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Category:  Did You Know?
Published:  January, 2010

Did You Know?

Did you know there were local concerns about the state of baseball back in 1891?

“Base ball (that’s how they spelled it back in August of 1891) isn’t what it used to be,” was a claim contained in an article in the Connellsville Courier.

It seems the local Connellsville team was unable to take the field against the team from Uniontown, because it didn’t have a “professional catcher and pitcher.”

It’s hard to believe there were actually professional players hired as ringers for small town baseball teams before the turn of the 20th Century, but that article confirms it.

There was, however, some rather prophetic language in that article that could be applied to, say, the New York Yankees today. “The game depends, not upon the players, but upon ‘hired men,’ and the club with the longest pocket-book wins the game,” claimed the writer.

But there was more. “We presume that it is only a question of time before the game will be played exclusively by ‘hired men,’ and the players will do nothing but stand around and quarrel with the umpire,” the writer concluded.

On that same Connellsville Courier page that day, there was another story that was of even more concern to Fayette County’s citizens than the state of “base ball.” It was about the Cooley Gang.

The Cooley Gang was a group of armed gunmen who’d wreaked havoc across southern Fayette County for a number of years.

On that day, there were two accounts of mayhem that pointed to their involvement.

The first was a robbery along the National Pike above Uniontown in which a “crippled inn-keeper” was robbed. The second was the “cold-blooded murder” of Tax Collector Nicholson.

By August of 1891 the Cooley Gang was said to have been engaged in a variety of terrorist activities since the late 1880’s. They were thought to have been holed-up in the hills near Fairchance, and, at times, thumbed their noses at local authorities.

Some of their exploits gained national attention. The Monroe (WI) Independent on March 3rd, 1889 chronicled how five masked robbers entered the Anderson farmhouse near McClellandtown, and placed hot coals on the owner’s feet until he gave them $30.

They left the Anderson farm, and did the same thing at the Lilly farm – then to a home owned by a man named Grove. Their final stop that night was at the home of a widow named Keeler.

The article said they bound and gagged her, and threatened to torture until she gave them her pension check.

Yet in 1889 nobody knew for sure that a single night of terror could be directly attributed to Jack and Frank Cooley and their accomplices.

There would be many more nights – and even days of malicious acts of lawlessness that would eventually reveal that the Cooley Gang could be likened to the ten year reign of the famous outlaw Jesse James and the James-Younger Gang in mid-America.

On January 9th, 1891 the Connellsville Courier reported that Jack Cooley was a “very tough citizen,” after he’d been prosecuted by the school directors of Georges Township for trying to burn down the Custer School.

He was still at-large, though. It seems two years before that he’d been hauled into Uniontown’s jail for torturing Miss Mollie Ross near Smithfield, but he escaped by “cutting his way out of it.”

On June 26th of that year, there was a troubling dispatch out of Smithfield. “Petty thieving is being carried on in a high-handed manner in this community,” it said.

Who else would enter G.W. Campbell’s wash house and carry off a basket full of clothing? Or, what other group of thugs would have entered the Presbyterian Church at Haydentown, remove the carpet and carry off Sunday school books? The answer, by then, was crystal clear. The Cooley Gang had struck again.

The following month, on July 17th, it was reported that Frank Cooley and John (Jack) Ramsey had barged in on a Franklin Township farmer, William Foster, who “was afraid to trust the banks.”

He’d secreted $1,500 in his house, so Cooley and Ramsey made off with it. Days later Connellsville Constable Frank Campbell “went in pursuit of them.” On September 16th of that year, the Indiana (Pa) Progress reported that mine Superintendent R.L. Martin’s office “was broke into Thursday night and robbed of all the firearms which were used by deputies. The robbery is laid by some to the ex-strikers and by others to the Cooley Gang.”
With their fame growing across the region, sightings of Cooley Gang members (real or imagined) increased.

Just nine days later (on September 25th) there were reports of two more robberies. Both appeared to be the handy-work of the Cooley Gang. But there was certainly a mixed message within that account.

The first line of the article read, “The Cooley Gang are at their old tricks.” But the last line said something completely different, “Another crowd known as the Haydentown Gang are also suspected of the robbery.”

Between those two sentences, though, the readers of the Connellsville Courier read about the same old treachery that had plagued Fayette County for several years. It had all the earmarks of Cooley Gang style home invasions – and worse. The culprits had attacked during “broad daylight.”

They first went to a house in Woodbridgetown, near Smithfield, while the family was at a Sunday school picnic. The thieves got away with a large amount of clothing, a watch and chain, and a small amount of cash.

They continued down the road about five miles where they entered another house and took $3,000 worth of clothes, government bonds and cash.

It was becoming the stuff of dime-novels. Cat burglaries, torture, and all manner of skullduggery - and now even bold daytime robberies.

And there would be many more. So many more that even Secret Service agents were dispatched to Fayette County, and a posse was formed.

I’ll chronicle the continued rise of the Cooley Gang, and their eventual fall next week.