LEBANON COURT HOUSE
The Lebanon Valley was rocked to its core when the news of the crime and the arrest of the Blue Eyed Six reverberated through the region. Joseph Raber was murdered on December 7th, the six men were arrested two months later on February 12th and by April 18th the trial began. Very rapid justice as compared to today! Every transportation channel that crossed through the city of Lebanon was full of travelers intent on seeing the trial or just to catch a glimpse of the blue-eyed prisoners. The three railroads that criss-crossed the town were full of curiosity seekers morning and evening and the streets and city shops bulged with customers.
NORTH 8TH ST STATION
Inside the courthouse at 8th and Cumberland streets the legal teams prepared their arguments and defensive positions. An all men jury was assembled. Witnesses were called, 36 against them called by the Commonwealth and 22 for them called by the Defense. Emotions were high as neighbors would be testifying against neighbors and family members against other family members. Secrets would be laid open and bare for all to see. A three judge panel presided with Judge Robert Henderson as head judge and Associates William Rank & Joseph Light assisting. The defense team consisted of five lawyers William Derr, J.P.Gobin, C.R.Lantz, P.G.Mark & Frank Meily. The prosecution team was just two lawyers, the District Attorney Adams and Cyrus P. Miller.
The six defendants, all with blue eyes blazing, sat in one row in the front of the court room dressed in their finest, with none taking the stand in his own defense. The Harrisburg Independent newspaper called the men illiterate. Opinions of the men in the community ran the gamut of innocent men just trying to eek out a living to murderous conspirators. A stenographer took down the testimonies and printed copies to distribute on the following day to the lawyers of the Prosecution and Defense teams. District Attorney Adams opened up the trial by telling everyone what they were attempting to prove: Joseph Raber was murdered; the act of murder was committed by Charles Drews and Franklin Stichler; and that the other four defendants, Israel Brandt, Josiah Hummel, Henry Wise and George Zechman conspired together to insure Raber’s life and then brought about his murder in order to collect the insurance money.
FIRST WITNESS – JOSIAH NYE
The Commonwealth’s Attorney Cyrus P. Miller called Josiah Nye to the stand. Miller’s strategy was to present independent witnesses from the community who could testify to the facts they observed prior to, or after the death of Raber. Nye was a young farmer who lived about 3/4 mile west of St. Joseph Springs and on the night of the murder he testified that Israel Brandt’s brother Miles had knocked on his door to inform him that Joseph Raber was drowned. He finished eating, took his lantern and along with his brother, walked down to the scene of the drowning. He walked by Raber still lying in the creek and up to Brandt’s hotel where he waited for others to gather before going down to inspect the scene. He went on to say that once there he saw Raber lying on his side in about 18 inches of water and his face was covered with water. Not far upstream from Raber there was a plank bridge spanning the creek about 10 or 12 feet long and two feet wide. He testified that while he was at the creek a group came walking down from the Drews house that included Joseph Peters and his wife Lena, Charles Drews, Polly Kreiser (Raber’s housekeeper), Israel and Miles Brandt and a few other neighbors. The assembled group all agreed the body of Raber should not be moved until the coroner arrived.
The defense attorney then cross-examined Nye and tried to confuse him with a dozen or so questions about what he saw at the creek the night of the murder but Nye remained crystal clear on his story. The Commonwealth attorney then re-directed with a few questions of his own to clarify Nye’s testimony. This was followed by the defense attorney who tried again to undermine Nye’s testimony by asking if he was sure that Joseph Peters and his wife were even at the creek that night, and he asked for details of what Peters and his wife were wearing. Nye wasn’t sure about their clothes but was sure they were there.
SECOND WITNESS – POLLY KREISER (Raber’s Housekeeper)
A poor soul of a woman, she was wrapped in a black shawl and held a portion of it across her mouth which contained very few teeth! She spoke no english so an interpreter was used. The judge repeatedly had to ask her to remove the shawl from her mouth since her answers were muffled. The Commonwealth’s attorney questioned her kindly and revealed the fact that she had lived with Raber in his shanty, and that she waited up late the night of his death wondering what had happened to him. She recalled that Charles Drews had come for Raber that day under the guise he was going to give him some tobacco and they walked away together. When asked to identify the man she pointed her finger right at Charles Drews sitting there in the court room with the other five blue-eyed defendents. In further questioning she refused to remove the shawl from her mouth and when ordered again to do so by the judge she complained of a toothache and was dismissed from the stand!
THIRD WITNESS – JOSEPH PETERS (Son-in-law of Charles Drews)
Joe Peters was the prosecution’s main witness, and the convictions hinged on his eye witness testimony. The Commonwealth attorney, through a series of detailed questions, gave Peters the floor to reveal the entire account. He testified that while he and his wife were in the second story bedroom of Charles Drews home, he heard Drews bring Raber into the house for tobacco and then they left and Franklin Stichler joined them outside, which he observed from the bedroom window. He watched them walk down to the creek and saw the men drown Raber. His wife Lena was lying on the bed adjacent to the window and he turned and told her what he had witnessed, and that the duo were coming back without Raber. They waited a few minutes and went downstairs and saw Stichler changing from his wet clothes into dry ones which Mrs. Drews provided. Stichler warned everyone that if anyone came they were to hide his wet clothes, which he had hung by the stove. Then Stichler left, saying that he had to take Israel Brandt to George Zechman’s house. Peters also testified that before the drowning his father-in-law told him there was a way to make a lot of money but that to get it he would have to participate in the drowning of Raber but he refused. He also said that after the drowning Drews had said to him how strong Raber was and how difficult it was to drown him.
The defense attorney took over and cross-examined Peters. He attacked Peters’ character because he was in effect AWOL since he had overstayed his furlough from the army. He brought up his wife Lena’s supposed affair with young Franklin Stichler and tried to make it look like Peters was just trying to get revenge. Peters said his wife told him the accusation was not true and said that he believed her. The attorney also accused Peters of being drunk that day in addition to accusing him that he could not see clearly to the creek from the second story window since one of the panes was broken and had a rag stuffed into it. The questioning went on and on but Peters held fast to every detail of his story. A supposed chink in Peters story was why didn’t he tell anyone about the murder since he saw it first hand? Peters explained that it was clear to all that anyone who spoke a word about the crime would be killed and he lived in fear of that threat.
FOURTH WITNESS – GEORGE SWEINHARD (Insurance Man)
Mr. Sweinhard was a rotund red-faced fellow and sweated profusely. He testified that he had gone to Indiantown Gap after receiving an anonymous letter. He went there with a doctor so that the subject of the potential policies could be examined to affirm he was in sound health. The subject turned out to be Joseph Raber and the clients initially were Israel Brandt and Henry Wise. He later met with Brandt, Hummel, Zechman and Raber in Lebanon to sign the policies. He later met with Wise in order for him to sign as well. The Defense objected that there were no such policies but Sweinhard then produce 4 signed applications for insurance, signed by the four defendants, Brandt, Wise, Hummel and Zechman for a total of $5,000.
It was a long day and the court adjourned at 6 pm.
(Portions of this blog are excerpted from the book “The Blue Eyed Six” by Edna Carmean)
THE BIBLE: When people have a dispute, they are to take it to court and the judges will decide the case, acquitting the innocent and condemning the guilty. When anyone wrongs their neighbor and is required to take an oath and they come and swear the oath before your altar in this temple, then hear from heaven and act. Judge between your servants, condemning the guilty by bringing down on their heads what they have done, and vindicating the innocent by treating them in accordance with their innocence. (Deuteronomy 25:1; 1 Kings 8:31-33)
Next: Day Two