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.

Starting over – more than once

A Sense of Evil, Part 1

This map from the Pennsylvania Archives shows the state as it was in 1791. Note that Washington County included all of present-day Greene County and part of Beaver County.

March came that year, 1795, as it often does, with a wind whipping up the Ohio Valley, drying grass and bramble so long covered by snow whooshing through stands of pine, lifting dry leaves in swirls to catch on brittle branches and skitter across the rutted road along which a team of draft horses pulled a heavily loaded wagon.

A man held the reins in his raw and reddened hands, a child and a woman seated next to him on the buckboard, bundled in a woolen blanket.

Water gushed along Chartiers Creek, its shady bank still covered with snow, and the thawing earth released a subtle scent of promised spring. The road beside the creek (now called Old Plank Road) led north toward Washington. The little family would pass through there in late morning, turning the team west toward Cross Creek and their new home.

For the woman, Mary, the journey marked yet another fresh start in a life of several new beginnings and much heartbreak and travail. She was born in Ireland in 1756, the second of six daughters of John and Mary Leman. In 1773, when Mary, the daughter, was 17 years old, the family left Ireland for the colonies and soon began farming in Chester County, Pa.

Life was hard for the Lemans, with no sons to help with farm work. Their tract was small and the soil rocky. The Revolution had caused great hardship to fall on the Lemans and their neighbors. They had to share what little they produced with those fighting the British, who had enlisted Indians to attack the settlers.

John Leman heard the siren song of vast lands to the west, nearly free for the taking – lands so fertile that crops barely needed tending – and in 1780 received a Virginia certificate for a 349-acre parcel known as “Care,” a few miles to the southwest of the village called Catfish Camp, which would soon become Washington. By 1783, the family had settled on the tract. In his warrant application, Leman renamed the land, “Leman Grove.” That land is just north of what is now the Washington County Airport.

It is difficult to imagine how the family must have struggled then to clear the land and protect themselves, because they had arrived during the Indian wars that ravaged the frontier. The British rewarded the Delaware and Iroquois for the scalps of settlers, and Pennsylvania's Supreme Executive Council authorized a bounty for Indian scalps from 1780 until 1783. What resulted were savage attacks and vicious retribution, with whole families killed or abducted and entire Indian villages massacred. Working the fields, and all life outside stockades, was highly dangerous.

Sometime during those early years at Leman Grove, Mary was married to a man named Stewart, a Scotsman and one of many of that name who had come from Northern Ireland to eastern Pennsylvania and then on to the edge of the frontier, lured by the promise of bountiful harvests.

To them was born a girl, Isabella Mary Stewart, named in honor of Mary's youngest sister, who died at an early age, and her mother. But little Isabel, as they called her, would not know her father long. After his death, the bond between mother and child tightened, and now, at 9 years old, with her mother remarried and another man sharing their house and the seat on the wagon, she could no longer recall Stewart's face or the sound of his voice.

By afternoon, the wagon bounced and creaked along the Middletown road and soon began to climb the hill toward Buffalo Village. From there, the man at the reins, James Ridgeway, would turn the horses to the northwest, toward their new home. “Belmont,” it was called: 174 acres, much of it cleared, rising up a gentle slope from the north fork of Cross Creek, with a good, sturdy log house and large barn. Life would be more comfortable there for his wife and her daughter than the small homestead from where they departed that morning.

As so many of his neighbors had done, Ridgeway came to Western Pennsylvania (from where no one is certain) in search of a more prosperous life, only to be shocked by how harsh and crude life could be beyond civilization, in a lawless land. It was here, though, that solid and enduring friendships were made through mutual need and shared misery.

Families came to rely heavily upon other families for laborious tasks like building cabins and barns, and in other ways, too. The Lemans, with all of their daughters, struck an alliance with their neighbors, the Brownlees, who had nearly as many sons, although one had been lost overboard during their voyage from Scotland.

James Brownlee married Jane Leman, and his younger brother, William, married Jane's sister Margaret.

By the time Ridgeway was 40, he was still a bachelor, and although he could offer no other labor than his own, he had become close to the Leman and Brownlee families. In 1788, he was a witness to the will of Archibald Brownlee and was good friends with Archibald's sons, James and William. James and Jane Brownlee had settled along Chartiers Creek in what would some day become North Franklin Township and there operated a mill to grind corn and wheat. Ridgeway had claimed 40 acres called “Forest,” which was nearly surrounded by William and Margaret Brownlee's 300-acre property farther south along the creek at Sugar Hill, which is now between Lagonda and the Washington County Airport.

When Ridgeway married the widow Mary Leman Stewart, he and the Brownlees became more than friends; they were now family.

James and Mary Ridgeway were hardly young when they married, and it was not likely that they would have children. By that March morning when the three carted their household from Forest to Belmont, Mary was 39, no longer even middle aged at a time when life expectancy for American women was 34, mainly because of the high incidence of child mortality. Still, women could expect to live not much beyond their late 50s. James, at 45, was approaching old age.

Though their youth was behind them, hard work was not. Ridgeway had paid 218 pounds, two shillings and sixpence for Belmont. The couple would need to sell their land at Sugar Hill and make their new property profitable in order to pay their debts.

But Mary had good reason to be optimistic. The trouble with the Indians was mostly over, as was the terrorization of the area by bandits like the Doane gang. The insurrection over the whiskey tax had threatened to plunge the territory into war, but that had been put down quickly by President Washington. The excise tax was mostly ignored, and the anger that created, particularly among the small farmers like her husband, had not abated. But at least there was peace.

Quality of life had improved so much since those dark days of the early 1780s. People were arriving from the east every day, bringing with them a taste for the finer things they had left behind. In town, magnificent houses, some made of limestone and furnished with the finest things from Europe, were replacing the crude log cabins that squatted beside the muddy streets. The road they were taking, what we now know as Route 844 – once just an Indian path – was now the main thoroughfare to the Ohio River, traveled by so many people headed for the promise of better lives in Ohio and Kentucky.

For Mary, the move to her new home must have been bittersweet. Her father had died in the summer of 1794, and the move would put more distance between her and her widowed mother, and it would deprive Isabel of the company of her cousins. But she would have had had every reason to believe in her husband's ability to create a better life for his new family and to anticipate this new chapter of her life hopefully.

The wagon turned from the Middletown road and followed the trail for a few miles beside the north branch of Cross Creek. Eventually, they reached a clearing and could see ahead of them the gently sloping hill that was their new homestead, a log house and barn silhouetted against the setting sun.

Mary Ridgeway could see that the next few months – or even years – might be difficult, but she could not have anticipated the horror and tragedy that lay before her.

Next: Isabel's new world unfolds

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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