Burn Bridle Press – Bucks County History

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The Baby Beneath the Floorboards – 1789

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In the March of 1789, John Carcaddon made a grisly discovery beneath the floorboards of Hanna’s Brew House in Newtown. Stuffed into a drain beneath the floor was the month-old body of a dead child. He later testified:

he took up a pine Board of the floor to throw the water into it being a drain, and after throwing of a considerable quantity of Water off, the passage appeared to be stopped and upon examining the cause found a hair Cloth under which I found the Infant wrapped in an old piece of Calico

The coroner called an inquest, and a jury was convened to determine the circumstances of the child’s death. Witnesses were called, and suspicion soon fell on a woman named Phebe Stover. Catherine Clucker was called before the jury and testified:

that Phebe Stover was taken Ill in the night about a Month ago, that her husband proposed sending for a Doctor, that she would not consent to it, next day she came into my room continued Ill, that Doct. Torbet was sent for, that he came two different times, that Doct. Asked her how long she had been with Child she answered about four Months and a few days—that she and her Husband frequently quarreled—that she [illegible] this deponent that she thought she had miscarried but would not tell her

The doctor, Samuel Torbet, confirmed her story, reporting:

that he was called upon by the Husband of Phebe Stover that he went with him and found her very Ill, her symptoms I thought were such as threatened a Miscarriage—and found she had been in that situation for some time—and proceeded to treat her as one in that situation—she told me she had been pregnant about four Months and a few days to the best of her knowledge—that he saw no symptoms of her having Miscarried that he told her if she had not already Miscarried she certainly would

It seems clear that the Phebe Stover miscarried, but it’s a mystery why she would attempt to dispose of the body in this disturbing manner.

Today, the County Coroner looks into the death of anyone who dies without being attended to by a doctor. In the early years of Bucks County only exceptional deaths were investigated, and the early coroner’s records are far less frequent and are mostly dedicated to violent, accidental, or otherwise suspicious deaths.

(Source: Bucks County Coroner’s Reports, #20, March 13th, 1789. In the collection of the Bucks County Historical Society)

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Written by Moses Doan

October 31, 2013 at 5:58 pm

Blood Running Down the Wall: Murder on the Neshaminy in 1692

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Pennsylvania’s First Murder

On March 3rd, 1692, the body of an unknown person was found near the mouth of the Neshaminy Creek. When the coroner examined the body, he determined that the victim had been “willfully murthered” about six weeks earlier.

Suspicion fell on Swedish ferryman Derrick Jonson (alias Clawson) when large blood stains were found in his house. The court record states:

upon a due examination of things it appeared that a Considerable Quanty of blood on the wall and on the bed of one Derrick Jonson als Clawson about the Supposed time that the above murthered person lost his life was discovered & the Said Derrick refused to give any account of how the Said blood Came there

He was arrested and imprisoned by the sheriff. During the interrogation, Jonson claimed that the blood came from a man that he’d hired to thresh grain for him three years earlier, and that he’d shown the blood to various people since then, “fully as much as it was.” This story is doubtful. When the coroner examined the blood at Jonson’s house, he reported that “it had run in Several Streames down the boords on the wall which Streames Continued untill they went behind the planks that lay on the ground floore.” Regardless of the circumstances, the person that lost that much blood surely died.

When his wife Brighta was interrogated, she claimed, “the blood Seen on the wall was discovered between day and sun rising & that there was a Sheete hanged on the out Side of the bed in a manner of a Curtaine & that there was no blood on the bed.” She also claimed that she hadn’t put fresh straw in the bed since the previous year, implying that if someone was murdered in the bed there would be blood in the straw.

Jonson plead not guilty, but after a year of imprisonment without trial the court convicted Jonson of the murder. While the case was circumstantial, it seems clear that someone was killed in that bed, and that Jonson destroyed evidence by replacing the straw and attempted to conceal the stains by hanging a sheet over the bed. He was hanged on July 9th, 1693, making him the first criminal executed by the government of Pennsylvania. There wouldn’t be another execution in Bucks County for 40 years.

Wolf Heads

If the murder case doesn’t make Jonson seem scary enough, it might help to picture him decapitating wolves. At the time there was a bounty of wolves, and the standard practice was to deliver their heads as evidence that you’d killed one. In 1688, Jonson (under the alias Derrick Clawson), filed a complaint that “he delivered to Arthur Cook & James Harrison 3 wolves two of them bitches & one dog,” and that he hadn’t received the full bounty. In this case the court ruled in his favor.

