The McClellandtown Gang
For some years Fayette County was over run by an organized gang of marauders known as the "McClellandtown Gang." Fayette county was not, however, their exclusive field of operation. There is little doubt that the robberies committed in the northern part of Somerset county in 1877 and 1888 were the work of this gang. Other Pennsylvania counties and the border counties of Maryland and West Virginia were frequently visited by these desperate villains, and their many misdeeds, if fully chronicled, would fill a good sized volume. All attempts on the part of the authorities of Fayette county to arrest the gang proved unsuccessful, although the newspapers were frequently filled with accounts of the outrages they had committed on old women and old men whom they tortured to the point of giving up their savings of a lifetime. The Fayette authorities were intimidated with threatenings from the gang, and they feared the vengeance of the desperadoes, so that finally all hopes of putting down the gang were abandoned.
The capture of this notorious gang on Sunday, April 28, 1889, by an armed body of brave men led by ex-Sheriff Kyle, of Meyersdale, was one of the most brilliant feats on record - an act that deserves to be embalmed forever in local history.
On the evening of April 13, 1889, the house of Christian Yoder, a wealthy old resident of Elk Lick township, was entered by four masked men, who bound and gagged the hired man, Samuel Stevanus, and all the members of the household except Mrs. Yoder, who was in feeble health. The leader of the gang told Mr. Yoder that they had come for his money; and that they would take his life if they failed to get it. Mr. Yoder directed them to a bureau drawer in an adjoining room, where he said, they would find all the money there was in the house. Here they found $400, which they counted and told Mr. Yoder they wanted all the money he had. He assured them that that was all the money he had at home, but they did not believe him, and started to make a thorough search of the house. In a trunk was found fifty dollars belonging to Mrs. Yoder and eighty-six dollars belonging to Miss Ellen Baker, the hired girl.
In spite of Mr. Yoder's repeated assurances that they had got all his money the cowardly scoundrels did not believe him and dragged the feeble old man out of the house, across the yard into the barn, where they started a fire on the threshing floor and told Mr. Yoder they would burn down his barn if he still refused to tell them where the rest of his money was concealed. Mr. Yoder again protested that he had no more money, when one of the gang produced a rope and fastened it around the neck of the defenseless old man, remarking as he drew up the noose, "The old man has lived long enough anyhow - hang him up, boys." The other end of the rope was thrown across an over-bead beam and, pulled by the strong arms of two of the gang, the old man's form was dangling in the air, six feet from the floor. When in a few minutes his breathing became labored they lowered their half dead victim to the floor and again demanded that he tell them where his money was hidden, but he again denied that he had any more money about his home. At the command of the leader of the gang, Mr. Yoder was a second time drawn up, and, not content with the atrocities they had inflicted on their aged victim, these devils of torture, who had all the while kept a close watch over the fire they had kindled with diabolical design, collected the burning hay and straw and placed it under the feet of the old man, now almost lifeless. He was held suspended over the fire in the midst of a suffocating smoke, while the cruel flames blistered his hands and scorched his garments. The old man was again lowered and the flames were extinguished, but they found the victim of their barbarous cruelties to be unconscious and unable to longer plead for his life and protest that he had no more money to give them.
When Mr. Yoder regained consciousness he was lying on the kitchen floor. Standing over him were two of the gang - one with a revolver pressed against his forehead, and the other brandishing a long dirk-knife over him as if in the act of cutting the old man's throat. "Tell us where your money is or we will kill you for sure this time," said the man with the dirk-knife. Mr. Yoder could only repeat his oft reiterated protests that he had no more money to give them.
While the man with the revolver and the man with the dirk- knife were inflicting the last round of fiendish torture upon the old man the other two members of the gang ransacked the house from cellar to garret in search for anything of value they might be able to find. They found small quantities of whiskey and wine, some hams, some sugar and some articles of clothing which they appropriated. "Bring up the grub, boys," shouted the ring- leader. Bread, pies, meat and all the delicacies to be found in the cellar and kitchen were spread upon the family table and what they could not eat they destroyed; then, binding the old man, hand-and-foot, they prepared to leave. The ringleader, who afterward proved to be Charles Lewis of McClellandtown fame gave Mr. Stevanus a chew of tobacco, and wound his watch for him. From the house they went to Mr. Yoder's barn and took a span of fine gray horses which Mr. Yoder prized very highly and rode away at break-neck speed.
There is no telling how long the members of the Yoder household would have been left in their pitiable plight had it not been for the anxiety of a faithful wife. Mr. Stevanus usually took his supper at Yoder's house, but nearly always reached his home at 9 o'clock. Mrs. Stevanus waited patiently that evening for her husband's return, but when the clock struck eleven she sent her two sons to Yoder's house to inquire for their father. They found the members of the Yoder household in the same condition as they were left by the robbers.
