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Captain Vicary and His Mansion: Exploring the Truth Behind the Legend

Milestones Vol 27. No. 2

By Roger Applegate

Vicary House as it appeared before restoration began.

Over the years, many interesting legends have evolved around the Vicary mansion and its owner that have little or no basis in fact. A few of these stories were being circulated as long ago as the 1890's and are still being repeated today. That these tales have proven to be so durable, underscores the need for a closer examination to separate fact from fiction. After several years and many hours of careful research, we believe that the following explanations and information should help to correct the historical record.

There was a bridal room sealed off for 40 years after Vicary's death. It was filled with white and gold furniture with costly silk draperies hung over a four poster bed.

In an article written in the Pittsburgh Dispatch by Laura Withrow in 1899, we find an interview with Vicary's granddaughter that refutes this claim. According to Vicary's granddaughter, Mrs. Anna M.V. Harvey, the story was a "fairy tale". The author goes on to explain the origin of this tale:

"Many of the original furnishings of the Vicary home are in possession of Mrs. Harvey. Prominent among these, is the massive four-post bed which Captain Vicary and his wife got when they were married. It is of solid mahogany and is large enough to be used by a good sized family. It was curtained in white, artificially draped. The material was called "dimity" in those early days, although it was as heavy as the pique of to-day. These curtains have long since fallen to pieces with age. The white Marseilles spread used on this bed still survives. It is as heavy as a body Brussels carpet, no attempt being made to use it on account of its great weight. Evidently this old bedstend (sic) and white curtains gave rise to the "bridal chamber" story."

Since Captain Vicary died in 1842, some quick math would show the date of opening the room as 1882. Mrs. Harvey would certainly be an expert witness as to the truth or falsity of the story as she had lived in the house all her life and actually owned the mansion in 1882 when the event was alleged to have happened.

Captain Vicary came out of retirement during the War of 1812 and captured four British warships

Studies of veterans' records located in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. as well as Navy Department lists of both volunteer and regular officers, show no evidence of a William Vicary having served in any capacity with the United States Navy. Consider also that had he indeed captured four armed British warships, it is very likely that he would have been accorded national hero status and would be recorded as such in our history books. He is not.

It is possible that he may have sailed under a letter of marque as a privateer, much as his father did during the Revolutionary War, However, privateers preyed on lightly armed or unarmed merchant shipping and avoided fights with armed naval vessels. Requests for information from the Naval Historical Center of the Department of the Navy on William Vicary's possible privateering connections brought the following response:

"Two older, but standard histories of 1812 privateers, George Coggesshall's History of American Privateers and Letters-of-Marque (New York, 1856) and Edgar Stanton Maclay's History of American Privateers (New York, 1899), make no mention of Vicary. Nor does Vicary's name appear among the privateers listed in George Emmon's Statistical History of the Navy of the United States (Washington, 1853). A check of the list of War of 1812 prize case files for two U.S. District Courts (the Southern District of New York and the Eastern District of Pennsylvania) also failed to turn up mention of Vicary."

The Navy Department findings still leave some room for doubt as it is possible that he was not listed in those particular references, captured some merchant shipping and had the prizes condemned in other District Courts. However when you consider the above in light of the fact that during the war, we find record of Captain Vicary purchasing land, first while living in Philadelphia in May of 1812, and two later transactions in July, 1813 and July, 1814 while living in Columbia, Pennsylvania. If the story is true, then he found time to handle land transactions as well as move his family from Philadelphia to Columbia in between his "heroic sea battles."

The most important omission comes from his granddaughter. If we take into consideration Mrs. Harvey's statements in her 1899 interview, we note that no mention is ever made of her grandfather having been a war hero. It stretches the imagination to believe that she would have failed to mention it had the story been true.

Captain Vicary received a grant of 1, 000 acres of land from the Government for his services. The land was located between Dutchman's Run and Crow's Run.

This particular story may have been given more credibility when some researchers confused William Vicary with another gentleman named William Vicker, Apparently assuming that the War of 1812 service was true, finding Vicary owning Depreciation Lands and discovering a person with a name very close who had received a land grant for war time service, they simply made the information fit the legend.

