In early 1807, during a winter so cold that snow and ice covered the ground in Mississippi, former Vice-President Aaron Burr reportedly courted a beautiful young woman named Madeline Price, who lived with her mother atop Half Way Hill, located on Liberty Road between Natchez and Second Creek.
Burr was the guest of Benijah Osmun at nearby Windy Hill Manor and often during his brief Natchez stay he reined one of Osmun horses to the cottage of widow Price and her daughter, Madeline. Mr. Price -- the widow's late husband and Madeline's father – had reportedly been brutally murdered years earlier by the outlaw Joseph Thompson Hare, who spent much of his lifetime terrifying travelers along the Natchez Trace and elsewhere.
Historian John F.H. Claiborne reported this information as a footnote in his 19th century book on Mississippi. Claiborne also claimed the following:
-- The Prices were from Virginia before making the move to Mississippi Territory.
-- After selling the Virginia property and while journeying to Natchez, Mr. Price was robbed of all his cash -- "a large fortune" -- and murdered by Hare, the "notorious … blood thirsty villain."
-- The widow and Madeline were afterward forced to live frugally on their small farm on Half Way Hill.
Claiborne does not cite any sources for his claim that Hare murdered Mr. Price. Before Hare was hung at gallows, he claimed he had never killed a man. But for much of his life, Hare had been a liar and thief who terrified his victims. Consequently, his word did not mean much to many.
Before his execution, he wrote “The Dying Confession of Joseph Hare,” which was published posthumously in theBaltimore Sun.
PETTY THIEF ON THE RUN
Hare seemed to have developed a penchant for lawlessness when very young. He became one of the most feared robbers in the country and while Burr was visiting young Madeline, Hare was still on the loose, a menace to any human who crossed his path.
Born in Virginia in 1780, Hare as a boy worked as a tailor's apprentice, developing at a young age a flair for fashion that never left him. He started his criminal career in a typical way -- as a petty thief who lived on the run, stealing and robbing in big cities like New York and Baltimore before drifting south to New Orleans.
By 1798 Natchez became American and was part of the newly created Mississippi Territory. In New Orleans, Hare observed a curious trade route that provided men like him a perfect avenue for criminal pursuits.
As settlers began to populate the region, huge flatboats filled with goods of all types floated down the Mississippi making deliveries to Natchez and New Orleans. Everything onboard was sold as well as the lumber, which was used to construct the flatboats. Although a few steamboats began to travel the river in 1811, flatboats would remain the main mode of water travel for years to come. For upriver travel they were almost useless: It was too costly and required too much work to row or warp an empty flatboat against the current upriver.
At Natchez, many a flatboatman spent a few days under the hill enjoying a variety of vices before making the walk or horse ride home through the wilderness path to Nashville known as the Natchez Trace. These men traveled in groups for safety and no-good scoundrels like Hare observed that the pockets of these rivermen were filled with their earnings. Hare and others soon developed a bloody livelihood ambushing these men and ordinary travelers moving up and down the trace.
In time, Hare became one of the most feared trace bandits -- called "highwaymen" two centuries ago. Hare and his goons often blackened their faces before emerging in a flash from the wilderness, guns and knives drawn.
‘A SILK HANKERCHIEF’
By 1812, when he turned 32, Hare was becoming more and more daring, while at the same time realizing that at some point he would probably get caught. Hare described his perilous existence as “a desperate life, full of danger” that “sooner or later ends at the gallows."
He claimed to have once seen an apparition of a white horse in the dead of night while hiding out along the trace. Spooked, he got careless, was captured, tried and imprisoned for robbery. While serving his five-year sentence, he reportedly studied the Bible, claimed to have found God and thought the white horse was the embodiment of Christ and a sign for him to change his evil ways.
But the good didn't take hold. A year after being released from prison, Hare, then 38, had put together another gang, including his younger brother Lewis and a man named John Alexander. Hare had observed that a U.S. mail coach pulled by a four-horse team ran a route between Baltimore and Philadelphia.
On March 12, 1818, the Hare gang ambushed a mail carrier who was accompanied by U.S. Navy Lt. Thomas Ludlow. According to newspaper accounts, Ludlow described the group as "white men ... their faces blackened." All were slight in stature, he said.
Afterward, Ludlow dispatched a rider with a letter to officials reporting that "your mail wagon and myself were attacked by three highwaymen, each armed with a double barreled pistol and dirk. They had, previous to our arrival, built a rail fence across the road, and immediately on our driving up they leaped from behind the same, where they lay concealed, and presented their pistols, threatening to blow our brains out if we made any resistance."
The driver and Ludlow were tied to a tree while Hare and his companions spent the next four hours opening every single letter in search of money. Afterward, Ludlow said the gang tied him and the mail carrier to the mail wagon, stole three of the post office's horses "and galloped off towards Baltimore."
They were all well dressed, said Ludlow, wearing "sailor's trousers and round jackets." Two were wearing hats, the other -- believed to be Hare -- was quite stylish, wearing "a silk handkerchief tied around his head."
Hare and his men had dashed off with $90,000. The next day, Hare couldn't resist spending some of the loot on the latest fashions. He and his brother walked into a clothing shop in Baltimore, displaying a wad of bank notes (about $20,000). Someone tipped off the police and they were arrested.
1,500 AT THE GALLOWS
They were quickly tried and sentenced. Hare and John Alexander each were sentenced to death. Hare's little brother got 10 years.
On the way to prison, Hare attempted an escape. In irons, he knocked a constable off the trunk of a tree the two were crossing over a creek. When being placed in a prison cell, Hare nearly bit off the finger of the jailer. Many details of the events were recorded in Baltimore newspapers.
Before the death sentence was carried out, however, Hare's lawyer appealed his sentence. The case, watched closely by the legal community, drew some of the top lawyers in the United States for the defense and top prosecutors for the U.S. government. At issue was whether the district court erred in allowing the trial to proceed after Hare and the other defendants refused, on the advice of attorneys, to enter pleas. It became a test of America's court system, which was still in its infancy, and heard by a U.S. Supreme Court justice, who ruled against the defendants.
Six months after his arrest, theBaltimore Telegraph reported that on September 10, 1818, Hare and John Alexander walked to the elevated gallows above the prison grounds and could be seen by an estimated 1,500 people who stood from the foot of the platform to hundreds of yards in the distance. The newspaper said Hare boasted that "for the last fourteen years of my life I have been a robber, and have robbed on a large scale, and been more successful than any robber either in Europe or in this country that I ever heard of."
He made no confession, however, in the gruesome murder of Madeline Price's father.
At the end of his account of his life of crime, Hare wrote: “My offences have been great and many. For the last fourteen years of my life, I have been a highway robber … but I have this consolation of reflecting, that I never killed or wounded any man, and that no man’s blood is upon my head.”
Of course, this was a lie. Just ask the jailer whose finger Hare attempted to bite off.
“I have employed myself, in my confinement in writing this confession, which I solemnly declare to the world, and will repeat it under the gallows, is a true and faithful history of my life and adventures, and I hope it may serve as a caution to other persons, how they follow the same course.
“May the God of mercy pardon and receive my soul.”