The work of releasing the helpless victims was speedily done. Word was sent to Summit Mills, a village within a mile of the Yoder residence, and to the neighbors living on surrounding farms. A large posse of armed men on horseback started from Summit Mills before day-break in pursuit of the gang; but the robbers, who left at least four hours before on the backs of Mr. Yoder's well fed horses, had too long a start. Near Pinkerton. on the western slope of Negro Mountain, the jaded animals were recovered, but not the thieves.
An Amusing Escapade
Under date of Tuesday, April 16, 1889, Mr. W. W. Hartzell wrote, rather facetiously, the following to the "Meyersdale Commercial" from Confluence:
Yesterday afternoon, near John Ringler's; about one and a-half miles from here, a daring incident occurred, but before giving account of it I will anticipate.
On Sunday a telegram was received here telling of a brutal robbery of C. Yoder near Summit Mills. Later the same day information was received that the robbers were traced to near Pinkerton, where the horses of C. Yoder were abandoned. It seemed impossible to trace the scoundrels any farther.
However, on the following morning (Monday) near Walker's Mill, Alex Coughenour missed one of his horses from his stable and immediately started in pursuit, tracing him through Addison and Somerfield to a point near Markleysburg, Fayette county, where he recovered his horse, the thief or thieves having left the horse for safer quarters in their native mountain retreat. This depredation is supposed to have been done by part of the gang who robbed C. Yoder.
Just half a mile from Coughenour's at William Hanna's barn, on the same morning, two men were discovered in the hay mow and Mr. Hanna demanded explanation with a double barreled shot-gun. But the plausible' story of their going to Confluence to get work on the new railroad caused Hanna to release them. Arriving in Confluence they casually visited all the stores, pricing, but not purchasing, goods. They were carrying a sack of considerable size. In the afternoon they started toward Somerfield, and had proceeded to near John Hanna's at the old Joe Bowlin farm, on a steep hill-side road, where William Hanna, John Hanna and Ross F. Augustine arrested the suspects. Just here came along John A. Walker on horseback and Andrew Flannigan leading a steer, and they were requested to help take the "suspects" to Confluence, and consented. The party started, and, after getting to the forks of the road at John Hanna's, William Hanna left the party to go the near road home, depending on the remaining men to bring them to Confluence. Near John Ringler's the large man, who was on the buckboard with Ross F. Augustine, took advantage of circumstances, and placing a revolver in Augustine's face, made him leap from his wagon, climb the fence and scamper down through the meadow. And, as John Hanna had the other suspect on the horse behind him, they were soon on the ground in a terrible struggle, the suspect outdoing Hanna. Flannigan and Walker, who were driving up the steer, seeing Ross Augustine running down the meadow, imagined something unusual had occurred, and just then Augustine called to them to hurry up, when Walker put his horse to a gallop and came up quickly to the contesting parties, when the suspect who made Augustine run, coolly pointed his revolver at Walker, made him dismount, climb the fence and follow Augustine down the meadow; and then, by the potent persuasion of fire-arms, both suspects mounted, one on the horse of John A. Walker and the other on the horse of John Hanna, and, flourishing four revolvers, they demanded the road of Flannigan, who was coming up with the steer. Flannigan was powerless to arrest their flight in the face of four revolvers. They galloped the horses about two and a-half miles toward Somerfield, and, seeing A. Weakland and son coming toward them on horse back, they abandoned the horses and took to the woods.
As soon as Ross Augustine and John A. Walker could get horses they followed fast in pursuit, and at the point where the suspects left the horses they were only a few minutes late.
In the bag they had several nice hams, sausage, a gallon demijohn with whiskey, two sugar bricks, chestnuts, etc., supposed to be the property of C. Yoder.. - A large posse is in pursuit.
While it was a great mistake on the part of Messrs. Hanna, Augustine and Walker that they did not search their prisoners before starting towards Confluence with them, it must be remembered that probably none of them ever did any police service before. Mr. Augustine had $2,500 on his person that day, of which the desperado Lewis, whom he had undertaken to convey to jail, presumably had no knowledge. The man who got away from Mr. John Hanna was Decatur Tasker, a young man of extraordinary physical power.
