Across the Water: An Accomac Murder

This truly grand building has a remarkable history dating back to the beginnings of our country. The Accomac Inn had its beginnings in 1722 when a two-hundred-acre tract called “The Partner’s Adventure” was first surveyed for Philip Syng and Thomas Brown.

Ten years later a patent was granted by Maryland for the two hundred acres to the gentlemen. During these years the Susquehannock and Nanticoke Indians resided in the area. There were Indian villages on the side where the property was located and another Indian settlement on the opposite of the river in what is now Columbia, Pennsylvania.

The name Accomac, which was given to the ground opposite Marietta, was a name of Indian origin. The word means “the other-side place,” or “on the other-side of water place.” In the Massachusetts’s language “akawine” means “beyond” and “ac,” “aki,” or “Akhi” in the Algonquin means “land.” The term, according to Dr. William Jones, was probably akin to the Chippewa “ugaining,” “the other shore.” The Accomacs were a tribe of the Powhatan Confederacy of Virginia, who formerly lived in Accomac and Northampton counties, Virginia, east of the Chesapeake Bay, and their tribal town or village of Accomac, according to Jefferson, was about Cherrystone inlet. In 1608 they had eighty warriors, and, as they declined in numbers and importance, lost their tribal identity, and the name became applied to all the Indians east of the Chesapeake Bay.

The Accomac is speculated to be the original colonial farm home and ferry house, which records show was then called the Anderson’s Ferry Inn, built in 1775, where notable American Revolutionaries such as Marquis de Lafayette stayed before crossing the river. The Accomac Inn started out as Anderson’s Ferry (the hotel was built later in 1771), where Anderson ran a ferry along the river and in the same year received an official charter from Thomas Penn, William’s son, for thirty-five acres on the west side of the river. It then became Keesey’s Ferry, then Coyle’s Ferry, and by 1875 it was known as the Accomac Inn.

The Inn and surrounding property were purchased again in 1863 by Dr. Jacob Glatz. This idyllic scene from an 1860 Shearer & Lake map depicts Glatz’s Ferry on the Susquehanna River, in the years before the Civil War. The ferry crossing dates from colonial days, and the large multistory building in the left center was what is known today as the Accomac Inn, a very popular fine dining establishment. Ferries conveyed people, wagons, animals, and cargo from the Marietta region in Lancaster County to and from York County.

The following year it was purchased by John Coyle. In 1889 James Duffy purchased the Inn and it was then run by Amos Grove. In 1892 a flyer was circulated about the Inn and its famous “Chicken and waffles.” By 1909, after Ford had invented the Model T, the Inn became more of a restaurant with people being able to travel to and from in one day. In 1915 Norman Pickle took possession of the Accomac Inn and revived the rundown property.

On May 16, 1935, a fire destroyed the Inn. The porch of the Accomac Inn, known for its calming river views, was apparently always a popular feature for its sunsets, but was also the starting place of the fire that destroyed the building and resulted in the three-story stone structure there today. Mr. Pickle rebuilt the Inn using original stone from the building and new stone from the old Witmer Bridge in Lancaster County. Four months later the Inn opened once again.

The 1936 Flood

In 1952 Mr. and Mrs. Morton Nauss purchased the Inn, a year after the death of Mr. Pickle. The Nauss family sold the Inn to Vance and Vivian Lehman in 1960 and then they sold it to the next owner, H. Douglas Campbell in 1971. Campbell and his wife owned the Inn for forty-six years. He announced he would sell the restaurant in 2018. “Happy Henry” Shenk purchased it for $1 million in 2018, but several months later due to health issues he sold it to Tom Ott, who made extensive restorations on the 16,502-square-foot stone structure that sits on 7.9 acres, according to a news release by Rock Commercial Real Estate. Ott rebuilt and restored much of the building, including the original stone walls, interior walls, ceilings and a new HVAC system. In 2021, the historic Accomac Inn went up for sale again, listed at 1.3 million, but to sweeten the deal, it came with a liquor license.

