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.

Shattered lives

A Sense of Evil, Part 4

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Park Burroughs/Observer-Reporter
The view of the Costanzo property and Mt. Pleasant Township from where the Ridgeways' log house once stood
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Park Burroughs/Observer-Reporter
Milton Rice holds a rolling pin taken from the log house in which Isabel Stewart was murdered. Order a Print
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Park Burroughs/Observer-Reporter
James Ridgeway was buried in the Grove Presbyterian Church Cemetery, West Middletown. Order a Print

The story so far: James and Mary Ridgeway ride for church with nephew Ebenezer, leaving young Isabel at home alone. Mary, troubled by a presentiment of evil, leaves the service early and rushes home to find her daughter lying lifeless in a pool of blood.

Just hours after Mary, her husband, James Ridgeway, and nephew John Brownlee came upon the grisly scene at their homestead, an investigation into the brutal murder of Isabel Stewart was under way.

James Marshall, who lived just a few miles north of the Ridgeways, was Washington County's coroner at that time and was immediately summoned. He wasted little time in selecting a jury, and among those jurors was the Ridgeways' neighbor, David McGuggin.

A rumor that Isabel had been tomahawked by Indians was quickly dispelled, owing to the nature of her wounds and once a motive for the crime was discovered: robbery. A sum of $100 had been taken from the house.

And it was evident to the coroner's jury that Isabel had not freely disclosed the money's hiding place. Bruising and burn marks on her body made it obvious that she had been tortured before the fatal blow to her skull.

Furthermore, the murder weapon was not a tomahawk but rather a blood-smeared ax that was handy to the killer, who had leaned it neatly in place beside the front door when his work was finished.

A scenario began to fall into place. The killer was probably someone known to Isabel – someone who knew that money was kept in the house and that the family would be away at church on Sunday, and he had killed Isabel in order to conceal his crime.

Where Isabel was buried is unknown; the cemetery at North Buffalo Church had not yet been established. But her funeral was well-attended. The Rev. John T. Brownlee, recounting the story a century after the murder, wrote:

“The whole community were gathered together at the funeral to give expression to their sympathy with the bereaved, and view for the last time the face of young Isabel so lately blooming in health, now mangled and cold in death. Parents, while they thought of their loved ones still spared with them, wept in silence around the dead, the young sobbed aloud, and the stricken mother was carried in insensibility away from the bier.”

On Sept. 6, two days after the murder, the Washington Telegraphe & Western Advisor published an account of the crime and named a suspect:

“A man calling himself sometimes James Stewart, and at other times Brown, who was seen loitering about the neighborhood a few days before, is strongly suspected. Several persons are in pursuit of him, and it is hoped he will be shortly apprehended, and if guilty, meet that punishment which the perpetrator of so horrid a crime richly deserves.”

According to the Rev. Brownlee, Stewart was the son of a pious father but considered a bad seed. There was no proof to connect him to the crime, not even circumstantial evidence sufficient to justify his arrest.

It is not improbable that the suspect Stewart was related to John Stewart, whose farm was just to the west of the Ridgeways' homestead. John Stewart had received a patent on 120 acres called “Stafford” in April 1795. But it must be remembered that the population of Washington County (which included all of what is now Greene County) at the time was nearly 25,000 – about one-tenth of today's number – and that “James” and “Stewart” were common names.

At any rate, Stewart disappeared, and it could only be concluded that Isabel “came to her death by the hand of someone to the jury unknown.”

Some in the public, however, were still eager to cast blame, and soon the stepfather, James Ridgeway, became their target. Their reasons, according to the Rev. Brownlee, were first, that he had returned alone to the house for his tobacco after his wife and nephew Ebenezer had started for church and was thus the last person to see her alive; and second, that the life of Isabel was all that stood in the way of his joint ownership with his wife of the farm on which they lived.

Ridgeway's accusers could have jumped to this conclusion only through imagination, because deeds for both the property along Cross Creek and their previous land, “Forest,” were both in Ridgeway's name, and his name only.

