Sunday, August 13, 2017

Gettysburg's First Shot Marker

First Shot Marker, Gettysburg
Front side
As with all of the previous times I had traveled west on Route 30 from Gettysburg, I missed the marker. Even as I zipped past it, the GPS began screaming for me to find a place to turn around and head back east.

"Did you see a monument?" I asked Zech who confirmed that he too had missed the marker.

I quickly found a place to turn around I slowly drove back towards the location where the GPS claimed the monument was located. Thankfully there were no vehicles behind us as I approached the location.

“There it is,” Zech observed as I slowed down. The monument I was seeking was located at the junction of Chambersburg Pike (Route 30) and Knoxlyn Road. After making a quick assessment of the area I decided to turn around once again and return to the location, I hesitantly pulled off on the northern edge of the road parking slightly on the grass of the house next to the monument. Putting the four way flashers on, I grabbed my camera and got out.

"You coming?" I asked Zech whose look told me I was on my own so I walked westward along the very busy Route 30. The monument is located roughly three miles west of Gettysburg on top of a small hill on the north side of Route 30. It stands only a couple yards away from a nearby house and in all of my trips through the area I assumed that the marker was part of the homestead. Unsure if the house next to the monument had somebody living in it or not (and already feeling bad that I was temporarily parked in their yard), I remained along the edge of the road until I arrived at the marker. Making my way up the hillside on a well-worn path, I found myself standing at the marker known as "The First Shot Monument."

First Ahot Marker, Gettysburg
Eastern side
A note about the land that the Marker is on: In researching the monument and its history, I came across a number of articles that revealed that I did not have to worry about crossing the yard because it was now a part of the Gettysburg National Battlefield.

I made my way around the granite marker reading the words chiseled into it. On the front side of the monument (the southern side and the side facing Route 30) is written: First shot Gettysburg July 1st 1863 7:30 am. Making my way around the monument, I took in the writing on the other sides of it. The eastern side states: Fired by Cap. Jones with Sergt. Shafer's carbine. Co. E 8th Ills. The northern face reads: Erected 1886. And the west side of the monument reads: By Capt. Jones, Lieut Riddler, Sergt. Shafer.

While many people have claimed to have fired the first shot that started the Battle of Gettysburg,  one of the strongest claims is held by Lieutenant Marcellus E. Jones (he would later be promoted to the rank of Captain as it is marked on the stone). Jones was a member of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry and had been assigned picket duty along the Chambersburg Pike.

The soldiers of the Eighth Indiana, along with those from the Twelfth Indiana and the Third Indiana, were sent out to watch for any signs of the Confederate army. The unit took command of a small hill west of Gettysburg that gave them a view of the Chambersburg Pike. This advantage point happened to be in the yard of local blacksmith and gunsmith Ephraim Wisler. Please see note below for more information about Ephraim Wisler.

First Shot Marker
Northern side
Around 7:30 on the morning of the July 1, 1863, dust was spotted coming from the direction of Cashtown. Those on picket duty watched as the cloud of dust grew and soon the Confederate troops came in sight. This division of the Confederate Army was under the command of Major General Henry Heth. The pickets waited and watched as the Confederate troops started crossing Marsh Creek, about a half mile west of the Union troops. It was then that Lieutenant Jones decided to take action.

Borrowing a carbine from Sergeant Levi Shaffer, Jones rested the rifle on the rail fence and took aim at a mounted officer and squeezed the trigger. It is not recorded if he hit his target or not, but it would seem he indeed missed. But the shot was enough to draw the attention of the advancing Confederate forces. The Confederate artillery under the direction of Major William R.J. Pegram returned fire. The first round of cannon fire destroyed the trees above the Union soldiers.

The Union forces would retreat and the Confederates would take control of the farm.

Returning back to the monument where I stood, it was placed in 1883 by Jones, Shaffer and Alec Riddler (an associate of theirs) in 1883. They brought the shaft of Illinois granite to the Wisler farm (owned by James Mickler at this point) and purchased a small plot of land to erect the monument. Over half of the shaft is buried in the ground providing stability to the monument. At the time of the placement, the Chambersburg Pike was level with the marker - due to time and resurfacing the road over the years, the Chambersburg Pike had been lowered, placing the monument on top of a hill along the road.

In the years of exploring Gettysburg, I had never realized that the monument or the fact that the first shots happened miles away from the main battle. I guess that I am as guilty as countless other people who tour the battlefield thinking that all of the action occurred at the main battlefield.

