The Pool Tribe of Bradford County and the Hanging of Bigler Johnson
(Author's Note: Several statements made by local newspapers of the era concerning the Vanderpool and Johnson families have been debunked; a brief but accurate historical sketch of the "Pool Tribe" can be read here.)
Bradford County had never witnessed a hanging until the 20th century. In fact, only one of its citizens had ever been convicted of first-degree murder, after Thomas Galvin was sentenced to twelve years at the Eastern Penitentiary for killing his wife in 1885. But in 1905, the gallows at Towanda were used for the first time, in the execution of a man named Bigler Johnson. It was Bigler's mother who allegedly concocted the plot to the cold-blooded crime to which Bigler later confessed to county detective Guy C. Hallon-- a diabolical crime designed to keep Bigler from paying $6 a month in alimony-- and which would eventually lead to the arrest of seven family members, and the hanging of two of them.
The Johnson family lived in the farming settlement known as Macedonia, which was located between Towanda and Standing Stone, on a bend in the Susquehanna River originally owned by Solomon Cole, one of the early settlers of Bradford County. This was the territory of the "Pool Tribe"-- a name given to the supposedly inbred and degenerate descendants of the Vanderpool and Johnson families who were said to have terrorized Bradford County for centuries.
On September 18, 1904, Bigler Johnson visited his mother, Mrs. Sophia Merritt, and his brother, Charles, and presented them with a most dastardly proposition. He would pay his mother and brother $3 apiece of they could find a way to get his estranged wife "out of the way". With Maggie Johnson dead and buried, Bigler believed that he would be free to re-marry without having to support Maggie financially. There was just one tiny complication; while Bigler had no qualms about arranging the murder of Maggie Johnson, he did not wish to see any harm befall his ten-year-old niece and step-daughter, Annie Benjamin, who shared the same home. Bigler proposed that Sophia and Charles should kidnap the girl, and release her after Maggie Johnson had been killed.
That old Mrs. Merritt and her children should ever agree to take part in such a wicked scheme illustrates the character of the Johnson clan. Uneducated, crude in manners, poverty-stricken and prone to incest, gambling and drinking, the Johnsons presented a stark contrast to the original settlers of Macedonia; over a century earlier, it was Elisha Cole, brother of Solomon, who settled just a stone's throw away and became the region's first frontier preacher. Christian values had flourished in Macedonia in the decades since the bend had been settled by the Coles, but the Johnsons were about to find themselves branded as pure evil.
Based upon the confession made by Bigler Johnson, and later confessions given by other members of the family, it seemed that Mrs. Sophia Merritt played the most active role in the crime. She had decided that Bigler should leave at once for Towanda, and from there to Binghamton, so that he would have an alibi while they carried out their evil scheme. As soon as he had gone, Sophia and Charles visited the Johnson home at approximately ten o'clock, accompanied by several other family members. These included a twin brother of Bigler named Alonson, a brother-in-law, and two sisters. It was one of the sisters, 13-year-old Nancy, who waited outside with the Charles and Alonson while Sophia Merritt butchered Mrs. Johnson in her bedroom with an axe.
Unfortunately, the violent attack awakened Annie Benjamin, and the ten-year-old ran from the house, only to be followed by Charles Johnson. About a hundred yards down the road he caught her and ended her life. After carrying the body back to the house, the Johnsons doused the house with kerosene and set it on fire, confident that their evil deeds would never see the light of day.
Pool of Shame
Ironically, the Johnson clan came from a long line of prominence and nobility before the family devolved to its disreputable state by the early 19th century. The Johnsons were part of a family called the "Pools", a family of some 800 or 900 persons whose bloodlines have been muddied by intermarriage. It has been written (though erroneously), that one side of the family can trace its roots to Sir William Johnson, who, as a British military commander, earned the title of First Baronet of the colony of New York after capturing Fort Niagara from the French in 1759. The Johnsons spread throughout the Mohawk Valley, which was simultaneously populated by descendants of the Vanderpool family from Holland. Legend has it that this side of the family can claim President Martin Van Buren as kin; President Van Buren's uncle, Anthony Vanderpool, was one of the early settlers of Bradford County. Anthony Vanderpool married a half-Oneida daughter of Sir William Johnson, and their descendants have called the hills, valleys and jailhouses of Bradford County home ever since.
A newspaper reporter from the Bloomsburg Columbian wrote of the Pool tribe in 1905:
The Pools are of swarthy complexions, so much so as to indicate a mixture of Indian or negro blood. Whatever their origin they have degenerated into a lot of ignorant, dirty, uncouth people, many of them only about half-witted. They have intermarried for three or four generations, which would account for their mental calibre. For fifty years or more they have been known as a generally worthless set... Years ago on circus day it was almost as much of a sight to watch the Pools come to town as it was to see the show.
