Rewriting the Biography: The Tragic Death of Phebe Sims

hebe was up earlier than usual to finish the daily chores before packing up half of the meal she’d prepared the night before. Barely forty years old and mother of eight children she wondered how she found the time to do all the things she needed to do during a day.

Sons William, just thirteen, and Martin, twelve, were already outside helping their father James. Elizabeth, eleven, was keeping the younger ones busy and would be caring for them while Phebe was away. Edward and John, eight and six, had been sent out, each with a bucket, to get water. Their mother knew as soon as she was gone they would slip out to the barn to play or to pester their father to let them help with the outside chores. They didn’t like to be cooped up in the house with their older sister and the babies.

Elizabeth could be trusted to keep Polly, three, out of mischief. Since the new baby’s birth, she was no longer the youngest and missed the attention she was used to getting.

Phebe sat in the rocking chair James had made her with the baby in her arms. She freed her breast from her bodice to feed Nancy Ann. While the baby suckled, her mother’s gaze took in the largest room of the tiny cabin. All seemed in order and as soon as Nancy Ann was finished she would be able to get on her way. After settling the baby in her crib, she wrapped a small triangular shawl around her shoulders and neck, tucking the ends into the low neckline of her bodice.

From a peg on the wall, she took her thick woolen hooded cloak. Her oldest child Jeremiah, sixteen, took it from her and draped it over her shoulders as she grabbed her riding gloves from the sideboard. Jeremiah was accompanying her on her visit to her neighbor and friend who was laid up with the same illness which had plagued the children of the family.

It was still early when they left the Sims cabin. Phebe’s horse carried her as well as the package with the stew for the family of her sick friend. Herbs she thought her friend would probably be running low on since the children had taken sick were bundled up in handkerchiefs and stashed away in the pockets hidden under her skirt.

Phebe and Jeremiah had decided to take the longer route crossing Jackson’s River at it’s narrowest and more shallow point. In the early morning hours, the lofty hills on both sides of the waterway were hidden by a rising mist.

As they approached the small cabin Phebe saw a man was busy hanging out the wash. Although the day promised to be sunny she knew the wash would be frozen stiff by the time he took it down later in the day. Her friend must not be doing well if her husband was doing the woman’s chores. Young Jeremiah would help the man with the barnyard chores while Phebe took care of the rest of the household tasks.

A fire was burning in the fireplace and the main room of the cabin was cozily warm. Loud noises were coming from the young ones being shushed by their sick mother.

Hours later Phebe reflected on the day as she once again wrapped the warm woolen cape around her old work dress of home-spun flax fiber and wool. Her skirt was full-flowing. She was glad to no longer have to wear hoops and had made the skirt with gathers around the waist instead of a bustle in the back. This made it much easier to ride horseback. She usually wore a wide sash around her waist but with all the work having to be done she’d worn an apron which covered the bodice and skirt. She’d lost much weight since the birth of Nancy Ann and the once tight long sleeves hung loosely to her wrists. She needed to take in the seams she’d let out during her pregnancy.

Jeremiah had fed and watered their horses in readiness for the ride home. Days were short and there had been more to do than expected. But her friend was on the mend and the rambunctious children didn’t appear sickly. Hopefully, their mother was the last of the household to be laid up. Phebe knew she would not have to come back to help and prayed her friend’s husband was immune to the illness. Men were never easy patients.

Phebe and Jeremiah mounted their horses. It was growing colder and both she and her son wanted to get home quickly. Nancy Ann would be fussing as she did not like to be fed by Elizabeth, enjoying the closeness to her mother in the evening hours.

Jeremiah slowly guided his horse into the river looking back to see his mother waiting on the bank. They were careful when fording the river. When her son was in the middle Phebe prodded her horse to enter the water. She walked it slowly and had barely reached the middle when the horse reared. Phebe held tight to the reins. The horse plunged forward kicking up its hind legs throwing Phebe into the icy water. Jeremiah had just arrived at the other bank and upon hearing the ruckus looked back. He saw his mother being pulled down under water by her heavy clothing. By the time he reached her, she had drowned.

John Dean, Sheriff of Bath County, called jurors to assist him in determining the cause of death of Phebe Sims. The twelve jurors were well-known in the county, several even being neighbors of the Sims family. William McClintic, although not known at the time, was the grandfather of Jeremiah’s future wife.

Sheriff Dean, who was also the coroner, met with the jurors in Widow Lewis’ two-roomed house on Wednesday, 22 January 1794. The seventy-two years old sheriff was grateful for the forethought of the court to have a warm room for the inquest proceedings. Bath County being young did not yet have a courthouse. During the first summer after formation of the county in December 1790 court proceedings were held under the large shade tree at the home of Margaret Lewis, the widow of Capt. John Lewis. Later in the year, they voted to pay Mrs. Lewis seven pounds for the use of her two-roomed house.1

John Dean and the jurors viewed the dead body of Phebe Sims. The jurors were charged to inquire on the part of the Commonwealth as to the manner in which she had come to her death. Obviously, they were satisfied with the when, where, how, and after what manner the death occurred as related to them by the only witness, her son Jeremiah. After hearing his testimony, the jurors delivered their conclusion concerning the cause of death to the coroner. “Phebe was accidently drowned occasioned by the horse whereon she rode rearing and plunging and throwing her into the water.

