Historian chronicled crimes of the Whipple Gang
BLOOMSBURG – During the mid 1800s a trio of brothers had been cited as ‘Bringing the wild west to Central Pennsylvania.” Said to have been schooled in the art of horse thievery by their mother, the account began in Columbia County near the Lycoming County line.
Although John, James and Abe are Biblical names, the Whipple brothers veered far from the commandment, “Thou shall not steal.” Their infamous escapades over a ten county area from Clinton to Luzerne were printed in more than 500 newspaper accounts.
It was noting these accounts that heightened the interest of history researcher George Holdren of Millville. Whipple is a name somewhat connected to him by his great aunt, Jalena Crawford Holdren. Holdren said, “Following the death of her first husband George, she wed Bethuel Whipple. This was after her child bearing years,” he said.
Holdren’s friend, Bill Baille, a retired history professor at Bloomsburg University, joined in the hunt for the hunted.
Baille said, “In those days when you stole a man’s horse, you stole his livelihood. Horses were essential to till the soil, harvest crops and for transportation.”
At first, the gang operated from their residence along Spruce Run in Madison Township, Columbia County, where the nearest village was Jerseytown. Citing what may explain the brothers’ career choice, Baillie said, “The boys could not read or write and the narrow hollow allowed little space for farming on the site now part of the State Game Lands.”
Among the many jails one or more of the brothers were incarcerated at included Sunbury, Wilkes-Barre, Bloomsburg, Berwick, Lock Haven, the Eastern Penitentiary and more. Many are the accounts of the villains who often slipped successfully while taken into custody, or the various occasions when they scaled jail walls.
John, the eldest, died on the spot when shot by a posse in 1877. He was buried in an unmarked grave near Young Woman’s Creek in Clinton County. In 1882, James died in the Sunbury jail after being shot in front of his wife and children while trying to escape his home in Montandon.
Abe, the youngest and longest survivor, served in the Civil War with the 84th Regiment and later with another regiment in the Carolina Campaigns. “At roll call, he was often listed as ‘deserted,'” Baillie said.
After serving a long prison stint, Abe was bent on killing the Berwick sheriff who had put him there. Upon release, Abe confronted the lawman who made what one might call, ‘a deal with the devil.’ The sheriff vowed to look the other way and not cause trouble if Abe kept his horse stealing trade outside the borough. He could not however, guarantee co-operation from constables in neighboring townships.
Alas, the odds caught up with Abe when he was shot near Loganton and died later in the prison at Lock Haven. Abe’s wife, Julia Augustus known as “Gus,” the mother of four children, went to live near her sister in Wilkes-Barre where the children were baptized in Christ Episcopal Church. Gus made her living as a ‘washer woman’ and resided on property currently part of Kings College. Interestingly, the site is within the shadow of the Luzerne County Court House where the husband and father was tried.
Having married at age 13, Abe’s widow was 80 years of age when she died in 1940. Her children grew to become respectable citizens.
Additional deeds by the Whipple gang with a more in depth time lines and identities of siblings are covered in a book for summer release. At a yet to be determined date, Baillie will repeat his power-point program during a fall meeting of the History Buffs at the Brass Pelican Restaurant at Central off Route 118.
Additional information can be gleaned by contacting the Columbia County Historical and Genealogical Society at Bloomsburg.