The Hanging of Charles Chase
|Jefferson County courthouse, Brookville|
Near Falls Creek in Jefferson County is a region known as Beechwoods, a locality which includes some of the finest farmland in Washington Township. The area was settled in 1824 by Henry Keys, Alexander Osborn, John McIntosh, John McGhee and Thomas Moore. These early settlers, mostly of Scotch and Irish origin, named the community after the large number of beech trees they found there.
It is one of these founders, Thomas Moore, who played a role in one of the most colorful chapters in the history of Jefferson County. It is a story that seems ripped right out of the pages of a novel, and features murder, suicide, a haunted farm and a buried treasure of silver and gold.
This allegedly haunted tract of land hides all traces of its lurid past; its buildings and foundations erased by the onward march of time. But, up until the late 19th century, locals knew this place as the "Old Billy McDonald Farm". It was on this tract of land where Thomas Moore built himself a tiny cabin, and where he spent much of his time hunting wild game in the hills.
The only thing Moore enjoyed more than hunting was whiskey. One night in 1840 Moore was stricken with delirium tremens, and he endured a long evening of hallucinations and apparitions. Tough as he was, Moore could not vanquish the demons of his addiction. At some point during the night, he picked up his rifle and blew out his brains. As was the custom of the times, suicide victims were not permitted to be buried in the hallowed grounds of a cemetery, so Thomas Moore was laid to rest at the junction of four other farms, in keeping with the old Gaelic tradition of burying a murderer under the light of the moon where four crossroads meet. Moore was buried with his rifle, his possessions were burned, and his shanty fell into ruin.
Moore's farm next fell into the hands of an old Scotch Highlander named William McDonald. Moore's shack was torn down and a respectable log cabin was built in its place. After making improvements to his land and property, William married an elderly spinster from Clarion County named Elizabeth Downs. Their happiness was short-lived, however. Billy McDonald grew melancholy and his mind decayed into a state of insanity. One day Billy wandered into a patch of woods at the corner of his farm, knelt alongside a log, and slit his throat with a razor. Like Thomas Moore, old Billy McDonald was also buried on the farm.
The widow's brother, James Downs, came to live on the farm in order to look after his elderly sister. But he soon became gravely ill. At some point during his illness, James had come into a large inheritance, but as he grew sicker his mind began to play tricks on him. He became convinced that his neighbors were plotting to rob him. During one fit of paranoia, James leapt out of bed and suffered a frightful fall, which resulted in his death a short time later.
By this time most Beechwoods residents considered the farm to be cursed, and their opinions appeared to be proved correct by the misfortunes suffered by subsequent tenants who occupied the Old Billy McDonald farm. Violent quarrels, lawsuits and sickness plagued every family who ventured there. But it was the final tragic event, so horrific in nature, that put a permanent end to the life of the farm.
Old widow McDonald continued to live on the property after the deaths of her husband and brother. Aged and frail, she had to depend on the kindness of neighbors in order to survive; housewives would come to cook dinner, men chopped her firewood and the children of Beechwoods ran errands for the old widow. The neighbors never asked for payment, and Mrs. McDonald never offered payment; it was just understood in those days that neighbors looked after each other out of good will. "Aunt Betty", as she was known to the locals of Beechwoods, was loved by all.
Or was she?
Maybe they just took care of her because they all knew that Mrs. Betty McDonald was a wealthy old woman with one foot (and all other family members) in the grave.
After all, it was a well-known fact that the widow McDonald distrusted banks and, according to rumor, she kept her wealth inside a tin box. The tin box, in turn, was kept inside a wooden trunk which the old woman kept padlocked and stored under her bed. It may have been only a few hundred dollars, but to the residents of rural Washingtown Township it was a veritable king's ransom.
