The murder of a teenage girl nearly 190 years ago in what is now Twilight Borough remains one of Washington County’s oldest unsolved murders.
That killing and the trial that followed are the subject of a four-part serial beginning today, with installment to be published on the next three Sundays.
This is a true story. Much of the information for it has come from the incomplete transcript of the trial of the accused killer, a handwritten document almost 10,000 words in length. Other details were obtained from court documents, census records, letters, genealogical resources, old maps and published histories of the county.
All of the characters appearing in “A Death at Twilight” were real people, and their names have not been changed. When quoted, their words are their own, as recorded in the transcript or recounted by witnesses in sworn testimony.
The serial was written by A. Parker Burroughs, retired executive editor of the Observer-Reporter. He is the author of “Washington County Murder & Mayhem” (The History Press, 2014) and “Enter, With Torches: Recollections of a Grumpy Old Editor (Pediment, 2009). Other serials by the author published in the O-R include “A Sense of Evil,” “Pay of Die: A Story of the Black Hand,” and “Mercy Has a Human Heart,” winner of the Press Club of Western Pennsylvania’s Golden Quill Award.
The afternoon of Saturday, Oct. 25, 1828, was clear and pleasant, and the door to the weave shop was open. Edward Nixon stood at the threshold, leaned against the jamb and waited to be noticed. Rebecca McCrory, the girl he’d been courting since before the previous harvest, was working at the loom.
Nixon was dressed in overalls and a blue jacket over a dirty shirt he’d been wearing for the past two weeks.
“What are you making?” Nixon asked after a minute or two.
Without looking up from her task, she answered, “I’m making flannel.”
If the two said anything else to each other, if they had exchanged any meaningful glances, none of the other girls or women in the McCrorys’ weave shop could remember.
A little later, when her work was done, Rebecca, who was about 17 years old, went back to the house. Just as the sun was beginning to set, her mother saw her walking toward the bridge that crossed the south branch of Maple Creek. She yelled after her daughter and asked her where she was going.
“I’m going to Betsy’s,” the girl yelled back. Betsy was her sister, Elizabeth McClain, who lived with her husband, David, and son John, 2, in Belle Vernon, just across the Monongahela River.
“It’s too late!” her mother replied.
Rebecca said if she did not come home she would spend the night at the home of her grandfather, the Rev. Henry Speers, close to the river.
The girl’s father was coming from the stable and stepping onto the porch when he saw her cross the bridge, heading in the direction of the state road. Because it was getting dark, her mother could not see her after she crossed the creek but saw her moments later running up the hill 100 yards further on, at twilight, the last rays of the late-October sunset reflected in her bonnet and dress.
That was the last time her parents would see their daughter alive.
By Sunday afternoon, Rebecca had not returned home. Her brother James was sent to the Nixons’ place half a mile away to ask if she had been at Sunday school. She had not. By evening, her father, John, felt uneasy and worried she might be hurt. Her mother, Catherine Speers McCrory, suspected something else: elopement. It was then that she broke the news to her husband that Becky was pregnant and more likely had gone off to be married.
When still no word was heard from her on Monday morning, John McCrory and a few of his neighbors began searching on horseback for the girl. That morning, Mrs. McCrory’s brother, John Speers, had stopped on his way to Cooper’s Crossing, a sawmill where he was to pick up plank lumber. After his wagon crossed the bridge and about 200 yards from the McCrory house, he spotted something lying behind a log on the other side of the creek.
“When I discovered her I could see her over the log, her legs extended rightly and bent up a little,” Speers would later testify. “I knew she was missing when I went to Coopers. They had begun to look for her. I think if I did not look that way I would not have seen her.”
Speers turned and ran back toward the house, calling for help.
“McCrory was not home so I went after him,” Speers said.
A coroner’s jury consisting of men from the neighborhood was hastily called to the place where the body was found. John Jackman, William Ward, David McClain and Johnston Frye were among them.
“There was a rotten log, seven or eight feet long, under a birch tree,” Frye later testified. I saw a knife. Her hand was open, the knife lying loose. I examined the knife at that time and there was no blood on it. I showed it to the others and all agreed. I noticed the wound. She lay on her left side and I saw the cut … Her clothes were not wet, except damp as if dew was on them. There was no indication of struggling except where her left foot appeared to have slipped six or seven inches.”
Before the men removed the body to the McCrory home, they took note of every possible detail that might be evidence for what had happened: the arrangement of her clothing and hair, the position of her limbs, the location of her bonnet and the severe cuts on her hands. No doubt remained of the cause of death; her throat was slashed from ear to ear.
Some women from neighboring farms were given the task of washing and dressing the body.
“All I thought was that she had made away with herself,” Esther Frye would later testify. “There was no other thought at the time.”
Mrs. Frye noticed: “There was no great deal of blood upon her. Her dress was pinned up very snuggly with a good many pins in her clothes. Her hands were bloody … I examined her situation. She was in a state of pregnancy, I am satisfied, and concluded she was 5 or 6 months gone. She was cut above the right ear and extended below the left and cut to the bone, with the head nearly cut off.”
Although most of those gathered for the grim work at the McCrory home had assumed Rebecca had committed suicide, their doubts began to grow. How could she have inflicted such a severe wound upon herself? How could she have done it with such an ordinary knife, not particularly sharp, and which was found free of blood?
Rebecca was to be buried Tuesday, but that morning Dr. Robert W. Playford was summoned by those conducting the inquest to examine the body. He found at least two incisions across the throat, clean and made with a very sharp instrument, “deep to the bone.”
He later testified: “Her head was severed except for two inches at the back of the neck, or two and a half inches.” And what he said about the wounds on her hands left little doubt of his suspicions.
“The hands were considerably cut, the left appearing as if the knife was turned in it, a piece chipped out of the bone.” Playford testified. “It seemed as if the knife had been forcibly taken from her, as if she had grabbed the knife by the blade. ... I think it would have been impossible for her to do it herself and I think no one else could do it with this knife,” he said referring to the one found near her hand.
“Whatever might be the opportunity, she could not have made a second cut after one which had penetrated to the bone,” he continued. The loss of blood and the severance of her windpipe would have made doing so impossible, he noted.
What the doctor discovered that morning put to rest any idea neighbors might have had that the girl had killed herself. All the men conducting the inquest were convinced, too, that she had been murdered.
The grieving family, their friends and neighbors gathered that afternoon in the graveyard of Enon Baptist Church, up a hill in what is now Speers Borough. Suspicious glances must have jumped from face to face, because the question on everyone’s mind was: Who killed Rebecca McCrory?
Next: Who killed Rebecca McCrory?