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The Immortal Peddler

  • TN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/DONALD R. SERFASS Friendly and trusting peddler Jost Folhaber hiked to the top of Locust Mountain, 15 miles northwest of Tamaqua, unaware he was being followed by sheer evil just one step behind. The peddler is represented here…
    TN PHOTO ILLUSTRATION/DONALD R. SERFASS Friendly and trusting peddler Jost Folhaber hiked to the top of Locust Mountain, 15 miles northwest of Tamaqua, unaware he was being followed by sheer evil just one step behind. The peddler is represented here by Tommy Symons, village of Black Heath.
Published October 26. 2012 05:02PM

His name was Jost Folhaber.

He was a traveling salesman on his way to peddle wares.

He stopped for a short break at a tavern 15 miles northwest of Tamaqua, and continued on his way. Within an hour or two, he was ambushed and savagely butchered. Why? Not for revenge or hatred. But for simple greed.

The cruel homicide is recognized as Schuylkill County's first murder. And the victim is called The Immortal Peddler.

True to the name, the shocking story of the brutal death along the old Catawissa Trail will survive until the end of time.

It stands testament to rough, hand-to-mouth existence in pioneer America. And it stands symbolic of the sheer evil among us.

A meager existence

Details about Folhaber are sketchy. His age is unclear. Historical accounts indicate he likely was a resident of Berks or Northumberland County. He was a German Jew and had a wife whose maiden name was Margaret Lindenmuth, and a sister from Roaring Creek.

He traveled by horse on a regular route between Reading and Sunbury along a winding trail that passes through Tuscarora.

Early in the morning of August 11, 1797, Folhaber stopped at a lone, isolated cabin.

The place served as a tavern and inn kept by John Reich, located in deep forest then part of Northampton County. Today, the location would be the southeast corner of Main and Center streets, Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County.

There, Folhaber met hunter Benjamin Bailey, 31, of Morristown, New Jersey.

Bailey is described as a well-dressed man who'd stayed at the tavern for about 10 days. Bailey would go shooting in the woods each day and provide tavern owner Reich with small game to pay for his lodging.

Bailey happened to be on hand when Reich purchased a few goods from peddler Folhaber. According to accounts, Bailey heard jingling sounds coming from Folhaber's saddle bags and figured the peddler was carrying money.

Folhaber, a trusting man, made a mistake by telling those at the tavern of his travel plans.

When Folhaber left to continue his trip, Bailey followed unobserved, intent on 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. Folhaber stopped to pick huckleberries and let his horse rest and drink.

At that point, Bailey jumped from bushes and shot Folhaber in the back. But a stunned Folhaber didn't die from the gunshot wound. And so Bailey grabbed an ax, and with tremendous force, split open Folhaber's skull.

Accounts claim Bailey also shot the horse. He then ransacked the saddle bags and took what he could carry, plus $25 in coins. One written account describes the money as British copper coins. Another says gold and silver.

Bailey grabbed the loot and fled.

The gruesome discovery

Two weeks later, August 26, Folhaber's decomposed body was discovered on the trail and recognized as that of the peddler.

An inquest was conducted by John Meyer, Esquire, justice of the peace, Hamburg.

Meanwhile, assailant Bailey was spotted in Mifflinburg trying to dispose of Folhaber's goods. He was charged with the crime and pursued until arrested in Easton.

Bailey was jailed and, at first, denied guilt. Instead, he tried to blame the killing on innkeeper Reich. But police doubted Bailey's story.

Bailey's trial began on Thursday, September 9, and ended in twenty-four hours with a verdict of "guilty of willful and deliberate murder." He was sentenced to death on December 23 under warrant issued by Governor Thomas Mifflin, Pennsylvania's last president and first governor.

While jailed, Bailey attempted suicide. He took a piece of glass and sliced open a vein in his arm. According to a report in the Mahanoy City Record American newspaper, police intervened and Bailey was tied to the floor.

On the day of his execution, Bailey confessed. He expressed regret that he tried to finger 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 January 6, 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 present to witness the hanging.

Bailey's last words were: "God, be merciful to me, a sinner!"

Folhaber's death became the first documented murder in the region to become Schuylkill County.

And with Bailey's execution, it appeared the drama had ended.

But it didn't. It was only beginning.

Shocking aftermath

Folhaber 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, not near a road.

And interestingly, the story doesn't end here.

Local residents say the location along the trail is filled with the unexplained - surprises that date back 200 years.

"I'd walk the woodland trails and, almost mysteriously, the grave seemed tended to," says Mia Light, Shenandoah, a regular visitor to the site since childhood.

There are documented reports of very strange happenings at the grave. Written accounts reveal in detail what can only be described as supernatural occurrences where Folhaber was cruelly slaughtered and buried.

Residents' stories are described in detail by author Ella Zerbey Elliott in her 1906 book "Old Schuylkill Tales."

"The grass withered and never grew again, and the snow which fell to a great depth all around the spot would melt at once as it fell about the tree.

"Passers-by saw strange sights, and one young man reported that he had seen the peddler, whom he had known well in life, running around the tree pursued by a man with an ax, reliving the crime. So dreaded was the spot that no one ventured to pass the grave if they could avoid it, and there were rumors of moans and cries in that vicinity, heard near and wide."

Folks say something isn't right along the Catawissa Trail. There are reports of nighttime sightings of what people describe as a headless horseman. "Best to stay away," warn area residents. "Don't go near the place."

Still, the brave and daring are drawn there. Many feel distraught over what took place along that lonely path.

In fact, 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 Folhaber's stolen coins. They attempt to give him in death the peace that eluded him in life.

"People leave coins there all the time," says Robin Tracey, environmental education specialist, Tuscarora State Park. Tracey occasionally leads hikes to the musty grave. It is a hard, rocky, three-mile trek along private property.

Other times, persons unknown secretly take the climb. Each hike is a personal pilgrimage uphill to a place where life's work is left undone. Those who visit leave behind written notes, prayers, and wishes - and presumably, their tears and emotion.

For some reason, there is no rest in the wilderness high atop Locust Mountain. A strong wind constantly whips through the towering oaks and evergreens. It creates an eerie howl. They say it sounds like a wailing man, a painful voice crying out from the depths of the woods.

Peddler's Grave is a tragic, sad place that reminds us that life can be bitterly unfair. Evil is timeless, and it hunts the innocent and unsuspecting. At any moment, evil lurks one step behind.

Man at his worst is savage. He is a predator who can do horrible things.

But when one of us hurts, all of us hurt.

And because of it, The Immortal Peddler will live forever.

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