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.