All posts by Dan Rolph

Supernatural Lore in Fleming County, KY

I recently had the privilege of visiting my childhood Kentucky home to conduct research, visit important sites, and speak at the Fleming County Public Library on “Supernatural Lore in Fleming County, KY.” We had a great turnout. The local paper wrote up a piece in advance of the event.

The Ledger Independent

FLEMINGSBURG | Author Daniel Rolph will be at the Fleming County Library on Thursday, Oct. 30 at 6 p.m. to talk about the Supernatural Lore of Fleming County.

Rolph has many family connections in Fleming, Mason and Lewis counties, as well as an extensive knowledge of local folklore, much of which has never been published. He is also the author of My Brother’s Keeper: Union & Confederate Soldiers’ Acts of Mercy During the Civil War, available as a Kindle book, but currently out-of-print. In addition, he is the author of a blog called History Hits and Hidden Histories.

Rolph is originally from Maysville, but his father was raised in Rolph Hollow near the Beechburg/ Mount Carmel/Foxport area. The senior Rolph served in the 36th Infantry Division in World War II and received two Bronze Stars for “Heroic Achievement in Combat. “ Rolph’s mother, now 90 years of age, was a Eubanks from Bald Hill.

Rolph is currently the military and frontier historian and head of reference services at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. He is also a senior lecturer in history at the Montgomery County Community College where he teaches early American history, the American Civil War and Western Civilization, as well as many other academic level courses during his 27 year career in four local colleges and universities.




A Deathly Encounter with Balls of Light: A Halloween Story

Earlier this year, a Huff/Post/YouGov poll revealed that 45% of Americans believe in ghosts, or in the spirits of the dead, and that those revenants can and have often returned to certain places and situations known in life. Though many are skeptical of such beliefs, Carl Jung, the famed psychologist, summed it up quite well in 1919, when he remarked that, “I shall not commit the fashionable stupidity of regarding everything I cannot explain as a fraud.”

Having mentioned the above, I have always been intrigued by an incident recorded within the Providence Gazette & Country Journal on March 19, 1814. During that period, Trumble County, Ohio, was still a frontier. Major Richard Elliott, a former resident of Kent, Connecticut, and veteran of the Seventh Connecticut Regiment of the Continental Line during the American Revolution, had afterward migrated to the town of Poland in Ohio, where he experienced what the newspaper described as “truly extraordinary” circumstances in regard to his death. This encounter with the supernatural or paranormal was also published in H.C. Bradsby’s work, History of Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, printed in Chicago in 1893.

Suffice it to say, that one Sabbath evening, Richard Elliott was walking along a local highway, not far from Poland, when “he observed two lights coming towards him in the shape of a half moon.” These strange orbs then “seemed to enclose him in a circle round his breast,” after which he then heard distinctly, a voice ask the following question, “Are you prepared to die?” He answered, “If it’s God’s will, I think I am.” The mysterious lights then passed on, but then turned and followed him until he had passed the local cemetery or graveyard, where “they made a stand, and he could observe them on looking back for half a mile.”

After reaching his home, Maj. Elliott related to his family the strange events to several people, both friends and family, stating how he believed that “he was soon to die, and made preparations accordingly, with manifest resignation to the will of Providence.”

It is recorded that, on the third day after seeing the above lights, “he was seized with the prevailing epidemic,” became “raving insane, and in twenty-four hours died.” The author of this blog has personally obtained his last will and testament, which indeed confirms his death in 1814.


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Putting the Hex on Hitler!

Some people assume that the magical practice of using a likeness of a person to influence his actions or destiny is a product of Haitian or West African Vodou or Voodooism. Yet such paranormal acts are not exclusively African in origin. Image Magic, or invultuation or envoutement as it is officially known, has been around for centuries in many countries. In European folk traditions, clay, wood, metal, and wax all have been used to make life-like images of individuals. Purportedly, the victim will suffer torment or pine away as the doll is stabbed, drowned, burnt, or tortured in some way.

