Massacre at Wiggans Patch

The opening scene in From Blue Ground was inspired by this historical event…

Dark shadows continue to follow murder of 134 years ago

People say there is no rest at Wiggans Patch, where time hasn’t healed.

The wild story of what happened there and the injustice that followed might be shrugged off by some as simply unbelievable, except for the fact that it’s true.

Said to be Schuylkill County’s most haunted site, Wiggans Patch continues to feel reverberations even after 134 years. Time hasn’t erased images of the horrific bloodshed in the middle of the winter night.

It was the evening of Dec. 9, 1875.

Ellen O’Donnell McAllister lived at 140 Main Street in Wiggans Patch, now called Boston Run, about 14 miles northeast of Tamaqua. She was 20 and pregnant.

Ellen and husband Charles stayed with Ellen’s mother in the large wood-frame duplex situated atop the knoll just beyond Mahanoy City. Also living there were Ellen’s two brothers, one named Charles, the same as Ellen’s husband.

Life was tough for the hardworking family. Money was scarce.

Worse yet, it was a time of labor unrest and turmoil in northeastern Pennsylvania, a situation that impacted the O’Donnell family. The O’Donnells were suspected of being members of the reputed Molly Maguires, a band of Irish immigrant coal miners accused in a string of murders and assaults throughout the southern coalfields.

To be exact, Ellen’s brothers had been implicated in the September 1 killings of mine boss Thomas Sanger and miner William Uren at Raven Run. If that weren’t enough, some said Ellen’s brother-in-law, James McAllister, was an accomplice.

There was an obvious connection linking the O’Donnells to the Mollies. Ellen’s sister, Mary Ann, was married to Black Jack” Kehoe, a Girardville innkeeper known as King of the Mollies.

It was guilt by association. Nothing had been proven. But Ellen lived during a complicated period in American history. There had been countless murders in a reign of terror throughout eastern Pennsylvania’s coalfields. The public was worried and frenzied. Whether right or wrong, the strong links to the Mollies were enough to cast suspicion over the O’Donnell crew.

To be a Molly was to be bad, according to what folks said and wrote back then.

But there are two sides to every story. Today, some see things differently.

Many say the Mollies, themselves, were wrongly accused. In many ways, they may have been victims of circumstance, targets of anti-Catholic prejudice. They might have been framed. Some say they might even be hailed as heroes today for advocating workers’ rights.

These repressed laborers had fled Ireland’s potato famine to come to the land of opportunity. But instead of bettering their lot, they found themselves toiling deep in the bowels of dark, dank coal tunnels. Long hours of sweat produced little pay. There was no such thing as upward mobility except for each day’s vertical climb out of the dangerous black hole.

Perhaps the Mollies rebelled, as many say. But if they did, maybe their antagonistic push for better working conditions was well intended. Perhaps their cause sparked the rise of America’s organized labor movement.

But on this day, the only labor that concerned Ellen was the physical stress of her upcoming childbirth.

Historical accounts clearly describe what happened on the cold December night.

Ellen’s mother, Margaret, a widow, was the last to go upstairs to bed. Grannie,” as they called her, had just finished putting coal on the stove to keep the house warm. She knew that Ellen’s pregnancy was coming along fine. But naturally, Grannie didn’t want her daughter to catch a chill.

All was peaceful for a few hours as the stroke of midnight changed December 9 into December 10.

Then, about 1 a.m., Ellen was awakened by a strange noise, a very intense rustling and crunching. It sounded as if hordes of people were stomping on top layer of fallen leaves. Ellen nudged hubby Charles, asking him to investigate.

Before anybody could react, a small army of about 20 armed, camouflaged men kicked in the door, roared into the house and began firing. Ellen’s brother Charles was dragged out of the house by the invaders. His body was riddled with 18 bullets.

Her other brother escaped. James McAllister was found in the house, too. The vigilantes grabbed him and put a noose around his neck. But when they dragged him outside, James somehow managed to wiggle free and flee into the dark woods.

