Skip
Navigation

West Virginia
Historical Society
Quarterly

Membership Information

The Short Unhappy Life of William Seymour Douglass

By Frederick Nolan

CONTINUED FROM OCTOBER ISSUE

Perhaps the case referred to was one that happened in November 1875. In his capacity as a deputy sheriff, Douglass was ordered by the Lampasas grant jury to arrest a Dr. J. W. Hudson for questioning. Hudson was a former dentist who had abandoned his profession to run a gambling house. Douglass and his posse found Hudson about two miles from Lampasas and arrested him. On the way back to town, Hudson broke away and was pursued about a mile. Douglass ordered the fugitive to stop, but Hudson refused to do so, drawing his pistol. Douglass, armed with a Winchester, exchanged fire with Hudson, who was fatally wounded. He died in the Star Hotel (now the Keystone Hotel) at Lampasas the next day.

An alternative, and perhaps likelier reason for Seymour's needing to leave Lampasas is that he became involved in the affairs of his dangerously volatile brothers-in-law, once more practicing their wild ways in Lampasas. Soon afterwards he was slightly wounded in a street fight there involving Merritt Horrell, who let it be known he was going to whip local rancher and former county commissioner John C. Cooksey. "Cooksey had gone on Merritt's bond and then surrendered him," recounted a contemporary. As the rancher came into town, his friend Dick Hughes managed to warn him. "Cooksey was unarmed, but soon got a gun and met Merritt. Merritt was going to whip him in a fist fight, but Cooksey opened fire and shot at him two or three times. One shot hit Douglass who was standing around, but the wound was slight. Some thought that Cooksey fired at Douglass on purpose as there was an irrelation between the two."1

Douglass, described as "a good looking, bright fellow," seems to have been cursed by ill-fortune. He wife Sally Ann died in childbirth in 1876 and soon thereafter, Douglas returned to West Virginia. According to George B. Moomau of Petersburg, to whom the story was passed by his father, William Moomau (1875-1940) and to him by Grandfather George Moomau (1829-1880), the Douglass family lived in "the second house north of the main intersection of the four roads leading into Petersburg. The Moomau house was the fourth one. Seymour was said to be a rather unruly boy and young man."2

On April 3, 1877, on the Moorefield Pike below the residence of J. B. Baker near Petersburg in Grant County, Douglass shot the mail carrier, a young boy named David Hiser, three times -- once "just below the chest in and upon the left side," once in the back and then on the right side of the chest "about four inches below the right nipple" -- then threw his body into the river. An account written a decade after the events describes it thus:

The day of the murder several registered letters were put in the pouch carried by the boy and this knowledge came to the ears of Douglas(s) who waylaid and shot the boy, inflicting a serious but not fatal wound. The boy in endeavoring to escape the assassin ran his horse into St. Johns run and swam across, only to met his murderer, who ran across a bridge and headed him off and deliberately murdered him as he came out of the water.3
On testimony rendered by George S. Harney and others (which was later suggested to have been perjured), Douglass was indicted for murder by the grand jury on June 5, 1877. Although the details contained in the indictment give no indication of the cause or motives for the killing, the Petersburg tradition, as recounted by George Moomau, confirms that
Seymour heard that the mail contained money for a local business. The temptation was too much for this young outlaw so he planned an ambush and murder. He selected the Petersburg Gap, one mile east of town where the South Branch of the Potomac River goes through a narrow gorge in the mountain. He hid in the rocks above the road and shot Hiser as he approached on horseback. He then pilfered the mail, crossed the river, and returned to Petersburg through brush and forest growth. No mention of any loot, so I am assuming it (the robbery) was unsuccessful. Hiser's horse, who had made this trip many times, came wandering into Petersburg without mail or rider.

Much excitement ensued and a posse was formed, which included about every able-bodied man in town and it was followed by a number of young people on foot. Seymour joined one of these groups. I can't remember the circumstances leading to the arrest of Douglas, but I think he was seen coming into town from south Petersburg not long after these happenings began.4

William Seymour Douglass went to trial on Monday, September 17, in the Circuit Court at Petersburg. Judge James D. Armstrong of the 12th Judicial District presided. The defense opened with a request for a change of venue, claiming the accused could not get a fair trail in Grant County. The prosecution presented a large number of affidavits from prominent men from all over the county to prove that he could. Judge Armstrong reserved a decision until it could be ascertained if a legal jury could be obtained.