Why, too, would Ridgeway steal his own money, or kill the child whom he loved just as much as if she were his own?

Those who knew Ridgeway best, his friends and his Leman and Brownlee relations, could never consider him guilty. Nevertheless, Ridgeway would never reach a place beyond suspicion for the rest of his long life.

John Brownlee, Isabel's cousin and the one who had come back to the house with Ridgeway the day of the murder, later went into business as a New Orleans trader, taking goods down the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, selling items there, then purchasing items to be sold back in Pennsylvania.

A few years after Isabel's murder, the Rev. Brownlee recounted, John Brownlee was in a barroom along the Ohio River when he saw a man he recognized. It was James Stewart. When the two were alone in the room, John began a conversation with the man, and the topic of the murder came up.

“Did you ever hear my name connected with the guilt of that murder?” Stewart asked.

John paused for a moment, then looked Stewart straight in the eye.

“Yes, I have so heard,” John said. “And I believe you were the murderer of my cousin Isabel Stewart.”

Without a word in response, Stewart rose from his seat and walked out of the barroom, never to be seen again.

The death of her daughter would take a piece from Mary Leman Ridgeway's heart, a wound from which she would never recover. It was said that she never smiled again.

The lingering accusations of James Ridgeway's guilt may have caused the couple difficulty with the congregation at North Buffalo, or perhaps for some other reason they left that church and joined others.

According to the Rev. Brownlee, the Ridgeways were attending Mt. Pleasant Church in 1809 one Sunday when the minister delivered a sermon about Judgment Day and spoke of the many startling disclosures that would then be brought to view, stating, “Then every secret murder will stand disclosed and manifest.”

Mary Ridgeway rose from her seat, and in an agitated voice audible only to those near her, said, “Oh! Then my love I shall know who murd …”

Her words died away in a long sob until a relative approached and led her away from the assembly.

James and Mary Ridgeway continued to reside in the house where Isabel was so brutally slain. Their names appear on the 1820 census, but shortly after that date, Mary died. Her name does not appear in the listings of any of the area's cemeteries; perhaps she was buried beside her daughter in someplace now long forgotten.

James remarried shortly after Mary's death. His new wife, Rebecca, at 50, was 21 years younger than he. They sold Belmont and all its livestock in 1821 but bought it back a year later and were still living there on July 27, 1835, when James died at 85.

Rebecca Ridgeway sold the property in 1836 to John Dinsmore. She died in 1840 and is buried beside her husband in the Grove Presbyterian Church Cemetery, West Middletown.

The two-story log house in which Isabel Stewart was murdered is gone now, but a shallow depression marks its location on the property off Eberle Road in Mt. Pleasant Township now owned by Deborah and James Costanzo Jr.

Milton Rice, 82, grew up on the property. He was a foster son of one of its previous owners, Orville Sanders, who bequeathed to Rice the five acres on which he and his wife, Linda, still live. Rice said the log house was torn down in the 1940s. He can remember helping build a hog pen from the leftover logs, and he helped break up the foundation stones for use in the driveway that led to the farmhouse constructed about 100 yards closer to the road.

There's a corner cupboard in the home of Milton Rice that came from the old log house. Rice also has another souvenir from that place: a rolling pin.

Isabel Stewart's murder could be called Washington County's coldest case, one of perhaps hundreds of unsolved killings since that time. It is the dark side of our history, but nevertheless a part of our past that is worth knowing.

To stand today in the place where the house once was is to see a landscape not that different than what Isabel Stewart once saw on the day her parents left her alone.

It is still farm country and woodland as far as the eye can see. There are cell phone towers and gas wells, but if you ignore them and scan the long horizon where rolling hills meet the light edge of the sky, you can almost transport yourself back 218 years.

Try hard enough, and you might feel some of the same emotions felt when those early settlers stood on the same spot: their pain, their regret, their pride, their hopefulness and even their fear.

The EndNext- An afterword

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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