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The House Mountain Tragedy of 1846

(for the County News)

In the winter of 1846 we had a snow storm equal in severity to the stormy weather of last February. the snow fell to the depth of fifteen or eighteen inches and was accompanied by high winds. the thermometer fell to 10 degrees below zero, making a storm period memorable in the history of the county.

On the night of December 16th of that year, the Petigrew family, living between the two House Mountains, perished, making a tragedy still fresh in the memory of the older inhabitants of the county. Mrs. Petigrew and her six children lived in this rather secluded place, her husband, John Petigrew, being in the employ of Mr. Wm. Alphin, who lived about two miles from their home. John Petigrew was a plain unassuming man and respected by all who knew him for his integrity of character. He was in the habit of visiting his family from time to time, arranging for their comfort and support. On Sunday he went home and to his great surprise and distress he found his home burned and his family lying around in the yard dead. Mrs. Petigrew was found in a sitting posture with some clothes thrown around her, her little boy lying across her lap in his night clothes. Two of the girls lay on the ground facing each other, half clothed, a third was sitting on a log and leaning against a stump, while the other two lay on the ground in their night clothes. Their bodies were covered with soot and ashes and frozen to the ground. An inquest was held at the home of William Wilson by Coroner Samuel R. Moore, with Drs. Wilkinson and W. P. Rogers as medical experts who gave it as their opinion that Mrs. Petigrew had come to her death by violence, there being some wounds on the head and throat. No marks of violence were found on the other members of the family. It was the opinion of many that the Petigrew family had been murdered and suspicion at once pointed to James Anderson as the guilty party; he lived about a quarter of a mile from their home.

Anderson was a man of very bad character and had the reputation of being a great thief. He was once caught in a bear-trap, stealing corn from one of the Sniders living in the Baths neighborhood, and on another occasion, he was whipped at the whipping-post for a similar offence. The night of the tragedy Anderson and a man from Augusta County went to Billy Brain’s, who lived in the Hackings neighborhood, and from there went to Augusta, Anderson not returning to his home for a week or ten days afterwards. He soon moved with his family to Botetourt County and, in the spring of 1851, five years afterward, Sampson P. Moore, a brother of Mrs. Petigrew, received a letter from a man by the name of Wilson stating that he had information that Anderson had murdered the Petigrew family. Moore went at once to Botetourt and had Anderson and his wife arrested and brought to Lexington. A man by the name of Taylor had for some time been a frequent visitor in the Anderson family and had been confidentially told why they had left Rockbridge. In the meantime, Taylor and the Andersons had a falling out, the former telling Wilson that the latter had murdered the Petigrew family. This circumstance led to Anderson and his wife’s arrest. For some cause, Taylor and Wilson’s evidence could not be fully brought out in court. In all probability, this was the turning point in the trial that cheated the hangman out of a job.


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