Friday, February 25, 2011

Wiley Harpe, Samuel Mason & Aaron Burr in Natchez

by Mike Chapman

It is fascinating to study the history of my hometown and birthplace, Natchez on the Mississippi.  As paranormal investigators, part of our work is understanding the context and history of the places and sites that are known or suspected to be haunted.  As a result, historical research is almost a field unto itself, and functions as an interesting sideline for many of us.  This post unveils just a few of the basic facts about the history of Natchez around the turn of the nineteenth century.  The history of Natchez is rich throughout all of its periods, and the period surrounding the building of King’s Tavern is certainly no exception.  Exploring this time is indeed fascinating, and begins with an end: the Spanish ceding their claim and rule over the Mississippi Territory, to the Americans.  The claim to the area, which was decided in the Treaty of Madrid in 1795, didn’t take practical effect until August of 1798 when Governor Winthrop Sargent arrived to take control for the Americans.  It wasn’t known as a territory under the Spanish, but became an “organized incorporated territory of the United States" and was so from April 7, 1798 until December 10, 1817, until the final extent of the territory was admitted to the Union as the twentieth State – the State of Mississippi.   

Sargent arrived in Natchez on August 6, 1798, but did not take office immediately due to being very ill.  He took his post on August 16.  He had been appointed governor over the territory by President John Adams on May 7, 1798, and he served until May 25, 1801.  He stayed at Concord, which had been the home of the Spanish Governor Gayoso.

This period then, is a period of great flux with the changing of flags over Natchez from the Spanish to the American, while across the river in Louisiana, due to the Louisiana Purchase, the flag changed from that of France to America.  I think we today so easily forget just how frontier and “on the edge” Natchez was, and made up of all kinds of citizenry and travelers.  The Revolutionary War had only ended in 1783, and this raw frontier had many refugees and unsavory characters around it from that upheaval.  It had French, Spanish, Americans, and Indians, as well as immigrants from Germany, Ireland and all over, plus the early slave population.  Enter into that mix we have some of the times’ most notorious bandits and murderers – Samuel Mason and his gang, as well as Wiley “Little” Harpe, who banded together with Mason during this time.  It was during all of this change and backdrop, that Mason and Harpe would meet their grisly and headless end, under the governorship of one William C.C. Claiborne.  Lastly, to close out this period, is the Aaron Burr controversy after his duel with Alexander Hamilton (in which he kills Hamilton), and Burr’s alleged treason.

Timeline: Period of the turn of the 19th Century

1798:  Spanish rule in Natchez ends; Governor Sargent arrives at assumes his post for the Americans in the newly declared “Mississippi Territory” on August 16, 1798.  He was appointed on May 7, 1798 and serves until May 25, 1801.  Washington, MS, is declared as the territorial capitol.

1798:  King’s Tavern was built (by NAPS estimation).

1799:  August 21, Wednesday; Micajah and Wiley Harpe viciously murder the wife and baby of Moses Stegall, as well as a surveyor staying with them – Major William Love, five miles outside of Dixon, Kentucky.  They murder Major Love during the night for snoring, and kill the Stegalls the next morning and set fire to the cabin to try and cover their crime.  They then flee eastward.  A posse, including Moses Stegall, sets out after them. A few days later, the posse stumbles upon the Harpe party, which consisted of several women and children. In the confusion, Wiley Harpe escapes, but Micajah is shot and wounded, then beheaded alive by Moses Stegall.  His head is taken back near Dixon and hung in a tree.  Wiley flees to Natchez.

1801:  May; Governor William C.C. Claiborne assumes command of the Mississippi Territory and serves through the year of 1803.

1801:  September 14; first printed record of robber Samuel Mason’s activities on the Natchez Trace, recorded in The Kentucky Gazette on this date.

1802:  Springtime – Smallpox epidemic breaks out in the territory; Claiborne’s aggressive actions result in the first recorded mass vaccination in the territory and saves Natchez from the disease.

