Monday, September 2, 2013

123 and 124. Eliza Davis and Eliza Davis

I have two students named Eliza Davis listed as Mordecai students in the appendix of my dissertation.  (Ask any teacher, there's often one or two duplicate names in a school, especially if it's relatively limited in the range of cultural traditions represented. I once had two Rachel Howards in different sections of a course I was TAing at Wisconsin, for example.)

Eliza Davis of Richmond VA attended the school in its last year (both sessions of 1818), with a Major Davis as the adult on the account.

Eliza. Davis of Warrenton NC was married by 1817 (so she's not the above Eliza Davis); she attended the school for four sessions, 1812-13, and has Buckner Davis as the adult on her account.

The second girl is easier to identify, because she lived in Warrenton and the Mordecais shared news about her long after her school days.  Betsy Davis Christmas (as she was usually known) was the daughter of Buckner and Nancy Chapman Davis.  She married Thomas H. Christmas (brother of fellow students Jane and Sarah Christmas) in February 1817, apparently against her parents' wishes.  Within months it was already known in the community that he treated her cruelly.  I don't usually include long excerpts from letters here, but in this case, they tell the tale:

18 September 1817, Ellen to Solomon, from Warrenton:  "You will think with us that her disobedience is if possible too soon punished when I tell you that the unfortunate Betsy Davis (that was) has already been treated so cruelly by her husband as to be obliged to fly from his house and seek a protector in the overseer.  He brought her to Dr. D's where she remained a day, withstanding all Mr. C's entreaties to return with him until the evening.  When he cried and made many concessions which I suppose at length prevailed with her. Her poor father has just returned from the Springs with his health much improved.  He was sent for to town and wished to take her home with him but was persuaded not." (Mordecai Family Papers, SHC)

22 June 1820 Ellen to Solomon: (death of Buckner Davis mentioned) "soon after his death his son became deranged, & Betsy was so much afraid that her husband would return & beat her ill that she left her father's house and lives now at P. Davis's plantation under the protection of Steed the overseer!"(Jacob Mordecai Papers, Duke)

3 March 1826, Ellen to Solomon (from Warrenton):  "I told you in my last letter that the shooting match would probably prove fatal to Tom Xmas but he is on the recovery, and Dr. Davis is bailed until court for $10,000."  (Betsy's cousin* Dr. Stephen Davis shot Thomas Christmas, but both men survived.) (Jacob Mordecai Papers, Duke)

(The story of Stephen Davis shooting Thomas Christmas also appeared in the newspapers.)

12 May 1826
, Caroline to Ellen, from Warrenton:  "T. Christmas going through the street after his wife with a stick in his hand....some of the ladies begged him to go to bed in one of the downstairs chambers, he abused his wife most shamefully & swore he would kill her.  Mrs. Soln Green got in his lap & said she would sit there to keep him from breakfast he scarcely spoke civilly to anyone & immediately got up in his gig and went off with poor Betsy at full gallop.  After he got home he was very furious breaking everything to pieces, after dinner his wife ran to Mr. Ransom's & begged them to hide her...Betsy in the meanwhile had gone to Mr. Somervilles...It is said he did whip her that night whether true or not I do not know." (Mordecai Family Papers, SHC)
13 January 1827, Caroline to Ellen:  "[Mr. Anderson] told us of Tom Xmas having shot a man, one of the Nunneries' apprentices... The man bled a great deal but is now nearly recovered.  TC was taken up the next day & carried to court."  (Jacob Mordecai Papers, Duke U)

22 January 1827?, Ellen to Caroline, from Virginia: "I have been thinking of her Betsy Xmas ever since I read your letter... You remember the day we came away she said to me, 'I think sometimes no one in the world remembers or cares for me."  Poor girl--poor girl--I hope her husband may be sent away where at least he can abuse her no more." (Mordecai Family Papers, SHC)
 5 March 1827, Caroline to Ellen, from Warrenton:  "You will be sorry to hear that poor Betsy Xmas is in town she came to Judge Hall's on Tuesday night or rather Wednesday morning for she walked all night long and came alone. Sally told me she looked dreadfully & is very much bruised & she has not eaten a mouthful the day she left home... He has sent for her two or three times but I do not believe she has gone yet." (Jacob Mordecai Papers, Duke U)
12 May 1829? 1828?, Caroline to Ellen, from Warrenton:  "Tom Christmas is out of jail his mother & brother stood his securities."

