The Civil War Comes to Shepherdstown — September 1862

We have a new exhibit in the Museum — it’s called The Civil War Comes to Shepherdstown, September 2017. If you attended Jim Broomall’s Speakers Series talk a week or so ago, you may have seen it displayed in the lobby of the Byrd Center. You can view the digitized version here or stop by the Museum and see it in real life!

Speakers Series: Dr. James J. Broomall

On August 30, Dr. James J. Broomall will speak on “Crossroads: Civil War Comes to Shepherdstown.” Dr. Broomall is an Assistant Professor of History at Shepherd University, and Director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War.  His talk, part of the Historic Shepherdstown Commission 2017 Speakers Series, will take place at the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education on North King Street on the campus of Shepherd University.  It is free and open to the public.

The event will begin at 6:45 with a short HSC Annual Meeting, followed by Dr. Broomall’s talk at 7:00 p.m. At the Annual Meeting, members will vote on new Board Members and a new Five-Year Plan.

Dr. Broomall earned his doctorate at the University of Florida.  His forthcoming book, “Personal Confederacies: Southern Men as Citizens and Soldiers,” is under contract with the University of North Carolina Press. In it he describes the emotional lives and gender identities of white southern men and their families, before, during and after the Civil War. This presentation will feature voices of civilians and soldiers to capture how the American Civil War threaded itself through the small community of Shepherdstown, Virginia, and the adjoining region.

The final 2017 Speakers Series talk will take place on November 8, when local historian Doug Perks will present “Changing Faces—Mr. Jefferson’s County,” old and new images of local people and buildings, highlighting the changes over time.

For further information, please contact Teresa McLaughlin at or 304-876-0910.

Gun Fire Ushers in 4th of July in 1856, Citizens go to “Big Spring” for Celebration

The morning of the 4th was ushered in amid the loud report of several guns, evidently to admonish our citizens that another anniversary of American independence had arrived, and the lowering clouds were portentous of squally weather.  But the coming of the bright sun dissipated the black clouds, and the blue vault of heaven became unspotted. The hope of our citizens became brighter with the sky.

At 10 o’clock a goodly number of our citizens formed in Procession, commanded by Col. Charles Harper, headed by the Shepherdstown Brass Band, and proceeded to the “Big Spring;” upon their arrival there they were dismissed for a few moments for the purpose of “procuring something to take,” after which the crowd was called to order by appointing A. R. Boteler, Esq., President.

After music by the band Mr. J.S. Pierce proceeded to read the Declaration of Independence, after which Mr. E. G. Lee was introduced who delivered an eloquent, appropriate and patriotic Oration, which was listened to with marked attention, indeed the audience seemed to be chained with the out-pouring eloquence of our young friend.

The hour of dinner having arrived, the audience was invited to a table, which groaned under the ponderous weight of refreshments, prepared for the occasion, which were done up in good style—“unostentatious and wholesome”—every individual seeming to perform his duty admirably in relieving the wide-spread table of its burden.  After the “inner man” was refreshed, an hour or two passed off in recreation, after which the assemblage was again called to order when toasts were read by Mr. J. S. Pierce.

From the Shepherdstown Register, July 12, 1856.

Remembering Mary Tyler Moore

Mary Tyler Moore, the iconic television personality who died earlier this year, had a family connection to Shepherdstown as well as to the Historic Shepherdstown Museum.

Her great, great, great grandfather, Conrad Shindler, an early resident of Shepherdstown, was a coppersmith and lived in a house at the corner of German and Church Streets.  Several of the kettles he crafted are on display at the Museum.

The Shindler Family sold the house in 1869 to the Christ Reformed Church, which used the house as its parsonage.  In 1995 Moore purchased the house and donated it to the Shepherd University Foundation to be used by the university as a center for Civil War studies.

In September 1995, Mary Tyler Moore attended the dedication of the Center which was named after her father, George Tyler Moore, an avid historian.

Also in attendance at the event was Jo Ann Knode, a then member of the Historic Shepherdstown Commission Board of Directors. Mrs. Knode invited Mary Tyler Moore to visit the Museum just down the street and view not only the copper kettles fashioned by her ancestor, but also the Shindler Family Bible, on display on the second floor of the Museum.

The bible was donated to the Museum in 1991 by E.B. Rogers, another Shindler descendent. The bible is inscribed with the date “16th of March 1792.”