According to a Latin work known as the Laws of Henry I, invultuation (along with poisoning, sorcery, and other forms of black magic) was considered to be murder as early as the twelfth century. In 1538, “a wax baby with two pins stuck in it” was discovered in a London churchyard. A man who was knowledgeable about sorcery declared that the maker of the puppet “was not his craft’s master, for he should have put it either in horse dung or in a dung hill.” As late as 1916, a woman showed a County Sussex vicar in England a “rude figure cut out of a turnip,” which contained “two pins stuck into that part which represented the chest” purportedly made by her husband in order to afflict her.

It is not surprising then that during World War II, supernatural customs that were still prevalent inEurope were used to afflict nefarious characters such as Adolf Hitler with disease or death. These photographs, found within the Philadelphia Recordphoto morgue at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania, reveal that the belief in “image magic,” persisted at that time.

In February of 1941, residents of Central Europe and immigrants from that area residing in Washington, D.C., called upon the old pagan deity of Istan (akin to the Magyar or Hungarian word Istvan for god) to invoke his wrath to effect Hitler’s demise. Illustrations and even cardboard cutouts of a skeletal figure representing Hitler, along with wooden dolls, were stuck with pins in vital organs in the belief that the mass murderer would thus suffer destruction.

As can be seen in the image at beginning of this article, a cat (often perceived as an animal connected to witchcraft) invokes its inherent powers upon “a doll-image of Adolf Hitler” by leaping onto an altar to examine the pin-pierced figure at weekly hex-related meetings.

The collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania abound with modern imagery of a centuries-old custom, along with other supernatural-related materials. Perhaps these items will entice to you make a research trip to the Historical Society this Halloween, if you dare!


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The Other Korean War: A Little Known Conflict in American History

Hugh Purvis, a native of Philadelphia, along with John Andrews of York County, Pennsylvania, were two of fifteen United States sailors and marines to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor for their involvement in a Korean War. This is not to be confused with the Korean War, which transpired from 1950 to 1953, in which the United States suffered over thirty-six thousand casualties. Too few Americans are aware of the first contact and conflict between America and Korea, which occurred during the summer of 1871, though many Koreans today are as acquainted with the event as we are with the battle-cry “Remember the Alamo” from the Mexican-American War.

In the latter-part of the nineteenth-century, Korea was referred to by many in the West as the Hermit Kingdom since it, like other Far Eastern countries, practiced a close-door policy in regard to Western mercantile trade and commerce. At times, this isolation during the Joseon (or Choson) Dynasty was shattered by the appearance of American vessels and their crews, as occurred in January of 1853 with the USS South America, a gunboat that visited the city of Busan on its way to Japan. Similarly, in January of 1866, the American ship Surprise, as the result of a shipwreck, left without incident from Korea. That same year however, an armed vessel known as the General Sherman brought about the first hostilities between Americans and Koreans on the Taedong River on the northwest coast of the country, resulting in the loss of life of not only Americans, but Malaysian and Chinese sailors serving on board. This is since referred to as the General Sherman Incident.

Later in that same year, a number of French Christian missionaries, or “white-skinned barbarians” as the Westerners were called, were met by the Koreans who tortured and beheaded them. Though France sent an armed force to assault Korean forts in retaliation they were defeated by the Korean military. Consequently, because of the General Sherman Incident and a desire for an increase in trade with the Far East, the United States Secretary of State, William H. Seward, believed it was “high time” for Korea to become part of the international community whether they wished to do so or not. In May of 1871, Frederick F. Low, U.S. Minister to China, and Rear Admiral John Rodgers, commanding some five ships of the Asiatic Squadron, left Shanghai, China, sailed to Japan, and by May 16th ventured into the territorial waters of Korea, with gifts and a letter addressed to King Kojong.

Though the United States Expedition to Korea, or the Shinmiyangyo as it is known in Korea, was peaceful in nature, the Korean government felt otherwise since American ships sailed into Korean waters uninvited. Korean forces fired upon one of the American warships on June 1, 1871. The United States response came on June 10, as U.S. vessels off the waters off Ganghwa (or Kanghwa) Island fired a barrage against the Korean forts, after which hundreds of American troops disembarked and a battle began in earnest.

