On a Monday in September of 1857, Pattie Bird set out on her normal route from her home in Halifax County to the town of Weldon, North Carolina. She lived just a couple miles from town with her 17 year old son, Willis. Pattie shopped at Parker’s store in Weldon that day. She purchased nine pounds of flour, paying for it with money she kept tied up in a cloth sack. She had about 18 dollars. 4 of the dollars were in silver half dollars. Pattie never returned home. She was found dead the following day. Her skull had been fractured in two spots as well as her jaw. Her body was badly bruised and had been drug twenty to thirty feet from the road and left by the edge of a marsh.
John Richard Gregory, an unemployed and newly married 18 year old, traveled the same route as Pattie to get to Weldon from his home. He lived about 4 miles from town with his wife, Francis. Francis was 6 months pregnant. John was in Parker’s Store at the same time as Pattie on that Monday in September. He would later be arrested for her murder.
When Pattie’s body was found, Dr. A.B. Pierce determined that she had been killed the day prior, Monday, September 21, 1857. While witness accounts varied on the exact timeline in town, the sightings along the road were enough to alert suspicion. Multiple witnesses reported seeing John sitting and whittling or pacing just near where Pattie’s body was found. All of the witnesses from the road sightings described John as disheveled.
The last witness to see John on the road was Mrs. Summerell. She said John was running but she presumed his hurry was due to the dark cloud cover and the approaching storm. Mr. Wood did not see John along the route but his horse did take fright at the brink of the hill where others reported seeing John earlier in the afternoon. Mr. Wood stated that once he was able to regain control of his horse he noticed something white far off to the side of the road under a juice tree but it did not excite his suspicions in any way and he kept going. An unidentified witness discovered Pattie’s body at this sight the following day.
Sheriff James Simmons traced John’s moves following the murder. John traveled to a store some 18 miles away. The store owner, Jesse Herbers, said he sold John about $10 worth of clothing and inquired of John why he didn’t do his business in Weldon as it was closer to him. John replied that he had money and could spend it wherever he liked. Jesse didn’t have a shirt for John to purchase. John was able to find one in a neighboring store.
Sheriff Simmons found John at the home of Thomas Moore. John was asleep when the Sheriff entered the home to arrest him. In his somewhat slumbered and disoriented state, John pointed out his belongings he needed to take with him. These belongings included a shirt and pants with obvious blood stains.
John Richard Gregory was found guilty of the homicide of Pattie Bird. His case was appealed due to a portion of the magistrates testimony. The appeals court ruled the guilty verdict would stand and John was sentenced to be hanged on December 28, 1858.
Historical information regarding Pattie is far from bountiful. Spelling of her name varied from Pattie to Patty to Patsey. Census records indicate she was a mulatto and lived only with her son. Willis, in 1850. Court documents and newspaper reports indicate that she was a 50 year old freed slave. No obituary. No newspaper write ups about her life. Only a handful of Halifax County, NC, households with the surname Bird appear in the Census.
John Richard Gregory was my 1st cousin, 4x removed. My 4x great grandfather, John Carter, was John’s Grandfather. Cousin John was orphaned as an infant and raised by his grandparents, John and Martha Carter. In his 1848 will, Grandfather John, asks that “my son William take care of my little grandson John Richard Gregory who is without parents or brother or sister and is in a destitute situation”. Common names of the time and place make pinpointing John’s parents difficult. Unfortunately at this time I can give no name to John’s Mother or Father.
The opposite of Pattie, John’s life was given much attention by newspapers following the murder. On the day of his execution, December 28,1858, The Standard reports, “Whilst yet an infant, John Gregory was deprived of both parents. His father, a most intelligent and upright man, was killed in the performance of an act of humanity, and the helpless orphan was thrown of the resources of his connections. Too soon the boy contrived to become his own guide, philosopher and friend; and behold the sad result. One act of his life, a deplorable marriage, was chiefly instrumental in precipitating his ruin, by deservedly estranging him from all who felt disposed to give him succor.”
The same article in the The Standard also states, “Thus perished in the morning of life’s day, a young man who, under favorable circumstances, might, like some of his ancestors, have left a name honorably distinguished in the annals of the State, instead of meeting a felon’s death.” This is quoted not to woefully eulogize what could have been John’s life but to place a genealogical connection between John and his Grandmother, Martha Weldon Carter. Martha was the daughter of Col. Samuel Weldon, a Revolutionary Solider who played a large role in the formation of Halifax County, NC, and for whom the town of Weldon is named.
To put in context with today, justice for Pattie was served. Yet society failed to mourn the victim turning instead to paint a picture of a young white man whose life was wrought with hardships and an “ain’t it awful” attitude of his life being cut short. I know. This was 1858. But the narrative still plays out in some ways today.
Of interest and deserving a further look, the 1860 Census shows Willis, Pattie’s son, as a farm laborer living right beside Dr. A. B. Pierce, the physician investigating Pattie’s death. Previous Census records do not show the families living in close proximity. I like to think that Dr. Pierce offered Willis a hand when his Mother was tragically taken away. 10 years later, Willis had a daughter. He named her Pattie.
I am thankful for the State of North Carolina Archives. The story of Pattie Bird’s last trip to Weldon and her death were documented by witnesses in court. I was able to touch and review the actual court documents. Digitized historical newspapers through the NC Government and Heritage Library allowed me to follow justice being served through the trials and a rather wordy account of John Richard Gregory’s “repentance” and execution.