Ms. Knode recalls that Mary Tyler Moore leafed through the Bible, but since she didn’t have her glasses with her, she was unable to read most of the inscriptions. Ms. Knode’s daughter, who had accompanied them to the museum, snapped the accompanying photo.

Historic Shepherdstown to Feature Quilt Events in May

On May 24, Fawn Valentine, a West Virginia quilt expert, will be in Shepherdstown to”read” local quilts from 1 to 3 p.m. and to give a talk, “West Virginia Quilts and Quiltmakers: Echoes from the Hills,” at 7 p.m. In addition, throughout the month of May, the Historic Shepherdstown Museum will display three quilts loaned by the Museum of the Shenandoah Valley. The quilts, created by highly skilled Shenandoah Valley quilters of the 20th and 21st centuries, exemplify several Valley quilting styles. Historic Shepherdstown’s quilts will be on display as well.

The afternoon quilt reading will take place in the reception room of the Entler Building at 129 E. German Street. Community members are invited to bring no more than two quilts for Ms. Valentine to read. She will discuss the style, period, and materials used, but will not do appraisals. Preregistration is required for this event since time is limited. Call or e-mail Historic Shepherdstown at 304-876- 0910 or Registrations will be accepted in the order received. Spaces are already filling up.

Fawn Valentine’s 7 p.m. talk on WV quilting, which is part of Historic Shepherdstown’s 2017 Speakers Series, will take place at the auditorium of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education on King Street on the campus of Shepherd University.

Both events are free and open to the public.

The display of Museum of the Shenandoah Valley quilts will begin on May 6 and run through June 3. The three quilts will be on display in the Shepherdstown Museum during the Museum’s regular hours, on Saturdays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m. On exhibition will be a Pineapple White Work quilt, a Wind Rose or Mathiesen Mariner’s Compass Variation quilt, and a Broken Dishes Pattern quilt. All have been on display in U.S. Embassies around the world as part of the State Department’s Arts in Embassies program.

The Editor and the Spy: Espionage and Poetry in Shepherdstown on the Eve of the Civil War

by Jerry Bruce Thomas

In 2012, Yale University Press published John Brown’s Spy: The Adventurous Life and Tragic Confession of John E. Cook, by Steven Lubet.  The book details Cook’s early life in New England and activities in Kansas and Virginia (largely in Jefferson County) leading up to John Brown’s abortive attempt in October 1859 to inspire a slave rebellion at Harper’s Ferry and Cook’s subsequent confession and execution for his part in the plot.  One part of the Cook story left untold by Lubet and others who have written about these events is Cook’s connection with Shepherdstown.  To establish a local cover for his espionage activities Cook pulled the wool over the eyes of Shepherdstown Register editor John H. Zittle by appearing as a “literary character.”

Born in 1829 to a prosperous Congregationalist family in Haddam, Connecticut, the young Cook combined a love of tales and poetry with a devotion to guns and risky adventures.  He went to Yale at 20 to study law but never finished because, as a relative wrote, Cook “wandered in a land of dreams,” talking incessantly, writing sentimental verse for lady friends, and yearning for a bold undertaking.

He went to New York in May 1854.  There he found his cause, embracing a militant abolitionism, likely inspired by the sermons of Henry Ward Beecher of Plymouth Congregational Church in Brooklyn Heights and also by Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the influential 1852 anti-slavery novel written by Beecher’s older sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Later in 1854 he joined the fight in Kansas over slavery in the territories.  A “dead shot,” he became known for recklessness, bravery, and womanizing, as his free-state forces fought pro-slavery militia called “border ruffians.”  There he also joined forces with John Brown.

More than a year before the Harper’s Ferry raid, Brown sent Cook to Jefferson County to gather intelligence and to compile a census of local slaves who might be ready to rise up against their masters and a list of prominent men of the area who might be useful as hostages.

Cook traveled about Jefferson and Berkeley counties and along the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal, identifying himself as a school teacher, canal worker, or book seller and ingratiating himself with local people. In the late winter of 1859 he came into Zittle’s office at the Shepherdstown Register claiming that he was a bookseller in town to make available to the public Joel Tyler Headly’s Life of Washington. Impressed by the striking young man of slight stature, blue eyes, and flowing blond hair, Zittle bought the book and gave Cook a plug in his newspaper, writing in the issue of February 5, 1859, “now is your chance getting a book worth having” and urged every Shepherdstown family to buy a copy. In succeeding weeks, Cook visited frequently, and several of his poems appeared in the Register.

