April 14, 2014

An Unspeakable Act (Part 1)

The Ohio Historical Society in Columbus has a worn and faded eight-pointed star quilt from Columbiana County, Ohio.  The quilt measures 229 cm. by 248 cm.  Its blocks are set en pointe and the quilt is inscribed in ink with names, locations, and dates on most of its fifty-six blocks.  The years inscribed on the quilt are 1845 and 1846.

Columbiana County Quilt.  Photograph courtesy of the Ohio HIstorical
Society, Call No. H84240.

The community represented by the quilt's inscriptions was like any other nineteenth-century American community, with all life's usual joys and sorrows.  However, in the course of her research, Lynda discovered a particularly dark event, perhaps more startling to Quakers who were known for eschewing acts of violence.

Two of the quilt's inscribed names are Edward Courtney and Phebe [Votaw] Courtney -- both associated with a tragic event that occurred in Butler Township, Columbiana County, only sixteen years before their names were placed on the quilt.

Phebe Votaw Courtney's first cousin, Rachel Votaw, was found murdered on September 7, 1829, lying on a pile of rocks in the swamp on her father's property.    Rachel was the daughter of Moses and Mary Brown Votaw, was considered one of the prettiest young women in the county, and was eighteen years old at the time.  Her death is recorded in her father's Bible with the following notation:  "murdered plain circumstances say by James Courtney."

Swamp land on the property previously owned by Moses Votaw, Butler Township,
Columbiana County, Ohio.  Photograph courtesy of Helen Ward Wolfgang.

The Courtney family, like the Votaws, had roots in both Loudoun and Harrison Countys in what-would-later-become West Virginia.  Both of these families migrated to Columbiana County, Ohio, in the early 1800s, both were members of the Religious Society of Friends, and both belonged to the New Garden Monthly Meeting in HanoverTownship.

James Courtney's brother, Edward Courtney, had married Phebe Yates Votaw in 1823.  By 1829, James Courtney was courting Phebe's cousin Rachel against the will of Rachel's family.  The cause of their concern is not entirely clear.  Quaker records prepared in 1829 (after Rachel's murder) reveal concern about James' sporadic attendance at Meeting and his penchant for imbibing "spirituous liquors", both of which might be frowned upon by Rachel's family.  But the source of the family's concern may have exceeded these rather mundane transgressions.  It is possible that violent tendencies ran in the Courtney family.  Years later, in 1895, James Courtney's son, Daniel, murdered his daughter's husband -- a man named Frank Swaney.

Newspaper accounts of the Swaney murder noted that Daniel Courtney's father, James, has been accused of murdering Rachel Votaw over sixty years earlier.  The story that ran in the Salem Daily News on October 4, 1895 gave a full account of Rachel's murder and its aftermath as recounted by older residents of the area.  This account reads, in part:  "James Courtney was the lover of Rachel Votaw and it was understood that they were engaged to be married.  The girl's parents objected to the match. [. . .]  Courtney was denied admission to the house of his sweetheart and they met clandestinely.  One night Rachel left her house, supposedly to meet her lover.  The next morning her body was found in a swamp on her father's farm.  A silk handkerchief was found knotted around her neck and the cause of death, by strangulation, was shown by the distorted and livid face of the former beauty.  A strange circumstance connected with the murder was that the handkerchief found about the girl's neck had belonged to her brother."

Another view of the Moses Votaw property.  Photograph courtesy of Helen 
Ward Wolfgang.

James Courtney was arrested for Rachel's murder.  The newspaper account of 1895 says that he was tried for the murder but acquitted based on the testimony of a fellow-Quaker and the circumstantial nature of the evidence presented. However, no criminal court record about the trial and its proceedings could be found.

In mid-January, 1895, Charles Stratton Votaw, the son of Rachel's uncle Joseph, wrote to his cousin Elihu H. Votaw about the family's perception of what happened.  "That beautiful and loved Aunt of thine [Rachel] was murdered and report then said that some of the Hicksite familys [sic] done all they could to shield that scoundrel of a Jim Courtney, that died a few years ago and just before his last he said he murdered Rachel Votaw.  I remember my folks talking and a man I think his name Galbreth that swore in court that Jim was away that night she was killed, so it could not of been him.  [...]  My mother saw the thumb and finger marks on her throat and always believed she was choked to death by that demon, but those I speak of tried to make it appear that she had tried to choke herself to death by tying her handkerchief around her neck."

Elihu H. Votaw, recipient of the foregoing letter.   Photograph courtesy of
 Margaret L. Stuntz.

Some of what Charles Votaw conveys in the letter above is the lingering distrust and ill-feeling brought about by the schism of 1827 that split the Religious Society of Friends into two factions: the Orthodox and the Hicksite.  All of the Courtneys joined the Hicksite faction and were disowned, while most of the Votaws remained Orthodox.  Interestingly, Rachel's parents, Moses and Mary Brown Votaw, became Hicksites which makes Charles' statement about the Hicksite families "shielding" James Courtney deserving of more scrutiny.  This and other topics will be addressed in our next post, revealing how the Quaker community in which she lived dealt with Rachel's death.


Chenoweth, Lynda Salter.  Neighbors and Friends: Quakers in Community, Life in 19th Century Columbiana County, Ohio.  Thorofare, NJ: Xlibris, 2010.  Note: Some of the text for this post is taken from Lynda's book.

