In October 1873, Allan Pinkerton, the head of the legendary detective agency that carried his name, picked an unknown, twenty-nine-year-old operative named James McParland to infiltrate the Molly Maguires, a mysterious Irish-American organization responsible for sabotage and at least sixteen murders in the anthracite coalfields of Pennsylvania. Dressed as a tramp and posing as a fugitive from a murder charge, McParland set out for the Molly Maguires’ home territory in Schuylkill County, knowing he faced certain death if he were discovered to be a Pinkerton’s agent. For almost two years, McParland worked undercover, eventually being drawn into the Molly Maguires’ inner circle before bringing them to justice by testifying in a series of nineteen trials. But that was only the beginning of a career that earned him international fame.
Pinkerton’s Great Detective investigates McParland’s most challenging cases: from his infiltration of the Molly Maguires, to his hunt for the notorious Butch Cassidy and the Wild Bunch, to his controversial abduction of the leaders of the Western Federation of Miners to bring them to trial for the assassination of Idaho’s former governor – a case that saw McParland match wits with the great lawyer Clarence Darrow, both in and out of court.
So thrilling were McParland’s cases that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle invented a meeting between him and Sherlock Holmes. He was referred to by those seeking his services, by newspapers around the country reporting his cases, and even by criminals as “The Great Detective.” Filled with the outlaws, undercover agents, detectives, and lawmen who populated the Old West, Pinkerton’s Great Detective shines a light upon the celebrated secretive agency and its premier sleuth.
McKenna knew his life could end at any moment. Each day that passed pieces of the puzzle were being put together, and soon the inevitable conclusion would be reached by the “bodymasters” – and they knew all too well how to eliminate problems. He realized that his every move was being watched, his actions scrutinized, and that he might soon be given the “black spot,” marking him for murder.
No one understood better than the rough brawler known throughout the less salubrious parts of Schuylkill County as Jim McKenna how easy it was to kill a man. His life could be snuffed out at home in the dead of night, or in the street on a dark evening, or even in a crowded, well-lit place that had seemed secure until it was too late. McKenna would not go easily – he was well armed and could hold his own with a pistol, knife, lead pipe, or his fists – but he could feel Death looking over his shoulder.
The premonition had started a week or so before, in mid-February 1876, when Mary Ann Higgins, whom he was courting, told him about the rumor that he was an informer – accused of being behind the arrests of several men from the Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH), an Irish fraternal society with a large local membership. McKenna was convinced that the AOH was actually more than that. He believed it was essentially the same as the Molly Maguires, a shadowy and brutal Irish American brotherhood responsible for sabotage, beatings, and at least sixteen murders – some said more than fifty – in the Pennsylvania coalfields.
But it was not the notion of killing and violence that aroused Mary Ann’s disgust; it was the thought that McKenna might be a spy. For in a region heavily populated by immigrants from the turbulent northern counties of Ireland, few were detested more than informers. And few could expect shorter life spans.
McKenna’s friend Frank McAndrew and the friendly Pottsville saloon keeper Danny Hughes soon added to his worries. Each indicated that John Kehoe, a handsome, charismatic, steely-eyed Irishman who ran a tavern in Girardville and was the Schuylkill County delegate of the AOH, had sent a warning for “every one to beware of me [McKenna]; that I was a detective; that such was the report, and that he, John Kehoe, had it from responsible sources.”
Outwardly incensed that after two years as an officer of the AOH he should be accused, McKenna went to Kehoe to protest his innocence, and to demand an opportunity to prove his case. Kehoe agreed to set a “trial” for early March, near McKenna’s lodgings in Shenandoah, a grimy little mining town in the anthracite coal region about twelve miles north of Pottsville, the Schuylkill County seat. In fact, so convincing had McKenna’s protests been that he was allowed to spend the night in Kehoe’s house. But in the ensuing days, away from his smooth talking, Kehoe’s suspicions returned.
Kehoe saw McKenna in Pottsville on the day before the scheduled trial and urged him to accompany him on the train back to Shenandoah that evening. McKenna agreed, but when he boarded it, there was no trace of Kehoe. Mrs Kehoe was there, but she said that her husband had left in the afternoon.
