Franklin B. Gowen

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Franklin Benjamin Gowen
Born February 9, 1836
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Died December 13, 1889
Washington, DC

Franklin Benjamin Gowen ( February 9, 1836 – December 13, 1889) served as president of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad (also known by the abbreviated name, the Reading Railroad) in the 1870s. During his tenure, he was the special prosecutor in the trial to break up the Molly Maguires, a secret organization of Irish Catholic mine workers known for their acts of violence against the mine owners; the controversial trial resulted in the executions of nearly 20 members of the organization and the organization's official dissolution.

He was born in Philadelphia, the fifth son of Irish Protestant immigrant and successful grocer, James Gowen. Franklin Gowen studied law and was elected District Attorney for Schuylkill County in 1862. In the 1870s, as president of the Reading Railroad, he became the wealthiest anthracite coal mine owner in the world. Throughout his time with the railroad and afterward, he continued practicing law and trying cases. Gowen died of a gunshot wound on December 13, 1889, at Wormley's Hotel in Washington, DC, but there is still a question as to whether his death was suicide or the result of a revenge killing by former members of the Molly Maguires.

Family, education and early law practice

James Gowen, described as a "hot-tempered, domineering, old Irishman", had emigrated from Ireland in 1811, and by 1834, was listed as a "wine merchant" following the purchase of 500 S. 5th Street in Philadelphia for US$3,000; the property, which would become the Gowen household and store, consisted of a brick building with retail space on the ground floor and living quarters above it. He kept the property until 1846 when he sold it to an innkeeper named Peter Woods.

Franklin Gowen was among nine children born to the marriage of James Gowen and Mary Miller. He attended John Beck's Boys Academy, studied law, and in 1862 was elected District Attorney for Schuylkill County.

Many of the cases that he saw during his tenure at this office could not be fully prosecuted for one reason or another; no matter how hard he tried, his suspects would always come up with alibis. Whether he knew it or not at the time, many of the accused were members of the Molly Maguires, an association of Irish immigrants known for violence against its members' employers. The Maguires members would always supply each other with strong enough alibis to keep them out of prison. Gowen needed more manpower and money to properly prosecute these cases.

The Reading Railroad and the Molly Maguires

Gowen rises to the presidency

Gowen joined the Reading in 1864 as chief counsel for the railroad, having gained the trust of the railroad's current president Charles E. Smith. He was responsible for a court victory over the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Reading's directors were impressed, so that when the railroad's president fell ill they appointed Gowen president of the railroad in 1866. Within two years, he had orchestrated a coup that would keep him in the president's seat for almost the next fifteen years. Smith officially resigned from the presidency on April 28, 1869, opening the position for Gowen to assume. Smith harbored resentment over Gowen for many years to come.

Investigating the unions

James McParland who infiltrated the WBA and the Molly Maguires for Pinkerton.
James McParland who infiltrated the WBA and the Molly Maguires for Pinkerton.

As president of the railroad, Gowen had the means to properly investigate the criminal element that he had seen so often before he joined the railroad; in 1873 he paid US$100,000 to the Pinkerton Detective Agency in an effort to break up the Workingmen's Benevolent Association (WBA) labor union. Pinkerton's agents discovered that the WBA was intimately associated with the Molly Maguires. The Maguires influence was such that if a mine superintendent did not follow the suggestions of the local "body-master" (the local Maguires superintendent), then that mine superintendent could count on a rather sudden end for himself.

Although the Maguires were an organization for Irish immigrants, they were predominantly a Catholic organization while Gowen was Protestant. While the investigation was proceeding, Gowen and the Reading Railroad were secretly buying up as many anthracite mines as they could get their hands on. By the end of the 1870s, Gowen's mine holdings covered about 125,000 acres (506 km²), the largest holdings in the world.

In 1875 Gowen, armed with evidence of the Maguires involvement, and other mine owners all reduced mine wages by 10 to 20%. As they had expected, the mine workers waged a strike that turned violent. Ten people, primarily mine superintendents, died in scuffles in Reading, Pennsylvania, which gave Gowen the physical evidence he needed to bring the case to trial.

The trial and sentencing of the Molly Maguires

The effort to break up the union culminated in a controversial trial that began on January 18, 1876, in which Gowen was the special prosecutor. James McParland, a Pinkerton spy who had successfully infiltrated the Maguires under the alias James McKenna was the prosecution's main witness. Irish Catholics were excluded from the jury, but German immigrants who didn't speak English were allowed on the jury. When the trial ended, nearly 20 men were found guilty of murder during the strike and were executed. The last of the executions took place on June 21, 1877, at the Carbon County Prison in Mauch Chunk (later renamed Jim Thorpe, Pennsylvania), as four members of the Maguires were hanged.

The Carbon County Prison was closed in 1995 and reopened on June 21, 1997, as The Old Jail Museum. One mysterious artifact of the executions remains — a handprint on the wall of the execution chamber left by one of the convicted men. As he was led to his execution he made the handprint and stated that it would remain forever on the wall to prove his innocence; even after thorough cleaning, painting, cementing and building a new wall, the handprint still remains intact.

Life after the railroad

Gowen left the Reading in 1883 and returned to his law practice. Shortly before his death, many of Gowen's friends and associates noticed a change in his overall mood. They remarked upon his more somber demeanor and noted that for a trip home to Philadelphia, he had boarded the wrong train. Gowen wrote to his insurance agent on December 9, 1889, to ask if he could cash in his $90,000 life insurance policy. Three days later, after he had arrived in Washington, DC, to argue a case before the Interstate Commerce Commission, Gowen purchased a revolver at a hardware store on Pennsylvania Avenue.

Franklin Gowen died of a gunshot wound on Friday, December 13, 1889, at Wormly's Hotel in Washington, DC. Some have speculated that his death was the result of action by the Molly Maguires, while others have said that he committed suicide as a result of the guilt he felt for framing union members. The coroner ruled the death a suicide, but like other famous deaths, questions remain and are still debated to this day.

Charles Smith, Gowen's predecessor at the railroad who had been ousted in a coup led by Gowen, had his comeuppance as he survived Gowen for another eleven years.

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