In Harper’s Ferry, after courting several area women, he married his innkeeper’s daughter, Mary Virginia “Jenny” Kennedy, just a month before their child, John E. Cook, Jr., was born.

Cook talked to prominent slave owners in the county and to slaves. Brown later complained that Cook’s exaggerated and uncritical reports had misled him into thinking that the slaves were “ripe for insurrection.”

On the night of October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of 21 followers to capture the federal arsenal and armory at Harper’s Ferry.  Cook and others captured Lewis Washington, a great -grand nephew of George Washington, taking him along with other hostages to Brown.  Cook also seized Washington’s heirloom sword, which he gave to Brown and an antique pistol, which he kept. Cook then crossed the Potomac to secure their Maryland base.  Brown and his surviving men ended up being captured in the engine house by U.S. marines under Col. Robert E. Lee.

About ten of Brown’s group were killed in the fighting, five escaped, and some six community people died, including the mayor, Fontaine Beckham.  Cook fled into Pennsylvania only to be quickly captured and returned to Virginia authorities.

In Shepherdstown, conflicting reports and rumors from Harper’s Ferry led to a panic. Editor Zittle now called Cook “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.”  With other members of the local Hamtramck Guards, he rushed to Harper’s Ferry.  Shepherdstown mayor Dr. John Reynolds organized a patrol to secure the town.  Next day, hearing that a band of insurgents and slaves headed by Cook was on its way upriver to attack Shepherdstown, some of the oldest citizens quickly organized a company commanded by Col. Charles Harper and marched through the streets surrounded by the cheers of women and children.  After a mile of marching down the canal towpath, men on a passing canal boat told them that Cook had fled into the mountains. Later the same day the Hamtramck Guards returned from Harper’s Ferry to fifes and drums and the cheers and bouquets of the town’s ladies in an atmosphere that anticipated the early moments of the coming Civil War.

Seven captured raiders, including Brown and Cook, faced trials in Charlestown. Cook received legal advice from his brother-in-law Ashbel Willard, the governor of Indiana, and Willard’s friend,  Daniel Voorhees, United States Attorney for Indiana.  Rather than taking the high ground of affirming the effort to free slaves and protecting its supporters, as John Brown did in a brief and eloquent defense, they tried to save Cook by blaming John Brown and his Northern backers for misleading the young men Brown had gathered for the attack.  Cook made a last attempt to avoid his fate when, on the eve of their execution, he and a fellow prisoner, Edwin Coppoc, chipped away the bricks of the outer wall of their cell in a failed escape attempt.

The widespread fear and panic in Virginia and the South spurred the state to act quickly, convicting and hanging all of the captured raiders by March 16, 1860.  On December 16, 1859, two weeks after Brown’s execution for treason, murder, and conspiracy to inspire slave rebellion, Shepherdstown’s Hamtramck Guards escorted Cook and Coppoc from the jail to their executions in Charlestown. The Jefferson County Register of Deaths prosaically listed Cook’s cause of death as “gallows” and occupation as “adventurer.” Biographer Lubet says that Cook “was a casualty of the coming Civil War.”  His gravestone in Green-Wood cemetery in Brooklyn reads that “he died for the cause of human liberty.”  Because of the nature of his defense, his effort to escape justice, and his year of living as a spy among them, white Jefferson countians hated Cook the most.  Even in the week after his death, some blamed an outbreak of rural fires on unknown slaves whom Cook allegedly had influenced.

Civil war historian James M. McPherson writes that the Southern reaction to John Brown’s raid “brought to the surface a paradox that lay at the heart of slavery.”  Slave owners lived in fear of slave insurrection, but they also insisted that slaves were treated well and remained cheerful in bondage.  They felt vindication when few slaves joined Brown’s raid, but throughout the South when it became apparent that noted leaders of Northern opinion found nobility in Brown’s abolitionist goals, Southern anger grew and many prepared to fight.  Public reaction in the North was more complicated as many opposed slavery but abhorred the violence of Brown’s methods.

When the war came, Zittle closed his newspaper for the duration and was elected first lieutenant of the Hamtramck Guards, Company B of the 2nd Regiment of Virginia Infantry, later known as the Stonewall Brigade.  After the war, Zittle resumed publication of the Register and served several terms as mayor.  In 1882, he sold the Register to Harry L. and William Snyder.  Over the years he had also compiled a collection of comments and documents about the Harper’s Ferry raid, but it languished largely unknown until his widow, Minnie, had it published in 1906, five years after his death, under the title A Correct History of the John Brown Invasion of Harper’s Ferry.

