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2021-09-17 23:45:46

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  • Cheney’s Treaure

    The area south of Charlotte, where North Carolina’s Mecklenburg and Union counties more or less meet up with South Carolina’s York and Lancaster counties, has long been a bit confusing. The line that divides the two states makes a series of capricious zigs and zags, none of which run due north-south or east-west before they finally straighten out again in either direction. Long ago, continually changing land surveys and boundaries left settlers in the area no longer quite sure which state they lived in. The region became an administrative nightmare in which justice officials could rarely decide who had legal jurisdiction when a crime was committed. 

    Back in the 19th century, this government disorder made it possible for one Milt Cheney to run several scams of his own. Cheney operated out a tavern located in the crossroads community of Hancock in Lancaster County, SC. One scam he was accused of consisted of going into cahoots with a black accomplice, whom Cheney would repeatedly sell as a slave to distant plantations, but who would then escape and made it back to Cheney’s tavern (with free-passage papers Cheney provided) to take a portion of the loot and be resold again elsewhere.

    The scam he was eventually caught for was trafficking in stolen slaves. Cheney was sentenced to hang on July 11, 1856. Then rumors of another crime came out. A disgruntled slave claimed that Cheney would sometimes kill his overnight guests and take their gold and bury it under a boulder near the tavern. But since the testimony was from a slave, since Cheney was already sentenced to death, and since neither gold or bodies could be found, no second trial was held. 

    It did, however, draw a huge crowd to the hanging. As Cheney stepped up to the scaffold, everyone hoped he would reveal the location of the treasure. They were disappointed when instead he read a long poem to his family full of mysterious allusions. 

    The truth finally came out to the surface thirty years later. When the railroad was extended through the community in the late 1880s, dozens of skeletons with blunt-object damage to their skulls were uncovered during construction, renewing interest in the story about buried gold. 

    Ever since, treasure hunters have scoured the area within a mile of that intersection and endlessly scrutinized the poem that Cheney road aloud at his hanging. If the treasure is still waiting to be found, you can bet that whoever does find it will figure out which state has the more lenient tax laws before pointing to any particular hole and claiming it came from there. The weathered ruins of Cheney’s tavern, shown above, stood until the 1970s, when they were finally torn down and the wood reused to build a shed. -Thanks to Patricia Poland, Craig Faris, and Ripley’s Believe It or Not! 

    Devil’s Pool

    Mason Locke “Parson” Weems gave us a lasting belief in the honesty of our first President when he published A History of the Life and Death, Virtues and Exploits of General George Washington, in 1800. This is the book that told how as a child Washington fessed up  to having chopped down the cherry tree by saying, “I cannot tell a lie, I did it with my little hatchet.” 

    Before he died (in Beaufort, SC, in 1825), Weems wrote other uplifting, moralistic tracts about upright characters like Ben Franklin, William Penn, and Francis Marion. He also wrote a few pieces about people who didn’t come across such as goody-goodies, although even these were intended to provide pointers for the improvement of readers’ spiritual selves. 

    Weems’ 1810 piece, “The Devil in Petticoats, or, God’s Revenge Against Husband Killing” (he liked long titled), featured Becky Cotton, a real-life one-woman crime wave who lived in Edgefield, SC. Person Weems didn’t need to make up any stories about her; her deeds were real enough-and gory too. She was born in Edgefield, in 1780, and was widely considered one of the most beautiful females in the region. She had a diabolical streak, which was at first interpreted as simple bad luck. Seems her husband kept running off, though why anyone would leave such a lovely woman no one could imagine. Until, that is, husband number three was found with his head split open by an axe. 

    That led to searches for the first two husbands. Dredging a pond in Edgefield that is called Becky’s Pool (or The Devil’s Pool), authorities found them. The first had been killed by having a knitting needle shoved through his heart. The second had been poisoned. 

    The 1806 trial remains the most famous ever held at the Edgefield County Courthouse. The evidence was obvious, and Becky never denied it. But she turned the full force of her fatal beauty on the all-male judge and jury, and they melted. As Weems describe the scene, “Mrs. Cotton came off clear-nay, more than clear-she came off the conqueror. For as she stood at the bar tears-with the cheeks like rosebuds wet with morning dew and rolling her eyes of sapphires, pleading for pity, their subtle glamour seized with ravishment the admiring bar-the stern features of justice were all relaxed, and both judge and jury hanging forward from their seats breathless were heard to exclaim, ‘Heavens! What a charming creature!’” 

    She got off scot-free, and had so wooed the jurors that one of them even proposed marriage to her soon thereafter. But before she could work her wicked wiles yet again, her brother-one of the few men, apparently who could see through her venomous act-shot her down in front of the courthouse. 

    Young Edgefielders still say the pond where Cotton dumped her spouses is a scary place at night. Tossing stones into its depths after dark is risky since, they say, you don’t know who might turn up-one of the husbands or, worse, Becky herself.