The year was 1878 and the setting was a little hamlet along the Blue Mountain range called St. Joseph Springs tucked between first and second mountain and accessed by a two lane road that split off and headed west from the road that sliced through Swatara Gap and wound by Moonshine Church. Small families scratched out a living along the valley road which stretched further to the west into Fishing Creek Valley. Their days were filled with farming small family plots, chopping wood by hand, hunting game to put meat on the table and most made their living in the coal mining industry. There were no “well off” families and large broods of children living hand to mouth were the norm. Israel Brandt, a gregarious business man was a tavern keeper and he started a hotel right in the middle of the community. He had a history of working all over the US in various jobs, mostly bar tending and he had only one arm, which he lost in a threshing machine while working on a farm in Illinois.
Incredibly, the insurance industry provided a way to strike it rich since the liberal laws at that time allowed a person or persons to take out insurance policies on anyone not just family members. The devious wheels began to turn in Israel Brandt’s mind and the scheme to insure someone and have them killed for the insurance money was formed. He needed a victim and chose Joseph Raber, an old man who was for the most part the town hobo and who had no family. Raber did odd jobs for food and lived on the back of the mountain right above Brandt’s hotel in a little one room shack with a ground floor with Polly Kreiser his live in housekeeper. In order to maximize on the payout Brandt conspired with three other men, all who wanted to, or were desperate for, a get rich quick payout. Their names were Josiah Hummel, Henry Wise and George Zechman. Once the policies were final the men needed someone to do the deed or “get Raber out of the way” as Brandt often called it.
A humble butcher named Charles Drews whose life was filled with misfortune since coming to America from Germany 26 years earlier was Brandt’s first candidate whom he tried to convince to murder Raber. Drews had 11 children and had lost his farm because of too many debts and now lived in a 3 room shanty a stones throw from Brandt’s hotel. To start with, Brandt convinced Drews to butcher stolen livestock in his hotel basement for a share of the meat to feed his family and the crimes increased until gradually he convinced him to kill Raber, but Drews did not want to do the deed alone.
A wild youth named Franklin Stichler, not yet in his 20’s known for brash conduct, stealing livestock up and down the valley and who had a way with the ladies, was approached by Drews to assist in the crime for a mere $100. Stichler said, “It doesn’t matter to me, I can kill any man”! So the plan was set and on a cold afternoon the 7th of December, when Indiantown Creek was icy cold they convinced Joseph Raber to come down to Drews house where Stichler and Drews asked him to go along to get some meat from a neighbor up on second mountain. Raber agreed and they led him to his death. While the three were crossing Indiantown Creek on a plank Stichler turned around, grabbed Raber by the shoulders, and threw him into the 18″ inch deep icy waters and jumped in on top of him. Raber, not a weak man resisted, pushing himself up, so Drews, still standing on the plank, leaned over and put his hands on Stichler’s shoulders and helped him keep Raber under the water until he was a lifeless form.
They left Raber in the water and hurried to Drews home where Stichler changed out of his wet clothes. Drews then went to notify Brandt that Raber was dead and they began the false story that Raber had been seen that day acting very giddy and had a case of vertigo and fell into the creek. Brandt and Hummel went to Lebanon for the coroner and returned with him the next day. Raber’s death was ruled an accidental drowning by the coroner. But the community knew otherwise since Brandt’s plan to “put Raber out of the way” was a well-known story among the residents, some who had been approached by the conspirators to take part but refused, and others who overheard them talking of their plan. Even the Lebanon Courier newspaper story about Raber’s death ended with the foreboding sentence “There is unpleasant talk of the probability of his death not being accidental”. To make maters worse, the four conspirators were often seen on Brandt’s hotel porch meeting in broad daylight and people put two and two together linking them with the plan to murder Raber.
Another group who overheard the plan was the family of Charles Drews as Brandt and Hummel were often in his home talking to Drews of his duty to keep his word to do away with Raber. In addition, on the day of the murder Drew’s son-in-law Joseph Peters (by common law marriage to his daughter Lena) actually witnessed the crime from the second story window of Drews home! His wife Lena was in the room as well but was not looking out the window. Peters, who was home on leave from the army, kept this information to himself since one of the murderers was his own father-in-law and the other, Stichler, was rumored to have had an affair with his wife Lena while he was away serving his country.
The rumor mills and gossip circles in the valley were at a high-pitched fervor and Peters became more and more nervous and feared for his life. So in early January he and his wife Lena left the Drews home and walked away toward the west and did not return. That is until a month later in February when he met at 4 am one morning with four constables in the city of Lebanon and recounted his eye-witness testimony. The constables, joined with one from East Hanover Township then headed to Swatara Gap and one by one arrested all of the Blue Eyed Six by 7:30 am that same morning and they were all taken to the jail in Lebanon on 8th and Walnut Street.
And so the legend of the “Blue Eyed Six” began. If you speak of them to people in Lebanon County today many will say, “I’m pretty sure I’m related to one of them”. Well, that’s entirely possible, especially with 30 surviving children of the four married members to carry on the family DNA. At least two books were written, a play and a full length feature movie was produced and the curiosity concerning the Blue Eyed Six continues.
LOBO COMMENT: I wanted to give you the whole story in one blog and will from here present the trial and eventual executions.
THE BIBLE: For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God sent not His son into the world to condemn the world but that world through Him might be saved. (John 3:16-17)
Now to the Trials!