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True Crime in 1797 - The Peddler


Peddler's Grave in 1933

Jost Folhaber was a simple peddler. He traveled by horse on a regular route between Reading and Sunbury along a winding trail that passes through Tuscarora, selling his goods to pioneer families in the "back country." On Thursday, 10 August 1797, Jost stopped at a lone, isolated log cabin for the night. The place served as a tavern and inn kept by an old German immigrant named John Reich (or Reisch), located in the deep forest. Today, the location would be the southeast corner of Main and Center streets, Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County.


There, Jost met a hunter named Benjamin Bailey, 31 years old, of Morristown, New Jersey. He had little money and had come to the Pennsylvania wildness in search of adventure. Bailey had been staying at the tavern for about 10 days. Bailey would go hunting in the woods each day and provide tavern owner Reich with squirrels, rabbits and other small game to pay for his lodging. Bailey happened to be on hand when Reich purchased a few pots and pans from the peddler. According to an account, Bailey heard jingling sounds coming from Jost's saddle bags and figured the peddler was carrying a sizeable amount of money.


The next morning at breakfast, Bailey struck up a conversation with Jost. He asked him what route he planned to take. Jost, a trusting man, made a mistake by telling Bailey his travel plans. Bailey offered advice about the best places to stop along the way for food and water, as well as where he might find prospective customers.


After breakfast, Jost saddled his horse and left to continue his trip, following the Catawissa Trail toward present-day Ringtown. Waiting until the peddler was safely out of sight, Bailey followed unobserved, intent on ambushing and robbing him. The peddler made it up the steep climb to the top of Locust Mountain, midway between the present towns of Shenandoah and Mahanoy City. There, he paused to take a break at what is now known as the upper dam of the Philadelphia & Reading Coal and Iron Company's Waste House Run, merely a pool of water at that time. Jost stopped to pick huckleberries and let his horse rest and drink. At that point, Bailey, who had been lurking in the bushes, steadied his rifle and shot Jost in the back, afraid he would be recognized. But a stunned Jost did not die from the gunshot wound. He got to his feet and staggered along the trail in an attempt to escape. Afraid that his groaning might attract some attention of another traveler, Bailey grabbed a tomahawk, and with several forceful blows, split open Jost's skull.


Bailey dragged the corpse out of sight into the woods. He then ransacked the saddle bags, but failed to find the money he believed Jost to be carrying. Most accounts say that Jost only had thirteen cents with him, though some claim that he carried as much as $25. Bailey then removed his bloody coat and hat, leaving them near Jost's body.


He began his return to the old log cabin inn, but upon hearing the approach of a horse, he decided to await its passing. It proved to be a man by the name of Mr. Clarke whom Bailey had met several times before. He had gone only a short distance, when he met Mr. Jackson, another traveler on foot. Neither appeared to notice anything suspicious about Bailey and the awful deed he had committed. However, immediately after meeting Jackson, Bailey returned to the place where he had left Jost's horse, fearing that Jackson might discover it and thus, out of curiosity, find some trace of the murder. He then hid his purse of coins and returned to the inn.


Mrs. Reich, the tavern keeper's wife, greeted him. Hatless and in his shirt sleeves, he at once created suspicion in her mind for she inquired about his missing hat and coat. He claimed that he lost both in the wilderness.


On the following day, Saturday, Bailey made an effort to find the horse and the peddler's goods. But, in the thick forest, and with the guilt weighing heavily on his mind, he was unable to find them. The next day he made another attempt, asking Reich to accompany him to search for his coat and hat, but they were unsuccessful.


On Monday morning, 14 August, Bailey returned to the scene of his crime alone and found the horse as he had tied him. Intending to make his getaway at that time, he mounted the horse, but found the animal was too weak to bear his weight. He then killed the steed in the same manner he had finished of its master. The following day, with his bag of coins and as much clothing and other equipment as he could carry, he headed for Catawissa, twenty-five miles away, on foot.


On 26 August, two weeks after the brutal murder, Jost's decomposed body was discovered on the trail and recognized as that of the peddler. The crushed skull and the bullet wound plainly told how he had met his demise and suspicion pointed at once to Bailey. An inquest was conducted by John Meyer, a Justice of the Peace from Hamburg since the murder took place within what was Berks County at the time. After the investigation, Benjamin Bailey was charged with murder.


