Murder on Ocracoke!
Jacob Gaskill was two years old in 1787 when his father,
Benjamine, died. He was sixteen when his mother, Jane Williams Gaskill,
died. At age 22 (in 1807) he married Ann Scarborough. Together
they had ten children. In 1827 Jacob was also appointed guardian
his wife's three nephews who were left orphans at the deaths of Ann's
George, and his wife Polly O'Neal. Five
years later, in 1832, Ann died, leaving Jacob with thirteen children to
Jacob Gaskill, by all accounts, was
an upstanding citizen
at this time. He was Ocracoke's Justice
of the Peace, and seems to have been fairly well off. His large,
two-story home, lathed in plaster,
faced Pamlico Sound and sat on a sizable tract
of land "down point." In 1822
he sold, for $50.00, a three acre parcel of this land "for the purpose
enabling [the United States and their agent, Joshua Taylor] to
construct and keep up a light house thereon."
years later, five years after his wife died,
and two days before his fifty-second birthday, on March 1, 1837, Jacob
was involved in an argument with his neighbor and first cousin, Willis
Williams. (Jacob's father had married
Jane Williams, sister to Willis' father, Benjamin.)
said that Jacob went to talk with Willis on
that fateful day, presumably in an official capacity, as Justice of the
Peace. In an unrelated legal petition
drafted two years earlier it is noted that whereas homes and businesses
until then, been concentrated on the southern side of Cockle Creek, the
of Ocracoke have greatly increased."
petition points out that "where formerly
[on the north side of Cockle Creek] there was no store, there is now
three." These were T.S. Blackwell's
store, John Pike's store, and Willis Williams" store and tavern
near where the present-day Coast Guard station stands). The
petition of 1835 indicates that there was
some strife in the village and even mentions "evil disposed persons who
are always ready to meddle with every persons business but there
neither Willis Williams nor Jacob Gaskill
was involved with the 1835 petition, it may be fair to assume that
other rivalries in the village. In this
case they may have been between the folks who lived on the northern
side of the
"pond" (called "creekers" and including Willis Williams),
and those who lived on the southern side (called "pointers" and
including Jacob Gaskill).
seems that Willis and Jacob came to harsh
words, possibly about property lines, rights of way, or some other land
dispute....or some other issue. It is said that in the course
of the argument Willis called Jacob a "god-damned son of a
turned away and started towards his home, "Don't be standing
there when I come
back," he is reported to have told his cousin. Jacob retrieved
his musket, and returned to find Willis exactly where they
had been arguing. Willis was standing in the path, blocking
According to oral history, Willis Williams was holding his arms up in
air (perhaps as an act of defiance).
That's when Jacob shot his cousin in the left side of his neck.
Willis Williams died instantly.
Marie Fulcher Cloud has researched this
tragedy extensively. According to her,
older members of the community had heard that Jacob and Willis were
"fighting over a ditch which separated their property." But
Ellen Marie could find no record of the
two men ever having adjoining property.
Ellen Marie discovered an old map of
Ocracoke which was part of the John Herritage Bryan collection.
Mr. Bryan was a lawyer from New Bern, NC. The undated map, not
drawn to scale,
nevertheless gives clues to the murder of Willis Williams.
Apparently entered as evidence in the trial
of Jacob Gaskill, the map shows the home of J. Gaskill. In
addition to the three stores mentioned
above, and homes (along with distances), the mapmaker drew the footpath
which ran from Jacob Gaskill's house to a footbridge across the
"canal" joining the "Pond" (later known as "Cockle
Creek" or "Silver Lake.")
to Pamlico Sound, and thence past
Willis Williams' store and tavern to John Pike's store.
A figure is shown on the bridge,
apparently facing south,
in the direction of Jacob Gaskill's home.
As Ellen Marie points out, the canal over which this bridge passes is
the same narrow passageway used today by the state-run ferries and all
boats for access to Silver Lake. Today, as for generations of
is known simply as "the ditch."
The bridge has been long gone.
that the dispute took place on the bridge
"over the ditch" on the way between Jacob Gaskill's home and Willis
Williams' businesses. In addition to a land or property dispute we may
justified in wondering if alcoholic beverages may have played a role as
there seem to have been strong
emotions surrounding the arrest and trial of Jacob Gaskill. Jacob, who
"not guilty," believed that he could not obtain a fair trial in
County (in 1837 Ocracoke Island was in Cartaret County).
In fact the sheriff testified that the county jail was
"insufficient for the safe keeping of the prisoner unless he be
confined in irons" with a
"suitable guard." This was
done, and Jacob Gaskill was moved to the custody of the sheriff of Hyde
there is some speculation that Willis
Williams, who had lived for a time on the mainland (in Hyde
County; and whose wife, Dorcas Credle, was from there), may have
been involved in
several disputes there. He also fathered
at least one illegitimate child which may have contributed to further
feelings. Jacob Gaskill probably knew that
he stood a better chance of a lenient sentence in a jurisdiction that
to look somewhat unfavorably on his victim.
spring of 1837, in Hyde County,
Jacob Gaskill was tried and convicted of "felonious slaying." He
was not found guilty of murder. Nevertheless, as punishment he
was branded on
the palm of his hand with the letter "M". He was never sent to
prison. In 1840 he is
listed in the Ocracoke census, along with his children.
interesting side note, six months after the
trial the steamboat HOME wrecked on Ocracoke beach. At that time
John Pike was Justice of the
Peace and Wreck Master. In a dispute with William Howard (grandson of
Howard who purchased the island in 1759) over their respective actions
rescue and salvage operations, William Howard accused John Pike,
his influence and money" of rescuing "a murderer from the gallows
merely for the sake of gain."
Presumably this refers to John Pike's involvement in the murder trial
In 1845 Jacob married again, this
time to Chloe Daniels
of Wanchese, NC, and they had one daughter, Mary Frances,
born in 1846.
Gaskill is said to have kept his branded hand
virtually hidden for the rest of his life.
He refused to shake hands. He also
constantly "gnawed" at the "M" to erase the constant
reminder of a deed he most likely rued until the day he died.
Willis Williams' grave was washed out by a hurricane many years ago.
His son, Nathaniel Chase Williams, Sr. had this inscription put on his
father's grave marker:
O reader stay and
cast an eye
Upon this grave wherein I lie
For cruell death has chalenged me
short time will call on thee.
I was in perfect health one day
No doubt you will
read with Sorrow
And I was killed before the night
Prepare yourselves to