“How could you level your gun at the head which had often been pillowed in guilty affection on your bosom?” Judge John Belton O’Neal
She was born two hundred years ago, and died a young woman, yet the story — that of Mary Ann Hyatt — caught my attention and tugged at my heartstrings as I perused information in my research on the Union County, SC Fowler families. Thoughts of her short life lingered in my mind. Her murder and the arrest and trial of the man who loved her, then killed her, were published at the time of the terrible events that occurred so long ago. When I stumbled across a connection to my Fowlers, I knew I had to write about her life, and death, so that her name will be remembered once again.
Thomas Hyatt was born about 1785. There was a Hyatt family in nearby Chester County, SC but it is not known to me if Thomas was of this family or another. He was in Union County SC by 1810 when he was counted in the census with a wife and four children. He is easily found in the Union County census records of 1820, 1830, and 1840. He died in 1843 and was laid to rest at Bethlehem United Methodist Church Cemetery in Union County, SC.
Although census records indicate Thomas Hyatt and his wife (and possibly a second wife) had twelve or more children, his Last Will and Testament lists eight daughters and three sons:
- Nancy Gallman
- Milley Ward
- Elizabeth Belew
- Jesse Hyatt
- Sarah Ann Jackson
- James Hyatt
- William Hyatt
- Mary Ann Hyatt
- Amanda Hyatt
- Harriet Hyatt
- Carolina Hyatt
If one is to believe what is printed in the newspapers, Mary Ann Hyatt was a beautiful young girl. Much to her misfortune, her beauty caught the eye of a young man in the neighborhood and set in motion a string of events that would lead to the deaths of both.
Wyatt H. Johnson (1791-bef. 1870) was the son of James Johnson (d. 1825). I do not yet know if this Johnson family was related to the William Herman Johnson (1760–1825) family whom intermarried often with my Fowler family, or if the Wyatt Johnson/James Johnson was a separate line. Regardless, Wyatt Johnson lived in the Pea Ridge/ Kelton area of Union County, and his son William did marry one of my Fowler relatives —
— I shall take a moment to muddy the waters a little. William Johnson (b. 1834) was a son of Wyatt Johnson. William married Frances Fowler (b. 1840). Frances was the daughter of Lemuel Holter Fowler (1808-1865) who was the son of John Fowler the Hatter (d. 1833).
William Johnson and Frances Fowler had a daughter named Ida Johnson (b. 1860). Ida married George Fowler (1847-1913), son of William Goode Fowler (1825-1899) and Salena Bevis (1824-1897).
As you can see, Wyatt Johnson’s son William Johnson was entangled in the Fowler family in two ways.
Wyatt Johnson and his wife Martha had six sons and two (or three) daughters. His son Phineas Johnson (b. circa 1822) will be discussed in great detail now as he was the ill-fated persuader who gazed upon Mary Ann Hyatt and fell in lust.
Mary Ann Hyatt and her family lived very near the Wyatt Johnson family in 1840; She and her two year old son Thomas lived near Phineas Johnson who was in the household with his father and family in 1850. Facts being facts, this gives us the knowledge that Mary Ann Hyatt and Phineas Johnson would have been well acquainted with each other. It was reported in newspapers that they both came from well respected families and attended the same church.
In 1848, Mary Ann Hyatt had given birth to her son Thomas Hyatt. The father was reputed to be Phineas Johnson. A second child had been born to the couple after November 15, 1850 — the day a census taker visited her log home — and before September 20, 1851 –her last day on earth.
Phineas Johnson had promised to marry Mary Ann Hyatt, but alas, he married another and left Mary Ann in ruin, dependent upon others for the meager scraps they gave her. Mary Ann Hyatt had no need to wear a scarlet “A” on her dress for the two children born out of wedlock were proof enough to show the world that she was the Hester Prynne of her time.
There is no doubt that her life was hard. Even when a home was headed by a loving husband and one was surrounded by caring family members. life in the 1800s was tough. When one considers that Mary Ann Hyatt was living without benefit of a man in the household — her father was long dead and the father of her children wanted no more to do with her –her life must have been more difficult than we can imagine in this age of modern conveniences: running water, inside toilets, electricity.
On the night of September 20, 1851, Mary Ann Hyatt was sitting in a chair in her cabin, a child on her lap and a child beside her on the floor. She was stringing beans, the last of the summer crop, the charity of a neighbor perhaps. Phineas Johnson entered her home and shot her dead. Did he put a bullet through her head because they argued or did he go there to commit murder? Then end result was the same: Mary Ann Hyatt sat in her chair as her blood dripped to the floor and her soul departed her body.
The next morning, Sam Smith — a slave owned by Robin Smith — passed by the cabin and heard children crying. When he peered into the home, he saw Mary Ann Hyatt dead in her chair, one child trying to wake her, the other child still on her lap. He alerted the neighbors, all of whom suspected Phineas Johnson as the man responsible for the murder.
Coroner Ed Gregory held an inquest and Phineas Johnson was arrested. As he was being taken to the jail by the Sheriff, they passed the Bethlehem Memorial Methodist Church Cemetery where a grave was being dug for the dead woman. Phineas Johnson became defiant and made disparaging remarks. This did little to improve his situation.
Phineas Johnson was found guilty of the murder of Mary Ann Hyatt. Never mind that all of the evidence was circumstantial; he would not have been the first innocent man to be found swinging at the wrong end of the gallows. None-the-less, his case was appealed and the man accused of murder was given a chance at reprieve.
Johnson, Phineas H. was arrested for the murder of his concubine and found guilty. The case went to a Court of Appeals and was dismissed by John Belton O Neall. An article immediately following the summary of the case of appeal dealt with the fact that the area where the crime was committed, PEA RIDGE, had a reputation as a place of corruption and home of harlots, Unionville Journal 1/2/1852, p2; PhineasJohnson was arrested on suspicion of the murder of Mrs. Mary Ann Hyatt, Unionville Journal 9/20/1851, p2; Court of Common Pleas and General Sessions – Judge O Neill presiding; the jury returned a verdict of guilty, Unionville Journal 10/18/1851, p2; his confession to what led to the murder of Mary Ann Hyatt given the night before his execution. A few minutes before 1 PM the prisoner walked to the scaffold and spoke a few words to those assembled. His voice was very weak and feeble and he could scarcely be heard after which the cord was placed around his neck and he died after a short struggle. Unionville Journal 2/20/1852, p2
Hyatt, Mary Ann Mrs. of Unionville was shot through the head with a rifle ball as she sat in her home surrounded by her children. The next day the neighbors found the children trying to awaken their mother. Phineas Johnson was suspected by the coroner and placed in jail. Unionville Journal 9/20/1851, p2