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Carbon had its own version of 'The Fugitive'

Published October 16. 2010 09:00AM

By jim zbick

The old Carbon County jail was at the center of some of the most dramatic events in local history, none of which was more sensational and riveting than the Molly Maguire arrests, trials and executions of 1876-78.

During the first two decades of the 20th century a convicted murderer aptly called "Big Martin" Leskoski proved that the old jail was far from escape-proof. He was able to flee the fortress-like structure twice.

While living in Lansford in the early 1900s, the raw-boned vagrant was the talk of this region. In July 1903, he was convicted of the murder of Mary Yanesick, owner of his boarding house.

Before she died, Yanesick reportedly identified Leskoski as the man who shot her. A 13-year-old boy also testified that he saw Leskoski pull the trigger.

Nathan M. Balliet, James M. Breslin, Horace DeYoung Lentz and Robert A. Heberling defended Leskoski. In maintaining his innocence Leskoski maintained that Yanesick was "done in" by a jealous boyfriend.

After being convicted of first-degree murder in an emotional five-day trial, Leskoski was held in the county lockup when he made his first of two escapes by duping the daughter of Sheriff James Rothermel, who was out of town.

When Leskoski told Belle Rothermel that he needed coal oil for his lamp, she foolishly opened the cellblock in order to get the bottle. Leskoski quickly overpowered her and after grabbing the keys, he locked her inside the cellblock and fled.

During the next decade, Leskoski sightings became common, but he remained a fugitive until the spring of 1909, when he was captured in Butte, Mt. After being returned to the Mauch Chunk jail, his appeals for a new trial were refused and he was once again placed on death row.

While a final appeal to the state Supreme Court was being reviewed, Leskoski made his second successful escape from the Mauch Chunk jail, this time by sawing through the iron bars of the prison and somehow squeezing through a small window opening, in late July 1909.

As after his earlier escape, alleged sightings of Leskoski became common.

"The Evening Courier ran down several wild rumors and in every instance there was no foundation in fact in any of them," a Tamaqua reporter stated.

Police were out in force to recapture the prisoner.

"There are 18 state police engaged in the search for him and to avoid their scrutiny seems impossible, but Big Martin is a man of charmed destiny and as clever a criminal as there is in the business," the Courier reported.

Much like the fictional Lt. Girard in his pursuit of The Fugitive, a constable named James Whitehead became obsessed with Leskoski's capture. He was convinced that the fugitive had used an accomplice during the escape.

Reports about a white horse racing through Hackelbernie at the time of the pre-dawn escape first got Whitehead's attention. He traced this clue to White Bear, where reports of a broken down automobile and a waiting carriage - possible getaway vehicles - fueled the story.

State police followed this clue to Tuscarora, where a man answering Leskoski's description reportedly hopped off a train and immediately fled to the mountains. This lead was a strong one since Leskoski, after his first escape from jail four years earlier, reportedly went directly to Tuscarora and remained there for a week.

Blood hounds were brought in from Carlisle to help police search the mountainous area.

Police were aware that Leskoski was not only clever, but dangerous.

"The state police have been instructed by Sheriff Reber of Carbon County to take no chances with Leskoski, should they get their eyes on him," the Courier reported. "He is regarded as a dangerous character to be at large and the sooner he is sent to kingdom come, the better for everybody."

Although the sightings continued, the leads soon went cold. In late October 1910, some believed that the skeleton of a man found near Mauch Chunk by two hunters, Thomas Delay of Tamaqua and Archy McMichael of Nesquehoning, was that of Leskoski.

"It is the general belief that friends provided for him (Leskoski) on the mountain until winter came but being afraid of being detected, abandoned him and he was left to starve and freeze in the mountains," a reporter theorized.

Leskoski was still very much alive. It wasn't until 1917 that he once again surfaced in Arizona and after his extradition back to Carbon County, his execution was once again affirmed by the governor.

This time, however, it was James M. Breslin, Leskoski's defense attorney, who saved him from the gallows by first gaining a stay of execution from the Board of Pardons and then, remarkably, having Leskoski's life sentence commuted to a full pardon.

Thus, 14 years after the murder of a Lansford woman, the man who had escaped the Mauch Chunk jail twice, and who became a fugitive from justice for most of that period, walked out a free man. By that time, most Americans were focused on Europe and World War 1.

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