1802:  April 27; Claiborne writes three letters to different commanders of posts scattered around the territory, promising a “generous reward” for the capture of Samuel Mason and Wiley Harpe.  Controversy surrounds the actual amount of this reward, often said to be two-thousand dollars.  More likely it was five hundred by Claiborne, and four hundred by the U.S. Government itself, for a total of nine hundred dollars.

1802:  April; it is reported that about this time Wiley Harpe, going under the assumed name John Setton or Sutton, joins the Mason gang; which is headed by Samuel Mason.  They are robbing people up and down the Mississippi River and on the Natchez Trace. Harpe also uses the names John Taylor and Wells to conceal his true identity.  It is believed by many that even Samuel Mason did not know that this man who joined his gang was Wiley Harpe.

1803:  Napoleon Bonaparte by Treaty of Paris sells Louisiana Territory to United States.

1803:  January; Mason gang including Samuel Mason and Wiley Harpe posing as John Setton are arrested at Little Prairie and tried in New Madrid – both in Spanish held territory.  The presiding magistrate finds that they have committed no crimes in Spanish held territory and orders that they be transferred to New Orleans to stand trial under the Americans for alleged crimes in American territory.  The entire party is to be transported by boat down the river to New Orleans under the charge of a Captain McCoy, and begin the trip in February.

1803: March 26: Mason and Wiley Harpe make a daring escape from the boat near Point Coupee, about 100 miles south of Natchez.

1803:  June 6: mason’s gang is spotted near Coles Creek just northeast of Natchez.

1804:  February; Wiley Harpe and an accomplice named James May murder Samuel Mason and behead him.  After they seal the head in a ball of blue clay to keep it from decomposing (so it can be recognized), they set out to get the reward money that Claiborne issued.

1804:  January; Wiley Harpe (Little Harpe) attempting to pass himself off as a John Sutton, is recognized and taken prisoner at the courthouse along with James May while trying to cash in on the reward for turning in Samuel Mason’s head, and are executed by hanging on February 8, 1804, just outside of Natchez.  Wiley’s head is then cut off and stuck on a pole on the Trace, as is May’s.  The actual place of execution is Gallows Field, in the community of Greenville (at the time said to be about 300 people living there), but no longer exists.

1806:  June; Cowles Mead becomes the third acting Governor of the Mississippi Territory, appointed by President Thomas Jefferson; serves from June 1806 to January 1807.

1807:  February; trial of Aaron Burr in Washington, MS.  He was found not guilty of any crime or misdemeanor by the Grand Jury and released.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

The History of the Myrtles Plantation

 This History was compiled by N.A.P.S. Paranormal Investigator Cheryl Freeman

The Bradford’s:
The Myrtles Plantation (Laurel Grove) was built in 1796 by General David Bradford.   

David Bradford was born in America to Irish immigrants and was one of five children. In 1777, he purchased a tract of land and a small stone house near Washington County, Pennsylvania. He became a successful attorney, businessman and Deputy Attorney General. His first attempt to marry ended only days before his wedding.  In the early 1780’s, he met and fell in love with Elizabeth Porter and in 1785 they married. 

As his family and business grew, Bradford needed a larger home and built an enormous mansion in the town of Washington, PA. The house became well known for its size and craftsmanship.  Bradford used the parlor of the house as an office where he met with his clients.

In October 1794, Bradford was forced to flee his home leaving his family behind because of his involvement in the infamous Whiskey Rebellion.  Legend has it that President George Washington placed a price on his head for his role in the Rebellion. 

Bradford left Washington County, took his family to Pittsburgh for safety and he traveled down the Ohio River to Mississippi.  He finally settled in Bayou Sara, which is now St. Francisville, LA.  (Bradford had previously traveled to the area years earlier to try to obtain a land grant from Spain).  He purchased 600 acres of land and built a large home and named it Laurel Grove.  He lived in the home alone until 1799 when President John Adams granted Bradford a pardon for his role in the Rebellion.

