Saturday, August 20, 2011

The Sheriff’s Mistress

In the summer of 1827, George Swearingen was a hardworking, upstanding, young family man.  He and his lovely wife, Mary, had a new baby daughter. Working as clerk and deputy to his uncle, the sheriff of Washington County, Maryland, George was being groomed to take his uncle’s job.  Everything was going George Swearingen’s way; then he met Rachel Cunningham. In September the following year, George and Rachel were fugitives, running from the charge of murdering Mary Swearingen.

Date:  September 8, 1828

Location:  Hagerstown, Maryland

Victim:  Mary Scot Swearingen

Cause of Death:  Knocked off a horse

Accused:   George Swearingen


George Swearingen had always been a hard working public servant. At age sixteen, his father got him a position of clerk for the county of Washington, Maryland. Less than two years later, he left the job, on doctor’s orders, having developed a pulmonary condition due to overwork.

In 1821, when George was twenty-one years old, he went to live with his uncle, John V. Swearingen, the sheriff of Washington County. He worked as a clerk in the sheriff’s office while he studied law. In 1823, James Scott, a distant relative of the Swearingens, brought his daughter Mary from Cumberland to Hagerstown to attend school. She boarded at John Swearingen’s house while George was living there as well. The Scotts were a wealthy and prominent family, and at the urging of his relatives George began courting Mary. They were soon married and in 1825 moved into a house of their own.

George Swearingen finished his studies and became licensed to practice law in Maryland, but decided instead to run for the office of Sheriff. While Swearingen was preparing his campaign, his wife Mary was preparing to give birth to their first child. Due to complications with the pregnancy, Mary went to stay at her parent’s house in Cumberland. Mary was away from her marital duties for at least six months and George had to find other ways to meet his needs. In his words, “I occasionally visited those houses of libertinism and chambering, which, Solomon declares to be ‘the way to hell leading down to the chambers of death.’”

He also needed washing and mending done, so he went to see Rachel Cunningham, a laundress who was also well-known as a prostitute. Rachel Cunningham had a long history as a fallen woman. She was born in Philadelphia to a wealthy physician and spent her childhood at boarding school. Rachel’s mother died when she was nine years old, and her father died when she was fourteen. After burying her father, there was very little money left so she went to live with her aunt and uncle, the Wallingdons, in Bedford, Pennsylvania.

Bedford was a resort town, and the Wallingdons rented out rooms during the summer season. Rachel was a beautiful and well-formed teenager and in Bedford, a “summer resort of profligacy and pollution,” the men took notice. Mrs. Wallingdon soon found that with Rachel in the house, she could fill her rooms at double the rate. Rachel, as well, was quick to learn that she could trade her favors for jewelry and other lavish gifts.

One boarder in particular was infatuated with Rachel Cunningham. Orlando Haverley, a wealthy young gentleman of color, fell in love with Rachel and had to possess her. Throughout the summer they found opportunities be together. At the end of the season, after Mr. Haverley had checked out, he returned and at a prearranged time, Rachel climbed out her bedroom window and went into Haverley’s waiting carriage.

Though they did not marry, Rachel lived as Haverley’s wife and he indulged her every whim. Then one night he caught her in an amorous embrace with another young man, a Mr. G—. As a result, the two men fought a duel. Orlando Haverley was killed, and Rachel went to live with the victor.

Mr. G— took her to Annapolis and, against the wishes of his family, he made her mistress of the household. When his two sisters objected, he removed them from the house. As Haverley had, Mr. G— gave Rachel everything she craved. But after he refused to let her fire a servant, she tried to poison him. This broke her amorous spell over Mr. G—, and he sent her away.

Rachel then traveled throughout the eastern seaboard, living off her beauty. Then she returned to Pennsylvania, first as a mistress to a wealthy merchant in Franklin County, then to a judge in Philadelphia. Eventually she left him and moved to Hagerstown, Maryland.

Rachel Cunningham had gone from a courtesan to the rich and handsome, to a common prostitute who took in laundry. According to one author, in Hagerstown, Rachel was “an ignorant, vulgar prostitute of the lowest grade, with no other attraction than a very moderate share of personal beauty.” But it was enough for George Swearingen, who fell madly in love with Rachel and began going to her for more than washing and mending.

George took Rachel to a Methodist camp meeting, and on the way back, he ran the buggy into a stump, wrecking the vehicle and injuring Miss Cunningham. The affair became public knowledge in the middle of his campaign for sheriff. His political associates advised George to distance himself from Rachel but he would not. George Swearingen was a popular candidate, and in spite of the scandal he won the three way race for sheriff. Rachel was also affected by the publicity; her landlord threw her out. George Swearingen set her up in a house of her own, and visited often.

George’s love for Rachel became an obsession. He saw a poem in a newspaper, and erasing the original name and substituting “Rachel” he cut it out and sent it to her:

To Rachel.

