THE BLUE-EYED SIX
THE HAUNTED HISTORY OF ONE OF PENNSYLVANIA'S STRANGEST MURDERS
On July 8, 1878, one of the strangest murder plots in Pennsylvania history began with the purchase of four insurance policies in Lebanon County. It would become a plan that took months to carry out the perpetrators believed it was foolproof. Four men bought life insurance policies on a man named Joseph Raber, an old recluse who lived in a shack in the Blue Mountains. The elderly man was in poor health and they were sure he would soon die, bringing an end to their financial problems. But when they decided that Raber had lived too long, they took matters into their own hands by bringing two others into the plan. Unfortunately, far too many people knew of the plot and soon, all six were arrested for murder. The trial gained national attention, perhaps for the similarities between the six conspirators – all were illiterate, all were living in poverty, and all six had blue eyes.
In time, the sinister plot would create legends and inspire crime writers, but it also had one unintended effect – it created a lingering spirit that still haunts a local churchyard to this day!
The life insurance policies on Joseph Raber should have earned the policy-owner’s a large payday for 1878. They totaled more than $8,000 and insured the life of a man who his killers believed should have been dead already. Raber was an impoverished old man who lived in an old charcoal burner’s shack in the mountains. He was too ill to work and depended on the charity of others to survive. Officially, “charity” was just what his four neighbors --- Israel Brandt, George Zechmanm Josiah Hummel, and Henry Wise -- were offering him. 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.
But Raber was relatively healthy and showed no signs that he would be dying anytime soon. The constant assessments required to stay in the pools quickly became a financial hardship for his insurers. They realized that they could not afford to let Joseph Raber live any longer. Just a few months after the paperwork was signed, the four conspirators hired two assassins to killed Joseph Raber. Israel Brandt approached his neighbor, Charles Drew, and offered him $300 to kill the old man and promised he would get the same amount from the other conspirators after the job was done. Drews, in turn, sought help from Frank Stichler, a local thief – the final blue-eyed man.
Around dusk on Saturday, December 7, 1878, Drews went into the tavern that was located at Israel Brandt’s hotel and told people there that Joseph Raber was dead. That afternoon, he and Stichler had paid a call on 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.
But no one was fooled for long.
Too many people in Lebanon County knew about the plot and word eventually reached the insurance company that had provided the policies. They pressed the local police for answers. They soon had a witness to what had occurred on the crude bridge – a man named Joseph Peters had witnessed Stilcher showing Raber into the water and then holding him under until he drowned. Soon, all six men had been arrested.
Newspapers in America and overseas followed the case. It was the first time in the history of English and American law that six men would be tried together for murder. 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, referred to them as “The Blue Eyed Six.” The unusual nature of the crime and the striking nickname given to the killers inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, “The Red-Headed League.”
After five hours of deliberations by the jury, all six were found guilty of the murder in April 1879, though one of the conspirators, George Zechman, was later granted a second trial and acquitted due to lack of direct evidence against him. The remaining five were sentenced to death by hanging.
A number of legends appeared in the wake of the Blue Eyed Six case – some more based on facts than others. One tale claimed that the killers were all buried next to Joseph Raber in a local cemetery, while others claimed the men were actually hanged from a tree in the cemetery. In truth, Raber was buried there, but his killers were all hanged at the county prison and buried in various graveyards in the region.
In time, the legends that surround the burial site of Joseph Raber have been the most enduring. He was buried at Moonshine Cemetery, which is on land that was donated by Henry Moonshine, a local man who offered the land in memory of his son, who died at the age of 14. The cemetery is adjacent to the United Zion Church, which started out as a log cabin. It burned in the 1960s and was replaced by the white building that exists today. It is a quiet, peaceful place. There is nothing strange or eerie about it – at least during the daytime. After dark, visitors tell a different story.
They believe that the spirit of the murdered Joseph Raber still walks the grounds of the place where he was buried.
Mysterious lights have been seen in the cemetery – some say there are six blue lights that are seen, which are the ghosts of the Blue Eyed Six, paying penance for their crimes – but most claim to have seen the ghost of Raber himself, wandering through the cemetery. They believe that, even after all this time, the murdered man cannot rest in peace.