History's Headlines: Ghostly Getter's Island by Frank Whelan


History's Headlines:
Ghostly Getter's Island
by CWRT Board Member Frank Whelan

Easton is a river town. Its waterfront in the 19th century was the center and hub of a canal network that stretched from the outskirts of Philadelphia to the outskirts of New York, one that made it in 1860 the most populous town in the Lehigh Valley. But it does not just have industry in its history, it also has ghosts. And the focal point of the haunting is not in the heart of the city but on an island in the center of the Delaware River. Although it has had several names in its storied past, it has long been known as Getter’s Island, after a man who was hanged there long ago. Recently it has stepped back into the news. The longtime owners of Getter’s Island have recently announced that the picturesque, if haunted, sandbar can be purchased for a mere $150,000; “chump change” as the say in certain circles.

Billionaire rock stars who crave a sunny private isle in the West Indies or an elegant remote property somewhere in the Aegean are not necessarily going to be arriving in their jets from Portofino to snatch up this bargain. But locally it may have an appeal. Especially to those who want to soak up not just the sun but the past.

What is now Getter’s Island was known to the original inhabitants on Easton. But what the Lenape people called it has apparently not been passed down. What is known is that because of its location, long before the coming of white settlers, the site of Easton was a place where they held tribal meetings. During the French and Indian War, they, and other Indian tribes would hold meetings there with colonial officials; meetings, described by historians as “pivotal” to the war’s outcome and the future history of America.

Perhaps the first white man to see the island was Jan Hans Steelman. A fur trader of Swedish ancestry (his father was exiled to what is now Delaware for cutting down one of the king of Sweden’s prize cherry trees to make a mane comb for his horse), Steelman is the first European on record to have been in the region. In 1701 he is recorded as having an argument with Governor William Penn over his fur trading practices with the native Americans. In the 1730s Thomas Penn and his brother, sons of William Penn, are known to have watered their horses in the Delaware and may have seen the future Getter’s Island. It was this visit that inspired Penn to establish, in 1751, Easton as the county seat of the new Northampton County. The island was part of the Penn’s patrimony until the end of the American Revolution. It was on June 27, 1787 that John Penn, grandson of William Penn and Pennsylvania’s last colonial governor, and John Penn of Stoke, son of Thomas Penn and cousin to the former governor (he added “of Stoke,” after his family estate in England to avoid confusion with his many other relatives also named John Penn), deeded the island to a number of prominent Easton citizens.

The Penns were in America to divide up what property was left to them under an agreement they had with Pennsylvania’s state officials. The buyers were Jacob Abel, Peter Ealer, Jacob Arndt Sr., John Hierster and George William Roup. Each partner received a fifth share of the land for which they paid 225 pounds, more than $1000. Abel was one of the richest men in Easton. He ran the ferry between Easton and Phillipsburg and owned a popular tavern. Ealer and Arndt had played major roles locally in the Revolution. Only Abel’s occupation, “ferryman,” is on the deed. It is also on the map on the deed as Abel’s Island. It is unknown what purpose the investors had in mind. A grist mill has been suggested. A possible use as a “transportation venture,” aka a bridge, has also been brought up as a possibility. Whatever it was, the Island was officially known as Abel’s Island as late as 1889.

Exactly how Getter’s Island became a place of execution is not clear. Previous to the 1830s hangings were held in the Centre Square. According to some sources it was particularly for Charles Getter’s execution that the island was chosen. Large crowds were anticipated and people standing on the banks of the Delaware would be able to get a clear view.

On a day in 1833 Margaret Lawell, sometimes known as Rebecca, let it be known that she was carrying a child and its father was Charles Getter. Easton was a small town then and it did not take long for the word to spread. Getter was given a choice by the Justice of the Peace: marry Lawell or be sent to the county jail. Faced with that alternative, Getter reluctantly agreed. But he refused to keep quiet, telling everyone he could that the real love of his life was Mary Hummer, which was apparently news to Hummer when she heard about it.

Shortly after the wedding Getter began to ask about getting a divorce. Lawyers told him that was not possible. Frustrated, Getter furiously denounced his wife, telling people he would soon be free of her. Then it happened. On a September day in 1833 Lawell’s body was found not far from her home, now the site of the Northampton County Country Club. A newspaper described it this way:

“Her body was discovered in a field a few rods from the public road lying on the back, the comb crushed to pieces, hair disheveled, eyes and tongue partially protruded, face livid and the indentation of the thumb of a right hand in the throat and of the fingers of a right hand on the back of neck.”

No one in Easton had any doubt of Getter’s guilt. It took a jury just ten minutes to convict him. Soon carpenters were at work at the center of the island on the scaffold. Getter had requested a new method be used that used weights and pulleys rather than an old fashioned open platform to jerk him to eternity.

The day of his execution Getter, dressed totally in white, walked to the island, crossing the river on a bridge of boats. A crowd estimated at 100,000, but probably closer to 20,000, watched as the sheriff swung an ax, cutting loose a 300-pound weight. Getter’s body jerked up, but the rope broke, and he fell to the ground, stunned. “Well that was good for nothing,” he morbidly quipped. After 20 minutes the sheriff tried again. Getter’s only request was that his necktie be adjusted to cover the rope burns on his neck. This time the pulley worked flawlessly. Getter was dead. A part of the rope is in the Northampton County Historical and Genealogical Society. The following year, 1834, Pennsylvania banned public executions, claiming they must be held privately in county prisons.

Eventually the island was purchased by a lumber company that installed a mill there. Wilson Dam at the southern end of island provided a pool of water that was used by youngsters on a hot day for swimming.

The mill burned down in the 1920s and the lumber company sold the property to Dr. Leo H. Cericola. In the 1940s he built a bridge out to the island to a small amusement park that he called Tropical Island. In time floods forced the project to be abandoned.

Today Getter’s Island is a bramble covered space whose only regular inhabitant is said to be the ghost of Charles Getter.