 

Written by Moses Doan

October 31, 2013 at 12:12 pm

Posted in Crime, Death

The Twice-Buried Murderer Joseph Blundin

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A man sharpens a cradle scythe, similar to Joseph Blundin’s murder weapon.

Today a house sits on the southern corner of Court & East Streets, as nice and unremarkable as any other house in Doylestown. Few would guess that 177 years ago a murderer was buried here. Even fewer would guess that 157 years ago they dug him back up.

This is the story of the executed murderer Joseph Blundin and Doylestown’s forgotten burial ground.

A Crime of Passion

Joseph Blundin was a farmhand with a young family at the time of the crime. He appears on the 1830 US Census living in Bristol with his wife, both in their 20’s, and three children, all under 5 years old. The account of the crime and the public support for Blundin in its aftermath paint him as normal man driven by his circumstances to commit a horrendous act.

The murderer and victim were harvesting oats on the farm of Samuel Headly, probably the S. Headly marked with a red “X” on this map from 1857. The murder occurred somewhere on the road from Headly’s farm to Bristol.

On the day of the crime Joseph Blundin and his victim, Aaron Cuttlehow, were working together harvesting oats on the farm of Samuel Headly near Bristol. J.H. Battle recounts the details of the crime as revealed during the trial:

The prisoner and deceased were at work on Sunday, July 27th [1834], with other men, five or six, engaged in cradling oats. At dinner one of the hands ran out of doors with a pie, deceased and the prisoner chasing him. In their playfulness a shoe was thrown which hit the prisoner. Shortly afterward the deceased came into the house crying, and said the prisoner had hit him on the head with a stone. This disturbance was settled, and they all went to the field to cradle oats. When nearly done a quarrel arose between the prisoner and the deceased, and the prisoner was thrown down and received several blows from [the] deceased in the face. The deceased with another then helped him upon his feet, and his knees giving way under him, they assisted him up a second time. The prisoner then took his cradle and started for home. He was asked to ride twice, but refused, and said, angrily, he would walk. From fifteen minutes to half an hour later he was overtaken by the wagon, walking slowly. He was asked to get up and ride. The prisoner made no reply, but raised his cradle from his shoulder and struck at the deceased hitting the cradle of the deceased, which he raised to guard the blow; the deceased at the same time losing his cradle from his hand, which fell upon the ground. The deceased (Cuttlehow) then sprang from the wagon to make his escape, but stumbled and fell as he reached the ground. When he had crawled a few paces the prisoner came upon him with his cradle uplifted and struck the scythe through the neck of Cuttlehow. The latter cried, “Take it out, take it out!” sank on the ground and died in one or two minutes. Some one said to the prisoner: “He will die,” who replied: “Let him die.” Liquor had been used in the field, but there was no satisfactory evidence that the prisoner was intoxicated. The jury was out eleven or twelve hours, and returned a verdict of murder in the first degree.

We don’t know who started the fight, but it’s clear that the dead man had seriously beaten Blundin in the earlier scuffle, and that Blundin was emotionally distressed by the fight. Instead of escalating the conflict he attempted to walk home alone, only to be confronted again. After being pushed one last time by the other farmhands, he lashed out and killed Cuttlehow with the tool he happened to be carrying. All of this evidence portrays the crime as a temporary lapse by an otherwise decent man rather than the premeditated work of a cold-blooded killer.

After he was sentenced to die by hanging, the public rose up in support of him. While the facts of the crime were not disputed, the death sentence issued seemed harsh and unnecessary. Battle reports that even Charles E. DuBois, the Deputy Attorney-General for the Commonwealth, “was overcome with emotion in reading the indictment to the unfortunate man.” The citizens of Bucks County appealed to the government for mercy, petitioning the Governor Goerge Wolfe and both houses of the State Assembly in an attempt to have his sentence commuted to life in prison. They attempted to save Blundin through multiple avenues, begging for the Governor and legislature to take action in his case specifically as well as attempting to change the state laws regarding criminal sentencing by giving the governor the power to commute death sentences to life in prison or by abolishing the death penalty altogether.

The general thrust of their appeals can be seen in the debate that took place on the floor of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, where a representative named Harrison introduced an amendment:

…in accordance with the wishes of a large number of constituents; men of the highest respectability who believed, and honestly believed what is set forth in petition to the legislature, that at the time Joseph Bliindin committed the act for which he has been sentenced to death, he was not in a sound state of mind. The unfortunate individual was born and brought up in his vicinity; he has a family consisting of a wife and several children, and a general feeling pervades that community, that he should become the object of legislative mercy. In addition to these wishes in of Joseph Blundin, a general feeling was manifested in favour of the abolishment of capital punishment in all cases…

Unfortunately, Blundin’s supporters failed in their attempts. Those opposed to the measures claimed that any action in his case was unconstitutional, either by violating the separation of powers or because such a law would affect one man instead of all people under their jurisdiction. Finally, after multiple stays of execution, Blundin was scheduled to die on Friday, August 14th, 1835 between noon and 3pm.