The Accomac has a long history and has changed hands of ownership many times during its existence, but the most memorable period of its history was during the time it was known as Coyle’s Ferry, under the ownership of the Coyle family. On Decoration Day 1881, the tranquil morning silence at Coyle’s Ferry was shattered by the sound of gunshots, and in an instant Emily Myers lay dead at the hand of John Coyle, Jr. Although his guilt was never in question, he claimed he was in love with Emily and was driven insane by her continual rejections.

John Coyle Jr., lived with his parents, who kept the Ferry House. His parents were aged, and he was the only son and the whole family had the reputation of being vicious and immoral set. Coyle was well built, inclined to be robust, of good form, a pleasing face, which he generally kept clean shaved except for a mustache. His conceit was great, and he frequently told his listeners that “people talk of him as John Coyle, the handsome man,” and prided himself greatly on the fact. Young John was extremely handsome, but he was also lustful, hot-tempered and addicted to rum.

There had lived with the Coyle family for some time in the capacity of an orphaned young woman, aged sixteen years, by the name of Emily Myers, to whom John Coyle became enamored. Emily was employed as a domestic in the Coyle household. She was prepossessing in appearance, industrious, of pleasing manners and bore an excellent character.

John’s attentions were avoided by the girl, who did not seem to care enough for him to marry him. She repeatedly repelled John’s addresses, but according to him, she once consented to become his wife. On the morning of May 30, 1881, the girl was called by Coyle’s mother to get up and milk the cows. Coyle, suffering from the effects of a drunken spree at the time of the tragedy started from the house with the determination of making the girl consent to their marriage or fulfilling his oft-repeated threats of killing her. At the stable door she met Coyle, who said to her, “I came out to see if you would be as good as your word; you promised to marry me, will you be my wife?

She replied, “No, I won’t have you nor any other man.”

Coyle said, “I’ll shoot you, for no other man shall have you.

She dared him to do so. Pointing to her breast she said, “Shoot me right here! Shoot me quick!”

Coyle drew his revolver and shot the young woman. He shot her through the heart and then turned the pistol upon himself, inflicting two slight wounds upon his own body. The young woman never spoke after she was struck but died instantly. Coyle recovered.

Mrs. Coyle, who slept in the same room with the girl, remained in bed, and shortly after Emily had left the house heard three sounds similar to those of pistol shots. She got up and called for the girl, but no answer came, and when she went out toward the barn she met her son, who told her that she need not call for Emily, as he had shot her dead. Coyle made no effort to escape but returned to the house and gave an account of the shooting and was conveyed to the prison at York.

John Coyle had suffered greatly from his self-inflicted bullet wounds and looked haggard and worn. He thought the wounds were more serious than the surgeons anticipated and kept bathing them constantly with cold water to allay the pain. He did not express any further desire to end his life, but the strictest care had been taken that he did not get an opportunity to destroy himself. He was anxious to be speedily cured and relieved of his pain.

He expected his father to visit him while in prison and awaited his appearance with much anxiety. Between the father and son there had been a long estrangement. The son had threatened to kill the old man frequently and had fired upon him once or twice. Young Coyle often quarreled with his father, and on those stormy occasions the wrangling of the men could be distinctly heard at Marietta, three-fourths of a mile across the river from Coyle’s hotel and ferry. Several of young John’s associates called to visit him and several ladies applied for admittance. He was very illiterate and seemed to pay very little regard to the enormity of the crime he committed.

On June 10, 1881, a bill for murder was found against Coyle. The case was continued to October term, 1881, for trial, and on October 19, 1881, the trial was ordered, and a jury empaneled after the return of three special venires. At the trial the defense set up that the young man was insane, that he had a mania for loving every girl he came across, and that he had frequently been under fits of insanity. It was claimed that he had previously attempted to shoot himself, and on another occasion had taken arsenic which had been purchased to kill rats. On October 26, 1881, the verdict of the jury was rendered as guilty of murder of the first degree. The case was then carried to the supreme court at Philadelphia in May of 1882. The prisoner’s defense was insanity. The supreme court reversed the lower court for the use of a single word “clearly” instead of “fairly” in speaking of the measure of proof necessary to establish insanity.

