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The Short Unhappy Life of William Seymour Douglass

By Frederick Nolan

Frederick Nolan is a historian who lives in Chalfont, St. Giles, England. This is the first of two parts of this article. The second will be continued in the January issue of the Quarterly.

Seymour Douglass story is a veritable paradigm of those oral fables so beloved of Victorian times, that of the young man who forsakes the paths of righteousness early in life, and pays the bitterest of prices. How bitter may be judged from a letter he wrote from prison to his nephew Maurice shortly after his second incarceration in the State Penitentiary in 1886. In it, Seymour exhorted that young man not to fall prey to the same temptations he had, and recalled how the "roots of evil crept into my heart and ruined my life" during his boyhood.

I was not content to spend my evenings till bedtime with my mother s children, around a happy fireside and the purity of that home circle. But I would run off to the next door neighbor, when they would lend me a pipe to smoke, and gave me tobacco to chew. And after these bad habits had got a good hold upon me, these people told me I must get them so and so, in return for the tobacco I used. In fact, I was set to stealing sugar, coffee, vegetables, meat and some little amount of nearly everything my mother had. This life of guilt and shame was carried on for a long time, and my mother never had a thought that she was being robbed, and that too, by her own boy. This went on till my moral sense was s dulled and outraged, that I did not feel any guilt: And I would go into my mother s trunk and steal all the small change I could find; and by this means she found me out; and the bitter shameful truth, -- truth worse than death, -- pierced that dearest of all hearts.

I nearly troubled that dear mother to death, and at last she determined to send me away from my early associations; and I went to Romney (West Virginia) to learn to be a printer. I resolved that I would do better. I spent my evenings with good young men, at a boarding school, debating society and in many ways to my profit. I made rapid advance in my work, and was liked by everybody. I was careful and honest in all my ways but did not realize that sense of honor which should rule the life. I attended Church regularly, and after some months, was awakened by the spirit of God to a just sense of my wicked and lost condition if left to myself. . . . He called me to give up my life in printing and study for the ministry. The Pastor s daughter, Miss Mary Belle Foote, talked to me many times about it, and finally mentioned looking up a place for me in a suitable school. Then, I thought, I must tell Dr. Foote and his family all about my shameful conduct at home. I thought this over for months, fighting against it; and I gave the devil the victory over me, by packing my valise and running away. . . .

After I left Romney, and up to the time I was sent to this prison, my life was mostly wandering and aimless. I had little regard for anybody. I could make money easily at printing, as I was rapid and correct, -- but my life was not correct, as my gambling and drinking bore testimony; and three times after I ran away from Romney, I committed crimes for which I deserved imprisonment.1

What these crimes were, and where he committed them, we shall probably never know. There is no question that he repented them; the letter to Maurice is a plea to that young man to "think soberly, think seriously, think manly. What are you going to be? I can tell you out of a heart which has passed through the bitter waters of sin and shame, if I could commence life where you are now, I would, like Jacob, wrestle with God until he blest me."2

William Seymour Douglass said he was "born and raised in West Virginia" which is somewhat misleading, since that State did not come into existence until 1863. When he was received at Moundsville Penitentiary in West Virginia on August 24, 1878, he was 27 years of age, indicating he was born in 1851, but since statewide recording of births did not begin until two years later, further detail is unavailable. The 1860 Census for Hardy County, Virginia, from which Grant County, West Virginia was formed, reveals that Seymour, as he was always known, was the third child and first son of innkeeper Thomas P. Douglass, 46 and Mary F. Douglass, 36 of Luneys Creek in Milroy Township.

There were five children, all Virginia-born like their parents: Sarah Virginia, 15 in 1860; Ann C., a year younger; William Seymour, 9; Thomas B. age 5; and Adam age 2 at the time of the census, July 19, 1860. The family were comfortably placed, with real estate valued at $1500 and personal estate at $600. A decade later, by which time Luneys Creek was in Grant County, West Virginia, their circumstances had been severely reduced. Thomas Douglass does not appear in the census taken on August 31. His widow, Mary, has personal estate of only $200. Virginia, 26 is a housekeeper; Anna, 24 a school mistress; Seymour, 19, Thomas, 15 and Adam, 12. All three boys had attended school within the last year.3

Of Seymour s boyhood and the fate of his family during the Civl War, there is no record, but he must have seen a great deal of violence. Romney changed hands more than fifty times during its course. In one account of his life, he stated that at age 15, i.e. 1866, he went into a newspaper office as a "printer s devil," learned to set type, became a compositor, afterwards a "jour" and finally, finding the field of journalism too narrow for his special talents, emigrated to Texas.4

"Being a man of pleasant address, and apparently a gentleman, he formed the acquaintance [of] and married an estimable young lady, by whom he had one child, which lived but three or four years and was shortly followed by its mother. He left that portion of Texas, went to Lampasas, and started a newspaper called the Lampasas Advertiser. He again married."5

He arrived in Lampasas around 1872. The tradition there is that he got a job on the Lampasas Dispatch, probably as a typesetter. On December 31, 1873 he married Sara Ann "Sally Ann" Horrell, youngest daughter of a family notorious, in the words of the Attorney General of Texas, for "the branding, killing and skinning of other peoples cattle." There can be little doubt Seymour was aware of all this. He must have been present in September when Sally Ann s five brothers and a number of their kin fled Lampasas to avoid trial for the murder of four Texas State Policemen the preceding March. Sam, Tom, Merritt, Mart and Ben Horrell betook themselves to Lincoln County, New Mexico, where in short order they became embroiled in a race war that cost many lives, including that of Ben, the youngest of the Horrell brothers, and they were eventually forced to flee New Mexico and returned to Lampasas in February, 1874.6

Meanwhile, Douglass was appointed a Deputy Sheriff, "and performed the duty so well, especially that portion of it connected with catching the wild outlaws of the frontier than when his time as Deputy Sheriff expired, he was elected Marshal." As a Marshal there is no doubt that Douglass made his mark on more than one occasion, principally inscribed no doubt with 40 caliber bullets. He always brought in his man, but as often feet-foremost as with perpendicular, but one day he went out to arrest someone on a warrant, he followed probably his last trail (but one) of death. He returned with the prisoner strapped to the back of a horse. But the prisoner was as dead as cold lead could make him. One story goes that the dead man had many friends who believed that he had been deliberately murdered and swore to avenge him. Another, but somewhat less plausible one, was that the score keepers of the coroner s jury disagreed as to the number of bullet holes in the dead man, and the coolness that arose on that occasion gradually centered upon Douglass. Be that as it may, Douglass directly after the above occurrence left Texas for the mountains of West Virginia.

(to be continued in the January issue)


1. Seymour Douglas to "Maurice," Sunday December 12, 1886. Courtesy, George B. Moomau, Petersburg, WV.

2. Ibid.

3. US Bureau of the Census. Census for Luneys Creek Post Office, District No. 2, Hardy County, VA. July 29, 1860 by Asst. Marshal John J. Shipley. Census for Luneys Creek Post office, Milroy Township, Grant County, WV August 31, 1870 by Asst. Marshal Arnold Schen. Courtesy Conley M. Edwards, Head, Archives Public Services Section, The Library of Virginia, Richmond, VA.

4. Wheeling, WV, Sunday Register, April 21, 1886.

5. Ibid.

6. The full story of the lives and feuds of the Horrell family may be found in Nolan, Frederick, Bad Blood: the Life and Times of the Horrell Brothers (Stillwater: Barbed Wire Press, 1994).

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