After arriving in Catawissa, Bailey had proceeded to Northumberland County where he was spotted in Mifflinburg trying to dispose of the peddler's goods and fled. He was captured near present-day Easton and taken to Reading by the sheriff of Berks County, John Christ. At first, Bailey denied his guilt. Instead, he tried to blame the killing on innkeeper Reich. A warrant was issued for Reich's arrest. However, Bailey's story began to fall apart and Reich was exonerated.


Bailey was indicted by a Grand Jury a few days later and he was tried before the Courts of Oyer and Terminer with the Honorable Jacob Rush presiding. Rush's associates were James Diemer, Nicholas Lotz, and Joseph Heiser, attorneys. Heiser, several years later, would become governor of Pennsylvania.

Bailey's trial began on Thursday, 9 November. He was defended by Daniel Clymer and John Mark Biddle, prominent lawyers in their day. Twenty-six witnesses testified against him and among them were John Reich, his wife and their son, Mr. Clarke and Mr. Jackson, whom Bailey met on the day of the murder, and Jost's wife, Margaret Folhaber. It ended in less than twenty-four hours with a verdict of "guilty of willful and deliberate murder." He was sentenced to death by Judge Jacob Rush who, before a crowded courthouse proclaimed:


"You have had a fair and impartial trial....You have been found guilty of murder in its most horrid form--deliberate, cruel and remorseless. You have imbrued your hands in innocent blood for the sake of a little money. And though the water of the mountain hath washed the stain from your garments and from your hands, oceans of water can never wash away the stain of guilt from your conscience....Weep, I say, over the blood of Folhaber; for if you go out of this world with his blood on your conscience, it will wring your soul with never-ending agonies and horror."


His death warrant was issued on 23 December by Governor Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania's first governor, and the date of execution was set for 6 January 1798. While jailed, Bailey attempted suicide. He took a piece of glass and sliced open a vein in his arm. Police intervened and Bailey was chained to the floor. Two clergymen encouraged him to make make peace with himself and the world.


On the day of his execution, Bailey confessed before Sheriff Christ. He expressed regret that he tried to implicate Reich in the murder. He also repented over the fact that he had "wrongfully injured" an innocent man. He said he hoped his case would be an "awful warning to all who give way to the temptations of the devil." It is written that "he was sensible of the disgrace he brought upon his parents and his wife, Sarah Bailey."


On 6 January 1798, Bailey was hanged by the neck until dead. His execution took place in the town of Reading, on the Reading Common, now Penn Square, a public park. The constabulary, military forces and about seven thousand residents were endured the wintry weather to witness the hanging. Bailey's last words were: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"


His wife, Sarah, made several unusual requests before the execution. She asked that her husband's body be buried in a Potter's field, that it be kept from the surgeons and buried deeper than usual to discourage body-snatchers and morbid "souvenir-hunters" from stealing it. It is unknown whether these requests were granted, but she was allowed to view her husband's body after the hanging and, according to legend, Sarah sat atop the burial site for days on end until she was satisfied that the grave would be safe from violation. While the final resting place of Benjamin Bailey has been lost to history, and while the bones of the killer were left to rot in a pauper's field which has most likely since been paved over and trampled by the march of progress, his victim's grave is well preserved, almost 225 years after the crime.


Jost's Grave

Jost's death became the first documented murder in the region that would become Schuylkill County. He was buried at the site of the bloody murder, directly beneath the tree along the Catawissa Trail in Mahanoy Township where he had paused for his final break. The isolated grave is tucked away in the middle of the woods, not part of a cemetery, nor near a road. Around 1900 it was marked by a mound of white gravel and a stone cross which, after it was vandalized in 1938, was later replaced with the current monument.


Coins, new and old, continue to be found around the rocks of the murder site. For over 200 years, residents of nearby coal mining towns, all of whom live a hardscrabble life, have been trying to replace Jost's stolen coins. Since relatives on my father's side lived in the area since the 1850s, it is quite possible that they may have visited the grave site and left a penny or two. They were at least familiar with the tale.

Tombstone

Of course it seems that more is known about the murderer than the victim. His age is not mentioned nor when he had arrived in America. Even the actual spelling of his surname is uncertain (Folhaber/Faulhaber/Faulhover/Foulhover). It is said that he had a wife whose maiden name was Margaret Lindenmuth and a sister living at Roaring Creek, then included in Northumberland County. To date, I have not been able to find any record to confirm either of those pieces of information. However, there were Lindenmuths living in the area of Ringtown, most notably John Michael Lindenmuth, Jr., Colonel of the 4th Battalion, Berks County Militia in the Revolutionary War.


I am noting this because, if Jost did marry a member of this Lindenmuth tree, then she is connected to mine. I am providing that connection below.


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