An earlier account of the family history comes from the same newspaper in 1885:
Few of the descendants have ever been known to do a week's continuous work, unless hard pressed... The circus comes up fully to the Pool's idea of heaven, and the ringmaster's whip is about the only thing besides the pangs of hunger which will drive the rank and file of them to work. A hundred or more have been known to walk fifteen or twenty miles to see a circus come into town... The shooting of a couple of them by a policeman two or three years ago put a dampener on their festivities at the county seat, but the natives still keep a weather eye open when the Pools come to town.
A Scranton paper stated in 1907:
Among these peculiar people, in many of whom the Indian strain is still quite perceptible, are hundreds who possess all the characteristics of degenerates... their moral perceptions are as blunted as their mentality is deficient.
"The Pools (had) cost Bradford County more money than all other lawbreakers combined," declared Editor Heverly of the Bradford Star in 1920 in his brief history of the Vanderpools and Johnsons.
To illustrate the strange intertwinings of the "Pool Tribe", one only has to look at the matriarch of the Johnson household, Sophia Merritt, whose maiden name was Vanderpool. Sophia's first husband was a Johnson, her second husband was a Merritt, and her third husband was another Vanderpool.
A Cousin for a Bride
Bigler Johnson married his cousin, Maggie Benjamin, and, as one might expect, their marriage was disastrous. After their separation, a court ordered him to pay alimony to Maggie in the amount of $6 per month. This presented Bigler, who was seldom employed and without a dollar to his name, with a serious problem. It was shortly after this separation when Bigler, his mother, and brothers and sisters began to discuss ways of getting rid of the woman to whom they were also related by blood. Their plans began to unravel the morning after the Johnson home was set ablaze, however, when passersby discovered bloodstains on the road, not far from the the smoldering ruins. It didn't take long for neighbors to connect the dots, and it was soon brought to light that Maggie Johnson had often expressed fear over her safety and the safety of Annie Benjamin.
In the meantime, detectives sifted through the rubble for clues, and identified fragments of bones they believed to be from Annie Benjamin. The bones were sent to Wilkes-Barre for further analysis, and their suspicions were confirmed. Seven members of the Johnson family were arrested and taken to the Towanda jail.
Had the Pool tribe possessed a higher level of mental firepower, Bigler Johnson might had a chance of escaping justice. Bigler, who was the prime suspect from the start of the investigation, seemed to have a solid alibi-- his brother had accompanied him to the train station in Towanda and had supposedly seen him off to Binghamtom. However, when interrogated by Detective Hallon, Bigler admitted-- almost proudly-- that he had never attended school or church, and had never learned to read or write. It was at that moment the detective noticed a ring on his finger. He asked where he got it.
"Up in New York," Bigler replied, though he was unable to provide Hallon with the name or location of the store. "Truth is, I sent away for it," Bigler eventually admitted, believing this to be a valid excuse for the missing details.
"But I thought you didn't know how to read or write?" asked the detective. At this, Bigler seemed to panic, and explained that he had meant to say that he only knew how to print, not write in cursive.
"You know, like the kind of printing in newspapers," he added. The detective called for a copy of a newspaper and a pencil and notepad. He offered these to Bigler and instructed him to copy something. Bigler was unable to do so, and then he confessed.
While there may exist honor among thieves, it would appear that there is less honor among other types of criminals-- and no honor among Pools. Bigler's confession laid blame at the feet of his mother and brothers, but in statements to the authorities given by other family members, the Johnsons blamed each other, with some claiming that it was Mrs. Merritt who had struck down and murdered Annie Benjamin, and others claiming that it had been Charles. Charles claimed that Bigler had been there for the killing, while others insisted he was in Towanda at the time. Sophia Merritt refused to talk to Detective Hallon and Sheriff Robinson, and thumbed her nose at their questions. It would now be up to a jury to unravel their tangled stories and a judge to mete out punishment.
The Trial of Charles Johnson
Bigler was to have been the first of the suspects to go to trial, but when he confessed and implicated his family members, his attorneys withdrew from the case. The court appointed a new defense team, and this delay caused Charles to be the first of the accused to stand trial. The proceedings began in November, and although the case took two weeks, the jury needed just fifteen minutes to find him guilty of murder in the first degree.
