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County History

Allegany County's First Murder Among Settlers (1803)

Note: There seems to be some disagreement about the spelling of the victim's surname, as well as his death date. Some sources refer to the victim as Ira Stevens, while other sources call him Ira Stephens. Additionally, various sources maintain his death date was either September 19th, or the 20th, or the 21st. We have used the spellings and dates as they appeared in the original documents. 

Ira Stephens (or Stevens) is buried in Until the Day Dawn Cemetery, in Angelica, N.Y.


Transcribed from the Belmont Dispatch, July 29, 1904. 

THE FIRST MURDER

Elm Tree Turns Blood Red On Every Anniversary

John Rogers Killed Ira Stevens With an Elm Cane Over A Poker Game –– The Cane Was Buried With The Corpse And An Elm Tree Sprang up

The [Van Gorder] murder and the trial of the Italians accused of perpetrating the crime brings to mind the legend connected with the first tragedy in the history of Angelica, or, in fact, Allegany County. The following is a story as told by Angelica's oldest residents :

On the evening of the murder September 21, 1803, Ira Stevens and one John Rogers were playing cards in the old Exchange Hotel, which stood where the Presbyterian Church now stands. Stevens, who was a brilliant and well educated man of [43?] years, had come to Angelica with Philip Church, while his partner, Rogers, was one of the most disreputable card sharps in America. Rogers was said to have been expelled from the British Army for cheating at cards, and was known to have been driven from Montreal for sharp practices at the gambling tables.

The two played a quiet game until about 11 o'clock, when the play became more exciting, until at last each had a small fortune upon the table. At a critical moment of the game Stevens drew a pistol and jumping to his feet, accused Rogers of cheating. Rogers, with a snarl snatched a heavy elm cane from his opponent’s hand, and with another blow laid him senseless on the floor. Steven's skull was crushed, and he died just as the the clock finished striking the midnight hour.

The murdered man was buried in the Angelica Cemetery, and his was the first body buried there. Because of some superstition the elm cane which the [murder was committed was also buried in the] grave. The murderer was brought on trial at Batavia in the following December, but escaped in the dead of the night during a terrific snow storm. It is said that he found shelter with a tribe of Iroquois Indians, and with them spent the remainder of his life.

On the first anniversary of the murder a small elm tree, said to have been grown from the club buried with Stevens, was found growing from the center of his grave. The tree still stands, now towering to the height of nearly eighty feet, and the credulous will tell you that each year on the anniversary of the murder the bark of this tree turns blood red as a perpetual reminder that the penalty for the deed was never paid.

Certain it is that the main facts of the story are correct. Harvey Miles who died some time ago at the age of nearly 100 years, was a firm believer in the legend, while John W. Gibson, son of the pioneer, who now resides in Angelica, says the story is substantially the same as has been current from his childhood. The grave is now marked by a moss covered stone of shale, probably the one originally placed there and bears the name, age and date of the murder. At the foot of the grave is a marble marker, probably of later origin.– –Cuba Patriot


 

From History of Bradford County, Pennsylvania : with biographical selections, p.369 (Bradsby, H.C.; Publ. by S.B. Nelson, 1891):

Capt. Ira Stephens was a soldier of the Revolution, his certificate of honorable discharge, at the closing of the war, was signed by General Washington. He was the father of Chester Stephens, also of the late Ira H. Stephens, of Towanda. Was made a Mason in Newton Lodge, February 24, 1794; Was killed by a desperado in Angelica, N.Y., September 19, 1803, where he was buried with Masonic honors.

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