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Saturday, May 22, 2010

The Blue Eyed Six


It was a foolproof plan. Six men in Lebanon County Pennsylvania bought insurance policies on the life of Joseph Raber, an elderly recluse living in a hut in the Blue Mountains. They were sure Raber would die soon and end their financial problems. But the premiums proved costly and the men grew tired of waiting for Raber to die. In July 1878 they decided to take matters into their own hands. Their plot was common knowledge in Lebanon County and it was not long before all six were arrested for murder. The conspirators had a number of common characteristics–all six men were illiterate, all six were living in poverty, all six were of low moral character— but one trait captured the public’s imagination – all six had blue eyes.

Date: December 7, 1878

Location: Lebanon County, Pennsylvania

Victim: Joseph Raber

Cause of Death:  Drowning

Accused: "The Blue Eyed Six"

Synopsis:

It began with four men looking for a way to ease the extreme poverty that had befallen Lebanon County, Pennsylvania in 1878. All but one were married with children to feed— Israel Brandt had six children, Henry Wise had 7, George Zechman had 6. Josiah Hummel had no children but was having trouble supporting himself as an unskilled laborer. Wise was a coal miner. Zechman worked as a farm laborer and a coal miner. Brandt, who had lost one arm in a farm accident, was the owner of the Brandt Hotel in St. Joseph Springs.

Their plan was to take out life insurance policies on Joseph Raber, a reclusive 65-year-old man living in an abandoned charcoal burner’s hut in the Blue Mountains. The hut had a dirt floor and ceiling too low for a grown man to stand up. He lived there with Polly Kreiser, referred to as his “housekeeper" but common law wife would be more accurate. Raber did farm labor when he could, but mainly lived on public charity. The four men had promised to take care of Raber if he would make them beneficiaries of the insurance policies and Raber was pleased to do it.

The type of insurance they bought was called assessment insurance also known as “graveyard insurance.” It was primarily sold to guarantee that the insured would have enough money to be buried when he died with a little extra for his survivors. The concept of assessment insurance was simple; the insured paid a premium to join a pool then when any of the members died, the rest in the pool were assessed a certain amount that was then given to the beneficiaries. For example if there were a thousand people in the pool and the assessment was $1.00, a beneficiary would be paid $1000. Josiah Hummel’s policy on Joseph Raber was worth $2000, George Zechman’s was worth $2000, Israel Brandt’s was worth $1000, and Henry Wise’s was worth in the neighborhood of $3000.

In practice, assessment insurance was similar to a pyramid scheme where the member who died first stood to gain the most. As members died they would have to be replaced to maintain the value of the policy. As time went on, living members often chose to opt out of the pool rather than continue paying assessments.

Joe Raber was old but he was relatively healthy and showed no signs that he would be dying anytime soon. The constant assessments required to stay in the pools were becoming a financial hardship for his insurers. They realized that they could not afford to let Joseph Raber live any longer.

They made and abandoned several murder plans, including throwing Raber from a flatboat into a reservoir and poisoning him with chloroform, before admitting they were not able to do the killing themselves. Israel Brandt approached his neighbor, Charles Drews, and offered him $300 to murder Raber, and promised he would get the same amount from the other conspirators after the job was done. Drews, in turn, sought help from his son-in-law Joseph Peters and Frank Stichler, a local thief. Peter’s turned him down, but Stichler agreed to help for a price.

Around dusk on Saturday, December 7, 1878 Drews went into the tavern at Brandt’s hotel and told the people there that Joe Raber was dead. That afternoon he and Stichler had paid a call on Joseph Raber and offered him some tobacco if he would accompany them to Kreiser’s Store. Raber agreed to go with them. The trip to the store had required crossing Indiantown Creek on a crude bridge made of two twelve inch planks. Drews said Raber had a dizzy spell part way across, fell into the water and drowned. The following day a coroner’s jury examined the body and declared the death accidental.
The insurance on Joe Raber’s life was common knowledge in Lebanon County and quite a few people knew of the murder plot as well. No one came forward with information, but an article about the death in the Lebanon Courier ended concluded with:

“It is said that persons in the vicinity hold policies of insurance on Raber’s life for $13,000 upwards. There is unpleasant talk of the probability of his death not being accidental.”