The depths of the family's depravity was revealed not just in courtroom testimony, but in offhand remarks to the press during the trial. Hank Merritt, the middle-aged husband of Sophia Merritt, had been called as a witness, and was rather incensed to learn that he had to wait until the trial was over before the county would pay him the witness fee he was owed. Hank, who was first married to Sophia's daughter (thereby making his brother his own step-son and making his wife his own mother-in-law), who had died seven years earlier, was asked by a reporter what he would do if Sophia was convicted and sent to prison. When a spectator jokingly remarked that he ought to marry his 14-year-old step-daughter, Nancy Johnson, Hank replied, "I might. She's a likely girl."
As was the custom of the Pool tribe, Hank and Sophia were not just related through marriage but by blood; his mother and her father were both Vanderpools.
The Trial of Bigler Johnson
On February 7, 1905, Bigler Johnson was arraigned and pleaded guilty to the charge of killing his wife and niece. His mother, brother and sister were present, but showed no emotion when he entered his plea. They were next in line, charged with being accomplices, and each entered a plea of not guilty.
Just nine days later, Bigler was convicted of murder in the first degree and sentenced to death by hanging by Judge Fanning. Bigler's attorneys appealed the case to the state Supreme Court, arguing that his confession and subsequent guilty plea ought to have resulted in a second-degree murder conviction. The Supreme Court, however disagreed and upheld Judge Fanning's ruling on May 1. His date of execution was fixed for July 25. Charles Johnson's attorneys had filed a motion for a new trial, but it seemed likely that he, too, would hang. The only question was, who would hang first?
An Act of Nobility at the Gallows
As the day of his execution drew near, Bigler Johnson, perhaps at the direction of his spiritual adviser, Rev. E.W. DeWitt of Athens, wrote a lengthy second confession, in which he claimed to have committed the murders with his own hand. He declared:
"On September 18, I, Bigler Johnson, went to Towanda and spent the forenoon drinking at various places in the town. In the afternoon I intended to go to Binghamton, where I expected to get work, and I also thought that by getting out of the state I might escape the payment of six dollars a month which the court had directed me to pay to my wife, Maggie Johnson. In the afternoon I started to go to the station to take a train, but while on the way I met a hackman and asked him when the train to Binghamton started, and was told that it had just gone. While I stood talking to him, my brother Charlie came up on his wheel and asked me where I was going. I told him to Binghamton, and he said that if I would go back home with him and wait until Tuesday he would go with me.
I went back to Towanda and to a drug store there, where I bought a pint of alcohol. We then went across the covered bridge and just beyond it Charlie went on and left me, riding his wheel, while I walked to Wysox and stopped at the hotel there. The proprietor of the hotel was at the barn doing his chores and I stopped and talked with him. Then I went on toward my wife's house, drinking nearly all the alcohol while on the way, and before I reached there I made up my mind to kill them. I don't know how I did it. I was too drunk to remember what I did after I reached there, but I set fire to the house and then went back to Towanda. There was no one with me. I committed the crime alone. I killed them both."
It seemed evident to everyone that Bigler was merely attempting to save his brother from the gallows, and perhaps with death staring him blankly in the face he developed some sense of nobility he had lacked when he had his entire life in front of him.
On the morning of Tuesday, July 25, 1905, Bigler Johnson was hanged in the jail yard at Towanda. After being accompanied to the gallows by Rev. DeWitt and Sheriff Robertson, a black cap was placed over Bigler's head, his arms pinioned behind his back and the noose placed around his neck. The drop fell at exactly 10:05, and his neck was broken. According to the two hundred witnesses present, Bigler met his fate without any visible sign of emotion, and made no statement at the scaffold. His body was taken to Riverside Cemetery for burial.
The Fate of Charles Johnson
Two years later, at exactly the same date and time, Charles Johnson was hanged from the same scaffold. However, unlike his brother, Charles had no streak of nobility before he was led to the gallows in 1907. He had attempted suicide while in prison, and to the very last he declared his innocence. Although he plunged to the hereafter with the same unflinching silence as his brother, Charles insisted, up to the morning of his execution, that he had lied to authorities about his role in the murders and took no part in the butchery or the burning of the bodies. "I am sorry now about the lies I told," Charles stated just two hours before his neck was snapped, "for it was those lies that got me into all the trouble." Charles Johnson was laid to rest beside his brother at Riverview Cemetery in Towanda.
One interesting side note about the hanging is that the scaffold used by Bradford County had been purchased from Luzerne County where, years earlier, it had been used to hang the notorious criminal "Red Nose Mike", as well as John Lutz, whose story has been featured on this blog.
