In the Quiet of the Cabin

“Officers and others familiar with the circumstances [think it] one of the most brutal and fiendish crimes in the history of this section of the state.”

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Jane McPherson Bowers and her brother Thomas are buried in the graveyard behind Pleasant Walk Church.

At Pleasant Walk United Methodist Church (formerly Mount Olive United Brethren), two miles from Myersville, Maryland, visitors may find the grave of Emma Betts, who arrived with the spring of 1900 and departed with summer, lacking even one milk tooth. They may also see the grave of Henry Dusing, a 70-year-old champion violinist who, in 1954, on a dark night, fatally encountered an automobile atop South Mountain. There is also Tiny Dagenhart. In 1913, the five-year-old girl was shot dead in the family’s kitchen by her brother when he dropped his hunting rifle. There are two more vestigial residents of interest for whom no grave markers call out: Jane Bowers and Thomas McPherson. During one week in the winter of 1908, however, newspapers bellowed their names and described in orgasmic detail Jane’s bloody, gore-soaked, and horrifying murder at the hands of her elder brother.

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Philip McPherson (1815-1851), the son of George Washington McPherson (1793-1822) of Adams County, Pennsylvania, arrived in Frederick County as a fatherless teenager. On 25 November, 1830, aged 16, he married 18-year-old Rebecca Duffee (1811-1886). Their first son, John Francis, was born in May 1833. More children arrived regularly during the following decades, including Thomas in 1847 and Mary Jane—known by her middle name—in 1851.

A glimpse of the family is preserved in the 1860 Census. The McPhersons lived in Sabillasville, southwest of Emmitsburg, in the Hauvers District of Frederick County. Philip McPherson was a laborer, heading a house that was clearly overcrowded and likely bursting with frenetic energy. Aside from Philip and his wife, ten of their children are recorded—the oldest aged 28 and the youngest aged three—as well as three additional male laborers all in their 20s.

In February 1865, Thomas McPherson, newly turned 18, enlisted in Company E of the 13th Maryland Infantry for a term of one year. He never saw battle, as his unit was placed in Martinsburg, West Virginia, to watch over the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad from Martinsburg to Harpers Ferry. He was mustered out in May 1866. It the time of his enlistment he had black hair, dark eyes, a dark complexion, and stood 5’2″.

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A newspaper drawing of Jane McPherson Bowers from a photo taken in the 1880s.

Jane McPherson married young—possibly as young as 13, if her 1851 birthdate is correct. Her husband was Benjamin Bowers, born 13 January, 1835, in Maryland. During the summer of 1863, when Benjamin registered for the Civil War draft at the age of 28, he claimed to be married; the couple was definitely wed by 1870, when the census enumerated Benjamin as a day laborer who could not read or write, along with his young wife, who could. In that year, he and Jane dwelt together in the Myersville environs with Albert Pugh, a miller whom Benjamin was probably employed by.

The Bowers had no children and lived in obscurity and on the knife’s edge of poverty all their married lives. By the turn of the 20th Century, they resided in a log cabin at Pleasant Walk, near the foot of Catoctin Mountain, some two miles from Myersville.

On 27 December, 1901, the Frederick News reported, “Benjamin Bowers, aged 67 years, of Pleasant Walk, died at his home on Monday morning, December 23, suddenly while eating breakfast. Death was due to apoplexy [stroke]. He is survived by a widow. The funeral took place on Wednesday morning from the U. B. Church at Pleasant Walk.”

After her husband’s sudden demise, 50-year-old Jane remained in the log home by the mountain. The Baltimore Sun noted, “The little woman seemed to have few relatives other than her brother, and lived by the products from her garden patch and a small pension [$15 per month] as a [Civil War] veteran’s widow.”

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Thomas McPherson, newspaper sketch from a photograph.

On 9 July, 1873, Thomas McPherson married Lucinda Denholm Fockler (abt. 1847-1887), the widow of Civil War soldier William Fockler of Company L, 22nd Pennsylvania Cavalry, and mother of two sons, Charles (b. 1866) and Jacob (b.1869).

