The Murder of Polly Butterbaurgh

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The Murder


On the morning of Wednesday, May 14th, 1838, two of Polly Butterbaugh's children alerted their relatives of their mother's disappearance. After three days of the community searching for Polly, they finally found her body buried in a ploughed field belonging to William Cunningham. The body was almost three fourths a mile from her home. A second grave was also discovered where it was predicted Polly had been previously buried. The coroner declared the cause of death was murder by a bash to the back of the neck. After a coroner's inquest at a East Union Twp. Schoolhouse Mr. Cunningham was arrested and sent to jail to await his trial, which took place 30 days later. [1]

William Cunningham's Trial

During William Cunningham's trial in June of 1838, witness John Chaney recalled Cunningham stating during the search that Polly had probably gone away to give birth. When authorities questioned Cunningham further on Polly's disappearance, he explained his theory that Polly had gone to visit her brother. Only when the the police began questioning why Polly would leave her house at night, with no shoes, and pregnant did Cunningham begin to act suspicious. It was stated by Harriett Cunningham, the accused daughter, that her father had come home from working in the field and announced he had found a grave. Upon further investigation of the subject, William Cunningham shared a story of finding Mrs. Butterbaugh's body after his horses went over the area and sunk-in unexpectedly. [2]

The main piece of evidence presented against William was an alleged spot of Polly's blood on his boot. Cunningham argued that the only way it could have gotten there was when he had helped lift Polly's body out of the grave. Stating that the person digging had accidentally scratched her face with the shovel and blood from this cut fell on his boot at the grave site. This, he believed, explained the alleged spot of blood on his boot. [3]

As for his alibi, William Cunningham stated he had been home every night taking care a sick child that week. Multiple other witness testified it was normal for Cunningham to leave suddenly in the night and not come back until morning or weeks later. Meaning his absence would go unnoticed. [4]

The Verdict

It took the Wayne County jury a total of 30 hours to pronounce William Cunningham guilty for the murder of Polly Butterbaurgh. [5] The sentence for murder in 1838 was death. However, William Cunningham's attorney made a motion that he did not receive a fair and impartial trial in Wayne County and the Court agreed and moved to send him to Medina County for a new trial that took place in November of 1838.
The Medina County jury found William Cunningham, not guilty. He returned to Wayne County a free man. However, it seems his family did not accept him back, and he sold or transferred the majority of his Wayne County land holdings. In fact there are a couple of deeds from Paul Cunningham, etal To Robert Cunningham in 1839 and 1840[6][7] that say William Cunningham was deceased and they were his lawful heirs and transferred the land. However, on March 30 1841, William Cunningham, still alive, sold the land on which the murder took place to John Geiselman.[8] William Cunningham, his sons Johnson Cunningham and Jesse Cunningham, all disappear from the history Wayne County, Ohio.

In 1841, William Cunningham's daughter, Harriet (Cunningham) married Thomas Cheyney and moved to Fulton County, Illinois. It appears William Cunningham and his two sons also went to Fulton County, Illinois in 1841. In an 1860 Federal Census William Cunningham, age 69, appears to be living with his daughter and grand-daughter, Harriet and Hellen Cheyney in Joshua Twp., Fulton County, Illinois. William Cunningham died in 1869 at the age of 77 and is buried in Moore Cemetery in Canton, Fulton County, Illinois.[9]

The news of his troubles in Wayne County, Ohio made it all the way back to Fayette County, Pennsylvania where he was originally from and a Scholl Family History noted:

Mrs. Nancy Adaline Goslin, today at her home in Belle Vernon Pa told about her sewing for the John B. Cook's & that Mrs. Cook (who was Matilda Cunningham, William Cunningham's sister) was all the time talking about people and particularly about Bela Smith. She was continuing such remarks one day and Mrs. Goslin getting out of patience about the continual gossip remarked that pretty near every family had a skeleton in the closet, whereupon Mrs. Cook grew pale & then livid & Mrs. Goslin thought she was going to die and wondered what she had done. She was to leave that day and Mr. Cook took her home where her Aunt Polly Darr was visiting, and she told her about it, whereupon she said to her niece: "Well you know her (Mrs. Cook's) brother killed a woman & ploughed her under in a furrow in the field where he was ploughing". He had thrown her first in the brush and then dragged her from the hiding place in the brush and ploughed her under and some people followed the trail of where she had been dragged across the plowed field and found her.[10]

Historical documents

Newspaper Articles

  • July 04, 1838: "Trial of William Cunningham" by Unknown, Wooster Journal & Democratic Times, p. 1 column 4-6.
  • November 21, 1838: "Trial of William Cunningham" by Unknown, The Watchtower (Wadsworth, Medina County, Ohio) published by H. Canfield


  1. Wooster Journal and Democratic Times, Wed. May 23,1838.
  2. Wooster Journal and Democratic Times, Wed. July 4, 1838.
  3. Wooster Journal and Democratic Times, Wed. July 4, 1838.
  4. Wooster Journal and Democratic Times, Wed. July 4, 1838.
  5. Wooster Journal and Democratic Times, Wed. July 4, 1838.
  6. Wayne County Deeds Vol.26 p.217: Paul Cunningham (Fayette Co.,PA) To Robert Cunningham (Fayette Co.,PA) R12 T15 S13 SW QTR $500
  7. Wayne County Deeds Vol.20 p.605: William Cunningham, etal To Robert Cunningham (Fayette Co.,PA) R12 T15 S13 SW QTR $200 (QUIT-CLAIM)
  8. Wayne County Deeds Vol.22 p.505: William Cunningham To John Geiselman (Stark Co.) R12 T16 S31 Part NW QTR 63A $1,400
  9. Find A Grave:
  10. Westmoreland County PA Archives History .....SCHOLL, Will Family History 1920|