When we separate the facts from the legend, a different story emerges. The land in this area was set aside as Depreciation Lands by the Congress in 1785 to be used to pay Continental soldiers for their service during the Revolutionary War. Land not claimed by soldiers with their Depreciation Certificates was sold at auction to the highest bidder starting in 1785. Therefore, land grants could not have been given in this area for service in the War of 1812 because there simply was no land left to give.

Previous researchers did discover that there had been a land grant given, but it was given to William Vicker NOT, William Vicary for his service in the Revolutionary War. William Vicker served as a matross, (a soldier who assists artillery gunners in loading, firing, sponging and moving the guns) in the Pennsylvania Artillery Artificers, and was given a land grant by the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for 200 acres on December 30, 1786. The, grant is described as being. in the County of Westmoreland in the second District of Donation Lands, lot number 1786.

Even William Vicker's grant does not exist between Crow's and Dutchman's Runs because the donation lands area comprised parts of the contemporary counties of Lawrence, Butler, Armstrong, Venango, Forest, Warren, Erie, and all of Mercer and Crawford. Obviously nowhere near where the Vicary Mansion stands today,

Finally, the land owned by Captain Vicary, which is located between Crow's Run and Dutchman's Run, consists of 604 acres that were purchased from Mark Wilcox in 1826 for the sum of $5,306. It was never granted to him.

Captain Vicary was a riverboat pirate.

This is one of the earlier rumors that has been in circulation, and was addressed as such in the 1899 Pittsburgh Dispatch article by Laura Withrow. Captain Vicary's fortune was made as a merchant sea captain sailing from Philadelphia to such destinations as Lisbon, Canton, Plymouth and Batavia. His money came from both his successful trading ventures as well as from his later career as a land speculator, and not from raiding riverboats on the Ohio River. Also, by the time that Captain Vicary had begun to build his mansion in1826, and he would have been 55 years old. A bit too old to be attacking riverboats and making secret journeys down the river in search of plunder.

Although Vicary was never a riverboat captain, he did have a riverboat connection. While living in Sewickley Bottoms, Vicary became good friends with George Rapp, the head of the Economy Society. During this time, the Economites were having a riverboat built that was to bring their people back from their settlements on the Wabash to Beaver County. According to some of Rapp's letters, Captain Vicary accompanied him on several trips to inspect that riverboat.

The construction of the mansion began in 1826, and it took seven years to build.

Lacking information on the actual construction of the building, this would seem to be a reasonable assumption given the fact that the stone block had to be quarried, dressed, transported and lifted into place in a time before mechanical equipment was available. However, we have found a Pennsylvania Supreme Court case between Vicary and the actual builder, John Moore that tells a different story (Vicary against Moore Decided September, 1834 Supreme Court of Pennsylvania, Western District, Pittsburgh). Their agreement called for the house and several outbuildings to be started on April 1 of 1826 and completed by April 1st of 1827. According to testimony, "the buildings were not wholly finished until November of 1829, yet they were then accepted by Vicary, and have been ever since occupied by him." Therefore, the building was begun in 1826 as has always been supposed, but the completion was in three years versus the seven of legend.

There was an underground tunnel running from the mansion basement to the River.

Having carefully examined the basement walls, one finds there is no evidence that an opening ever existed leading to an underground tunnel. Indeed, the entire outside perimeter of the mansion basement was excavated and the walls repaired and waterproofed, and at no time was the existence of a tunnel or opening reported. Another reason weighing against its existence would be the sheer distance from the mansion to the river. At that time in history, the tunnel would have to be extremely long and costly to build.

The Vicary House is haunted.

There is no evidence to suggest that the mansion was ever haunted, and no credible witness. has ever come forward to say that they had seen any ghosts, Many volunteers, have spent numerous hours in the mansion both during the day and at night, and none has reported having a supernatural experience.

George Washington slept at the Vicary mansion.

This story is simply false because George Washington died in 1799 and construction on the mansion wasn't started until 1826.

As the reader can see, when measured against the yardstick of fact, these legends fall short. Their very persistence illustrates that sometimes a good story can assume the place of truth simply because it is more interesting and when repeated often enough, becomes accepted as true. That's unfortunate because the truth then becomes trapped in darkness and cannot be found. This article has been our humble attempt to carry a single flickering candle into that darkness

Light is not recognized except through darkness.
-- Jewish proveb

Special thanks to Ron Ciani and Dan May for their contributions.