On August 10, 1797, a weary traveling salesman on his way from the Reading area to the Catawissa Valley stopped at the tavern of John Reich for an overnight stay. The tavern was an old log home situated on the east side of the old Catawissa Turnpike, now the main street of Mahanoy City. The “turnpike” was not an improved roadway, it was a lightly used, single cleared path dirt path. Jost Folhaber was the name of the peddler, which was the term used to describe a sales person in those days long before internet shopping. His surname, as many surnames of the past, had several variations, such as Fulhaver, or Folhafer. He was German born, about the age of 47.
Unfortunately for this salesman another guest was there that evening by the name of Benjamin Bailey, a 31 year old man from Morristown, NJ who had been at the tavern for several days. The two probably had shared a drink of ale and engaged in light conversation over a meal prepared by Mrs. Reich that fateful evening. Mr. Folhaber had no idea that he was dining with death and the dinner would be his last.
At the end of August a decomposing corpse would be discovered and identified as that of the missing peddler. He had been shot in the back and his skull bludgeoned with an axe blade. The corpse of his horse was also found, emaciated, tied to a tree and shot dead. The victim’s saddlebag was missing so immediately it was presumed to have been crimes of murder and armed robbery.
It was the first homicide in the area that would eventually become Schuylkill County. Jost Folhaber’s remains were later buried near the scene where found – about two miles southwest of Brandonville. The land today is owned by the Mahanoy Township Water Authority. His grave is marked and considered a historical site within the county.
After the murder, Bailey quickly got rid of his coat and hat due to the visible blood stains and returned to the tavern. The tavern owner’s wife was curious why he had left that morning wearing a coat and hat but returned without either. Bailey told her that he lost them after he removed them while hunting. Two individuals Bailey passed on the turnpike also thought he was acting peculiar and they told the crime investigators so.
This investigation soon led to a warrant for Benjamin Bailey’s arrest and he was apprehended in Easton and incarcerated in the Berks County prison to await trial. He consistently maintained his innocence and pointed the finger of guilt at John Reich, the tavern owner.
The trial, held in Reading on September 9th, lasted only one day despite a parade of 26 witnesses, including Margaret Folhaber, the widow of the victim. Bailey was found guilty of premeditated murder and sentence to death. In handing down the ultimate sentence, the judge admonished the defendant with these words: “As you have but a short time to live in this world, and there is no hope of pardon from any earthly hand, let me urge you to seek a pardon from above…I say weep over the blood of Folhaber, for if you go out of the world with his blood on your conscience, it will wring your soul with never-ending agonies and horror… ”
The condemned man awaited his fate in his Reading prison cell. Despondent, he attempted suicide by cutting his wrists with a piece of glass. To prevent him from cheating the hangman, Bailey was either watched by the guards or chained to his cell floor.
It was not until the eve of his scheduled execution that the prisoner finally confessed. He woefully admitted that he had followed his victim with the intent to rob. He described how Folhaber fell from his horse after being shot, but was only wounded. The peddler then struggled to get on his feet, staggering a short distance before collapsing. Bailey admitted to striking the unconscious man several times on the skull with his small axe. The spoils of the crime only amounted to five pounds (about $150 in today’s value). But remember in 21st century Americans are often murdered for a lot less. You see, evil doesn’t have a minimum going price.
The cold morning of January 6, 1798, Epiphany Day, a curious crowd of 7,000 gathered to watch Benjamin Bailey hang until dead in Penn Square, a large open field used as the town commons. Public executions, although intended to instill a sense of morality within the citizenry, often became a form of entertainment in an era long before motion pictures could entertain the masses with terror and blood-letting. Before he dropped to his death with the noose around his neck, Bailey cried out the words “Lord, have mercy upon me, a sinner!” His grieving widow, Sarah, had requested to see his corpse after the crowd dispersed. She also asked that his remains be buried deep enough in an unmarked grave so as to prevent body-snatchers seeking cadavers for medical science study, which was not uncommon in those days. Fresh graves were preferred by grave-robbers as the earth was not yet settled, making digging easier. The warden granted her requests and the burial location of Benjamin Bailey was never revealed.
This ends the story of the first homicide in the area that would be called Schuylkill County.
Publications of the Historical Society of Schuylkill County, Vol 1, D.C. Henning
Transactions of the Historical Society of Berks County, Volume 2, Louis Richards
Scholla: Early Berks Justice 2/10/1941, Berks History Center
Standard-Speaker, article by Phil Sarno, August 23, 1969
“Mahanoy City, Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania 1863-1963, a history”
Photo courtesy of Republican Herald