In the Line of Duty: Wilson Lewars

Police Chief Wilson Lewars, Hamburg

It had been a while since I last stepped foot on the sacred grounds of St. Johns Cemetery in Hamburg. The last time I was detoured on the back streets of town due to a construction project involving Old Route 22. Unfortunately, this trip fared no better – a broken water line pumped gallons of water into the street and once again I found myself detoured. After driving on some very narrow streets, I arrived at the cemetery entrance along Pine Street and entered the cemetery. Note: More about the previous visit to St. Johns Cemetery to honor a Medal of Honor recipient resting there can be found here: Richard Etchberger.

I found myself driving very slowly among the stones of the sacred grounds as the roadways were narrow and the ancient memorials to those resting there stood inches from the roadway. Carefully turning right onto a slightly wider – though not by much – roadway running through the cemetery, I started scanning the stones on my left. I knew the gentleman I was buried near the mausoleum and as I passed it, I thought I saw the name “Lewars” on a nearby stone. Finding a place to turn around, I returned, stopped on the roadway and stepped into the cool morning air.

Scanning the area where I thought I saw the name “Lewars,” I spotted the family marker and made my way carefully to the stone. A quick search of the smaller stones around the family monument soon had me standing at the grave of Wilson H. Lewars. Although two flag holders were present, neither was graced with a flag. One holder remembered him as a veteran of the Spanish-American War while the other honored his duty as a police officer.

Lewars served his country in 1898 during the Spanish-American War as a quartermaster of Company F. He would serve as Captain of the Company from 1907 to 1912. By 1927, Lewars was Chief of Police for the community of Hamburg in Berks County. Despite his official position was Chief of Police, residents – and also newspapers – continued to address him as Captain from his time of service in the Spanish-American War.

Note: Before I go any further, there is something I need to address. Many modern newspaper accounts and internet sites do not exactly match up with the original newspaper articles in regards to the murder of Wilson Lewars. Where the sources do not agree, I relied on the original sources.

In the week leading up to a shooting affair, John Freeman, the night watchman at the Goodhart-Katterman Silk Mill, spotted a suspicious man lingering at the mill. Freeman reported the suspicious activity and with this information, Lewars kept a careful watch for illegal activity.

In the early morning hours of Saturday May 12, 1928, Lewars heard a strange noise near the back of the mill while making his rounds. Lewars returned to town, where he found Patrolman Daniel Bailey. The two men returned to the silk mill with a plan to trap the intruder – Bailey would go one way around the mill, while Lewars went the other.

As they moved in the early morning darkness, Bailey called out that he saw a man running away. Lewars saw the figure run across the street. As the figure departed the mill grounds, Bailey called out a second time – he discovered a truck parked near the silk mill.

Then the early morning hours of May 12 was shattered as the robbers opened fire.

During the shoot-out, Lewars attempted to seek shelter behind a telephone pole, but one of the bandits was already attempting to hide behind it. Lewars grabbed the robber in an attempt to subdue him and the Chief of Police and the robber began exchanging shots at point-blank range. Lewars would be shot three times in the struggle: in the leg, stomach, and arm. Lewars fired into the robber’s abdomen before be was struck from behind by another robber and lost consciousness.

The man Lewars shot stumbled a short distance away and collapsed. The truck, filled with stolen goods, left the silk mill as a large sedan arrived. The wounded robber was helped into the the sedan and as it drove off into the night, Bailey continued to fire at the fleeing vehicle. Freeman – who had been present during the shoot-out – remained hidden in the office and did not participate in the affair.

The two injured officers were taken to St. Joseph’s Hospital in Reading. Bailey would survive his wounds; however, Lewars would pass the following day. In his final hours, Lewars was able to describe what had happened. He was survived by his wife, his daughter and her husband, and one grandson. In addition, he left behind his mother, seven siblings and their families. He was sixty years old when he was murdered.

The truck – which had been reported stolen from Philadelphia – was discovered abandoned at the Philadelphia Rapid Transit Company. A cap found at the scene had a label of a Philadelphia store.

Two theories were immediately presented. The first was this was a random robbery that had gone wrong. It was believed that the robbers had arrived here to steal the refined silk being produced at the mill.

The second was this robbery was a trap to lure Lewars to the scene to kill him for interrupting other robberies in 1927 and 1928. This would not be the first time a gang had plotted revenge as Lewars’ garage, with his vehicle in it, had been burned to the ground after he had arrested one of the Strausser brothers – he had arrested him for army desertion.

Almost immediately following the deadly affair, authorities arrested a number of men in connection to the robbery and murder. The first man arrested with the murder of Chief Lewars was Benjamin, also referred to as Bernard, Orenstein. He was arrested on May 17, 1928 and questioned about the murder. Orenstein admitted knowing the men involved in the murder, but denied being there.

By mid-June, three others were arrested for their connection in the murder of Chief Lewars: Daniel “Smiling Danny” Donohue, a professional gunman from Philadelphia; C. Perry Strausser, who had been arrested by Lewars previously for Army desertion; and Herman “Davy” Wagner, who was wanted for a number of hold-ups in Philadelphia. In addition, Ernest C. Stabler, Morris Orenstein, and Robert “Bob” Haggerty were later arrested for their connection in Lewars’ murder.

Donohue was the first of the men who went on trial for the murder of Chief Lewars. He was found guilty and sentenced to life imprisonment. Seeing how quickly the fate of Donohue was decided, Benjamin Orenstein, Ernest Stabler, and Herman Wagner entered guilty pleas. All four of the men were sentenced to life in prison on June 13, 1929. Note: It does not appear that Haggerty, despite being arrested as a part of the gang, was ever put on trial or even charged with his involvement in the murder of Chief of Police Lewars.

Morris Orenstein would remain at large until late November of 1939, when he was arrested in Atlantic City, New Jersey. The man who avoided law enforcement for eleven years was brought to justice for the theft of $50 from his place of employment. In June of 1940, Morris Orenstein was found guilty for his involvement in the murder of Chief Lewars. Note: Some modern accounts state that Orenstein had been arrested for running whiskey. However, the December 4, 1939 edition of the Reading Times (Reading, Pa) states he was arrested for stealing from the office of the Atlantic City Times-Union.

Sadly, it was the sounds of sirens which brought me back to the present. Though I could not see them, I could hear them passing a short distance away. I finished paying my respects and remembered his sacrifice as I slowly walked back to the vehicle, leaving him to rest within the sacred grounds of St. Johns Cemetery.

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