Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Black-McKaig Homicide.

As children, Harry and Myra Black were playmates with William McKaig, but as adults McKaig did not view the Blacks as his equals—the McKaigs were wealthy, the Blacks were not. As events transpired, their relationships grew to resemble a melodrama where the rich but unscrupulously evil villain seduces and ruins the innocent maiden. Her betrayal is avenged by her equally upright brother. But will his goodness be pure enough to save him from the gallows?

Date:  October 17, 1870

Location:   Cumberland, Maryland

Victim:  William W. McKaig, Jr.

Cause of Death:  Gunshot

Accused:   Harry Crawford Black

William McKaig and Harry Black were little more than children when they left their homes in Cumberland, Maryland to join the Confederate Army. McKaig rose to the rank of colonel while Black became a prisoner of war. Following the Civil War, William McKaig returned to Cumberland and took the helm of the family’s iron business. Harry Black took a job as clerk with the Franklin Coal Company; a job that kept him away from Cumberland for three weeks at a time.

During the war years Myra Black had blossomed into beautiful young woman, attracting the attention of William McKaig upon his return to Cumberland. He began a very public courtship with Myra and the Black family had no reason to believe that his intentions were anything but honorable. But McKaig abused their trust and seduced Myra Black. He then used the threat of exposure to make keep her under his domination.

In 1866 William McKaig married a Miss Hughes, of Jefferson County Virginia, a woman more suitable to someone in his social station, but he continued his illicit intercourse with Myra Black in secret. When another man proposed marriage to Myra, McKaig put a stop to the marriage by revealing to the groom that he had seduced Myra and ruined her in the eyes of the world. McKaig’s sexual relationship with Myra Black continued until the spring of 1870 when she became pregnant.

Myra was sent away to have the baby and in June 1870, her father, Harrison Black, confronted William McKaig at a public fairground. McKaig not only denied seducing Myra Black but declared that she was a strumpet and had been a prostitute “from her earliest girlhood.” This was too much for Harrison Black; he took out his pistol and shot McKaig, hitting him in the arm.

The family was able to keep all of this news from Harry Black during his brief and infrequent visits back to Cumberland. When he was home on Saturday, October 15, 1870, Harry was out with his friend Henshaw, who happened to ask if Harry’s father had been indicted yet. Harry knew his father was in trouble but could not get a straight answer from his parents so he asked Henshaw to explain. Henshaw told him what had happened at the fairground and the next day Harry went to his mother, demanding the whole story.

Monday morning Harry Black met William McKaig on Baltimore Street, the principal thoroughfare of Cumberland and shot him three times in view of at least twenty witnesses. When the deed was done he said:
“That’s what you get for ruining my sister and for trying to send my father to the penitentiary, and I have got another shot for any damned scoundrel who says I’ve done what was wrong.”

Trial: April 11, 1871

Public sentiment in Cumberland was so strongly in Harry Black’s favor that the State of Maryland did not believe that they could find an impartial jury in Allegheny County and had the trial moved to Frederick County. Impartialities aside, the state felt that they had an open and shut case of first degree murder against Harry Black. Understandably angry, he had armed himself and intentionally gone to meet William McKaig then shot and killed him in front of numerous witnesses.

Harry Black had a first rate defense team led by Daniel W. Voorhees, a distinguished criminal attorney and U. S. Congressman from Indiana. The defense took two seemingly contradictory approaches. First, that Black had been so enraged by the news he had heard the day before that he could not control his actions; second, that the murder had been in self-defense. McKaig was known to carry two six-barrel revolvers and the defense attempted to show that McKaig had deliberately provoked Black, intending to kill him in the fight. Witnesses disputed whether McKaig had been holding anything when shot and whether a pistol was found of the ground near the body.

But the strongest defense came in Voorhees’s closing argument when he championed Harry Black’s good character. Prior to this case, Black had never been in trouble; never done anything even slightly questionable. During the testimony, even witnesses bringing evidence against him confirmed Harry Black’s good character. Voorhees asked how any such person could voluntarily be guilty of such a crime:
“Can the mark of Cain rest upon the brow of such a one? Can the ineffaceable hand of bloody guilt be there? Such an assertion is a perversion of all laws of human nature. The tree shall be known by its fruits; the thorn and the thistle do not bear delicious figs, and the life of innocence and peace does not bloom and ripen of a sudden into a harvest of atrocious crime.”
Voorhees spoke for three and a half hours and at the end of his oration he was applauded by the gallery. The jury then took the case and after deliberating a little more than an hour returned a verdict of not guilty.

 Verdict: Not Guilty


When the verdict was announced the room erupted with a deafening cheer and Harry Black was taken from the courtroom by a throng of well-wishers. He joined his weeping mother and returned to Cumberland.

It has been reported that sometime later, Myra Black committed suicide. 

Black, Harry Crawford. Trial Of Harry Crawford Black For The Killing Of Col. W.w. Mckaig, Jr.: In The Circuit Court Of The Sixth Judicial Circuit Of Maryland, Sitting At Frederick City, April 11, 1871. Washington, D.C.: s.n., 1871.