Once on land, the American forces encountered the elite armed unit of Korea known as the Tiger Hunters, who reportedly received their title from having each killed a tiger. Though the Koreans did possess primitive firearms and cannons, they were primarily skilled in the use of spears, swords, and bows at the time of their contact with the American armed forces, and thus were out-gunned and at a technological disadvantage.

The first American to die or become mortally wounded during the attack, at what is known as the Citadel, was Lt. Hugh Wilson McKee, serving on board the USS Colorado and a native of Lexington, Kentucky. According to the Harrisburg, PA State Journal, on July of 1871, McKee had actually “expressed a wish to die, at the head of a storming column,” and true to his desire, while leading a force over the walls of the fort with “a sword in one hand and a revolver in the other” he was shot in the groin and had a spear thrust into his side by a Tiger Hunter.

By the end of the conflict, some 350 Korean soldiers perished while only three Americans were killed, one being the aforementioned Lt. McKee, also Seth Allen, and a marine named Denis Hanrahan. The Americans truly had no wish to conquer the country, but only desired to open up trade relations with Korea. Thus, after the Battle of Ganghwa, even though five forts had been taken and twenty captives captured, the American ships by July 3 had left for China, with the Koreans believing they had won a military victory over the Americans.

Most Koreans at the time believed that the Westerners were in reality seeking to loot, steal, and destroy the famed tombs of their royal ancestors or rulers. Many of these tombs were indeed renowned for their gold, jade, and jewels, as witnessed in the surviving relics of such imperial archeological treasures as has been found in Korea, dating to the Silla, Baekje, and Joseon Dynasties. Not until 1882 would the United States and Korea officially negotiate a treaty between our two countries, and the rest is history.


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A Philadelphia Connection to the Wild West

Though most people are familiar with Wild West characters such as showman Buffalo Bill Cody and sharpshooter Annie Oakley, far fewer have heard of famed theatrical promoter Gordon William Lillie, known as Pawnee Bill, and his Philadelphia connections. Lillie was born in Illinois, but he spent time living in Philadelphia and organized numerous Wild West shows in Harrisburg. (Officials in Harrisburg recently sold off a number of artifacts related to the Wild West.) Lillie, along with various tribes of Native Americans, Bedouin Arabs, and gauchos from Argentina, thrilled crowds with their own version of Wild West heritage.

While residing in Philadelphia, Lillie married 17-year-old Mary Emma May Manning at her parents’ home in 1886. May Lillie became an extremely significant part of her husband’s show, acting the part of sharpshooter and equestrian rider, similar to the famous Phoebe Ann Moses or Annie Oakley.

Lillie recruited Indians to participate in his shows, and this was not without controversy. During August of 1891, Lillie, who was living in Philadelphia at the time, wrote several letters to Herbert Welsh, corresponding secretary of the Indian Rights Association, concerning 14 Winnebagoe Indians from Wisconsin.  According to some accounts, the Winnebagoe Indians had worked for Lillie for 10 weeks without pay, and they complained Lillie was retaining “beads and clothing belonging to them.” However, Eagle Eye, an interpreter for the troupe, remarked how certain members of the group were paid regularly and given a receipt but “would go out and get drunk, and would be unable to perform their work in the show.” Incidentally, those accused did not reside on a reservation like the others but were citizens of the United States.

The Sixty-Second Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs in 1893 (pictured at left) criticized the use of Indians as actors. According to the report, “the Indians are taken permanently from their reservations to travel through the country and give entertainments to fill some man’s pockets with money.” The report remarked how some young Indians of the Kaw tribe of Oklahoma had been “taken away for show purposes” and returned as “victims of loathsome diseases contracted among vicious whites.” However, Pawnee Bill (or the Hero of Oklahoma as he was also called) continued to receive authorization from the government to take Indians off the reservation for show purposes.

