About The Series

Even for the pioneers of Western Pennsylvania who had fought in the American Revolution and experienced the atrocities of the Indian wars, the ax murder on a homestead near Cross Creek on Sept. 4, 1796, was horrifying. The crime remains Washington County's coldest case – its oldest unsolved murder. “A Sense of Evil” is a true story, written by Park Burroughs, retired executive editor of the O-R.

Murder at Belmont

A Sense of Evil, Part 3

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A newer farmhouse was built at Belmont in the 1800s. The original log house is partially visible behind the newer house and to the right.
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Park Burroughs/Observer-Reporter
The outdoor chapel at North Buffalo Presbyterian Church Order a Print

The story so far: James and Mary Ridgeway and Mary's daughter, Isabel Stewart, settle into their new surroundings along the north fork of Cross Creek. Isabel has playmates when her Brownlee cousins come to visit, but one September Sunday she is left alone at home as her family goes to church. Her mother senses something is wrong.

North Buffalo Presbyterian Church sits at the intersection of Rural Valley and Foster roads in Buffalo Township. The present building was erected in 1845 and remodeled in 1896, but its history is much older. A few of the county's earliest settlers first gathered there with preacher Matthew Henderson in 1775.

At about the time Henderson was formally installed as pastor of what was then called Buffalo Associate Church, a crude log house was built on the site of the present structure, but it was used only in bad weather. The congregants preferred to worship outdoors in a grove of trees just to the east of the building.

This place might well have looked like North Buffalo's current outdoor chapel, which is to the south of the church. Simple wooden benches form a semicircle descending to a pulpit. The chapel honoring the memory of Henderson was erected in 1965 under the direction of the Rev. John Mark Scott.

From the church, which sits on high ground and is vulnerable to the wind, one can look north and see East Buffalo Church on another rise two or three miles distant. It was from that direction that James and Mary Ridgeway and young Ebenezer Brownlee came on horseback in the late morning of Sunday, Sept. 4, 1796.

They gathered with their fellow parishioners in the grove, settling in for a Communion service that would last for several hours. Ebenezer, at 11, would have been among the youngest present because children had little tolerance for sitting still and quiet so long, and the worshippers had little patience for disruption.

Even before she had arrived, Mary had misgivings about leaving her daughter, Isabel, alone at the house. As the service progressed, her anxiety increased. “Moved with fear that she had erred in leaving one so young alone at home, she had little enjoyment in the sacred exercises,” the Rev. John T. Brownlee, a son of one of Isabel Stewart's cousins, wrote almost a century later.

Many a parent has experienced that special sensation in the pit of the stomach and a thumping heart when worry over a child's safety reaches a higher level. Perhaps only a mother who has experienced it can explain how she sensed danger to her child from a great distance, as if some telepathic connection existed between them.

So heavy were those feelings weighing upon Mary Ridgeway that she rose and walked away from the worshipers. Her nephew John, 21, the oldest son of her sister Margaret, noted her agitated state and followed her.

Mary told John that she must leave at once for home, that she sensed something evil. John offered to be her escort, but Mary insisted that he stay, that no one should have to miss any of the service because of her. He helped her mount and watched as she hastily retreated home.

When Mary reached the clearing from which she could see the farm, she was somewhat relieved that the house and barn were not in flames. Her presentiment of something evil grew, however, as her horse took her up the lane and her daughter, who would normally have come excitedly running, was nowhere to be seen, nor was there any noise coming from the kitchen at the side of the house.

In his account of that day written nearly a century later, Brownlee wrote:

“With trembling steps she opens the door, and still sees not and hears not the loved one. But now passing on to the inner apartment of the dwelling, her brain reels as she is confronted by the awful spectacle before her.”

Isabel lay like a discarded doll upon the plank floor, the light from the open door reflected in the dark pool oozing from beneath the body.

Brownlee continued: “Turning about, she immediately ran with strength augmented by her frenzy toward the house of a neighbor, Mr. Smiley, almost a mile away. But as she ran she became impressed with the idea that the terrible spectacle she had seen was all unreal. Surely, thought she, it was an illusion of the sight – a phantom induced by fear, that for the moment flitted before her mind. Thus impressed, before reaching the neighbor's house, she retraced her steps quickly toward home.”

The Rev. Robert Laird's sermon being somewhat shorter than usual, the service concluded not long after Mary's departure. Ebenezer was returned to his parents. Mary's nephew John informed James Ridgeway of his wife's anxiety, and the two mounted their horses to follow her.

As they approached, they could see Mary's agitated movement across the hayfield and they hastened their approach. As they came up the lane they saw her enter the house, then burst back out the door screaming frantically as she again started to run toward her neighbor's house.

James called out to his wife, and she returned, nearly breathless now, climbing the steps with the use of her hands to kneel on the narrow porch by the door. James and her nephew implored her to say what had happened, but she could not speak through her sobs, and instead pointed through the open door.

As they rushed to the steps, Mary fainted. James took her limp body into his arms, and John warily entered the dwelling, where he saw the mangled body of his young cousin, her head split open, her clothing soaking up the blood from the pool in which she lay. As he turned away, John saw an ax smeared with blood neatly returned to its place beside the door.

Word of the horrible crime quickly spread, and soon neighbors and friends had gathered about the house to offer their sympathy and assistance and to share in the Ridgeways' grief and anger. The questions that were asked over and over again were, “Why would anyone do such a thing to so innocent a child?” and, “Who could have done this?”

Suspicions began to surface almost immediately, with accusations soon to follow. It was quickly decided that an official investigation was necessary before the community took matters into their own hands and lynched someone who might be free from guilt. Washington County Coroner James Marshall, who lived not far from the Ridgeways, summoned a jury. David McGuggin, a neighbor, was among the jurors who would try to determine the cause of death, the motive and the person or persons responsible.

That jury's findings would neither satisfy the neighbors' thirst for revenge nor restrain their suspicion, and the human damage would spread far beyond the doorway of the Ridgeways' log farmhouse.

Next segment: Shattered lives

Park Burroughs has been with the Observer-Reporter since 1972. He is the winner of numerous state and regional awards for feature, column and editorial writing. He is the author of two books, “Enter, With Torches: Recollections of a Grumpy Old Editor,” and "Washington County Murder and Mayhem." He retired in September 2012 but continues to contribute to the O-R’s news pages.

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