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Early American Criminals: Elizabeth Wilson’s Secret

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Near the beginning of the year in 1785, a traveler paused while walking through the countryside near Chester, PA to watch as his dog began to sniff and scratch among some brush. The man’s curiosity soon turned to horror when his faithful companion emerged from its feverish digging with the separated head of an infant in its mouth. The man rushed to the spot and uncovered the bodies of twin infants who had been killed and buried there not too long ago.

The murderer of the infants was obvious. Elizabeth Wilson had recently given birth to twins out of wedlock, and eight weeks before the grisly discovery she had left for Philadelphia with the two babies in her arms. The Independent Gazeteer of Philadelphia additionally reported that Wilson had been seen nursing the children at that same spot back around the time when the murders took place.

Wilson was arrested and was eventually brought to trial on October 17, where she was easily found guilty and received a sentence of death. But throughout all of this time, Wilson maintained her innocence in the murders.

“The subtilty of Satan”

Wilson was born in East Marlborough, PA in Chester County to “honest, sober parents.” She lived a religious life up until the age of 21, when “thro’ the subtilty of Satan and corruptions of nature was led away to the soul-destroying sin of fornication.” The power of Satan must have been strong, because under his influence she had three unlawful children.

At some point around 1784, Wilson left her hometown and secured a room in Philadelphia at the corner of Chestnut and Third Street. When she met Joseph Deshong that same year, she believed she had finally found her man, and Deshong’s single status and his repeated promises to marry her made her comfortable enough to “consent to his unlawful embraces.”

Wilson became pregnant. When she presented her situation to Deshong, his talk of marriage suddenly ended. He insisted that Wilson stay in town and assured her that he would take care of all her expenses. Wilson moved to a room on Union Street and provided for herself over the next several weeks, because Deshong never once showed up to visit her. As the time of the birth drew near, Wilson became desperate for money. She searched all over Philadelphia for Deshong only to realize that he had completely abandoned her.

No longer able to support herself in Philadelphia, Wilson moved back to Chester County, rented a room, and delivered twins.

The Secret

Even though Wilson maintained her innocence in the murders of the infants, she kept the story of what really happened a secret throughout her trial. As she waited in prison for her execution, she asked her younger brother to visit her. When he arrived, she attempted to tell him the real story of what had happened in the woods, but he refused to hear her confession until he could gather some other witnesses. Once Wilson’s brother and the people he gathered heard his sister’s story, he rushed to Philadelphia to appear before the Supreme Executive Council and plead her case.

While her brother was in Philadelphia, Wilson met with two Baptist ministers at ten o’clock in the evening on December 6, 1785 to prepare for her execution the following day. In their presence, she repeated what she told her brother.

Joseph Deshong, not surprisingly, was not who he said he was. In fact, later investigation showed that the name he used was not even his proper name. Wilson told the ministers that after she delivered her twins in Chester County, she went to Philadelphia to track down her “deceiver.” When she found him and informed him that she had delivered twins, he exclaimed, “the Devil! you have?” Wilson threatened to seek legal recourse if Deshong did not help her. But he said that there was no need to bring in the Law and agreed with Wilson’s plan to give up one of the infants and keep the other on condition that Deshong would provide the two with financial support.

Deshong gave Wilson enough money to cover her travel expenses back to Chester County and asked her to return to Philadelphia with the twins on an appointed day so that he could fulfill his promise to her. When that day arrived, Wilson unexpectedly met Deshong a couple miles down the road from where she was living. He asked her to follow him into the woods, which she did, and she sat down on a rotten log with her two children in her arms.

Deshong took hold of one of the infants “to see if it look’d like him.” He asked Wilson what she planned to do with the children, and she repeated their previous agreement to give one away and keep the other with his financial support. Deshong placed the child in his hands on the ground. He took the other from Wilson’s arms, placed it next to its sibling, and declared, “I have no money for you, nor your bastards neither.” He then ordered Wilson to kill the infants.

Wilson begged Deshong to allow her to take the babies away with her, but he pulled out a pistol and told her to be silent. He then “wickedly stamped on their dear little breasts, upon which the dear infants gave a faint scream and expir’d.” Continuing to point the gun at Wilson, he forced her to vow never to reveal what had just happened. He carved out a hole in the ground with his feet, placed the bodies of the children in it, covered them up with leaves and some brush, and took Wilson to Philadelphia.


The ministers were dumbfounded upon hearing Wilson’s confession. They hastily prepared to make the trip to Philadelphia to present what they just heard to the Council, even though the hour had just turned past two o’clock in the morning. But when they learned that Wilson’s brother would be returning from a similar mission in the morning, they thought it best to wait for him to appear.

The ministers wrote up the story that Wilson told them, and an hour later Wilson’s brother arrived armed with a respite that delayed Wilson’s execution until January 3rd.

The month went by quickly, and once again Wilson faced execution. When she heard that no respite had arrived to save her this time, she took the news with composure. But upon learning that her brother had once again traveled to Philadelphia on her behalf, she expressed concern for his aching heart and fell into a fit.

At the place of execution, Wilson requested that the sheriff read her confession to the crowd, and she afterward confirmed its veracity as a dying woman. Her brother had yet to arrive from Philadelphia to witness her end, so the authorities dragged out the ceremonies as long as they could. Finally, they could wait no longer. The sheriff asked Wilson once more about the truth of her confession, and through the hood that covered her face she said, “I do, for it is the truth.” And with these final words, Wilson’s life ended at the age of 27.

Scene of Elizabeth Wilson's execution, from "The Pennsylvania Hermit" ca. 1838. Note the arrival of Wilson's brother in the background.

Twenty-three minutes after Wilson was executed, her brother arrived on the scene in haste from Philadelphia. His trip met with “unexpected and unavoidable hindrances on the road,” and when he saw his sister dangling from her neck, he “beheld her motionless, and sunk in death.” In his possession was another letter and reprise from the Honorable President and the Council to delay his sister’s execution.

The brother took Wilson’s body home, and some vain efforts were made to restore her to life. A large crowd of people showed up to pay their respects when she was buried honorably the next day.

Legend has it that after the traumatic execution, Wilson’s brother withdrew from society. He lived in a cave for the rest of his life and became known as the “Pennsylvania Hermit.”


  • “1786: Elizabeth Wilson, Her Reprieve Too Late.”, January 3, 2011 (”).
  • A Faithful Narrative of Elizabeth Wilson. Hudson, NY: Ashbel Stoddard, 1786. Database: America’s Historical Imprints, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “A Letter from Charleston, of December 14.” Independent Gazetteer, January 8, 1785, issue 167, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “On Monday the 9th Instant.” Independent Gazetteer, January 14, 1786, vol. V, issue 220, p. 3. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • “Philadelphia, March 15.” Providence Gazette, April 1, 1786, vol. XXIII, issue 1161, p. 2. Database: America’s Historical Newspapers, Readex/Newsbank.
  • Williams, Daniel E. Pillars of Salt: An Anthology of Early American Criminal Narratives. Madison, WI: Madison House, 1993.

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