During the fall of 1865, two men came to the Beechwoods region looking for work. Charles Chase and Dean Graves were rumored to be possessed of somewhat questionable character, but a local shingle-maker named Roderick McDonald decided to take a chance on the young newcomers. He put them to work in his factory, but in a short while Roddy McDonald grew suspicious of Chase and Graves. Several neighbors claimed that they had seen the boys prowling around their houses after dark, peeking into windows and acting strangely. Roddy wished that he could discharge the two men from his factory, but he feared that such action might result in violent retaliation. Months passed, but Roddy's feeling of dread did not.
On the morning of February 19, 1867, as Roddy McDonald went out to his barn to check on his horses, he encountered Charles Chase. Chase explained that he had slept inside the barn during the previous night because he had no other place to stay. Roddy, quite naturally, was suspicious of Chase's story and felt that trouble was on its way. A little while later he discovered that one his horses was missing from the barn. He also discovered that Chase and Graves had left town and were nowhere to be found. Roddy McDonald saddled up one of his remaining horses and chased after the fugitives.
Later in the day a farmhand from an adjoining farm went to Aunt Betty's house to chop some wood. When the old woman failed to answer the door, the concerned neighbor let himself inside. He found the widow dead on the floor, a stream of blood flowing from her head. In the center of the room was an opened wooden chest. The tin box containing her money was missing. A sledgehammer was found in another room of the log house. Threads of wool were discovered clinging to the surface of the sledge; they appeared to match the wool hat which Aunt Betty often wore.
A posse was formed and Charles Chase was apprehended the following day at Ridgway. He was taken to the jail in Brookville, where he confessed to the crime. He claimed that, after the murder, he and Graves divided the money. Chase took the silver and gold, Graves took the bills and bank notes. The men then entered Roddy McDonald's barn with the intention of stealing his horses; however, the men had been too whiskey-drunk to carry out their plan and they fell asleep inside the stables. Graves woke first in the morning and made good his escape. Chase didn't wake up until after daybreak and, after his confrontation with Roddy McDonald, decided to head to Ridgway on foot, to the nearest railroad station.
In May of the following year Chase was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang. On August 23, 1867, he paid for the crime with his life, becoming the first person to be executed in Jefferson County. Dean Graves eluded capture until the following October, when he was apprehended in Michigan. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to the Western Penitentiary for eleven years and eight months. His life of crime would continue; he was arrested in Meadville several years later of another serious crime, escaping from the jail in 1885. He was never found.
According to newspaper reports, Chase's execution was an interesting spectacle. At 1:25 p.m. the condemned man asked for a drink of water and then the black cap was placed over his head. He exclaimed, "God have mercy on my soul!" as the trap was sprung. Unfortunately, the hemp snapped and Chase fell to the ground. "It's hard," he announced. The scaffold was reset and, at 2:18, the trap was sprung once again, this time breaking Chase's neck and launching him into eternity. Chase's execution was such a big affair around Jefferson County that even a detailed description of his coffin appeared in the local papers:
|Clearfield Republican, Sept. 5, 1867|
Chase never revealed where he had hidden the silver and gold he had stolen from Aunt Betty McDonald, but surely he must have hidden it somewhere. The treasure would have been too heavy and bulky to carry all the way to Ridgway while on foot. Most speculated that the silver and gold were most likely buried somewhere near the scene of the crime.
According to one local rumor, Chase had been observed chopping down a large pine tree in the woods across the road from the McDonald farm prior to the murder. His motive for doing this was unclear, and the timber remained where it had fallen. Perhaps this tree stump marked the spot where Chase had chosen to bury his treasure.
On the day of his execution, Chase's mother arrived at Rockdale, the nearest post office. There she hired a horse and buggy, telling the livery agent that she wished to see the scene of the murder. However, witnesses reported that she never stopped at the Billy McDonald farm. Instead, she was seen hitching her horse alongside the road and heading into the woods where Charles Chase had chopped down the pine tree. It was believed that Chase had sent her there to recover the treasure.
After the death of Elizabeth "Aunt Betty" McDonald, the house was abandoned and eventually torn down. Throughout the following years and decades, strange sights were seen and frightening noises heard by Beechwoods locals whenever they neared the old McDonald farm, and thus began one the most popular ghost and treasure legends of Jefferson County.