Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers

Part 4 of 4: Embezzling Mother’s Bonds

District Attorney Edward R. Siewers proved as inept at hotel keeping as he had proved at maintaining ethical legal standards during Carbon County’s “Molly Maguire” trials.

Siewers’ Hotel Wahnetah was not marked for success. Its original name, Onoko Tavern, honored the Indian Princess Onoko. Legend promulgated by the Lehigh Valley Railroad's publicity department claimed that Princess Onoko leapt to her death from the spring-fed falls that cascade down Moore’s Ravine.

The princess allegedly made her leap for unrequited love.

The initial use of her tragic name for Siewers' Hotel Wahnetah proved equally ill-fated.


Both the Lehigh Valley Railroad and the New Jersey Central had an interest in Hotel Wahnetah. Both ran lines to the resort.

Both railroads were part of Franklin Gowen’s Coal Combination, the cartel that controlled hard coal region interests and sent its special prosecutors to “Molly Maguire” trials to assist regional district attorneys. Asa Packer of the Lehigh Valley and Edward Clark of the Jersey Central were both named during an 1871 legislative investigation of price-fixing by that cartel.

Whether Siewers’ interest in Hotel Wahnetah represented a payoff for services rendered to those two railroads during the "Molly Maguire" trials has not been investigated to date.


Whatever its backing, and despite even the attendance of U. S. President Grover Cleveland’s wife in 1888, Hotel Wahnetah failed. Its obscure location failed to draw the desired tourist trade.

And with that development, Siewers’ character asserted itself.

The hotel’s vacancy rate left Siewers “awash in debt and pursued by irate creditors,” Judge John P. Lavelle wrote in 1994. “In a desperate attempt to save the hotel, he borrowed heavily from his friends and when their funds dried up, he resorted to fraud, theft and embezzlement to raise money. His forgery of his mother’s name on ten Lehigh Valley Railroad bonds at the First National Bank of Mauch Chunk brought him to the brink of being arrested and charged with embezzlement in June of 1891.”

Siewers’ mother came to his rescue. She signed a release “exonerating the bank from all liability which might arise from her son’s forgery.”

His mother’s largess did not discourage the pack of creditors baying at Siewers’ heels. When charges of fraud were brought, Carbon County’s former district attorney fled the scene in dishonor.

A sheriff’s sale disposed of Siewers’ personal property. Proceeds from the sale totaled $1,000.

The Philadelphia Times, an old friend of Gowen’s, eventually took Siewers on as a financial editor. But in 1917, states Lavelle, Carbon County’s former DA Siewers “was found drowned in the Delaware River near the Market Street wharf, an apparent suicide.”

Hotel Wahnetah was razed the same year.


The extraordinary career of District Attorney Edward R. Siewers spanned an arc from public drunkenness to prosecution of the most famous court cases in Pennsylvania history to fraud to embezzlement—from his own mother—to flight from legal charges to an apparent suicide.

Such was the career—and the character—of the district attorney from Carbon County who helped send seven Irish Catholic men to the gallows on tainted evidence as so-called “Molly Maguires.”


The photo at the top of this post is of Hotel Wahnetah, opened in 1886 at Glen Onoko in Carbon County.

The material of Judge John P. Lavelle quoted in this four-part post is taken from "The Hard Coal Docket," published in 1994.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers

Part 3 of 4: The Canary Sings No More

By February 1877 the “confession” of former AOH bodymaster James Kerrigan had helped convict dozens of Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) defendants as “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania’s hard coal region.

Though initially charged with murder, Kerrigan himself remained unmolested by legal constraint. Within just a few months, local editors would declare Kerrigan a free man.

Edward R. Siewers, district attorney for Carbon County, helped smooth all of the legal pathways that made Kerrigan’s statement possible. Siewers’ maneuvering did not go unnoticed by area residents.


The editor of the Mauch Chunk Democrat joined in the clamor that charged AOH defendants as “MURDERERS” on the basis of Kerrigan’s statement. In early February 1877, that editor published a squib on his county’s by-now illustrious district attorney—and that DA’s famous canary.

“We had often admired it, and frequently listened for hours to its melodious strains, but the beautiful songster is no more, a wicked weasel having, on Wednesday night entered our friend Siewers’ office and the cage in which the bird was confined; and made a meal off of his canary,” this editor reported in his “personal” column. “When Mr. Siewers entered his office on Thursday morning, the weasel was still in the cage, but made its escape while he and others were preparing for its capture. Poor bird, and cruel weasel!”

