The Peddler’s Grave

peddler 3
The Peddler’s Grave along the Catawissa Trail. Insert: Close up of the grave of Jost Folhaber.

It was almost the perfect day to remember someone whose life was brutally cut down by an assassin’s bullet. Though the sun was shining, it did little to warm the coldness lingering in the air as I pulled my jacket tighter, wishing I had worn a heavier coat on this walk. The silence was broken only by the low, steady “whoomp, whoomp, whoomp” of the nearby wind turbine which towered over the path on the mountaintop between Shenandoah and Brandonville.

The stillness of the morning allowed my thoughts to wander as I walked along the roadway that snaked its way among those wind turbines. I arrived at the spot where the Catawissa Trail crosses the road and turned onto the trail, headed towards the nearby Waste House Run Reservoir Number Three. Portions of the ancient Catawissa Trail are obvious and easy to follow, while other sections of the old road have vanished into the mists of time, either being destroyed by modern roads or reclaimed by nature. Thankfully, this portion of the trail remained in good condition..

A short distance later, the grave came into sight. This lonesome grave is better known as “The Peddler’s Grave” and is marked with a tombstone and an information board. A bench near the grave provides some rest for the traveler, which I took advantage of as I reflected upon the story of Jost Folhaber and how he came to rest at this lonely spot.

I had first stumbled upon the story of Jost Folhaber when researching folklore. According to legend, every year, on August 11, Jost’s ghost appears on the Catawissa Trail riding his horse. When he arrives at the grave site, he lets out a scream, falls off his horse, and they both disappear. Some claim that Jost also appears as a ball of light that wanders along the Catawissa Trail in the area near his grave.

Though it is an interesting piece of regional lore, I was not here for the ghost story. I was here to pay my respects to the man who was brutally murdered at this remote spot. The death of Jost Folhaber was the first recorded murder in what is now Schuylkill County, though at the time of the murder this location was a part of Berks County.

Jost, a peddler by trade, would travel the region between Reading and Catawissa selling his wares to families in the “back country..” He arrived in Mahanoy City on August 10, 1797, and there, in John Reich’s Tavern, he met up with Benjamin Bailey of Morristown, New Jersey. Bailey had arrived at Reich’s Tavern on August 1 to do some hunting in the region. A deal was made between Reich and Bailey — Bailey would give Reich some of the game he shot in exchange for board. Bailey was present when Jost Folhaber stopped to spend the night and peddle his goods.

What exactly happened at Reich’s Tavern is not known, but two main versions exist regarding those events. The first version states Jost “bragged” about how good his sales had been, probably making his sales seem better than what they really were. The second version states Bailey heard the sound of “coins” jingling in Folhaber’s pack, and seeing the supplies the peddler carried with him, Bailey believed Folhaber had more money on him than what really existed.

Folhaber left Reich’s Tavern in the morning hours of August 11, following the Catawissa Trail toward present-day Ringtown. Once Folhaber left the tavern, Bailey set out for another day of hunting. The game he sought this day was not the typical game he had brought in to John Reich — instead he was hunting for Folhaber. Motivated by greed and malice, Bailey went in search of the money he believed Jost was carrying.

Jost was riding midway between present-day Mahanoy City and Ringtown, near the northern shore of where the reservoir now exists, when Bailey caught up with him. Bailey had planned on merely robbing Jost, but afraid he would be recognized, Bailey shot Folhaber in the back as he rode. Jost fell from his horse, but managed to get back to his feet and staggered along the trail in an attempt to escape. Bailey ran up and hit Folhaber a number of times in the head with an ax. Not satisfied with killing Folhaber, Bailey then proceeded to kill Folhaber’s horse. Bailey rifled through Jost’s belongings, but failed to find the money he thought Folhaber carried. Most legends say that Folhaber only had thirteen cents with him, though some accounts claim he carried as much as twenty-five dollars on his person.

Bailey removed his bloody coat and hat, left them near Folhaber’s body, and returned to Reich’s Tavern. When questioned about his missing clothing he said he had lost them in the wilderness. Bailey soon left the tavern, went back to the scene of the murder, stole Folhaber’s pots, pans, and other trinkets, and left the area.

On August 26, two weeks after the brutal murder, Jost Folhaber’s badly decomposed body was discovered where he was struck down. At roughly the same time, Bailey was discovered in Mifflinburg peddling wares that were identified as belonging to Jost. When Bailey was charged with the murder he fled, but would be captured near present-day Easton and taken to Reading. While in jail Bailey tried to implicate Reich as being a part of the murder plan, but authorities quickly dismissed these claims. On November 9, 1797, Bailey’s trial began. In less than twenty-four hours a verdict of guilty was rendered by the jury. On January 6, 1798, Bailey was hanged in Reading for the willful murder of Jost Folhaber. Bailey was buried in an unmarked grave at an undisclosed location.

I finally stood up, paid my final respects to Jost and began the walk back to the vehicle as the cool autumn breeze flowed along the mountaintop. I silently hoped that Jost found the peace that so many people have claimed he could never find.

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