Hal Roth - August 2009

 

Old News from Delmarva:
A Murder, a Lynching, a Legend
by
Hal Roth

   On October 28, 1850, James Pippin was convicted of selling liquor on the Sabbath in Cecil County, Maryland. For the next 16 years he pursued a life of crime, mostly in Kent and Queen Anne’s counties, apparently dodging further arrest. As the Easton Gazette went to press on December 15, 1866, the following two paragraphs appeared in a column titled “QUEEN ANNE’S AFFAIRS” in that day’s edition.

   Centreville, Md., December 15, 1866: James Pippin, James C. McGinnis and one or two others, who it is said belong to the band who have recently been committing depredations in this and Kent counties, are still at large, but officers are on the lookout for them, and ere long they may be brought to trial.
A most malicious and cowardly murder was committed at Church Hill in this county on Saturday night last. It seems that J. Edwin Roberts, Esq., a merchant in the above town and a quiet, unobtrusive and highly respected citizen, was passing from his store to his dwelling, a distance of about a hundred yards, when, it is supposed, he was assailed by an unknown party and dealt a blow on the head, knocking him senseless, when his pockets were robbed of a purse containing about $150 and his murderers made their escape. At what hour this was done no one seems to know, as Mr. Roberts was unconscious when found and not able to tell anything about it. He was taken to his residence and died on Sunday afternoon. Church Hill is infested with a band of outlaws who keep the citizens in constant dread lest their property be destroyed and they and their families burnt up or murdered in cold blood. All attempts to bring them to justice have thus far been in vain, and they are still at large, perpetrating their depredations against law and humanity. Whether or not it was by these wretches that Mr. Roberts was murdered is, of course, unknown, but it is said that he was several times threatened by them and was very much afraid of them. It is to be hoped that justice will overtake the perpetrators of this horrible murder.

   Shortly afterward, James Pippin and James McGinnis were arrested and charged with the murder of Roberts.

   Easton, Md., June 1, 1867: James Pippin and James McGinnis, under arrest for the murder of J. Edwin Roberts at Church Hill in Queen Anne’s County last fall, have removed their trials to this county [Talbot]. They were removed from Centreville Jail last Monday and lodged in Easton Jail, where they now await their trial, which will commence on Wednesday next. James L. Martin, Esq., of Queen Anne’s, will prosecute on the part of the State.

   Easton, Md., June 15, 1867: McGinnis, one of the parties indicted for the murder of J. Edwin Roberts at Church Hill, has been convicted of murder in the second degree. Pippin, the other party, has been cleared. He was remanded to jail – being also indicted for stealing cattle. Wednesday next is set apart for his trial.

   But Pippin would not remain in jail, nor would he ever be tried for the theft of cattle.

   Easton, Md., June 22, 1867: Just as we were going to press last evening, intelligence arrived in Easton in a very reliable manner that Pippin, who was tried in the Circuit Court of Talbot County as being accessory in the murder of J. Edwin Roberts at Church Hill last year, was hung by fifteen men on Thursday night in Queen Anne’s County.
It will be remembered that he was also indicted for stealing cattle but was released on his own recognizance on Thursday. He was hung at night on the same day after proceeding to his father’s house, from whence he was taken and executed.
P.S. A young man from Centreville has just arrived and confirms the above statement. Pippin had just returned from Easton to his father’s house at Church Hill when about one dozen disguised men arrived. Hearing them, Pippin secreted himself, but the party struck fire to the old man’s house, and he told of the hiding place. Pippin was soon swinging in the air. It is said that on his way to Church Hill, when near Wye Mills, Pippin attempted to take a man’s horse in order that he might ride himself, and purchased on the route a pint of whisky and a lot of powder and shot. We can never consent to mob law, but Church Hill has got rid of a terrible pest.

   An article published simultaneously in the Centreville Observer and the Denton Journal in 1880, at the time when parole for James McGinnis was being considered, affords us information I had not found in earlier journals; and as I frequently discover between newspaper reports that are separated by years of time, it also contains a few inconsistencies with previous documentation.

   Centreville, Md., December 4, 1880: An effort is now on foot to procure the release of James C. McGinnis, who on the 15th of June, 1867, was sentenced to the penitentiary for a period of 18 years for the murder of J. Edwin Roberts of Church Hill, Queen Anne’s County. The facts surrounding this foul murder and the great state of uneasiness and alarm that pervaded that community at the time, when neither property nor human life were safe, are no doubt familiar to the old residents of the county, and they recall those days with a shudder and a mental prayer that they may never return. At that time a gang of outlaws resided in the vicinity of Church Hill, of which James C. McGinnis and his bosom friend, James Pippin, were active members and a terror to the community. The mention of their names was quite sufficient to send a thrill through the frames of women and children and even timid men. No man knew just how soon the gang would visit his property, steal what they wanted, burn what was left or murder the owner. Finally this state of terrible outlawry and rapine culminated in the cowardly and desperate murder of Mr. J. Edwin Roberts of Church Hill. Mr. Roberts was a quiet, unobtrusive citizen, a merchant of some means and a man who molested nobody, but was content to attend to his own business. On Saturday night the 18th of December, 1866, he left his store about nine o’clock, as was his custom, and started across a small lot some sixty yards wide to his home. An hour or two afterwards he was found at his yard fence in an insensible condition, and when asked what was the matter, simply clamped his pocket and muttered, “You can’t have it.” He was taken into the house, and then it was discovered that a blow had been dealt him with a heavy bludgeon on the back of the head, and that he had been robbed. Physicians were summoned, but the unfortunate man never revived. He died the next day about noon. Suspicion at once lit upon Pippin and McGinnis and their gang, and Pippin and McGinnis at once left the county. Gov. Swann issued a proclamation offering a reward of $500 for their arrest, and they were captured on the lower part of the Peninsula. They were brought to Queen Anne’s County and lodged in jail, but the building being old and insecure, they soon escaped, and after some delay were recaptured by an armed posse near Pippin’s father’s cabin in Church Hill District. They were placed in irons, and their trial having been removed to Easton, they were in due time taken to that town and tried. McGinnis was convicted of murder in the second degree and sentenced to the penitentiary for 18 years. Pippin was acquitted.
Pippin came home to Queen Anne’s, and a few days afterwards was taken from his home by a masked party, carried a short distance off and hanged to a limb. This broke up the gang, and the people of that section breathed freer. Property became secure and human life was no longer carried in one’s hands. It took the town some time to recover from the bad name these fellows had given it, but it finally became one of the best and safest towns on the Peninsula, inhabited by a live, industrious and clever people. They will watch with much anxiety the effort now being made to turn out upon them the man who only a few years ago gave them so much trouble and anxiety, and who today ought to be sleeping the sleep that knows no waking by the side of his less fortunate companion, James Pippin. The fellow has served thirteen and a half years of his long sentence, and that humanity which he failed to show to others would suggest that the law has been satisfied and that he ought to be released, but the people of this county, where he was so well known and where he did so much damage, will insist that his pardon, if granted by Governor Hamilton, shall at least be a conditional one, forfeitable upon his ever returning to Queen Anne’s County or even to the State of Maryland. The people might be reconciled to such a pardon, but to nothing short of it.