Monkey Face Jim and the Fate of the Pool Tribe
Sophia Vanderpool-Merritt-Vanderpool was never convicted for her role in the murders of Maggie Johnson and Annie Benjamin, and she died in 1924 at the age of 72. As for her husband at the time of the murders, Henry "Hank" Merritt, he died of stomach cancer at the Robert Packer Hospital in 1920 at the age of 57.
Members of the infamous "Pool Tribe" families, such as the Vanderpools, Johnsons, Benjamins and Heemans of Bradford County, continued to grace (or disgrace) local newspaper headlines for decades after the hanging of the Johnson brothers. In November of 1905, a young woman and an infant were burned to a crisp when the home of William Ackley was destroyed by fire during a party attended by some twenty members of the Pool clan. According to reports, one of the Pools tripped over a lamp, but the party-goers were too drunk to get out of the house in time (Historically, the combination of fire and the Pool tribe has often resulted in tragedy; Richard Johnson burned to death in 1881 after accidentally setting himself ablaze in an inebriated state, and Edward Vanderpool was burned to death in 1933 when his house on Hagerman's Hill caught fire).
In September of 1907, less than two months after the hanging of Charles Johnson, James Vanderpool-- known throughout the region as "Monkey Face Jim"-- was stabbed ten times by his drunken brother-in-law, Curtis Vanderpool, at the latter's home after a debate over an unpaid bill. Although Monkey Face Jim survived the attack, he met a horrible death in 1911 when he committed suicide by lighting his straw mattress on fire inside his cell at the Towanda jail after an arrest for public drunkenness.
In 1910, brothers Perry and Joseph Johnson were sentenced to 19 and 15 years, respectively, in Auburn Prison after a holdup in Oswego. Ten years earlier, Johnson's father had been arrested for deserting the army, along with Henry and Francis Heeman.
Though just 23 years old at the time, Perry had already served two prior prison sentences. The brothers were also implicated in a string of robberies and the shooting of a local postmaster. Just one week earlier, in the very same courtroom, the same judge sentenced Fred Heeman to a five-year prison term for larceny, his second such conviction. These three degenerates were also related to Perry Heeman, who went to jail for robbery in 1897.
In 1914, Floyd Vanderpool was killed in a liquor-fueled Thanksgiving Day fistfight with Herbert Johnson at the home of Charles Vanderpool in Terrytown. Johnson was convicted of involuntary manslaughter. In 1923, George and Horsey Vanderpool were arrested in Binghamton after escaping from the Towanda police station. Both men had extensive records for alcohol-related offenses. The following year, Norman Vanderpool and his wife Ada (whose maiden name was also Vanderpool) were given stiff sentences for passing bogus checks, while Andrew and William Johnson and Wilson Vanderpool were jailed for moonshining. A few months later, Earnest Vanderpool was stabbed in the back with a pike-pole by his brother-in-law, Fred Vincent, who was subsequently charged with aggravated assault.
Nearly all of the Bradford County defendants indicted by the grand jury in the November court session of 1920 were of the Pool tribe; George Heeman (larceny), Fred Vincent (assault and battery) and Lulu Johnson (adultery) were forced to stand trial. Waverly native John Heeman, sent to the Elmira Reformatory for burglary as a youth, was re-arrested on the same day he was released in 1922, and promptly sentenced to 3-7 years at Auburn Prison.
Perhaps one of the most shameful chapters in the history of Pool tribe was written on April 16, 1920, when Floyd Smith murdered his wife's illegitimate infant son at her own insistence (she was pregnant with another man's child at the time they were married). Smith, whose mother was Agnes Heeman, killed the 4-week-old infant by bashing his head against a bridge in South Waverly and tossing the body in the water. The child's mother, Ruth Muckey Smith, was sentenced to one year in prison for child abandonment, while Floyd Smith was sentenced to death in the electric chair. He was executed on March 5, 1923. In an astonishing quirk of fate, on the same day of the execution, Ruth Muckey gave birth to her second illegitimate child. The brutality of this crime was so appalling that several Heeman families in the Northern Tier region reportedly changed their last name to Beeman-- a surname which some families continue to use today.
Other infamous members of the Pool tribe include Reuben Heeman, a Towanda native whose decades-long history of robberies netted him twelve separate prison sentences from Michigan to Ohio, and whose rap sheet included six jailbreaks and prison escapes. He was handed a life sentence by a New York judge in 1929 after racking up his ninth felony conviction. Reuben's father was Lyman Heeman, also a notable thief, whose seven sons all had lengthy criminal records. In 1933, Francis and John Heeman were convicted on a charge of receiving stolen property. Edward, Harry, Henry and James Vanderpool were all arraigned in Towanda on larceny charges in 1934. In 1937, brothers Ralph and Spencer Heeman were arrested for larceny.
