Notorious Outlaws: Preacher Gill

During the days of Prohibition, more than a dozen members of one Snyder County family managed to keep lawmen busy around the clock. This was the infamous Gill clan of West Beaver Township, whose bootlegging exploits made headlines in newspapers across the state.

On November 22, 1924, a liquor raid occurred in Snyder County's West Beaver Township, spearheaded by Mifflin County detective H.A. Davis. The raid led to the arrest of John F. Gill-- known throughout the county as "Preacher"-- and three sons, who were charged by Detective Davis with liquor law violations under the Volstead Act.

Mystery of the Vanishing Moonshine

Though Davis was out of his jurisdiction, the raid near McClure was "officially" conducted by the State Police, with Davis acting as director, and a trial was held in Middleburg in December. It was an interesting trial, to say the least; the Gills were acquitted after a gallon of "evidence" was stolen from the courtroom sometime during the proceedings-- even though Judge Potter had ordered that the jug of moonshine and other pieces of evidence be guarded at all times. Rumor had it that one or more of the jurors (or perhaps the bailiff whose job it had been to guard the evidence) had stolen the liquor out of resentment-- a silent protest over a Mifflin County lawman's decision to stick his nose into Snyder County affairs.

The Altoona Tribune even went so far as to indirectly accuse Judge Potter himself of stealing the evidence, while flat-out declaring that the Gill family was being shielded and protected by the corrupt law enforcement and court system of Snyder County. In fact, the Tribune ran its April 21 story on the Gill trial under the headline: Snyder County Lawbreaker Evidently Enjoys Protection of Authorities.

Public opinion toward the Gill clan was divided in the McClure area, however. During the arraignment hearing a month earlier, witnesses painted an unsavory picture of the moonshining family. One witness testified that Preacher Gill once lined up half a dozen of his customers against a wall and pointed the muzzle of a shotgun at them while Mary "Ma" Gill looked them over. Her discerning gaze fell upon one particular customer. "That's the dirty rascal that stole five gallons of whiskey from us," she declared. Before the accused had a chance to protest, Ma Gill grabbed a broomstick and beat the man to the ground. The beating was so severe that the customer required five stitches from a local doctor.

Others rallied behind the Gill family. Neighbors praised Preacher Gill for his work preaching to a half dozen congregations of various denominations throughout Snyder County. But whether the citizenry loved or hated the Gills, everyone seemed to agree that Detective Davis had no business poking around outside his jurisdiction.

The Gills got their revenge on Detective Davis the following summer, however, after Ma Gill had Davis arrested, claiming that the Mifflin County lawman had damaged several valuable beehives and other property belonging to the Gill family during the raid. On August 3, 1925, Davis was arrested while attending the Belleville fireman's carnival by Constable Weirick and Deputy Runkle of Snyder County.

Unfortunately for the Gills, their victory over the law was short-lived. Preacher Gill and two of his sons, Charles and Rush, were arrested for moonshining a short while later after another State Police raid. Rush fled the scene, leaving his father and older brother to stand trial before Judge Miles Potter, who was determined to make an example out of the notorious bootleggers after his name had been smeared by the press for showing too much leniency toward the family.

In late December, jail terms totaling 39 months and fines totaling $3500 were doled out to John "Preacher" Gill and his son Charles. The head of the family was sentenced to 21 months in the county jail while Charles earned a sentence of 18 months that same year. "You should've been convicted a year ago," the judge growled as he pronounced sentence, referring to the 1924 acquittal.

In January of the following year Rush would be captured and subsequently sentenced by Judge Potter to 18 months in the Snyder County Jail. He would die just a few months later, on March 19, 1928, just one day after his 34th birthday.

Feds Nab Lester Gill

In February of 1929, federal agents once again set their sights on the Selinsgrove area. On a cold, brisk Monday morning they made their move, acting on tips provided by local informants. A lone agent, pretending to be frostbitten and "nearly frozen to death", asked around town where he could buy some alcohol. He was directed to the rural home of Lester Gill, one of Preacher Gill's younger sons. Near Schoch's Mill the agent discovered a ten gallon still and one hundred gallons of mash.

Surprisingly, in spite of the overwhelming evidence, charges against Lester Gill were dropped after a grand jury in Harrisburg decided to throw out the case, claiming that prosecution of Lester Gill would create unfair hardship for his wife and seven children.

Lester Gill and wife

In January of 1930, as Preacher Gill, his wife, and their son Charles were cooling their heels in county jail, federal agents were putting together their case against the moonshining clan. Preacher Gill, now 67 years of age, would be sentenced by a Judge Albert Johnson in Lewisburg to 18 months in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia. He would later be transferred to Leavenworth. His son Charles would receive a 15 month sentence, and would later be transferred to the federal prison camp at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

As for Mary "Ma" Gill, she earned a slap on the wrist for her role in the family business, and was sentenced to two years of probation, after managing to convince the court that she was suffering from tuberculosis and was in dire financial straits. The matriarch of the Gill clan, and mother of seven, died two years later at the age of 63. She was buried alongside her son, Rush, at Saint Peter's Cemetery in Troxelville.