Bradford then returned to Pennsylvania to get his wife, Elizabeth, and their 5 children and they returned to Laurel Grove.  In 1801, he returned to Pennsylvania to try to sell his home there.  For 2 years he tried to sell but had no buyers.  He then agreed to trade his home for 230 barrels of flour that were to be delivered to Laurel Grove.  Because New Orleans was suffering from a flour shortage, Bradford thought he could sell the flour and make back lost revenue from trading his home.  Unfortunately, the day Bradford died in 1808 he still had not received the barrels of flour that were promised to him in the trade.

While living in Laurel Grove, Bradford occasionally took in students who wanted to study the law. One of his law students was Clark Woodruff.

The Woodruff’s:
Clark Woodruff was born in Litchfield County, Connecticut in August 1791. Having no desire to follow his father's footsteps as a farmer, he left Connecticut at the age of 19 and sought his fortune on the Mississippi River, ending up in Bayou Sara. 

Still seeking to make his fortune, Woodruff placed an advertisement in the new St. Francisville newspaper in the summer of 1811. He informed the public that "an academy would be opening on the first Monday in September for the reception of students." He planned to offer English, grammar, astronomy, geography, elocution, composition, penmanship and Greek and Latin languages. The academy was short-lived and in 1814 he joined Colonel Hide's cavalry regiment from the Feliciana parish to fight alongside Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. When the War of 1812 had ended, Woodruff returned to Bayou Sara with the intention of studying law.

He began his studies with Judge David Bradford and soon earned his degree. He also fell in love with and married Bradford’s daughter, Sarah Matilda, on 11/17/1817.  They had 3 children: Mary Octavia, James and Cornelia Gale

After Bradford died in 1808, the plantation was turned over to his wife, Elizabeth, who in turn allowed her daughter Sarah and her husband Clark to manage it.  Clark expanded the holdings of the plantation and planted 650 acres of indigo and cotton.

Sarah died in July, 1823 from yellow fever.  The disease swept over the entire region.  Although heartbroken, Woodruff continued to manage the plantation and care for his children with the help of Elizabeth.   On July 15,1824 his only son, James, died of yellow fever.  Two short months later, in September 1824, Cornelia Gale also died of yellow fever.

Woodruff decided to buy the plantation outright from Elizabeth.  Woodruff and Octavia continued to live at Laurel Grove caring for Elizabeth until her death in 1830.  On January 1, 1834 he sold Laurel Grove and its slaves to Ruffin Grey Stirling and his wife Mary Catherine Cobb. 

Woodruff’s attention changed from farming to law.  He and Octavia moved out of Laurel Grove and left a caretaker to manage the plantation.  They moved to Covington, LA where he was appointed a Judge’s position over District D.  He served this position until April 1835. 

He also was elected as President of Public Works for the city. During this time, Octavia was sent to a finishing school in New Haven, Connecticut but she returned home to live with her father in 1836. Two years later, she married Colonel Lorenzo Augustus Besancon and moved to his plantation, Oaklawn, five miles north of New Orleans.

In 1840, Louisiana governor, Isaac Johnson, appointed Woodruff to the newly created office of Auditor of Public Works.  He served one term.  At 60 years of age, he retired and moved to Oaklawn to live with Octavia and her husband. He devoted the remainder of his life to the study of chemistry and physics and died on November 25, 1851. He was buried in a cemetery in New Orleans.

