Friday, July 1, 2011

"Before I Die I Will Relate These Facts":

Patrick Hester's Dying Statement

Ancient Order of Hibernians (AOH) officer Patrick Hester died in March 1878 on a gallows at Bloomsburg, Pennsylvania. He died alongside AOH members Peter McHugh and Patrick Tully. All three Irishmen were convicted for the 1868 murder of Alexander Rea. All three protested their innocence. McHugh and Tully gave their statements at sentencing hearings.

By the time the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania executed these three Irish Catholic men, its hard coal region had convulsed in a carnival of ethnic hostility. Public executions in three counties on June 21, 1877, had dangerously charged the atmosphere and changed civic life forever. Many more executions were promised.

But with Hester’s effort in March 1878 to issue a dying statement, events took an especially degraded turn.


Hester, a hotelkeeper, had served not just as AOH delegate for Northumberland County. Over the past decade or more, area voters had elected the Irishman as township supervisor, tax collector, school director and overseer of the poor. All four of his daughters had been schoolteachers. An area newspaper, with biting rhetoric, had crowned Hester “the great mogul of the Democratic party.”*

“[T]hey are after my life these good many years,” Hester told McHugh and Tully by letter just days before their executions in Bloomsburg. Rea’s murder, the charge against them, had taken place near Centralia ten years earlier. Rea was ambushed while watering his horse at a trough. A superintendent of the Locust Mountain Coal and Iron Company, Rea left behind a widow and six children.

The commonwealth initially prosecuted John Duffy, Thomas Donahoe and Michael Prior for Rea’s death. The first attempt to officially conflate the rising power of the AOH order with supposed “Molly Maguire” violence took place during the Rea trial in 1869. Hester served at that time as Northumberland County's AOH delegate. Defense witness Patrick McKenna brought forward the AOH constitution and bylaws to place in evidence during that trial. “These are the obligation constitution and by laws [sic] of the Ancient order of Hibernians,” McKenna told the court. “This is the order they accuse to be the ‘Molly M’Guires.’”

The 1869 trials of Donahoe, Duffy and Prior ended in acquittals. The commonwealth charged Hester, but released him without trial on an order of nolle prosequi. In other words, the commonwealth decided to proceed no farther in its case against Patrick Hester.

But eight years later, the trials of Donahoe, Duffy and Prior had long since faded from public memory. Prosecutors brought forward a brand new witness nicknamed “Kelly the Bum” to testify against Hester, McHugh and Tully.

“He is all he confessed to be in court—a notorious highway robber and scoundrel,” Hester told a Boston reporter of Kelly’s testimony against him. “I cannot say why he went against me unless … he was bribed.”


“My Dear Friends,” Hester wrote to McHugh and Tully two days before the Bloomsburg executions. “I suppose [this] is about my last writing on this earth, as I believe our time in this world is short, and may God prepare us for the next and better world.”

Hester told of court proceedings against him in Bloomsburg in February 1877 during the second Rea murder trial. He described the testimony of three prosecution witnesses against him, concluding “every … one that swore against me at the February Court swore false.”

“The reason I write this,” Hester told his codefendants, “is to let you know that before I die I will relate these facts and the false perjury that has been sworn against me. I do declare and will declare that I am not guilty of the murder of A. W. Rea, that I never got up that job or plot that has been sworn against me and that both of you know.”

Hester had been a respected leader within the Irish Catholic community. This grandfather had credibility. If he issued a dying statement from the gallows, many would believe him.


As Hester prepared his declaration, John Kehoe, alleged “King of the Molly Maguires,” was gathering momentum to stay the signing of his death warrant. With Hester’s published letter of innocence, Franklin Gowen risked losing even more support for his ongoing prosecutions.

If Hester gave a statement from the gallows, newspapermen would record it for publication. A wider populace might then give credence to what the regional Irish Catholic population already believed: that many, if not all, of the AOH men hanged as “Molly Maguires” were innocent of the crimes charged against them. Gowen’s “Molly Maguire” juggernaut might be halted.

A large crowd gathered for the Bloomsburg executions. Those who came to gawk at death by strangulation were fairly assured that event would take place not once, but three times. But even those spectators were likely unaware of the plan concocted to thwart Hester’s effort to issue his final statement.

A Philadelphia daily reported the scene from the gallows: “The priests recited the offertory rapidly, while from the window of the cell that McHugh had just left a party of young girls, admitted by a Coal and Iron policeman, laughed and chattered.”

“We do not know who they were nor do we wish to,” a Bloomsburg newspaper said of the women. “They were probably among those who are a disgrace to their sex.”

Whatever the occupation of the women admitted to McHugh's cell in Bloomsburg Prison by one of Gowen's private policemen, they made themselves useful as Hester spoke his last words. “The girls from the cell window chattered louder,” the Philadelphia paper reported. Whatever Hester tried to impart, no one in the crowd heard his words clearly. The commotion the women created succeeded. No newspaper could give a clear account of Hester’s dying statement.


“[M]ay God direct every one to do what is right, and may God forgive them that is [sic] the cause of my being here,” Hester had written two days before to McHugh and Tully. “What I feel most sorry about is my poor family to be left desolate, poor and forlorn … And as for death, I am not afraid, for I am almost tired of this sinful world, for they are after my life these good many years. All that troubles me about dying is to die of what I am not guilty of, and that both of you know, and may God in His mercy do what is just and right to all.”

Of Hester’s last words, the Chicago Tribune recorded only this statement: “As God is my witness I am innocent.”

It is doubtful, given what Pennsylvania’s Irish Catholics had endured by this time, that even the use of the "chatter" of prostitutes to obscure Hester’s dying declaration would have surprised him.


Coming July 15, 2011 — "The Stories Were All Lies": Pinkerton, McParlan and Sherlock Holmes Tell a Tale of the "Molly Maguires"

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