of American Labor, Joseph G. Rayback, observed:  The charge has been made that the Molly Maguires episode was deliberately manufactured by the coal operators with the express purpose of destroying all vestiges of unionism in the area... There is some evidence to support the charge... the "crime wave" that appeared in the anthracite fields came after the appearance of the Pinkertons, and... many of the victims of the crimes were union leaders and ordinary miners. The evidence brought against [the defendants], supplied by James McParlan, a Pinkerton, and corroborated by men who were granted immunity for their own crimes, was tortuous and contradictory, but the net effect was damning... The trial temporarily destroyed the last vestiges of labor unionism in the anthracite area. More important, it gave the public the impression... that miners were by nature criminal in character...

The following article, reprinted from the Pennsylvania Historical Society archives, gives some interesting insights into the life and times of Franklin Gowen.


Food for Thought: Franklin B. Gowen's Ceremonial Bowl

by Nancy Moses

Legacies v.4 #2 Gowen HALF

At first glance the majestic silver bowl looks like the kind of commemorative item you’d find at most every historical society. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania owns about 15 other trophies, now housed at the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia. What makes this one so different, so shocking and provocative is the event it commemorates: Franklin Benjamin Gowen’s great achievement of destroying one of America’s first industrial labor union.

Franklin Gowen’s bowl—more than 36 pounds of intricately worked sterling silver and gold—recalls the bitter battles of early labor organizing, the rise and fall of a gigantic industrial conglomerate, and the power of a single man to control the nation’s most prized commodity when coal was king and America was in its Gilded Age. A single object can tell a world of stories.

In the 1870s Franklin B. Gowen was as powerful a robber baron as John D. Rockefeller, Andrew Carnegie, and Cornelius Vanderbilt. Gowen was as cunning as Microsoft’s Bill Gates, as ruthless as Al Dunlop when he slashed jobs at Sunbeam, as media-savvy as Martha Stewart. The Gowen in the photograph owned by The Historical Society of Pennsylvania looks surprisingly modern. You can easily imagine his square-jawed stalwart face staring out from the front page of yesterday’s Wall Street Journal.

Born in Philadelphia in 1836, Gowen was on the fast career track from almost the beginning. By age 34 he had bought and lost his first coal mine, served as district attorney for Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania, and ascended to the presidency of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad. Gowen’s railroad monopolized the shipping of anthracite, which, because it burned clean and hot, was the fuel of choice for industry and homes. He ran his railroad like a dictator, its vast network carrying coal from the fields of northeastern Pennsylvania south to the ports of Philadelphia.

But this ruthless railroad magnate wanted to monopolize more than shipping. He wanted to control the source of the wealth itself: the coal mines of Pennsylvania’s lower anthracite region. Three hurdles stood in his way. First, he had to convince the Pennsylvania legislature to allow him to mine coal. Gowen quickly set up a subsidiary, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, and through a political sleight-of-hand gained the right to mine coal and to borrow as much money as he needed. The second hurdle was to persuade the owners of the smaller coal companies to sell out to him. Gowen doubled, then doubled again the shipping rate, driving many into bankruptcy. By 1872 the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company owned 70,000 acres of Pennsylvania’s richest coal lands, twice as much as any of its competitors. Soon Gowen was leading one of the largest corporations in the world. The third hurdle in Gowen’s secret strategy was to end the labor problems that were slicing into coal industry profits. After decades of fighting against management’s unfettered control over jobs, wages, housing, and even the price of food in the company store, the miners had finally organized the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association to carry their cause.

Gowen, determined to wipe out the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association, accused it of harboring a seditious band of terrorists known as the Molly Maguires. In Ireland, the Molly Maguires were a secret society of Catholic patriots who fought to rid the nation of its hated English landlords. By 1870 Pennsylvania’s coal towns were filled with Irish immigrants—including some Mollies, at least according to Gowen.

In 1873 Franklin Gowen secretly wrote to Allan Pinkerton of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Pinkerton hired a young Irishman to infiltrate the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association. Two years later, when its members struck for fair wages, Gowen brought in Pinkerton’s special police. The strike led to sabotage, then to the murder of mine bosses.

