The fields of Newtown Square are now largely asphalt streets and tract homes but it’s said a confused young woman in strange clothes can still sometimes be found looking for something lost under the leaves.
And some still say they hear the panicked hooves of a driven horse in the pre-dawn on Chester Pike 10 miles to the south. The rider, they unlikely realize, is rushing to save the life of the woman.
Elizabeth Wilson was born to a family of respected farmers in East Bradford Township 13 years before the Revolutionary War. Her family, unfortunately, sided with the British and the respect was lost along with with much of their land.
So Elizabeth sought affection where she could find it and she found it while working as a barmaid at the Indian Queen Tavern in Philadelphia far from her home. A patron of the tavern left her pregnant just as the war ended and when her condition became obvious she was forced from her job. She returned to her parents’ home where she gave birth to twins sons.
As soon as she recovered enough to travel she returned to the Indian Queen to look for her lover, who upon seeing her feigned joy and promised to marry her.
With a smile on her lips and a sparkle in her eyes she returned to the farm to gather her children and rendezvous with the groom-to-be at the crossroads of Newtown Square.
The happy meeting never happened. Elizabeth disappeared for a week and when she finally did surface she was disheveled and incoherent. Her children were not with her. Their bodies were discovered buried beneath leaves a short time later about 3 miles west of the Square off Goshen Street Road in East Bradford.
Elizabeth was charged with the murders and she was placed in the City of Chester’s 4th Street Jail pending a trial in the Chester Courthouse. Chester at the time was the county seat as Delaware County was yet to be broken off from Chester County.
The trial began in June 1785 before Justice William Augustus Atlee but as Elizabeth wouldn’t say a word in her defense her attorney prevailed to have the trial postponed until fall.
It restarted in October and Elizabeth still refused to offer a defense. The jury had no choice to convict and Atlee sentenced her to hang on Dec. 7.
Elizabeth’s parents abandoned her upon sentence but she had a brother, William, who was apprenticed to a stone-carver in Lancaster County and had been unaware of what happened. When he found out, he rushed to her side arriving on Dec. 3. Elizabeth finally related the details as to what happened. Rather than meeting her in Newtown Square, her lover surprised her in the woods west of the town. He asked to see the babies, then ordered Elizabeth to kill them. She refused so he trampled them to death, then held a pistol to her chest and made her swear that she would never reveal what he had done.
On Dec. 6, William took Elizabeth’s statement to the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania, which at the time was the ruling authority in the state and presided over by Benjamin Franklin with Charles Biddle as the vice president. They agreed to postpone the hanging until Jan. 3.
William began a search for the lover and found him on a farm in New Jersey. He denied ever knowing Elizabeth. William then sought witnesses who could connect the lover with Philadelphia and his sister and successfully found several. Around Christmas, however, William became violently ill and was incapacitated for a week. He lost track of time. On his next visit to his sister, he was horrified to learn she was scheduled to hang the next day.
He rode to Franklin’s home in the city to request another postponement. After a wait of several hours, Franklin determined it was improper for him to act and referred him to Biddle who granted the postponement.
William then began his desperate ride to Chester. The Middle Ferry across the Schuylkill River was not in operation as the river was high and filled with ice flows. The Revolutionary War pontoon bridges over the Schuylkill River had by now all been removed. William had no choice but to order his horse into the frigid waters. The animal drowned 50 feet from the western shore and William swam the rest of the way. By the time he reached land he was 2 miles downstream from where he entered the water. William found another horse and continued to Chester.
Elizabeth, spent the morning with several clergymen and received holy communion. She was moved to the hangman’s lot at Edgmont and Providence avenues where she would be hung from a large, wild cherry tree.
Authorities had suspected a pardon might be forthcoming and stationed flagman along the Queen’s Highway (24th Street) — the most obvious route from the city — to provide a fast signal.
William, however, was coming down Chester Pike. He rode into the lot shouting “a pardon, a pardon” but it was 23 minutes too late. He fell from his horse and collapsed beneath his sister’s swaying feet.
“For my own part, I firmly believed her innocent,” Biddle would later write. “The next day when Council met, and we heard of the execution, it gave uneasiness to many of the members, all of whom were against her being executed.”
William moved west and became a recluse eventually settling in a cave on Swatara Creek in Dauphin County where he would live until his death in October 1821. He wrote frequently, usually on religious matters. He kept himself clean but wouldn’t shave and would acquire a long, white beard. He became known as the Pennsylvania Hermit.