Mythical Monday: The Strange Legend of Harmon and Jacob Dick by Mae Clair

Today, I’d like to share an unusual legend from my home state of Pennsylvania. It involves the family of a Hessian soldier, and a tale that begins during the American Revolution.

In an effort to end the uprising in America, the British government hired Hessian soldiers to aid Crown troops in fighting the Colonials. On the night of December 25th, 1776, George Washington surprised a Hessian encampment by boldly crossing the Delaware River. A feat that seemed impossible given the icy conditions and the depleted state of his troops.

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George Washington at the Battle of Trenton
Edward Lamson Henry [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Caught by surprise, the Hessians were outmaneuvered and taken prisoner with minimal fighting. Washington gave the foreign soldiers a chance to swear allegiance to the American government if they chose.

One of those who took the oath was Harmon Dick. Originally from Scotland, he had lived in Germany before joining the Hessians to fight in the Colonies. Legend says he became a staunch supporter of the new American government and a good friend to Washington.

Harmon settled near Roaring Spring in Blair County, Pennsylvania where he took up homesteading and started a family. By all accounts life proceeded smoothly until 1786 when a terrible epidemic swept the area. Harmon’s oldest son Jacob was the first to succumb, perishing from the illness when he was in his early teens.

For fourteen years the fatal disease devastated the community. Eventually, not a single family remained that hadn’t suffered loss. Spurred by fear and superstition, the people began to whisper among themselves. Surely, the foul affliction couldn’t be natural. Not a year went past that it didn’t claim more lives. Even now, many among them were sick. Would it whittle away their numbers until no one was left?

In desperation they entertained any solution that hinted of hope no matter how far-fetched. Jacob Dick had been the first victim. Perhaps the answer to their plight rested in his grave.

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Marshaling their courage, those well enough to do so, gathered shovels and digging irons and trudged to the tiny cemetery where Jacob was buried. In the hush of the graveyard, they dug his casket from the earth, and pried the lid from the old coffin.

Although Jacob’s corpse had had lain in the dark soil for fourteen years and should have decomposed, his body and face were still those of a young boy. His hair, by contrast, had grown exceedingly long, and was the same pristine white as the snow that blanketed the hillsides in winter. He’d grown a beard too, just as long and equally as white.

As the gathered group tried to make sense of the incomprehensible sight, the corpse broke apart, disintegrating into dust. Horrified, the villagers quickly reburied the coffin. I’m sure many muttered prayers, hoping to put the frightening incident behind them.

Surprisingly, the pestilence immediately ceased to plague the community. Those who had been ill quickly recovered, and the strange disease claimed no further lives. Harmon Dick and his wife gave birth to another son, the youngest in their large family. They named the baby Jacob in memory of their eldest, taken before his time. Perhaps they believed he watched over them still.

Did the settlers who dug up a young boy’s corpse unwittingly find the means of banishing a supernatural epidemic? Did Jacob, or his spirit, rid the village of the abdominal disease that had claimed his life?

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The peculiar history of Jacob Dick can be found online, along with genealogy reports, land transfers, and the will of his father, Harmon. It’s fascinating to think this family can trace its roots back to a man who swore an oath to an upstart government when offered that chance by its Commander-in-Chief, General George Washington.

Perhaps Jacob Dick merely wanted to continue what his father started — protecting his family and ensuring they continued to flourish. An admirable ambition for a boy who never had the chance to become a man.

30 thoughts on “Mythical Monday: The Strange Legend of Harmon and Jacob Dick by Mae Clair

  1. Another wonderful story Mae! I don’t doubt a Scotsman would change loyalty against the English if they had a chance, especially back then. Touching that a boy spirit saved the village, though. At least they put a positive twist on it this time! Seem so many legends have tragic endings.

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    • My imagination runs rampant with them too, Debbie. The cemetery scene is definitely something that would work well in a book. So many threads to be spun from it, my fingers are itching to dance over the keyboard with the possibilities!

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  2. What a fascinating story! It amazes me the way people think to link cause and effect (digging up Jacob’s grave). Nowadays it’s all about science. Back then, it was spiritual in some way or another.

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    • Good point! Before science everyone turned to spirituality for answers. The pendulum has swung the other way, but it’s cool there can be a happy medium between the two. Er, as long as it doesn’t involve digging up graves!

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  3. Thanks for sharing a legend from where you live. How did you come across this story? I don’t know why, but when I was reading this, I pictured the film Sleepy Hollow starring Johnny Depp. I think there might have been a grave exhumation scene.

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    • I remember watching Sleepy Hollow (I’ve even got a copy on DVD) but can’t remember much about it. I do seem to recall JD’s Ichabod character freaking out over something in a cemetery. Maybe there was an exhumation.

      I originally stumbled over the legend in a book I have about strange occurrences in Pennsylvania (there are books about “weird” happenings in most states in the U.S.), and then followed it up by surfing online. It was cool to find the story collaborated there with historical newspaper accounts recounting Dick family reunions and the legend.

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  4. Another intriguing post! I need to make sure I read these in the morning, though, before I scare myself and can’t get to sleep. LOL I love all the things you find that I’ve never heard of before, or never would have encountered if you hadn’t shared them here. 🙂

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    • Hopefully I’m not the cause of you lying awake tonight, LOL (although you’re probably dealing with this crappy winter weather like me!) This was a weird one but kind of touching too. I felt so badly for Jacob. Glad you found his story intriguing!

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    • Hi, Stephanie. Always a delight to meet another Keystoner 🙂 Our state does have some very unusual history and strange tales when you dig deeply enough. Thanks so much for stopping by!

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  5. I n doing some research on my family tree I discovered that Harmon Dick was my great great great great grandfather. This was a truly interesting article. I’m a history buff and having a revolutionary soldier as a ancestor is exciting. His grandson Andrew Dick was a union soldier who was wounded at Spotsvania. Thanks

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    • Hi, Darrell! Wow, thanks so much for dropping by my blog to share that. I’m a bit of a history buff too, and I find it enthralling you’ve traced your family tree back that far and have discovered Harmon Dick as a direct relative. The tale is so interesting, and I completely agree that having a revolutionary solder as an ancestor is amazing. I’m presently reading a book on the life of Alexander Hamilton so that connection really resonates!

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