The Stirling’s:
The Stirling's were a wealthy family having 9 children.  They owned several plantations on both sides of the Mississippi River. On January 1, Ruffin Grey Stirling and his wife, Mary Catherine Cobb, took over the house, land, buildings and all of the slaves that had been bought from Elizabeth Bradford.  
The Stirling's were of high status in the community and they needed a house that would fit their social status. So, after purchasing Laurel Grove, they restored and added onto the home doubling its size.   The new renovation included a broad central hallway, an entire addition to the southern section of the home, formal dining room, a game room and repositioned the original walls of the home to create 4 large rooms.  These rooms were used as ladies and gentlemen’s parlors. The remodeling also included raising the ceilings in the home by one foot. On the outside of the house, Stirling added a 107-foot long front gallery that was supported by cast-iron support posts and railings. The original roof of the house was extended to include the new addition.  After all the renovations were complete, furnishings from Europe were imported.  The name was then changed from Laurel Grove to The Myrtles Plantation. 

Four years later, on July 17, 1854, Mr. Stirling died of consumption.  The Myrtles Plantation and all his other plantations were left to his wife Mary Cobb.  Most of the plantations were sugar plantations.
The family faced many tragedies.  Of the nine children, only four of them lived to be old enough to marry.  The Starlings’ oldest son, Lewis, died the same year as Mr. Stirling.  The Civil War caused many hardships for the family as well.  The family’s belongings were looted and destroyed by Federal soldiers.  The wealth they had accumulated was worthless in Confederate currency.  Mary had invested heavily in sugar plantations only to have them ravaged by the war. 

On December 5, 1865, Mary Cobb hired William Drew Winter to help manage the plantation as her lawyer and agent.

The Winter’s:
William Winter had been born to Captain Samuel Winter and Sarah Bowman on October 28, 1820 in Bath, Maine. Little is known about his life or how he managed to meet Sarah Stirling, daughter of Mary Cobb. They were married on June 3, 1852 at the Myrtles and together, they had six children:  Mary, Sarah, Kate, Ruffin, William and Francis. Kate died from typhoid at the age of three. The Winter's first lived at Gantmore Plantation, near Clinton, Louisiana and then bought a plantation on the west side of the Mississippi known as Arbroath.
When Mary Cobb hired Winter to help manage the Myrtles, along with the responsibility of the Myrtles were also Ingleside, Crescent Park and Botany Bay.  Later, Mary gave the Myrtles to Sarah and William. 

But times got tough and Winter was unable to hold onto the Myrtles.  By December 1867, he was completely bankrupt and the Myrtles was sold by the U.S. Marshal to the New York Warehouse & Security Company on April 15, 1868. Two years later, on April 23, the property was sold back to Sarah as the heir of her father, Ruffin G. Stirling. It is unknown just what occurred to cause this reversal of fortune but it seemed as though things were improving for the family once again.

But a short time later, tragedy struck.  According to the January 1871 issue of the Point Coupee Democrat newspaper, Winter was teaching a Sunday School lesson in the gentlemen's parlor when he heard someone approach the house on horseback. The stranger (a suspected E. S. Webber) called out to him relaying he had business to discuss.  When Winter went onto the side gallery of the house he was shot. He collapsed on the porch and within minutes died. Those inside hurried outside to find Winter. Winter died on January 26, 1871 and was buried the following day at Grace Church. The newspaper reported that Webber was to stand trial for Winter's murder but no outcome of the case was ever recorded. 

Sarah was so devastated that she never married again.  She continued living in the home with her mother and siblings until her death in April 1878 at the age of 44. 

Mary kept the Myrtles Plantation until her death in August 1880.  She is buried next to her husband in a family plot at Grace Church in St. Francisville.
The Plantation was then passed to Mary’s son, Stephen.  Stephen owned the home until March 1886 when he sold it to Oran D. Brooks because the plantation was very much in debt. 

Oran Brooks:
Oran owned the home until 1889.  The home changed hands a few more times and in 1891 Harrison Milton Williams, his wife, Fannie Haralson, and his son bought the home. 

Harrison Milton Williams:
Williams planted cotton and gained a reputation as a hard-working and industrious man. He and his family, which grew to include his wife and seven children, kept the Myrtles going during the hard times of the post-war South. But tragedy was soon to strike the Myrtles again.

