The true crime story that made Lebanon famous around the world: The Blue-Eyed Six, plotters of a murder 140 years ago

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The Lebanon Daily News was less than ten years old when Lebanon found itself amid the true crime story of the century, such a media sensation that it even inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to set a Sherlock Holmes story in Lebanon, PA.

Initial report

Let’s rewind the tape to December 8, 1878. If you were reading the Philadelphia Inquirer that week, here’s what you’d have seen in a small blurb on the first page:

At the time, the Dauphin & Susquehanna Railroad ran through Union Township, so it’s possible the source of the Inquirer’s bulletin had bypassed Lebanon altogether, as the Lebanon Daily News was already reporting hints that something more nefarious had happened.

Lebanon Daily News, December 9, 1878
Drowning of Joseph Raber
Yesterday morning about two o’clock Israel Brandt arrived in town from Indiantown Gap in search of the Coroner, stating that a man named Joseph Raber had fallen into Indiantown creek and was drowned. This neighborhood not being celebrated for the moral character of its inhabitants or its acts of charity caused a great deal of comment when it was understood that Raber was heavily insured, and the chief amounts held on his policies were residents of the neighborhood. (article continues)

The footpath over Indiantown creek can be seen in the forground of this engraving. Brandt’s Tavern is in the center.

When the coroner got to Indiantown Gap, he convened a jury who examined the body and found no bruising or marks on the body. Charles Drews testified that he had seen Raber fall on the bridge and that the old man was dead by the time he arrived. The Daily News reported that several other witness corroborated Drews’ account and that life insurance coverage of $10,000 was held on Raber at the time of his death.

Speculation about insurance fraud

In the next few days, newspapers across the region would report about this supposed accidental death, and bring up the obvious mysteries regarding the insurance payments of Joseph Raber, aged sixty, a man living in a mountain hut without any means to cover his own premiums.

Brandt’s Tavern is in the center of the picture.

On December 10, the Cincinantti Star had this brief:

And the Reading Times had this one:

The other shoe dropped on February 4 when insurance company investigations began to comb through witnesses in Lebanon County. A man from West Hanover township, Joseph F. Peters, charged six men with conspiring to kill Raber: John A. Stichler, Charles Drew, Israel Brandt, Henry Wise, Josiah Hummel, and George Zechman. The men were all in custody by that afternoon. A little more than a year later, all but one of them would be dead.

The men were held in the Lebanon County’s first jail at 8th and Walton Streets

The Lebanon County Jail stood on the site of today’s Farmers Market building, built in 1892 after a fire destroyed the jail.

The real story

At that time, it wasn’t illegal to take out insurance on another person. So the setup to the murder seems more conspicuous to modern readers than it would have at the time. The insurance on Joseph Raber had been arranged by Brandt through George W. Schweinhard who had offices near the train station on 8th Street in Lebanon. The four men who were beneficiaries (Wise, Hummel, Brandt, and Zechman) got antsy for Raber’s time to come and ultimately settled on Drews as an agent to carry out their dead, for $1,200 total. Drews enlisted Stichler to help. They explored a boating accident and poison by chloroform before settling on their ultimate plan to drown him in Indiantown creek.

Joseph Peters, who first turned on the men, would also testify at their trail that he had seen Raber, Stichler, and Drews walk to the creek together, and then witnessed the latter two men drowning the former in the shallow water next to the footbridge. Peters also testified that Drews intimidated residents of the area to stay silent or pay the cost.

The trial was opened on April 18, 1879 in the Lebanon County Courthouse. None of the six men testified in the trial which was documented by a court stenographer and followed by news outlets around the world. Witnesses would testify that they had seen the men meeting on multiple occasions at Brandt’s Tavern conspiring about the plan. The jury deliberated for five hours the evening of April 24, 1879 before coming back with a guilty verdict. Wise, Drews, Stichler, Brandt, and Hummel all ended up confessing to the murder, but Zechman was granted a retrial and was found not guilty, convincing the court that he had simply been an investor (for example, he held an insurance policy on his own mother).

All but one of the six were hanged

Charles Drews and Frank Stichler were the first two hanged on Friday November 14, 1879.

Israel Brandt, Josiah Hummel, and Henry F. Wise weren’t hung until May 13, 1880. Brandt and Hummel even tried to escape and had somehow obtained ether to assist in the task. On the gallows, Wise was allowed to address the assembly before Brandt and Hummel were led out, and he declared that all six of them were in fact guilty. In fact, Hummel and Brandt had made secret confessions that weren’t to be released until a year after their death.

George Zechman would go on to develop coughing seizures that were said to be very painful, causing some to speculate if that was his punishment. Zechman died at 39 years old of natural causes.

Hauntings

Rumors of hauntings likely began when an apparent relic-seeker defiled the grave of Henry F. Wise and removed the skull from the body, and didn’t even attempt to cover their tracks. News coverage noted that Zechman had died from consumption, as had Joseph Peters, who had given the initial fraudulent report to authorities about having witnessed Raber walking (and stumbling) by himself. Joseph Peters claimed to be haunted by the ghosts of the five corpses and thought himself bewitched by the departed.

To this day, Moonshine Church is said to be haunted by some, and you’ll find plenty of thrillseekers who have posted footage to YouTube.

The most common description of the paranormal activity is blue floating lights, said to be like the eyes of the dead. Others say that the paranormal activity is actually linked to an older Native American poltergeist called The Red Devil.

The Farmers Market has been examined for paranormal activity, as it is not just built on the site but actually rests on the foundations of the old jail. 

The Quest Paranormal Society, of Reading, has determined through intense study of the building that it is haunted. In one of its findings, a response from Henry F. Wise, one of the Blue-Eyed Six who was hanged on the property, stated, “I am dead.”

December 8 of this year will mark the 140th anniversary of the event. I certainly wouldn’t want to be out in the Indiantown Gap woods that night!

Here’s a little bit more about the men involved.

Biographical sketches

Israel Brandt

  • Birth:  May 27, 1834 in North Lebanon Township
  • Death: May 13, 1880 – Hanged in Lebanon
  • Buried: Mount Lebanon Cemetery
  • Occupations: Tailor, farmer, tavern/hotel manager (he operated the hotel at Cold Spring)

Franklin Stichler

  • Birth: October 16, 1859 in Union Township
  • Death: November 14, 1879 – Hanged in Lebanon
  • Buried: Along present day McLean Road
  • Occupations: Laborer

Josiah Hummel

  • Birth: March 18, 1849 in Union Township
  • Death: May 13, 1880 – Hanged in Lebanon
  • Buried: Sattazahn Lutheran Cemetery
  • Occupation: Laborer

Henry F. Wise

  • Birth: June 4, 1845 in Monroe Valley
  • Death: May 13, 1880 – Hanged in Lebanon,
  • Buried: Green Point Meeting House
  • Occupation: Miner

Charles Drews

  • Birth: July 9, 1820 in Holstein, Germany
  • Death: November 14, 1879 – Hanged in Lebanon
  • Buried: Mount Lebanon Cemetery
  • Occupations: Butcher, carpenter, mason, iron worker

Joseph Raber

  • Birth: January 14, 1819
  • Death: December 7, 1878
  • Buried: Moonshine Cemetery
  • Occupation: Laborer
  • No illustrations or photographs are known to exist

George Zechman

More links

The Blue Eyed Six: A Historical Narrative

The Blue Eyed Six (Movie)

Revisiting the Blue-Eyed Six

The story of the Blue-Eyed Six is one of Lebanon’s most famous tales, and we surely missed something here. Let us know in the comments or email me at davis@leb.town.

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