May 1, 2014

An Unspeakable Act (Part 2)

Two years before Rachel Votaw was found murdered on her father's property, she had finished a sampler that read:

"Friendship's soft aid can sooth the mind
When wealth no pleasure can impart
Can make e'en adverse fortune charm
And calm the troubled heart."
Rachel Votaw

Sampler made by Rachel Votaw at the age of sixteen.  Photograph courtesy of
Jane and George Harold of New Carlisle, Ohio.

In spite of the sentiments on Rachel's sampler, friendships that may have helped to heal the sorrow, anger, and disbelief surrounding her murder were undoubtedly torn.  In reading accounts of the day, the pain and rancorous division of those times were apparent.  We can only hope faith helped to "calm the troubled hearts" of Rachel's family and members of their Quaker community.

James Courtney's acquittal of murder did not stop legal action in the case.  An Examency Court record, titled State of Ohio vs. Nathan Galbreath, exists among the County Court records in Lisbon, Ohio, charging Galbreath with perjury related to his testimony on behalf of James Courtney.  This document states: "Examency Court on the 23rd of January A.D. 1830 to investigate the facts of this case.  Defendant charged with Perjury."  Those listed as willing to testify on behalf of the State included Rachel's father, Moses Votaw, and a number of members of the Paxson family.  Those who were to appear on behalf of the alleged perjurer, Nathan Galbreath, included his son, David, his brother, Thomas, and Benjamin Hambleton - the father-in-law of Philena Cooper Hambleton.  (Refer to our post about Philena of March 1, 2013.)

Public square in what-was-then New Lisbon, Columbiana County, Ohio.  Henry
Howe, 1846.  From Henry Howe, Historical Collection of Ohio, Vol. 1 (Cincinnati:
C.J. Krehbiel and Co., 1907), 438.

No records were found to reveal the outcome of the perjury inquiry but a check of the New Garden Monthly Meeting records of those willing to testify in the case showed that Nathan Galbreath was supported by both Hicksite and Orthodox members of the Quaker community.  Charles S. Votaw's letter (cited in the previous post) implied that Courtney was "shielded" by the community's Hicksite families.  However, members of both factions of the Religious Society of Friends aligned themselves behind the family of the victim, the Votaws, and behind Nathan Galbreath, the alleged perjurer.  The divide was not along strictly religious lines and seems more related to personal, community, and family relationships.  Nonetheless, the very act of taking legal action in an attempt to discredit Nathan Galbreath, a prominent member of the Quaker community and the Clerk of the New Garden Monthly Meeting for several years, demonstrates the tension felt by that community over Rachel's death.

Tension in the Quaker community was further demonstrated by the fact that both James Courtney and Rachel's older brother, Aaron, were disowned by the New Garden Monthly Meeting in 1830,

The Upper Springfield Munthly Meeting house at Damascus, Ohio, built in 1856.
Photograph by Lynda Salter Chenoweth.

By this time, Courtney was attending the Upper Springfield Monthly Meeting (also attended by his brother Edward and Phebe Votaw Courtney) at Damascus, about ten miles to the northwest of New Garden.  At the November 26, 1829 New Garden Meeting, its Preparative Meeting brought a complaint against Courtney "for departing from the truth and for using unbecoming language".  Those appointed to "treat with" these matters included John Battin whose surname appears three times on the Columbiana County Quilt.  He and the others who visited Courtney reported on December 24, 1829 that Courtney was not in a "suitable disposition of mind to condemn his misconduct".  Written testimony was then prepared against Courtney and sent to him at the Upper Springfield Meeting.  The "official" testimony of disownment dated January 1, 1830 cites joining the Hicksite faction of the Religious Society of Friends and "use of spirituous [sic] liquors" as the causes for disownment.

It is key to understanding the Quaker practice of disownment that - even despite being accused of murder, partaking of alcohol, and having joined the Hicksite faction - the Meeting's ultimate intention, as was also stated in the disownment testimony, was for Courtney to "find true repentance for his evil ways and turn therefrom".

Three months later in April, 1830, James Courtney was disowned again - this time by the New Garden Hicksite Meeting.  William Wade Hinshaw lists the reason for disownment to be "disunity", a term that was used for repeated disruptive disagreement on doctrinal and other matters decided by Meeting consensus, or to cloak sexual peccadilloes and other "unspeakable" acts.  Hinshaw reports that this disownment was reversed by the Quarterly Meeting in January, 1831.  However, the New Garden Quarterly Meeting records at the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College contain no mention of an appeal or reversal.

Aaron Votaw's disownment ostensibly had to do with his having attended the wedding of someone who married outside of discipline and also that he'd attended a "place of diversion".  The written testimony against him was drawn up in March and he was disowned for "disunity" by the New Garden Meeting on July 22, 1830.

Aaron Votaw (1809-1885).  Photograph courtesy of Margaret L. Stuntz.

Rachel's murder had taken place only months before.  Her accused murderer and her brother were living in an extended community traumatized and divided by this event.  Nothing in the disownments of James Courtney and Aaron Votaw speaks to the tragedy of Rachel's death or the community tension that formed the backdrop for these actions.  The vague term "disunity", cited in Hinshaw's abstracts of Quaker records as the reason for the disownments, does not appear in the written, contemporary Meeting records in either of these cases.  In fact, nothing could be found in the written Meeting records kept during the aftermath of the murder that even hints that such a thing occurred.  Actions to deal with the murder of Rachel Votaw after Courtney's acquittal seem to have been limited to individual disciplinary actions (the disownments) and the legal challenge of Nathan Galbreath's testimony.

As for James Courtney, he married Elizabeth Elviston in 1833, four years after the murder, and subsequently had ten children.  He died May 22, 1874 and is buried next to his wife in the Quaker Hill Cemetery, Sebring, Mahoning County, Ohio.  The location of Rachel Votaw's grave is unknown.

Although events surrounding Rachel's murder are not directly related to the Columbiana County Quilt that was dated about sixteen years later, researching the quilt's inscribed identities demonstrates the way long-lost stories can emerge through the study of historical quilts.


Special thanks to James Hazard of the Friends Historical Library of Swarthmore College, Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, for supplying copies of the hand-written New Garden Monthly Meeting records quoted here.

Chenoweth, Lynda Salter.  Neighbors and Friends: Quakers in Community, 19th Century Life in 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 Genealogy, Vol. IV.  Ann Arbor: Edwards Brothers, 1946.

Stuntz, Margaret L.  The Ancestors of Mahlon Votaw, Vol. 2, the Votaw Volumes.  Decorah, IA: The Anendson Publishing Co., 2001.

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


  1. Wow. Again how sad, but interesting. It's unfortunate that the location of her grave is unknown. I love the stories you find in the stitches.
    Thank you.

  2. Une bien triste histoire,la broderie de Rachel est superbe,bravo a elle a titre posthume
    J'appreçie de passer sur votre blog pour vous lire,cela m'est trés agréable.
    Merci a vous.

  3. Thank you for sharing your history with all of us. A very special sampler.


  4. Thank you for this enlightening history! Rachel Votaw is one of my ancestors! With your permission, may I put your photos and story on my family tree on Rachel's site?

    1. contact me at to talk about your use of the story and photos. I'd love to correspond with a descendant of Rachel's.

  5. This comment has been removed by the author.

  6. I am glad I found this story. Very interesting! I am also a relative of Rachel Votaw.

  7. Very interesting to read this story. James Courtney happens to be my 4th great-grandfather. His grandson, William Courtney was father to Philena Courntey Henry, my great grandmother, who aided in the raising of my mother Karen.

  8. Quite a story-I am also a relative of Rachel Votaw.