Posts filed under 'Pennsylvania'

1895: John Eisenminger, forgiven

1 comment June 6th, 2019 Headsman

From the Harrisburg (Pa.) Patriot of June 7, 1895.

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1780: Dennis Carragan, John Hill, and Marmaduke Grant, robbers

Add comment May 6th, 2019 Headsman


From the Pennsylvania Packet, May 23, 1780.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Theft,USA

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1858: Alexander Anderson and Henry Richards

Add comment April 9th, 2019 Headsman

The story behind this stunning photograph of Alexander Anderson and Henry Richards on their Lancaster, Pa., gallows on April 9, 1858 we’re going to outsource to our friend (and occasional guest-blogger) Robert Wilhelm at Murder by Gaslight.

The only official witnesses were the twenty-four jurymen who convicted them, the sheriff, two deputies, two clergymen and state senator Cobb — a proponent of the death penalty who attended all Pennsylvania hangings.

Outside the prison walls, the public found other ways to witness the execution. People in surrounding houses could see inside the prison yard from their roofs. One entrepreneur erected a scaffolding on a hill outside the prison and charged a dollar a seat. Those without a view stood outside the prison walls waiting to cheer when the execution was confirmed.

Why were these men so hated? Read the whole thing at Murder by Gaslight.

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1799: Sarah Clark, a melancholy instance of human depravity

1 comment October 30th, 2018 Headsman

The ensuing poem, titled “Melancholy Instance of Human Depravity” and published in an 1805 collection, laments a serving-girl’s murder by arsenic of the master and mistress of her house. It was a crime of unrequited love: the intended victim of the poisoned bread was not this couple but their daughter, whom Sarah Clark fancied a rival for the affections of a young man in her former household. Sarah Clark hanged for the murders on October 30, 1799, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but Miss Isabella Oliver was never punished for her verse.

UPON the bank of a slow-winding flood
The good Alphonso’s modest mansion stood;
A man he was throughout the country known,
Of sterling sense, to social converse prone:
He walk’d the plains with such majestic grace,
When time had drawn its furrows on his face,
‘Twas easy to infer his youthful charms,
When first the fair Maria bless’d his arms:
Maria—Oh! what mix’d emotions rise,
Grief, pity, indignation; and surprise,
At thought of thee! —

Thy sweetness might have mov’d the harshest mind;
Thy kindness taught th’ ungentlest to be kind;
And yet a fiend enshrin’d in female mould
Could thy heart-rending agonies behold;
When by her cruel wiles thy wedded heart
Was basely sever’d from its dearest part.
The lov’d Alphonso’s breathless corpse she view’d,
And yet her harden’d heart was unsubdu’d.
Perhaps, she saw thee sink beside his bed,
Or lean in speechless sorrow o’er the dead;
Or heard thee faintly cry — The knot’s unti’d
Come, gentle death, thou cans’tnomore divide:
But spare our children, our lov’d offspring spare;
They still are young, and life is worth their care.
To me the charm that sweeten’d life is gone;
Weep not, my friends, I cannot die too soon.
Fast through her reins the subtle poison spread,
And join’d with grief, to bow her aged head.
Her children strive her drooping head to stay;
The monster works to rend those props away;
But triumphs not: a greater power sustains
And bears them through excruciating pains.
Oft did Maria, in serener days,
With tender transport on her offspring gaze;
Maternal love was pictur’d in her face,
The happy parent of a blooming race;
Now the fond mother feels at every pore;
Worse than her own, the pangs her children bore.
Yet still herself, sweet, affable, and mild,
The patient sufferer on her murd’rer smil’d;
Who by her bed officiously attends,
Concern and kind solicitude pretends,
Yet still pursues her own infernal ends.

