14 November 2007

The Outrage at Sourland Mountain

The New York Times called it "The Outrage at Sourland Mountain". Newspapers nationwide picked up the story - writing at first with condemnation and indeed outrage towards the perpetrators, and later with astonishment that such an act could be committed - and even tolerated - in the modern age. It was January 1877.

24 January 1877, Troy, New Yor, Daily Times


Amos and Ida Sheppard lived in a small neat two-story house on Hollow Road on the Sourland Mountain - just across the border from Hillsborough in Montgomery Township. At that time, living on the mountain was a bit like living in the Wild West - hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-loving. Ida specialized in loving. It was rumored that she got a little too intimate with the husbands of her neighbors, causing her to earn a bad reputation.


A portion of the 1873 map of Hillsborough.
Blue stars indicate the homes of some of the principal figures,
and the location of the store

Fanny Conover of Montgomery-Zion Road took particular exception to Ida Sheppard's behavior. When Ida ran away for a dalliance with her son-in-law Jake Hegeman (who happened to be Ida's cousin) she said it made her "feel bad". Hegeman had money but left none for his own wife and three children which he left in the care of his mother-in-law.

28 January 1877 New York Daily Herald


Mrs. Conover spoke freely about her indignation with some of her female neighbors - all of whom agreed with her. She told her friends that she would pay handsomely if someone would tar and feather Mrs. Sheppard, or do something else to punish her. This news made its way to Jacob Sheppard, Ida's brother-in-law, who lived on Zion Road. He made a visit to Mrs. Conover the next day to find out if she was serious. She said she was - but later claimed that this was the last she heard about it until the deed was done.

The store at Rock Mills as it looked in the 1930s.


On January 10th William Docherty, 18 years old, was on his way to a fundraising party at the parsonage in Rock Mills when he stopped into the store run by James Tuttle Peak. There he found his brother Howard (16) and Richard Van Liew (27). They told a story about Fanny Conover offering half a gallon of rum to anyone that would tar and feather Mrs. Sheppard. When Jacob Sheppard showed up at the store, he agreed to go out to Mrs. Conover's house to check again that she was ready to pay for their services with rum. She was.

24 January 1877 New York Daily Herald


At this news, William Docherty went down the road the Jacob Sheppard's to fetch a couple of jugs of cider - enough to fortify the gang. When he returned to Tuttle Peak's barn, he found that they had been joined by Isaac Peak, John Corbett, Charles Hoff, and Alfred Cray - all young men in their teens and early twenties. Tuttle Peak helped them to black their faces with burnt cork, and heated the tar over his fire, before going upstairs and coming down with a load of feathers.

The men went to the Shepherd house about midnight. They called out for Amos Sheppard but he refused to come to the door. As they crashed through, The Sheppards jumped through a front window wearing only their nightclothes. Amos ran through the freezing snow and out onto Hollow Road. Ida wasn't so fortunate. She slipped on the ice and fell. Isaac Peak grabbed her. Charles Hoff ran after Mr. Sheppard, while William Docherty and Alfred Cray ran back to Peak's store.

The home of Elizabeth Van Liew, 
photographed in 2009

Amos Sheppard ran north to the crossroads and found refuge in the house of Elizabeth Van Liew - a relative of the assailant Richard Van Liew. Freezing and frightened, he took refuge in the Van Liews' setee, and was, in the words of Mrs. Van Liew, "too scared to breathe".

Isaac Peak, Howard Docherty, Richard Van Liew, and John Corbett - fortified by the cider and their own adrenaline - gathered up Ida Sheppard, tore the clothes from her body, and tarred and feathered her right there on the stoop of the Sheppards' back porch.  It was later alleged that there was a further assault on her person. Some accounts say that quartet left her for dead in the snow and continued their drunken reverie through the night, others that they returned her to her bed. In any case, Ida was found later by her husband - unconscious, but alive.

23 January 1977 New York Herald


The seven, proud of their deed, boasted all the next day. They met up at Peak's store and indeed received their reward from Fanny Conover. Of course, Ida, being alive, was able to identify five of her attackers: Richard Van Liew, William Docherty, John Corbett, Alfred Cray, and Charles Hoff. Isaac Peak and Richard Van Liew immediately left the county, but the others were quickly rounded up and fingered Jacob Sheppard, Fanny Conover, and James Tuttle Peak as their accomplices.

The one-day trial took place in Somerville on April 26, 1877. Van Liew, the oldest and perceived as the ringleader, received an 18-month prison sentence, Cray got 15 months, Hoff, one year, and Corbett and William Docherty, each 9 months. Howard Docherty, as a minor, received three months in the county jail.

In the aftermath of the "outrage", all the community feeling was on the side of Ida Sheppard - who after being treated by Dr. Ludlow went to live three miles away with her mother - and against the "desperadoes" and their meager sentences. The Sheppards' marriage had not been a happy one, and it is unlikely that the couple ever reunited.

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