The Death/Murder of John O’Neale in
Montgomery County, Maryland in 1817

There are a lot of myths and suppositions about Rose’s father; His life and death and the subsequent fate of the family after his death have been pretty much a mystery to us.  Part of the reason for all the intrigue surrounding John is the result of a lack of factual information. When the Montgomery County Courthouse burned down volumes of county information were lost. This includes birth records, marriage records, death records, tax records, etc. What was left on the county level painted a sketchy picture, at best.  And when little information is available, imaginations can run wild.

Some historians painted John as a lecher, a gambler and a slovenly drunkard while others (primarily family members) saw him as a loving father cut down in his prime. And then there was the question of his death. The tales ran the gamut from John simply dying from a fall from his horse, to a brutal murder by one of his slaves. As you will soon learn this is yet another example of truth being stranger than fiction.   

We recently learned of the Montgomery County files relating to John O’Neale that are housed at the Maryland Archives in Annapolis, Maryland. These are mainly state files, so were not affected by the burning of the courthouse.  Among these files were the will of John O’Neale, the trial of Jacob, John’s manservant who was accused of murdering him, and the resultant sales of all John’s worldly goods. From these files we can piece together a pretty good picture of what actually happened to John, as well as to his widow and children……………

John O’Neale – 1783-1817

John was born in Montgomery County, Maryland about 1783 (1) to a respected family of Gentlemen Farmers with a long history of patriotism and service to country. The O’Neale family arrived in America when it was still a colony in the mid 1600’s and married prominently. John could boast of such ancestors as Lord Calvert (2) and Captain James Neale. (3) John could also boast that his ancestors had donated property to the fledgling United States of America on which was built the Capitol City, Washington, D.C. (4)

John’s father, Lawrence O’Neale was a member of the Maryland House of Representatives and a wealthy landowner and land speculator. Upon his death Lawrence owned thousands of acres of land in Montgomery and surrounding counties, and hundreds of slaves. Before being elected to the House, he served as a Montgomery County Sheriff and ran the Orphans Court for several years before that. (5)

In 1810, at 27 years of age, John married Eliza Henrietta Hamilton, daughter of a respected landowner in Prince George’s County. (6) They moved to one of John’s properties in Montgomery County, and began to raise a family. (7) Their first-born daughter (born in 1810) was named Susannah Henrietta after Eliza and John’s mothers, respectively. Second, born in 1811 came Eleanor, named after John’s paternal Grandmother.

Third, in 1814, came Rose Maria. Rose was said to have been the embodiment of her father’s wild nature. She was an adventurous child and earned the nickname of “Wild Rose”. She would go on to become a famous confederate spy and ultimately die for the cause she believed in, but that’s another story……….

The 4th child of John and Eliza was Mary Ann, born in 1816. And last on the list is the child with the interesting name, John Eliza O’Neale. John Eliza was the fifth daughter and was born after John died. My guess is that Eliza named her last child in honor of her dead husband. 

The family was Catholic and attended St. Mary’s Church in Barnesville. Records there are spotty as well. I was told that the church was blazed to the ground during the Civil War. Most of the records were lost in the fire and the building supposedly collapsed on the tombstones located behind the church, destroying many of them. Of those that were saved, many are broken and most unreadable. (8)

In the early 1800’s attending church in Barnesville was not a weekly affair. A circuit priest who traveled around from parish to parish serviced several churches. When the priest was scheduled in Barnesville, the family would pile into their buggy and be horse drawn to the church. Following the sermon would be weddings, baptisms and other services, followed by banquet style picnics at the churchyard.  One record that survived tells the tale of John & Eliza’s daughter Mary Ann being baptized on November 27th, 1816 by the Circuit Priest, James Redmond. I’m sure the entire family was present to witness the blessed event. John’s brother Henry and sister(,) Mary Anne were the Godparents. (9)

At the time of John’s death he was 34 years of age. An inventory of items in his estate listed 15 slaves, 8 plows, 6 horses, 4 pigs, 6 goats, 6 sets of harnesses, etc, 13 sheep, 2 cradles, 4 beds, 3 tables, silverware sets, china sets, misc tubs, pots, pans, a desk and bureau, a looking glass, a pair of goggles, numerous linens, brass candle sticks, buckets, tubs, saws, tool sets (10) and much more, including several hundred acres of land. (11)

By the standards of the time, John would have been considered a modestly wealthy man, especially for such a young age. He owned all the tools to operate a modest farm and apparently had tools for fabricating and repairing his equipment. He owned six horses and a buggy. Each family member had his/her own bed. He owned a desk and a bureau. And luxuries such as feather mattresses and linens, a looking glass, brass candle sticks and even silverware and china. And this in a time when most families slept on straw cots and ate their meals from woodenwares. I don’t think anyone can say John was not a loving father who provided quite lavishly all he could for his young family.

But, like any story, this one has two sides. John was a sporting fan and enjoyed and participated in local sporting events. Popular at this time in history were such sports as cock fighting, fox chases and hose racing. There was presumably gambling and wagers accompanying these events which John supposedly took part in. And where men gather for fun and excitement there usually accompanies the usual vices, i.e. alcohol and women. John was said to enjoy all of the above, which brings us to the day of his demise….

