Saturday, January 19, 2013

“…cut off in her youthful bloom”

In August of 1810, four little girls picking berries at the foot of a precipice near Uniontown, Pennsylvania, discovered the broken body of a beautiful young woman.  She was identified as Polly Williams, last seen walking to White Rocks to meet her fiancé Philip Rogers. Though the mysteries of Polly Williams’s death have endured for two centuries, her story is neatly summarized the words engraved on her tombstone:

Behold with pity, you that pass by;
Here doth the bones of Polly Williams lie;
Who was cut off in her youthful bloom;
By a vile wretch, her pretended groom.

Date:  August 13, 1810

Location:   Uniontown, Pennsylvania

Victim:  Mary (Polly) Williams

Cause of Death:  Blows to the head

Accused:   Philip Rogers

Recording: "Polly Williams" (Devon Flaherty)

The story of Polly Williams’s death has survived primarily due to the folk ballads that it inspired and it is believed that the words on her tombstone come from a now forgotten song.  The most popular of the ballads, “Polly Williams” fits the “murdered-girl” pattern, in which an innocent young woman is seduced by an unscrupulous lover, he promises to marry her but instead lures her to a secluded location and violently kills her. This has been a very popular genre in American folk music and a very powerful narrative in which facts are often lost or distorted to better fit the story to the format. Most notably, in the ballad of Naomi Wise, the innocent young girl of the song was, in fact, a woman approaching middle age who already had two bastard children.  Some folklorists have been skeptical of the Polly Williams legend as well.

According to the story, Polly Williams (whose real name was probably Mary Williams), a poor but beautiful girl from New Salem, Pennsylvania, attracted the attention of her wealthy neighbor, Philip Rogers, in 1809. Polly, seventeen years old at the time, is described as “singularly beautiful,” with deep blue eyes and golden curls. Rogers was twenty-four, short and thick set, but “manly and agreeable, with a winning manner and a smooth beguiling tongue.”

Polly’s parents had moved away from New Salem to find work, and left Polly with her uncle, Major Jacob Moss, to work as a housekeeper. Struck by her beauty, Philip Rogers seduced Polly and promised to marry her, but the wedding was postponed several times. Rogers’s parents were opposed to his marriage to a girl so poor and it is doubtful that he ever intended to go through with it. In some versions of the story he had already tried to drown her in the Monongahela River and had once tried to poison her.

White Rocks (1937)
But Polly remained faithful and had no doubt that her lover would be true to his word. Early accounts suggest that Polly may have been pregnant, though this detail has been omitted from more modern versions of the story. She left her home on August 13, 1810, telling her friends and family that she was walking to Woodbridgetown—thirteen miles away—where she and Philip Rogers would be married.  Polly was never again seen alive.

She had fallen from the top of White Rocks, far above the spot where her body was found, but the wounds were more severe than could be explained by the fall. She appeared to have been struck in the head by a rock before falling and her arms were bruised as if held during a struggle. Some accounts say there were marks on her fingers, as if pounded while she held on to the cliff ledge. The coroner’s jury ruled that she had been “murdered by some person unknown.”

The body was buried before it could be identified. When Major Moss heard the news, he had the body exhumed and identified the girl as his niece, Polly Williams. He told the story of her planned marriage and Philip Rogers was arrested on suspicion of murder.

Trial: November 22, 1810

In 1893, during a move to a new courthouse, Fayette County employees discovered the transcripts of Philip Rogers’s trial, held some 77 years earlier. Rogers’s indictment read as follows:
The Grand Inquest that is now for the body of the county of Fayette, upon their oath solemnly affirm and do present that Phillip Rogers, late of the county aforesaid, not having the fear of God before his eyes but being mad and aided by the devil on the 14th day of August, 1810, with force and arms at the county aforesaid in and upon Mary  Williams, in the peace of God and the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, in there and then having feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought, did make an assault and that the said Philip Rogers, a certain stone of no value, which he, the said Philip Rogers, in both his hands then and there, had and held in and upon the back of the head and side of the face of her, the said Mary Williams, then and there feloniously, willfully and of his malice aforethought did strike and the said Philip Rogers with the stone aforesaid, do as aforesaid, had and held the aforesaid Mary Williams, in and upon the back of the head, the side of the face of her, the said Mary Williams, several mortal wounds, of the length of three inches and of the depth of one inch of which said mortal wounds the said Mary Williams then and there instantly died.