The neighborhood surrounding the village of Summit Mills is one of the wealthiest farming communities in Somerset county. The people of the neighborhood are mostly members of the German Baptist or Brethren church, with a considerable sprinkling of the yet more conservative Amish persuasion. Their religious teachings are opposed to the taking up of arms, even in defense of life itself. But the brutal torture and robbery of old Mr. Yoder produced a sensation throughout the southern section of the county that was well calculated to make men forget their religious scruples against the maintenance of law and order at any cost. Never since the dusky savage had taken his last farewell from the fertile valley of the Elk Lick had such a bold atrocity been committed in that quiet, law-abiding community.
An organization was formed in which Mr. U. M. Miller' and Mr. Lewis A. Kretchman were the leading spirits. It was a secret organization; but the wealthy farmers of the neighborhood contributed liberally into its treasury. From the moment that organization began its existence the fate of the McClellandtown organization in Fayette county was determined. Like a true prophet, the editor of the Connellsville Courier, referring to the operations of the outlaws at Yoder's, wrote:
"They are now heard from over the mountains in Somerset county. In crossing this Rubicon, they did not perhaps calculate the danger to which they rendered themselves liable. The record of the Somerset county people in the Umberger case indicates that they are not to be trifled with. Among the Frosty Sons of Thunder, the apprehension of criminals is regarded as the patriotic duty of every good citizen and not exclusively of the law. This feeling stirred up the countryside and resulted in the prompt arrest of Collins Hamilton and the Nicely brothers. This feeling makes Somerset county dangerous ground for the Fayette gang. Whether Fayette will ever become dangerous ground for them depends upon the people themselves as well as upon the county authorities."
The work of organizing a posse of men to invade the stronghold of the desperadoes in Fayette county was given into the hands of ex sheriff Kyle, of Meyersdale. At Confluence Dr. B. A. Fichtner was entrusted with the important work of reconnoitering the country about McClellandtown, and so well did the Doctor do his part that the promoters of the movement were each day informed by mail or telegraph of the whereabouts of the Fayette bandits.
On Saturday, April 27, a telegram from Dr. Fichtner conveyed the information to Mr. Kyle that the gang had come home and would remain at home over Sunday. Accordingly on Sunday morning Mr. Kyle bearded the west-bound 3 a.m. train with his posse of brave men, composed of the following: Peter Albright, Nicholas Murphy, J. J. Holzshu, John Wagner, Thomas Reese, Geo. R. Witt, Samuel Firl, U. S. Firl, J. M. Kretchman, Amos Lindeman, James Leckemby, Herbert Leckemby, A. Herring, J. H. Lowry, Alvin Lowry, Charles Garletz, and Albert Lybarger. The men took breakfast at Confluence, where they were joined by Dr. Fichtner, Lloyd Show, Jacob Show, John Stanton, and Fred Yagley. After breakfast the party proceeded in wagons in the direction of Markleysburg, Fayette county. It was after the dinner hour when the posse, under the command of Messrs. Kyle and Fichtner, reached Markleysburg, and the citizens of the town kindly offered to feed them. This generous invitation was accepted, but Messrs. Kyle and Fichtner placed a guard around the village to prevent the news of their arrival in Markleysburg from reaching the headquarters of the gang. This subsequently proved a valuable precaution.
After dinner Messrs. Kyle and Fichtner held a consultation with Justice Markley, Mr. Hiram Umble and Doctor Sweitzer, of Markleysburg, in an undertaker's shop, where the plan of capture was adopted. It was known that the rendez- vous of the McClellandtown gang was at the house of William Hill, located in a lonesome woodland near the road leading from Markleysburg to McClellandtown, but there were three houses within a radius of a mile which the members of the gang were known to frequent.
The men, nearly all of whom were armed with Winchester repeating rifles, were divided into four squads, with Constables Albright, Holzshu and Murphy each at the head of one squad, while Messrs. Kyle and Fichtner led the squad that was to make the descent on the Hill mansion. A squad was sent to surround each of the other two houses, and the fourth was to march to the corner of the three States - Pennsylvania, Maryland and West Virginia - to intercept any retreat in that direction.
The following graphic account of the capture was given in the "Somerset Herald," dated May 1, 1889:
Charles Lewis, the leader of the gang, was supposed to be staying in the "Hill House." It was from this house that the cutthroats made their escape some weeks ago when a party of Fayette county officials attempted their capture.
The house is built of logs and is weather boarded. It is one and a-half stories high and faces on the Brandonville road. W. B. Hill, commonly known as "Bill Hill," one of the most reckless members of the company of desperadoes, is the proprietor, and it is here that the gang are wont to bring their booty and to flee for refuge when pursued by officers of the law.
