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MURDERS AND TRAGIC DEATHS IN THE BERTIE "BACKWOODS"

Author: Gerald W. Thomas

On Monday, March 19, 1781, Jesse Sparkman was in the company of members of his family at his home in Bertie County, peacefully passing the day, when Benjamin Stone, Sparkmanís brother-in-law, stopped by for a visit. Stone was highly intoxicated and went into the house to see Sparkman, who was reposed and seemingly in good humor. Stone wanted Sparkman to accompany him on a short trek, to which Sparkman declined, preferring to stay at his home. Soon a loud verbal confrontation erupted between the two men. A physical altercation loomed as Stone burst out of the house, stripped off his jacket and threateningly warned Sparkman that "he was over his mach [match]." Sparkman retorted that he (Sparkman) "could tare [tear] him [Stone] to peaces [pieces]" and reactively, shed his outer garments. Stone "called" Sparkman out of the house and the two went about fifty yards from the dwelling, all the while Stone cursed and "abused" Sparkman. Both men, overly agitated, were on the verge of fighting as Sarah Sparkman, Jesseís daughter, begged her dad not to contest Stone. Jesse responded to his daughterís plea by declaring that he would not fight his brother-in-law, "without grait provication." Sparkman, attempting to avoid fighting his drunken brother-in-law, withdrew away from Stone and returned inside his abode. Sarah and her sister, Winnefred, remained outside. But Stone, highly angered, followed Sparkman into the house. Within a few minutes, the Sparkman daughters heard one of Jesse Sparkmanís slaves scream. The two girls rushed into the house and found their father, lying on the floor, just moments from death. Benjamin Stone had stabbed Sparkman several times and slashed his abdomen so severely that Sparkmanís "guts [were] in a heap" beside him. Benjamin Stone had exited the house and was walking about in the yard when Sarah frantically rushed out and hysterically screamed at her uncle that he had "killed her father" and "Should be hung for it." Stone did not reply, but soon "went away" from the Sparkman residence.

Two days later, the Bertie County coroner, Benjamin Williams, convened an inquest at Jesse Sparkmanís residence. Twelve men, members of the community in which Sparkman lived, comprised the inquisition jury. The men, upon viewing Sparkmanís body, ascertained that he had "received Several stabs on his body, one of which was near Six Inches long on the lower part of his Belly." The jurors also observed another serious stab wound in the left side of Sparkmanís chest, about one inch in length and "depth unknown." The men concluded that Jesse Sparkman met his death from an act of "willful murder."

Records documenting Jesse Sparkmanís murder are found in Bertie County criminal papers at the North Carolina State Archives, Raleigh. Over the years as I have conducted various historical and genealogical research I have discovered quite a number of interesting documents and records pertaining to Bertie County residentsí lives. One category of records for which I have compiled photocopies and notes relates to murders and deaths that occurred within the county during its history. The records that I have assimilated were found in criminal papers, court records, coronerís records, and several other sources.

Those of us who conduct genealogical and historical research often assume that our ancestors lived in totally tranquil and largely stress-free times. We search for the identities of parents, siblings, and relations, ferreting out dates of birth, marriage, and death, and we document various events. Many times we document our family history as a set of related genealogical facts, but too often we fail to adequately consider our ancestorsí lives, existence, struggles and sacrifices in the historical context of the periods in which they walked on this Earth. Life most often was not easy and, further, could be fragile and unpredictably fleeting. Many of our ancestors did not live to be "old," but passed away at relatively young ages (particularly in view of the average ages to which Americans live today). This article conveys accounts of a number of murders, and suspicious and tragic deaths that occurred in the "backwoods" of the county during the colonial and early-state periods. Perhaps readers will notice information about a long-lost ancestor, who inexplicably "disappeared" from Bertie County.

About the middle of the afternoon on May 24, 1757, James Strawberry Ė an Indian in Bertie County Ė assaulted Elizabeth Knott, the wife of Joseph Knott, on a county road. Strawberry, for undisclosed provocation, battered Knott in the head with a piece of "lightwood," killing her instantly. He was indicted for murder in North Carolina colonial court in October 1757.

James Hayes met a violent death on Saturday, May 26, 1810. Hayes was at his home on that day when Anthony Wiggins stopped by. Wiggins, using a hoe, "feloniously and of Ö Malice" struck Hayes in the head a number of times, inflicting several mortal wounds. Hayes died instantly and according to Winnefred Wiggins (relationship to Anthony Wiggins not disclosed), Anthony Wiggins "killed and willfully" murdered Hayes. On June 1, county coroner, Abner Eason, held an inquisition at Hayesís residence. Eason and his jurors, upon viewing Hayesís body and taking Winnefred Wigginsís sworn statement, concluded that "Anthony Wiggins did kill the said James Hayes." They also obtained evidence that Mary Manley and a "negro," named "Tom," assisted in Hayesís murder.

The perpetrators of certain murders were not always identified and apprehended. An unidentified sailor was found in the waters of Albemarle Sound, along the shore of Bertie County about the middle of November 1815. The county coronerís inquisition held on November 16, failed to identify the victim and ruled that he "received previous to his death a severe wound on his left cheek." The jury concluded that the wound was the "probable cause of his death." He was most likely murdered on, or along, the waters of Albemarle Sound.

