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The Rise and Fall of John T. Shoener

John T. Shoener (the spelling has frequently appeared as Schoener in multiple newspaper articles) was born 5 April 1850, in South Manheim township, Schuylkill county. He was the son of George and Maria (née Supper) Shoener.

He spent his early boyhood on the farm and attended the public schools of Orwigsburg. At the age of 13, he went to live with his uncle to Hennepin, Putnam County, Illinois. He graduated from Hennepin High School and, having qualified, began teaching school. John taught for one year in Illinois before returning to Schuylkill County and teaching for another five years in public schools.

Thereafter he turned his attention to business, in 1873 commencing the manufacture of brick, at a location between Port Carbon and St. Clair. When the Orwigsburg Shoe Manufacturing Company was organized that year John became secretary, and thus has the distinction of being associated with the first shoe factory started in the borough. The business was established in what was formerly the courthouse. Besides acting as secretary John represented the firm on the road until 1878, in which year he and George H. Bickley organized the Bickley Shoe Company. He retained his connection with that concern until July, 1893. After that he engaged as a wholesale dealer in boots and shoes, and though much of his time during that period was necessarily given to public affairs, he was thoroughly successful in his business ventures.

John has been in public life from early manhood. In 1878 he was elected to the State Legislature as representative from the Third district of Schuylkill county, and though a Republican won the election by 183 votes in spite of the fact that the district was strongly Democratic, by about one thousand majority. One very special reminder of his services in Schuylkill county, was the State Hospital For Injured Persons of the Anthracite Coal Region. It became a reality as a result of John's efforts. Legislative Act No. 169 was approved on 11 June 1879, providing for the purchase of a tract of land and construction of the hospital.

The State Hospital For Injured Persons of the Anthracite Coal Region

On 14 May 1880, work on the construction of the hospital began. The construction was completed in early 1882. The ‘main’ building included several wards, the Administrative Wing, Operating Rooms, a laundry and a stable. The hospital opened on 12 Nov 1883, only accepting injured miners, railroad workers and textile workers, in that order, as patients. The Hospital did not admit women or non-injured patients until early in the twentieth century. Two days later, on 14 November, the first patient was admitted. His name was John Lucas of Shenandoah, PA, a miner injured at the Kohinoor Colliery. Within a year, 313 miners were treated at the Hospital, with a daily average of 75 patients. The number requesting admission far outweighed the bed capacity. Only the critically injured were therefore admitted to the Hospital. In addition, Dr. J. C. Biddle (First Chief of Staff) treated several hundred men and boys for less serious injuries in the "Out of Doors" Department. At the time of its establishment this was the only institution of its kind in the world, having been provided especially for the persons injured in the coal regions, and it was unique in that it was supported by the State entirely, and designed solely for the laboring class.

At the close of his term John was renominated in 1880, but was defeated. In 1886 he was unanimously nominated on the Republican ticket for representative from the Thirtieth Senatorial district in the State Senate, and though defeated drew a most flattering vote, losing the election by only seventy-three votes in a district ordinarily Democratic by 2,500 majority; had it not been for the division of votes caused by the support given to the Prohibition candidate, he would have been the victor in this contest. His popularity again made him a candidate in 1890, when he was nominated for representative in Congress from the Thirteenth Congressional district, and again, though defeated, he ran far ahead of his ticket, his opponent winning by 1,480 votes, although the Democratic candidate for governor on the same ticket had a majority of 4,400 votes. In 1894 he became State sergeant at arms at Harrisburg and served for one session.

He was always been very influential in local affairs and his services and advice have been frequently sought. In 1896 he was elected clerk of the courts of Schuylkill county, serving two successive terms of three years each. He had been a member of the borough council and chief burgess of Orwigsburg and also member of the school board. He exerted himself in those positions to conserve the best interests of the municipality and further progress in the administration of its affairs. In 1900 he was the chairman of the Republican party in Schuylkill county. John had long been a prominent member of the Schuylkill County Agricultural Society and for twenty years was the executive head of that body.

Then, at the end of 1902, it all cam to a crashing halt when he was charged with embezzlement by County Controller H.J. Muldoon who asked the county court to grant a judgement for $5,380 against him. It was alleged that John collected $5.00 from each applicant for liquor licenses and refused to turn the money over to the county. He acknowledged that he collected the money, but said he paid part of it out in advertising the license applications and the he was entitled to the remainder for extra work. The judge who presided over the case decided that the fees collected should have first been paid to the County Treasurer and then orders drawn upon the account for such items. John appealed this decision to a higher court. His case eventually made it to the Supreme Court of the United States.

Supreme Court Justice John Marshall Harlan

On 2 December 1907, the Supreme Court of the United States rendered its decision in the case of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania vs. John T. Shoener. The opinion was announced by Justice John M. Harlan and affirmed the verdict of the Pennsylvania courts. John would have to go to prison for two years and six months.

Following the tragic fire in Boyertown (see my post here) on 13 January 1908, it was initially thought that his only daughter Edna was a victim of the terrible catastrophe. It was believed to be true since Edna was visiting Boyertown at the time and had intended to see the performance. It was reported that she had last been seen in the theater after the doorway was blocked. However, Edna was able to grope her way to a fire escape. She was taken to a home other than the one she was visiting during her trip, so news of her survival was delayed in reaching the family.

Later that year, while serving his sentence, he announced himself as a candidate for Sheriff, stating that he hoped to be able to and that it was his one ambition in his later years, to pay back his bondsmen the sums they lost and to pay the expenses of litigation. He lost that election.

A petition over several hundred feet long and containing the signatures of 25,000 prominent people in every walk of life was presented to the state pardon board, asking for it his release. It was refused.

John Thomas Shoener (1850 - 1921)

He was released from prison at 5 o'clock on the morning of 1 December 1909. He stepped out of the county jail at Pottsville and took the first train for his home in Orwigsburg.

Despite all of his successes and missteps, he remained a popular figure in the county.

In 1912, he engaged in the manufacture of brooms at Orwigsburg. He launched an unsuccessful campaign for prothonotary in 1915. He then became a bookkeeper at a paper box factory. He died suddenly on 26 December 1921 at his home in Orwigsburg.


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