Blundin made one final attempt to save his own life by escaping from the Doylestown jail. Battle describes the failed escape as follows:

On a Sunday in May Blundin attempted to make his escape from the jail. He managed to cut off the rivets of his hopples, burn a hole through the floor, and, after gaining the jail yard attempted by means of a rope formed of his bedding, to scale the outer wall. The fastenings gave way when the prisoner was near the top and he fell to the ground, where he lay in a bruised and helpless condition until found in the morning by the sheriff. Such was the sympathy of the public that a rumor that the sheriff left the means of escape within reach of the prisoner and then left the building to give him an opportunity to use them, obtained general credence and no marked disapproval. The unfortunate man was carried back to his cell and on the day appointed by the governor’s last respite was executed in the yard of the jail. The prisoner was unable to stand on account of his injuries, but he met his fate with resignation and courage.

Then, by way of the gallows, Joseph Blundin found his temporary resting place in the now forgotten potter’s field.

The Doylestown Potter’s Field

In the first half of the 19th century this plot of land was the county potter’s field, a burial place of last resort for the indigent and a site to inter the unclaimed bodies of strangers and prisoners. Very little is recorded of the Doylestown potter’s field. Like the almshouse, the courthouse, and the county jail, the potter’s field probably came into being around the time that the county seat moved from Newtown to Doylestown in 1812. I could only find the potter’s field on one map, W.E. Morris’ 1850 atlas of Bucks County:

The only mention of those buried here comes from W.W.H. Davis’ History of Bucks County, Volume II:

The old “potter’s field,” where several persons were buried, including one Blundin, of Bensalem [actually Bristol], hanged for murder about 1838, at the corner of Court and East streets was sold several years ago by authority of an act of Assembly and now belongs to a private owner.

I was able to act of Assembly that Davis mentions. Passed on May 7th, 1855, the act instructs Bucks County to remove the bodies and sell the land, stating:

…it shall be the duty of the commissioners of the county of Bucks… to remove or cause to be removed to the burial ground of the Bucks county almshouse, the remains of all persons now interred in the public burial ground, situate at the corner of Court street and East street, in the borough of Doylestown, and known as Potter’s Field, and that the same shall no longer be used as a place of burial.

The almshouse opened in the spring of 1810, and the first inmate to die there was a black woman named Dinah, allegedly 115 years old. According to almshouse records (List of Paupers in the Almshouse 1810-1833, p.31, available on microfilm at the Spruance Library), Dinah died on April 20th, 1810, and the almshouse supplied her with a “cape shirt hankercheif and coffin” for her burial. While I haven’t been able to find any information about the almshouse burial ground, it preceded the Doylestown potter’s field by at least a couple years and was probably used concurrently.

At some point, the almshouse stopped using their own burial ground and began interring inmates at Doylestown Cemetery. I talked to Kat Landis, whose family oversees cemetery, and she said that the back row of the cemetery was laid out as a “Strangers Row” with inexpensive plots. According to her, this area became the burial ground for inmates from the almshouse, prisoners from the county jail, and people who died at the Doylestown hospital. This “back row” is now in the center of the cemetery near the main gate, since Hope Cemetery was added next to Doylestown Cemetery and the two were later unified. My guess is that when these cheap plots became available there was no more need for a government maintained burial ground. I have found some written evidence of this in the Almshouse and Hospital Register 1872-1889, which reports that inmate Henry Puff was buried at Doylestown Cemetary on the November 29th, 1883.

Doylestown Cemetery was founded in 1849, and probably wasn’t in operation yet when the 1850 map was made. By 1857, however, the cemetery is presented in the atlas published by Khun & Shrope. You can see that the Dolyestown Cemetery has been added to the map, but the potter’s field is gone:

Whether Joseph Blundin and the others buried in the potter’s field were actually disinterred may be up for debate. The graves in potter’s fields are usually unmarked, and the success of disinterment would depend on how systematically the graves were laid out and how well the locations were recorded. I’m sure they made their best effort to clear the land of bodies before selling it to a private owner, but after 20 years in the ground did the county remember the location of Blundin’s grave? He probably lies on the almshouse grounds, but every time I pass the old potter’s field I wonder if any graves remain.


