The Trial of Patrick Hester

The grave of Patrick Hester

Note: This background for this entry can be found at  The Murder of Alexander Rea.

The threat of rain lingered as dark clouds loomed on the horizon. I arrived at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Mount Carmel in search of the final resting place of Patrick Hester. Scanning the small cemetery, I did not recognize Hester’s stone and quickly realized I was at the wrong St. Mary’s Cemetery.

Returning to the vehicle, I searched through online maps and found another St. Mary’s Cemetery a short distance away. A couple minutes later, I pulled through the gates of the correct St. Mary’s Cemetery and almost immediately spotted the resting place of Patrick Hester.

I parked near his resting place and walked over to the stone that marked the graves of Patrick and his wife Catherine Hester. I had come to visit the grave because I was filled with a nagging doubt about Hester’s connection with the murder of Alexander Rea. The stone makes no claim of his innocence or guilt, nor does it even hint at his involvement in the murder he was accused of organizing. Note: Patrick was only married once and it was to Catherine. I’ve found a number of places that mention Patrick’s wife was named Mary. I’m not sure where this came from, but Catherine was Patrick’s only wife.

Patrick Hester was born May 4, 1825 in County Roscommon, Ireland. In 1846 he immigrated to America and would evidently settle at Locust Gap – which is also referred to as Locust Gap Junction in some reports – where he opened a tavern called the Junction House. Hester would become involved in a secret society known as the Ancient Order of Hibernians, which was founded in 1836 to assist Irish immigrants in obtaining work and help them with a variety of social services. To belong to the Ancient Order of Hibernians one had to be Catholic and of Irish descent. Hester would rise in the organization to become a county head.

In the history of Pennsylvania’s coal region, the Ancient Order of Hibernians has been intertwined with the secretive group known Mollie Maguires.

Hester was no stranger to violence and trouble. Having already been charged, but not tried for the murder of Alexander Rea, Hester would find himself in trouble with the law again in 1872. On May 26, Hester and three others wanted to bury a man named Brennan – a supposed Mollie – in the grounds of St. Edwards Catholic Cemetery in 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. Hester would be sentenced to three years in Eastern State Penitentiary for rioting.

In 1877, almost ten years after the murder of Alexander Rea, Hester was again arrested for the murder of Alexander 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, which is also spelled Coll and Kull in newspaper accounts, and in 1865 arrived in America from Ireland. Kelly was a noted liar and was known as being a highwayman and thief – when he wasn’t robbing people, he was spending time in jail for the crimes he committed. While serving time in the Pottsville Prison, Kelly began telling a tale that he would repeat until he sat in the courtroom in Bloomsburg and repeated once more in the case against Patrick Hester, Patrick Tully, and Peter McHugh. On January 6, 1877, in exchange for Kelly’s testimony, Governor Hartranft gave him a full pardon for his crimes so he could be the key witness at the trial of the three men accused in the plot to murder Alexander Rea.

In February 1877 the trio were brought before the court in Bloomsburg with “Kelly the Bum” being the prosecution’s prime witness. On the stand Kelly claimed on the evening before Rea’s murder a group of men, including the three accused, gathered at the Ashland tavern owned by Thomas Donohue, who was one of the three men tried in 1869 for the crime and was found “Not Guilty.” In Kelly’s testimony at the trial, Donohue was not at his tavern the evening the crime was planned, but was aware of the plans.

According to Kelly, while gathered at the tavern, Hester informed the men that Rea would be carrying the company payroll – worth around $18,000 – with him giving the group an opportunity to get rich. The group set out the next morning and along the way “Kelly the Bum” claimed that Hester gave him his pistol because the one Kelly carried was no good. After that Hester left the group to go to Shamokin to catch a train to his daughter’s house in Illinois.

According to Kelly, when the group stopped Rea and ordered him out of his buggy. The group searched Rea and his buggy for the payroll, but only discovered his pocketbook with sixty dollars and his gold pocket watch.

When they realized Rea was not carrying the payroll, McHugh made the decision to kill him. Tully and Kelly fired the first shots and Tully supposedly fired the final shot into Rea’s head ending his life. Kelly testified the group split the sixty dollars between them, with each of the six men receiving ten dollars. The group decided to give Kelly the pocketbook, which he threw out after leaving the scene of the crime, and Rea’s gold pocket watch which he later sold. Hester did not receive anything from the robbery.

Although he was not present when the murder took place, Kelly would mention he knew Hester through a secret society that called themselves the Mollie Maguires. The prosecution’s closing arguments seemed more focused upon the trio being Mollies mixed with the fear the Mollie Maguires would become established in Columbia County. The main point argued by the prosecution against Hester, McHugh and Tully was: all three men were Irish and spoke Irish, and if they were Irish, then they had to be involved in the terrorist group known as the Mollie Maguires.

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

Tully made a “confession” about his involvement in the murder shortly before the trio was to be executed. He stated Kelly lied about some to some of the events, but told the truth about other facts. Tully maintained no secret organization was involved in the murder and it was the whiskey that caused him to go through with the murder. When he addressed Hester and McHugh’s involvement, Tully’s admission of guilt and their involvement in the crime was questionable.

The date of the execution for the three men was set for March 25, 1878, and it was an absolute disaster. The scaffold had been sent up from Pottsville for the hanging – it was the same scaffold used in the majority of the Mollie Maguire executions in Pottsville. 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.”

What happened next was an embarrassment. As soon as the traps were sprung, the crowd rushed forward in a morbid attempt to get a better view. With all the pushing and shoving people out of the way, surprisingly nobody was trampled to death. The executioner failed to place the nooses on the trio correctly and the three men strangled to death over a period of twelve minutes rather than having a quick death.

After the botched execution, Hester’s body was returned to Locust Gap and buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery. McHugh was taken to Wilkes-Barre and buried in the Catholic Cemetery there. Tully would be taken to Plainesville, which the newspapers describe as a mining patch between Wilkes-Barre and Pittston where he would be buried.

As I stood at Patrick’s grave I thought about the trial and the evidence and lack of evidence presented against Hester, McHugh and Tully. I had my doubts of Patrick’s guilt – if the same evidence was presented in the modern court system he most likely would not have been found guilty of the murder. Instead, the state relied upon the testimony of a known liar and thief, mixed with the fear of the Mollie Maguires, to find the three men guilty of the murder they may or may not have been involved with.

As I stood there, drops of rain began to fall as if nature itself was mourning the man buried here. I made my way back to the vehicle, leaving Patrick Hester to slumber in the sacred grounds.

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