During a storm, the Williams' oldest son, Harry, was trying to gather stray cattle and fell into the Mississippi River and drowned. Shattered with grief, Harrison and Fannie turned over management of the property to their son Surgent Minor Williams.  Surgent married a local girl,  Jessie Folkes, and provided a home at the Myrtles for his sister and Aunt Katie.  Katie was a true Southern character – eccentric, gruff yet kind - she kept life interesting at the house for years.

Marjorie Munson:
By the 1950's, the property surrounding the house had been divided among the Williams heirs and the house itself was sold to Marjorie Munson, an Oklahoma widow, wealthy by chicken farming. It was then that strange occurrences started being noticed. 

The property was transferred a few more times and in the 1970’s, Arlin Dease and Mr. & Mrs. Robert Ward purchased the property.  They did not own the home for very long.

The Myers:
James and Frances Myers were the next owners.  Believing the home was haunted, it began to be featured in books and magazines about haunted houses. Frances, publishing as Francis Kermeen, wrote a book about the Myrtles and it’s supposed haunting.

The Moss’:
The home currently is owned by John & Teeta Moss and is now a bed & breakfast. Historical and mystery tours are also offered. The plantation house was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1978.

The Legends of the Myrtles Plantation

Research compiled by NAPS Investigator Cheryl Freeman

Widely regarded as one of “America's most haunted homes," the Myrtle’s is supposedly the home of at least 12 ghosts with 10 murders occurring in the home.  However, the facts are far different from the legends and stories surrounding the site.  Historical records only indicate the murder of William Winter.

The Legend of Chloe:
Chloe, the most well known ghost, was Clark Woodruff’s slave mistress.  She was also a household servant who had to give in to Woodruff’s sexual advances in order to stay in the home and not have to work the fields.  Woodruff grew tired of Chloe and chose another mistress.  Chloe, fearing she would be sent back to the fields, started eavesdropping on private family conversations and she got caught.  To teach her a lesson, her ear was cut off.  To hide her shame, she wore a green turban on her head.  She decided to poison the family and then nurses them back to health as a way to get back onto Woodruff’s good graces. 

Photo at Left: The infamous photo supposedly of Chloe, seen standing between the two buildings just to the right of the column.

Chloe added the extract of a handful of crushed Oleander to the children’s birthday cake.  Only 2 of the children and Sarah ate the cake.  Once sick, Chloe tended to the needs of the family but within hours they died.  Knowing what Chloe had done, and fearing they would be punished, the other slaves hung Chloe from a tree and then threw her body into the Mississippi River.

The poisoning took place in the children’s dining room and so after the death of the 3 family members, it was never used again. The historical record does not support this legend. There is no record of the Woodruffs owning a slave named Chloe or Cleo. The legends usually claim that Sara and her two daughters were poisoned, but Mary Octavia lived well into adulthood. Finally, Sara, James, and Cornelia Woodruff were not killed by poisoning, but died of yellow fever.  Regardless of the factual accuracy of the Chloe legend, some believe a woman wearing a green turban haunts the plantation.  The ghost of Chloe has been reported at the Myrtles and was even accidentally photographed by a past owner. The plantation still sells picture postcards today with the cloudy image of what is purported to be Chloe standing between two of the buildings (see photo above). The former slave is thought to be the most frequently encountered ghost at the Myrtles. She has often been seen wandering the place at night. Sometimes the cries of little children accompany her appearances and at other times, those who are sleeping are startled awake by her face, peering at them from the side of the bed.

Other Legends:
It has been alleged that as many as six other people had been killed in the house.  Lewis Stirling, the oldest son of Ruffin Grey Stirling, was claimed to have been stabbed to death in the house over a gambling debt. However, burial records in St. Francisville state that he died in October 1854 at the age of 23 from yellow fever.

