It was hot. It was humid. Neither one of us wanted to step out of the comfort of the air conditioning. The vehicle’s thermometer was reading ninety and it was not even noon yet.
Zech and I sat studying the historic burial grounds of the Beulah Presbyterian Church and Cemetery. Nestled along the northern edge of Interstate 370, the historic Beulah seems out of place in the busy outskirts of Pittsburgh.
“Are you ready?” Zech asked as he grabbed the map of the cemetery and my notes. Only after making sure we had everything in hand, did I dare shut off the truck and step outside.
We immediately fled to the shade of the nearest tree to study the map.
The men working on the historic building paused to stare at us as we sorted out the plot we sought.
A couple minutes later – and thankfully still in the shade – we were standing at the plot where Sergeant John Trotter rests in an unmarked grave. We stood in silence as the strange events known as Trotter’s Curse echoed in my mind.
John Trotter’s story began in 1792. Sergeant Trotter was one of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne’s men stationed at Fort Lafayette, also referred to as Fort Fayette, near present-day Ninth Street and Penn Avenue in Pittsburgh.
At the time of General Wayne’s occupation of the fort the desertion rate was high. One of the men accused of leaving the ranks was Sergeant John Trotter. It is not known for sure if Trotter was or was not a deserter and writers have had varying thoughts over the years. One of the earliest versions of the story claims that John Trotter had deserted and was soon captured and executed in the Hannastown (Hanna’s Town) area, about thirty miles away.
Later versions – including the most popular version – claim that while General Wayne was in a drunken stupor, Sergeant Trotter asked for permission to visit his family in the Murraysville area, about twenty miles away. Wayne, being in a drunken state, granted Trotter permission for the visitation. Early one Sunday morning Wayne, still suffering from a hangover, demanded to see Trotter. Having forgotten the conversation, Wayne accused Trotter of desertion, and demanded that he be tracked down and instantly executed for his actions.
Whichever version may be true, most of the versions agree that after discovering Sergeant John Trotter missing, General Wayne sent three men to find him with the order to execute Trotter. The three men sent on that fatal mission were Colonel Robert Hunter, Captain William Elliott, and John Horrell. The group discovered Sergeant Trotter walking back to the fort. Trotter begged to have his sentence suspended until he had the opportunity to talk to General Wayne. His pleas were ignored and the three men prepared to execute Trotter, more afraid of General Wayne than of Trotter.
As they prepared to carry out the sentence of death, John Trotter sought supernatural vengeance upon his executioners. He asked permission to read from the Bible before being executed. A Bible was produced and Trotter read from Psalm 109, which is known as the Prayer of the Falsely Accused Person. In doing do, it placed a curse upon the three men who were about to execute him and the man who had sent them after him.
According to legend, the four curses uttered by John Trotter that fateful day were:
- “Raise up a wicked one over him; Let Satan stand at his right side.”
- “May (this curse) soak into his body like water, like oil into his bones.”
- “May his posterity be cut off…Let my accusers be clothed with shame.”
- “May his days be few…May another take his office.”
No sooner had the words been uttered by John Trotter than the three men raised their rifles and fired, killing Trotter where he stood.
Trotter’s Curse would take its toll upon the lives of General Wayne and his men, as they found themselves suffering from the words uttered by John Trotter that fateful day.
Once General Wayne had sobered, he was horrified to discover that Sergeant Trotter had been executed by his orders. It was said that General Wayne fell into a deep depression, so bad that his officers thought he would die from it as he mourned John Trotter’s death. But his curse was yet to come…
“Raise up a wicked one over him; Let Satan stand at his right side.” These words fell upon Captain William Elliott. After Trotter’s execution, Elliott turned to alcohol in an effort to forget the wrath called down upon him. After the war, Elliott resided in New Alexandria for a while and then moved to Butler County where he spent the remainder of his days. He was known to be delusional and often cowered in fear of a “mad dog” that would torment him. Captain Elliott was convinced that this “mad dog” was Satan who was tormenting him for the evil deed he had done.
“May (this curse) soak into his body like water, like oil into his bones.” This phrase was placed upon Colonel Robert Hunter. The curse took hold of Hunter in the form of diabetes. The Colonel would live the rest of his life near Bairdstown – present-day Blairsville – in a state of constant thirst; however, nothing he drank could satiate this thirst. He lived the life of an outcast until death finally took him.
“May his posterity be cut off…Let my accusers be clothed with shame.” These words were called down upon John Horrell. Horrell lived in the Loyalhanna area, convinced that he was possessed by devils with coal red eyes. His last will and testament was contested in the courts for years after his death on grounds that he was insane. Legend holds that Horrell was killed after being thrown from his mount when the devil, in the form of a goose spewing sulfur, flew in front of the horse spooking it.
After paying our respects to Sergeant Trotter, Zech and I took some time to wander around the historic cemetery. The entire time we were there, I couldn’t help but wonder if others had been affected by the vengeance called down by John Trotter. While history records the fate of four of the men, I wondered how the curse affected those who knew the “Haunted Men.”
“Wait a second,” Zech spoke as I finished retelling him the story of Trotter’s Curse. “You said the curse affected four men, yet you’ve only mentioned the fates of three of them. What about the fourth man?”
“That would be General “Mad” Anthony Wayne,” I observed. “The curse was something the he could not escape from.”
Trotter’s curse is continued in Part Two