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A Death at Twilight: Chapter three

Mrs. Morton witnesses murder in dream

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A Death at Twilight: Chapter three

The story so far: After the men investigating Rebecca McCrory’s death determined she was murdered, the hunt began for her killer. Suspicion fell quickly upon a neighbor and suitor, Edward Nixon, who went into hiding and was not found until three days after the discovery of the body.

On the Thursday following Rebecca’s murder, Edward Nixon was led along the road by a group of men on horseback to Squire William Hopkins’ house for his “examination,” the word then used for a preliminary hearing. People came out to the road to see what was happening.

“Where are you taking him,” someone asked.

“We’re taking the damned Irish rascal to be put in jail.”

A little later, Tom Tomlinson, a cousin of Nixon’s mother, rode up to the prisoner and asked, “In the name of Jesus, what made you kill that girl?”

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Judge Thomas Baird presided over the murder trial of Edward Nixon.

One witness later testified that Nixon fixed Tomlinson with a countenance the likes he had never seen and said, “Take care, take care of your life.”

Nixon would dispute the account, stating he said simply to “take care of yourself,” but several of those who witnessed the exchange swore “in the presence of God” that Nixon had threatened Tomlinson.

After they arrived, Nixon was looked after by Rachel Hopkins, wife of the magistrate.

“He said he wanted something to eat and that he felt very weak,” Mrs. Hopkins later testified.

“I took something up and after I took it up he looked up and said, ‘Mrs. Hopkins, I’ll tell you the truth. I am clear of the charge before God. I am clear of it and if I were to be hanged tomorrow I’d go to Heaven.”

Mrs. Hopkins added: “I asked him if he saw any altering in her looks or talk, and he said he did not. I asked him if he had any talk of marrying, and he said he had not.”

More than 50 curious spectators crowded in and around the Hopkins’ house, where nearly a dozen witnesses were separated and guarded. The only evidence presented against the prisoner was the chilling exchange between Tomlinson and Nixon a few hours earlier.

After the last witness was heard, John McCrory, father of the victim, was taken ill and put into a bed. When Hopkins announced that there was not enough evidence presented to jail the accused, the hearing ended in confusion, anger and the clamor of shouting voices.

“God damn him, we ought to hang him up till he is dead and then put him in prison to save the county the expense of hanging him,” Tomlinson was heard to say.

Some of the crowd’s anger and frustration was directed at Hopkins, and a few suggested that Nixon should be taken to another magistrate who might be more accommodating.

Nixon returned to his parents’ home a free man but hardly free of fear.

Four days later, some of the men who had helped take Nixon to the magistrate gathered at the home of Robert Gregg, Nixon’s cousin by marriage.

“Sitting at supper, Mr. Tomlinson talked about the dreadful circumstances in our settlement,” Bilford Docherty later testified.

“I said if it was so, he ought to be punished. Tomlinson said there was no ‘if’ about it, he was guilty and will be hung and sent to hell. He said, ‘We know he is guilty and ought to be hung. God almighty has passed sentence on him 1,000 years ago.’”

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The murder weapon was presumed to be a Spanish dirk knife – or navaja – similar to the one pictured. Edward Nixon had been seen using such a knife, but it was never found.

When in mid November more than 40 men surrounded the Nixon house, Edward must have thought his end had come. Their intention was not a lynching, however, but rather delivering the accused to Ephraim Blaine, the magistrate in West Brownsville. More witnesses had come forward with testimony that Nixon had possessed a Spanish dirk knife – long and sharp and a predecessor of the Bowie knife – and that was enough for Blaine to commit Nixon to the Washington County jail.

(In 1830, two years after this event, Blaine’s wife would give birth to James G. Blaine, who would become a U.S. representative, senator and the Republican candidate for president in 1884, narrowly defeated by Grover Cleveland.)

A strange twist

While Edward Nixon languished in the county jail awaiting his trial, the public’s attention turned to a woman in East Finley Township who claimed to have witnessed Rebecca’s murder in a dream. Her dream, as she described it, contained so many accurate details that she was called for questioning by the investigators.

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John S. Brady led the team of prosecutors in the murder trial of Edward Nixon

Lippencott’s Magazine published an article about the murder and the woman’s dream many years later, in January 1880, which was reproduced in hundreds of newspapers all over the country. The article was so full of errors that it prompted a response from a cousin of the murder victim. The following account is from a letter in the possession of the Washington County Historical Society, written by that cousin, Amey Allen Haveley Stout, titled, “The True Story of Mrs. Morton’s Dream”:

Men hunted to find where she was killed and gave it up until a woman by the name of Mrs. Morton, who lived near Bentleyville, 10 miles from Rebecca’s father’s house, related that in a vision or dream she saw Rebecca leave her father’s house. Two men met her in sight of the house and took her to old man Nixon’s house and she ate her supper there. The two men took her to an old wash house on Nixon’s farm and wanted her to go in but she would not, and Nixon grabbed hold of her and pushed her in. The other man held the door and Nixon laid his arm around her neck and gave her one cut with a knife, and she got away from him. He then knocked her down, sprang upon her breast and finished the awful deed. The body was concealed there over Sabbath, and at night he and a woman threw her across a horse like he would a meal sack and took her to the spot where she was found.

Mrs. Morton dreamed that she was an eyewitness and saw the cruel deed committed. She gave her husband no peace until he consented to go with her and her brother-in-law to the scene of the murder. She led the way and showed them the house and road where the body was found. She took six men to the house where the girl was killed.

Mrs. Morton had never seen any of the McCrory family and never was at the place before. I heard my uncle say she described Rebecca plainer than he who had raised her could. Mrs. Morton said she was in the wash house and saw the awful deed and wanted to go to the jail and pick the perpetrator out of 100 men.

She gave the kind of dress the other men had on. She described Edward Nixon to his very hand.

Some people in Nottingham Township considered her vision an act of God; others thought she was crazy. Nevertheless, doubt crept into the heads of those who were convinced that Nixon – alone – was the killer.

Just the idea that others might have been involved sent a chill through the community. Even if Nixon were to be convicted and hanged, would that extinguish the evil that had descended upon them?

Next: Jury weighs fate of accused killer

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