James Huson was shot in the chest and killed by an unknown assailant in early August 1756. The killer also delivered a "coup-de-grace" blow to the back of Husonís head, a highly personal assault carried out at close range. A year and a half later, on February 25, 1756, John Jones battered his wife so severely "with a Large halter and a great Knott on One End" that she succumbed two days after the attack. Joseph Hardy, coroner, held an inquest at the Jonesís residence on February 28 and which found that John Jones had murdered his spouse.

During the summer of 1779 Wynant Wynants, a fairly influential Bertie County resident, apparently was involved in the killing of William Evans. During the August 1779 term of the countyís Court of Pleas and Quarter Sessions, the justices placed Wynants under a £10,000 (ten thousand pounds) security bond to appear at the November session of court and to "abide by the Judgment of said Court in a certain Matter concerning the death of William Evans." The criminal case against Wynants was not settled in the Bertie County court, but instead was transferred to the District Court in Edenton. During the November 1780 session of the District Court, Wynants appeared before the justices and was "discharged." Presumably, the charges against him were dropped.

Elisha Todd likely met a suspicious death sometime in June 1804. On June 24, 1804, Thomas Howe, the Bertie County coroner, ordered John Capehart, a county constable, to appear with Dolphin Drew at the home of Dempsey Baker on July 7 "to give evidence concerning the death" of Todd.

Tragically, at times within Bertie County children became the victims of brutal murder or otherwise, suspicious deaths. On February 8, 1781, Coroner Benjamin Williams convened an inquest at "Frazierís Meadows" (most likely in or about Pell Mell Pocosin) to view the "Body of Aaron Harrison," a child. Harrison was found lying deceased at the roots of a blown down tree and "appeared" to have been "pulled out of a hole under the Roots" of the tree. Buzzards had pecked and "torn" the childís body to such an extent that the coroner and the members of the inquisition jury were not able to "Judge" whether Harrison had been murdered or not.

Years later on December 28, 1816, Nancy Phelps, a single woman who had become pregnant, gave birth to a bastard ("out-of-wedlock") son. Phelps, obviously not wanting to rear the child, immediately decided to kill him. She took her newborn to a nearby piece of woods, bashed him in the head and left him, lying openly and unconcealed Ė dead Ė "in a heap of pine chunks & Bushes." Family members Ė Noah Phelps and wife, Rachel, and Peggy Phelps Ė cognizant that Nancy (also known as Ann), had the day before, been full-term pregnant, observed that she was now "bloody" and "had the appearance of being delivered of a child." Nancy was in the near vicinity of her dead newborn when the Phelps family members found her and the deceased baby boy. Her only words were "donít cry after me." The Phelpses informed a near neighbor, Peggy Bowen, of the tragic happening and accompanied Bowen to the site where the murdered newborn lay. Bowen later affirmed that the deceased baby had "wounds on the side of the head." The following day, Bertie County coroner, R. C. Watson, convened an inquisition at the home of Henry Phelps. The coronerís jury decreed that the newborn boy had been murdered by his mother, Nancy Phelps. In March 1817, a county grand jury, with Peter Rascoe as its foreman, formally indicated Nancy Phelps on the charge of murder.

Intoxication contributed to untimely deaths, as apparently was the case on March 13, 1802, for Jesse Rhodes. In the early evening, William Hubbell was visiting at the home of Jordan Atkinson when between six and seven oíclock, Rhodes, appearing "very much intoxicated, called "at the door." Rhodes lingered only a few minutes before stating that he was "going home." Within a couple of hours, an undisclosed person found Jesse Rhodes "dead in the road," within one hundred and fifty yards of Atkinsonís residence. Intoxicated individuals often fell from their mounts or carts/buggies, resulting in serious injuries and death. Such was the ultimate fate of William Buckner, who, "being overtaken in drink," accidentally fell from his horse and drowned in an unidentified Bertie County stream on January 21, 1759.

David Stone died accidentally on October 5, 1815, near the home of William and Elizabeth Rutland. Langley Granberry was the first person to come upon Stoneís body which was lying in the road near the Rutland residence. Coroner Benjamin Hempstead quickly convened a jury and held an inquisition in the road where the "body of David Stone" was "lying dead." The jurors concluded that "he died by a fall from his horse."

Some persons took their own lives. Williams Yeomans hanged himself on January 29, 1760, "while frenzied and in a state of lunacy and distraction." Hannah Hooker, dove into a well and drowned herself in the middle of the afternoon on January 28, 1760. And Benjamin Evans, twenty-nine years old, died an unexplained "Casual Death" on January 29, 1760.

Bertie County Ė laced with rivers, creeks, branches, runs, and swamps and dotted with millponds Ė was commonly the scene of drownings. Edward Wade fell into Chowan River from a boat on March 17, 1756, and perished. Thomas Seay suffered the same fate on March 26, 1758, when he "accidentally drowned" in Mary Harrellís millpond. William Wellings drowned in the Roanoke River in early May 1759. John Lakey drowned on January 30, 1760, when he fell out of a small boat into Wiccacon Creek near Hillary Taylorís landing. And even more tragically, John Davis, an eighteen-month-old toddler fell into a hole filled with water about three feet deep and drowned on August 6, 1760.

But perhaps the most tragic and heart-wrenching death of all was an accident involving two children. Mildred Smithwick, a five-year-old, innocently walked up behind Annis Leggett, fourteen years old, in John Smithwickís field in early July 1757. Annis was "mowing" oats with a scythe and may have been unaware that the younger child had approached closely. The fourteen-year-old accidentally impaled the blade of the instrument into the left side of Mildredís chest. The wound was mortal.


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