The latest American papers to have arrived at the News Letter office in Belfast in April 1878 contained fascinating reports of the execution of three Irishmen at Bloomsburg in Pennsylvania on March 25, 1878 for the murder of a mine superintendent called Alexander W Rea a decade earlier.
It was claimed that were described as members of the notorious Molly Maguires, a secretive American society which had their origins in the Irish Whiteboys and Peep O’Day Boys. The three men were named as Patrick Hester (a native of Co Roscommon and 58 years old when he was executed), Patrick Tully (a native of Co Cavan and 47 years old when he was executed) and Peter McHugh (a native of Co Donegal and 44 years old when he was executed), they were reputed to be members of the Columbia County Molly Maguires.
The papers from America had commented on the murder of Rea by the three men: “The murder was a singularly remarkable one. It differs from all the other crimes that have been proved against the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania in that it was committed, not out of malice, but as a pure ‘matter of business’.”
The American papers told how Alexander Rea had been employed as superintendent of the Coal Ridge Coal Company and he owned property in Northumberland County, Pennsylvania. Rea it was related was “in the habit of carrying money” with which the miners were to be paid under his carriage seat and it was believed that he carried a large sum of money with him as he drove from his house to the colliery.
On the fateful morning of October 17, 1868 on reaching a point about a mile and a half from his mine he observed a man by the wayside raise his hat “as if by way of signal”. A moment afterwards five men, consisting of McHugh and Tully and two other men who had since that time died as well as “one who has never been captured”, leapt out from the under bush and demanded that Rea hand over his money.
The papers related: “Without a word he alighted and handed his watch and his pocketbook, containing sixty dollars, to them. This was all the money he had with him, as the expected booty had been forwarded to the mine the day before.”
Angry at so little money it was stated that McHugh had declared that would “not be hunted round the world by any living man” for such a little sum of money and with that “the party began discharging their revolvers at Rea, each discharging his weapon once or twice”.
As the shooting began Mr Rea started to run for the relative safety of the woods nearby but before he had “advanced many steps” Tully overtook him placed the muzzle of a revolver close to his ear and fired. Mr Rea fell dead. His body was found the following day, he had been shot six times.
It was noted that Patrick Hester, “a man of some public importance, being tax collector, school director, and supervisor of his county”, was not present at the attack but he was accused of having planned the murder of Mr Rea.
Of character of Hester it was reported: “He bore a bad character, however, and he was arrested, with three others, who were not concerned in the crime, immediately after Mr Rea’s assassination, in response to an offer of eight thousand pounds reward offered for the detection of the guilty parties.” But he was later released when the case collapsed.
The memory of the crime slumbered until 1876 during which time Hester had got into trouble with a local parish priest, who had been battling against the Molly Maguires, who had refused to give a deceased member of the gang a grave in consecrated ground.
Hester and his gang attempted by force to bring the corpse into the graveyard but were put to a rout and Hester was sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, two of which he had served when he received a pardon.
Then in 1876, one of the murderers of Mr Rea, a man named Edward J Kelly was arrested for larceny and while in prison gave information on which Hester and the other murderers of Mr Rea were arrested 10 years after the crime.
Of their final days the American papers stated: “They attended in their last days most sedulously to the instructions and religious consolation given them by the Catholic clergymen of the town and met their fate unflinchingly.”