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.

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