Monday, May 16, 2016

The Trial of Patrick Hester

St. Mary's Cemetery, Mount Carmel
Hester's grave is on left about two rows back
This entry is part two of two. This story starts in “The Murder of Alexander Rea," and can be found here: Alexander Rea.

On October 17, 1868, Alexander Rea was robbed and killed on the road between Mount Carmel and Centralia. Four men, including Patrick Hester, were initially arrested for the crime. Three of the men were tried and found “Not Guilty,” but Hester was never brought to trial. He returned to his tavern at Locust Gap Junction and his everyday life.

I arrived at St. Mary’s Cemetery in search for the final resting place of Patrick Hester…and realized I was at the wrong St. Mary’s Cemetery. Pulling up the online maps I found a number of cemeteries in the area, and  soon arrived at the correct St. Mary’s Cemetery. Within seconds had located Patrick’s grave.

Patrick Hester was born May 4, 1825 in County Roscommon, Ireland. In 1846 he immigrated to America and initially settled in Minersville. Hester would later move to Locust Gap Junction where he opened a tavern called the Junction House. He would become involved in a secret society known as the Ancient Order of Hiberians (AOH), which was founded in 1836. To belong to the AOH one had to be Catholic and of Irish descent. AOH assisted Irish immigrants in obtaining work and helped them with a variety of social services. Hester would rise to become county head of the organization.

However, the AOH in the coal regions has been intertwined with the Mollie Maguires. Some claim they were two separate organizations while others claim that they were one and the same. After reading through a number of trial transcripts and histories of the region, I personally do not believe that the AOH were Mollies, nor do I believe an organization known as the Mollie Maguires existed. However, I do believe that various members within the organization promoted violence and helped to hide those members wanted by authorities.

Patrick was no stranger to violence. On May 26, 1872, Hester and three others wanted to bury a man named Brennan (who was supposedly a Mollie) on the grounds of St. Edwards Catholic Cemetery in nearby Shamokin. However according to Father John Koch, anyone associated with the Mollies should not be buried in their cemetery, and attempted to stop the burial. Hester beat up Father Koch and tossed him out of the cemetery. He was sentenced to three years in Eastern State Penitentiary, for rioting.

In 1877, almost ten years after the murder of Alexander Rea, Patrick was once again arrested for the murder of Rea. He, along with Patrick Tully and Peter McHugh, were accused of the crime by an informant known as “Kelly the Bum.”

“Kelly the Bum,” also known as Daniel Kelly, was born Manus Cull (also spelled Coll and Kull in newspaper accounts) and in 1865 arrived in America from Ireland. Cull was a noted liar and thief. In 1869, he was convicted of highway robbery and spent some time in prison. In November 1874, he was again sentenced to three years in the Pottsville Prison, this time for grand larceny. Cull soon began telling a tale that he would repeat until he sat in a courtroom and told the same story. On January 6, 1877, in exchange for his testimony, Governor Hartranft gave him a full pardon for his crimes.

Grave of Patrick Hester
and wife Catherine
In February 1877, Patrick Hester, Peter McHugh, and Patrick Tully were tried, with Cull being the prosecution’s prime witness. On the stand Cull claimed that on the evening before Rea’s murder a group of men, including the three accused, gathered at an Ashland tavern owned by Thomas Donohue. Donohue was one of the three men tried in 1869 for the crime and was found “Not Guilty.” In Cull’s testimony, Donohue was not at the tavern the evening the crime was planned, but was aware of the plans.

While in the tavern Hester informed the men that Rea would be carrying the company payroll (worth around $18,000) with him and the group had an opportunity to get rich. The group set out the next morning and along the way Hester gave Cull his pistol because the one Cull carried was no good. After that Hester left the group to go to Shamokin.

When the group stopped Rea he was ordered out of his buggy so the robbers could search for the payroll. Rea handed over his pocketbook (his wallet, but referred to as his pocketbook in the newspapers) which contained sixty dollars, and his gold pocket watch. When they realized that he was not carrying the payroll, McHugh made the decision to kill Rea. Tully and Cull both fired the first shots and Tully supposedly fired the final shot into Rea’s head ending his life. Cull farther testified the group split the sixty dollars between them and gave him ten dollars, the pocketbook (which he threw out after leaving the scene of the crime), and the gold pocket watch which he later sold. Hester was not at the scene of the crime and did not receive anything from the robbery.

Cull would also mention that he knew Hester through a secret society that often called themselves the Mollie Maguires. The prosecution’s closing arguments seemed more focused upon the men being Mollies and a fear that Mollie Maguirism would take root in Columbia County rather than looking at the facts of the murder.

The defense produced more than twenty witnesses that all stated that Cull was a notorious liar and should never be trusted. Despite the testimonies against Cull’s credibility the jury found all three guilty of the murder. Hester’s verdict would be appealed to the state supreme court, who found Cull’s testimony credible and upheld the verdict of the lower courts.

The date of the execution was set for March 25, 1878, and was an absolute disaster. The scaffold had been sent up from Pottsville. This was the same scaffold that had been used in the majority Mollie Maguire executions. Sheriff Hoffman marched the men through the grounds of the crowded prison yard and past their soon to be coffins. As the nooses were placed around their necks, Patrick gave his final words, “I’ve got nothing to say of any account. If it hadn’t been for my enemies I wouldn’t have been here. I forgive all my enemies and hope God will do the same.”

As soon as the traps were sprung, the crowd rushed forward in a morbid attempt to get a better view, pushing and shoving other people out of the way and surprisingly nobody was trampled to death. Sadly the nooses were not placed correctly and the three men strangled to death over a period of twelve minutes rather than having a quick death. A nearby shed that held spectators collapsed killing thirteen-year-old Sunny Williams and Joseph Engst fell from the roof of a nearby hotel and was killed.

Hester was returned to Locust Gap and buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery. McHugh and Tully were buried in unmarked graves in Wilkes-Barre.

Close-up of Patrcik's Tombstone
Now before I continue, I want to clarify that what follows is my opinion, especially after reading through regional newspapers and countless articles.

I cannot deny that Patrick Hester was seemingly a violent man, but honestly I believe he was railroaded in this trial. First, Hester would have known that the payroll had already been distributed the day before the crime. Owning a tavern, he would have been aware that the miners had been paid, especially seeing the miners enjoyed a good drink or two. Second, if he planned the robbery, then why didn’t he get a share of it? The person who received the majority of it was Cull, who got his share of money, the pocketbook, and the pocket watch.

I believe that evidence points towards Cull as being the ringleader and the organizer of Rea’s murder. Cull had many times held up travelers, robbing them of their goods and he was also known to beat up and rob drunk miners. Cull was banished from Hazleton for robbing a man. Looking at the Cull’s testimony, he reveals an interesting point – Hester did not plan it, but merely mentioned that Rea was known to carry a lot of money on him on days the payroll was to be distributed.

I’ve read Tully’s confession and there are some things about it that I question because in one moment he is saying Hester is innocent and the next he was guilty. However, one thing he did insist on was Cull had told a number of lies on the stand.

Hester was executed for a murder he did not plan nor participate in. So why would somebody want Hester dead? Might have it been the judicial system of that day? Might it have been all the work of the special prosecutor of the Mollie trials? But that conspiracy is another story for another day.

I paid my final respects to Patrick Hester before leaving the cemetery. I left with even more questions that will never be answered; and even more doubts in my mind of him being guilty in Rea’s murder. But only he knows the truth…and he’s not talking.

1 comment:

  1. Very well written! Pat Hester is part of my family history so I enjoy reading about him. Thank you!