On March 20, 1894, Lillie received authorization to take a group of Indians from Rosebud Reservation or Lakota Sioux from South Dakota to the Antwerp Exposition in Belgium. The Red Star Line steamer Illinois took 25 Sioux Indians to Belgium on April 25, 1894, and arrived back in Philadelphia on August 17 of that same year. Records listing the names of the party are found in the passenger arrivals, available at the Mid-Atlantic Branch of the National Archives in Philadelphia. However, not everything went as planned.

The Annual Report of the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for 1895 (pictured at right) stated that the Indians, upon their return, brought “unfavorable newspaper comment as to the treatment they had received abroad.” Local newspaper accounts such as those printed inThe Philadelphia Inquireron August 1, 1894, remarked how an Indian papoose named Red Star was born at sea soon after the vessel left port to an Indian named Walking Woman. The mother became sick and died, and was quietly buried at sea despite her husband’s belief she would be taken back to “the Western country” upon their return from Europe. Another account dated August 18 stated how an Indian named Squaw Holy Blanket was forced to abandon her sick 6-year-old child and return to the United States due to her own failing health.

The United States agent in charge of the Rosebud Reservation later made an official report dated December 27, 1894, attesting that “all of the Indians claimed to have been badly treated, improperly and insufficiently fed, underpaid, and abused by the man in charge of them; and that they all emphatically refused to go again with Pawnee Bill.” Still Lillie attempted once again and applied to the government to take Indians abroad for show purposes. This time he was refused.

Though Pawnee Bill and his Wild West Show was popular for a number of years, Lillie eventually retired to Pawnee, Oklahoma, where he died on February 3, 1942. His wife became an ardent supporter for the preservation of the buffalo and starred in her own movie.

Wild West shows, like the American frontier, eventually became a thing of the past. However, they helped maintain an interest in the history of Western America and its inhabitants that has never waned.


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A Little Known Activity of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society

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The Pennsylvania Abolition Society was founded in 1775 by a group of mostly Quaker men in Philadelphia. Originally called “the Pennsylvania Society for the Relief of Free Negroes Unlawfully Held in Bondage,” the group’s primary mission at that time was to render aid to free people of color who had been wrongfully enslaved.

The papers of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society are on deposit at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. One can assume that the collection solely concerns the freeing of African Americans during the 18th and 19th centuries. However, there is a relatively unknown portion of this collection that describes the actions of the Barbary States in North Africa. Preying on European vessels for centuries, pirates from the Barbary States began capturing American ships and their crews during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

On July 30, 1785, Algerian Muslim pirates captured the Philadelphia ship Dauphin and enslaved its crew. The Dauphin’s crew, along with thousands of other enslaved Christians from Europe and America, suffered death, starvation, and abuse in North Africa for many years. Additional incidents with the Barbary pirates escalated to such a degree that in 1788 members of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society appointed a committee to: “Consider reports on the Case of our fellow Citizens now in Captivity in Algiers…that this subject calls for the attention of every friend of liberty and humanity and particularly of this Society whose declared objects are the mitigations of the rigours of Slavery, and the total abolition of that unjust and cruel practice…”

The Society’s minutes continue that a “Committee of thirteen Persons be appointed to endeavor to obtain information concerning the American Prisoners captured by the Cruisers, of any of the States of Barbary…” The thirteen members of the committee (a “Who’s Who” of the day) were published in the Philadelphia newspaper, the Pennsylvania Journal, on July 8, 1789 (pictured). They were: James Pemberton, Jonathan Penrose, Tench Coxe, Richard Wells, Nicholas Collins, William Rogers, Samuel P. Griffiths, Thomas Harrison, Francis Bailey, Thomas Wister, John Oldden, Caleb Lownes, and Casper W. Haines.

The minutes of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society go on to emphatically declare that: “proper measures be immediately taken by this Society, to obtain information of the late places of abode, names, numbers, and real situation of the Citizens of America now in Captivity in the States of Barbary…Subscriptions under the care of this Society be opened in the several States in the American Union for the purpose of obtaining the Funds which may be necessary to administer such relief as their Situation may require….”

