I arrived at Evergreen Cemetery, located on the eastern edge of Union City, with directions to the grave I was seeking and thankfully those directions were correct. In a matter of minutes I was standing at the grave located among the rolling hills of Evergreen Cemetery. Near the back of the cemetery is the simple grave of a Civil War veteran and Methodist preacher who has become a piece of regional lore.
An American flag flapped lazily in the wind next to the simple stone marking the resting place of Reverend Darius Steadman. Nothing on his tombstone hints at the story about his life that has become a part of regional lore.
Darius was born May 1, 1831, in Erie County, near the border with Warren County, the son of a pastor. In 1857, at the age of twenty-six, he was licensed to preach by the Erie Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. He would be appointed as pastor of the congregation at Shippensville in 1858.
During the Civil War he enlisted with the 105th Pennsylvania Volunteers, also known as “The Wild Cats.” He contracted typhoid and was sent home to recuperate. After the Civil War he returned to the ministry and was eventually appointed to the oil boom town of Pithole.
The town of Pithole is often regarded as one of the worst towns to ever exist within the borders of Pennsylvania. The area was first settled in January 1865, when oil was struck nearby. By May of that year the town was laid out and businesses began arriving. With the town’s growth came violence and lawlessness. The church recognized the need of religion in the boom town and Reverend Steadman was sent to Pithole.
Reverend Steadman was not the typical preacher of the time. He sported a full beard in a time when preachers were expected to remain clean-shaven, and, much to the dismay of the Methodist Church of the time, Steadman smoked a pipe. Despite what the higher-ups of the conference may have thought about his appearance and faults, Reverend Steadman was able to identify with the oil workers.
Upon his arrival in Pithole, Reverend Steadman found no church or suitable place to preach, so he preached his first sermon there in a stable. After he delivered his first sermon, Reverend Steadman set about working towards the erection of a proper church building. By the August of 1865 he had secured a piece of land that had been donated, and by October he had eight thousand dollars in funds for its construction. The building was forty by eighty feet with an octagonal tower that soared eighty feet into the air. On March 24, 1866, the Methodist Church opened for services and would be officially dedicated that May.
One thing Reverend Steadman did to bring the workers into the building and into the faith was to encourage them to come as they were. This meant the workers arrived in dirty work clothes and muddy boots, again to the dismay of the leaders of the Methodist Church.
Reverend Steadman also recognized the need for the children in Pithole to have an education. He went about to secure funds and soon classes were being taught in the basement of the church.
There is one story involving the Reverend that marks his place in history and makes him a piece of regional lore. It involves a confrontation with the notorious Ben Hogan who often referred to himself as “the most wicked man in the world.” Before arriving in Pithole, Ben Hogan was a well known boxer and general trouble maker. Ben’s arrival in town was marked with increased fights and assaults, many which he was involved in.
While in Pithole, Ben Hogan became involved with French Kate, who ran a brothel in town. The true identity of French Kate is unknown, but the name she was known as while living in Pithole was Kate LeConte. Rumors of the time said she was a Confederate spy who had an association with John Wilkes Booth who had lived in the region for a short time while trying his luck in drilling for oil.
Ben worked as a bouncer in French Kate’s brothel and helped her to obtain girls. One of Ben’s methods of obtaining young ladies for French Kate was to run advertisements in newspapers in the Buffalo region of New York. These advertisements would ask for young ladies to come to Pithole to work as a nanny. Once the young girls arrived in town, Ben would force them into French Kate’s brothel. If they did not agree to work for the madam, the young ladies would be held against their will and starved until they agreed to the demands.
The activities of French Kate and Ben Hogan were known, but little was done to stop them. That would all change one day when a young lady arrived in town from Buffalo. Note: A number of places refer to the young lady being named Rebecca, a name that she has been identified as, but I’m not sure when the name became connected with her. The earliest versions of this story I’ve uncovered do not mention the girl’s name. As I share the story with you, I’m going to use the name Rebecca to identify the young lady.
When Rebecca arrived in Pithole, she was greeted by Ben who spirited her away to French Kate’s brothel. Despite the threats, Rebecca refused to do their bidding, so she was locked in a second floor room and starved. Rebecca managed to write a letter addressed to her mother in Buffalo and dropped it out of her window. A passer-by picked it up and somehow the letter managed to make it to the young girl’s mother.
When Rebecca’s mother arrived in town she approached Ben and demanded to have her daughter returned. Ben denied knowing Rebecca and she was not in French Kate’s brothel. Her mother went about seeking help from the community. The residents refused to get involved in the situation and finally Rebecca’s mother arrived at the doorstep of Reverend Steadman.
Reverend Steadman listened to the mother’s story and knowing something had to be done, took action to recover Rebecca from her kidnappers. He found three others to help him with his plan. Each armed with a pair of pistols, the group of men went to the brothel to retrieve the young lady from the clutches of French Kate.
The minute the quartet arrived at the brothel, French Kate disappeared, leaving Ben to deal with the intrusion alone. When Reverend Steadman asked for Rebecca to be released Ben laughed and denied that he had her. Ben suddenly discovered himself confronted by four sets of pistols pointed at him. Ben’s story changed as he suddenly remembered that he did have a young lady who might be the one they sought in a second floor room. Ben led the men upstairs and released Rebecca who was happily reunited with her mother.
Reverend Steadman remained in Pithole until July 1867, when he was reassigned to the church in Freedonia. He would continue to serve the conference at many locations around western Pennsylvania until his death in 1907.
The community of Pithole did not last long after Reverend Steadman’s departure. When the oil wells failed to produce regularly in 1868 the town died a long, slow death. By November 1876 the community was gone, except for the Methodist Church Reverend Steadman had been influential in having erected for services.
I finished paying my respects to the Reverend for his service before winding my way out of the cemetery, leaving him resting among the hills of Evergreen Cemetery.