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 as I arrived at St. Mary’s Cemetery near Mount Carmel in search of the final resting place of Patrick Hester and quickly realized I was at the wrong St. Mary’s Cemetery. Searching through online maps I found a number of cemeteries in the area (none named on the map), but soon discovered the correct St. Mary’s Cemetery and within seconds of entering the sacred grounds, had located Patrick’s grave.
Walking over to the stone that marked the graves of Patrick and his wife Catherine, I was filled with a nagging doubt about Patrick’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 thanks to Amy I know that Catherine was the only wife of Patrick Hester.
Patrick Hester was born May 4, 1825 in County Roscommon, Ireland. In 1846 he immigrated to America and would evidently settle at Locust Gap (also referred to as Locust Gap Junction in some reports) where he opened a tavern called the Junction House. He would become involved in a secret society known as the Ancient Order of Hiberians, which was founded in 1836. To belong to the Ancient Order of Hiberians one had to be Catholic and of Irish descent. Ancient Order of Hiberians assisted Irish immigrants in obtaining work and helped them with a variety of social services. Hester would rise to become county head of the organization. In the history of Pennsylvania’s coal region, the Ancient Order of Hiberians has been intertwined with the secretive group known Mollie Maguires.
Patrick was no stranger to violence. Having already been charged, but not tried for the murder of Alexander Rea, Patrick 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 (who was supposedly a Mollie) on the grounds of St. Edwards Catholic Cemetery in nearby 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. He was sentenced to three years in Eastern State Penitentiary for rioting.
In 1877, almost ten years after the murder of Alexander Rea, Patrick was once 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 (also spelled Coll and Kull in newspaper accounts) and in 1865 arrived in America from Ireland. Kelly was a noted liar and it appears the only “work” he ever did was 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 that on the evening before Rea’s murder a group of men, including the three accused, gathered at an Ashland tavern owned by Thomas Donohue. Donohue 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.
While gathered at the tavern Hester informed the men that Rea would be carrying the company payroll (worth around $18,000) with him and the group had 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 he was ordered out of his buggy so the robbers could search for the payroll. Rea handed over his pocketbook which contained sixty dollars, and his gold pocket watch. When they realized that he was not carrying the payroll, McHugh made the decision to kill Rea because he was not going to spend his life running and hiding for the robbery. Tully and Kelly both fired the first shots and Tully supposedly fired the final shot into Rea’s head ending his life. Kelly farther testified the group split the sixty dollars between them, with each man taking 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 was not at the scene of the crime and did not receive anything from the robbery.
Kelly would also mention that 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 that Mollie Maguirism would take root in Columbia County rather than looking at the facts of the murder. A major point that the prosecution brought up against Hester, McHugh and Tully was all three men were Irish and spoke Irish; henceforth, it 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.
The date of the execution was set for March 25, 1878, and was an absolute disaster. The scaffold had been sent up from Pottsville for the hanging; it was the same scaffold that had been 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.”
Oddly Tully confessed to the crime shortly before the trio were to be executed. He stated that Kelly lied about some things, but told the truth about others facts. Tully maintains that no secret organization was involved in the murders and that 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 is questionable to say the least.
As soon as the traps were sprung, the crowd rushed forward in a morbid attempt to get a better view, pushing and shoving other people out of the way and surprisingly nobody was trampled to death. Sadly the nooses were not placed correctly and the three men strangled to death over a period of twelve minutes rather than having a quick death.
Hester 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, and buried there.
As I stood at Patrick’s grave I thought about the trial and the evidence and lack of evidence that was presented against Hester, McHugh and Tully. As I stood there, drops of rain began to fall as if nature itself was mourning the man buried here. As I made my way back to the vehicle, I realized I had a lot more questions than answers involving the case. And the biggest question I had was “Were the men wrongfully convicted and executed?”