Dismounting and tying their horses to trees about a half mile distant, Mr. Kyle and his party proceeded to surround and close in upon the house. At the near approach of the party a foxhound owned by Hill set up a dismal howl, which brought the mistress of the house to the door. After looking carefully around Mrs. Hill retired within doors, and in a few seconds returned with her husband, W. B. Hill.
As the couple stepped out of the front door of their domicile they were ordered to throw up their hands, and they were allowed to look down the barrels of several Winchester rifles by way of incident. They lost no time in elevating their hands, and one of the attacking party stepped upon the perch and placed a pair of iron bracelets upon Hill's writs. Mrs. Hill was also placed under arrest while this was being done. While the Hills were being cared for, three men appeared at one of the windows of the second floor with the intent of jumping out. But, fortunately, they looked before they jumped, and the stalwart form of Peter Albright, pointing a repeating rifle in their direction, met their gaze and deterred them from taking their rash leap. Then they dashed to the window on the other side of the attic, but the sight of several Winchesters in the hands of determined looking men gave them no encouragement to make their exit from that quarter.
Dr. Fichtner, who was standing on the porch, called to the men to come out and surrender. The reply was, "No we will fight till we die." Sheriff Kyle then ordered his men to break in the door. At this Mrs. Hill called out: "My God I hope you are not going to try to break into that house; if you do, you are dead men." She then called to the inmates of the house to come out, and begged them not to show fight After some parleying she persuaded the men to come down from the attic.
Mrs. Hill continued to beseech the robbers to surrender, and they finally concluded that discretion was the better part of valor, and that, as escape seemed impossible, they would act upon Madam Hill's advice. Charles James Lewis, the leader of the gang, stepped out upon the porch with a revolver in his hand and said: "Come in, gentlemen; walk in." "Up with your hands," cried Hiram Umble, leveling his Winchester on the robber leader, and the doughty Lewis, the celebrated leader, the notorious highwayman, the daring robber, the fearless bandit, the dauntless captain of the famous "McClellandtown Gang," threw up his hands and quietly submitted to having a pair of handcuffs placed upon his hands.
Seeing that their redoubtable leader was at last a prisoner, the two other members of the gang present, Decatur Tasker and Jack Sullivan, decided to surrender and quietly marched out of the house and submitted to their captors.
A party was detached to take the three prisoners to Markleysburg, while the balance of the squad proceeded to search the house. In the house were two young females who gave their names as Lou Teat and Nettie Sullivan. They denied that there were any stolen goods or firearms in the house, but a search showed that they were mistaken. A double-barreled shell gun, loaded, was found lying by one of the attic windows and two calibre Smyth & Wesson revolvers were found in the woodbox behind the stove. A silver mounted 38-calibre Smith & Wesson revolver was taken from the person of Mrs. Hill Louisa Teat and Nettie Sullivan were placed under arrest and forwarded to Markleysburg.
The squad who surrounded the Thomas house near the State Line came in with two members of the gang, Marshall Sullivan and Jere Thomas. On their way to Markleysburg they met a young man by the name of Anderson and at once took him into custody. Young Anderson was a regular walking arsenal. He was fairly loaded down with a brace of revolvers, a dirk-knife, handy billy and a pair of steel knucklers. He was equipped for business, but submitted to arrest without resis- tance.
The prisoners now numbered ten and it became necessary for Captain Kyle to press several teams into service to convey them to Confluence. The rain had been pouring down all day and the country roads were in an almost impassable condition. It was five o'clock when the party left Markleysburg and it was long after night when they reached Confluence, where they took the B&O express for Meyersdale, arriving there at 2:24 Monday morning.
A hearing was given the prisoners at Meyersdale. Charles Lewis and Jackson Sullivan waived a hearing. Justice W. B. Cook committed the entire band to the county jail, where they were taken the following day.
The news of the capture had spread over the county in an almost incredibly short time, and large crowds of people gathered at every station along the railroad from Meyersdale to Somerset. The arrival of the prisoners at the County Seat and their march to the county jail was one of the most exciting scenes ever witnessed in Somerset. As the last prisoner entered the jail corridor a mighty cheer went up from the immense crowd on the outside.
The entire McClellandtown party was given a hearing before Judge Baer on May 10, 1889. After the hearing Judge Baer said: "There are such circumstances surrounding this case that we will remand all the men and discharge all the women. Their trial came up at the regular May term of court; and, although Messrs. Holbert and Uhl made a very able defense for the prisoners, Charles J. Lewis, Decatur Tasker, Jackson Sullivan and Marshall Sullivan were convicted on May 30th.
Mr. Holbert made a motion for a new trial but the Court overruled the motion and sentenced the prisoners to ten years separate and solitary confinement in the Western Penitentiary.