(The house now standing on the potter’s field.)

Written by Moses Doan

June 8, 2012 at 3:47 pm

Posted in Bristol, Crime, Death, Doylestown, Graves, Maps

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Corpse Thieves in Plumstead

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If you visit Plumstead Friends Meeting, you’ll find it pleasantly sedate. The meetinghouse seems unconcerned with the passing of time (it’s only heat source is a wood stove in the center of the room), and there’s a simple graveyard enclosed by a plain stone wall, containing graves as old as the nation itself. But the graveyard has not always enjoyed this state of placidity. In the summer of 1856, some of the cemetery’s occupants were torn from their slumber in a daring grave robbery. The following advertisement appeared in the Intelligencer in the August of 1856:

Notice to Trespassers.

All those persons who, regardless of law and good order, recently trespassed on the premises of the Society of Friends of Plumstead, by abruptly driving into the Grave Yard with wagon and horses, disfiguring some of the graves, and opening others, and disinterring several coprses, and taking them away without consent of the Sexton or any of the Trustees, are hereby requested to come forward and render satisfaction for the same without delay, which may save cost, prevent exposure, and oblige the undersigned.

                                                                              ABRAHAM MICHINER, Committee

                                                                             THOMAS STRADLING, } of Trust.

                                                                             DAVID CARR, Sexton.

           Plumstead, 8th month 26th 1856 -3t.

           N. B.—Notice is also hereby given to all other persons not to commit the like depredations.

(The Spruance Library has a filing cabinet full of news clippings sorted by municipality and topic, which is where I found this little gem.)

An old grave, but maybe not that old. This etching may be the work of a vandal.

The inquisitive guest will find that this cemetery has another secret. If you climb over the far wall and search through the brush, you’ll find the last resting place of the burying ground’s most ignominious residents, Abraham and Levi Doan. They were part of the Doan Brothers gang (brothers Moses, Aaron, Mahlon, Levi, Joseph, and cousin Abraham) who gained notoriety first as Loyalist spies during the Revolution, and then as outlaws after the war. All of them were eventually captured, but Aaron, Mahlon, and Joseph escaped and fled to safety. Their leader, Moses Doan, was the victim of an extrajudicial murder at the hands of a vengeful posse, and is buried in a hedgerow somewhere in Plumstead. The other two, Levi and Abraham, were captured and hanged on September 24th, 1788, and buried at Plumstead Meeting, where they once were members. They lie outside the graveyard wall, forever branded outlaws:

Written by Moses Doan

February 16, 2012 at 11:13 pm

Posted in Crime, Death, Graves, Plumstead

Stolen: The Restless Headstone of Lizzy M. Aingle

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image

In the winter of 2003, some hooligan stole this headstone from a cemetery in the Point Pleasant area and threw it in a ditch on the side of River Road in Tinicum Township. Bill Moser found it there and had to pour boiling water on it to release it from the frozen mud. He tried to track down its rightful home, researching county death records and contacting local churches, but hit a dead end. Today, it sits in the office of his auto repair shop in Point Pleasant, but he’d like to return it to the grave site if he can find it. It reads:

The Resting Place

of

Lizzie M. Aingl[e]

daughter of

Alice Otto

Born [illegible date] 1869

Died August 18, 1870

Aged 1 Year

[?] Months And [?] Days

It’s followed by a long inscription, mostly illegible. Bill told me I could come back and do a grave rubbing, so hopefully we can reveal enough to find what it says. So far I’ve checked the 1870 US Census and Mortality Schedules for the Plumstead, Tinicum, and Kingwood Township searching for Lizzie and her mother Alice, but haven’t found anything. Bill thinks it stood against the graveyard wall because the back of the stone is clean and unworn, while the front was eaten away over the 130 years it stood outside. He also suggested that Lizzie may have been born out of wedlock, since her mother has a different surname.

Written by Moses Doan

June 17, 2011 at 4:59 pm

Solebury Swindlers: “Honest Bob” Boltz

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The mill race ran from the stone platform on the left to another platform next to the mill house. From there it ran into the chute (you can see its rotten end sticking out of the building) and poured over the wheel.

The property is full of these metal plates. Some line the creek and mill race, others are in open ground. My grandfather says they were installed to keep muskrats from burrowing into the banks.

A number of years ago I was walking around the woods next to my family’s farm, now owned by the Audubon Society, and I found something odd. The upper part of the creek was full of metal plates, long strips of rusted metal jutting out of the ground, some lining its banks. There was also a raised square block of cement with a manhole access point on top.