The Mauch Chunk editor never resolved the mystery of who placed the weasel in the songbird’s cage.

Prosecution witness Kerrigan fared better than Siewers’ ill-fated canary. In late April the same editor ran an article headlined “Jim Kerrigan at Home.”

The commonwealth brought no further charges against Kerrigan.


Siewers himself initially fared well after the “Molly Maguire” trials. In 1877, while trials remained ongoing, he again won the race for district attorney. When the trials ended, he continued to practice law in Mauch Chunk.

Siewers’ downfall began during the mid-1880s. He channeled large sums of cash—his own and borrowed—into a land development scheme called the “Wahnetah Land and Improvement Company.”

Along with a local investor and one from Philadelphia, Carbon County’s former district attorney oversaw the erection of a four-story luxury hotel in Carbon County’s Glen Onoko. The hotel came complete with a dance pavilion, tennis courts and an 84-foot long bar. Guests could disport themselves with carriage and horse rides. Scenic walks abounded for the athletically minded.

But guests, athletically minded or not, did not come in sufficient numbers.


Coming Next – The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers – Part 4 of 4: Embezzling Mother’s Bonds

The photo at the top of this post is of Hotel Wahnetah, opened in 1886 at Glen Onoko in Carbon County.

The material of Judge John P. Lavelle quoted in this four-part post is taken from "The Hard Coal Docket," published in 1994.

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers

Part 2 of 4: The Canary Sings

It would take a book to document the various legal manipulations, chicaneries and outright nullifications of existing law undertaken to procure the scores of "guilty" verdicts issued during Pennsylvania’s “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

Carbon County’s District Attorney Edward R. Siewers added to that list of offenses. In October 1875, in a region inflamed with prejudice and lust for convictions at any price, Siewers characterized Irish Catholic defendants’ requests for a change of trial venue into a county less tainted with bias as “false and unfounded.”

In this cynical legal climate, it came as no surprise that the “confession” of prosecution witness James Kerrigan eliminated all hope for fair trials for Ancient Order of Hibernian (AOH) defendants prosecuted as “Molly Maguires” in Pennsylvania.


“The Mollies Exposed!!!” a Shenandoah newspaper crowed in February 1876. “One of the Prisoners at Mauch Chunk Makes a Confession. Closing in on The Game!”

The Irish American “game” swept into the legal net through Kerrigan’s statement included Carbon County’s AOH delegate Thomas Fisher, its treasurer Alex Campbell and three other prominent AOH men.

An avid public waited two months for Kerrigan’s “confession” to hit local newspapers. When published, it did not disappoint.


Kerrigan’s statement was sensational. And it was lurid. It told a credulous public long susceptible to “Molly Maguire” tales that Irish Catholic men who had spent years—sometimes decades—working their way out of the mines and into ownership of hotels and taverns, who had married and were raising families, who had successfully entered the political arena, and who were the elected officers of an international, state-sanctioned, Irish Catholic benevolent order, had also orchestrated widespread schemes of conspiracy to murder various mine officials.

To many who knew the Irishmen charged, Kerrigan’s “confession” was flatly unbelievable.

Kerrigan was charged as a defendant in Carbon County. District Attorney Siewers, in compliance with a writ of habeas corpus issued by Schuylkill County’s Judge Cyrus Pershing, allowed the former AOH bodymaster to be transported over the county line to Pottsville, where Pershing took Kerrigan’s statement in closed-door proceedings. Reporters attended, but not as guardians of civil liberties. Pershing instructed the newsmen to publish only when told to do so by prosecutors.

In April, with numerous trials pending, prosecutors lifted the gag. Local papers gave front page coverage to “KERRIGAN’S CONFESSION.”

“There ought to be more hangings than there is,” one juror said after reading the infamous document.

Buried deep in Kerrigan’s “confession” came the intelligence that would send a score of men to the gallows, imprison at least a score more, and cripple the entire AOH order statewide. Kerrigan told Judge Pershing: “The purposes of the ‘Mollie Maguires’ or A. O. H. is to kill people, beat them and burn down buildings. The notion is that it is to protect workingmen, but really they are all of the most hardened villains in the places where they reside.”

Kerrigan’s statement would be repeated, in various forms and with varying degrees of erudition, by numerous prosecution witnesses.