In 1880, the census recorded McPherson and family in Ringgold, Washington County. The McPhersons had two children of their own by that date: Joseph, born in 1872, before his parents’ recorded marriage, and Lillie M. (1877-1913). One newspaper article of 1908 claimed there were two more children: a son called John who lived in Virginia, and a daughter who lived in Polo, Illinois, named “Mrs. Bertie Springer.” Thus far, these individuals remain unconfirmed by public records.

According to newspaper reports, Thomas supported his family by driving an omnibus for Mapleville’s Franklin House Hotel and later was a barkeeper at Weaver’s Saloon in Antietam Hall.

Thomas’s wife predeceased him in 1887, as did one of his stepsons, who purportedly committed suicide at age fifteen by shooting himself. “The lad loaded a gun with a marble and, placing the barrel against his abdomen, drew the trigger with a string,” reported the Sun.

At some point in the early 1890s, after Jane lost her husband and he lost his wife, Thomas intermittently lived with his sister. For a while, his teenage daughter Lillie also resided with her aunt, for on 12 August, 1892, the Frederick News reported she had been attacked by three men—well-known offenders who were never arrested—whilst walking to a funeral, probably at Pleasant Walk Church.

In 1899, Lillie married Dallas Clayton Rohrer (1875-1950), a postal carrier at Beaver Creek. By 1912, she had borne her husband five children and relocated to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. On 10 January, 1913, the Hagerstown Daily Mail reported that Lillie had been found dead in her home, aged 35. No cause was given. She was buried at Rose Hill Cemetery, Hagerstown.

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During the first week of February 1908, Thomas McPherson “went to the home of Calvin Warrenfeltz, living at Cool Hollow, near Beaver Creek, and had an axe sharpened, using Mr. Warrenfeltz’s grindstone for this purpose,” the Sun reported.

On the afternoon of Friday the 7th, a visiting neighbor found McPherson raving incoherently as he paced around his sister’s cabin. When he asked what was wrong with Thomas, Jane Bowers replied that she didn’t know, but he was acting as if he had lost his mind.

Nothing remains to clarify with certainty whether Thomas McPherson suffered lifetime mental health issues, or whether this was the first thrust of a madness he couldn’t control. Although it is likely the former, the husband of one of Thomas’s nieces, Adam Speaks, told the Sun, “He had known McPherson for 27 years and had not considered him weak-minded.”

The Hagerstown Morning Herald, however, cast doubts. “He was a well-known character about Hagerstown” and “was a familiar figure around the Geary and other livery stables,” it reported. At least once, McPherson was caught drunk driving the hotel omnibus and was removed by police, and the owner of Weaver’s Saloon said, “Mr. McPherson did some very queer things.” For example, one morning, he had found McPherson “standing like a statue on a chair.”

The same article and others imply that Thomas was fired from Weaver’s Saloon only a few weeks before he “had gone to the home of his sister to recuperate.” In question is what was he was recuperating from—the blow to his pride and income, the degenerative effects of alcoholism, or both?

Although McPherson had children, he was not close to them during this phase of his life and did not look to them for help after losing his position. When his daughter Lillie was interviewed by police in Chambersburg, she said she’d not seen her father since the previous October. A Hagerstown bar owner told the Herald he had given Thomas some barkeep work out of pity because he seemed homeless.

Almost certainly, Thomas McPherson’s precipitating stressor was being fired from the saloon. After a few weeks spent fuming at his sister’s claustrophobic cabin going over and over the blows and insults that marred his life, he was ready to strike out at who was to hand.

Whilst we cannot ascertain undeniably what roiled his mind, we know what he did after the visiting neighbor left the cabin. According to that witness, Thomas was outside chopping wood; soon after, he went inside. McPherson’s sister sat in a chair facing the warm fire. He approached her from behind, swung, and struck her directly in the back of the head with the blunt side of his axe.

Later that evening, the cabin’s front door opened. Thomas McPherson staggered out then headed down the public road toward the mountain. Ω

To be continued in Part Two.

Author: Ann Longmore-Etheridge

Writer, journalist, editor, historian.

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