Chincoteague Beacon, June 6, 2010


The Murderer’s Grave

Special from Tracks in the Sand

by Rick Smith


Anyone even modestly familiar with the history of Chincoteague Island knows the story of the tragic murder of 13-year old Jennie Hill by a young farm hand, Tom Freeman, on June 17, 1885.   Jennie is buried with her parents in the Hill Cemetery on Deep Run Rd. on the Island.  Everyone knows that.  But where lies the body of Tom Freeman?


The conventional wisdom is that Tom Freeman was buried first at 4211 School Street, and then later dug up and reburied behind  in the Catholic church cemetery.  But what is the origin of this tale?


The evidence is based on the testimony of Nat Steelman and Frank Bradford, whose recollections were recorded by Kirk Mariner[1] around 1985 and by Jim Carpenter[2] from his conversations with Frank Bradford.   Sadly, both Steelman and Bradford have since passed away and can’t help us with further details.


The key facts relating to Tom Freeman’s burial come from a story2 told to Frank by his father, William H. Bradford (ca 1887-1968).  When William was young boy (probably around 1900), his father, George W. Bradford (1861-1913), unearthed a skull while plowing up his garden, said to be located somewhere behind what is now Christ United Methodist Church.  The exact location is stated to be 4211 School Street[3], presumably very near the Taylor Cemetery. The skull had what appeared to be a bullet hole that went “in one side and out the other,” side-to-side.  Since the only person known to have been shot in the head and buried somewhere on the Island was Tom Freeman, it was assumed that this must be the body of Tom Freeman. The body was exhumed (note, only one body) and reburied in the cemetery behind what is now St. Andrews Catholic Church (at the time Bethel Methodist Protestant Church) at 6288 Church St.  So, the identification of this unearthed body was based solely on a side-to-side pair of bullet holes; suggestive, but hardly definitive, proof.


Clearly the case warrants more digging, so to speak.  To do so, we turn back to the two most authoritative accounts of the tragedy, the Peninsula Enterprise newspaper of June 18, 1885[4] and the Victoria Pruitt Papers[5].  The information found in the Pruitt Papers was based on two sources, the aforementioned 1885 Enterprise article, and an account of the event that was told to Pruitt by Manie (Hill) Jester, a ten year old eyewitness to many of the events and a granddaughter of Timothy Hill, Jr., Jennie Hill’s father.


The Enterprise account states,  “The neighbors ran over to the scene of the tragedy in time to see Freeman place the revolver to his forehead and blow out, with his last cartridge, his own brains, which were scattered to the top of the ceiling.”4


The skull of Tom Freeman, therefore, should have had an entrance hole in the forehead and a larger exit wound toward the back.  The skull discovered by Bradford had a side-to-side wound.  Based on this evidence, it appears that skull and body discovered at 4211 School Street likely is not that of Tom Freeman.  Victoria Pruitt makes note of an earlier murder “committed down near the Old Roberts Field in the Jim Daisey Field.  No one seems to know much about it.”  Perhaps that incident is the source of the body found by Bradford?  In any case, the evidence for the reburial of Tom Freeman in St. Andrew’s Cemetery is suspect.


It is also common lore that Tom Freeman is today buried beside his mother, the presumption being that she is and was buried in a now unmarked grave in the Catholic Cemetery.  But, the 1885 Enterprise account says that the original burial of Tom Freeman was beside his mother:  “The undertaker took charge of the body and on the following day, in a rude pine box, with a few gaping boys around buried him by the side of the mother he had dishonored.”4   So the oft repeated tale has problems.