According to legend, three Union soldiers were killed in the house after they broke in and attempted to loot the place. They were allegedly shot to death in the gentlemen's parlor, leaving bloodstains on the floor that refused to be wiped away. One account has it that after the Myrtles was opened as an inn, a maid was mopping the floor and came to a spot that, no matter how hard she scrubbed, the spot would not disappear. Supposedly, the spot was the same size as a human body and was said to have been where one of the Union soldiers fell. The strange phenomenon was said to have lasted for a month and has not occurred since. No soldiers were ever killed in the house. There are no records or evidence to say that there were and in fact, surviving family members denied the story was true.

Another murder allegedly occurred in 1927, when a caretaker at the house was killed during a robbery. No record exists of the crime.  The story may have spawned from the actual occurrence of the death of the brother of Fannie Williams.  He was killed while being robbed but this did not occur in the main house, as the story states.
The only verifiable murder to occur at the Myrtles was that of William Drew Winter and it differs wildly from the legends that have been told. In the legend, Winter was shot and then staggered back into the house, passed through the gentlemen's parlor and the ladies parlor and onto the staircase.  He then managed to climb just high enough to die in his beloved's arms on exactly the 17th step. It has since been claimed that ghostly footsteps have been heard coming into the house, walking to the stairs and then climbing to the 17th step where they, of course, come to an end.  Winter was indeed murdered on the front porch.  He was shot, fell down and died immediately.

The Haunted Mirror Legend:
Another "haunted highlight" of the Myrtles is a large mirror that is said to hold the spirits Sara Woodruff and two of her children.  According to custom, mirrors were covered after a death, but legend says that after the poisoning of the Woodruffs, this particular mirror was overlooked.  The uncovered mirror reportedly trapped the spirits of Sara and her children. 

Those who photograph the mirror will often find that the developed picture holds the images of handprints of several seemingly inside of the glass. When these spectral images first appeared, the mirror was thoroughly cleaned but the prints remained. Perplexed, the owners then tried replacing the glass, thinking that perhaps they were flaws in the mirror itself. Strangely though, the handprints returned!

Those who studied the mirror have suggested that perhaps the handprints (or images like them) are in the wood behind the mirror and not in the glass at all. In this way, lights (like a camera flash) pass through the glass and pick up the marks on the wood. This would cause the "handprints" to appear in every mirror that hangs in this location, no matter what glass is used.

Indian Burial Ground Legend:
Legend also has it that the house built on Tunica Indian burial mounds.  General Bradford was supposedly the first to see a ghost – a naked Indian girl. 

Myrtles Plantation Ownership Timeline

The Myrtle’s Plantation
Ownership Timeline
Compiled by NAPS Investigator Cheryl Freeman

1796 – House was built by General David Bradford and wife Elizabeth
1808 – Elizabeth Bradford took ownership when husband, General David Bradford died
1808 – 1823 – Elizabeth allowed daughter, Sarah and her husband Clark Woodruff to manage the Plantation
1824 – Woodruff buys the Myrtles from Elizabeth
1834 – Woodruff sells home to Ruffin Grey Stirling and wife 
1854 – Ruffin Stirling died, leaving home to wife Mary Cobb
1865 – Mary Cobb hires William Winter to manage home
1865-1868 – during this time Mary Cobb gives home to daughter Sarah Stirling and husband William Winter
1868 – Winter is bankrupt and has to sell home - sold to New York Warehouse & Security Company
1870 – Winter buys the home back from New York Warehouse & Security Company
1871 – Winter murdered at home, leaving home to wife, Sarah
1878 – Sarah dies leaving home to mother, Mary Cobb
1880 – Mary Cobb dies leaving home to son, Stephen
1886 – Stephen sells home to Oran Brooks
1889 – Oran sells home, home changes hands several times over next few years
1891 – Harrison Williams purchases home
1950’s – home sold to Marjorie Munson
1970’s – home sold to Arlin Dease and Mr. & Mrs. Robert Ward
Over the next 30 years home belonged to:
James and Frances Myers
John & Teeta Moss