Purge and Prejudice: The Sam Mohawk Story
James Wigton arrived from a trip upstate to find a gathering of people in his yard. As he dismounted his horse in a state of confusion, his neighbor Mrs. Davis ran towards him in hysterics. Between sobs she broke the news, John’s wife and five children had been murdered. John later recalled. “ The shock was so great and sudden that for four days after I did not remember anything. I did not see my any of my murdered family.”
James Wigton, was out of town on his way to obtain a horse and plow, leaving his wife and five young children at home. Sam Mohawk stumbled his way towards the light of the Wigton home like a manic moth towards a flame. At daybreak, Margaret, the mother, ran into Mohawk stumbling around her yard. Mohawk taking a knife from her, forced his way into her home. Margaret tried to fight back, but Mohawk got her down to the ground, bludgeoned her with a stick and then proceeded to bash her skull in with a rock. Mohawk then picked up the oblong stone and continued through the house, striking and murdering the five Wigton children. The death list is as follows, Margaret(34), Almira(8) Peninah Nancy (7), Perry ( 5) , Amanda ( 3) and John Wallace ( 10 months). Witnesses to the horrific scene said, “ Margaret had pieces of her skull as long as her fingers in her hair” and that there was “ blood all over the walls and ceiling”. Sam Mohawk had fled the bloody scene and the hunt for him began.
Mohawk made a run for it and ended up on Philip Kiester’s farm, the Wigton’s nearest neighbors. Mohawk was completely unaware of the manhunt that was going on when he broke into the Kiester home.He meandered up the stairs and settled in Philip’s room. A mob of 100 showed up to apprehend Mohawk. The mob had no trouble locating Mohawk as he was playing Philip’s fiddle upstairs. Sam Mohawk had arrived in Butler County on June 29, 1843 and witnesses stated in their testimonies that he was, , “in sickened state”. None of them could have predicted that three days later he would have slaughtered a family of six.
At the trial, Sam Mohawk plead not guilty for six counts of murder . Many testified against Mohawk and the gruesome details given about the crime scene were chilling. Mohawks queer behavior, that many witnesses had mentioned, was later suspected to be delirium tremens. This is a side effect of severe alcohol withdrawal which results in confusion and sometimes severe hallucinations.Delirium tremens was embraced as a defense for murder by the end of the 1820s and had been a cause for the acquittal or lessening of many murder cases. Mohawk would have been suffering extreme hallucinations and would not have been fully cognizant of his actions. This defense floundered and Mohawk was sentenced to be hanged March 22, 1844. He was converted to Christianity before his death, in what was a last ditch attempted to save his soul, but even after this no cemetery would take his body.
The fact that Sam Mohawk was a Seneca Native American is part of the issue in this whole scenario. The underlying racism of the case is apparent even in 1843. “ The Butler County Song” was published in 1843 by William Bryan before Mohawk was even tried. Verses like, “ ‘Tis of a Bloody Savage that passed through Butler Town” and “ The bloody horrid savage must be slain” all perpetrated the animosity towards Mohawk. On Margaret Wigton and her children's’ gravestone, the epitaph reads “ Murdered by Seneca Indian Sam Mohawk” , the addition of his race to this epitaph lets everyone for centuries to come know Sam was an outsider.
The complex factors of this case were not lost on the population and it was seen by many to be encompassed under an umbrella of prejudice. David Davis Esq. published a “Pennsylvania Song” which held more sympathetic versus towards Mohawk, couplets like, “ But how this wandering stranger before this bar arraigned. The evidence of doctors established him insane.” and “ [Native Americans] They always were the objects of derision and contempt . Oppressed by all oppressors and wronged by government.”
While of course there is no excusing Sam Mohawk's murders of the Wigton family, it is important to be able to take a step back and be able to acknowledge the prejudice that occurred before and after the trial. Sam Mohawk becomes more of a disturbing propagandized image of a drunk Native throughout the years of this story being told, but the facts are as follows: Sam Mohawk, suffering from severe delirium, murdered a family of six and it is their memory that should be remain and not the “raging injun” story line that continues on.