Thursday, October 11, 2018

How a Story Happens: A Wartime Murder

While working on research for the first ghost walk, I came upon a two-line mention of a young soldier who was killed by the Home Guard in our town and buried in a shallow grave on the banks of Mill Creek.

The first year, I worked with that small amount of information to create a very short story that was mostly conjecture. Since then I have researched enough to finally have the whole story, or at least as much of it as has surived in written records or oral transmission. This is the story, as best as I can put it together.

The year was 1862. War between the states was just beginning to move into more remote areas, and western Virginia was no exception. Here the scant population was divided in their loyalties. Some, partlcularly the well-to-do and those who owned larger tracts of arable land, favored the Confederacy. There were others less affluent who saw the war as an act of aggression on independent people and joined the cause of the South. And then there were those pressed into service in the Confederate army unwillingly; this happened more than we might think on both sides because many men saw the war as no business of theirs and wanted to remain at home and care for their farms and families.

And then there were the renegades. These were roving bands of men who saw the war as an opportunity to plunder and take what they wanted. They claimed a loose affiliation to one side or the other and gave themselves military rank that suited them. Such a group was the Mocassin Rangers who operated in central and western counties of what is now West Virginia.

The Mocassin Rangers were led by a man from Calhoun county named Daniel Duskey. His sons Andrew and George were members of Duskey's band and so was Josiah Parsons. Josiah (called Joe) hailed from the West Fork River region of the county; his father was one of the first, if not the first, settlers in what is now the town of Spencer. "Devil Bill" was one wild man, and perhaps the fruit didn't fall far from the tree.

After a notorious raid on Ripley in December 1861 Joe, Daniel and George Duskey and other Mocassin Rangers were taken prisoner by Union soldiers in a surprise attack a few months later. The Rangers were taken to Wheeling and put in jail, but George Duskey and Joe Parsons  managed to escape by claiming to be sick. They were taken to a hospital but made their escape en route. Joe made his way back home to the West Fork.

For some reason I have not been able to discover,  Joe Parsons took a trip to Ripley. He was followed by some of his West Fork neighbors who apparently didn't like his politics or his sctivities with the Rangers. Perhaps he was making his way to Ohio with a view to heading west to wilder lands; perhaps he was going to visit family still in the area. Whatever his reason for the trip, it was a fatal choice.

As he was traveling along the old Ripley-Ravenswood Pike in the area around what is now 7th Street, he was accosted by the Ripley Home Guard. The Home Guards were usually composed of local men who were too young or to old to join the military, so they became defenders of their local communities. Some were as renegade in their actions as the guerilla groups. I am pretty sure that there were none too happy to see one of the men that had raided and embarrassed their town only months earlier.

There is no record of what transpired when Parsons, the Home Guard, and the people from the West Fork met. But the result was violent. A gun was put into Parsons' mouth, and in the words of some local historians, "they blew his head off." The Home Guard were thrown into confusion as to what to do next, so they carried the body of Parsons to the home of Enoch Staats, the leader of the Guard, and asked what they should do. Staats advised them to bury the dead soldier by the creek behind his home, and that is what they did.

So somewhere along the banks of Mill Creek, behind the Sheriff's office built on the site of the Staats' home, there lies the remains of Josiah Parsons. He was only 23 years old.

Perhaps, though, young Joe is no longer in that shallow grave. Mill Creek frequently comes out of its banks and there have been many floods over the years that might have carried his remains all the way to the Ohio River. There are those who claim that while the location of his body might be in question, his spirit still roams the banks of Mill Creek.

Copyright Susanna Holstein. All rights reserved. No Republication or Redistribution Allowed without attribution to Susanna Holstein.

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