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Category:  Did You Know?
Published:  January, 2010

Did You Know?
Last week I began recounting the exploits of Fayette County’s most notorious outlaws – the Cooley gang.

During the late 1880’s a group of armed men led by Jack and Frank Cooley would come from their hideout somewhere in hills near Fairchance and exact their punishment on innocent citizens throughout Southern Fayette County.

By the early 1890’s, with frequent newspaper articles chronicling their every move, there were increasingly angry calls for the authorities to bring them to justice.

On January 21st, 1891, a dispatch from the Uniontown Standard reprinted in the Indiana (PA) County Gazette said “It is difficult any longer to speak with patience of this Frank Cooley business in George Township. Everyday we are accosted with such questions as these by reputable citizens from about Fairchance, Haydentown, and Smithfield: ‘Are the authorities afraid to arrest Frank Cooley?’”

Yet nearly a year later, on Christmas Day, 1891, and because there had been continued violence with no arrests, an editorial appeared in the Connellsville Courier that expressed nearly identical sentiments. “If half of what is said about the Cooley gang be true the masterly inactivity of the authorities is little short of criminal neglect of duty,” it said.

The county had suffered through such a year of tyranny at the hands of the Cooleys that their misdeeds could even puncture the merriment of the holiday season.

That day, a gang member was quoted as saying, “We are so well organized that if Sheriff McCormick comes within five miles of our headquarters we would know it at once.”

Worse still, even as the people read that editorial, the Cooley Gang struck again.

They were involved in a shootout, and then they threatened to hang a man for insulting them. On January 1st, 1892 it was reported that the Christmas Day altercation ended after they’d tied a rope around the man’s neck, and gave it a “few pulls” before letting him go with his pledge to leave the country.

That same Connellsville Courier article claimed that five armed members of the gang had gone to Preston County, W.Va. and rousted a family then stole their money.

It was also reported that a posse was being formed in W.Va., and that Fayette County Sheriff McCormick, “is organizing an active hunt for them in this county.”

Despite the increased efforts to capture the gang, keeping a constant eye on its members had proven fruitless.
It was said, “Within an hour every member of the gang could be securely hidden in the mountains.”

Even still, while reports of their nefarious deeds increased, there were also people who claimed members of the Cooley family and their associates were harmless.

One Uniontown attorney even went so far as to claim, “There is no Cooley gang.” In the same January 8th, 1892 report, two hunters from Pittsburgh declared the Cooleys were uneducated and “rough”, but that “the people in the neighborhood where they live are friendly to them and have no fear of them.”

Their neighbors may not have feared them, but within days members of the Cooley gang made their presence felt in Trotter, Leisenring and in Dunbar Township.

They grabbed another innocent man at gunpoint and threatened his life before releasing him. The newspaper account said while in Leisenring they fired their revolvers and “yelled like Comanche Indians.”

Their expanded activities brought heightened interest beyond Fayette County and northern W. Va. The Tyrone (Pa) Daily Herald carried a profile of the gang and its leader Frank Cooley in late 1891.

The gang, according to that article, was comprised of at least 20 members. “The doings of the gang since then (1888) would fill a book. Robbery has followed robbery. Barns and houses have been burned, stock poisoned, and the people of the southern end of the county terrorized completely,” it said.

On February 19th, 1892 the Connellsville Courier reported how Jack and Frank Cooley, and Jack Ramsey had been cornered at a vacant house near Smithfield, but after a gunfight they escaped. Three of the gang members, however, were captured.

That day there was an editorial that claimed, “The tools of the law are closing around the Cooley gang. Justice has assuredly traveled with leaden foot in their cases, but it is hoped that that she strikes with iron hand.”

Justice did not strike immediately. The editor of the Uniontown Genius wrote that he somehow got a note on his table that read, “Frank Cooley was here.” The editor noted that he was glad nothing was missing from the office.

By June of 1892 the Cooley Gang heightened their pursuits. If it had not been for the presence of Sheriff McCormick’s posse, the gang would have pulled off a robbery that would have made it, according to the Connellsville Courier, “as famous as the Jesse James and his gang.”

They had planned to rob the B&O Express between Connellsville and Layton that was carrying $186,000. According to the Titusville (Pa) Herald, the gang saw the sheriff and his posse and they were “scared off.”

The following month (on July 17th) the New York World carried the account of the Cooley gang’s successful robbery and beating of a Justice of the Peace in the mountains above Uniontown.

On August 3rd, 1892, there appeared the first sign the Cooley gang was being slowly brought to justice. Frank and Jack Cooley, along with Jack Ramsey were about to rob a man near Fairchance, when Jack Cooley was shot and killed.

James Collier, the owner of the property, was robbed on numerous occasions in the past, so he set a cocked and loaded gun near the entrance to his milk-house.

When the robbers entered, a single volley of buckshot killed Jack Cooley.

In October of that year, Sheriff McCormick and his men, accompanied by a U.S. Secret Service agent, caught Frank Cooley at his father’s house between Fairchance and Smithfield.

A gunfight ensued. Frank Cooley was shot and he died instantly.

By the end of 1892, all of the remaining Cooley gang members were caught and brought to trial

That ended one of the most violent chapters in Fayette County’s history.