The Murder of Alexander Rea

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The grave of Alexander Rea, Fairview Cemetery, Danville

Fairview Cemetery, located on the eastern edge of Danville, is a relatively small cemetery when compared to the other cemeteries around the town. Arriving at the cemetery, I stepped out of the vehicle and scanned the field of stones.

This was not the first time I visited Fairview Cemetery, having made a stop here years ago on a trip to Centralia with Mike. On that day, I had taken random pictures of the cemetery, but did not realize I photographed the grave of a man who played a role in regional history. The man had been 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.

I stood there, trying to figure out where I had taken the pictures from. I knew it was from the roadway passing through the cemetery, so I walked along it until I found the grave. Located next to the roadway, the simple stone fails to explain the importance of the man nor does it hint at the murder that took his life. Instead, it lists Alexander Rea along with his wife and two children with their birth and death dates; a similar stone next to his marks the grave of his son, Alexander.

Little is known about the early life of Alexander Rea. It is known he was born in Flemington, New Jersey on May 3, 1824. Rea studied at Lafayette College and after graduation took up engineering at the Franklin Institute. Upon the completion of his studies, Rea moved to Danville.

In 1852, Rea helped bring the railroad into the Mahoney Valley and later would have it extended into Centralia. He accepted a position with the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company in 1853 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.

Note: The Bull’s Head Tavern is listed as the first building in Centralia. It was owned and operated by Jonathan Faust who built it in 1841. Faust did not own the land he erected the tavern on, nor did he purchase the materials, taking what he needed from the forest. Despite not owning the land, his right of possession was never questioned.

Rea saw an opportunity for growth in many areas, including a town to house workers. Although the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company had been mining the region since 1842, little in the way of a community existed. The miners lived in a small cluster of buildings situated in a swampy area along the Reading Road. By 1855, Rea had laid 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 and the Post Office Department required the post office name be changed. Rea renamed not only the post office – but also the town – Centralia. In 1866, the community of Centralia officially became a town.

Sadly, Rea would not see his town grow and flourish. On the morning of October 17, 1868, Alexander’s life came to a tragic end. It was not a mining accident that claimed his life, but an act of violence.

On the morning of October 17, Rea left Centralia and headed to Mount Carmel to pay some bills before stopping at the colliery he oversaw. Rea arrived at a watering trough, located halfway between Centralia and Mount Carmel, between eight and nine that morning. While he watered his horse, Rea was approached by a group of men who believed Rea was carrying the company payroll with him. The men searched his buggy and failed to find any trace of the payroll. Rea, who had paid his employees the day before, only carried his pocketbook and a pocket watch. Note: The exact amount Alexander Rea was carrying with him on the fateful morning remains a mystery. At the time, newspapers reported that it was between $500 and $1000, but later sources state it was $60.

Afraid of Rea being able to identify them, the robbers murdered him. Alexander lost his life for a pocket watch and a couple dollars.

When his horse arrived at his house that evening without Rea, a search was started that continued until it was too dark to see. A group of searchers camped out on the mountain that night and early the next morning these searchers discovered Rea’s lifeless body. The murderers had carried Rea’s body a short distance into the woods and concealed it under some brush. He had been shot six times – twice in the left breast, twice through the neck and twice in the head. Any one of the six shots would have been fatal.

A reward for information was offered and within a month, four men were wanted in connection with Rea’s murder. Thomas Donohue, John Duffy and Michael Pryor – also spelled Prior in many of the newspapers – were arrested and charged with the murder. A fourth man, Patrick Hester was also wanted, but was in Illinois at the time. When Patrick returned, he willingly turned himself in to the authorities.

In early February 1869, the first of the four men was tried for the murder of Alexander Rea. Thomas Donohue operated a tavern in Ashland and it was at his place the plan for the robbery supposedly came about. Here, according to the prosecution, Patrick Hester planned the robbery of 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 Donohue left the courtroom he was rearrested and taken to the Pottsville prison to await trial for those charges.

John Duffy and Michael Pryor were tried together in May of 1869 and both parties were found “Not Guilty.” After a failure to secure a guilty verdict in the first three trials of Patrick Hester, he was not tried again and let go. Note: The newspapers reported that no evidence was presented in the trial of Michael Pryor. Surely, if Pryor had been arrested and was being tried for murder, then there certainly had to be some sort of evidence presented.

The death of Alexander Rea was the start of a period of violence in the region surrounding Centralia. Theft ran rampant and fighting in the streets increased 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 for those who dared to remain. Not only did the townsfolk have to worry about violence, but arson plagued the region during this lawless period, mostly focused upon the mines and those seen as doing the work of the mine owners. The violence would increase until 1874 when Michael Lanathan and Thomas Dougherty were murdered within a month of one another. After their deaths, the lawlessness in Centralia disappeared and order returned to the community. Note: Neither the murder of Michael Lanathan or Thomas Dougherty has ever been solved as far as I can determine.

As I stood paying my respects to Alexander Rea, I could not help but feel a mixture of anger and disgust. Rea worked to improve the conditions of the town and the life of the miners, yet he was shot down coldly in a robbery gone wrong.

The death of Alexander Rea would linger in the minds of residents for years. It would take ten years, before another group of men, including Patrick Hester, were arrested and tried for the murder. It was due to the testimony of a man known as “Kelly the Bum.”

Note: Continued in The Trial of Patrick Hester.

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