Hence aid medicinal is render’d vain,
By frequent potions of the deadly bane;
While cruel torture rack Maria’s frame,
And by degrees puts out the vital flame.
Now pause, my muse, and seriously enquire,
What could this hellish cruelty inspire!
Why strike at those who no offence had given?
It seems like stabbing at the face of heaven!
In her dark mind what ugly passions breed!
Like gnawing worms, they on her vitals feed.
Without an object, what could malice do?
Alvina’s near, she’s often in her view;
In her polluted soul foul envy’s rais’d;
Because perhaps she hears Alvina prais’d;
A groundless jealousy her breast inflames;
‘Gainst thee, Alvina, she the mischief aims.
The wicked miscreant working in the dark,
Spreads ruin round, but cannot hit the mark:
A power divine restrains the falling blow
Thus far thou may’st, but shalt no farther go.
What deadly venom rankled in that breast!
What worse than poison must the soul infest,
Which still its fatal purpose could pursue,
Tho’ general destruction might ensue!
Oh! sin, prolific source of human woe!
To thee mankind their various sorrows owe;
Thro’ thee our world a gloomy aspect wears,
Ajd is too justly stil’d a vale of tears.
Man was first form’d upon a social plan;
And tie unnumber’d fasten man to man:
None are, howe’er debas’d, in form or mind,
Cut off from all communion with their kind.
Witness the wretched subject of these lines.
Alas! how many suffer’d by her crimes!
Who more detach’d, of less import, than she?
Yet mark her influence on society.
But there are crimes of a less shocking kind,
That find an easy pass from mind to mind:
As fire spreads from one building to another,
The vicious man contaminates his brother;
Why wonder, then, that Adam could deface
His maker’s image in an unborn race?
When his own hand the sacred stamp had torn,
Could he transmit it whole to sons unborn?
In him the foul contagion first began;
From sire to son the deadly venom ran;
Thus poisoning all the mighty mass of man.

The sad effect is dreadful to endure;
But human wisdom could not find a cure:
Thus, Scripture, reason, and experience, tend
To prove, the power that made alone can mend.
Oh! Christ, thou sum and source of every good,
Thou that for sinners shed’st thy precious blood,
In thee our various wants are all suppli’d;
Thy death our ransom, and thy life our guide.
In thee thy followers second life attain;
And man reflects his maker’s face again.
Is sin progressive, spreading every hour?
Has heaven-born virtue no diffusive power?
Our blessed Saviour is a living head;
The streams that issue from him can’t be dead,
But scatter life and fragrance, as they spread.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Arts and Literature,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,USA,Women

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1789: Five wheelbarrow men

3 comments October 12th, 2018 Headsman

John Byrns (aka Francis Burns), John Bennet, Daniel Cronan, John Ferguson (aka John Taylor) and John Logan* hanged in Philadelphia on this date in 1789.

The offenders were “wheelbarrow men,” which in the idiolect specific to late 1780s Pennsylvania denoted prisoners who were detailed, in order “to correct and reform offenders, and to produce such strong impressions on the minds of others as to deter them from committing the like offences,” to suffer “continued hard labour publicly and disgracefully imposed.”

As its own text declares, the 1786 statute creating this class was a part of Pennsylvania’s avant-garde move towards a penitential penal philosophy, with a corresponding reduction in capital sentences for property crimes: Pennsylvania had hanged about 40 people for mere robbery or burglary in the preceding decade. As explained by Louis Masur’s Rites of Execution: Capital Punishment and the Transformation of American Culture, 1776-1865 (which is also our source for the count of hanged thieves), “in 1786, most almanacs in Philadelphia and elsewhere included the proverb that industry promoted virtue.”

It became readily apparent, however, that the “wheelbarrow law” neither reformed the prisoners nor prevented vice. Indeed, it seemed to many that the convicts became even more licentious and that unprecedented amounts of criminal activity infested the community.

Such prisoners were “subjects of great terror, even while chained” given these walking spectacles’ notorious dissolution, and still worse their propensity for fleeing their wheelbarrows to become desperate fugitives. Pennsylvania newspapers from this era have an alarming quantity of notices published by gaolers warning of escaped wheelbarrow men … and not a few reports of actual or suspected crimes committed by them. For example …


Philadelphia Mercury, Oct. 23, 1788.

New-Hampshire Spy, Dec. 2, 1788.