In 1860, Jenny Cook returned to Harper’s Ferry to live again at her mother’s rooming house, but local resentment forced her to leave.  She later remarried and lived in Illinois.  Her son John E. Cook, Jr. became a prominent lawyer in New York.

Cook’s poems mirror the romantic, mystical, dark, and morbid musings of the age but reflect nothing of the cause for which he died.   Zittle’s Correct History contains six of the poems that Cook gave him and one that Cook wrote for his wife and child just before his execution.  The poems can be accessed in online versions of Zittle’s book.

(The following first appeared in the Spring 2017 edition of the Shepherdstown Good News Paper.  Harpers Ferry and Charles Town are spelled as they were at the time of the events.)





Historic Speakers Series Opens with March 8 Talk on Forgotten Local Roads

David Bullock will speak on “Forgotten 18th Century Roads: Shepherdstown and the Philadelphia Wagon Road” at 7 p.m. on March 8. The talk will be in the auditorium of the Robert C. Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education located on King Street on the Shepherd University campus next to Scarborough Library. Parking is available on the street or behind the library. The event is free and open to the public.

Dave Bullock attended Shepherdstown Middle School, Jefferson High School, and Shepherd College. His family has lived in the area since 1857. He had an abiding interest in history and has spent considerable time studying maps and other documents to learn about lost local roads that once shaped the history of the area. His talk will focus on the Philadelphia Wagon Road, which was central to Shepherdstown’s prosperity in the town’s early days. The Philadelphia Wagon Road started in Philadelphia and ended in Georgia. It has been given credit for much of the settlement of the backcountry of the South. Originally, the Wagon Road was a trail used by Native Americans called the Warrior Trail.

Mr. Bullock’s talk will kick off the Historic Shepherdstown Commission’s 2017 Speakers Series.

The Speakers Series schedule for the rest of the year will feature three additional programs. On May 24, textile historian and quilt expert Fawn Valentine will present a two-part event. First, from 1 to 3 p.m., she will provide “readings” of historic quilts. Local quilt owners will be invited to bring their quilts to learn more about designs, motifs, patterns, and cultural influences (not financial appraisals). Preregistration will be required. More information will be forthcoming. Second, on the evening of May 24, Fawn Valentine will give a talk on quilts and quilt makers. On August 30, at the Historic Shepherdstown Annual Meeting, Shepherd University History Professor and Director of the George Tyler Moore Center for the Study of the Civil War Dr. Jim Broomall will speak on “The Brother’s War: The Civil War Experiences of Virginia and West Virginia Soldiers.”  On November 8, local historian Doug Perks will present old and new images of local people and buildings, highlighting the changes over time.

All of the talks will take place at the Byrd Center for Congressional History and Education at 7 p.m. The Quilt Reading will be at the Entler Building. 129 E. German Street.

For further information, contact Historic Shepherdstown Administrator Teresa McLaughlin, 304-876-0910 on Tuesday, Wednesday or Friday or e-mail

The Rumsey Monument Turns 100

[This post was originally published on Feb. 22, 2016 in our newsletter. It has been updated with photos taken from Nick’s Speakers Series talk last year.]

by Nicholas Blanton

By sometime in the 1830’s, James Rumsey’s heirs had had enough.  The two daughters, their families and their mother had relocated to Kentucky, like many Virginians.  They had seen Robert Fulton’s steamboat on the Ohio and Kentucky rivers, and were caring for James’ disabled son, James Jr, who was a deaf mute and had become too old to work.  Thinking the nation owed something to their father for his work in steamboats,  they did what many did who felt the nation owed them: had a memorial presented to Congress. This required getting statements from witnesses to James’ steamboat demonstrations, and in the resulting Memorial of 1836 was one from Henry Bedinger, Jr, who’d been there in December of 1787.   His statement is quite revealing.  After about 50 years,   elements of the Rumsey legend were already in place- how John Fitch had spied on Rumsey in his workshop, and how the steamboat had worked much earlier.  Bedinger also said, “I knew him well, admired his talents, his genius, and enterprise, and would willingly contribute to the erection of a snug little monument very lately proposed and contemplated to be erected to James Rumsey, at Shepherdstown.”