Scharf, J. Thomas. History of western Maryland: being a history of Frederick, Montgomery, Carroll, Washington, Allegany, and Garrett counties from the earliest period to ... sketches of their representative men. Baltimore: Regional Pub. Co., 1968.

The Green Bag: an entertaining magazine for lawyers, Vol. 14. Boston: The Boston Book Company, 1902.
"The Black-McKaig Homicide." The Sun [Baltimore] 20 Apr. 1871.

The Famous Black-McKaig Trial


Maggie says:
April 24, 2013 at 12:58 PM

Many of the "facts" listed in this story are inaccurate. William Wallace McKaig Jr was my great great grandfather, and I've done extensive research on this case.

Contrary to the McKaigs looking down on the Blacks, the Blacks were frequent guests of William's mother, Priscilla McKaig.

In Priscilla's journal, written from 1855-1866 and published by the Allegany County Historical Society in 1984, there are numerous entries attesting to that very fact. Yes, the Black's fortunes fell somewhat after the war. But as far as I could discover, the McKaigs did not look down on the Blacks.

For years, I too chose to believe the story that my great great grandfather was this monster who seduced Myra. One can't but help have that opinion reading those trial transcripts. But one day I realized we only have the testimony of the Black family and various trial witnesses, whose testimony is not very circumspect. William denied he was the father of Myra's child to his dying day, and unfortunately he never had a chance to offer his side of the story--being dead.

Harry Black was acquitted of the crime of murder largely on the grounds that he had been defending his family honor. Harry was considered an honorable man. It mattered not whether McKaig was innocent or guilty.

When Murder by Gaslight writes "There is little information on what became of these people in the years that followed, but it has been reported that Myra Black committed suicide", they demonstrate how little research was done in presenting this story. One of "these people" went on to great renown. Harry Crawford Black changed his name to H. Crawford Black and went on to run the Baltimore Sun publishing empire, own coal mines, and when he died in the early 1920's was one of the wealthiest men in the country. His descendents continued to run the Sun and manage all the other assets until the end of the 20th century.

As to Myra's fate, she does indeed disappear from public record. I've been attempting to find her since 1985 to no avail. The story fascinated me, and as a result, being a musician and playwright, I began a project called the "Cumberland Suite." It's a music and spoken word presentation inspired by Priscilla McKaig's journal and the trial transcripts. In my writing one ballad, which tells the story of McKaig's killing, I was going along with the "party" line... McKaig is the villain, Myra the sweet young beautiful woman. But then I stopped, and looked at the story with a journalist's eye, a reporter's point of view. There is little evidence to support the "facts" of McKaig's guilt. And Myra never testified. She was sent away, made to disappear. She was 28 years, old, not exactly a young woman by 1870 standards. In fact, she could be considered a spinster.

As a strong defender of women's rights, my heart went out to how society treated both William and Myra. Daniel Voorhees likens Myra to a leper at one point in the text, stating she will never again know any joy. Here's an example of Voorhees' florid language: 'The lepers taint is upon her in the eyes of the world, and friends fall off and avert their faces.”

My point here is that the Murder by Gaslight article is pure cotton candy. Sweet, but with little substance and will no doubt eventually rot one's teeth. Anyone interested in more of the story, please feel free to contact me.

Robert Wilhelm says:
April 25, 2013 at 9:12 AM

Of course the research in incomplete, this is a blog post not a book. I write around two original posts a month; this is just enough time to find the sources, read the sources and summarize the story in a couple of quick pages. That said, this post uses three books, a newspaper article, and another website—more sources than the average blog post.

My job is not to speculate what might have happened or what the motives might have been, my job is to relate the conventional wisdom regarding the case—the “party line”—as stated in published works. If an alternative theory exists I will include it, but in this case I found none.

I try to find out find out what happened to the people involved using simple newspaper searches. If a man changes his name I will not find him even if he becomes a millionaire. I do not take the research any further because, after all, this is the story of the murder not the biography of Mr. Black.

I will remove the sentence stating that there is little information on what became of the subjects involved because that is apparently not true. However, based on information in the sources listed above, I stand behind everything else I wrote.

If you have a better, more accurate version of this story, I would encourage you to write a book or put up a web page of your own.

Unknown says:
June 13, 2013 at 7:26 PM

Maggie, Your attempt to justify the actions of your ancestor is understandable,however, he was from a powerful family ,and had there been any doubt about what kind of man he was someone would have denied his guilt,even if he ,himself could not. I guess no one did. What does that say?

Unknown says:
June 13, 2013 at 7:28 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous says:
July 23, 2013 at 4:11 PM

My goodness. I've not looked at this site for a while. Evidently I riled up the author. Good! Nothing like a good bit of controversy.