After this point, Caroline Mordecai Plunkett moved out of Warrenton, and there were no longer any members of the family there to report on Betsy Davis Christmas's fate.  However, we can pick up the story in other records.  It looks like Tom Christmas had other incidents of violence within the family; his son killed a brother-in-law,* and Tom himself was convicted of murder in 1839, after killing his wife's cousin Richard Davis.*  A state supreme court case, Christmas v. Mitchell (1845), establishes that both Betsy and Tom were dead by the time the case was brought (involving the ownership and inheritance of slaves in the Davis/Christmas family). We also learn from that court document that their eldest son Leonidas was deaf from birth, and had never received an education.

The specifics are a little fuzzy, but taking several versions together gives a general picture of her life. This family history has Elizabeth Chapman Davis Christmas dying in 1842, the mother of five sons all born between 1817 and c1825. (But I think the birthdate is wrong there. She wasn't born as early as 1780; the same chart has her parents marrying in 1800.) The same family history has Thomas Christmas dying in 1842 as well.  This family history has Elizabeth (Betsy) born c1797, and shows her as Thomas's second wife--it shows him with a first marriage that lasted less than two years.  This one also shows the first brief marriage, with a child born in 1816. This family history has her with eight children, mostly sons, born 1817-1837, and has her a widow for two years before she died in 1842.

*Facts marked with an asterisk above are corrections made by Mr. Shannon Christmas, 9/3/13, a Christmas family historian--see first comment.

I'll come back for the other Eliza Davis soon.  Betsy Chapman Davis Christmas's story is a lot to deal with in one blog post.


  1. Penny,
    Thank you for revealing the source of the conflict between Thomas H. Christmas and his Davis in-laws. I am a 3rd-great-grandson of Lewis Yancey Christmas, Thomas H. Christmas's brother. I have researched the Christmas and Davis families for several years and have a few corrections for this post:

    - Dr. Stephen Davis and Elizabeth "Betsy" Chapman Davis (also known as Betsy Davis Christmas) were paternal 1st cousins.

    - Thomas H. Christmas was not involved in the killing of his son's brother-in-law. In the letter you referenced, the author refers to Thomas H. Christmas's son, "Jim Christmas," (better known as Dr. James Yancey Christmas) having killed his brother-in-law, William G. Whitney, in self-defense in 1882.

    - Thomas H. Christmas murdered Richard Davis, another of his wife's paternal 1st cousins, in January 1839. The court documents for which you provided a link refer to Tom's conviction for that murder.

    Very Respectfully,
    Mr. Shannon S. Christmas

  2. Very helpful (and quick too!), Mr. Shannon S. Christmas! I'll make the corrections you suggest. It's a very sad, violent family story, but this project has been leading me to a lot of tales of violence--I guess those are the stories that survive in court records and gossipy neighbors' letters. Any chance you know more about Leonidas Christmas, who was apparently deaf?

  3. Thanks to Penny L. Richards and Mr. Shannon S. Christmas for sharing this very interesting family history. Pls continue to keep me advised of additional info that may be gained. Happy roots searching!

    Betty Smith Horne, a Christmas descendant

  4. Penny,
    Leonidas Christmas appears on the 1870 US Census residing with Obediah Christmas in Granville County, North Carolina. His death date is unknown.

    Very Respectfully,
    Mr. Shannon S. Christmas