   Pippin’s father, Asa, was forced to leave Church Hill and lived his last seventeen years in Caroline County.

   Bridgetown, Md., December 31, 1884: The recent death of Asa Pippin at Bridgetown, Caroline County, witnessed the departure of the last of the gang that afflicted Church Hill in Queen Anne’s County some twenty or more years ago, and whose operations culminated in the murder of J. Edwin Roberts, a merchant of that town, in 1867. The gang numbered about a dozen desperadoes, who fired buildings, stole property and terrorized the community. Mr. Roberts was waylaid and murdered at night within a few yards of his door. This so aroused the people that steps were at once taken to break up the gang. James McGinnis was tried, convicted and sent to the penitentiary for 18 years. James Pippin, son of Asa, was lynched by the people, and Asa himself was ordered to leave under penalty of a similar fate. The others of the band dispersed, and outlawry was suppressed in that community. Asa has since lived about Bridgetown, where he has been quiet and orderly. He was never supposed to be actively engaged in the deeds of violence, but his hut in the woods was a rendezvous for McGinnis and James Pippin and others, and the work of purgation was not regarded as perfect until he had been driven away and his hut burned to the ground. Church Hill has since been a thrifty and orderly community, and it is now one of the best sections of the county.

   Was James McGinnis pardoned before serving his full sentence? I do not know. Nor am I certain if the James McGinnis who was arrested in Baltimore in 1885 for selling liquor without a license and on Sunday – both charges dismissed – was the man who murdered J. Edwin Roberts in 1866, but I did find one additional reference to those nefarious days in Church Hill.

   Church Hill, Md., February 4, 1899: It would be difficult to find a section of the Eastern Shore which has not its interesting tradition, its thrilling ghost story. One of the best from this section is that of the “Jim Pippin Oak,” which stands near the old Dixon’s Tavern in Queen Anne’s.
    Dixon’s Tavern was not always the quiet, orderly section it is today. Some thirty years ago the great woods in which the “Jim Pippin Oak” stands was the rendezvous for a band of men who for miles around gave an unenviable reputation for lawlessness and deeds of violence, running into burglary, arson and even murder. The community was terrorized and lawlessness ran riot. When the sun went down, every door and window for miles around was barred and bolted. After the brutal murder and robbery of Benjamin Roberts [J. Edwin Roberts], a Church Hill merchant, Jim Pippin and a man named McGinnis were arrested. The men were tried, and in spite of the efforts of ex-Senator Charles B. Gibson, McGinnis was convicted of murder in the second degree, and he was sent to the penitentiary for eighteen years. Pippin was acquitted and returned to his father’s home in the big woods near Dixon’s Tavern.
    A body of masked men found the man in a sweet potato hold under the old man’s home. The doomed man refused to come out, and the house was fired. He then surrendered. Pippin was taken to a handsome white oak, which stood within a few feet of the public road, and was strung up. The body was left dangling until late the next day.
But here is the interesting part of the history of this period of lawlessness and disorder. The white oak is a long-lived tree. The oak on which Pippin was hung was young and vigorous, but it at once began to decay. The strange part of the story is that the fatal limb upon which the man was hanged withered and died. The blight then spread up that side of the tree to the topmost bough, and then the entire tree began falling to pieces, until today only a ragged trunk and rotting limbs are left. The place ever since has been hoodooed so far as the Negro population is concerned, and they give the “Jim Pippin Tree” a wide berth after sundown.

   And one final note:

   August 6, 1907: Dixon’s Tavern, one of the oldest landmarks and relics of antebellum days in Queen Anne’s County, was destroyed by fire Sunday morning [August 4] about 3 o’clock. Mr. Albert Porter and family, who occupied a portion of the building as a dwelling, and Mr. Charles Jones, who had a restaurant in the building, escaped in their nightclothes. Nothing was saved. The fire started in the room occupied by Mr. Jones, and the supposition is that Mr. Jones overturned his lamp while asleep. Dixon’s Tavern was known throughout the Eastern Shore. In the days of the old stage lines, when no railroads traversed the Shore, Dixon’s was the most noted tavern on the route. It was the voting place of the First District from the time it was organized until 10 years ago, when the polling place was removed to Sudlersville. It has long since been abandoned as a tavern.

   You can reach Hal Roth at nanbk@dmv.com