The Blue Eyed Six: The Murder of Joseph Raber

The resting Place of Joseph Raber, Moonshine Cemetery

Note: This is part one of “The Blue Eyed Six.” Part two is The Trials and Executions and part three is located here: The Legends.

The sound of large artillery being fired nearby filled the air as I stepped out of the vehicle and scanned the cemetery across the road from where I had parked. A particular loud explosion caused me to jump and for a moment I debated getting back in the vehicle and returning another day. After debating for a moment, I crossed the road and entered the cemetery. The grounds rest among the lands that are a part of Fort Indiantown Gap and have an important place within the history of Lebanon County.

As I crossed the road, I noticed a prominent marker on the grounds of the Moonshine Cemetery and decided the first thing I was going to do was see what was on the plaque. Upon entering the cemetery, my attention was drawn to a stone near the entrance and and I paused read it. “Joseph Johns / Born in Fauquier County, Virginia / Died Feb. 7, 1906 / Aged 112 Years / He resided near John Fahler / north side of mountain, west of / Swatara Gap, Union Township / Lebanon Co. Pa.”

Johns was born a slave in Virginia, but he and another man managed to escape from the plantation during the War of 1812. He initially settled near Chambersburg but would resettle in the area of Green Point, north of the cemetery. He was a noted violin player and was well-liked by those who knew him. When he was discovered dead in his hut, his friends had him buried in the Moonshine Cemetery and erected a memorial for him there.

After reading Johns’ memorial, I walked over to the monument that had initially caught my attention. I noted it was a memorial for Henry and Regina Moonshine, whose name is connected to the church and cemetery. The church had been built on land owned by him and he donated an acre of land to be used as a cemetery after his son, John, died in 1822. In 1836, Moonshine began erecting a church at this location, but died before it could be completed.

I left that memorial and walked among the older stones in search of the grave of a murder victim who rests here. After a couple minutes, I paused at the memorial to Joseph Raber, whose 1878 murder has a sad place in American history – it was the first recorded murder of a man for insurance money. In a case of greed, a group of men took out insurance policies on the fifty-nine-year-old man. The only problem was Joseph Raber was still very healthy at the time so the group decided to help Raber’s death along. Note: many newspapers and articles state Raber was either sixty or sixty-five at the time of his murder. I’m using the dates listed on his tombstone, which puts him at fifty-nine.

The murder might have remained a regional case, except for a reporter covering the trial noted all six men had the same color eyes. The group would be dubbed “The Blue-Eyed Six” and their trial gained national attention. The six men involved in the scandal were: Charles Drews, Frank Stichler, Henry F. Wise (also spelled Weise), Josiah Hummel, Israel Brandt, and George Zechman.

In early July 1878, Wise, Hummel, Brandt and Zechman met to take out life insurance policies on Joseph Raber, Raber, like many of the residents of the region, was unemployed and depended upon the charity of his neighbors to survive. Raber lived in a charcoal maker’s hut on Blue Mountain near the Indiantown Gap with Polly Keiser, who is described as his “housekeeper” in newspapers at the time. Note: While Keiser is described as his “housekeeper,” I believe she was actually Raber’s common-law wife.

While none of the four men had any familial relationship to Raber, they were able to take out life insurance policies on him. It was a common practice at the time for people to take insurance out on people they were caring for, so Wise, Hummel, Brandt, and Zechamn approached Raber and promised to take care of him if Raber would make them beneficiaries of the insurance policies. To Raber, this arrangement seemed ideal – he would have four men caring for his well-being.

The four had policies on Raber and just had to wait for him to die. According to the May 12, 1880 edition of the Reading Times, the policies taken out on Raber were: $2000 to Hummel, $2000 to Zechman, $1000 to Brandt and $1000 to Wise.

Note: How much Raber was insured for is not clear, even in the newspapers at the time. Most newspapers at the time state it was for $10,000, but the listing of who insured him for how much only adds up to $6000. Most modern accounts state it was for $8000 and that Wise had a $3000 policy on Raber.

The men did not plan on waiting long to collect their money. Tired of paying the premiums, they decided to dispose of Raber and collect the money.

Brandt finally approached Drews and asked him to help hurry Raber’s death along. With a promise of money, the four men hired Drews, who employed Stichler’s aid. They formed a number of scenarios in their minds, but never followed through with them. Note: Exactly how much money was offered to Drews is not clear. Most newspapers of the time state he was offered between $1200 and $1500. However, modern articles regarding the case state Drews killed Raber for $300.

When Raber’s body was discovered in Indiantown Creek on Sunday, December 8, 1878, residents in northern Lebanon County immediately questioned his death. However, with no solid evidence of a crime, the coroner took the word of Drews and Stichler, who claimed Raber had a spell of veritago and fell off the boards crossing Indiantown Run and drowned. The coroner initially agreed it was a drowning due to an attack of veritgo.

However, the Home Mutual Life Insurance of Pennsylvania – the company Hummel had used – was not convinced it was accidental and set out to find more information before paying out the insurance. It seems the time from writing the policy to the time of his death was questioned and so was the proximity of where Raber’s body was found to the homes of two other men who had insurance policies on Raber’s life.

Despite everyone in northern Lebanon County knowing the truth behind Raber’s death – the men had bragged about it while drunk – it was not until a surprise witness stepped forward to reveal what he saw that revealed the conspiracy. The witness was Joseph Peters, who was Drews’ son-in-law. Peters kept his silence for almost two months after the murder of Raber before reporting what he witnessed to the constable.

According to Peters, he had been approached by his father-in-law to help with the murder in the summer of 1878. Around five on the late afternoon of December 7, 1878, Peters and his wife, Lena, watched from a second story window of the Drews home as Drews and Stichler set their plan in motion. The duo had asked Raber to accompany them to a nearby store, where they would purchase tobacco for him. To get to the store, they had to cross two planks serving as a bridge over Indiantown Run.

Stichler led, followed by Raber and then Drews. When they arrived at the planks, Drews knocked Raber’s legs out from under him, as Stichler turned and pushed Raber, causing him to fall into the water. Stichler immediately jumped on top of Raber and attempted to hold his head under the water, which was only eighteen inches deep at this location. Stichler called out for help and Drews jumped in and helped hold Raber down. When Raber stopped struggling, the men left him in the creek and went back to the hotel to say Raber was dead.

On the morning of February 5, 1879, the six conspirators were arrested for the murder of Joseph Raber and on April 7, 1879, all six men would be tried for murder.

As I finished remembering the foul murder of Joseph Raber, my attention was drawn to a blue car that stopped at the opposite side of the lot from where I had parked. I left Raber’s grave and crossed the road as the middle-aged couple sat in their car and watched me. I gave a polite wave before I got into my vehicle and headed toward the murder site located a short distance away.

Note: To be continued.

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