Heinous crime leaves behind a haunted place


John Joe McGinley

ONE of the most haunted places in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the United States is the scene of a terrible murder of a heavily pregnant Irish emigrant and her brother at the hands of hired killers.

Early in the morning of December 10, 1875, 20 masked and armed men broke into the boarding house of elderly Irish immigrant Margaret O’Donnell in Wiggans Patch, Schuylkill County Pennsylvania. They were seeking vengeance against two alleged members of the Molly McGuires, Margaret’s sons, Charles and James.

In the space of 20 minutes Margaret would find herself pistol whipped, her son Charles riddled with bullets, James running for his life and her heavily pregnant daughter Ellen McAllister murdered—shot in the stomach—as she came to the aid of her mother and brothers.

Migration, mining and murder
Margaret O’Donnell had left Gweedore in Donegal with her husband Manus to escape grinding poverty, now a widow she ran a boarding house at 140 Main Street in Wiggans Patch now called Boston Run. She lived with her sons James and Charles and her 20-year-old daughter Ellen her infant son and her husband Charles McAllister.

It was a turbulent time in north eastern Pennsylvania with labour unrest in the anthracite coal mining region, where Irish immigrants toiled in dark and unsafe conditions. The O’Donnells were caught up in this turmoil as Charles and James were suspected of being members of the Molly McGuires, a secret society of Irish immigrant coal miners accused of a series of killings and assaults throughout the coalfields.

Charles and James O’Donnell along with Ellen’s brother-in-law James McAllister were the chief suspects in the murder of mine boss Thomas Sanger and miner William Uren on September 1, 1875. This was widely known as having been conducted by the Molly Maguires in revenge for Sangers perceived ill treatment of mine workers.

While there was no concrete evidence linking the O’Donnells and McAllister to the murders there was an obvious connection linking them to the Molly Maguires. Margaret O’Donnell’s other daughter Mary Ann was married to Jack Kehoe, an innkeeper who was widely known as the king of the Molly Maguires.

Throughout 1875, tit for tat violence had flowed back and forth from Molly Maguire to mine owners’ reprisals. It was in this turbulent time that 20-year-old Ellen McAllister awaited the birth of her second child due on the December 10.

It was a cold December night; Margaret O’Donnell was the last to go to bed. Before she went upstairs, she laid down a fire to keep the house warm and ensure her heavily pregnant daughter Ellen who was due to give birth the next day was warm and comfortable.

At about 1am in the morning Ellen McAllister was wakened by a loud noise. It was as if a hoard of people where marching over the lawn. Ellen asked her Husband Charles to investigate. Suddenly the door of the boarding house was kicked in and around 20 well-armed and masked men flooded into the house banging on doors and firing their guns.

Charles O’Donnell was first to be dragged from his bed. A group of the insurgents surrounded him and riddled his body with as many as 18 bullets. James O’Donnell jumped from a first-floor window and ran into the darkness escaping the chaos. The masked men knew who they had come for and soon James McAllister was dragged outside, and a noose was wound around his neck. He was hung from a tree in the garden and left for dead. Miraculously he played dead and then wriggled free and ran for help to assist the O’Donnells.

Ellen, her infant son and Charles now barricaded in their room were fearing for their lives. Thinking everyone else was dead, Charles McAllister fled out of a back window and bolted into the darkness, chased by some of the gunmen leaving his heavily pregnant wife and young son. Some would say this was cowardice, but Charles later claimed he was going for help for his family as he was sure as vicious as the masked men where they would not harm a child and pregnant woman. This was sadly a naive assumption as the masked men had already pistol-whipped Margaret O’Donnell into unconsciousness and were showing no mercy to anyone they felt was connected to the O’Donnells or the Molly Maguires.

Ellen though frightened and protecting her young son could not bear the screams of her mother and left her room to plead with the assailants to stop. As she stood at the stop of the stairs, several of the intruders turned and looked at her. One man raised his pistol and fired. The bullet hit Ellen in the stomach. Her eyes rolled in shock as she realised what had happened. Soon other intruders began firing at her. According to a later witness, Ellen’s right hand covered the blood pouring from her wound while her left hand was raised to deflect the hail of bullets.

“My baby, Oh dear God, my baby!” Ellen cried out, blood trickling from the corner of her mouth. She gasped, faltered, and clung to the stairs for a few seconds. But her strength quickly faded, and she crumpled to the ground.

One assailant was heard to admonish his compatriots: “We don’t shoot women”, but it was too late for Ellen. This shocked the gunmen into silence and seeing what they had done they ran out of the door.

Margaret O’Donnell lay unconscious but would soon recover. Charles O’Donnell’s bullet riddled body lay dead in his room. Ellen McAllister and her unborn baby were the final lifeless victims of this callous attack.

News of the murders spread quickly and soon became known as the Wiggans patch Massacre.

Ellen’s body and that of her Brother Charles were taken to the nearby town of Tamaqua by train for autopsy. They were then packed in ice and stored overnight in the train station storage pens to await burial in St Jerome’s Cemetery.

The massacre shocked the region well used to violence between Molly Maguires and the mine owners.

While the police began searching for the murderers, numerous theories circulated as to the identity of the perpetrators of this heinous crime. The native Irish believed the ambush had been orchestrated by the coal and Iron police or even the mine boss hired Pinkertons Detective agency as revenge for the murders of Thomas Sanger and William Uren.

Nobody was ever charged for the murders of Ellen McAllister, her baby and her brother. James O’Donnell fled to New York and in fear of his life changed his name and died in hiding. Margaret recovered from her ordeal, but not the heartache and for the rest of her life raised Ellen’s young son and moved in with her daughter Mary. For Ellen, her baby and Charles there was was no justice. There were no trials. It also appears that for Ellen there was no eternal, peace.

Many believe that her spirit roams modern day Boston run the site of Wiggans Patch. Does she lament the death of her child which was due the very morning of her murder?

Deborah Randall, the Washington DC based playwright, visited the boarding house before it was demolished as part of her research for her play about the Molly Maguires. She said: “The pleas from the house are like a low moaning sensation as if she’s saying, ‘help me, help my baby.'”

The boarding house (above) was demolished in November 2006 as it was becoming dangerous, threatening to topple onto the adjacent roadway and power lines. It is still possible to see the cellar area and remnants of foundation walls.

Members of the Pennsylvania Paranormal Research Team investigated the foundation area and declared it haunted. They did so because while researching the site, members say they were approached by the spirit of a little boy who asked to go home with them. Who was the little boy? Was he the spirit of Ellen’s unborn child? Or was the voice that of Ellen herself? Could the shock of the murderous raid, have trapped Ellen’s spirit at Wiggans Patch? She was an innocent woman who didn’t deserve her fate. Perhaps for her time is standing still. Some claim she pleads each night for the bullets to stop. I tend to think Ellen McAllister cries out for justice.