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Murders remain unsolved 140 years later

  • 31 news 1patch.jpg
    Said to be haunted, this large, wood-frame house at 140 Main St., Wiggans Patch, was torn down in 2006, shortly after this photo was taken. ARCHIVES/DONALD R. SERFASS
Published October 31. 2015 09:00AM

 

Some say Wiggans Patch is Schuylkill County’s most haunted site.

That’s because time hasn’t erased images of horrific bloodshed that took place along the winding rural road in the middle of a cold, winter night.

One of the victims was Ellen O’Donnell McAllister, whose only crime was being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

The wild account of what happened to her and her family and the injustice that followed remain a haunting reminder that evil deeds can go unpunished.

Tough life

It was the evening of Dec. 9, 1875.

Ellen lived at 140 Main St. in Wiggans, now called Boston Run, about 14 miles northeast of Tamaqua. She was 20 and nine months pregnant.

She and husband Charles stayed with Ellen’s mother in the large wood-frame duplex situated atop the knoll just beyond Mahanoy City. Also living there were Ellen’s two brothers, one named Charles, the same as Ellen’s husband.

Life was tough for the hardworking family. Money was scarce.

Worse yet, it was a time of labor unrest and turmoil in northeastern Pennsylvania, a situation that impacted the O’Donnell family.

The O’Donnells were suspected of being members of the reputed Molly Maguires, a band of Irish immigrant coal miners accused in a string of murders and assaults throughout the southern coalfields.

There was an obvious connection linking the O’Donnells to the Mollies. According to the 2003 Guide to the Molly Maguires by H.T. Crown and Mark Major, Ellen’s sister, Mary Ann, was married to John “Black Jack” Kehoe, a Girardville innkeeper known as King of the Mollies.

Guilt by association. Nothing had been proven. But Ellen lived during a complicated period in American history.

There had been countless murders in a reign of terror in the region. The public was worried and frenzied. Whether right or wrong, the strong links to the Mollies were enough to cast suspicion over the O’Donnell crew.

Surprise attack

Historical accounts describe exactly what happened.

Ellen’s mother, Margaret, a widow, was the last to go upstairs to bed. “Grannie,” as they called her, had just finished putting coal on the stove to keep the house warm. She knew Ellen’s pregnancy was coming along fine. But naturally, Grannie didn’t want her daughter to catch a chill.

All was peaceful for a few hours as the stroke of midnight changed from Dec. 9 into Dec. 10.

Then, about 1 a.m., Ellen was awakened by a strange noise, a very intense rustling and crunching. It sounded as if hordes of people were stomping on the fallen leaves. Ellen nudged hubby Charles, asking him to investigate.

Before anybody could react, a small army of about 20 armed, camouflaged men kicked in the door, roared into the house and began firing. Ellen’s brother Charles was dragged out of the house by the invaders. His body was riddled with 18 bullets.

Her other brother escaped. James McAllister was found in the house, too. The vigilantes grabbed him and put a noose around his neck. But when they dragged him outside, McAllister somehow managed to wiggle free and flee into the dark woods.

Seeing what was happening at the front of the house, Ellen’s husband jumped out a back window and disappeared into the night, chased by a few of the gunmen. Grannie was pistol-whipped but still alive.

Shot at doorway

By this time Ellen had put on her robe, made her way down the dark stairway to see what the ruckus was all about. She appeared at the front door. Several assailants turned, looked at her, and fired point-blank.

Ellen’s eyes rolled as she reached for her stomach with her right hand. With her left arm she tried in vain to deflect a volley of bullets.

“My baby,” she screamed. “Oh dear God, my baby!” As Ellen cried out, blood trickled from the corner of her mouth.

She gasped, faltered, and clung to the doorframe for a few seconds. But her strength quickly faded and she crumpled to the floor.

Seeing what they had done, the gunmen ran, scattering in all directions.

The bitter air grew silent.

Ellen, her precious, unborn child and her brother had become three more victims of man’s inhumanity toward man.

Burial

Ellen’s body and that of her brother were taken to Tamaqua by train. Upon arrival, the corpses were packed in ice and stored overnight in the train station to await burial at old St. Jerome’s Cemetery.

News of the massacre shocked the region. Police searched for the perpetrators.

Theories abounded as to what really had happened. Some believed the ambush had been orchestrated by the Coal and Iron Police or even the Pinkerton Detective Agency. But no arrests were made. Nobody was ever charged.

There was no justice. And no eternal rest.

Sadly, Ellen’s due date was the day after she was murdered.

Many believe her spirit roams Wiggans Patch.

Some say she drifts through the site in her nightclothes, energized by her strong will to live and give birth. They say she waits for morning, for the eternal nightmare to end.

One investigator said the haunting can be felt at night. The pleas from the house are like a low moaning sensation as if she’s saying “Help me, help my baby,” said Deborah Randall, a Washington, D.C., playwright who explored the site several years ago while doing research.

No ending

On Friday, Nov. 17, 2006, the house — long a spectacle and destination for the curious — was quietly torn down.

Local officials said the walls had begun to bulge. They said it had become lopsided. It began to lean dangerously, they said, threatening to topple onto the adjacent roadway and power lines.

There was a drive mounted to preserve it, but the building was torn down before the effort picked up steam.

Then came another odd development.

In 2008, the site was nominated to receive a state historical marker. However, that move failed. The state reportedly had difficulty identifying the relevance of the massacre site and how it played into the story of the Mollies.

It seems there are forces that want to forget about what took place at Wiggans Patch.

Some may try to discredit it, or wish it would go away. But the massacre is historic reality.

It sadly remains a story without an ending.

There was no justice. There were no trials. Nobody was ever caught and convicted.

In 2009, members of the Pennsylvania Paranormal Research Team of Schuylkill Haven investigated the area and declared it haunted. Members say they were approached and spoken to by the spirit of a little boy who asked to go along home with them.

If so, who was the little boy?

Was he the spirit of Ellen’s unborn child? Or was the purported voice actually that of Ellen herself?

Some believe the shock of the murders has trapped Ellen’s spirit at Wiggans Patch.

She was an innocent housewife expecting to give birth the next day.

But in a moment of horror, she and her unborn baby were gone.

How can there be a sense of peace at a place that spawned such violence?

Some believe the spirit of Ellen McAllister is unable to move forward.

At Wiggans Patch, they say, time is standing still.

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