Natalie, Pennsylvania: A Murderer's Paradise
|Remains of the Natalie Drive-In sign|
When a miner named Michael Wanzie was murdered in June of 1905, it was evident that something wasn't quite right in the tiny village of Natalie. Although the scenic mountain village had a population of less than two hundred, the slaying of Michael Wanzie was the fourth murder committed in the village in less than a decade.
By 1924 the population had nearly doubled, thanks to a building "boom" that saw the construction of 40 new homes during the preceding year by builders employed by the Colonial Collieries Company, owners of the Natalie Colliery. Twenty of these homes, many of which still stand today, were built by the Evert Construction Company of Kulpmont. In 1923 there were 56 homes in the village, housing 375 residents. By April of 1924 that number would swell to just under 400 residents and 93 homes.
Although the building boom lent a measure of respectability to the village, Natalie was still imbued with a notorious reputation as being one of the most lawless places in Northumberland County thanks to the numerous brutal, unsolved murders that took place there.
The First Murder in Natalie
The first recorded murder that took place in Natalie was that of Pat Ford in March of 1893. Ford's badly mangled body was discovered in the snow about five hundred yards from the Patterson Colliery. According to neighbors, Ford had gotten drunk the previous night in a Hungarian boardinghouse in the village. One witness who lived next door to the boardinghouse said that she saw a man violently thrown out of the establishment around 11 o'clock the previous evening. When the woman's husband returned from the mines shortly after midnight he was informed of the incident and went outside to investigate, finding a trail of blood in the snow that led to Ford's body. No arrests were ever made in the case and Ford's killer was never brought to justice.
Just two years later, in the fall of 1895, Henry Yargo would become the village's second murder victim. Yargo, an immigrant miner, disappeared without a trace in late October. On November 6, 1895, one of his fellow boarders at the Hungarian boardinghouse confessed to knowing about Yargo's disappearance and declared that he had been the victim of foul play.
On the day he was last seen, Yargo left the boardinghouse with several friends and went to Mt. Carmel, where he was seen flashing a large wad of cash. Returning home that evening, one of the men in the group knocked Yargo down between Green Ridge and Natalie before the rest of his "friends" beat him to death. The attackers made off with about $80. Yargo's body was then carried into the woods and buried in a shallow grave near Hickory Ridge. His killer was never caught.
The following year another tragedy would strike the tiny village-- this time taking the form of a natural disaster. A powerful hurricane ransacked the coal region on September 29, 1896. Although no lives were lost during the storm, dozens of buildings were reduced to rubble and many sustained life-threatening injuries. The damages in Mt. Carmel alone amounted to over $20,000-- or more than half a million dollars in modern currency. The village of Natalie was practically destroyed. At the notorious Hungarian boardinghouse, 8 of the 11 boarders suffered serious injuries.
The Christmas Eve Riot of 1896
The hurricane of 1896 didn't do much to ease tensions among Natalie residents. On Christmas Eve of that year a riot broke out in the village's general store, where several miners had gone to procure their month's wages. It all began when John Logan shoved John Harish against a hot stove. Harish fought back, but was soundly thrashed by the bigger Logan. John Polska then attacked Logan, who pulled a knife and slashed Polska in the face. Polska, as he tried to protect himself, nearly had one of his fingers cut off. Things sort of went downhill from there. The Dec. 26, 1896 edition of the Mount Carmel Daily News reported that "Knives were drawn and there was a general slashing among the infuriated men."
When it was all over, more than a dozen miners were hospitalized from stab wounds. Patrick Johnson was stabbed in the side of the head. Israel Jones was stabbed in the shoulder. John McNelis was stabbed in the back. Andrew Miscannon was stabbed in the neck. John Smith of Bear Gap was stabbed in the shoulder, back and neck. Miraculously, all would recover.
In 1899 the bloodied body of an unidentified miner, believed to be that of a Polish immigrant, was found alongside the road, not far from the site of the Yargo murder. And then there is the infamous 1904 case of the "mystery head" (although the head of this unknown murder victim was found near the Hickory Ridge colliery, his torso was discovered not far from Natalie).
But the banner year for this "Murderer's Paradise" was 1905. On January 21, the body of an Italian miner named Michael Rose (or Roesse or Rossi, depending on the source) was found along the road to Natalie. His head had been crushed in by his killer or killers, or so it was initially reported. Coroner Dreher, however, ruled that Rose had died from heart failure and it was later reported that the victim's alleged facial injuries were the result of "facial neuralgia". At any rate, murder was eventually ruled out, though more than a few newspaper reporters had their doubts.
The Wanzie Murder
The murder of Michael Wanzie occurred on June 20, 1905, and resulted in tremendous outrage. Unlike many of Natalie's other murder victims, Wanzie was a popular and influential citizen. The 45-year-old Polish immigrant was employed as a boss machinist at the No. 2 slope, about a half mile away from his home. He walked home for dinner and then headed back to the colliery at approximately 12:30 and was never again seen alive.
At around 1:30 that afternoon Larry Burns was walking along the road leading to the No. 2 slope when he encountered splatters of blood on the ground. Because of the village's seedy reputation he immediately suspected foul play and followed the bloody trail. He found Wanzie's body about a hundred yards away in the brush. Miraculously, Wanzie was still breathing, though it was evident that he would not recover. His head bore numerous ghastly, gaping wounds. Life would be extinct before Burns made it back to the village to call for help. Coroner Dreher and Dr. W.T. Williams transported the body back to Wanzie's home.
