Monday, May 20, 2019

Murder, Mayhem and Molly Maguires: The Bartholomews on the Case in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania

Mr. [Lin] Bartholomew is in some respects a most remarkable man.  He is brilliant, witty and eloquent, possessing in a high degree magnetic power of voice and manner; is a good judge of human nature, and understands the motives and hidden springs by which human conduct is governed. As a consequence he selects a jury well, exercises judgment in his offer of testimony, and cross-examines witnesses with prudence.  His strong position is before the jury. 

[Lin Bartholomew was] a rising young lawyer with a tongue as sharp as a razor.

--contemporary accounts of  Lindsay "Lin" Coates Bartholomew (1834-1880), prominent criminal attorney of Pottsville, Pennsylvania and father of Frances Ritter Bartholomew of Phialdelphia (1873-1939), a close friend of crime writer Richard "Rickie" Wilson Webb (1901-1966)

"Character!  Character!  What can I say of this despicable wretch, this curse let loose from hell, a confessed murderer, a participant in the most fearful of crimes."

--Lin Bartholomew dramatically impeaching a witness who turned state's evidence against his miner client in one of the Molly Maguires trials conducted in Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania in the 1870s

Lindsay "Lin" Coates Bartholomew
father of Frances Ritter Bartholomew
one of the Philadelphia friends of
Richard Wilson Webb
One of the most infamous episodes of the often murderously violent Victorian-era labor-capital struggle in the United States took place in the 1860s and 1870s in the anthracite coal region of northeastern Pennsylvania, where miners found themselves pitted, if you will, against mine owners, as embodied, respectively, by the sinister secret organization known as the "Molly Maguires" and its twin nemeses, the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad and the the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, both of which were headed in the 1870s by attorney Franklin B. Gowen, who in my view more than matched the putative Molly Maguires for covert nefariousness.

Determined to break the power of his labor opposition, Gowen in 1873 approached the Pinkerton National Detective Agency and obtained the services of one of their operatives, James McParland

The wily Pinkerton Op was tasked with infiltrating the Molly Maguires, an organization so nebulous that it was claimed by many not even actually to exist in the United States.  (It was also said that the the members of the MM had sneakily hidden behind a supported peaceable front group, the Irish fraternal organization known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians.) 

For a period of over two years, James McParland industriously collected evidence of supposed Molly Maguire involvement in more than fifty murders in Schuylkill County that had occurred over the last dozen years. (Good gad!  You would think the United States was a violent country or something.)

Franklin B. Gowen
After Franklin Gowen broke a strike among Schuylkill County miners in 1876, he lodged murder charges against supposed Molly Maguires, with the result that twenty men were executed, hanged on a gallows in Pottsville, the seat of Schuylkill county.  Ten men were hanged on a single day, known ever after to the Irish Catholic mining community as "Black Thursday." 

In an outrageous conflict of interest, the sort of thing that makes one despair for American democracy as anything but a hollow sham, railroad president Franklin Gowen acted as the state's special prosecutor in the trials, with his hired man, Pinkerton spy James McParland, serving as his chief witness. Certainly Gowen showed no lack of zealous ruthlessness in destroying his enemies.

One authority commented acerbically that the whole thing was essentially a private prosecution, with the State of Pennsylvania providing only the courtroom and the inevitable gallows.  Irish Catholics were excluded from the juries, as they presumably would be more sympathetic to the miner defendants, themselves all Irish Catholics.  Whether or not the defendants were really guilty of murders, these trials were most iniquitously conducted. 

The Encyclopedia of Conspiracy Theories in American History states it well:

a menacing "coffin notice" suppsoedly left by members
of the Molly Maguires to intimidate their enemies
in the management of the mines


The convicted men were members of an alleged secret society called the "Molly Maguires," said to have been imported from the Irish countryside, where a society of the same name was active in the 1840s....Their trials, conducted in the midst of enormously hostile national publicity, were a travesty of justice.  The defendants were arrested by the private police force of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, whose ambitious president, Franklin B. Gowen, had financed the Pinkerton operation.  They were convicted on the evidence of an undercover detective who was accused (somewhat half-heartedly) by the defense of being an agent provocateur, supplemented by the confessions of a series of informers who had turned state's evidence to save their necks.  Irish Catholics were excluded from the juries as a matter of course.  Most of the prosecuting attorneys worked for railroad and mining companies.  Remarkably Franklin B. Gowen himself appeared as the star prosecutor at several trials, with his courtroom speeches rushed into popular print as popular pamphlets....

....Even by nineteenth-century standards the arrests, trials and executions were flagrant in their abuse judicial procedure and their flaunting of corporate power.  Yet only a handful of dissenting voices were heard....

illustration of miners from Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear

A decade later, Franklin Gowen was found dead from a shot to the head inside a locked hotel room in Washington, DC.  Some said he committed suicide (supposedly there was a history of insanity in his family), while others boasted that the Molly Maguires must have gotten to him at last.  It would have made a great scenario for a John Dickson Carr detective novel, but Carr, himself a native Pennsylvanian, sadly never spun such a tale. 

