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Taking a Look Back, Local Crime: Johnston Gang

Originally Published: Sep.21.2021

I received a present from my grandmother. It was a book I had already previously read many times, but I was still so grateful to finally have my own copy. It was Jailing the Johnston Gang, by Bruce Mowday. He had signed it wishing me luck with my research. I have always had a strange fascination with criminals and a love for local family history. Little did I know that the two topics could be combined. At a young age, I had discovered the Johnston Gang from my older family members. That is where my research had begun. I am a local to Chester County Pennsylvania, and my family has been local to the area for as long as I can remember. 

 It may be a shock to many local residents that a ruthless gang gaining wealth through crime, once roamed the same area we live in now. The beloved Brandywine river we all swim in was the location of a murder, the Inn we have driven by was a burial site, but even more disturbing is that the members avoided our trusted law enforcement for as long as they did. It all started with three brothers, Bruce Sr., David, and Norman Johnston. They started their criminal activities by stealing tractors and other farm equipment and the increasing demands of their evil ways resulted in multiple murders. The Johnston Gang received an immense amount of attention during the time of their trial, but it is more important to recognize how the gang created their community to destroy the surroundings and how this information can now be processed in new ways. Quite possibly for the current community’s advantage, but first, we must know how it affected the community during the time of the crimes.

It was not long before the surrounding community realized just how horrific the Johnston Gang’s actions were. The Johnston brothers started their criminal activities in the 1970s in surrounding areas of Chester County, PA. More specifically they originated in the Kennett Square, Oxford area. At the peak of their criminal ways, they extended into other parts of Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland. Lousie Price Moore Johnston was the mother of ten children, including her three boys that never graduated from Unionville High School. Eventually, the three boys turned to crime. Bruce Sr. Johnston’s first conviction was for stealing gas worth five dollars, it soon escalated from there. The three brothers recruited more family members, friends, sons, and their son’s friends, anyone who could help them complete the crime. Soon they created their outlaw community. The gang became involved in stealing tractors, bulldozers, corvettes that were taken to a chop shop which ran out of Thorndale PA, burglaries including 50,000 dollars stolen from Longwood Gardens, rapes, and ultimately murders. (Mowday.) The crimes I have mentioned only scratch the surface of what the Johnston Gang was capable of and what they did.  While all of these crimes took place the community was aware and scared. Police officers were shot and killed, bodies were found floating in the Brandywine River, and members of the “kiddie gang” had gone missing. The local police worked hard along with the help of the FBI to finally take down the gang one by one. The Chester County Farms Prison and West Chester Courthouse were ideal in capturing the criminals as well. In the book, Jailing the Johnston Gang, Mowday states, “After two decades the memory of many events are gone or forgotten. For residents in southeastern Pennsylvania, Delaware, and Maryland and those who were members of the prosecution team, the Johnstons were never completely out of their minds.” (Mowday) The community members, police force, victims, courthouse employees, press, prison employees and members, hospital employees, local businesses, and relatives of gang members were each individually affected by the crimes the Johnston Gang committed. The remaining members of society affected by the Johnston Gang will forever remember the deceitful acts and it should remain an important part of our local history. Ultimately becoming a history worth taking a second glance at. 

Today, the gang members no longer operate the elaborate crimes they had in the past. The three brothers all received life sentences. Bruce Sr. died in prison in 2002. Another member Leslie Dale died of throat cancer in the Brandywine Hospital. Norman Johnston successfully escaped in 1999 and was on the most wanted list, until his recapture. Although most of the criminal activity was put to a stop by law enforcement, there was not an extinction of the gang. An extreme demise left the few members not incarcerated to continue doing crimes, but without a strong leader, Bruce Sr., in place they never reached the length of what the gang had previously committed. 

As life continues to go on the Johnston Gang is remembered. My grandfather before his passing can recall coming in contact with Bruce Sr. Johnston. He had arrived at my grandfather’s work at the Luken’s Steel Mill in Coatesville, Pennsylvania searching for his son’s wife Robin who had also worked at the mill. My grandfather lied to hide her from this terrifying man since he knew what Bruce was capable of. Bruce Mowday, a reporter at the time of the Johnston Gang devoted his professional life to their story. And I am sure many other stories with run-ins from gang members and their crimes exist. The stories have impacted the victim’s families and local community members in so many ways, that they should be remembered and victims should be honored. Especially the two Kennett Square police officers, William Davis and Richard Posey,  killed by gang member Ancell Hamm. Countless other victims and their families continue to live in the area and carry the trauma caused by the gang with them.

Many articles have been written and books such as Jailing the Johnston Gang, by Bruce Mowday about the community of criminals. But it seems that the movie At Close Range received the most attention towards the trice crimes of Chester County. The local law enforcement did not approve of the production in fear that it would romanticize or glamourize the Johnston Gang. I have viewed the movie, and I am a huge fan. Does it tell every aspect of the gang’s story correctly? No, not at all, but it does grab the interest of the viewers, which can lead to more intense research. I believe it also properly gives attention to the fact that Jimmy Johnston, Dwayne Lincoln, Wayne Sampson, James Sampson, and Robin Miller were all murdered at such a young age, proving how criminal involvement can cause really bad things to happen. It also honors their memory whether or not the victim’s families approve of it being done in such a way. The legacy left behind by the Johnston Gang is very controversial but ultimately can be very useful for the future of our society. 

Not only can law enforcement learn how to better prepare for more possible gang-like activities, but the surrounding citizens can also. It is important to recognize certain characteristics aligned with the Johnston Gang so that potential threats can be diffused. Such aspects such as emotional, psychological, mental, physical, and societal health can all be important to take into account. As a future teacher and hopefully one-day guidance counselor, I believe we can look at the Johnston Gang community as an example to learn from; to avoid a repeat of our local history. Support systems for youth dealing with characteristics similar to those of the Johnston Gang should be provided along with previous convicts hoping to better their future. Opportunities to grow and resources should also be available especially when the individual lives in poverty. All in all, as a society we can learn from the mishaps and nature of the Johnston Gang to help avoid future tragedies. 

It is quite obvious that the Johnston Gang received an immense amount of attention during the time of their crimes. The historical aspect of their adventures should be remembered for the community’s and the victim’s sake. Hopefully, after reading this essay we as a society can recognize how the gang created their community to destroy the surroundings. This important information can now be processed in new ways to better understand and provide for future threats in our current society. I know that this research will forever impact my life and I want to inspire others to take a minute to reflect on the Johnston Gang as well.

Julia Harpel

West Chester '23

Julia Harpel is a third-year student at West Chester Univerisity. She is working towards her BSED English Writings Track with a Creative Writing Minor. She hopes to one day earn a Master's Degree. Julia is a mental health advocate, environmentalist, and feminist. When she is not at school, at work, writing, or reading, she loves to spend time with friends, go on adventures such as kayaking, and listen to country music.
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