The graves of Ma Gill and son Rush

Preacher Gill Discusses His Philosophy

It was during the 1930 trip to Atlanta that John F. Gill told his captors about how he came by his nickname. He revealed to Sheriff Crabb and the U.S. deputy marshal his unique philosophy-- that moonshining and bootlegging are approved by Scripture. He spoke of Moses instructing his people to till the soil and reap the harvest, to pay their taxes and debts and do whatever they please with the rest. Gill told his captors that he was following Christ, who told the disciples to follow the law of Moses and, from Gill's point of view, Moses was basically telling the Hebrews that it was okay to make liquor.

"It is well that Christ lived 1900 years ago and not in this age," he added.

Preacher Gill, who had graduated from the old New Berlin Academy-- a noted school of theology-- refused to tell the lawmen whether or not he ever became ordained.

It was around this time that locals decided to launch a campaign to bring John and Charles Gill back to Snyder County. Just as "unknown person or persons" had stolen the gallon of moonshine from the courtroom in order to lead to the acquittal of the Gills, another group of unknown persons arrived in Middleburg in early March of 1930 to demand the parole of Preacher Gill and his son.

The McClure Plain Dealer, perhaps the only Snyder County rag that was staunchly unsympathetic to the Gill clan, wrote:

"Just who the two upshoots are may not be made known as their identity for the time being is a secret, but what they are after is not the liberty of the Gills but their own interests. They want either to make money from their traffic or want their blighted appetite slaked by the free flowing of still more booze... The people of Snyder County, especially the western part, do insist that the law violators be prosecuted, and when sentence is announced, the prisoner serve his term.

"A few years ago... the elder Gill was paroled with a plea of poor health to which even some doctors gave favorable evidence. Hardly was Gill out of jail until he was back to the old game, moonshining and bootlegging, and kept right at it even while under arrest and awaiting trial. Personally, the editor of this newspaper favors the serving of the term and rather than the parole of the Gills, arrest the balance of the bunch who are in the business."

In October of 1930, Charles disappeared from a federal prison camp at Fort Bragg after serving nine months of a fifteen month sentence. Charles, who had been paroled, was ordered to report to Probation Officer H.J. Mowles in Selinsgrove. When a local reporter "informed" Mowles that Charles had taken a construction job in Virginia in order to earn enough money to complete his journey home, the probation officer laughed-- the reporter, who concocted the story to cover for Gill, was evidently unaware that discharged federal inmates are given free transportation home, a fresh suit of clothes and $5 in cash.

Charles did eventually make it back to Pennsylvania, only to be arrested for moonshining again in 1935. He was sentenced to one year in jail and fined $200.

The Ballad of Foster Boonie

On a Monday morning in mid-June, 1931, Vina Kauffman, a 29-year-old daughter of Preacher Gill, was doing the family wash in the kitchen of her home, about a half mile west of McClure. As she stooped over to empty a basin of water a gunshot shattered the kitchen window. "I'm shot!" she cried out, clutching her abdomen. Her husband, John, standing nearby, caught her as she fell. The bullet, believed by authorities to have been carelessly fired by a hunter atop a nearby hill a half mile away, entered Mrs. Kauffman's back and penetrated the abdomen, piercing the liver and pancreas. She was taken to the Lewistown Hospital, where she remained in critical condition.

State Police were called from Lewistown. After examining the home they went to the hospital where they obtained a statement from the injured woman, which led to the eventual arrest of a farmer and woodsman named Foster Boonie, who was charged with felonious assault and battery with intent to kill.

Boonie was arrested and taken into custody on June 23, after police discovered in his possession a gun of the type from which the bullet was fired. The detective in charge of the investigation found that the rifle had been recently fired, though Boonie protested his innocence.

On the afternoon of July 7, 1931, Vina died from her injuries and Boonie was re-arrested on a charge of manslaughter.

The Boonie case is an interesting story, and Foster Boonie, in his own right, deserves to have his own "Notorious Outlaws of Pennsylvania" profile.

State Police troopers from Sunbury, who reluctantly made the arrest, believed that the 45-year-old farmer had shot Vina Gill Kauffman accidentally, arguing that it would have been impossible to hit a human target from such a great distance through a window. Snyder County authorities on the other hand, perhaps in their continued support of the Gill clan, demanded that Boonie be arrested and charged with manslaughter, and claimed they had evidence of "difficulties" between the Boonie and Kauffman families.

The investigation of the shooting by State Police from the Lewistown barracks turned up additional evidence that seemed to exonerate Boonie, however. It was learned that Boonie had loaned the rifle to a friend on the day of the shooting for the purpose of hunting crows. Boonie claimed to have been in Selinsgrove shopping at the time of the shooting, and witnesses who were interviewed corroborated Boonie's alibi. The investigators from Lewistown also learned that not only were the Kauffmans and Boonies not quarreling, but that they were actually on good terms. The case against Boonie was eventually dropped for lack of evidence.