The most famous mystery that did come out of the labor-capital conflict in Schuylkill was Arthur Conan Doyle's The Valley of Fear (1915), which draws heavily, forty years after the event, on what were not remarkably impartial accounts of the episode provided by Pinkeron Detective Agency founder Allan Pinkerton and his son, the latter of whom met Doyle during a Trans-Atlantic cruise after the turn of the century. 

Pinkerton Op McParland
who detected in the coal country
a massive criminal conspiracy among
native Irish miners--or so he testified
Doyle might have heard a different story from Lindsay Coates Batholomew, a Civil War veteran, former state legislator and prominent Schuylkill County attorney, who was a key member of the team of defense attorneys at the Molly Maguires trials. 

At the trials "Lin," as he was known, went toe-to-toe with Franklin Gowen, a florid and fearsomely fluent speaker who published his courtroom orations as commercial pamphlets which he sold to his adoring public, to whom in their eyes he was a staunch upholder of public order and the divinely ordained prerogatives of capital.  Gowen, incidentally, had hired substitutes during the Civil War to avoid military service, in contrast with Lin, who after having resigned his post as private secretary to the controversial Secretary of War Simon Cameron, another native Pennsylvanian, had joined the northern army, fighting at the Battle of Antietam.

At one point Lin, who was said to have a tongue as sharp as a razor, damned a witness against his client as a "curse let loose from hell," a character indictment I'm going to have to try out myself sometime! 

                                                                  *******

Lin was not always on the side of the defense, however.  A few years earlier, in 1872, he had assisted the county attorney in trying a teenager named Joe Brown for a terrible double murder. 

On the morning of Sunday, February 25, 1872, 17-year-old Joe Brown, who lived with his 82-year-old father Daniel, attended Summer Hill Lutheran Church in Washington Township, Schuylkill County.  He had big plans after the service.

Washington Township was an unremarkable community of placid farmers of mostly German heritage, most of whom had come to the New World from the Old in the eighteenth century.  It seemed itself a world away from the strife-ridden coal mining districts, populated as they were with poor, exploited and angry Irish immigrants.  My own maternal German heritage great-grandparents lived about thirty miles west of Washington Township at the time of the murders.

Later in the afternoon, as twilight descended on the township, Joe Brown walked over to the nearby Kremer farm to call on his neighbors.  Before entering the house he stopped to pick up a piece of lumber from the Kremers' woodpile.

Summer Hill Church,
where the murderer worshiped
on the morning of the double murders
62-year-old Daniel Kremer, dubbed in the neighborhood "rich old Kremer, had recently sold some property and was said to have a quantity of gold and silver stashed in the house, as well as several hundred dollars in cash concealed in an "old-fashioned clock."

When Joe Brown entered the farmhouse, Daniel was reclining on a chest in the parlor and his wife, Annetta, a relative of Brown's, was sitting in a chair.  Candles had not yet been lit.  Joe Brown persuaded Daniel to accompany him to the family mill, located only 400 yards away, but they never made it to Brown's Mill.  In the lane halfway to their purported destination, Brown suddenly struck Daniel several times on the head with the piece of wood, leaving the older man prone and unconscious on the ground.

Brown then returned to the farmhouse, where 52-year-old Annetta had begun lighting candles.  He promptly set upon the woman with the makeshift club, beating her on the head and causing her to drop the candle as she fell to the floor.  After pausing to retrieve and relight the candle, Brown rained down yet more blows on Annetta's head.  Then he grabbed an ax and smashed the desk drawer where he believed the gold was kept, absconding with a small bag of it worth about $100 in total.  (He missed about $500, for a total of about $15,000 in modern value.)  Daniel's 93-year-old mother, Magdalena, was upstairs all the while, but she heard nothing.

Heading back down the lane, Brown paused with his club to finish off Daniel, who had not expired.  When he was through Daniel was doubtlessly dead.  Brown then caught the train to Pottsville at Moyer's Station, where he started selling off the gold.  After one of the Kremers' sons found his parents the next day--Annetta was still alive and implicated Brown with her dying words--the authorities were quickly able to round up Brown, who first denied knowledge of the crime, then tried unavailingly to pin it on some of his friends. He later confessed to the murders at the magistrate's office and to another prisoner in jail.

