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.


  1. That's some story. Like a real life mystery....almost a mystery.

  2. Wow. How awful. To have a loved one die under any circumstance is difficult, but to not know who or why (exactly) would be terrible. It does put a community story in the quilt ~ that's for sure.