by Rich Lascelles
The opinions expressed are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the Litchfield Mirror, LCTV, LCM, the Town of Litchfield or it’s elected officials.
Detective Dave Donlon was nearing the end of his long career as a policeman in the hamlet. He had spent all his years in the same little town. As he got closer to retirement, he started researching a couple of cold cases that had gone unsolved.
One was the case of Danial “DD” DeWire, a suspected homicide with a badly decomposed corpse discovered in 1978 in the woods near the present site of the High School. At that time the area was heavily wooded with only a narrow path back to the pond. The exact cause of death was never determined, but the case was assumed to be a homicide. DeWire was a member of the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang and lived in Lowell, Mass. It was assumed his death was a gang hit and drug related.
The other case was from way back in 1852 and concerned the mysterious disappearance of Wyncoop Scroggins, a fugitive slave bounty hunter. His most memorable physical characteristic was his celebrated addiction to chewing tobacco. He is said to always have a “chaw” in his mouth, even when eating. He was also known for not being a very good spitter. Most of the juice he spit ended up on his shirt and the smell of it followed him wherever he went. Scroggins was last seen at the local hamlet tavern bragging that he was about to get his most profitable bounty. After he left the tavern he was never seen or heard from again.
These two cases had something in common in addition to being unsolved, both of the men had very little good to be said about them. Both of them lived short, violent, absolutely useless lives. That contributed to the fact that both cases remained unsolved; nobody seemed to care that they were gone.
Born on a cotton plantation in the tidewater region of Virginia, Elisa had led a charmed life for a slave, A beautiful girl of seventeen, her duties had always been considered favorable. Her mother was a cook in the master’s house, her brother James, a trustee, was favored with a job as a wagon driver, and she was the personal maid to the mistress of the manor, Elizabeth Tyler O’Brien . The mistress was a forgetful, somewhat naive older woman.
The master was a kind older man who treated his slaves well as compared with other slaves in the area. Although Elisa’s life seemed rather comfortable, it was far from idyllic Although the master seemed kind, his only son, on the other hand, was a drunken misfit. He treated the slaves and all people with disdain. What really terrified Elisa was the undeniable fact that he had taken a liking to her. Although she avoided him as much as possible, he had made it clear that when he became master, he would be visiting her often. He made it perfectly clear that if she did not submit to his demands she would be “sold south”, the worst thing that could happen to a tidewater slave.
At that time, there was a huge demand for slaves in the deep south and since the importation of Africans had been made illegal many years ago the only source of additional labor was buying souls from farther north. Being sold would mean leaving her family and would totally change her life. Also, her physical attractiveness would mean she would bring a pretty price and the buyer could be expected to get his “money’s worth”.
Elisa, her mother, and James had been conspiring for years to help her escape this dreadful situation. They schemed to utilize and take advantage of trust the master and his wife had in the family. James made regular trips during harvest to the port in Norfolk to haul wagon loads of cotton bales to be loaded on sailing ships and taken to Boston to satisfy the need for the textile factories in Massachusetts. He left early in the morning and arrived at the docks before sunup.
America at that time was going through a revolution. Lowell Massachusetts was the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution with many mills turning bales of cotton into reams of fabric. Thousands of young people, mainly women, had moved from New England farms to work in the mills. These mills were very profitable and were fueling a renaissance in the economy of the north. Without the raw cotton from the plantations of the south that economy ground to a halt. The demand for cotton made plantations very profitable.
James had made friendships with key people along the docks in Norfolk. He learned that some of the ships had free blacks as trusted mates and he knew which ships were friendly and which were not. James used his friendly manner to build a conspiracy to help his sister escape.
Another important item that figured into the conspiracy was the fact the mistress had a small pistol hidden in her dresser. The master had given it to her several years ago. It was a beautiful little gun with her initials “ETO” engraved on the barrel. The mistress thought it was a pretty little thing and treated more as a piece of jewelry rather than a weapon. Elisa had discovered it’s existence several months ago purely by accident. She checked it almost every day and it never seemed to move from its hiding place. She wondered if her mistress even remembered she had it. Elisa put the existence of the pistol in the back of her mind. She knew it might come in handy. She felt the gun could be good “insurance” which she hoped she would never have to use. It was small enough to be carried in a small bag.
The family had been planning for many months and planned to execute the plan in about a week. Suddenly the plantation was in a heightened state as the master had taken ill. It was feared he would not last long. The family could not wait. They had to make the break immediately. James had the wagon loaded and planned to go to the docks the next day. Before Elisa left the manor she deftly slipped the pistol into her clothes and went back to the slave quarters.
Shortly after midnight, Elisa packed a small bag with the pistol and some clothes, said her tearful goodbye to her mother, then she and James slipped quietly to the cotton wagon. Elisa found a small hole in the cotton bales that kept her hidden throughout the trip to Norfolk.
James drove the horses harder than ever because of his special “cargo”. They arrived at the docks long before daybreak and James found the ship “Amisrailia” which had a mate who could be trusted. James met with him and arranged for his sister to stowaway in the hold of the ship. They were lucky that the ship was almost loaded and James’ wagon load had filled the hold to the brim. The “Amistrailia” set sail for Boston at dawn.