Seeing what was happening at the front of the house, Ellen’s husband jumped out a back window and disappeared into the night, chased by a few of the gunmen. Grannie was pistol-whipped but still alive.

By this time Ellen had put on her robe, made her way down the dark stairway to see what the ruckus was all about. She appeared at the front door to catch a glimpse of the goings-on. Several assailants turned, looked at her, and fired point blank.

Ellen’s eyes rolled as she reached for her stomach with her right hand. With her left arm she tried in vain to deflect the siege of bullets.

My baby,” she screamed. Oh dear God, my baby!” Ellen cried out, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth.

She gasped, faltered, and clung to the doorframe for a few seconds. But her strength quickly faded and she crumpled to the floor.

Seeing what they had done, the gunmen ran, scattering in all directions.

The bitter air grew silent. Sweet Ellen McAllister, her precious unborn child and her brother had become three more victims of man’s inhumanity toward man.

The news spread fast when, a few days later, Ellen’s body and that of her brother were taken to Tamaqua by train. Upon arrival, the corpses were packed in ice and stored overnight in the train station to await burial at old St. Jerome’s Cemetery.

The massacre rocked the region. Police searched for the perpetrators.

Theories abounded as to what really had happened. Some believed the ambush had been orchestrated by the Coal and Iron Police or even the Pinkerton Detective Agency. Some suggested a militia unit from Mahanoy City had done it. No arrests were made. Nobody ever was charged.

For Ellen McAllister, her baby and her brother, there was no justice. And no eternal rest.

In fact, many believe Ellen’s spirit roams Wiggans Patch. Energized by her strong will to live and give birth, she supposedly drifts through the site in her nightclothes. They say she waits for morning, for the eternal nightmare to end, so that she can give birth to her child in peace. Ellen’s due date was the day after she was murdered.

The haunting can be felt at night. The pleas from the house are like a low moaning sensation as if she’s saying ‘help me, help my baby,'” said Deborah Randall, a Washington, D.C., playwright who investigated the murders several years ago while doing research on the Mollies.

But the unrest doesn’t end there.

On Nov. 17, 2006, the house long a spectacle and a destination for the curious was quietly torn down. Officials say the walls had begun to bulge. The house, which had been situated on land owned by the Reading Anthracite Company, had became lopsided, they said. It began to lean dangerously, threatening to topple onto the adjacent roadway and power lines.

There was a drive mounted to preserve the structure but the building was torn down before the effort picked up steam.

Then came another odd development. Last year, the site was nominated but then officially turned down to receive a state historical marker. It seems the state is having difficulty in identifying the relevance of the Massacre site and how it plays into the story of the Mollies.

It seems there are forces that want to forget about what took place at Wiggans Patch.

Some may try to discredit it, or wish it would go away. But the Wiggans Patch Massacre will remain a reality in the history of Pennsylvania, in the rise of organized labor, and in the saga of the Molly Maguires.

But above all, it sadly remains a story without an ending. There was no justice. There were no trials. Nobody was ever caught and convicted.

Today, it is still possible to see the cellar area and remnants of foundation walls at the site along Route 54. But nature is quickly reclaiming the land.

Earlier this year, members of the Pennsylvania Paranormal Research Team, Schuylkill Haven, investigated the foundation area and declared it haunted. While researching, members say they were approached by the spirit of a little boy who asked to go along home with them.

Who was the little boy? Was he the spirit of Ellen’s unborn child? Or was the voice actually that of Ellen herself?

Some believe the shock of the murderous raid, an unbelievable horror, has trapped Ellen’s spirit at Wiggans Patch. She was an innocent housewife who didn’t deserve her fate. For her, time is standing still.

They say she cries out each night for the bullets to stop.

Ellen McAllister cries out for peace.

Source: Massacre at Wiggans Patch

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