It all started with a ghost story.
But then again, some of the most interesting pieces of forgotten history I have stumbled upon start this way.
I first encountered the unsolved murder among a listing of haunted places, legends and lore of Centre County. There was not much to the story presented. It mentioned a ghostly horse seen pulling a spectral buggy down the Centre Hall side of Mount Nittany, following present-day Route 144. Those who have spotted the phantom buggy report seeing a man slumped over on the seat. According to legend, the spectral group has been spotted in early November, on the anniversary of the murder. Note: Although the article stated people have spotted the horse and buggy with the murdered man inside, I’m not sure who has actually seen it because I have not found any other source mentioning this ghostly activity.
Though this was not a lot to work with, it proved to be enough to piece together a forgotten, unsolved murder that happened on the mountain above Centre Hall. Over a century after the unsolved murder, I stood before the grave of Josiah Dale, located in the Reformed and Lutheran Cemetery on the western edge of Centre Hall, to pay my respects. The simple stone does not reveal the fate of Josiah Dale, whose 1906 murder remains unsolved.
November 12, 1906 was like most in Penns Valley. Although it had snowed throughout the day, residents went about their usual activities. On that morning Josiah Dale visited his farm at the summit of Mount Nittany, where he spent the day husking corn.
As the sun set, Mrs. Dale began to worry about her husband being out so late so she contacted one of her neighbors, ex-sheriff Brungart, and asked him to go in search of Josiah. Brungart took a lantern and started to make his way along the alley, planning on heading to the farm on top Mount Nittany. Brungart had only gone a short distance when he spotted a buggy coming towards him. Within the buggy, between the seat and dash, was slumped the lifeless body of Josiah Dale. It was determined that the cause of death was due to being shot from behind with a shotgun. The town was immediately in shock and could not understand why somebody would murder the fifty-eight year-old, mostly deaf, man.
Authorities immediately questioned Mr. and Mrs. Andy Moyer, who operated the farm Josiah Dale owned. Mrs. Margaret Moyer stated, although Josiah had been at the barn twice during the day, once in the morning and again in the afternoon, she had not seen him all day because she had been busy boiling apples to make butter. She also stated that she had not talked to him for a couple months before his death due to an argument Josiah and Andy had.
Andy Moyer stated he had last seen Josiah Dale alive when he had left to take a bundle of corn to Josiah’s home. It was around five in the afternoon when Andy returned to the barn, unhitched and stabled the team before going to the house. It was getting dark when Andy spotted Dale’s buggy in the lane as he went to retrieve a calf from the meadow. When Andy brought the calf back in, Dale’s buggy was gone.
According to newspapers, at some point during the week following the murder, authorities did find a major piece of evidence. They discovered a Number 12 New Rival shotgun shell at a spot they believed Josiah Dale was murdered. The newspaper article continues to follow the discovery of the shotgun shell by stating the shell could have been picked up from almost anywhere at this point of the year because it was hunting season, but it possibly could have come from the murder weapon. Note: The newspapers maintain there was a shotgun shell discovered. However, in the testimony given during the habeas corpus hearing, it is not mentioned, but there is mention of a wad from a shotgun shell discovered in Dale’s buggy. The wadding is a paper or plastic barrier that separates the powder and the pellets inside the shotgun shell and helps in pushing the pellets out when the powder ignites.
Also in the week after the murder, the case made a strange turn. The day after the murder, somebody began firing a shotgun on the mountain about the time of Josiah’s death, firing three consecutive shots each night. It was believed this was being done by somebody to prove that people shooting on the mountain after dark was a common occurrence. The culprit behind the nightly shooting was never determined, nor was the exact reason behind this action.
Residents quickly lost faith in the local police force. Newspapers criticized their lack of finding evidence, their limited questioning of witnesses and their failure at following possible leads. The hiring of a detective agency from Philadelphia promised results and detectives from the Standard Secret Service Bureau arrived to take over the investigation. Despite the praise and hope that the murder would soon be resolved, the case appeared to go nowhere.
In early March 1907, the murder grabbed headlines again with the arrest of Jacob and James From. The father and son were charged with the murder of Josiah Dale. The case built against them was based on a scheme of buying and selling cattle. It was said by Mrs. Moyer that Jacob From (the father) had wanted Josiah Dale to sell the cattle Dale owned and then use that money to buy From’s cattle. Dale refused to go along with this plan and supposedly From threatened to kill Josiah and also threatened to burn Dale’s barn to the ground for refusing to go along with this plan. Note: newspapers mention a lawsuit between From and Dale that happened a short time before the murder, but do not go into detail in regards to what the suit was about. I have not been able to locate exactly what the lawsuit was about, but it may have involved this scheme of buying and selling cattle.
Immediately after the arrest of Jacob and James, a habeas corpus hearing was held in Bellefonte. The hearing was to present the testimony of witnesses to the judge and he would determine if there was enough evidence to hold either of the Froms for murder.
The “star witness” of the habeas corpus hearing was Mary Decker, a neighbor of Jacob From. She testified that on the night of the murder she saw a man – who she believed was Jacob – leave the house carrying something that appeared to be a gun. The testimony the prosecution was relying upon quickly fell apart. She was not sure it was a gun the man carried, though it did look like one and she was not sure the man was Jacob From, though he did walk like him. However, Mary added it might not have been Jacob because “there are lots of people who walk like him.” For the witness being a mere twenty feet away, she failed to identify the man she saw in the alley that night. Mary would also testify that she heard Jacob From talking loudly to himself in the alley between their houses, admitting to committing the murder. She would admit that she never actually saw Jacob in the alley, but firmly believed it was his voice.
The next series of witnesses all revolved around whether or not Jacob From owned, or had once owned, a 12 gauge shotgun. At one point Jacob did own a 12 gauge shotgun. but had traded it around the time of the murder for a watch. From supposedly traded the shotgun to a bunch of gypsies he had met at the Granger’s Picnic. When From was arrested, the only shotgun he owned was a 10 gauge double-barrel. Then, as a means to prove that Jacob From could have killed Josiah Dale with the double-barrel shotgun, detective A.L. Millard testified he had successfully fired the wrong size shells out of the shotgun – it is a wonder that the shotgun had not exploded in the process of the firing.
The hearing resulted in Jacob being bound over to court for the murder of Josiah Dale and James was released on a thousand dollar bail. The reason Jacob was turned over for trial was – not because of physical evidence – but because he was supposedly heard talking about the murder to himself as he paced in the alley. Newspapers proclaimed the best evidence was the circumstantial evidence that “came from Jacob From’s own lips” and if he was left alone, he would eventually reveal the truth as he talked to himself.
In a bizarre aftermath of the habeas corpus hearing, many of the witnesses – for what reason I’m not clear – went to From’s jail cell and talked to him. The newspapers condemned him because he threatened some of his visitors, who had just given testimony against him and were surprised that From was not pleasant to his visitors whose testimony now had him facing a murder charge. These remarks, according to local newspapers, would make From’s escape from conviction extremely difficult.
The May term of court arrived and to everybody’s surprise From was never brought before the courts. Those witnesses who had been scheduled to appear were sent notices not to appear. The prosecution entered a nolle prosequil, claiming they did not have enough evidence to go to trial and demanded From be held on bail until the September term of court. The court disagreed and freed From.
The case against Jacob and James From disappeared from the newspapers and soon vanished from memory. The years passed and fewer and fewer people could recall the events of November 12, and the murder of Josiah Dale, not only went cold, it was completely forgotten and remains unsolved.
To be continued in Part Two.