Two months later the Courier ran a story with the headline:

The Death of Joseph Raber, He is Supposed to Have Been Murdered. Six Men Arrested, Charged with Crime.


At the prompting of one of the insurance companies, Lebanon County constables questioned Joseph Peters regarding Raber’s death. At 4:00 a.m. on February 5, 1879, Peters admitted to seeing Drews and Stichler drown Joe Raber. They had walked across the planks in single file with Stichler in the lead and Drews in the rear. About half way across, Stichler turned around, grabbed Raber by the shoulders and threw him into the water, then held him under until he drowned. Peters also accused the other four men of planning the murder. That morning Israel Brandt, Henry Wise, Josiah Hummel, George Zachman, Charles Drew, and Frank Stichler were arrested for murder.

Trial: April 7, 1879

The trial generated national and even international attention. It was the first time in the history of English and American law that six men would be tried together for murder. A number of reporters from distant cities came to the Lebanon County Courthouse to witness the proceedings. One of them observed that all of the defendants had piercing blue eyes; from then on they were referred to as “The Blue Eyed Six.”

The trial was presided over by Judges Henderson, Rank and Light. Fifty-eight witnesses testified, many of whom were German immigrants who spoke little or no English, and required a translator. Doctors, insurance men, family and neighbors of the defendants were called, but the outcome of the trial rested on the testimony of Joseph Peters and his wife Lena. They had both seen Drews and Stichler drown Joe Raber from the second floor window of the Drews house where they were staying. The six defendants had five attorneys who did all they could to discredit the Peters’ testimony. They claimed it would be impossible to see the murder through the second floor window and actually brought the window into court. It had multiple panes, and all were too dirty to see through clearly. One pane was partially broken and rags were stuffed in the hole.

The defense had witnesses who testified that Joseph Peters had been drinking all that afternoon and was drunk at the time he allegedly saw the murder. They also brought out the fact that Peters was currently AWOL from the army. Then there were the personal connections—Joseph Peters was fully aware of rumors that his wife Lena, Charles Drew's daughter, had been cheating with Frank Stichler while Peters was away in the army.

In the end none of it mattered. The jury deliberated for five hours then returned a verdict of guilty of first degree murder for all of the defendants.

Verdict:  Guilty of first degree murder


Aftermath:
Following the verdict all six defendants requested a new trial. While awaiting sentencing Henry Wise made a full confession. At the sentencing Judge Henderson granted George Zechman a new trial. Zechman’s involvement in the conspiracy was based solely on statements made by other defendants which would have been inadmissible if he were tried alone. Drews, Stichler, Hummel and Brandt were sentenced to hang. Wise would be sentenced later.
It was assumed that Wise had cut a deal— confession in exchange for a life sentence. The other four convicts then issued their own confessions, placing as much blame as possible on Wise. In the end though, Wise was sentenced to hang as well. The hangings were postponed until the outcome of George Zechman’s second trial.

Zechman was retried and found not guilty. He had participated in the insuring of Joseph Raber, but the jury determined he had not been party to the conspiracy. He was a known insurance investor and had insured many people in the past with no foul play.

On November 14, 1879, the day after Zechman’s verdict was read, Drews and Stichler were hanged. On May 13, 1880, Brandt, Hummel and Wise were hanged.


Resources:

Carmean, Edna J.  The Blue Eyed Six. Lebanon, PA: Sowers Printing Company. 1974.

Ludwig, Gary The Blue Eyed Six: A Historical Narrative. Lebanon, PA: Hodge Podge USA. 1979.

Video:

"The Blue Eyed Six"


2 comments :

Anonymous says:
October 29, 2010 at 4:34 PM

my teacher mr.olsen just told us a story about the blue eyed 6 he said that him and 3 other friends walked 3 times around the moonshine church and saw 12 blue eyes he said he never ran faster in his life

Jeffrey Dove says:
March 24, 2014 at 4:29 PM

Joseph Raber is buried at Moonshines Church in LEBANON County, not Dauphin.

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