Philip Rogers’s family spared no expense in his defense, bringing in Senator James Ross from Pittsburgh as his lawyer.  Rogers admitted to meeting Polly the night of the murder and admitted to quarrelling with her, but denied pushing her over the cliff. He said they had separated and implied that she had lost her way and fallen from the top of the rocks.

Though the public believed Rogers to be guilty and the judge remarked that the evidence against him was “very strong,” there was not enough evidence for a conviction. The trial lasted less than one day and Rogers was acquitted.

Verdict: Not guilty.


Though Rogers was acquitted, violent threats against his life made it impossible for him to remain in Fayette County. He moved to Green County where he worked as a mason, married and raised a family. Rogers died at age 74. He never admitted to the murder.

With the case more than two hundred years old, and so much of the information coming from local legend, it is impossible to truly know very much about the people involved or what really happened to them. Olive Woolley Burt, who collected one version of the song “Polly Williams” in 1922 attempted to research the real Polly Williams. In the 1790 census she found a Polly Williams in eastern Pennsylvania, who was head of a household that included a male child under sixteen. Ms. Burt traced this Polly Williams to a land purchase in south central Pennsylvania. If this was the same Polly Williams, then she surely was not a girl of 18. But there is no evidence that it is the same person, especially since the real name of the murdered girl appears to have been Mary.

Sam P. Bayard, another collector, commented on the name discrepancy.  In American Ballads and Folk Songs, John A. Lomax quotes him:
“The victim’s name was not Polly Williams; but for some reason, the composers of the song chose this conventional name, and it is this name which is always used by those who tell the story.”
Some newspaper accounts have inexplicably stated that Philip Rogers had an alias: Grant Fielding, and quote his mother as calling him Grant.

Polly Williams's Grave before 1927
Sometime before 1860 an anonymous man purchased a stone for the grave of Polly Williams in what is now White Rocks Cemetery.  By the 1890s the stone had been completely chipped away by souvenir seekers and the grave was marked by a wooden plank. In 1927 the Polly Williams Sunday School Class of the Little White Rock Church raised money for a replacement stone. That stone met the same fate, and in September 1972 the class erected a third stone. All three bore the same tragic inscription.

Burt, Olive Woolley. American Murder Ballads and Their Stories . New York: Oxford University Press, 1958.
Cowan, Frank. Southwestern Pennsylvania in song and story . Greensburg, Pa.: Printed by the Author, 1878.

Hadden, James. A history of Uniontown: The county seat of Fayette County, Pennsylvania . Akron, Ohio: Printed by the New Werner Co.], 1913.

Lomax, John A. American Ballads and Folk Songs (Dover Books on Music) . New York: Macmillan, 1966.
"Mysterious Death of Polly Williams." The Morning Herald [Uniontown] 6 May 1944: 1.

"Polly Williams Murder of 1810 Recalled in Area." The Morning Herald [Uniontown] 20 Aug. 1957: 1.

"Weird Story of Polly Williams' Tragic Death Told." News Standard [Uniontown] 5 May 1937: 3.

Ballad Lyrics and Poems:
"Polly Williams" (anon.)
"Polly Williams" (Samuel Little)
"The Murder of Polly Williams" (A. F. Hill)



erinM says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:33 AM
This comment has been removed by the author.
erinM says:
February 19, 2013 at 10:36 AM

Polly wasn't an uncommon nickname for Mary at the time. It's a derivative of Molly. In 1810 there were 2 free white females between 16 and 25 living in the home of a Jacob Moss of Fayette, Penn. One of them could have been Polly.

January 10, 2024 at 4:17 PM

I first learned of Polly Williams from an old post card that was sent to my grandmother around 1906. I'm convinced that this story may never go away.

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