The next morning life on the plantation continued much as it always had. The field hands and the house slaves and the others went about their business. The mistress noticed Elisa’s absence about mid-morning. Elisa’s mother did not have an explanation. When it became clear she had run away the master put out the word that Elisa was a runaway.
The trip to Boston took about a week. Elisa had to stay hidden for the entire trip because she didn’t know who could be trusted. James’ friend brought her food and water. One thing she always did was to keep the little bag at her side at all times.
Even though Elisa had made her way north out of slave territory, she was not out of danger. The Fugitive Slave Act passed by congress as a part of the Compromise of 1850, required runaway slaves to be returned to their masters even if they were in a free state. It also opened up a new career for “bounty hunters” who captured runaways and returned them south for a fee. Elisa knew she would not be totally free until she reached Canada.
When Elisa arrived in Boston she was able to make her way to a friendly lady who was part of the “Underground Railroad”. That lady sheltered her for a couple of days then took her to the docks of the Middlesex Canal. Canal barges carried cotton from the docks of Boston to the city of Lowell, the home of dozens of textile mills.
Once she reached Lowell Elisa met another member of the “Railroad” who took her to the Merrimack River and another type of barge. The mills in Lowell were built with millions of bricks harvested from clay and manufactured in brick yards further north in New Hampshire.
The barge stopped near a brick factory in a little New Hampshire hamlet.
The hamlet was home to the Thornton Ferry which had been created by Matthew Thornton, who was one of the three signers of the American Declaration of Independence. Elisa spent the night in the old ferry house which had been built in 1771 and was part of the ferry. Once the ferry took her across the river, she would begin the last leg of her journey north to Canada and freedom.
It was dark and foggy early the next morning as Elisa found her way back of the ferry house property to take advantage of the “facilities”. The wagon trip to Canada would be a long one, and although the outhouse was not luxurious, it would be much better than she would have on the road.
Elisa had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach that morning. She had come so far and felt she was close to her goal of being free. As she sat doing her business she caught the unmistakable pungent odor of chewing tobacco. She kept one hand on the little pistol in the bag which never left her side.
Wyncoop Scroggins had been tipped off of the possibility of a bounty at the ferry house. He lay in wait all night for the right opportunity to make his capture. Once he had her in his hands, the Fugitive Slave Act forced local law enforcement to cooperate with him. He saw Elisa make her way to the outhouse. He gave her enough time to get seated then he flung open the door.
Elisa was ready. The shot hit Wyncoop right in the forehead.
The commotion brought the ferry captain who knew Mr. Scroggins and considered him an enemy of justice. Because they knew the shot may have awoken others, they knew they had to act fast. He helped Elisa dispose of the body. Elisa also knew she had to get rid of the gun. If the law found the body and she was found with the gun, she could be convicted of murder.
The ferry took her across the river. From there she had a long wagon ride north to Canada and to freedom.
Anthony was an inquisitive, precocious thirteen year old soccer player in the eighth grade at the hamlet’s middle school. His grandmother and grandfather, who he called Memere and Buddy, lived in the old ferry house. When Anthony was just a year old, he and his parents lived with his grandparents while their own house was being built. Later when he was older, Memere and Buddy liked to have fun with he and his sister. They had an old mannequin which seemed to move on her own to different rooms of the old house. They called the mannequin the “creepy old lady”. Although it was all in good fun there was something creepy about the mannequin and old house.
At a very young age, Anthony had shown that he was very curious by nature. At about four years old, while playing at the playground, he observed that a bird had pooped on a swing. He asked Buddy, “Why is bird poop white and my poop brown?” Through the years, he continued to amaze everyone by asking questions which were hard to answer. To feed that curiosity, on his thirteenth birthday, Buddy got him a professional metal detector.
At the earliest opportunity, Anthony and Buddy decided to do some metal detecting in the yard next to Buddy’s house. After a short period, Anthony got a strong “hit”. Buried about six inches down under a huge pine tree Anthony found a small, heavy, corrosion-encrusted object that was obviously a gun! They could not believe their eyes! Anthony had been taught by his parents to never play with guns. Almost afraid to touch it, they feared it might go off! But what was this gun? Why was it buried in the yard? Who had buried it? Buddy knew just who to ask, his friend Detective Dave Donlon.
Detective Dave knew the story of Elisa because late in life she had written an award-winning autobiography “My Flight to Freedom, the story of Eliza O’Neil” after settling in Canada. In the book, she did not confess to killing Mr. Scroggins but she did describe “an incident” that had taken place in the hamlet with the ferry and that she was forced to get rid of the gun.
Detective Dave examined the gun carefully. After determining it would not go off, he began to scrape away some of the corrosion. Right there engraved on the barrel were the initials “ETO!”
Some say the old ferry house is haunted. There is no definitive proof of that, but sometimes, generally on dark and foggy nights things happen that gives “goose bumps” and makes hair stand up on the back of ones neck-accompanied by the unmistakable pungent odor of tobacco juice!