The above narrative is my depiction of my 5th great-grandmother Phebe’s last day. The coroner’s inquest took place in Bath County and I have taken the liberty to assume it may have been in the two-roomed house of Margaret Lewis.

The Coroner’s Inquisition

Closeup of the writing on the cover of the coroner’s inquisition report from Bath County, Virginia (photocopy of original)

Phebe Simms
Inquisition Taken
the 22nd of January
1794 Before John
Dean Gent. Coroner

Photocopy of original coroner’s inquisition from Bath County, Virginia, obtained before August 1995 through a professional genealogy researcher by Rose Mary Sims Rudy.

Bath County to wit

Inquisition indented taken at [place omitted] in the County aforesaid on the twenty second day of January in the year One thousand seven hundred and ninety four before me John Dean a Gentleman and of the Coroners of the Commonwealth for the County aforesaid upon view of the body of Phebe Sims late of said County then and there lying dead; and upon the Oathes of Robert Armstrong Jr., William Morris, John Scott, John Bird, Andrew Baurland, Thomas Barber, James Armstrong, Robert McClintic, William McClintic, John Somwalt, Paul Harpole and Adam Kimberlan, good and lawful men of the County aforesaid, who being Jurors and charged to inquire on the part of the Commonwealth, when where how and after what manner the said Phebe Sims came to her death, do say upon their Oathes, that the said Phebe was accidently drowned occasioned by the horse whereon she rode Rearing and plunging and throwing her into the water.

The witness whereof as well the aforesaid Coroner as the Jurors aforesaid
have in this Inquisition put their Seals on the day and year aforesaid
and at the place aforesaid.

 John Dean [sheriff and coroner]

[Jurors]
Robt. Armstrong

William Morris
John Scott
John Bird
Andr. Baurland
Thomas Barber
Jas. Armstrong
Robert McClintic
William McClintic
Johannes Zumqualt
Paul Harpole
Adam Kimberlan

A Son Accused

But the story would not end here. A few months later John SCOTT, one of the jurors who signed the coroner’s report, accused the sixteen years old Jeremiah of causing the death of his mother.

Photocopy of original record

A scrap of paper with Jeremiah written in the upper right corner includes the following written by James SIMS to Col. Charles CAMERON:

Sir Please to Issue a Writ vs John Scott for saying my son was the Dam son of a Bitch that Drowned his Mother
[signed] Jas Sims
[to] Col C. Cameron

James defended his son and requested damages of one hundred pounds. Charles CAMERON issued an order for the sheriff to bring in John SCOTT on the second Tuesday of May in 1794 to hear the charges.

Photocopy of original record

Cover sheet:
Issued for Saying that Jeremiah Simms was the Damd Son of a Bitch that Drowned his Mother

Photocopy of original record

Inside:
The Commonwealth of Virginia, to the Sheriff of Bath County, Virginia:
You are hereby commanded to take John Scott
if he be found within your bailiwick, and him safely keep so that you have his body before the justices of our court, of our said county, at the court-house on the Second Tuesday in May next to answer Jeremiah Simms by James Simms his father and next friend of a plea of Trespass on the Case Damage one Hundred pounds.
and have then there this writ, witness CHARLES CAMERON, clerk of our said court, at the court-house, the 16th day of April 1794 in the 18th year of the Commonwealth.
Signed: Chas Cameron

It is not known if James SIMS or his son Jeremiah ever received damages from John SCOTT.

The case in Judgment – Simms vs Scott was located in a file of old law cases for 1795 by Constance Corley Metheney, a professional genealogist. Mrs. Metheney sent photocopies of the original records to Rose Mary Sims Rudy in August 1995. She had previously found the coroner’s report for Rose Mary and wrote, “This does verify that the wife of James Simms had drowned and in this case it seems that John Scott had accused the son, Jeremiah Simms.”

The Years After Phebe’s Death

James, who was left with eight children aged between 16 and a few months, waited over two years to marry again. His young bride, Elizabeth COTTON, was likely only about 15 when they married in October 1796. She did not bear him a child who lived until around 1801, five years after they married. Was she too young or did she miscarry or lose babies before giving James eight children? Or did James leave his children from his first marriage in her care for a longer period of time while he went to Kanawha County to look into purchasing land and readying for the move to the area in 1800?

In the next installment, I will analyze the census records found for James SIMS Jr., the oldest child of James SIMS and his second wife Elizabeth COTTON.

Rewriting the Biography is an ongoing theme for the rough draft notes of a new/updated biography of my 5th great-grandfather James SIMS (1754-1845) of Nicholas County.

© 2018, copyright Cathy Meder-Dempsey. All rights reserved.


  1. Morton, Oren F. Annals of Bath County. Staunton, Va., The McClure co., inc, 1917. (https://archive.org/stream/annalsofbathcoun00mort#page/108/mode/2up/search/lewis : accessed 13 June 2018)