On Thursday, (September 20) Sheriff Smith summoned about forty qualified jurors, in addition to the panel of thirty jurors, out of which eight had been found qualified. On Friday evening, a jury was made up and sworn in, comprising the following gentlemen: W. F. Tucker, Daniel Shell, Moses Feaster, Lloyd Kitzmiller, John Vest, John Swires, John Simmons, Jacob Lee, Solomon Clark, Henry Berg, Allen Michael and Isaac Taylor.5

Evidence was introduced by the prosecution that an army pistol with four loads in it had been found in the possession of one Peter Welton, a brother-in-law of the prisoner (suggesting that {a.} Douglass had married again on his return to Petersburg, or {b.} Welton was married to one of Douglass' sisters). Welton kept the pistol in abureau drawer in his house at Petersburg. The State based its case on the fact that four shots were known to have been fired, that Douglass had been seen to go into the house "before he started in the direction of the place and on the day the murder was committed," that a track in the mud at the scene had been identified by a witness as having been made by Douglass, that the aforesaid pistol was found at the scene of the crime.

When the pistol was offered in evidence, Douglass' attorney, a Mr. Norment of the firm of Sprigg, Flournoy, Norment and Pugh, objected on the grounds that the pistol had been a privileged communication between the prisoner and his counsel, improperly and by force obtained from said counsel. The court overruled the objection and allowed the introduction of the pistol as evidence.6

The trial concluded on Wednesday, October 3. "The jury remained in consultation for about two hours and rendered a verdict (of guilty) on Wednesday night."7

Upon his being sentenced to life imprisonment in the Moundsville penitentiary, Douglass' attorney moved for a new trial, which the court refused. The prisoner then entered six bills of exception, two concerning the refusal of the court to agree to a change of venue, one the court permitting a witness to testify to a track (footprint) allegedly made by the prisoner when he had no measurements of said track, and the others challenging the means by which the State had obtained the pistol.8

At the time of his imprisonment in 1878, Seymour was a fraction over 5' 9" tall, with light blue eyes, light blond hair and a fair complexion. He had a scar in the center of his forehead and two more under his left ear, caused by scrofula (TB of the lymph glands in the neck). In addition he had two gunshot wounds above the hip.9

Some time shortly thereafter, Douglass somehow escaped custody. "While he was a fugitive from justice," says George Moomau, "he spent much time in and around Petersburg and he was constantly being pursued by law enforcement people. On one occasion it was reported that he was hiding in the barn behind his mother's home. The search revealed nothing, but later Seymour reported that at the time he was hiding under the hay in the hayloft when a Sheriff's Deputy drove a pitchfork between his body and arm, but missed him."10

Eventually Seymour fled to Texas. He must have returned more or less immediately to Lampasas, because on July 3, 1878 he was arrested there by Sheriff Albertus Sweet and his deputy, Doolittle, whose finger Douglass almost bit off in the struggle. George Moomau says the Petersburg tradition is that Seymour "was arrested in Texas sleeping on a hill with a six-shooter in each hand." Subsequent to his arrest, Sweet escorted him back to West Virginia and collected an $1100 reward which he shared with his deputy.11

On August 24, 1878, Douglass was incarcerated once more in the State Penitentiary at Moundsville. He appears in the 1880 census as being 29, married, and assigned to work in the wagon shop.12 On November 18, 1882, however, the Supreme Court found the record showed that Douglass had "put in a plea to the indictment, and the jury tried the case and rendered a verdict when no issue had ever been made. The Attorney-General admits very properly, that this is a fatal error and the court could not, on such a verdict, render any judgment. The judgment rendered must therefore be set aside, reversed and annulled, and the case remanded to the circuit court of Grant (County) to be further proceeded with."13

Douglass was discharged from the penitentiary November 25, 1882 and sent for a new trial. He was collected from the Wheeling, Ohio County jail by Sheriff Scherr and Jailor Bauer and brought to Maysville, 10 miles north of Petersburg, where he was placed in the same cell he had previously occupied. "He will be brought before the Circuit Court that convenes on the 27 inst. for trial" said the report, adding that the prisoner, who "after being shaved presented a very genteel appearance," looked "pale and thin and has very little to say. He shows the great pressure and wear of prion life . . . (and) says if he has to return to the penitentiary he don't think he could live long."14

His trial commenced in the Grant County court on Tuesday, March 27, Judge Armstrong again presiding. The State was again represented by F. M. Reynolds and W. F. Dyer, the defendant by Col. Robert White, S. L. Flournoy and A. B. Pugh. After motion to quash the indictment, a motion for change of venue was made by the defendant and a number of witnesses were examined by both sides. On the evening of Friday, March 30, after argument of counsel, Judge Armstrong granted a change of venue and directed that the trial would be held in Mineral County commencing April 24. Douglass was taken to Keyser, just a few miles from his home town of Romney, the following day.15

On Saturday, May 5, 1883, he was again found guilty of murder in the first degree and sentenced to life imprisonment. "The verdict," said the South Branch Intelligencer, "seems to have given general satisfaction to the public. The opinion is that it was plain and clear case of murder." Noting that on the first ballot the jury divided eight for hanging, two for penitentiary for life, and two for acquittal, the newspaper then reproduced Syemour's words in his own defense.

