The Devil in Bedford, PA
'And this also,' said Marlow suddenly, 'has been one of the dark places of the earth.'
Joseph Conrad, Heart of Darkness
A 'sensational' murder trial took place in Allegany County, Maryland in 1828. It was sensational because the man accused of murdering his wife was the sheriff of Hagerstown, Maryland. He eventually confessed to killing his wife by pushing her off her horse, which was moving at the time. Why did he do this? In order to run off with a floozy from Bedford, Pennsylvania, by the name of Rachel Cunningham.
It was a big case for the time. So how did a London writer treat this story? He wrote a book about the femme fatale, of course. You can read all the gory details here, if you've run out of back issues of the Daily Mail. Of course, the author has to pretend to be shocked by all the immoral goings-on. But for this Editor, the cool part was finding out what a den of iniquity Bedford, Pennsylvania, used to be.
Bedford, PA is 172 km east of fabled Pittsburgh. As of 2000, there were 3, 141 people there, 97.7% of them white. The biggest event there these days is the Fall Foliage Festival, with its pony rides, antique car show, and tours of George Washington's fort. We like George Washington in the western part of Pennsylvania: we mark where he slept, ate, drank, cussed, fought the British, scratched fleas, and fell into rivers. We claim he originally wanted to put the nation's capital near Pittsburgh, but are privately glad he didn't. Anyway, the idea of Bedford, PA as a hotbed of vice is hugely amusing to us. They are more likely to have lawn tractor drag races than crimes of passion.
Back in the early 19th Century, though, Bedford was a spa town. In 1804, mechanic Jacob Fletcher discovered that the local waters cured his rheumatism. At least, that was his story, and he stuck to it. The local hospitality industry benefitted. The place got so popular that President Buchanan used it for his Mar-a-Lago.
Here's what the book says about the doings in Bedford.
As vicious example teaches more readily to effect than admonitory lessons instruct to honourable emulation, she (the ill-fated heroine of this memoir,) was early initiated in the principle-polluting vices and corruptions of that fashionable and licentious place of resort, (Bedford.) She there beheld that immodest demeanour in her own sex, (which, like the mildew-pregnant breeze blighting the tender blossom, blasts in the youthful mind each germ of feminine
. . . At that place of fashionable folly, vice, and profligacy, (Bedford Pa.) while residing with her aunt, (who let out the greater part of her house, in elegantly furnished accommodations1 to the, what is called, first class of visitants taking up their abode there during the season,) it may be said, the ice of continence was first broken2 and she (Rachel,) went down rapidly with the full current of licentiousness that surrounded and bore away her youthful inclinations, finally to the wide and overwhelming ocean of sensual pleasures3!
. . . When she first arrived at her aunt's, it was near the close of that season and but few visitors were left remaining at Bedford, and those preparing for their speedy departure, yet from the few who had seen and witnessed this accession of loveliness to the attraction, of the place, report went forth and with the wings of lightning's rapidity spread through the country the intelligence of what a prodigy in superior beauty had made its appearance and become stationary in that summer resort of profligacy and pollution4. . .
. . . the very succeeding day to the event of the duel, and while yet, the outstretched corpse of him, whose tender kindnesses she had so often and eminently experienced was scarcely cold, ransacked all the property he had with him, possessed herself of all his cash, jewels, and every valuable that came or could be brought within her fingers' reach, at once disposed of the horses, carriage, and splendid equipments for a very considerable sum, and on the forenoon of the next day, she taking her seat at the side of the very man, by whose hand her former too fondly-doting protector had fallen, departed from Bedford amidst the execrations of all who witnessed her disgusting conduct on that occasion, while she (this Rachel Cunningham,) in the presence and to her aunt, unblushingly avowed that she was not the wife of the defunct Mr. Haverley, that she was herself her own property, and therefore no one had province to dispute her right of disposing of her person as her own pleasure should direct.
To sum up: Rachel showed up in Bedford with her rich bf. They pretended to be married. Rich bf got into a duel with another man. Rich bf was killed. Rachel went off with the winner of the duel. Even Bedford thought this was pretty low. The story gets worse after that: the new bf eventually broke up with Rachel, as she treated him about as well as she'd treated her previous bf. Rachel became a self-employed combination laundress and call girl in Hagerstown, Maryland. Which is where she met the sheriff. George Swearingen was a popular sheriff. He must have been: he didn't even lose the election after he was caught in a compromising buggy accident with Rachel on his way to a Methodist camp meeting. But then he murdered his wife, ran away, got caught, and hanged.
Nobody knows what really happened to Rachel. She seems to have disappeared from the story. The London book says she was caught and hanged, as well, but you know tabloid writers. They probably thought it made a better ending.