But that wasn't Boonie's last brush with the law. In April of 1932, Boonie was arrested after shooting his brother during an altercation at point-blank range and was sentenced to three years at the Western Penitentiary. Ten years later, Boonie strangled his estranged wife to death in Beaver Springs and mutilated her body. He died in the Snyder County woods in a hail of gunfire from a sheriff's posse in 1942.

Did Foster Boonie kill Preacher Gill's daughter, intentionally or otherwise? The truth may never be known.

It may be of interest to some readers that Foster Boonie and the wife he murdered (Grace Cordelia Hayes) are buried next to each other at Saint Peter's Cemetery in Troxelville, only a few yards away from the graves of Rush and Mary "Ma" Gill.

Vina's death must have had a profound impact on Preacher Gill, who had lost his wife and one of his sons just a few years earlier. From that day forward, the enigmatic leader of the notorious Gill clan began to distance himself from the family business-- but his children and grandchildren carried on the clan's lawless legacy.

Foster Boonie, alongside the wife he choked to death

Preacher Gill Cheats the Reaper

In November of 1933, Preacher Gill narrowly escaped death when his automobile overturned near McClure. The infamous bootlegger was trapped beneath the vehicle, but, fortunately, passing motorists were able to render assistance. Gill, who had been awarded parole nearly a decade earlier by convincing the court that he was a feeble old man in poor health, managed to escape without a scratch.

Preacher Gill's name appears to have vanished from the public record after that point, and it is unclear why he was never buried alongside his wife in Troxelville.

In 1935, the family would be once again thrust into the spotlight after the sensational murder of a farmer from Kantz by the name of Charles Gable.

The Wedding Dress Murder: Devilled by a Teenage Lover

Zella Gill

On February 18, a 29-year-old man named Sherman Strawser confessed to state police that he had killed his employer, Charles Gable, by bludgeoning him with a hammer and then shooting him in a barn as Gable was feeding his cows. Gable had fired Strawser just a few days earlier. Like the Gills, the Strawser clan was also a family of ne'er-do-wells from the mountains of Snyder County who were heavily involved in the moonshine business. Sherman's father was locked up in the county jail for bootlegging at the time of the murder, serving out his sentence alongside Charles and Lester Gill.

Strawser, who had twice been married and had children, had evidently gotten Lester Gill's teenage daughter, Zella, pregnant and the killer claimed that he been driven to murder his former employer in order to purchase a wedding dress for his 15-year-old lover. The Gill family had made it abundantly clear what would happen to Strawser if he refused to marry Zella. In addition, the Gills wanted the money to bail Lester out of jail.

"Gill told me that if I didn't rob Gable and get money to get him out of jail he would have me sent away for a long ride because Zella was with child and was under sixteen years old," Strawser confessed in court. He added that the Gill family had "devilled" him for days to commit the crime, with Zella and Mrs. Gill calling him a "baby" and a "coward".

Sherman Strawser was convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to die in the Rockview Penitentiary electric chair on July 22.

But the Gills were also facing charges in the death of Charles Gable. Police had discovered a wad of the dead man's cash hidden beneath the stairs of the Gill house. Lester, along with his wife and daughter, would be forced to stand trial and fight for their lives.

Lawyers Nearly Come to Blows in Snyder County's Trial of the Century

On June 7, 1935, a large crowd packed the Snyder County courthouse in Middleburg to witness the Gill trial. If an admission fee would have been charged, just about everyone who observed the proceedings would have agreed that they had gotten their money's worth. The testimony was fiery and contentious; the reporter from the Mount Carmel Item descibed Zella as "angrily snapping" her answers to John L. Pipa, the special prosecutor appointed by the state. She "defiantly spat answers at him" another local paper reported.
At times it seemed that the attorneys might even start throwing punches at each other. Pipa shouted at the defense attorney, J. Francis Gilbert, several times during witness examination. At one point Gilbert even demanded that Judge Lesher ban Pipa from the courtroom.

Pipa, along with Attorney General Charles J. Margiotti, argued that Snyder County had a long history of showing favoritism toward the Gill clan, and accused Middleburg authorities of prejudice against Strawser. Sherman Strawser and Zella Gill, both present at the trial, refused to look at each other.

The Snyder County jury retired and soon came back with its decision. Once again, the Gill family was acquitted on all charges.

Sherman Strawser

On the morning of July 22, Sherman Strawser walked to the electric chair and seated himself without assistance. He was pronounced dead at 12:35 a.m. Shortly before his execution Strawser wrote a letter to his spiritual advisor. "Women can be a curse and again they can be a blessing," the condemned man wrote. "The last one has been a curse."

The 1935 execution of Sherman Strawser, paired with the repeal of prohibition in 1933, brings the story of the Gill clan to a close. As bootleggers across the nation turned their eyes to other pursuits, it appears that the notorious Gills of Snyder County finally did the same.

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