In a few interesting words Judge Mercur sustained the lower court by saying, “the attempted suicide of itself is not evidence of the fact of the insanity of the prisoner, and it raises no legal presumption thereof. But it may be considered by the jury that all the other facts are circumstances bearing on the question of insanity. Sometimes it may be evidence of a wicked and deprived heart, familiar with crime. At other times it may be evidence of despondency and discouragement, but perhaps more frequently it is of cowardice or a lack of courage to face ignominy and public disgrace or to submit to the punishment likely to be imposed on him.”

The trial was again ordered but owing to the state of feeling in York County against the prisoner, the venue was changed to Adams County. The second trial began in Gettysburg, in April 1883, and after lasting two weeks, Coyle was again convicted of murder of the first degree. The prisoner was once more sentenced to be hanged, and another writ of error was taken out, and the case carried to the supreme court at Pittsburgh. The opinion of the supreme court was rendered on January 7, 1884, sustaining the lower court and remitting the record execution. John Coyle’s execution was then set for April 22, 1884.

The death warrant of John Coyle Jr., which was issued from the executive department in place of being read to him had been returned for correction by Sheriff Plank, of Adams County. Coyle was told of the warrant but as it had been custom since the trial had manifested little interest. He was in solitary confinement by order of the judge, and no one was permitted to speak or see him except the officials. He did not, however, desire any person to come near him. To the sheriff he admitted he killed the girl but that he did it when out of his mind. He was perfectly satisfied to die. He anticipated nothing from the Board of Pardons, to whom he did not apply. On account of a want of funds no application was made for his pardon, or commutation of sentence to imprisonment for life.

No one could have been more regardless of his end than Coyle. When his death warrant was read to him it seemed to tire him to listen to it and he remarked when through “that it was about as long as the Declaration of Independence.” He claimed to have no fear of the gallows and anticipating revenge over his enemies in Heaven. He was hardened and depraved, though profession conversion to religion, and to every inquiry as to his end seemed utterly indifferent, claiming for himself the hardiness to meet his fate and to help to make the duties of the Sheriff as light as possible. He said, “I experience no horror at the thought of hanging, but I don’t think of it or worry myself about it. It’s no use.” But when he added, “I wish it was over,” he expressed the only apparent fear.

He acknowledged the killing of the girl and asserted that he loved her, at one time implying that he was sorry and again that he felt no remorse at the deed, but that the way he was treated by her was enough to drive any one crazy. He had been encouraged, he said, and it was always “Johnny here and Johnny there with her,” and waving of handkerchiefs when he rowed away on his trips and kissing of hands to him. It drove him mad, he said, when she refused to be his wife, and he committed the deed in a fit of temporary insanity, and he even produced what he considered an unanswerable argument to that effect that he then shot himself, which he thought no sane man would have done, but would have tried to have made good his escape. He seemed particularly violent against the “bloodhounds,” as he called his enemies, who swore away his life on his trial, and he looked to Providence to avenge his wrongs.

His cell was a variety show of funny pictures, cheap chromos, advertisement cards and valentines, but chief among those were his own original attempts at depicting certain comic events of his life and trials. By trade he was a ferryman, and one of his pictures was a boatman in a leaky flat boat, with the inscription, “John Coyle’s last row to hell,” a phrase used by one of the witnesses on his trial. He read many of the things said about him in the papers and stated, “with all these publications I guess I’m the biggest man in the State.”

His sanity was entirely apparent to anyone who would listen to his talk. He conversed pleasantly, at times, however, wildly and extravagantly. Some of his eccentricities were peculiar. His hatred of and vituperation against his enemies was always violent. This criminal, like many others, notwithstanding all his boastful recitals of the shocking murder, his seeming lack of remorse, his hatred of his enemies and his utter hardiness to his end, professed to be converted and devout Christian and reiterated that that constituted the strength that upheld him. He believed not that he needed forgiveness, but that Heaven would hardly be complete without him, that he was going there to fill a mansion long prepared for him, that the coming launch into eternity would be but the sailing into a port of a happier and heavenly home, from which his eminence he would look down on his enemies and enjoy his sweet revenge of seeing them in torment. His description of how he would begin his days were: “I get up in the morning, open my window and whistle, then take a smoke, after which,” this he emphasized, “I sing some psalms and say my prayers.” And again, the way the days would end, he said, “In saying my prayers and going to bed.

