By J. L. Starkey
What and how much had I lost by trying to do only what was expected of me, instead of what I myself had wished to do?– Ralph Ellison
This was the last time Dudley would do his father’s dirty work. The very last time!
Things were getting out of hand at Digges’ Choice. Dudley had Esther to think about now – and the children, of course. Oh, he could handle Kitzmiller – and he would. After all, this was his family’s land, and Kitzmiller was the one breaking the law. But starting tomorrow, someone else could manage the settlers. Enough was enough.
I often wonder if my sixth-great-uncle (by marriage) Dudley Digges had those thoughts as he headed to the Kitzmiller place on February 26, 1752 . Was he tired of being his father’s emissary, sent to terrorize the settlers on his family’s land? Did he tell himself that this time, he would make some changes in his life?
If he did, he made that promise one day too late.
Digges’ Choice: Pay up, or leave
The Digges family had a bad reputation, and it all started with a dispute between William Penn and Lord Baltimore. When Penn received a land grant from Charles II, Lord Baltimore agreed to the terms as long as Penn stayed on his side of the line marking the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania. The problem was that Baltimore’s line was drawn in 1632, while Penn’s line was drawn almost fifty years later.
The two lines didn’t match up, leaving a strip of land that was claimed by Maryland, by Pennsylvania…and by a certain petty nobleman named John Digges.
Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon would settle the argument over the line on October 18, 1767, but that wasn’t important to John. Forty years earlier, on October 14, 1727, Charles Calvert, 4th Lord Baltimore, had granted the petty nobleman (also known as Dudley’s father) 10,000 acres of “the land of his choice” . With an eye toward making a profit, he immediately began selling portions of the land he called Digges’ Choice. Sure, the land hadn’t been surveyed, and he wasn’t absolutely certain of its borders, but John never did worry about those little details.
Digges’ Choice became a problem almost before the final deed was signed. And John Digges? He became a bully.
Settlers who bought land from Digges faced a complicated proof-of-ownership system, thanks to John’s carelessness. Those with titles granted by Lord Baltimore simply applied for new titles from Penn after the survey was completed. Settlers at Digges’ Choice still applied for those titles, but they also had to obtain a Right or Deed from John or one of his sons, plus a release from John’s in-laws, the Carroll family.
The situation grew volatile when settlers were assessed Maryland taxes for land that was actually in Pennsylvania. As the years passed, things got downright ugly at Digges’ Choice, and settlers were often harassed and forced from their land at gunpoint by John or one of his sons . By the 1750s, it was a well-known fact: John Digges was a bully, and his sons were following in his footsteps.
His sons followed in those footsteps until that February day in 1752, when they chose the wrong settler to bully.
That settler was Martin Kitzmiller, and he wasn’t giving up without a fight.
Tragedy in Pennsylvania (or Maryland)
On February 26, 1752, Dudley accompanied a group of Maryland officials as they served an arrest warrant to Martin Kitzmiller. The situation turned violent, and in the ensuing riot, Dudley was shot by Kitzmiller’s son, Jacob. He died three hours later .
Jacob Kitzmiller insisted that the shooting was accidental and turned himself in to await trial. In an interesting twist, he surrendered to Pennsylvania – as opposed to Maryland – authorities. If he suspected they would be more sympathetic to his case, he was correct .
The trial of Jacob Kitzmiller began and ended on October 30, 1752 . The verdict was an easy one for Pennsylvania officials: Jacob was found guilty of “homicide in his own defense.”
Maryland officials were stunned, as they felt that Jacob’s actions were deliberate. Provincial Council President Benjamin Tasker voiced his concerns to Maryland Governor James Hamilton before the trial began:
“Surely shooting a man in the back after he had entreated not to fire the gun, and when he was hastening away from the place and person supposed to be offended (tho’ not the least violence had been offered)…denominates murder…”– Benjamin Tasker, 30 July 1752
In today’s terminology, Maryland officials – and John Digges – would say that Jacob Kitzmiller walked.
The verdict devastated John, and he soon left the area. Only Dudley remained at Digges’ Choice, buried in one of the very first graves of what would later become the Conewago Mission cemetery.
Did his story end at that cemetery?
Over one hundred years later, Lydia Laughman Small would probably have said no. Dudley’s story didn’t end there at all.
The Return of Dudley?
By the late 1800’s, many Hanover residents had forgotten about the Digges family debacle, and Lydia Small probably didn’t care anyway, since she had enough tragedy in her own life.
In 1890, Lydia’s daughter drowned in the family’s well . In 1902, two of her children drowned at the quarry where their father worked, and in 1905, another child drowned in the same quarry .
In 1907, Lydia’s son died of convulsions . In 1908, her husband was killed in an accident at the quarry that had already claimed the lives of three of her children .
Some townspeople probably wondered if the Small family was cursed. Those individuals may have known that the Smalls were not the original owners of their land in Hanover. That distinction went to a man who was called a petty nobleman by some, and a bully by others .
