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.

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