Lorenzo Heeman, who was Bigler Johnson's brother-in-law, also had an extensive criminal record. Not only was he one of the seven family members arrested in the 1904 murder investigation (it was inside his home where incriminating letters were found), but he was also a habitual burglar.
In 1943, Harry Vanderpool and his cousin Benjamin escaped from the Towanda jail and fled to Elmira, where they were later captured. Edward would be sent to prison again in 1946 after being convicted of "adultery and bastardy". That same year, Carl Heeman also escaped from the Towanda jail. Harvey Heeman was arrested for larceny in 1947, and Samuel "Sonny" Heeman was arrested for burglary in 1949.
During the 1950s, the continuing misadventures of the Pool tribe provided fascinating subject matter to students of human behavior; an article from the Lancaster Sunday News published on Feb. 12, 1950, stated: There are about 500 members of this closely inbred group. The inbreeding has produced a number of cases of low mentality and delinquency, according to social workers.
Proof of this occurred in February of 1953, when Manley Heeman killed three of his passengers in a drunk driving accident near Sheshequin. He was charged with involunary manslaughter, but received a suspended sentence.
In 1961, Frank Heeman caused a ruckus in a Binghamton courthouse after his daughter, Noreen, was arrested for shoplifting two bras from a discount store. On September 23, the Scranton Times reported:
While the defendant was being tried on the shoplifting charge, Judge Joseph Esworthy commented that she appeared "unbalanced", and summoned two psychiatrists to examine her. Her parents (Frank and Lillian Heeman) protested vigorously. While Mr. Heeman attacked the judge verbally, Mrs. Heeman screamed violently. The judge's chambers became a scene of wild disorder when the doctors ruled Noreen incapable of understanding and the judge ordered the young woman transferred to a state hospital... Noreen knocked police matron Virginia Scudder to the floor... her father snatched the commitment papers from Mrs. Scudder's hand, ripped them in half and proceeded to slug Patrolman Richard Kaufman in the jaw. The judge said Mrs. Heeman was attempting to hurl a heavy chair when two policemen grabbed her and held her on the floor. While police fastened a restraining belt around Mrs. Heeman, she bit Patrolman William Mares.
That same year, during the same week, Kenneth Vanderpool was murdered by Joseph Yost inside a local cafe and 15-year-old Ernest Vanderpool, Jr. was fatally wounded after attempting to pry a shell from his rifle with a nail.
In 1966, Eugene Vanderpool, who was born within a stone's throw of the scene of the 1904 murders, recieved a life sentence after shooting his wife Veronica in the face with with a 12-gauge shotgun.
Currently, according to Pennsylvania Department of Corrections inmate records, there are four Vanderpools from Bradford County incarcerated in state prisons across the commonwealth, along with four Johnsons and a Heeman.
Of course, it is unfair to assume that every living member of the Pool tribe from Bradford County is endowed with a criminal streak or below-average intelligence. Dig deep enough into anyone's family tree and you'll find ancestors of all kinds-- some dim, some bright, and some good, bad, and ugly. The debate still continues whether one's lot in life is determined to a greater degree by genetics or by one's own actions, and it will be interesting to see what the future will bring to the modern-day descendants of Anthony Vanderpool and Sir William Johnson.
Bloomsburg Columbian, Sept. 18, 1885.
Scranton Times-Tribune, Sept. 30, 1904.
Carlisle Evening herald, Oct. 3, 1904.
Reading Times, Oct. 5, 1904.
Pittsburgh Press, Dec. 22, 1904.
Scranton Times-Tribune, Feb. 7, 1905.
Scranton Times-Tribune, Feb. 16, 1905.
Lancaster New Era, May 1, 1905.
Scranton Tribune, July 25, 1905.
Manfield Advertiser, July 26, 1905.
Bloomsburg Columbian, July 27, 1905.
Scranton Truth, July 25, 1905.
York Daily, Nov. 28, 1905.
Athens Gazette, Dec. 1, 1910.
Sayre Evening Times, April 12, 1920.
Sayre Evening Times, Nov. 29, 1921.
Sayre Evening Times, March 4, 1922.
Sayre Evening Times, March 9, 1923.
Sayre Evening Times, June 4, 1923.
Sayre Evening Times, Feb. 21, 1924.
Sayre Evening Times, Dec. 3, 1934.
Sayre Evening Times, Feb. 22, 1943.
Lancaster Sunday News, Feb. 12, 1950.
Sayre Evening Times, Feb. 21, 1953.
Sayre Evening Times, Feb. 14, 1966.
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