Brown's Mill, near the scene of the murders
Brown was convicted of murder but on appeal the Pennsylvania Supreme Court threw out Annetta Kremer's dying declaration and ordered a new trial, which commenced in 1873.  Lin Bartholomew dominated the prosecution's closing address, at the completion of which the spectators at Lyceum Hall, where the trial was being held, burst into uproarious applause.  The defense thereupon called for a new trial, arguing that the commotion would influence the jury against their client, but the judge demurred.  He declared that the crowd had merely signaled their aesthetic admiration of Lin's oratory (which undeniably had been of "unusual power"), not that they necessarily agreed with the lawyer's conclusion. 

Despite the judge's decision, it appears that Brown at least received a fairer trial than the supposed Molly Maguires would shortly thereafter.

Joe Brown was convicted and sentenced to death by hanging, which sentence was carried out on a snowy day on March 21, 1875, three years after the original murders, before a crowd of 4000 people.  (Who says justice was always swift back then?)  In the days leading to his execution, Brown had confessed again, this time to a newspaper man, with the prison warden as a witness.  He had reflected stoically that his impending death was but God's will. 

Certainly it reflected the will of man.  The Pennsylvania governor himself had earlier pronounced: "After waiting 28 years, the outraged majesty of the law was to be avenged and Schuylkill County to be the scene of a second judicial hanging....the wholesome influence of at least one execution was felt to be needed in this county of ours."

10,450 copies of the execution edition of the local newspaper, illustrated with grim wood cuts, sold the next day.  There had not been a public execution in Schuylkill since 1847, so there was considerable novelty value in a hanging--something which would soon be lost with the mass executions of purported Molly Maguires.  

"Jesus have mercy on me.  I am a poor sinner.  My soul I recommend to Jesus.  Jesus, dear Jesus.  Jesus, Lamb of God," intoned Joe Brown in German before he dropped.

                                                                  *******

Lin Bartholomew would have recalled the previous execution in Schuylkill.  He was 13 years old at the time and his father, Benjamin, has been co-counsel for the defense. 

James Riggs was a black man who had run afoul of a dangerously violent German named Gunder, who himself had earlier served nine years for murder.  (He had been pardoned by the Governor.)  Over a period of time Gunder had made threats against Riggs' life and Riggs, who had unavailingly sought legal redress, upon encountering his enemy shot and killed Gunder.  At his murder trial Riggs plead self-defense, but his attorneys were unable to save him.  He was found guilty and sentenced to death, the judge telling him:

"Your unfortunate situation excited our deepest sympathy and fills us with unutterable anguish, but you were fatally bent on mischief."

Was that sympathy really very deep after all?  I can't help but feeling that in this case Riggs's skin color may have counted decisively against him.  Justice talked, but it was not remotely merciful.

Riggs briefly escaped from prison but was caught and returned to his cell.  He later tried to starve himself and when that failed he drank a mixture of whiskey and blue ink.  After being administered a dose of sulphurate zinc, he vomited the whiskey and ink mixture and lived to see his execution day.  He left a widow and young child.

Pottsville gallows
Frances Ritter Bartholomew, Benjamin's granddaughter and Lin's daughter, barely knew her celebrated father, as she was just six when his promising career was cut short in 1880 by a sudden heart attack at the age of 45.  Frances was an only child, her slightly older sister Helen having died at the age of three months in 1872, before Frances was born.  In 1888 her mother Mary Pomeroy Allen after nearly a decade's widowhood wed again, to a doctor, John Beale Howard Gittings (1837-1905).

Interestingly enough given the fate of the Molly Maguires, Dr. Gittings was a practicing Roman Catholic.  Yet Mary died just a year later at the age of 40, leaving 15-year-old Frances in the care of her new stepfather.  Fortunately he seems to have been a good man. 

Hospital of the Good Shepherd
Dr. Gittings taught medicine at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia and was a visiting physician at the Hospital of the Good Shepherd, which had been founded by the Anglo-Catholic Church of the Good Shepherd in the wealthy Philadelphia Main Line to care for children, young lambs of God, whose parents could not afford to pay for medical services.  The hospital evinced the kind of charity in which the American legal system often was grievously lacking.

Frances remained single all her life, and she usually seems to have lived alone as an adult, although she, a woman of social consciousness like her forebears, did much good work that kept her most usefully occupied.  She did for a time become friends with crime writers Rickie Webb  and Martha Mott Kelley, however, and in the guise of a fictional character she would figure very prominently in their second detective novel, Murder at the Women's City Club.   More on it soon!                    

7 comments:

  1. Just two words (or maybe three): fascinating article, Curt.

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    1. Thank you. Next post will be all about Frances and the book!

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    2. Added a bit at the end on Frances' stepfather Dr. Gittings. Much more on her in the next one.

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  2. A movie called "The Molly Maguires" came out in 1970. Sean Connery was the star.

    www.imdb.com/title/tt0066090

    Haven't seen it, but from the description on IMDB, it seems to stick pretty close to the history you reference. Including a 'double agent' character played by Richard Harris.

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  3. This comment has been removed by the author.

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