They May Have Been Innocent
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The Mollie Maguire saga is a much discussed aspect of the legend and lore of the Pennsylvania Anthracite coal region. What is not so well known is that only four of the 20 men hanged as a result of the Mollie Maguire trials were from Northumberland County and only one of the two murders of which they stood accused was definitely linked to socio-political activism. Peter McManus of Coal Run was hanged in 1879 for the Dec. 18, 1874, murder of Frederick Hesser of Shamokin, Northumberland County coroner and night watchman at Hickory Swamp Colliery. McManus reportedly acted on the order of Dennis Canning, Shamokin Division bodymaster for the Mollies, who said later he couldn't remember why he'd had Hesser assassinated. Canning, incidentally, was among a number who informed on their friends in return for immunity. Patrick Hesser, Patrick Tully and Peter McHugh were hanged in 1878 for the murder 10 years earlier of Alexander Rea, Mount Carmel, a mine superintendent. The motive for the crime was clearly robbery and there is cause for speculation that the defendants may have been innocent. Pat Hester, a Locust Gap tavern owner, was the most prominent of the trio. An official of the Ancient Order of Hibernians, he definitely had links to the Mollie Maguire leadership in Schuylkill County where the majority of the activism took place. Hearsay testimony also links him to at least one other Northumberland County robbery. Adding a note of irony, Hester's daughter, Maria, was wooed by Pinkerton detective James McParlan, aka McKenna, in the spring of 1875 in line with his efforts to infiltrate the Mollie inner circle. Later, McParlan turned his attentions to Jimmy Kerrigan's sister-in-law, Mary Ann Higgins, who afforded better connections to the Schuylkill County ringleaders. Hester, Tully and McHugh were brought to trial solely on the accusation of one Daniel Kelly, an alcoholic familiarly known as "Kelly the Bum." While jailed in Pottsville, Kelly confessed to his own involvement in Rea's murder and turned state's evidence on the other three in return for immunity. Despite protests of innocence, the three were convicted and sentenced to be hanged on March 25, 1878, at Bloomsburg. The records tesify that the only ones who behaved properly on that black day were the brave boys from Northumberland County who accepted their fate calmly and with dignity, not even flinching when the three pine coffins were dumped unceremoniously at the foot of the gallows as the nooses were being placed round their necks. If the trhee were indeed innocent as some suspect, there was a certain amount of retribution for their deaths. The crowd which gathered to witness the hangings was uncommonly large and unruly. It was reported that Sheriff John W. Hoffman was so drunk he was barely able to stand when he pulled the rope on Paddy Hester. A dozen spectators clambered onto the roof of a nearby chicken shed to watch and it collapsed under their weight, smothering to death 13-year-old Sunny Williams. Farmer Joseph Engst became drunk and fell from the roof of the Exchange Hotel, crushing his skull. The boisterous crowd upset the buggy of William Yiengst, causing injury to his wife. And, to top it off, someone stole Hester's wedding ring before his body was stiff. The ring was later returned by Abby Engle, a railroader, who apologized that he had been "carried away by the emotion of the day."