I asked my father about their origin, and he told me that the embezzler that owned the property had rerouted the creek to operate his mill.

I didn’t think much more of it until this year, when I moved into the property’s carriage house, a stone’s throw from old water wheel. I began to wonder, who was the man who commissioned this project?

Robert “Honest Bob” Boltz

Robert Joseph Boltz was born in 1886 to a wealthy and highly respected family from the Germantown area of Philadelphia. His first ambition as a young man was to attend West Point, but he was denied entry due to color blindness. He then dabbled in a series of career paths that he never quite took to. He studied engineering at MIT, ran his family’s Cuban cigar business into the ground, and studied law for a couple of years before getting into the business of real estate law. In the late 20’s he started playing the stock market and discovered his true calling: the Ponzi scheme.

He opened up shop as an investment counselor in downtown Philadelphia and easily found investors among his friends in Philadelphia high society, eventually swindling 160 “clients” out of more than $2,500,000. At first they seemed to be making out okay. When the stock market crashed, he was still able to make payments to his investors out of their initial capital. Eventually the SEC got wind of his activities and, knowing his game was up, Honest Bob withdrew a few grand, drove his wife to Philadelphia, and fled. He was eventually found in Rochester, NY, and arrested. The government was only able to prove their case for $832,000 of the $2,500,000 he stole, and he went to jail until 1956.

Between 1934 and 1939 Boltz used his stolen money to purchase 260 acres in Solebury Township, becoming one of the early “gentlemen” to play farm in the township. He once joked to a client that he’d just spent his $1,000 “investment” on a tractor for his farm, and now it was worth only $500. This seems to be how he actually disposed of large amount of his ill-gotten gains; when he went bust, the authorities had a hard time identifying any assets other than the farm. He truly spared no expense on his elaborate estate.

[Sources: Time Magazine and Solebury Historian Ned Harrignton’s Swindlers’ Gulch (2005)]

 

Campbell’s Mill

The elaborate farm Boltz cobbled together from smaller properties has long since been divided back into smaller parcels. His old house has recently been restored, and the Audubon Society inhabits one of his barns, but perhaps his ambitious project is now in ruins.

Walking around the ruined mill I found the remains of the mill race buried in briars, now only recognizable as two stone platforms and some rotten boards. Inside the mill house, I found the old machinery in remarkably good shape after decades of neglect. My more mechanically-inclined brother immediately identified the block of cast iron as a pump.

The cement block has room for more machinery, and there are attachment points on the slab. Another piece may be missing.

The internal parts are remarkably well preserved thanks to a healthy coating of motor oil:

The rotational force of the wheel is converted into linear force by this cam.

The mill was built by famous millwright John Campbell, whose clients include Henry Ford. A 1941 essay on Campbell describes the Boltz project:

Boltz was spending fabulous sums of his 260-acre estate overlooking the Delaware River at Solebury, Pennsylvania – he built one corn crib, metal-sheathed against rats, costing $10,000, and there were twenty-two telephone wires connecting his farmhouse, stables and barns. He insisted on an old-fashioned wooden wheel, instead of the more permanent steel, and told Campbell to spare no expense. Campbell first located a stand of Pennsylvania white oak with three-foot trunks and had the trees cut and dressed: water-wheel timber must never be green and always seasoned. The finished wheel was fifteen feet high and thirty inches broad, with a solid white oak shaft twenty inches though the core. The bearing casings, usually made of iron, were of lignum vitae… Soon after this job was completed, but only partly paid for, “Honest Bob” Boltz was arrested on charges of defrauding his customers of more than $2,000,0000 and is now serving a twenty-year jail sentence. Boltz’s water wheel – which cost $2,500 by itself – plus some $35,000 worth of fancy mill races, stone spring houses, antique wooden water troughs, locks, stream moving, and conduit laying that Campbell did for him, were probably financed in the same way. All of his completely bewilders Campbell, who doesn’t see how a man with such taste in water wheels could be a crook. ” I just cain’t understand it,” he says, shaking his head sadly.

Since no one else seems much interested now, Campbell sometimes drives forty miles from his office in downtown Philadelphia just to look at his Boltz masterpiece. It is still working steadily at its job, filling a concealed hilltop reservoir with 30,000 gallons of fresh spring water each day.

Ultimately, Campbell lost $4,000 on the project due to non-payment after Boltz went to prison.  The mill certainly was well made. My grandfather says it was running well until the 70’s, when the pond that fed the mill race burst. After it stopped running, it quickly began to rot.

The author's cat exploring the spring house.

Written by Moses Doan

April 6, 2011 at 3:45 am