The Memorial would wander around House committees for a decade until the heirs gave up, and the “snug little monument” was never built.  Then in the 1850’s politician and gentleman farmer A.R. Boteler was taken with the tale of the steamboat.  He searched for artifacts, employed a historian at the Maryland Historical Society to look for documents, and wrote on Rumsey, embellishing the legend. Boteler would have a very short career as Speaker of the House, just before the country was diving into the Civil War, then a few years as a Confederate officer, and then, after taking the loyalty oath, a Federal  bureaucrat.  He continued to be a Rumsey advocate, and also hoped for a monument (probably for Rumsey’s centennial in 1887).  Like Bedinger,  he never saw it.  But briefly before his death in 1892, he approached the Norfolk and Western Railroad about their quarry on the bluff overlooking the river, and got a positive reply from the Superintendent that the rock crusher had suspended operations, and that the site was safe for building a monument.

In 1900, George Beltzhoover ,Jr, son of one of Boteler’s best friends, gave a speech before the West Virginia Historical Society in Charleston, where he made a plea for a Rumsey monument to be built at Boteler’s location.  In 1905, pushed by state senator William Campbell of Charles Town, the West Virginia legislature appropriated $1,750 towards the construction of a monument.  In the following year,  at a meeting at Shepherd College, a group called The Rumseyan Society was formed for taking the responsibility of building it. Daniel Lucas was elected president,  Belzhoover was elected vice-president, and M.L Snyder, owner of the Shepherdstown Independent, secretary. Noted the Independent, “…efforts will be made to interest the Legislatures of Virginia and Maryland in the enterprise. Private subscriptions will also be sought, and it is hoped that an imposing memorial will be erected “.   Virginia and Maryland proved to be uninterested.  But the Legislature gradually doled out money over the next seven years, in the end paying $13,625 of the $15,200 needed, the rest coming from local fundraising.

While Shepherdstown was trying to build the Rumsey Monument, monuments were already being erected on Civil War battlefields around the country.  The Forbes Granite Company of Chambersburg had already built the Indiana monument at Antietam, and once the money was in hand Forbes was chosen to build Rumsey’s. Site preparations started in July of 1915, with a temporary railroad spur being laid up to the bluff , the site levelled and steps and concrete foundation laid down. In January 1916 giant 80 ft. fir timbers arrived to build a tripod crane hoist, and the tower was quickly built, the crowning globe being set in March. The brass plaques finally arrived and were mounted in August.  Not until May of 1917 did Shepherdstown Street Committee extend Mill Street to the Monument Park, making it finally possible to drive up to the Monument  (it also voted to change the name of Mill Street to Rumsey Avenue and, in the wartime patriotic spirit sweeping the country, voted to change German Street to Main Street-  but these changes were not adopted).

Through it all , Belzhoover was the driving force. The words on the west-facing brass plaque are certainly his, showing some of the lawyerly rhetoric he would use as prosecutor of the Blair Mountain Coal Mine strikers in 1922,  valiantly waving a small Rumsey flag to a world that only remembered Fulton.  An image of the very small steamboat, in the opposite plaque, was used for fruit box labels by the Shepherdstown Fruit Grower’s Association- who were members of the Society.  It also graced the cover of Ella May Turner’s 1930 biography of Rumsey.  Turner taught English at Shepherd, and was President of the Jefferson County Historical Society.  Perhaps because such steamboats were finally in the past, she could write the first even-handed well-sourced Rumsey book but, perhaps because she was a woman, she was never a member of the Rumseyan Society.  The Society would  hand over maintenance of the Monument Park to the town in the 1960’s, and would see the creation of  the almost-identically named Rumseian Society in 1984, which built the replica of Rumsey’s steamboat now displayed behind the Shepherdstown Museum.  In 2007 it handed over the Park itself, then disbanded.

Photo credits:

The portrait of James Rumsey was painted by George William West, 1822, Luce Foundation Center for American Art, a bequest of Eugene A. Rumsey and Brothers, currently at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

The James Rumsey monument photo includes a photo from Historic Shepherdstown’s archives, and a 2014 photo taken by former AmeriCorps member James Horn.

Murder of Young Susie Ferrell Shocked Shepherdstown and the Country

125 Years Ago: Murder of Young Susie Ferrell Shocked Shepherdstown and the Country

Shepherdstown doesn’t often make national news, but back in January of 1892, a crime committed here made headlines – well, at least bold-face type—in several newspapers across the country.  Harry Smootz, a local boy some 28 years old, became enamored of Susie Ferrell, described by newspapers as a “bright, pretty and popular young lady,” some five years younger than Smootz.

