Ann Lawson gravesite

Here is the gravesite of Ann Lawson.

Halloween being tomorrow evening and with all of the little ghosts and goblins expected at your doorway, I thought it a good time to write about a most important death that occurred in what is now Logan during a cold December night of 1847, just eight days prior to the celebration of Christmas. The death led to one of three hangings known to have occurred at the courthouse square in Logan.

The mother of four sons and the wife of the first person believed to open a trading post along the Guyandotte River in a place that would celebrate several names before being christened as Logan, Ann Lawson’s eerie gravesite still stands out in the mostly abandoned High Street graveyard known as Logan’s “City Cemetery.” An iron-railed fence that encircles the gravesite has withstood the ravage of many storms for an amazing 172 years. Frankly, it is a miracle that over these multitudes of seasons vandals have not seen fit to damage the cast iron that was likely forged by a blacksmith in the small community that would in time develop over top of an Indian graveyard, and be named for an Indian Chief.

Numerous visits to this almost vanquished place of local history that contains the names and remains of those persons who undoubtedly played some role in the making of Logan always leads me to Ann Lawson’s grave. And although over the years, I have come to know her in an extraneous sort of way through research, I now can relate even more about a lady who met an untimely death at the hands of one of her slaves, many years prior to the start of America’s Civil War.

A 1937 story written in this newspaper by a historical writer named Howard Alley, related what was described then as an “improvised strongbox” being in the possession of Mrs. A.C. Harless of Lyburn, who it was said lived “only a few hundred yards above the old Lawson homestead.” The chest of drawers reportedly still bore the age-worn blackened scars of the red-hot poker with which Negro slaves Bill and Louis Lawson had tried to burn open in order to reach the money and silver locked away in the chest.

Two great-granddaughters of Ann Lawson, Mrs. Lillian Avis of Logan and Mrs. Polly Ann Avis of Aracoma, related the story of their great-grandmother’s demise. According to their account, the folks in the humble community of 1847 were attending a Christmas party and had left Mrs. Lawson alone with her slaves.

The Banner reported that “The colored boys had been bought by Anthony Lawson Sr., when they were just tots and had grown up in the Lawson household, adopting the Lawson name.” It was reported that the “lust for money and too much holiday liquor” drove the two men to strike their matron down with a poker. Leaving her for dead, they heated the instrument of death to use as a means of getting into the wooden chest. After unsuccessfully trying to burn through the hard wood, the two young men were said to flee into the night.

When Anthony Lawson returned home that night, he found his wife “breathing her last breath.” She did, however, summon enough of her fading strength to tell who struck her down.

Both slaves were caught and Bill was hanged from an elm tree that stood at the Logan courthouse until sometime during the 1930s. Louis, who was said not to have helped in the murder, was “sent away” and sold to new owners “on down the river.”

Oddly, the same writer who reported the above information would later give a different account, based on interviews with a man described as a “hired hand” of the Lawson’s.”

In that story, Howard Alley reported that Ann Lawson’s death occurred on Christmas Day in 1852 and that her death was not premeditated, but actually was an accident. He wrote that the Lawson slaves had “imbibed too freely of egg nog, brandy and other intoxicants” and were sleeping in front of a fire in the slaves’ quarters when Mrs. Lawson went into the darkened room that fateful evening to get one slave to do a chore.

When she shook what was described as the “middle-aged” slave, the slave, coming out of a drunken stupor and not recognizing his master, grabbed a coal shovel and struck her across the head before he knew what he was doing. Mrs. Lawson was found lying in a pool of her own blood.

The author this time described the murderous slave as being named “Liege” and the other slave as “Ezra.” Alley wrote that the Lawson’s, “being a level-headed family,” did not resort to the usual justice meted out to slaves who killed their masters and let the court decide Liege’s fate. A jury reportedly found him guilty and he was hanged on an improvised scaffold in the courthouse square. Ezra was sold to a southern plantation owner.

I suppose one could choose which ever newspaper account you wanted to believe, but the fact is Ann Lawson’s tombstone speaks for itself. For inscribed on the tombstone are these telling words: “Ann Lawson, wife of Anthony Lawson of Logan County, Va., who was born in Longhorsby, in the county of Northcumberland, England on the 17th day of March A.D. 1783. Murdered on the night of the 17th of December 1847 by two of her own slaves.”

Because the writer in one of the stories describes Lawson as being killed on Christmas Day in 1852, it is apparent that — just like too many other local people — Howard Alley never bothered to visit the cemetery where Lawson was buried. Therefore, I believe it best to discard the so called “hired hand’s” yarn.

Described as a “Banner Feature Writer,” Alley in another story wrote that a letter written by Mrs. Lawson in 1841 was found in the homemade ceilings of a farm house formerly owned by Joshua Butcher of Chapmanville.

According to Alley, Lawson wrote the letter to her father and mother on February 28, 1841. Rev. J. Green McNeely, a well-known preacher and longtime Logan County Clerk, found the letter and other documents when he began dismantling the Butcher home, which he had purchased.

The account described Mrs. Lawson as “a very religious person unmoved in her belief in God and devoted to her parents.” In the message to her mother and father, Mrs. Lawson wrote:

“I am glad you are all forsaking the wicked ways of the world and trying to seek a better object. Try and holdout faithful to the end, although you may meet with trials and troubles. Try and press on. Keep always Heaven in your view though your earthly friends may forsake you.”

Mrs. Lawson apparently had a philosophy that would buoy her despite all hardships. She wrote, “We may know that we have not long to stay in this world and what a consolation it is to think we are prepared for a better one.”

She obviously also had a deep faith in her spiritual self for she penned, “I may never more see you on this earth, and if not, try and meet me in Heaven for I trust, if I am called off that I will go there.”

The letter ended, “So, farewell” and was signed by Emily Lawson.

As a person who enjoys history, there are a few things of interest I’d like to point out about this story.

Readers should know that the Josh Butcher farm was known at one time to be the largest farm in Logan County. And, many decades prior to strip mining, it logically contained the most level farmland in the region.

Perhaps that is why the Rev. J. Green McNeely in the mid-1930s sold the property that today remains known as The Logan Country Club golf course near Chapmanville.

Also of interest is that Ann Lawson’s husband, Anthony, died of cholera two years after his wife’s murder while he was returning up the Guyandotte River from taking furs and ginseng to market via the Ohio River. His gravesite stands out in a Revolutionary War cemetery in the community of Guyandotte that is in Cabell County.

His tombstone, like his wife’s, describes in detail his death and where he was from. It, too, is encompassed by an iron-railed fence.

Unfortunately, I must conclude by saying that Emily Lawson, as described by Howard Alley, is NOT the person buried in Logan.

However, if I were Logan Circuit Judge Josh Butcher, who hails from Chapmanville, I just might want to look into my genealogical background.

Who knows? It could be scary.

Happy Halloween!

Dwight Williamson serves as magistrate in Logan County. He writes a weekly column for HD Media.