Among other correspondence concerning the acts of the Barbary pirates is a letter dated May 24, 1789, written in Salem, Massachusetts, which recounts the tale of crew members of the New England Brigantine Success who were captured by a Turkish Galley and later escaped. This can be found in the Loose Correspondence, Incoming: 1784-1795 of the Society’s papers. Additional material can also be found in letters from July 1789 written by John Skey Eustace, who had served as a Major Aide-de-Camp to a number of American generals during the Revolutionary War.

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society worked toward the permanent destruction of slavery in all its forms, not only for those Africans enslaved in the Western Hemisphere, but also for those white Americans taken by the Barbary pirates. Subsequent actions in North Africa would later be referred to as the Barbary Wars, or “America’s first war on terror,a conflict carried out under three American presidents. Many references exist within the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers on this important issue and should be examined in greater detail by scholars who continue to examine the broad subject of slavery in American and world history.

The Pennsylvania Abolition Society is still an active organization today. To learn more about the Pennsylvania Abolition Society Papers, please see the edition of Pennsylvania Legacies magazine on the Pennsylvania Abolition Society and HSP’s Digital History Project on the PAS Papers. To learn more about the Barbary Wars and their Philadelphia connections, read Dr. Daniel Rolph’s Hidden Histories blog post.

The Fort that Saved America

***The original post can be found here***

For six weeks in the fall of 1777, the British fired upon Fort Mifflin along the Delaware River in an attempt to drive out American troops. This was one of the largest bombardments of the war and a pivotal moment in the American Revolution.

Construction of Fort Mifflin on what was referred to as Mud Island began in 1771. Funding and political issues caused delays, and the fort was not completed until 1775 by the Continental forces.  It was named in honor of Major General Thomas Mifflin of the Continental Army, who later became Pennsylvania’s first governor.

Beginning in late September 1777, British forces under General William Howe began amassing forces on the mainland and islands near the fort. Fort Mifflin was under the command of Lt. Col. Samuel Smith, a native of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, who had previously served with distinction at the famed Battle of the Brandywine.

In early October, the fort’s garrison of approximately 300 American troops engaged the British. British naval forces unleashed a heavy cannonade of artillery, largely from the five batteries located on Province Island some 400 to 500 yards away. Fighting continued for five weeks with neither side achieving a decisive advantage. During the siege, Gen. George Washington was in Whitemarsh Township, Montgomery County, with few troops or supplies to spare to aid the beleaguered fort.

With the weather turning colder, General Howe needed a decisive blow. Beginning on the 10th of November, the British batteries hammered Fort Mifflin with 18-, 24-, and 32-pounders demolishing the barracks, blockhouse, and artillery pieces.  American casualties were high, and Lt. Col. Smith was knocked senseless at one point by falling debris from a chimney. Writing from the fort on November 11, Smith still was hopeful that he would be able to hold out for another five days.

However, an American deserter carried intelligence to the British regarding the sad state of the fort’s reserves, and that news strengthened British resolve. With daylight on the 15th, the sounding of a bugle announced the incessant bombardment from both land and sea batteries of a barrage of missiles upon the fort. The sound was so loud that it reportedly shook buildings in Philadelphia and South Jersey.

In the first hour, it is estimated that more than a thousand cannon balls were fired, which practically leveled the fort. On the evening of the 15th, with the American flag flying overhead, the survivors of the battle escaped across the river to Red Bank, New Jersey. When British forces entered the next morning, they found Fort Mifflin abandoned and destroyed.

Although an American defeat, the battle of Fort Mifflin demonstrated the tenacity and patriotism of the American forces. Delaying the British for six weeks allowed Washington and his tattered army to reach and encamp at Valley Forge. Without the actions of the troops in the fort, it is quite possible that British forces would have attacked Washington’s army, and the outcome of the Revolution could have been very different. This battle earned Fort Mifflin the moniker, “The Fort that Saved America.”

In 1795, Fort Mifflin was rebuilt and remained an active military base until 1954. It functioned as a prisoner-of-war camp during the Civil War and was part of Naval Ammunition Depot during World War I & II. It was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1915. Fort Mifflin still stands today on the Delaware River, at the mouth of the Schuylkill, as a testament to the will and determination of the American spirit.