The port-mortem examination revealed 43 bullets lodged in Wanzie's body; three in his brain, and the rest in his back. The bullets, it was reported, were homemade-- roughly cut and slightly larger than buckshot. The bullets appeared to have been fired from a double-barreled shotgun.
The coroner theorized that Wanzie had attempted to run toward the colliery pump house after he had been shot, thereby causing his assailant to shoot him in the back. No one had heard the shots being fired, though it was possible that the sound of steam escaping from the pump house had masked the noise.
Wanzie was known to have his fair share of enemies; his devotion to his job and strong work ethic endeared him to his supervisors, but it also made him the target of jealousy. Several months earlier an unknown attacker hiding in the woods had fired shots at him, but Wanzie managed to escape the ambush unharmed.
Wanzie's murder angered a large portion of the Northumberland County population. He was the 107th murder victim in county history, and yet only one killer had ever been caught, tried and convicted. In other words, if you murdered somebody in Northumberland County, there was a 99.06% chance that you would get away with the crime. This unenviable record inspired a reporter from the Mount Carmel Item to write:
The murderer is unknown. If the search for him is prosecuted with the same vigor that characterized previous endeavors upon the part of the authorities, he is likely to remain unknown.
Much to everyone's great surprise, an arrest was made about a week later. The suspect was identified as a village resident by the name of Frank Riko, who was known to have harbored a grudge against Wanzie. It was also known that Riko owned a double-barreled shotgun.
Riko had been employed at the No. 3 boilerhouse and, by all accounts, was not a particularly hard worker-- nor was he particularly easy to get along with. Riko had incessantly complained about a leak in the boilerhouse roof, and threatened to quit unless it was repaired. The day after he quit, the roof was repaired. Riko was incensed when he learned about this, and returned to the colliery to get his job back. He was informed by his boss, who happened to be Michael Wanzie, that he had already been replaced.
Riko, now unemployed and with a wife and seven children to look after, soon fell behind on his rent and was threatened with eviction. Making matters worse, his marriage was falling apart and one of his close friends had recently been killed. Riko was arrested near Kulpmont en route to his friend's funeral. Bulletmaking supplies were found in Riko's home.
At the trial, a witness named John Kula testified that he had seen Riko near the scene of the crime holding a shotgun on the day Wanzie was murdered. Eli Hein, a neighbor of Riko, and John Simon, a former co-worker, both testified that the alleged killer bore a grudge against the victim; both men claimed to have heard Riko say that he wanted Wanzie dead.
Nevertheless, Frank Riko was acquitted of murder. In spite of compelling evidence, there was still only 1 conviction springing from 107 Northumberland County murders, and Natalie's notorious slayers had evaded justice 100% of the time.
On the evening of July 16, 1905, Andrew Harnis narrowly avoided becoming the village's next murder victim. That night he had gone to a festival in Marion Heights and was returning home to Natalie late in the evening when he was ambushed and left to die on the roadside. A neighbor found his unconscious body. Dr. Kiefer was summoned to the scene and discovered that Harnis had beat beaten over the head with a large, blunt object. His scalp was cut in several places but his skull was not fractured. Robbery was once again the motive; the $13 that Harnis had carried with him was stolen.
The Smollack Axe Murder of 1918
Perhaps the most gruesome murder to take place in Natalie occurred in 1918 and, for the first time in the village's bloody history, justice would prevail-- and for a pretty good reason. Peter Smollack was the first person in the history of Northumberland County to confess to the crime of murder.
It was around 8:30 on the morning of June 19, 1918, when Peter Smollack (or Smalak, according to some records) split open his wife's skull with an axe inside the kitchen of their home in Natalie in front of three of their seven children. The newspaper report described the incident thusly:
Approaching her he struck her twice at the back of the head with the blunt end of the hatchet, splitting open the skull from ear to ear so that her brains oozed out on her shoulders.-- Mount Carmel Item, June 19, 1918.
He was sentenced to death by electric chair at the Rockview Penitentiary on December 16, 1918. While awaiting his transfer to Rockview in June of the following year he penned a statement from inside his cell at the county prison. In his statement, Smollack accused his wife Clara of "having been on intimate terms with numerous men in this vicinity" and declared that this was the reason behind his actions.
Remarkably, for as gory as the crime was, it garnered little local press, perhaps due to the possibility that Clara Smollack's lovers included some important people in Northumberland County social circles. The June 18, 1919 edition of the Mount Carmel Item devoted a total of four sentences to Smollack's jailhouse declaration, writing, in part:
The statement in its original form is too strong for publication and is quite lengthy, giving dates and names of some well known men.
Even Smollack's execution warranted a mere blurb in the local paper. The June 16, 1919 edition of the same newspaper merely reads:
Bellefonte, June 16.-- Peter Smollack, Natalie, Northumberland County, paid the death penalty this morning at Rockview Penitentiary here when he was electrocuted for the murder of his wife. Smollack pleaded guilty, saying he was intoxicated, and was sentenced without the formality of a trial. He will be buried in the penitentiary cemetery, as the body was not claimed.
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