Penny L. Richards’ Mordecai Female Academy blog traces the lives of approximately 500 alumnae of a long-defunct, family-run Warrenton, North Carolina private school that, from 1809-1818, provided daughters of Southern planters a rudimentary education. The blog has become a treasure trove for genealogists tracking families based in the South during the years of the Early Republic.
Richards, pulling from reams of the Mordecai family’s gossipy correspondence, injects a warm flavor into the sometimes cold, bland soup of surnames and vital records populating online pedigrees, supplying character references and intriguing tales that help descendant-researchers add context to their ancestors’ profiles. Posts on the Mordecai alumnae in my family tree helped explain a dark chapter in my family history.
Two of my great-great-great-grandaunts, Sarah “Sally” Duke Christmas and Jane Yancey Christmas (sisters of my great-great-great-grandfather Lewis Yancey Christmas), attended Mordecai. So did their sister-in-law, Elizabeth “Betsy” Chapman Davis. After her stint at Mordecai, Betsy married - defying her parents - one of Sarah’s and Jane’s three brothers, Thomas H. Christmas, a divorcee, in February 1817.
Prior to finding Ms. Richards’ blog, I read newspaper articles reporting Thomas’ bloody shootouts with Dr. Stephen Davis and Richard Davis, both cousins of his 2nd wife, Betsy. The first battle left Thomas wounded, the latter killed Richard and, ultimately, Thomas. The State of North Carolina charged, convicted, and executed Thomas H. Christmas for the murder of Richard Davis. Neither newspaper articles nor court documents explain what instigated this hostility.
The Mordecai family’s many detailed notes regarding Betsy paint her as a battered wife seeking respite at relatives’ plantations (including those of Stephen and Richard) from Tom’s abuse. The Mordecai letters reveal that Tom’s barbaric treatment of his wife raised the ire of her family, inciting the violence that ended two lives and forever changed several others.
As adults, two sons of Tom and Betsy, Dr. James Yancey Christmas and Obediah Christmas, endured eerily similar trials. Dr. James Yancey Christmas shot and killed his brother-in-law, claimed self-defense, and endured no further prosecution. His brother, Obediah Christmas, charged with and sentenced to death for killing a slave, narrowly escaped execution on a court technicality. The brutal temperament that rattled through this household clearly haunted the next generation and begat more bloodshed.
This story demonstrates how Ms. Richards’ unique research provides invaluable eyewitness accounts of how families interacted in their communities, filling in gaps where government or media-generated documents cannot. I highly recommend descendants of Virginia and Carolina families follow the Mordecai Female Academy blog. Who knows what will turn up next.