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.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.
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?
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.