Susie had rejected him and his proposals of marriage, but Smootz became obsessed and stalked her.  There was snow on the ground on January 22, and Susie and a friend  were going to enjoy some sledding,  Smootz, with gun in hand, approached the pair as they walked on New Street. Susie, fearful of what might happen, told her fried to run for help.

Smootz grabbed Susie and fired the gun, killing her instantly.

The Christian Clise House on New Street, where Susie Ferrell’s body was taken.

Several townsfolk, having heard the shots, ran to the scene. They carried Susie’s lifeless body into the nearest house.

Smootz, meanwhile, then ran a couple of blocks to the Entler Hotel, where he met up with his brother, Charles, and told him and several others that he had killed Susie Ferrell. The witnesses took his gun and called for the authorities.

Arrested by Constable John Maddex, he was taken to the home of Shepherdstown’s Mayor W.N. Lemen’s and the deputy sheriff, Col. William A. Morgan, was sent for.

News of the murder had spread through town and, within minutes, an angry crowd of several hundred persons had gathered outside the mayor’s home. Col. Morgan, addressed the crowd telling them not to interfere.

A paddy wagon pulled up to the house and Smootz was whisked away to the jail in Charles Town.

“This is one of the most law-abiding communities in the Valley,” wrote the Roanoke Times, “but it was hard for the crowd to see him carrried to the county jail.”

For several days after the murder, there was fear of a lynch mob attacking the jail, and Smootz was taken to safe keeping under guard to Summit Point for the night, and later to Charleston, for several days, until feelings calmed down.

Smootz was tried in June of 1892.  The prosecuting attorney called the murder “the most atrocious crime ever committed in the county.” After five days of testimony, it took the jury a little over an hour to reach a verdict of “murder in the first degree.”

The judge sentenced Smootz to be hung on October 7, 1892.

On the morning of September 21st, Smootz was discovered in his cell, dead from an overdose of morphine. How he obtained the drug was never discovered,

“There is a general feeling over the county that Smootz’s suicide puts a satisfactory close to the terrible tragedy,” reported the Baltimore Sun.

Not quite. That’s not really the end of the story.

Some residents of Shepherdstown claim that Susie’s spirit still haunts New Street where she was murdered.  In 2016, the television series, Ghosts of Shepherdstown, dramatized the murder—albeit taking some artistic license—and supposedly helped both Susie and Smootz cross over, if not to another plane, then perhaps to another episode.

Holiday Traditions: From Germany to German Street: Belsnickle

belsnickelAt Christmas time, in the front parlor of the Historic Shepherdstown Museum you’ll find a sleigh near the fireplace. The sleigh, with its animated figures, was donated to the museum by Keith Knost about 1998. It depicts a modern-day Santa Claus, but with a nod to a traditional German and Shenandoah Valley character known as Belsnickle, roughly translated as St. Nicholas in fur.

Belsnickle, usually ragged and disheveled, wears a hat, a long, heavy coat of fur and sometimes a mask with a long tongue. In addition to his bag of goodies, he carries a switch to “punish” naughty children. According to the tradition, during Advent, and especially closer to Christmas, he would make his way from home to home, rapping on the door or window with his stick. Once inside, the children of the family would have to answer a question for him or sing some type of song. In exchange he would toss candies onto the floor. If the children jumped too quickly for the treats, they might end up getting struck with Belsnickel’s switch.

belsnickelsIn later years during Christmas time in the Shenandoah Valley, groups known as Belsnicklers would dress in costume and go door to door, carrying lanterns, singing and carrying on. Neighbors would offer them cakes, cookies and maybe wine and cider. Belsnicklers were popular in Shepherdstown in the 1880’s and 1890’s, according to the late James Price, Shepherdstown’s historian emeritus.

The January 5th, 1922, Shepherdstown Register recounts an evening of Belsnickling:

The masqueraders were a lively feature of holiday week. The young men exercised great ingenuity in devising striking costumes… and they had a lot of fun.  Masked and arrayed in fancy costumes these jolly fellows would make their rounds. It was accustomed to serve suitable refreshments to the masqueraders at the homes where they visited, and so cake and wine and cider and candy and nuts would be set out. They usually wound up the evening at Uncle Billy Lambright’s store where the girls would congregate and wait for the end of the night’s fun.

Belsnickling faded out sometime in the 1950s, but many older residents still remember the tradition fondly.