After paying my respects to the brave men of the 8th Illinois who served and to Marcellus Jones whose shot touched off the battle that would rage over the next couple of days, I returned to the vehicle ready to explore more corners of the battlefield.

Please be careful when visiting the monument, there is very little parking and traffic on Route 30 can be heavy at times.

First Shot Marker
Western side
About Ephraim Wheeler: In researching the history of the First Shot Marker, I found an interesting story about Mr. Wisler and a mystery that surrounds his death.

According to some early sources, after the firing began, Mr. Wisler stepped out of his house to see what was going on. As he emerged from the building, a Confederate shot hit the ground immediately in front of him, covering him with dirt. This was enough to send him back into his house. Wisler was said to have taken to bed, never to rise again and died less than a month later - the shock of the near death experience with the cannon ball supposedly paralyzed him.
I’m not sure if he died of shock like these sources state because he did file a claim after the battle for loss and destruction of property.

If he didn’t die of shock, then what killed him? If the story of the cannonball exploding in front of him is true, then it may be possible that Ephraim died of wounds from the skirmish. When the cannonball exploded in front of him, it may have fragmented and injured Wisler, causing the paralysis and his eventual death. If this is the case, then Jennie Wade was not the only civilian who died during the Battle of Gettysburg.

There is another possibility about the cause of Ephraim’s death. His house was used by the Confederate Army during the battle as a hospital. Mr. Wisler most likely contracted a disease of some sort from the soldiers treated there and, left unchecked, caused his death a little over a month after the battle.

What is known to be fact is Ephraim Wisler died August 11, 1863 and was buried in the Lower Marsh Creek Presbyterian Cemetery along Knoxlyn Road.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

The Babes in the Woods Murders

Memorial to the Noakes Sisters
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
I pulled into Westminster Cemetery on the northwestern edge of Carlisle in search of a number of graves relating to a tragic murder that shocked the residents of the Cumberland Valley and grabbed the attention of the nation. While I had the names I sought and the directions to three of the five graves, I had a vague idea where the other two were resting. I knew Zech and I would definitely have another challenge trying to locate those two graves without help, but we did have an extra hour to look around the cemetery grounds.

Heading west on Route 641, known locally as the Newville Road, we passed the first entrance to the sacred grounds and turned right into the cemetery at the next entrance. I only had to drive a very short distance to the first intersection -- the location of the three graves for which I had directions. In the middle of the intersection, beneath a large evergreen, rests the headstone of three girls.

Plaque on the Noakes Memorial
The plaque on the stone gives a brief account of their story:

The Babes in the Woods

Norma Sedgewick Noakes    Aged 14 Years
Dewilla Noakes                     Aged 10 Years
Cordelia Noakes                    Aged 8 Years

Natives of Roseville, California
Found dead in South Mountains near
Pine Grove Furnace, November 24, 1934

The morning of Saturday, November 24, 1934, should have been a normal day for the residents of the Cumberland Valley. However the discovery made by Clark Jarmine and his uncle, John Clark, while cutting firewood on the northern slope of South Mountain would be anything but normal.

The two men noticed a large green blanket spread out roughly twenty feet from the road (present day Centreville Road) with something obviously beneath it. They tossed around ideas what was under the blanket. It could possibly be a deer that had been poached, waiting for the poacher to come back and get it. Another possibility, due to the beer bottles littering the ground was it was somebody from the nearby Civilian Conversation Corps camp who got drunk and was sleeping off their night of drinking.

What they discovered was neither of those two. Lifting up the corner of the blanket they discovered the bodies of three young girls. Dropping the corner of the blanket, the two of them ran to contact the authorities of their grisly discovery.

When the authorities arrived at the scene on South Mountain, they found the bodies of three young girls who they believed were sisters due to all three having similar facial features, light brown hair and grey eyes. The girls were placed side by side and appeared to be peacefully sleeping.  An autopsy revealed that the three girls had been either straggled or suffocated by a soft blanket or pillow and had been dead approximately two to four days before their discovery.

The public’s reaction was unlike anything the area had seen before. Many people viewed the bodies at the crime scene in an attempt to identify them. After the girls were moved to the funeral home in Carlisle, over ten thousand people passed by them in the first twenty-four hours in an attempt to identify the bodies, but nobody recognized the trio. Locals, afraid that they would be discarded in the local Potter’s Field and forgotten about, raised money to have them buried in Westminster Cemetery with a proper marker. Under the guidance of American Legion Post 101, the funds were gathered for their burial.