To everyone else, he was known as John Digges.
Had he and Dudley returned to reclaim their land?
Dudley Returns Again
Lydia Small died in 1939, and Hanover residents seemed to forget about things like ghosts, spirits, and Dudley Digges .
Or did they?
On May 27, 2017, I discovered that Dudley (or John) was still making trouble in Hanover. This time, the victim was Deanna Simpson, who endured years of terrifying events in her home. She saw shadows and orbs, heard strange voices, and was even injured by an unidentified creature.
In 2014, Deanna’s house was featured on an episode of “The Dead Files.” Prior to the episode’s premiere, a cameraman was injured as he filmed a news report in Deanna’s home.
It was just a coincidence that the Simpson home was built on the same land where the Small family once lived. The bizarre incidents were not related to the fact that the land was once owned by John Digges, right?
Coincidence or not, I had to tell my sister about my latest discovery.
“Have you seen the stories about Hanover, Pennsylvania? They did a ‘Dead Files’ show on it.” I messaged my sister on May 28, 2017.
“We didn’t watch it last night, and usually I never miss it,” she replied. “I kept getting this feeling…that there would be some type of weird family connection.”
“The episode ran a few years ago,” I clarified, thinking she must have the wrong program in mind. But her response was immediate, and it gave me chills.
“They ran it again last night,” she said. “I looked at the info for the episode…and it was Hanover.”
Timing is everything, isn’t it?
On the same day that I discovered my family’s connection to the Digges ghost story, a repeat episode of “The Dead Files” aired. The episode was entitled “Assaulted,” and it was indeed the story of Deanna Simpson, Lydia Small, and the Digges family.
Was the timing a coincidence, or was Dudley making trouble again? I’ll let you decide!
It’s been more than two years since that strange day in 2017, and I’m still researching Dudley, even though he is only related to me by marriage.
Or is he?
This week – just in time for Halloween – I discovered that Dudley may actually be a distant cousin, based on our shared connections to a rich man – and a poor man.
That’s a story for another time, though. Stay tuned…and watch out for ghosts in your research!
- Codicil of Last Will and Testament of Dudley Digges, Jr., 9 Nov 1818. Cambria County, Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania, Wills and Probate Records, 1683-1993, Cambria County, Pennsylvania, Will Books Vol. 1-3, 1808-1883, Image 62 of 795. Retrieved from Ancestry.com.
- “Digges’ Choice.” The Diocese of Harrisburg, 22 Jan 2018, https://www.hbgdiocese.org/.
- Reily, John T. Conewago: A Collection of Catholic Local History : Gathered from the Fields of Catholic Missionary Labor Within Our Reach. Martinsburg, W. Va: Herald Print, 1885. Retrieved from Internet Archive. (See also: History of Cumberland And Adams Counties, Pennsylvania: Containing History of the Counties; Their Townships, Towns, Villages, Schools, Churches, Industries, Etc.; Portraits of Early Settlers And Prominent Men; Biographies; History of Pennsylvania, Statistical And Miscellaneous Matter, Etc., Etc. Chicago: Warner, Beers, 1886. Retrieved from Internet Archive; and “Littlestown…A Lovely Land with an Impressive History.” littlestownhistorytidbits1.Page, http://www.littlestown.net/littlestownhistorytidbits1.html.)
- “York-Town March 2,” The Pennsylvania Gazette, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 2 Mar 1752, p. 2, col. 1. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Pennsylvania. Provincial Council, and Pennsylvania. Committee of Safety. Minutes of the Provincial Council of Pennsylvania From the Organization to the Termination of the Proprietary Government, … Containing the Proceedings of Council … Harrisburg: printed by Theophilus Fenn, 18381852, Vol. V, pp. 583-597. Retrieved from Hathi Trust Digital Library.
- The Maryland Gazette, Annapolis, Maryland, 14 Dec 1752, p. 2, col. 3. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Child Drowned,” New Oxford Item, New Oxford, Pennsylvania, 26 Sept 1890, p. 5, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Fourth in Her Family to Drown,” People’s Register, Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, 7 Jul 1905, p. 2, col. 6. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- Death Certificate, John J. Small, 1907-013881-017440, digital image 2104 of 3824. Pennsylvania (State). Death certificates, 1906–1963. Series 11.90. Records of the Pennsylvania Department of Health, Record Group 11. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Ancestry.com. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.
- “Four of Family Killed in Quarry,” People’s Register, 24 Apr 1908, p. 7, col. 2. Retrieved from newspapers.com.
- “Assaulted.” The Dead Files, season 4, episode 2, Travel Channel, 26 Jul 2014. (See also: “The Dead Files (2011) s06e03 Episode Script.” Springfield! Springfield!, https://www.springfieldspringfield.co.uk/view_episode_scripts.php?tv-show=the-dead-files-2011&episode=s06e03.)
- Death Certificate, Lydia Ann Small, 1939-041001-044000, digital image 830 of 3611. Ancestry.com. Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1967 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2014.