The escapades of Robber Lewis

There is something about David “The Robber” Lewis that captures the imagination. Born on March 4, 1790, he began his career as a counterfeiter, but that was too much work, so he went into armed robbery instead. Even Henry Shoemaker wrote a piece about him, a romantic bit that involved Lewis falling in love and then absconding without stealing from the poor girl.

Lewis has been said to be a Robin Hood sort of character, but that’s drastically overstating the case. He didn’t rob from the rich and give to the poor, he pretty much robbed from everyone, and gave to himself. Maybe he shared with his partner, John Michael Conly.

Lewis and Conley were bad guys inhabiting the greater Centre County area in the early 1800s, before Clinton County was even founded. They ranged up and down the Susquehanna, stealing what they could, an intense two-man crime wave.

John Blair Linn’s “History of Centre and Clinton Counties” talks about them in one chapter. The book says,“Lewis and Conley were two notorious desperate characters who infested this region of the country at an early day. Lewis was a native of Centre County; Conley was an Irishman of powerful stature. Their deeds of daring lawlessness were numerous, and to such an extent had their robberies been carried on, that the government offered a reward of six hundred dollars for their bodies, dead or alive.”

Lewis and Conley arrived in the greater Flemington area at one point in the early 1800s. Nothing had been exactly founded yet, and there wasn’t much in the way of a community. It was mainly forest land above the old Great Island Cemetery. They had robbed a peddler, gone down Bald Eagle Creek in a canoe, and then made a camp at the top of the hill. This would be in the neighborhood where Burger King now stands, but as it was 200 years ago, nobody was stopping for a Whopper.

In their camp, Lewis and Conly realized that they had more loot than they could easily carry, so they decided to burn some of it. But the smoke alerted some of the settlers down below, and they came running up to catch the bandits. Lewis and Conly ran, escaping that time.

But not too long after, in 1820, they were apprehended by a group of vigilantes, and Lewis and Conly weren’t going down without a fight. They were both shot and captured, and Conly died on the way back to present-day Lock Haven. He was buried on the outskirts of Great Island Cemetery, and according to D.S. Maynard’s “Historical View of Clinton County,” his skull was later dug up and used by a local professor. Seriously.

Great Island Cemetery no longer stands. It used to be on the south side of Bellefonte Avenue, roughly between Highland Street and Pearl Street, but by the late 1800s, it was in pretty bad condition. It was moved a hundred years ago, and the move was handled somewhat casually. Many of the bodies were never found and dug up, and this includes Conly’s. So if you live along upper Bellefonte Avenue, I’m sorry for pointing out that your house might be on top of half a headless bad guy.

Lewis was taken to Bellefonte, where he refused treatment and died saying that he could see where he’d hidden some of his loot through his cell window. People have looked for it, but it’s never been found.

It may not even be there. Many of the people who have searched for it have come to the conclusion that Lewis may have made the whole thing up, and I can’t disagree with that. It would be in character for Robber Lewis to mess with people on the way out.

So I may never find the lost treasure of Robber Lewis, no matter how many times I make a nuisance of myself down in Bellefonte. But you never know — I may someday find what remains of the headless body of John Michael Conly. I wonder if the government would still pay up on that reward. They did say “Dead or alive.”

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Lou Bernard is a Lock Haven resident with a keen interest in the history of this area. He is adult services coordinator at Ross Library and may be reached at ross13@rosslibrary.org or 570-748-3321.

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