The only firsthand account of the event is that of eyewitness Manie Jester (as recorded in the Pruitt Papers), who stated, “Tom was placed in a pine box covered over with black muslin hauled in a cart to his grave.  Some one by – accident – or what burried [sic] him on the grave of Mrs. Sarah A. Hill’s sister at the foot of Mr. Eba Whealton in Whealton burrying [sic] ground up Island.  Known as the Quaker land.  Only a few children followed the body to the grave.”  A bit further on Pruitt reiterates, “Thomas W. Freeman buried at the foot of Mr. Eba Whealton’s bricked-in grave up the Island in the Whealton Cemetery.  (Mrs. Jester)”


For those unfamiliar with the Island cemeteries, the Whealton Burying Ground (not the Whealton Cemetery) is the north end of what is now known as (Holy) Ridge Cemetery.  The Whealton section lies behind and slightly southwest of Christ Sanctified Holy Church on north Main St.  The brick-sided grave of Ebea Whealton, Sr. (1811-1854), with its large, marble slab, is found there atop the ridge.  Close by are two unmarked, brick-arched graves, and the graves and tombstones of several other members of the extended Whealton family.[6]


As to Mrs. Sarah A. Hill, she was born Sarah A. Whealton (1851-1936), married John T. Hill (1847-1921) in 18687, and was the daughter of Eba/Ebea Whealton, Sr.   Sarah (Whealton) Hill’s sister, Elizabeth (1840-1865), married Wallace Pruitt in 18587.  Elizabeth (Whealton) Pruitt’s tombstone stands about ten feet east of the foot of the grave of her father, Ebea Whealton, Sr.    Conclusion, according to Manie Jester, Tom Freeman was buried in 1885 “on top of” [i.e., too close to) Elizabeth Pruitt’s grave in the Whealton Burying Ground.


Note also that the Enterprise is rather explicit in stating that Tom Freeman was buried (1865) beside his mother.  If Manie Jester’s account is correct, then Tom’s mother, Elizabeth (Sharpley) Freeman, must also be buried in the Whealton Burying Ground, close to the graves of Ebea Whealton, Sr. and Elizabeth Pruitt.  But why would Elizabeth Freeman be buried in the old Whealton family plot?


Answer, before she married William M. Freeman in 1861[7], Elizabeth Sharpley was married (1853)[8] to Eba Whealton, Jr. (1833-1860), the son of Eba, Sr.  When Eba, Jr. died around 1859, he probably was buried near his father.  Elizabeth (Sharpley) Whealton Freeman died in 1868, and could well have been buried next to her first husband.  Her attachment to her first husband was strong; she and William Freeman even named their second son, Ebe Freeman, after him.  And given that William Freeman was not from the Island[9], it is plausible that he and the Whealton family chose to bury Elizabeth with her first husband.  William Freeman was certainly close to the family; he was even the executor of Eba Whealton Jr.’s estate!


Following the death of his wife, William Freeman, along with his son Tom, left the Island, and returned to his native home in Berlin, MD.  There, in 1874, he married Jane Quillen.  Later, after his father died, Tom Freeman, now an orphan[10], gravitated back to the Island where he was born.  And the sad tragedy played out from there.


So, where is Tom Freeman’s body today?  The answer:  Tom Freeman lies right where he was buried in June of 1885, in the northern part of Ridge Cemetery, just to the east of the brick-lined grave of Ebea Whealton, Sr., and presumably next to his mother.   But, of course, this scenario leaves us with a new, answered question: Who is the person who today lies in St. Andrews Catholic Church Cemetery with a bullet hole in his skull?

[1] Mariner, Kirk, personal communication, 1/20/2010.

[2] Carpenter, James, personal communication, 1/20/2010.

[3] Mariner, Kirk, Once Upon An  Island, 2nd ed., Miona Publications, 2003, pp 90-92.

[4] Peninsula Enterprise newspaper, 6/18/1885.

[5] Priutt, Victoria, Victoria Pruitt Papers, Accomack County Public Library, pp 1-24.

[6] Smith, Jr., Richard H., personal observation, 1/25/2010.

[7] Miles, Barry W. and Miles, Moody K., Marriage Records of Accomack County, Virginia, 1854-1895, Heritage Books, 1997.

[8] Turman, Nora Miller, Marriage Records of Accomack County, Virginia, 1776-1854., Heritage Books, 1994.

[9] 1870 U.S. Census, Islands District, Accomack Co., Virginia, head of household #234; 1860 U.S. Census, Berlin, Worcester Co., MD, head of household #1064.

[10] 1880 U.S. Census, Dist. 3, Worcester Co., MD, head of household #471.