By the time full 30 wheelbarrow-men escaped on a single night in October 1788, elite opinion had turned solidly against this disastrous experiment, and the law would be repealed by 1790 — substituting for public shaming the penitential benefits imposed solitude. But before the wheelbarrow men had disappeared into historical curiosity, our five of them in September 1789 robbed and also murdered a man named John McFarland in his home on Philadelphia’s Market Street.


New York Daily Gazette, Sep. 25, 1789.

* Quite a few Johns about down the years.

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1788: Levi and Abraham Doan, attainted Tories

Add comment September 24th, 2018 Headsman

On this date in 1788, Pennsylvania highwaymen-cousins Levi and Abraham Doan(e) were hanged on Windmill Island, Philadelphia.*

A whole clan of outlaws turned Revolutionary War Tories, the Doans — brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Joseph and the aforementioned Levi plus their cousin Abraham — “were all of the Quaker faith and did not believe in war,”** according to a descendant, but “The new government levied a tax upon Joseph, Sr., the father of the Tory Doan boys, confiscated his farm, threw his wife, 3 daughters and youngest son off of the land, jailed Joseph Sr. for non payment of taxes and branded him on his hand as a criminal. This was the given reason for the start of the notorious group known as the Tory Doans.” During the Revolutionary War they served their pecuniary interest by pillage, and their political interest by informing for the British army, in an exciting sequence of adventures. (A public domain history of the Doans amid the revolution can be enjoyed here.)

None of these activities being well calibrated to earn sympathy in the independent United States that emerged and Pennsylvania hit the lot with a judicial attainder issued by the Supreme Court and ratified by the General Assembly.

In a few years’ time the newborn country’s constitution would prohibit acts of attainder but for a few short years this heritage from the mother country — enabling some organ of the state to levy legal penalties on some outlaw party by decree, absent any sort of trial — incongruously continued in that land of the free. In these very pages we have previously noticed an attainder controversially invoked by brand-name founding fathers of Virginia, also against bandits with a pronounced Tory lean.

Likewise in Pennsylvania the Doan attainder “provoked a constitutional test.” (Source) When gang leader Aaron Doan was arrested, he faced the prospect of immediate execution; however, he was able to produce an alibi relative to the specific incident charged — the robbery of a county treasurer in 1781 — and “to the disappointment of many, he was reprieved under the gallows.” (Maryland Journal, Aug. 19, 1788) He later emigrated to Canada. (His brother Joseph did likewise.)

The kinsmen were not so lucky, this time coming out on the short end of the constitutional test case — as described by patriot statesman Charles Biddle, who made an unsuccessful intervention on their behalf in the Supreme Executive Council that wielded executive power in the commonwealth until 1790.†

The Legislature were inclined to pass a bill in their favor, and appointed a committee, consisting of Mr. Lewis, Mr. Fitzsimons and Mr. Rittenhouse, to confer with the Supreme Executive Council on the subject of their pardon. This I believe was what proved fatal to these young men. Several of the members of the Council thought the Legislature had no business to interfere, as the power of pardoning, by the Constitution, was given to the Council. They refused to pardon or extend the time fixed for their execution. It was in vain the members of the Legislature and the minority in the Council urged the peculiar situation of these unfortunate men; the majority were jealous of the interference of the Legislature, and it was carried by a very small majority, that they should suffer. Going to the Council the day afterwards, I met them going in a cart to the gallows, followed by their relations and friends. It was a very affecting sight. They died with great firmness.

* An island in the Delaware River which was later bisected by a ferry channel, dividing it into Smith’s Island and Windmill Island. Both islands were removed by civil engineers in the late 19th century as an aid to the Philadelphia port.

** To revolutionary patriots, Quakers looked a rather suspiciously British-friendly bunch.

† The body’s president at the time of the Doan hangings was no less than the $100 bill guy himself, Benjamin Franklin. Surprisingly, Benjamin’s son William Franklin had during the war years been the Tory governor of New Jersey in which capacity he had signed off on some political executions of his own.