I have written the story, or rather, presented a theatre piece on the story. I'm a songwriter, composer, and playwright, and those are the mediums I've used to tell the saga. In 2009, in fact, I was invited by the Allegany Arts Council in Cumberland to show my work in progress. It was a fascinating experience, which drew in the one surviving editor of my great-great-great grandmother's journal, Michael Mudge. Michael has been an incredible source of information. The journal, which was edited and published as a commemorative by the Cumberland Historical Society in 1985 as a part of Cumberland's 250th anniversary, came into my possession in 1986. Since then, I've researched all the details extensively, as presented in the journal, and by the historians who edited the journal, and the complete transcripts from the Black McKaig Murder trial. A huge part of my focus has been to discover what happened to Myra Black after the trial.

I am in no way defending my ancestor. What I have stated is that, likely or not, he wasn't proven guilty of fathering the child. I've read the entire trial transcript a number of times, and the bottom line comes down to this: Harry Crawford Black certainly believed that William Wallace McKaig was the seducer of his sister. In order to defend his family's honor, he had to kill him.

But from an objective view there is simply no incontrovertible proof. No DNA, obviously. Myra never appeared at the trial. The testimony came from her mother. Because Black was a war hero, and considered an honorable man, he was acquitted on the grounds that because he BELIEVED McKaig was the seducer, as that is what his mother said, he was merely defending his family's honor by killing him. And therefore, in 19th century terms, that was enough to get him acquitted. I repeat, that decision didn't have anything do to with Willie's guilt or innocence. Obviously it is very easy to believe that Willie, who,as Marymaureen states, was from a powerful family, could have abused his power and easily taken advantage of a vulnerable women, and then denied it. Poor Myra was downtrodden even further by her brother's denial of her existence for the rest of his life, and certainly hers.

It is this intriguing aspect of the story, of Myra's disgrace, her ruin, as is so eloquently verbalized by the lead defense attorneys at the trial, and her subsequent disappearance from public record, that has driven me to keep searching for her for almost 30 years. That is what has really moved me in this entire saga, to tell the story, to get the facts straight, to uncover the secrets.

I'll be premiering the completed work this fall at the historic Nevada Theatre in Nevada City California. Next spring, in Cumberland itself, and Baltimore.

Leslie says:
March 31, 2014 at 8:44 PM

Robert, I thoroughly enjoyed this story. In fact your blog is the best I've ever encountered. I'm hooked on it- keep up the good work! Never mind the naysayers!

Leslie says:
March 31, 2014 at 8:54 PM

And Maggie, I think I'll give your work a pass- no offense.

Robert Wilhelm says:
April 2, 2014 at 7:09 PM

Thanks for the support Leslie!

Anonymous says:
September 5, 2014 at 4:22 PM

Leslie, I am fascinated by your response...which, I have to say, seems somewhat narrow minded.

Not that you and Robert are interested, but for anyone else who might be reading this conversation, I did premier Cumberland Suite last fall, at the historic Nevada Theatre in Nevada City, CA, and it was, thankfully, a huge success. I haven't made plans to bring the show east yet, but we'll get there eventually. The show received a lengthy standing ovation, and the talk back afterwards could have gone on all night. People were fascinated.

With fifteen songs, a five piece band, and wonderful actors portraying my 3x-great grandparents, reciting their entries from the McKaig journal, and segments of Daniel Voorhees' closing arguments from the trial transcripts, the audience was riveted as we explored what we know happened--which is actually very little-- versus all of what might or could have happened.
And, the play isn't just about the murder, it's about the Civil War, slavery, coal mines, and life in mid 19th century Cumberland as portrayed in my ancestor's journal.

I had enthusiastic help from two noted historians on the project: Michael Mudge, Allegany County historian, who was one of the editors of the McKaig Journal, as well as Henry Louis Gates Jr, whose help on the issue of slavery was invaluable.

Coincidentally, two days ago, the Cumberland Times published a piece by another noted historian, James Rada, writing about the murder and trial, in basically a similar fashion as Robert had: somewhat shallow. So of course I wrote to Rada, sharing my research, and asking him to consider, how would these "facts" pan out in a court of law today? Rada wrote back the next day, thanking me for writing, and expressed great interest in what I've been up to. He loved the fact I had challenged his piece, and thinks it's wonderful that I've been looking for Myra all these years, and encouraged me to continue to do so.

As well, he asked that if and when Cumberland Suite comes east to please let him know, and he'll be there.

Unknown says:
October 7, 2014 at 3:24 PM

Does anyone know what happened to the baby?

Lindsay Lindsay says:
January 14, 2015 at 2:18 PM
This comment has been removed by the author.
Lindsay Lindsay says:
January 14, 2015 at 2:21 PM

I work in The Gordon-Roberts House, an historical house museum in Cumberland, MD. We have a portrait of one of the McKaig family men, an uncle to the murdered McKaig. The original owner of The Gordon-Roberts House, Josiah Hance Gordon, was apprenticed at the McKaig's law firm. Love the Allegany (no 'h') County History represented. Proof that you don't have to stray far for rich stories and interesting people. Check us out:, and The Allegany County Historical Society on Facebook as well (there is one in NY too, but we are the Cumberland, MD one). Thanks for all your work!

Robert Wilhelm says:
January 16, 2015 at 8:38 AM

Beautiful house! And you are right you don't have to stray far for rich stories.

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