Your Honor: When you have spoken, it will have been the second time you have pronounced the sentence of the law upon me for the same offence, and also a like sentence of imprisonment for life. On the former occasion I had nothing to say, because I was under the influence of liquor, and consequently to a great degree insensible to the grave surroundings. But I feel thankful that I stand before you all and before God this morning, in full possession of all my faculties, and can declare to you and to all the world that I am innocent -- wholly innocent -- of the fearful, heinous crime with which I stand twice convicted. In all the mass of evidence produced by the State in the former trial, through 80 or 100 witnesses, but one material circumstance was testified to that I know to be false. But not so on this occasion! No less than six witnesses have come upon that stand and have sworn blackly false, false, false! And that, too, in the most damaging circumstances of this case.

With but two exceptions these witnesses stand high as good and true citizens, and I am disposed to believe they were honestly mistaken, notwithstanding the fearful consequences to me. I know that you regard me as a guilty man beyond a doubt, but I thank God that does not make me so. The prosecution in this case have often referred to the hand of Providence pursuing me at every step and pointing me out as the guilty man. How far this is true the circumstances of the case fully show. I cannot explain them. Would to God I could! My innocence would be established. And though I am now sent away to a living tomb, there is a great, a good, and an all wise God who will not forsake me but will in His own good time, provide a way of deliverance. Have the eloquent gentlemen on the prosecution noticed the hand of the loving Father on my side of the case? Have they, in all the annals of criminal procedure through the ages, or in their own experience, known of a man charged with so foul and dastardly a crime as that with which I stand twice convicted, whose neck has been twice saved? Did they vent their spleen and pursue and urge my blood to be taken? These very walls almost yet resound with their cries for blood, blood, blood! Have they ever reflected as to what ruled the minds of men at this moment? Yes, sir, there is an all-wise and good God who will never let me die for this crime! I hope to bear the burden now to be placed upon me with such patience and fortitude of soul that His smiles may go with me and strengthen me all the lonely hours of my prison life.

I am covered with shame and confusion when I look back at the abused and blasted opportunities of my life! But out of it all how glad I feel that Ican stand before God, who knows all things, and declare that my hands are not stained with the blood of this good man. And now, sir, I will only say that you can proceed with your duty and send me away.16

The judge did just that. Seymour was returned to Moundsville and it was from there that he wrote that long, sad letter to his nephew Maurice, dated Sunday, December 12, 1886. Exactly when Seymour Douglass died we may never know; his name does not appear anywhere in the death records of Marshall County, where the prison was located (although there are numerous instances where prisoners are known to have died or been executed who are not in those records). More specifically, he does not appear in the census for 1900, so it is probably safe to assume the short, unhappy life of William Seymour Douglas ended before the new century began.17

It is the writer's hope that this brief outline of his life may lead to the location of descendants of William Seymour Douglass, who might be able to provide us with further information about his life and a more definitive ending to his story.

Notes

1. J. Evetta Haley, Interview with John Nichols, May 15, 1927 at Lampasas, TX. Haley History Center, Midland, TX.

2. Personal communication, George B. Moomau, Petersburg WV, January 23, 1995.

3. State of West Virginia vs. William Seymour Douglass, Indictment and True Bill of the Grand Jury, William F. Tucker, Foreman. Courtesy Betty C. Moomau, Clerk of the Circuit Court, Grant County, Petersburg, WV. Wheeling, WV, Sunday Register. April 21, 1886. op cit.

4. George B. Moomau to Nolan. op cit.

5. Romney, WV, South Branch Intelligencer, Friday, Sept 28, 1877.

6. Cornelius C. Watts, Reports of Cases Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia at the June, August and Fall-Special Terms, Vol XX, 1882. (Wheeling: C. H. Taney, 1883) 771-792.

7. Romney, WV, South Branch Intelligencer, Friday, October 5, 1877.

8. Watts, op cit.

9. Prison Records, West Virginia Penitentiary, Moundsville. Courtesy John Massie, Moundsville State Penitentiary, WV.

10. George B. Moomau, op cit.

11. Nolan, op cit.

12. US Bureau of the Census, Census for Moundsville, Marshall County, WV, by Asst. Marshal O. A. Manning, June, 1880. Courtesy Debra Basham, Archivist, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Charleston WV.

13. Watts, op cit.

14. Petersburg, WV, South Branch Gazette, Friday, March 9, 1883.

15. Romney, WV, South Branch Intelligencer, Friday, April 6, 1883.

16. Romney, WV, South Branch Intelligencer, Friday, May 11, 1883.

17. Research by Debra Basham, Archivist, West Virginia Division of Culture and History, Charleston WV.


West Virginia Historical SocietyWest Virginia Historical Society

West Virginia History CenterWest Virginia History Center

West Virginia Archives and History