Though not lacking in crimes or offenders, only seven hangings are recorded for Northumberland County from its founding until that means of capital punishment was replaced by electrocution in the 20th century.
A history of county hangings was reported in the Saturday, March 30, 1912, issue of the Mount Carmel Item as a sidebar to a story on an upcoming execution. There were a few minor errors in the report, which I’ll correct on the basis of further research.
The first known hanging in the county took place on Nov. 15, 1792. A man named William Armstrong was hanged on that date for the rape of Sarah McGahan, of Lower Augusta Township. She was either the wife or daughter of one Abraham McGahan (also found as McGaughin, McGaghan, McGachan and other variants).
According to the Item, Armstrong was hanged at the lower end of Sunbury, along the river bank. “A noose was placed around his neck and he was put in a cart, which was pulled from under his feet.” The 1912 newspaper incorrectly gave the date of the hanging as 1772. The correct date was recorded by circuit rider William Colbert, who visited Armstrong in jail and found him penitent. “Previous to this a man by the name of Jones was lynched,” the Item reported. “No record was made of this. He threw a colored man by the name of Carey from a boat at Crook’s riffle in the North Branch. The negro was drowned.” In fact, there is a record. Joseph Jones was hanged on Dec. 20, 1790.
Of course, the best known of the hangings in Northumberland County was that of Peter McManus, the last of the Molly Maguires to be tried and convicted for murder. McManus was hanged on Oct. 1, 1879, in the yard of the former Northumberland County Prison. He helped kill Fred Hesser, of Coal Township, a watchman at the Hickory Swamp colliery, on Dec. 18, 1874.
“Edward Cressinger was hanged in the jail yard at Sunbury on Wednesday morning, Jan. 3, 1900. When Daisy Smith, of Upper Augusta Township, Cressinger’s sweetheart, slapped him in the face during a quarrel, the latter secured a gun and shot her to death on Oct. 10, 1898.”
Cressinger, a youth of diminished mental capacities, and 16-year-old Daisy Smith were neighbors, but not sweethearts. In his confession, Cressinger said he was hunting on the Smith property. Daisy, hearing a shot, approached him and accused him of shooting rabbits out of season. They argued, she slapped him, he retaliated by shooting her and then slit her throat.
Stanley Marcavage (Marcavitch), 17, of Springfield, was hanged on the morning of November 18, 1909. He robbed and murdered a Polish cobbler at Shamokin, and paid for the crime on the gallows.
Joseph Polachinus paid the death penalty on the gibbet on March 28, 1912. He murdered Wally Tomashefsky on a path near Mount Carmel on the afternoon of Sept. 20, 1909. The last hanging recorded for the county was that of Frederick Nye on Dec. 2, 1913, also for murder-robbery in the death of Harry Miller, a Sunbury pool room operator.
James Reilly was hanged in Philadelphia on April 25, 1916, for the murder of his wife, the last execution by this means in Pennsylvania.