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DAVID "ROBBER" LEWIS

assaultIn the early Nineteenth Century, Indian Caverns was one of the many hiding places of the band of highwaymen associated with the outlaw David Lewis. The history of the various incidents in the life of this "Robin Hood of Pennsylvania" is as strange and as fascinating a story as any work of fiction.

David Lewis, known as "Davy" or "Robber" Lewis, was born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, on March 4, 1790. By his early twenties, Lewis focussed on operating more locally - primarily in the central counties of Pennsylvania, near the Susquehanna and Juniata rivers and along the Allegheny mountain system from Lock Haven to Bedford. While he pursued counterfeiting schemes until about 1816, the last four years of his career were primarily devoted to living as a highwayman – holding up travelers at gunpoint and living as a mountaineer in various cabins and caves throughout the state. His activities as an "equalizer", as he called himself, covered the mountain system of Pennsylvania from Lock Haven to Bedford.

Lewis is best remembered for his activities as an "equalizer", as he called himself. There are many local tales of Robber Lewis' exploits, some of them simply tales of daring daylight robberies and such. But most such stories tell of Lewis robbing from the wealthier members of society and assisting poor farmers and laborers facing hard times, foreclosure, or bankruptcy. Due to such tales, Lewis is often referred to as the “Robin Hood of Pennsylvania”. A typical story appeared in a pamphlet from 1853:


      Coming across a house that promised security from molestation, he called at the door, and was admitted by an elderly female, of respectable appearance. Lewis, to ascertain where her money was kept, asked her to change a five-dollar note. “That unfortunately I am unable to do,” replied the woman, “for I have not a dollar in the house; and what is worse,” she added despondingly, as she caught a glimpse of a man coming through the woods some distance from the house, “there comes the constable to take my cow for the last half-year’s rent. I don’t know what to do without her.” “How much is due?” inquired Lewis hurriedly. “Twenty dollars, sir.” “Have you no one to help you?” “No one,” she replied. “Then I will,” replied the robber as he drew from his pocket the exact sum, and threw it upon the table. “Pay that fellow his demand, and take his receipt, but don’t say anything about me.”
      Lewis had just time to make good his escape unobserved, when the worthy official arrived. He was proceeding without more ado to drive away the cow, when the woman came forward, paid him the money and took his receipt. He immediately set out on his return, but had not proceeded far, when Lewis bounded into the road and accosted him with “How d’ye do, stranger. Got any spare change about you?” “No!” simpered the frightened constable. “Come, shell out old fellow, or I’ll save you the trouble,” returned Lewis as he presented a pistol at him. This argument convinced the constable that the fellow was up to his business, and he handed over the money as quickly as possible. Lewis got his own twenty dollars back, and forty dollars in addition. He often boasted that the loan of the twenty dollars was one of the best investments he had ever made.

While Lewis was reasonably successful in terms of amassing various fortunes (most of which were squandered or lost), he doesn't appear to have been that good at evading the law. He was arrested and imprisoned no less than four times – and possibly as many as seven or eight – over the course of about six years. Remarkably, though, he seems to have been a very adept jail-breaker: he escaped or effected a release every time he was apprehended, before standing trial - most famously by once seducing and eloping with the jailer's daughter (who became the mother of his first child).

Cavern Entrance, ca. 1820

The cave entrance
as it would have appeared ca. 1820

In addition to his activities as an "equalizer" and his aptitude for jail-breaking, Lewis is also remarkable for his use of caverns, making a network of such retreats literal "dens of thieves". From 1816 to 1820, Lewis and his band of robbers used several caves throughout central Pennsylvania as hideouts and storehouses for their plunder. This practice is described in C.D. Rishel's Life and Adventures of David Lewis and in several accounts published in the Harrisburg Telegram, as well as in Lewis' letters and memoir.

A one-time member of the Lewis gang described one such cave and the lifestyle of the bandits:


      When Lewis was here he generally concealed himself in the cave up the gap. ... I frequently visited, and sometimes stayed with him at the cave. We had the stream running from the spring brought to the mouth of the cave. Everything was so comfortably arranged in and about the cave, that it was quite a comfortable home. ... A friend named K------- lived in the hollow at the sulphur spring, in a small house that he built, and which we called our tavern. We could see his door from the cave; and having an understanding with "our host," we could always tell when there was any danger, as on such occasions he would hang out a red flag. If all was clear, and it was considered safe to come down, a white flag was hung out.  ...
      Lewis was a great favorite with the ladies. Some of them used to furnish us with the comforts of life, and several times visited us at the cave. We had a number of little parties at the tavern, and had great times. A number of the mountain ladies would come, and some of the men, and we would every now and then have a dance. This was the way we carried on whenever Lewis was here.
      The cave was neatly fitted up, and would accommodate five of us comfortably; there was just that number of us acting together that stayed at the cave. We did not rob in the neighborhood of the gap, except to get such things as were necessary for us to live on. We lived on what we got in this way, and what was brought to us. I shall not forget the kindness of the people.

JailIn 1820, a Centre County posse apprehended Lewis after his gang held up a Bellefonte-bound wagon train on the Seven Mountains road. During the gun battle, Lewis was wounded and, a few weeks after his capture, died of gangrene.

On his deathbed in Bellefonte Jail, he wrote a memoir and claimed that he had secreted away several caches of stolen money and goods where even his confederates could not find it. Not long before his death, he wrote to a friend residing on a farm in the Spruce Creek Valley telling him that some $10,000 in gold coin was hidden in "a dank hideout room" from which he could see the workmen in the old woolen mill going about their tasks. The only woolen mill in the area stood in what is now Indian Caverns' parking lot. So strongly founded was the belief in the bandit's story that numerous treasure hunters have searched in the cave for Robber Lewis' legacy. 

Impelled by this same belief, one resident of Franklin Township spent over twenty years in a vain search for the treasure. Armed with a lantern and a ball of twine, used as a trail marker so that he would not become lost in the labyrinth of passages, he kept up his tireless search. Death ended his quest in the 1920s with the robber's hidden gold-bags still unfound.

Treasure-hunters believe Robber Lewis may have concealed or walled-up the entrance to one of the cave rooms opening from the Lost Tunnel in the cave so perfectly that no one has been able to discover its exact location.

David Lewis died at the age of thirty in Bellefonte Jail and, according to records in Huntingdon County Library, was buried in Milesburg, Pennsylvania. Somewhere deep within Indian Caverns, does a mystery room still guard the secret of the bandit's treasure trove?
 
 
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