Monday, May 9, 2016

The Murder of Alexander Rea

Rea family plot, Fairview Cemetery, Danville
Alexander's is the stone on the right
This entry is the first part of two articles.

I parked at the entrance to Fairview Cemetery in Danville and studied the field of stone – I knew where I had to go to find the grave I sought. This was not the first time I visited this cemetery, having stopped years ago with Mike to seek out the grave of a man who played an important role in regional history. The man I came to pay my respects to was murdered over a century ago and while three men were executed for his death, they may not have been guilty of the crime at all.

But I’ll get to that shortly – I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself.

I walked along the roadway that passes through the cemetery and within minutes was standing before the grave I sought. Here was the final resting place of a man who sought to improve the lives of miners and their families and was rewarded by a senseless and brutal murder. The simple stone lists Alexander Rea along with his wife and two children; a similar stone next to this one is the grave of his son, Alexander.

When it comes to Alexander’s early life, little is known. In fact, little has been revealed about his life before he moved to Danville. What is known is he was born in Flemington, New Jersey on May 3, 1924. He studied at Lafayette College and after graduation took up engineering at the Franklin Institute. Following his completion of studies, he moved to Danville.

Alexander's grave
In 1852, he helped bring the railroad into the Mahoney Valley and later would have it extended into Centralia. In 1853, he accepted a position with the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company and set up a temporary office in the Bull’s Head Tavern. The following year Alexander married Ann Garretson of Danville and within a year they moved into a house just south of the tavern Bull’s Head.

Alexander saw an opportunity for growth in many areas, including a town to house workers.
Rea immediately set about laying out a town around the tavern which he named Centreville. When the post office was established, the community was informed there was already a Centreville post office in Pennsylvania. The Post Office Department required that the post office be renamed. Alexander renamed the post office – and the town – Centralia, hoping it would become a center of industry. In 1866, the community of Centralia became official with a population of 1,300 people.

But Alexander would not see his town grow and flourish.

The morning of October 17, 1868, Alexander’s life came to a violent end. It was not a mining accident that claimed his life, but a senseless act of violence. Alexander left his family at Centralia and headed to Mount Carmel to pay some bills. Also on his agenda for the day was a planned stop at the colliery he ran along the way.

About halfway between the two towns was a watering trough for horses and he made it as far as there, when he was approached by a group of five men. The group of robbers, who had been spotted lingering near the watering trough by a teamster who passed by earlier, thought Alexander was carrying the company payroll (about $18,000) with him. The group of men searched his buggy and failed to find any trace of the payroll. Instead Rea only had his pocketbook with sixty dollars in it and a pocket watch on him.

Suddenly afraid that he could identify the robbers, they shot him.

That evening his horse arrived at the house without Alexander and a search was started and went until it was too dark to see. A group of men camped out on the mountain that night and early the next morning they discovered his lifeless body, lying face-up along the road between Mount Carmel and Centralia. Alexander had been shot six times – twice in the left breast, twice through the neck and twice in the head. His body was then carried a short distance into the woods and concealed under some brush.

Within a month, four men were arrested for the crime. Thomas Donohue, John Duffy and Michael Pryor (also spelled Prior in many of the newspapers) were arrested and charged with the murder of Alexander Rea. A fourth man, Patrick Hester was also wanted, but was in Illinois at the time. When he returned, he turned himself in to the authorities.

Close-up of Alexander's grave
The first of the trials was that of Thomas Donohue. Thomas owned a tavern in Ashland and it was at his place that the plan for the robbery supposedly came about. Here, according to the prosecution, Patrick Hester planted the idea of robbing Alexander Rea. When the star witness could not remember places and details, the jury came back with a verdict of “Not Guilty.” The moment the verdict was read Donohue was arrested again – while still in the courtroom – for attempting to rob Major Claude White near Pottsville on two different occasions. The judge demanded his release until Donohue was out of the courtroom. As soon as Thomas left the courtroom he was rearrested and taken to the Pottsville prison to await trial for those charges.

Duffy and Pryor were the next two trials and both were found “Not Guilty.” The newspapers reported that no evidence was presented in the trial of Michael Pryor. Patrick Hester was not tried and let go.

The death of Alexander Rea was the start of a period of violence in Centralia. Theft ran rampant and fighting in the streets seemed to increase dramatically.  The living conditions were so bad that many of the leading citizens fled from the town and it was not safe to be outside after dark. The violence would increase until 1874 when Michael Lanathan was shot and killed and Thomas Dougherty was murdered on his way to work. The murders happened within a month of each other and were shrouded in mystery. As far as I’m able to tell, neither murder was solved, but locals whispered it was the work of the Mollie Maguires. It took these two murders for law to return to Centralia.

As I stood there paying my respects to Alexander Rea, I could not help but feel angry. After all he did for the miners and the town of Centralia, he was shot down coldly in a robbery gone wrong. Ann must have felt the same way because shortly after his murder, she moved with her family back to Danville.

It would take ten years before another group of men were arrested and brought to trial for Alexander’s murder, due to the claims of a man known to locals as “Kelly the Bum.”

The second part of this articles can be found here: Patrick Hester.

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