“The suspicion struck me, then, just at that time, that all was not right,” McKenna later testified. “I began to see then where I stood.”
Concerned that trouble might be waiting at the little crossing where he usually jumped off because it was close to his boardinghouse, McKenna stayed on the train. He was glad he had when he saw several suspicious figures in the shadows around the usually deserted track.
After disembarking at the main station, he made his way toward McAndrew’s house through dark streets encrusted with oft-thawed and refrozen mud and snow. He exchanged greetings with a few friends and was alarmed when one pointedly ignored him. When he popped into a tavern, another offered him a drink, but the man’s hands shook so violently that he could barely pull the stopper from the bottle. McKenna wryly asked if he had the ague, although he knew the man was simply terrified to be with him.
A fellow named Edward Sweeney fell into step with him after he left the tavern, and McKenna innately sensed danger: “I got him to walk in front of me. I said my eyes were bad, and I could not see; that the pavements had holes in them … I got him ahead of me, and I made up my mind to keep him there.”
At McAndrew’s house, McKenna was unable to prise any information from his friend, so he waited until several others who were there left, and then, listening intently for sounds of pursuit, slipped out again. He ignored the direct route to his boardinghouse and crept through the edges of a swamp to avoid an ambush. Once inside his tiny bedroom he laid out his weapons and sat awake through the long, freezing night, keeping anxious watch between the tattered curtains into the moonlight for the men he was certain planned to kill him.
Early the next morning, his hand tucked inside his old brown coat gripping the cold butt of a .36 caliber Colt Navy revolver, McKenna entered a smoky Shenandoah saloon with McAndrew. “My God, man, don’t you know why you’ve been summoned here?” an acquaintance blurted before hurrying away.
McKenna did know. Only a couple of bodymasters – the heads of the AOH lodges – had arrived, and it was obvious that judgment had already been passed: There would be no hearing. McAndrew, the only person now willing to be seen with him, suggested they go for a ride in a “cutter,” a lightweight, open sleigh. Following them in another cutter were two AOH men. Once they were racing across the deep snow, McAndrew informed McKenna that one of them had been charged to kill him. “Have you got your pistols?” he asked.
McKenna answered in the affirmative, and McAndrew continued, “So have I, and I will lose my life for you. I do not know whether you are a detective or not, but I do not know anything against you. I always knew you were doing right, and I will stand by you. Why don’t they try you fair?” McAndrew then informed McKenna that he had saved his life the night before.
“He told me that John Kehoe had came to Shenandoah upon the afternoon previous, and that he had assembled … all the Mollies who were in town,” McKenna stated, “and that he told him, McAndrew, for God’s sake to have me killed that night or I would hang half the people in Schuylkill County; and McAndrew said that he consented, and Kehoe and the men were satisfied, and they assembled just a little below the depot, twelve or fourteen of them.”
But the men had been flummoxed when McKenna failed to alight at his usual location. They had been armed with iron bars, axes, and tomahawks, because shooting him would make too much noise and bring the police. “If you had stepped off the train, at that place, you would surely have been killed, cast into a wagon, which was in waiting for the purpose, and then tossed down a deserted shaft.”
Frightened himself, McAndrew paused to calm his voice. “You were in queer company then, and you will find you are in queer company now,” he said. “What will you do?”
“I do not give a cent,” spat McKenna, furious and indignant. “I am going down to Kehoe’s.”
It was four miles from Shenandoah to the rough-and-tumble borough of Girardville, where Kehoe ran the Hibernian House. Six feet two inches tall in his stocking feet, with “jet black, curly hair, bushy eyebrows, and bright blue, piercing eyes,” Kehoe was an intimidating figure. As well as being a publican, he also served as the town’s high constable. But McKenna was satisfied that Kehoe was something more – he was also the kingpin of the Molly Maguires.
McKenna knew that entering Hibernian House was akin to walking into a lion’s den, but he felt that he had no choice but to brazen out the situation – because, despite all his denials, he actually was an undercover detective.