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Entry Filed under: 18th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Death Penalty,Disfavored Minorities,Execution,Hanged,History,Notable Jurisprudence,Outlaws,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,Spies,Theft,USA

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1854: Willis Washam, “I never done it, though, boys”

Add comment August 25th, 2018 Headsman

Today’s hanging comes courtesy of a public domain History of Greene County, Missouri, whose account we reproduce in full below:


HANGING OF WILLIS WASHAM — THE FIRST LEGAL EXECUTION IN GREENE COUNTY.

August 25, 1854, the first legal hanging came off in Greene county. The subject was one Willis Washam, of Taney county. The crime which it was alleged Washam committed, and for which he was hung, was thus described at the trial: —

Washam lived on a little farm down on White river, near Forsyth, in Taney county. He was a poor man, somewhat well advanced in years, and lived a retired, obscure life. He had married a woman, who had a son, some fourteen years of age at the time of his death. The Washam family was not a model one. The old man and his wife had frequent quarrels, and both of them treated the son with great cruelty, frequently beating him with uncommon severity. It is said that the boy often showed fight, and was known to strike his mother with a single-tree and with a hoe.

One morning Washam and the boy went down on Bee creek to fish. According to the old man, when they reached the fishing place they separated. The boy never returned home alive. Some days afterward his body was found in Bee creek, with a heavy stone tied about the neck and marks of violence on the body. Mrs. Washam at once accused her husband of having killed her son, and, giving an alarm, he was at once arrested and imprisoned at Forsyth.

Becoming alarmed, Washam struck out for Arkansas, taking with him his own little boy, aged probably eight years, and riding a famous horse which he called “Tom Benton.” He worked on a cotton plantation down on the Arkansas river for some months, or until, as he said, he had a buckskin purse a foot in length full of silver dollars. His little boy never murmured for a long time, but at last one morning, while the two were lying in bed, he threw his arms about his father and said, “Daddy, when are you going to take me home to see my mammy?” Washam immediately arose, and in two hours was on his way back to Taney county, and behind him on old “Tom Benton,” was his little boy, who was overjoyed at the prospect of soon seeing his “mammy.” Arriving at home, Washam was cordially received by his wife, who told him that he was now considered innocent of the crime of which he was accused: that no proceedings had been commenced against him, and that indeed the matter had almost died out in the minds of the community. Washam lay down to sleep in fancied security, but before morning he missed his wife, and searching for her found that she had left the premises. Suspicioning that she had gone to Forsyth to betray him (which was true) Washam again mounted “Tom Benton” and started to escape. He had not gone far before he was overtaken by the sheriff of Taney county, and arrested and taken to Forsyth. On his way to Forsyth the sheriff said Washam offered him “Tom Benton” if he would let him escape; but Washam said that the sheriff himself offered “to look the other way” if Washam would give him his horse. Washam had been indicted and on being arraigned at Forsyth took a change of venue to this county. There were many threats made to lynch him by the people of Taney county. At the July term, 1854, of the circuit court of this county Washam was brought to trial. Judge Chas. S. Yancey presided. E. B. Boone was circuit attorney, A. G. McCracken clerk and Junius T. Campbell sheriff (by appointment). Hon. Littleberry Hendrick was the counsel for the prisoner. The jury before whom Washam was tried was composed of Ezekiel C. Cook, foreman; Wm. Gray, Qualls Banfield, Wm. White, James S. McQuirter, Sam’l McClelland, Mark Bray, John Freeman, Thos. Green, Joseph Moss, John R. Earnest, and Jabez R. Townsend. The trial lasted two days. The testimony was mainly of a circumstantial character, and that most damaging to the prisoner was the evidence of his wife. On the 21st of July the jury reurned a verdict of “guilty of murder in the first degree.” The next day Judge Yancey sentenced Washam to be hung at Springfield on the 25th of August following, — speedy punishment and short shrift certainly.