John Coyle was hanged the morning of April 22, 1884. The insanity experts, who went there, announced that Coyle suffered from depression of the skull, caused by a blow, and was insane. This was communicated to the governor, but he refused to interfere. Coyle was accordingly informed the night before that all hopes had gone, but he slept well and ate breakfast in the morning. A large train brought many people into town and at an early hour five hundred had crowded into the jail yard. Coyle walked to the gallows with his spiritual adviser. After prayer and benediction Coyle was swung into eternity and died with scarcely a struggle. The body was given to his mother to be taken to Marietta for burial.

Though his mother wanted to bury him in their hometown of Marietta, the city refused, and his mother brought his body back to the home of his father near Coyle’s Ferry. His body was taken through York on the train, and at Hellam, a large crowd had gathered to witness the arrival. The crowd was anxious to see the corpse, but his father refused to let them see the remains of his son. John Coyle was accompanied to Hellam by his wife and shortly after the train steamed away from the railway station the father and mother with their dead son moved slowly over the hills to their home on the banks of the river. John was buried under an apple tree at Coyle’s Ferry. Two hundred and fifty persons were present at the burial. It was said that his father slept out at his grave for three days because of the body snatchers in those days. His tombstone and burial plot can still be found in the backyard of the inn, a mere fifty feet away from the main entrance. Coyle’s epitaph reads: “Mother, don’t weep for me, for I am not dead, only sleeping here.”

The funeral of Emily Myers took place from the residence of her grandfather, Samuel Myers, at Marietta. The victim did not bleed much from her wounds until Mrs. H.S. Kauffman prepared the body for the shroud, when the blood began to ooze from the bullet holes in her body and temple, and from her mouth. The funeral was one of the largest that had ever taken place in Marietta. The people for miles around the scene of the murder flocked to the town in droves to attend the funeral and get a glimpse of the features of the murdered girl. None of the Coyle family attended the funeral, and it was reported that the friends of the murdered girl received a message from the Coyle’s, stating that they desired no interview with any of Emily’s friends or relatives. The interment was said to have taken place in the Samarita Cemetery, but that cemetery is defunct, so it was generally believed her remains were moved to Marietta Cemetery. She is now believed to be in the unmarked plot next to her Great-Aunt Sarah’s gravestone.

For decades, patrons of the Accomac Inn have reported the feeling of being watched. But some visitors and staff members have had much closer encounters with Emily and her murderer, who seem doomed to haunt the halls. Odilia McDonald, who began her career as a waitress at the Accomac in 1976, told of strange flashing lights, loud banging, and the intercom ringing, when she knew for a fact that the building was empty. Another waitress was walking back from the empty dining room one night and saw a man sitting at the table, alone, with his head in his hands. When she walked back, there was no one there.

The Accomac’s previous pastry chef, Deb, was baking early one morning when she heard someone enter the building. She assumed it was another employee, but instead she found herself greeting the ghost of a man who she believed to be John Coyle, Jr., as the young male figure vanished right in front of her eyes. Another day Deb was in the walk-in fridge and felt someone standing behind her. When she turned around, she was confronted by the same young man she had seen before. 

The previous long time night manager was in the process of closing the Accomac Inn one evening when he stumbled across a young woman quietly weeping in the dining room. He asked if he could offer her any assistance, but she didn’t answer. Perplexed by her lack of response and her strange clothing, the manager went out to his car, only to be confronted by the same young woman, sitting on the hill next to the parking lot, sobbing into her hands. Once again, he asked if he could help, but received no answer. He was worried enough to report the girl to the police, who asked him for a description. But he couldn’t remember her face.

Whether you believe in ghosts or not, there are several things that loom over the Accomac Inn – an over two-hundred-year-old murder, a solitary grave and more than a few brushes with the unexplained. Soldiers of the Civil War have died within very close proximity to the Inn, their bodies found on the riverbanks of the Susquehanna. With the Inn’s very long history perhaps it’s more than two people, long dead, that are behind many of the unexplained events at the Accomac.

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Perpetual Adventure

A Writer/Screenwriter fueled by proponent travel. When she decided to leave the only home she knew the journey grew into a fierce dream to travel and write about the places she explores. Her adventures are a constant struggle between fear and courage, but we humans are explorers and pioneers, and we find our inner strength when the end state is the absolute unknown.