The Murder of Alexander Rea

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 I scanned the field of stones. This was not the first time I visited the cemetery, having made a stop here years before with Mike while on the way to Centralia, but this stop was in search of a specific grave. On the day Mike and I had stopped, I took a number of random pictures of the cemetery, but little did I know at the time that I photographed 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.

Knowing I had taken the pictures from the roadway that passes through the cemetery, I walked along it until I found the grave I sought. Located next to the roadway is the resting place of a man who sought to improve the lives of miners and their families yet was rewarded by a senseless and brutal murder. 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 this one is the grave of his son, Alexander.

When it comes to Alexander’s early life, little is known. However, what is known is he was born in Flemington, New Jersey on May 3, 1824. He studied at Lafayette College and after graduation took up engineering at the Franklin Institute. Following his completion of studies, he moved to Danville.

In 1852, Alexander 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. His right of possession was never questioned.

Alexander saw an opportunity for growth in many areas, including a town to house workers. Though the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company had been mining in the region since 1842, little in the way of a community existed, just 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. The Post Office Department required that the post office be changed and Alexander renamed the post office, and the town, Centralia. In 1866, the community of Centralia officially became a town.

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 an act of violence. That morning, Alexander left his family at Centralia and headed to Mount Carmel. His plans for the day were to pay some bills and then stop at the colliery he oversaw.

Located halfway between Centralia and Mount Carmel was at a watering trough for travelers to rest their horses. Alexander arrived at the location between eight and nine that morning. While he watered his horse, Alexander was approached by a group of men. The robbers, who had been spotted lingering near the watering trough by a teamster who passed by earlier, thought Alexander was carrying the company payroll with him. The group of men searched his buggy and failed to find any trace of the payroll. Instead Rea,  having paid his employees the day before, only had his pocketbook and a pocket watch on him . 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 that Alexander could identify them, the robbers murdered him. Alexander lost his life for a pocket watch and a couple dollars.

That evening his horse arrived back at his house without Alexander and a search was started that went 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 Alexander’s lifeless body. The murderers had carried Rea’s body a short distance into the woods and concealed it under some brush. Alexander 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 were tried for the murder of Alexander Rea. Thomas Donohue operated 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 planned the robbery of 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 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, Patrick Hester was not tried and let go. Note: The newspapers reported that no evidence was presented in the trial of Michael Pryor. I’m not sure if they meant there was no evidence presented or that there was no new evidence presented. 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 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. Not only did the townsfolk have to worry about violence, a number of arsons 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. Neither murder was solved as far as I can determine, but 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 a mixture of anger and disgust. After everything Alexander 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.

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, would be arrested and tried for Alexander’s murder and it all due to the testimony of a man known as “Kelly the Bum.”

To be continued next week.


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