Mr. Hendrick made a hard fight for his client, but it was without avail. He made a strong speech to the jury, and urged the members to be careful not to hang a fellow-man on circumstantial evidence. After Washam was sentenced Mr. Hendrick moved for a new trial and for arrest of judgment; both motions were overruled. He then moved for a suspension of the sentence until the case could be heard in the Supreme Court; this motion was also overruled. He then prepared to appeal the case to the Supreme Court, but as there was to be an adjourned term of the circuit court held in August, he decided to attempt to set aside the sentence of the court then. At this adjourned term, two days before the hanging of his client, he moved to vacate, set aside, and annul the judgment of the court and set aside the verdict of the jury, but Judge Yancey refused to take any action in the matter.

It is doubtful if Mr. Hendrick could have secured a new trial for his client in the Supreme Court, since all the proceedings had been regular, and there remained but the matter of guilt and innocence, questions of fact, which the jury had passed upon; yet it is strange that he did not take the case to the Supreme Court, at any rate, even if but for the purpose of delay, and it is said that he afterward expressed regret that he did not do so, as he was fully convinced of VVasham’s innocence.

On the 25th of August, the day set for the execution, without commutation, postponement, or mitigation of the sentence, Willis Washam was hung. The execution took place in the northeastern part of Springfield, on the north side of “Jordan,” [Creek] and west of the present site of the cotton factory. The gallows stood not far from the tree on which the negro ravisher was hung. An immense crowd from all parts of Southwest Missouri was present, coming from Buffalo, from Bolivar, from Warsaw, and other points miles away. Washam made a short speech on the gallows, saying he was innocent of the crime for which he was to be made to suffer, “and,” said he, “if I had plenty of money to hire big lawyers with and pay expenses, I could get clear. My old woman has sworn my life away, but I am ready to die. I never done it, though, boys; I never done it.”

Sheriff Samuel Fulbright had been elected sheriff a few days previously, and he was the executioner. It is said that he always regretted the part he had to perform on this occasion, even to his dying day, and there are those silly enough to allege, without any good reason, that this was the moving cause that impelled him to take his own life, which he did, by poison, only a few years since. Washam died game, and after being pronounced dead his body was cut down and given to Dr. —-, of Springfield, who used it for scientific purposes. A few years since a story was put in circulation and obtained some credence, that Mrs. Washam, wife of him who was hung and mother of the murdered boy, had died at her home in Taney or Wright county, and on her deathbed, it is said, she made confession that her husband was innocent of the crime for which he died at Springfield, and that she, herself, had perpetrated the dreadful deed and murdered her own son with her own hands, tying the stone to his neck and sinking the body in Bee creek, and, then by all manner of devices, had contrived to fasten the burden of guilt upon her husband, and caused him to suffer what should have been her punishment. After careful investigation the writer has been unable to obtain a corroboration of this story, and does not hesitate to declare it a fabrication. At any rate, from the evidence and all of the facts adduced, there seems no reasonable doubt but that Washam was guilty of a deliberate and atrocious murder and suffered a just punishment. It is said that the story of Mrs. Washam’s confession was first told by an ingenious but unscrupulous attorney, who was trying to acquit a client of murder in the circuit court of this county.


Meanwhile, in Pennsylvania, another family homicide was avenged on the scaffold. This account from the Washington (Penn.) Review and Examiner of September 9 that same year will read very banal to anyone without an abiding interest in the particulars of the Anglo hanging ritual, until we come to the final paragraph’s gruesome revelation that “the left eye was found to be forced out of its socket and very black all around; the knot of the rope was on this side.”

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Missouri,Murder,Pennsylvania,Public Executions,USA

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1844: Samuel Mohawk

Add comment March 22nd, 2018 Headsman


Philadelphia Sun, March 26, 1884.

On this date in 1844, Samuel Mohawk, an indigenous Seneca Indian, was hanged for slaughtering Mary McQuiston Wigton and her five children in Slippery Rock, Penn.

Many witnesses noticed Mohawk in a violent rage as he traveled by stage from New York, and his mood grew fouler with drink and with the repeated refusal of hospitality by white establishments. It’s unclear what specific trigger turned his evil temper to murder at the Wigton residence — if there was any real trigger at all — but in his fury, he pounded the brains of his victims out of their skulls with rocks. The case remains locally notorious to this day, in part for being the first execution in Butler County.

