One of the oft-told stories of the C&O Canal is that of Lockkeeper Joe Davis. “Lock tender Joe Davis and his wife were murdered here by shooting in 1934,” Thomas Hahn wrote in his Towpath Guide. He expanded on the story in The Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Lock-Houses & Lock-Keepers writing that Davis took care of Lock 61 in the last decades of the canal’s operation. Hahn wrote that the bodies of Davis and his wife were burned after the murder to try and cover up the murder.
George “Hooper” Wolfe told a similar story in I Drove Mules on the C and O Canal. He did not name the lockkeeper and made no mention of his wife. He also wrote that the lockkeeper was murdered to steal his rare coin collection and that the murderer was later caught in Shantytown when he tried to pay for drinks with some of the coins.
Most people discount Wolfe’s story because he was prone to exaggeration, but it turns out that neither story is true…at least entirely.
Trying to verify Wolfe’s story is hard because it was vague. No names were given and only a decade is mentioned as a time frame for the murders. So I looked at Hahn’s story, which has many more points that I was able to research.
The headline in the August 5, 1830, Hagerstown Morning Herald announced, “Two Believed Burned in Allegany Co. Home – FOUL PLAY IS HINTED AFTER SKULLS FOUND – Mystery Marks Home Burning And Disappearance At Kifer”. This headline set the narrative that became the urban legend. However, the facts told a different story.
Joseph Davis and his wife were killed in a fire on Aug. 4. “They were found on the springs of a bed in the ruins of the house. Two skulls crumbled when touched,” the Morning Herald reported. The fire was so hot that the newspaper reported that not only had the wood burned in the house but so had the locks and hardware.
Newspaper reports said that Mrs. Davis’ name was Allie, but the 1930 census reported it as Ella. Newspaper reports also vary on both of the Davis’s ages. According to the 1930 census, Joseph was 59 and Ella was 53.
The Davis’s bones were found in the basement where they had fallen once the floor had collapsed. Ella Davis was identified by her wedding ring.
A neighbor, drawn by the smoke, had found the ruins of the house the day after the fire and reported it to the authorities. The bones that were found were initially taken to Paw Paw, W.Va., which was the nearest town of any size. State’s Attorney William Huster, Allegany County Sheriff W. H. Harvey and Coroner Joseph Finan came from Cumberland to investigate the case and determine what happened.
The newspaper also reported that casings from a small-caliber gun were also found near the body.
Davis had been a lockkeeper at Lock 61 on the canal, but since the canal had shut down six years previously, he reported to the census that he was a farmer. It is not mentioned in the article whether he and Ella were still living in the lockhouse, but it is possible.
Though the murder story spread quickly through the community, the authorities quickly abandoned the idea.
“It had been rumored that the couple had met with foul play and their bodies burned in their home to conceal the crime. This was based on a report that old coins which Davis collected and had under glass in a frame was missing. The officers, however, found a five-dollar gold piece and the metal of twelve silver coins, which had melted,” the Hagerstown Daily Mail reported on the afternoon of Aug. 5.
The story of the missing coins corresponds with Wolfe’s story.
Finan announced on Aug. 6 that Joseph Davis had been smoking, probably a pipe, and may have fallen asleep. A spark from the house caught the house on fire. No foul play was suspected.
From this one case of accidental death, two urban legends of the canal’s infamous murders sprang.