Hinshaw, William Wade.  Encyclopedia of American Quaker Geneaology, Vol. IV.  Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, 1946.

Stuntz, Margaret L.  The Ancestors of Mahlon Votaw (1826-1919), Votaw Volumes, Vol. 2.  Decorah, Iowa: The Anundsen Publishing Co., 2001.

(c) Lynda Salter Chenoweth and Mary Holton Robare, 2014.

April 2, 2014

The Search for the Fylfot

In the course of looking at historical Quaker quilts, we observe a dizzying array of quilt block motifs.  There are not any that we can say are exclusively Quaker, or preferences that are found outside the mainstream culture.  However, one will catch our eye and make us ask, "where did THAT come from?"

Cather-Robinson Quilt, c. 1850.  Detail.  Collection of the Willa Cather Institute 
of Shenandoah  University, Winchester, VA.  Photograph by Mary Holton Robare.

We began the search for the origins of this symbol, referred to as "Fylfot" and with a variation known as a "Fylfot Cross", with a couple of quick e-mails and a post to an online quilt discussion group. In short order we learned quite a lot!  It is not uncommon to find fylfots on quilts, both as an applied motif and stitched in quilting.  

Researcher Kay Triplett shared a picture of a block from a wonderful going-away friendship quilt.  You can see four fylfots surrounding a fleur-de-lis medallion on this block.

Quilt detail and full view.  The Poos Collection.  Courtesy of Kay Triplett, Curator
for the Quilt and Textile Collections.

Kay further shared, "These swirly fylfots were considered good luck symbols [...]  From what I have been able to learn online, fylfot is a Celtic or Anglo Saxon word, and I think of the Irish as the source of the 4 leaf clover good luck symbol."

In Decorative Motifs from the Southern Backcountry by Kay Moss, we discover that the fylfot appears on, as well as in the quilting, of historical quilts.

Quilt detail.  The Poos Collection.  Courtsey of Kay Triplett, Curator for the
 Quilt and Textile Collections.

The fylfot motif also appears on painted furniture, stamped into the tin of pie safes, on eighteenth-century Moravian pottery, and on German Frakturs as well.

Interestingly, we discovered that some people refer to the motif using an alternative spelling of "Flyfot" or "Flyfoot".  Common knowledge suggests this is a German term, short for "Fly foot."  Brief searches of two online quilt indexes do not yield any immediate hits for "fylfots" but each has quilts indexed as under the pattern name "flyfoot".  What shows up in these searches is a less-curved motif than the fylfots shown above. The more angular "flyfoot" form is recognizable as a swastika.

Today swastikas are so powerfully associated with the hate-crimes perpetrated by Nazis during World War II that it is virtually impossible to imagine them appearing on the quilts of pacifist Quakers.  However, prior to World War II the symbol carried more benevolent meanings such as well-being, good fortune, or good luck.  It was also associated with Native Americans.

Quilter's Scrapbook, newspaper clipping dated 1930.  Collection of Mary Lynne Smith.

For all our curiosity, we still do not know how the motif made its way into the c. 1850 Cather-Robinson quilt attributed to a Quaker community of the Shenandoah Valley.  The name inscribed on that block is blurred, but it seems likely that the curved-form fylfot crept in due to the quilt block maker's familiarity with then-popular regional designs.  Here is one of our favorite Shenandoah Valley examples.

Blanket Chest by Johannes Spitler, Shenandoah County, Virginia, 1756-1807.  Yellow
pine, accession no. 1995-94, image no TC1995-24.  The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation,
Museum Purchase.

According to the Colonial Williamsburg web site, "Johannes Spitler (1774-1837) of Shenandoah County, Virginia, may have been a Mennonite from the community settled ca. 1733 by 51 Swiss and German pioneers from Lancaster County, Pa. Spitler is famous for his softwood blanket chests and tall case clocks decorated boldly in white, red, and black designs on a blue ground."

From this we might expect this journey to take us back further in time to Switzerland and Germany.  But searches for origins of patterns, symbols, and meaning rarely follow a straight line.  Researcher Gaye Ingram suggested we seek its roots in Indo-European culture, and pointed out that Mediterranean cultures tended to use the three-footed versions.  As it turns out, the symbol is thousands of years old!

Left: Early Bronze Age, 2,000 B.C. or later Iron age.  Right: Victorian era reproduction.
Above: Swastika Stone, Ilkley Moor, West Yorkshire.  Photographs courtesy of 
Wikimedia Commons.  Photographs by T. J. Blackwell, September 14, 2008.

Ancient carving of the fylfot symbol.  Carpene, Sellero, Val Camonica, Italy. 
Luca Giarelli,  CC-BY-SA 3.0.   Photograph courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


Colonial Williamsburg web site, Online Collections.  Referenced December 13, 2013.

Cushing, Frank Hamilton.  "Observations Relative to the Origin of the Fylfot or Swasatika" in American Anthropologist, New Series, Vol. 9, No. 2 (Apr-June, 1907), pp. 334-337.

Facebook Discussion Group, "Quilts-Vintage and Antique" administrated by Lynn Evans Miller.  http://www.facebook.com.groups.quiltsvintageandantique/. December 13, 2013.

Moss, Kay  Decorative Motifs from the Backcountry 1750-1825.  Gastonia, North Carolina: Schiele Museum of Natural History and Planetarium, Inc., 2001.