Sunday, June 11, 2017

Reverend Steadman and "The Most Wicked Man in the World"

Grave of Reverend Darius Steadman
Evergreen Cemetery, Union City
I arrived at Evergreen Cemetery with directions to the gravesite I was searching for and thankfully they were correct as I was standing at the grave in a matter of minutes. Near the back of Evergreen Cemetery on the eastern edge of Union City rests a simple grave of a Civil War veteran and Methodist preacher who has become a piece of regional lore.

The simple grave marks the resting place of Reverend Darius Steadman.

Born May 1, 1831, Darius was born in Erie County near the border with Warren County, the son of a pastor. In 1857, at the age of twenty-six he was licensed to preach by the Erie Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He would be appointed as pastor of the congregation at Shippensville in 1858.

During the Civil War he enlisted with the 105th Pennsylvania Volunteers, also known as “The Wild Cats.” He contracted typhoid and was sent home to recuperate. After his service during the Civil War he returned to the ministry. See note below about his service in the Civil War.

Reverend Steadman was eventually appointed to the oil boom town of Pithole, which is often regarded as one of the worst towns to ever exist within the borders of Pennsylvania. The first people settled the area in January 1865 when oil was struck nearby. By May of that year the town was laid out and businesses began arriving. With the growth came violence.

Into the oil boom town came Reverend Steadman. He was not the typical preacher of the time. The Reverend sported a full beard in a time when preachers were expected to remain clean-shaven. Much to the dismay of the Methodist Church of the time, which frowned upon the usage of tobacco, the Reverend smoked a pipe. Despite what the higher-ups of the conference may have thought about his appearance and faults, Reverend Steadman was able to identify with the oil workers.

Upon his arrival in Pithole, Reverend Steadman found no church or suitable place to preach, so he preached his first sermon there in a stable.

Seeing the need for a church building, he set about working towards that goal. By August of 1865 he had secured a piece of land that had been donated for the erection of a church and by October he had eight thousand dollars in funds for its construction. The building was forty by eighty feet with an octagonal tower that soared eighty feet into the air. On March 24, 1866 the Methodist Church opened for services and would be officially dedicated that May.

One thing Reverend Steadman did to bring the workers into the building and into the faith was to encourage them to come as they were, which meant they arrived in dirty work clothes and muddy boots.

While there he recognized the need for the children in Pithole to have an education. He went about to secure funds and soon classes were being taught in the basement of the church.

Grave of Reverend Steadman
There is one story involving the Reverend that marks his place in history and makes him a piece of regional lore. It involves a confrontation with the notorious Ben Hogan. Ben would later identify himself as “the most wicked man in the world.” Before arriving in Pithole Ben Hogan was a known boxer and general trouble maker. Ben’s arrival in town was marked with fights and he would be connected to a number of assaults around the area.

While in Pithole, Ben Hogan became involved with French Kate, who ran a brothel. The true identity of French Kate is unknown, but the name she was known as while living in Pithole was Kate LeConte. Ben Hogan admitted in his later years that Kate may not have been her real name but even he was not completely sure of her given name. Rumors of the time said she was a Confederate spy who had an association with John Wilkes Booth who had lived in the region for a short time trying his luck in drilling for oil.

Ben became a bouncer in French Kate’s brothel and helped her to obtain girls. One of Ben’s methods of obtaining young ladies was to run advertisements in newspapers in the Buffalo region of New York. The advertisements would ask for young ladies to come to Pithole in order to work as a nanny. Once they arrived, Ben would force them into French Kate’s brothel. If they did not agree to work for the madam, the young ladies would be held against their will and starved until they agreed to the demands.

The activities of French Kate and Ben Hogan were known, but little was done to stop them. That would all change one day when a young lady arrived in town from Buffalo. A short note before I continue: A number of places refer to the young lady being named Rebecca, though I’m not one hundred percent sure where or when the name became connected to the girl. The earliest versions of this story I’ve uncovered does not mention the girl’s name..

When the young lady arrived in Pithole, she was greeted by Ben who spirited her away to French Kate’s brothel. Despite the threats, she refused to do their bidding, so she was locked in a second floor room and starved. Somehow the young lady managed to write a letter and slip it out of her window. The letter was addressed to her mother in Buffalo and somehow the letter managed to make it to the young girl’s mother.

When the mother arrived in town she approached Ben and demanded to have her daughter returned. Ben denied that the girl was present stating that he did not know of such a girl. The mother went about seeking help and finally arrived at the doorstep of Reverend Steadman.

The Reverend listened to the mother’s story and knowing something had to be done, took action to recover the young lady from her kidnappers. He found three others to help him with his plan. Each armed with a pair of pistols the group of men went to the brothel to retrieve the young lady.

The minute the quartet arrived French Kate disappeared, leaving Ben to deal with the intrusion alone. When Reverend Steadman asked for the captive to be turned over Ben laughed and denied that he had the girl. Ben suddenly discovered himself confronted by four sets of pistols pointed at him. His story changed as he suddenly remembered that he did have a young girl who might be the one they sought in a second floor room. Ben led the men upstairs and released the girl to their care. The girl was happily reunited with her mother.

Reverend Steadman would leave Pithole in July 1867, when he was reassigned to the church in Freedonia. He would continue to serve the conference at many locations around western Pennsylvania until his death in 1907.

Pithole did not last long after Reverend Steadman’s departure. When the oil wells failed to produce regularly in 1868 the town died a long, slow death. By November 1876 the community was gone, except for the Methodist Church that was erected through the efforts of Reverend Steadman.

Finding the grave of Reverend Steadman in Evergreen Cemetery is much easier than it would appear when arriving at the cemetery. Coming out of Union City on Concord Street, enter into the cemetery through the first set of gates. Go to the first intersection and turn left. This road will go around to the rear of the cemetery. At the back of the cemetery the road splits, take the left hand road and his grave is immediately on the left next to the road.

If you choose to visit, please do so with the respect that the area deserves.

Note about the Civil War service of Reverend Darius Steadman: There is some confusion about Reverend Steadman’s time with the 105th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. Most sources state that he served until the Battle of the Wilderness, which was in early May 1865. However, I’ve found conflicting sources that state otherwise. The Pennsylvania Digital Archives has a listing of Civil War Veterans and I’ve found Darius listed in the files. His information states that he enlisted August 28, 1861 at Pittsburgh as chaplain for the regiment. His file states he resigned on June 23, 1862 which means he served less than a year.

I also came across a listing of charges he served at Forestville Circuit, which was a part of the Erie Conference. However a history of the Erie Conference contradicts the appointment listing of Reverend Steadman by firmly stating that he served through the Battle of the Wilderness.

I personally believe that the record of him serving less than a year is the correct one, but the contradicting resources leaves me wondering.

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