The shootings stunned the nation. Americans were already suffering the aftermath of a bloody Civil War and reeling from streams of immigrants who flooded the nation. Now they learned that Irish miners were tyrannizing and murdering in the once-peaceful hills of Pennsylvania. A master of media manipulation, Franklin Gowen took advantage of the miners’ crimes to tarnish the entire cause of organized labor through the purple-prose advertisements he placed in major newspapers.

In 1876, in a courtroom packed with sightseers and reporters, the accused miners were brought to trial for murder. Franklin B. Gowen stepped in as lawyer for the prosecution, his commanding presence filling the courtroom. “For the first time, after struggling under a reign of terror that has extended over 20 years, we are placed front to front with the inner workings of a secret association,” Gowen declaimed. The jury deliberated only one hour before returning the verdict of first degree murder.

New arrests rapidly followed. By the end of 1877, 10 miners died at the end of the hangman’s noose. Before it ended 41 people were convicted of felonies and 20 miners put to death, including some who appeared innocent. Though labor strife continued, the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association was crushed forever.

The case of the Mollie Macguires blazed across newspapers around the nation and the world. Detective Allan Pinkerton authored a sensationally popular novel, The Molly Maguires and the Detective (1877), which was later adapted into a stage play. Even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle got into the act: his book The Valley of Fear (1914–1915) features an encounter between detective Sherlock Holmes and the dreaded Molly Maguires. Franklin B. Gowen was hailed as a national hero. But not for long.

Between 1871 and 1875 Gowen had borrowed $69 million—almost one billion dollars in today’s currency—to purchase coal fields and finance their development. He believed that America’s burgeoning economy would spur an unlimited demand for anthracite. What he failed to foresee was a nationwide depression that dramatically cut coal consumption. In 1880 his company went bankrupt. Gowen lost, then regained the presidency of his company, and readied himself to travel abroad to meet his British shareholders.

Gowen’s great silver bowl comes from this moment in time. According to an April 1882 edition of the Philadelphia Inquirer, a delegation of mine owners appeared in Gowen’s office on the eve of his trip to England and surprised him with “one of the handsomest silver and gold centre pieces ever manufactured in this country.”

The oval bowl is big enough to bathe a toddler in, an over-the-top Victorian creation of silver and gold gilt. The largest bowl that jewelers Bailey, Banks and Biddle had ever sold, it stands more than 15 inches high, 18 inches wide, and 30 inches long. The base is festooned with laurel wreaths, the Greek symbol of victory, and features a massive silver specimen of anthracite surrounded by the picks, spades, and shovels of the trade. The bowl’s interior is swathed in gold; on the exterior are four medallions in rich gold mountings. Two are engraved with the names of the 18 coal barons who gave it to Gowen; one medallion portrays Josiah White, “the father of the coal trade,” the final one Gowen himself.

The inscription around the rim tells all: “Presented to Franklin B. Gowen, as a Token of our Grateful Remembrance of his Services in Suppressing Lawless Violence and Re-Establishing Security for Life and Property in the Anthracite Coal Regions of Pennsylvania.”

There is some poignancy in the fact that Gowen received his glorious trophy not at the peak of success but at the precipice of failure. For, while Gowen won this battle to save his company, he eventually lost the war. In 1884, after a number of valiant attempts to borrow money and pay off creditors, Franklin Benjamin Gowen stepped down as president of the Philadelphia and Reading. A year later he was found in a Washington, DC, hotel room, shot to death by his own hand.

Franklin B. Gowen ended this episode of labor strife, but at the cost of 20 miners’ lives. He built the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad into one of the world’s largest corporations, and watched it crash into bankruptcy. He succeeded beyond the wildest expectations of anyone but himself and failed on the grandest of scales. Gowen loved power better than life itself and when he lost it his life was not worth living.

For 20 years Franklin B. Gowen was one of the most celebrated captains of American industry. Today little remains of him beyond the shards of his shattered life preserved in the collections of The Historical Society of Pennsylvania: a photograph, 10 speeches, 3 newspaper clippings, a cache of letters, and a majestic silver trophy bowl.

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Image: Franklin B. Gowen. Society Portrait Collection.