I’ve seen the darkened, waving cloud
Curl o’er the sky at night:
And still, beneath the mantle proud
The stars are dazzleing Bright.
Still I can see that lovely eye
Though hid beneath the mantled sky.

Still I can view the smiling beam
That glows upon the cheek;
Those chidings which so fearful seem,
In sweetest friendship speak.
They tell that thou hast still a heart
That can the sweetest charm impart.

Rachel, I swear no power above
Would make my toungue deceive,
Or make my heart forget to love,
Couldst thou my vows believe;
No power but thine can rule my heart,
Qnd from thy charms I ne’er can part.

Ask of the angels in the sky
If I can change my love;
The cherubs would in joy reply,
“His friendship cannot rove;
Believe his vows—thou ne’er shalt sigh,
Nor tears fall from thine angle eye.”

Rachel, I love but thee alone;
I cannot view another’s charms;
That love which I can call my own
Is that which fond affection warms.
Then Lady, smile again in peace,
And let thy doubts and chidings cease.

During all of this, Mrs. Mary Swearingen was in Cumberland with her parents, at least as often as she was home with her husband. In September 1828, George rode to Cumberland to bring his wife back home. They were both on horseback, travelling back to Hagerstown. On September 8, a drover herding cattle from Hagerstown found Swearingen sitting beside the body of his dead wife. She had fallen off her horse and died, Swearingen said, there was nothing he could do.

The body was taken to Cresaptown, and a coroner’s inquest was held. The jury viewed the body and examined the horse. The knees of the horse were cut, as if by a fall. They concluded that Mary Swearingen “came to her death by an act of Providence.”

The body was buried, but Charity Johnson, one of the women who had prepared it spread suspicion that that Mary had not died in a fall from a horse. She had bruises on her throat, and other bruises that suggested she was violently raped. Charity Johsnon wanted the body disinterred and examined again. George Swearingen refused, saying he did not want his wife publically exposed, but Mary’s mother, now believed that her daughter had been killed by Rachel Cunningham, agreed to the exhumation.

On this news, George and Rachel both fled Maryland; first travelling to together, then separating, planning to meet in New Orleans. Rachel, travelling by steamboat, probably passed George who, travelling under the name Martin, was floating down the Mississippi in a flatboat.

George Swearingen made it to New Orleans, but was apprehended after leaving the flatboat. He was taken back to Baltimore in the brig Arctic, then conveyed to Allegheny County for trial.

Trials: September 1829

At the trial, all of the dirty laundry came out. The prosecution alleged that George Swearingen had tried to murder his wife twice before her actual death. First in a buggy accident on the side of a mountain, and second, the day before the murder he allegedly tried to drown her while fording a river. The first was probably a legitimate accident—Swearingen was a notoriously bad driver; the second, with no witnesses, was probably pure fiction.

Swearingen’s defense attorney, John L. M’Mahon explained that Mary had suffered from “leuco phlegmatic temperament” which made her liable to spontaneous uterine hemorrhaging. Her doctor had advised her to refrain from sex—explaining why George strayed in the first place. The condition also explained why she appeared to have been raped before death. For good measure, he speculated that Charity Johnson had attacked the body with a broomstick to implicate Swearingen as a rapist.

The jury found George Swearingen guilty of murdering his wife.

Verdict: Guilty of murder


Before he was executed, George Swearingen confessed to killing his wife Mary. Though he denied much of was said against him in court, he admitted that he had knocked her off of the horse. Mary had wanted to stop at the Tevis farm, a property that they owned, but George refused, knowing that, at the time, Rachel was staying there. When Mary persisted, it angered him and George rode along side, then punched her in the temple, knocking her off the horse and down a hill where she hit her head on a rock and was killed.

On the gallows, George Swearingen sang a psalm and told the crowd that he wished to have it understood that he died in peace with God and all the world. He had no doubt and no fears that his repentance would be accepted.

It is not known for certain what became of Rachel Cunningham, but a book on her life, published not long after the murder, says that she was tried as well, and hanged for murder.


Halttunen, Karen. Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination . Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1998.

 Hamblin, P. R.. United States Criminal History: Being a True Account of the Most Horrid Murders, Piracies, High-Way Robberies, &c.,/ Together with the Lives, Trials, ... Criminal Records of the Countries by P. R. Ha Philadelphia, Pa.?: C.W. Alexander?, 1871.

The Intrigues, Amours, & Advenures, of Rachel Cunningham, Called from her Crimes, the American Milwood. London.: Edward Duncombe, c1830.

Swearingen, George, and N. B. Little. The life and confession of George Swearingen: who was executed at Cumberland, Allegany County, Md., on the 2d day of October 1829, for the murder of his wife. . Hagers-Town [i.e. Hagerstown, Md.: William D. Bell, 1829.


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