I’d tell you all about it but the (inert but very interesting) blog YesterYear Once More has already got it covered.

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1875: A day in the death penalty on opposite sides of Pennsylvania

Add comment January 20th, 2018 Headsman

Pennsylvania, that state once described as Philadelphia in the east and Pittsburgh in the west with Alabama in between, had dueling hangings in its two metropolises on this date in 1875.

Philadelphia: Frederick Heidenblut

German immigrant Fritz Heidenblut, who weighed in at a reported 52 kg, strangled to death on a too-short drop. Boarding with the Kuhnle family, Heidenblut had unexpectedly attacked them on Dec. 31, 1873, with the base objective of stealing cash and valuables.

The mother (barely) survived the ordeal, and would later describe how she

was suddenly awakened by a heavy weight pressing upon my breast; and, looking up, I found Fritz kneeling on me, and his hands grasping my throat. He did not speak, and I was unable to do so. In the struggle I scratched his face, and he bit off a piece of my ear and the end of one of my fingers. He then left me for dead, as I suppose, and went to the bureau-drawer, from which he took $55.

When Mrs. Kuhnle came to, she was able to crawl downstairs where she found her husband murdered in the family bakehouse. Heidenblut was arrested that evening, blowing through the $55 at a nearby tavern.

After execution, Heidenblut’s body was turned over to physicians for galvanic experimentation.

Pittsburgh: Samuel Beightley, Jr.

While Heidenblut’s spirit faltered visibly as his hanging-day approached, Pittsburgh’s Samuel Beightley maintained his obnoxious joviality — even pranking his counsel with a fool’s errand to find his “hidden treasure” on the eve of execution.

Beightley, a few days after being discharged from his seasonal farmhand gig by Murrayville farmer Joseph Kerr in autumn 1873, had returned and slaughtered Mr. Kerr, again with the motive of robbery. Like his Philadelphian brother in homicide, Beightley earned low marks for concealment, leaving his own bloodied coat at the murder scene as he retired home where he popped into bed and pretended to be asleep when the posse came.

“To see Beightley was to hate him,” observed the Chicago Daily Tribune, whose Jan. 21, 1875 issue is our source for both crimes in this post.

He was of that peculiarly brutal cast of countenance which shows murder in the very cut of the jaws, and the bull-neck was but the mere accompaniment to an evidently-merciless disposition. He was about 22 years old, and rather short, but stoutly built. His conduct since his condemnation showed the nature of the man. He evidenced no sorrow or remorse for the killing of the old man, who to him had proved a good and true friend. Beightly was fond of rowing, and led a lazy, vagabond life, scarcely ever working. He lived mostly by petty thefts.

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pennsylvania,Theft,USA

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1879: Charles Drews and Frank Stichler, graveyard insurance

Add comment November 14th, 2017 Headsman

On this date in 1879, a third of a conspiracy known as the “Blue-Eyed Six” — guess why — hanged for murder.

Having taken out insurance policies on an aged recluse named Joseph Raber, four other men grew tired of waiting for their prospective windfall to shuffle off and hired our date’s principals, Charles Drew and Frank Stichler, to accelerate his actuarial table.

Around dusk on Saturday, December 7, 1878 Drews went into the tavern at Brandt’s hotel and told the people there that Joe Raber was dead. That afternoon he and Stichler had paid a call on Joseph Raber and offered him some tobacco if he would accompany them to Kreiser’s Store. Raber agreed to go with them. The trip to the store had required crossing Indiantown Creek on a crude bridge made of two twelve inch planks. Drews said Raber had a dizzy spell part way across, fell into the water and drowned.

That’s from the account of the sensational case by our friends at Murder By Gaslight. Read on to discover the fate of the four insurance investors …

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Entry Filed under: 19th Century,Capital Punishment,Common Criminals,Crime,Death Penalty,Execution,Hanged,Murder,Pelf,Pennsylvania,USA

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