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Medieval Law - Hangings in Berks County

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"The town of Reading was laid out in 1748. The laws were very strict in this period and were relentlessly carried out in the spirit of the medieval European custom from which they had been derived. On Penn Square stood the much used pillory and nearby was the stake to which the culprit was tied while the lash was applied. The colonial courts in this English colony were conducted on the basis of and in the spirit of the old English law and sometimes even included branding to mark the criminal forever.

With so much outdoor life and the common use of fire arms many persons were accidentally hurt. On the morning of September 26, 1754, a "Dutchman" (German) in handling a gun accidentally shot a little girl through the heart. The hand of justice must have placed many persons within the narrow confines of the stone walls of the jail. The record of the Court for November 23, 1758, reveals that a woman was hanged for the murder of her illegitimate child and three men were ordered "to be burnt in the hand" (branded), two for manslaughter and the third for burning a barn. About the middle of the following March another woman, Elizabeth Graul, was executed for a serious crime.

Thomas Fowler was found guilty of burglary in the home of Sarah-Drury in Reading and was hanged in the commons, now City Park, on September 7, 1764. The curious crowds which always gathered for these occasions witnessed another hanging on December 19, 1767, when Catherine Kreps was executed for killing her illegitimate child. Thomas Proctor was hanged on July 7, 1770, for burglary in the house of William Neal. Just after the close of the Revolutionary War a young soldier who had stolen a small sum was hunted down by Justice McKean and hanged on the commons.

Old Stone Jail

The justices of this early period included Conrad Weiser, Francis Parvin, Henry Harvey, Jonas Seely, William Read, Jacob Levan, William Bird, William Maugridge and John Potts, who seems to have been the most active of all. Other officials in addition to James Read who held all the county offices except those of sheriff and treasurer, were Benjamin Lightfoot, who occupied the position as sheriff when the courts were organized here, and Jonas Seely who, in addition to his duties as a justice, held the treasurership for sixteen years.

Very little is known of the officers or the government of Reading itself before 1748, but very likely it was administered like any of the other townships.

There was a lot of activity in the little stone jail in Reading in the early 1750s. By 1770, it was found necessary to enlarge the stone jail at the Northeast corner of Fifth and Washington Streets. With a front of thirty-one feet on Fifth Street it now had a depth of seventy-two feet on Washington Street. The jail lot, 230 feet by 61 feet, 4 inches, included a prison yard enclosed by a stone wall 20 feet high. The sheriff, George Nagle, and his family occupied both rooms at the eastern end of the building and the sheriff's offices, two adjoining rooms, were located on the first floor at the western end of the building. Four rooms for prisoners occupied the second floor over the sheriff's offices. The cellar housed the bake oven and two dungeons, reminiscent of European justice.

Old Jail at Northeast Corner of 5th and Washington Streets

Old Jail at Northeast Corner of 5th and Washington Streets

There were 16 hangings in Berks County before Governor John K. Tener signed the Hess Electrocution bill into law on June 19, 1913, making the electric chair the standard method of execution in Pennsylvania.

The crimes for hanging ranged from burglary to murder and dating back to 1764. Several of these executions were picnic affairs and were witnessed by thousands on the "Commons" at the head of Penn street, now City Park.

Here is a record of the Berks hangings:

Sept. 27, 1764: Thomas Fowler, convicted of burglary.

Dec. 19, 1767: Catharine Kreps, convicted of killing her illegitimate child.

July 7, 1770: Thomas Proctor, convicted of burglary.

Revolutionary War: Revolution - British soldier, murder.

August 1792: Samuel Reeves (Peeves), Negro, convicted of rape. A farm hand in Exeter Township, he allegedly committed the crime near Aulenbach's Cemetery.

Jan. 6, 1798: Benjamin Bailey, convicted of murdering a peddler. More than 6,000 people witnessed his hanging on Penn Street.

1784: Welsh, theft. Picnic crowds witnessed the hanging. The Times did not say if Welsh was the name or nationality.

June 10, 1809: Susanna Cox, convicted of killing her illegitimate child. Her story gained sympathy and was told in German and English language newspapers.

Jan. 30, 1813: John Schildt, 28, convicted of killing his parents in Alsace Township on Aug. 12, 1811. Several thousand persons gathered for the hanging on Penn Street.

April 1, 1842: Nicholas Reinhart, convicted of murdering Conrad Christ, Bern Township, in June 1841. Reinhart and John F. Oshman allegedly robbed Christ and fled to Ohio, where they were captured and returned to Berks County. Oshman escaped prison but was recaptured and acquitted. Reinhart was hanged in the yard of the old jail at Fifth and Washington streets.

May 30, 1870: Zacharias (Zachary) Snyder, alias John Deall, convicted of murdering Richard M. Harlan of Leesport. Arrested in Schuylkill County, he was tried in Berks County. His dying words, one account has it, were, "I am in full hope of being encircled in the arms of my savior."

June 29, 1893: Pietro Buccieri, convicted of stabbing to death Sister Mary Hildaberta (Tillie Shannon) in St. Joseph Hospital on June 23, 1892. An Italian shoemaker who suffered from epilepsy, he borrowed the knife from another patient.

Sept. 23, 1902: George Gantz, convicted of murdering a 15-year-old girl on the night of Saturday, Oct. 26, 1901.

Oct. 29, 1908: Salvatore Garrito, convicted of killing state policeman Timothy Kelleher.

Feb. 25, 1909: Frank Palmer, convicted of killing Gertrude Clinton.

Feb. 27, 1912: Matthew E. Vanaman, who killed his wife Feb. 13, 1911.

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