Written by Randy Bartley
In celebration of the 150th Anniversary of the Jefferson County Courthouse, please enjoy the following true tale as retold to us by Randy Bartley.
“Aunt Betty” McDonald lived on a remote farm in the Beechwoods area of Jefferson County. She was an elderly woman who was rumored to have a small fortune in her possession.
She relied on her neighbors to do many of the chores on the farm and she would occasionally hire a farm hand.
During the fall of 1865, two men came to the Beechwoods region looking for work. Charles Chase and Dean Graves were rumored to be possessed of somewhat questionable character, but a local shingle-maker named Roderick McDonald, a nephew of Aunt Betty, put them to work in his factory.
On the morning of February 19, 1867, as Roderick McDonald went out to his barn to check on his horses, he encountered Charles Chase. Chase explained that he had slept inside the barn during the previous night because he had no other place to stay. Later Roderick discovered one his horses was missing from the barn. By this time, Chase and Graves had left town. McDonald saddled up one of his remaining horses and chased after the fugitives.
Later that same day a farmhand from an adjoining farm went to Aunt Betty’s house to chop some wood. When the old woman failed to answer the door, the concerned neighbor let himself inside. He found the widow dead on the floor, a stream of blood flowing from her head. In the center of the room was an opened wooden chest. The tin box containing her money was missing. A sledgehammer found in another room was believed to have been the murder weapon.
A posse was formed and Charles Chase was apprehended the following day at Ridgway. He was taken to the jail in Brookville, where he confessed to the crime. He claimed that, after the murder, he and Graves divided the money. Chase took the silver and gold; Graves took the bills and bank notes.
It was learned later that Chase and Graves went to Roderick’s barn with the intention of stealing his horses. They started drinking and they fell asleep inside the stables. Graves woke first in the morning and made good his escape. Chase didn’t wake up until after daybreak and, after his confrontation with Roderick, decided to head to the nearest railroad station in Ridgway on foot.
In May of the following year Chase was tried, convicted and sentenced to hang, the first man to be executed in Jefferson County. At 1:25 p.m. the condemned man asked for a drink of water and then the black cape was placed over his head. He exclaimed, “God have mercy on my soul!” as the trap was sprung. Unfortunately, the hemp snapped and Chase fell to the ground. “It’s hard,” he announced. The scaffold was reset and, at 2:18, the trap was sprung once again, this time breaking Chase’s neck.
Dean Graves eluded capture until the following October, when he was apprehended in Michigan. He was convicted of second-degree murder and sentenced to the Western Penitentiary for eleven years and eight months. His life of crime would continue; he was arrested in Meadville several years later of another serious crime, escaping from the jail in 1885. He was never found.