Editors published Kerrigan’s statement gleefully. They labeled Irish Catholic defendants “MURDERERS” before those defendants ever set foot in a courtroom.

Prosecutors’ reliance on Kerrigan’s statement—and judges’ wide support of that document—set aside all hope of equal protection for scores of AOH defendants. These Irishmen would not be tried individually, but as alleged members of a notorious criminal organization known as the "Molly Maguires." For membership in the AOH order, per James Kerrigan, equaled membership in that murderous society. Kerrigan’s charge started the legal juggernaut rolling.


Coming February 1 – The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers – Part 3 of 4: The Canary Sings No More

The photo at the top of this post is of Hotel Wahnetah, opened in 1886 at Glen Onoko in Carbon County.

The material of Judge John P. Lavelle quoted in this four-part post is taken from "The Hard Coal Docket," published in 1994.

Monday, January 2, 2012

The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers

Part 1 of 4: A Little Bacchanalian Episode

During the late 1870s the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania prosecuted Irish Catholic defendants for so-called “Molly Maguire” crimes in five counties in its anthracite coal region: Carbon, Columbia, Luzerne, Northumberland and Schuylkill.

Elected district attorneys in all of these counties performed their duties with varying degrees of ineptitude. Most, if not all, of them happily ceded their authority to special prosecutors in the pay of railroad and coal and iron companies. These elected agents of the state allowed paid agents of the coal interests to control their “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

It is not known what influence encouraged the legal guardians of so many Pennsylvania counties to so readily give up their elected authority. Bribery leaps to mind. So does coercion. Or perhaps simply an adherence to the pernicious “Know-Nothing” beliefs of the era. Those beliefs maintained that Irish Catholics should never hold elected office.

A deficiency of character no doubt contributed to the specific case of Carbon County’s District Attorney Edward R. Siewers.


Siewers was admitted to Carbon County’s bar in 1873. He served from 1874 to 1880 as that county’s district attorney. His tenure spanned the entirety of the “Molly Maguire” prosecutions.

“No member of the Carbon Bar rose to prominence so early or so easily; no member fell from the pinnacle so quickly,” Judge John P. Lavelle wrote of Siewers in 1994.

Drama marked Siewers’ career from the start. One year before his admittance to Carbon County’s legal fraternity, a local editor reported “a little episode in his [Siewers’] bacchanalian career.” In fall 1872, three years before Pennsylvania charged its first “Molly Maguire,” newspaperman E. M. Boyle said of "Ed. R. Siewers," the man who would be district attorney:

“Edward was on a serious drunk a few weeks ago, and early in the morning he left his noisy companions, and attempted to go home. It was a fortunate thing that the night was warm, because if it had not been, Edward would have caught a very bad cold on somebody else’s door step, where he lay in a drunken snooze until awakened by the early watchman.”

At the time of this “little episode in his bacchanalian career,” Siewers was almost thirty years old.

It seems unlikely that Siewers was brought up to bacchanalian ways. His father, Joseph, was born in the West Indies to Moravian missionaries. Joseph Siewers graduated from Nazareth Hall, a Moravian theological seminary. He served as principal of Mauch Chunk’s high school, as superintendent of Carbon County’s schools, and as prothonotary, an elected position.

Joseph Siewers dabbled in newspaper work. Then he turned to the study of law. After passing the bar, he opened a law office opposite the Mauch Chunk courthouse. When his hearing failed, making trial work no longer possible, Joseph opened an insurance business.

Joseph Siewers' career contributed to an auspicious lineage for his son, Edward, Carbon County district attorney for that county’s so-called “Molly Maguire” trials.


“The son of … a prominent, well-regarded lawyer, politician and former superintendent of schools … Siewers rode the fame bestowed by his last name when he made his first run for public office,” Lavelle wrote of Edward 120 years later. “His father’s political clout and money did not hurt either …”

Edward’s first run for the office of district attorney came less than a year after his reported “bacchanalian” episode left him drunk and asleep in an unnamed resident’s doorway.

That episode would become less jarring to those who followed Edward’s career over the years.


Coming January 15 – The Extraordinary Career of District Attorney Siewers – Part 2 of 4: The Canary Sings

The photo at the top of this post is of Hotel Wahnetah, opened in 1886 at Glen Onoko in Carbon County.

The material of Judge John P. Lavelle quoted in this four-part post is taken from "The Hard Coal Docket," published in 1994.