The same day that the three girls were discovered, authorities near Altoona were investigating a murder-suicide that happened near Duncansville. The two bodies were identified as Elmo Noakes (32) and his niece Winifred Pierce (18) originally from California.

Soon a connection was made between the three girls found on South Mountain and the the two bodies found in Duncansville. The girls were identified as Norma Sedgewick and her two half sisters, Dewilla and Cordelia Noakes.

Memorial along Centreville Road
The tragedy that happened in Pennsylvania had its origins two years earlier in Roseville, California. On July 10, 1832, Mary Noakes passed away leaving Elmo to care for their two children and the daughter Mary had from her first marriage. What no one could have realized at the time that Mary’s death, that would be the first step resulting in the tragedy that happened on the opposite side of the country two years later.

Unable to take care of them by himself, Elmo sought help from his niece (by blood) Winifred Pierce. Winifred dropped out of school six months before the tragedy to become Elmo’s housekeeper and eventually his lover. This bizarre relationship caused fighting within the family.

On November 11, 1934, Elmo and Winifred hastily packed the girls in a 1929 Pontiac sedan Elmo had just purchased and fled California. A week later, on November 18, the group was spotted in North Philadelphia. They were approached by a lady who noticed the hungry and tired looking girls and offered to buy some food for the youngest.

The family stayed at a campground near Langhorne from November 19 through November 21. It is believed that when they left the campground that night, Elmo murdered his step daughter and two daughters.

Elmo and Winifred drove westward and would toss their suitcase out along the way. A hunter discovered the suitcase on November 22 roughly two and a half miles away from the place the three girls were to be discovered two days later. Turning it over to authorities, they found it belonged to the family from a puzzle book with Norma's name written in it.

Grave of Winifred Pierce
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
That same day (November 22) their abandoned car was discovered. Though the license plate had been removed the vehicle's identification number proved it to be the one Elmo had purchased the day before they left California. Side note: I find it odd that while other details of this case were covered closely by the newspapers at the time, where the car was abandoned seems to be very vague. Most newspaper reports list it as being abandoned between Pine Grove (meaning Pine Grove Furnace) and McVeytown, which is quite a distance between the two. A couple modern sources place it as being found near McVeytown, which would make a little more sense due to the fact Elmo and Winifred must have either hitched a ride or jumped a train to end their journey into Duncansville that evening.

On November 23, Winifred sold everything they had remaining on them and Elmo used the money to purchase an old .22 rifle. That next day, he shot Winifred in the heart and head before turning the weapon on himself. Their bodies would be discovered at the Spring Meadow Railroad depot at Duncansville.

Sadly, the police, after investigating the crime scenes said the reason Elmo killed the girls was because he could not afford to take care of them. Not wanting them to grow up in poverty or in an orphanage, he made the terrible decision to end their lives.

The three girls were buried in Westminster Cemetery resting side by side, in the same order that were lying when they were discovered. Elmo and Winifred would also be buried in this cemetery, quite a distance from where the girls rest.

We finished paying our respects to the girls before attempting to find the graves of Elmo and Winifred. With only the vaguest directions to go on, it was Zech that noticed the flag flapping by itself in another portion of the cemetery. Curious about the lone flag, we walked over and it was Elmo’s grave. His grave was marked with an American flag for his service in the Marine Corps. Strangely the date on the stone for his death is wrong. It states he died November 9 instead of November 24. In the plot next to him rests Winifred.

The rest of our time of exploration in the cemetery was done in silence, stopping by the girls' grave on the way out to once again pay our respects before leaving them to rest under the watchful eye of a community that came to adopt them as their own in the wake of the tragedy.

There is a marker placed along Centreville Road that depicts the location where the girls were found. While there is no place to safely park near the memorial, there is a driveway a couple yards away where I parked and walked back to the memorial.

As always, if you choose to visit the cemetery or the memorial I ask that you do so with the respect both spots deserve.

Grave of Elmo Noakes
Westminster Cemetery, Carlisle
A note of interest: Every article I've read in the newspapers of the time regarding this tragedy states that the bodies were placed at the location around eight the night of November 23. The reasoning behind this theory (as listed in the newspapers of the time) was due to the blanket covering the bodies was damp but not soaked from the rains of November 23. The the timeline listed in many Pennsylvania newspapers on November 30 correct this error stating that the girls had to be on the mountain on the morning of November 22. For some reason many modern retellings still state that the girls were placed there the night of November 23.