It was Tuesday, April 22nd, 1817. John had spent the day at Nathan Trail’s Tavern a few miles from his home. (12) He had his Negro manservant with him throughout the day. Jacob was a remarkable young man of 20 years. Agile and swift, he was said to be capable of performing unusual bodily movements only seen before by local residents at the circus. So unusual were these tricks that Jacob’s bones were saved for scientific study after his demise. To entertain his guests, John would order Jacob to gyrate and perform tricks with his body, to his guest’s exclamation and awe. (13)

On this particular day, after spending the afternoon at Nathan Trail’s establishment until about midnight, John and Jacob decided to head home. They mounted up and started down the lane. After only a few minutes they returned to the tavern where John procured a bottle of whiskey “for the road”.  John’s horse was recently nicked. Nicking is a process where a horse’s anterior muscles are cut beneath the tail. This causes the tail to lift, supposedly for sanitary purposes. John’s horse was in some means of discomfort, so could not maneuver close enough to the tavern to receive the waiting bottle. Jacob thus took the bottle and once again they headed off into the night.

It was a particularly dark night, with no moon, (14) and it was raining, making the ground slippery and damp. And both men were roaring drunk. It was an invitation for disaster. At some point along the route, John told Jacob to turn off and spend the night at “old William O’Neale’s” house. (John’s Grandfather)

Negro Jacob – 1797-1817

According to witness reports, early the next morning Jacob headed home and could not find his master. He began retracing the route they had taken the night before and found John, not more that 150 yards from home, lying in a lane, unconscious, blood seeping from his head. In an intoxicated panic he ran back to the farm. He found Esther, an older negro woman and asked her advice. Esther advised him that if/when John woke up there would be hell to pay and added “dead men tell no tales”.

Jacob rushed back to the lane, picked up a large rock, weighing about 5 pounds and smashed John in the skull. He dropped the stone and stood there contemplating what he had done………and then reason kicked in. Hoping it wasn’t too late, Jacob ran to Doctor Brewers house and told him that John had fallen from his horse and was in need of medical attention. Doc Brewer rushed to the scene and found John lying in the lane on his back, quite dead. 

Doctor Brewer later observed that there were three different spots on John’s head that were bashed in. One, in the back of the head, supposedly from the fall from his horse, one, which Jacob later admitted to, (possibly under duress) and another of unknown cause and origin. He also noted that there was a 5-pound rock lying nearby with blood and hair on it and a bloody stake. The stake was not used in the murder, but it appeared to have blood wiped on it. Doctor Brewer noted that Jacob had no blood upon his person.

So, what really happened that night? Did John simply fall off his horse in a drunken stupor? Was John attacked by vandals during the night and left to be discovered by Jacob during the morning? Did Jacob premeditate and murder John on the way home and make up the rest of the story? To which I can only reply, that this will probably remain forever one of history’s mysteries.

Jacob was tried for murder and found guilty in a Montgomery County Courthouse where he was sentenced to be “hung by the neck until dead.” His defense lawyer, who maintained his innocence throughout and challenged Jacob’s confession as coerced, appealed the conviction and asked the governor to reduce Jacob’s sentence to life imprisonment.

But it was not to be. Right or wrong, on Friday, October 10th, 1817 Jacob was hung for the murder of John O’Neale. (See Sate of Maryland vs Negro Jacob  Sept 23 1817 Death Warrant issued.  Execution to take place on Friday Oct 10 1817)

Eliza Henrietta Hamilton O’Neale – 1785-1850

This must have placed a tremendous burden on John’s pregnant wife, Eliza. With four children, all daughters under 7 years of age and one arriving shortly Eliza must have been at wit’s end. To make matters worse, John’s will was pretty specific. His children were to be left in the care of Francis Jamison if she remarried (see will:  “In case my said wife shall marry after my decease, I hereby constitute and appoint my friend Francis Jamison guardian of my children during their minority-the said guardianship to commence on the marriage of my said wife if such an event should happen) And if she remained single she could keep the children and his properties, but they were left to her on the condition that she could not put any liens on them or sell any of them. (15)

This was a problem. While the family was quite well to do, John’s properties were not all paid for. With his death, the owners were wanting payment for the unpaid balances. Without the ability to sell or place liens against part of the properties Eliza stood to lose everything. It appears Eliza only had one option left to her. She renounced her husbands’ will. (16)

By renouncing the will Eliza could receive 1/3 of John’s holdings. The remainder of his estate must then be sold to pay creditors. By doing this Eliza assured that she would be able to keep the family home, and perhaps some other properties, but the remainder would be lost and thus began the sales and auctions.

This had to have been a painful process for Eliza as their home was gutted of all it’s furnishings and placed on the auction block for sale to the highest bidder. To make matters worse, John had inherited land from his father, but it was still tied up in probate. Eliza could not use it as collateral or plant on it. Until Lawrence’s estate was settled the land was basically of no value to the family.

We’ve never quite determined how Eliza managed to hold on, but hold on she did, indeed. She stayed in Montgomery County and raised her daughters to adulthood. As teenagers, Eleanor and Rose left home to live with Eliza’s sister at the Old Capitol Boardinghouse in Washington DC. (17) Susannah, Mary Ann (18) and John Eliza (19) remained in Montgomery County and all married prominently.

In her latter years Eliza moved in with her daughter Rose and son in law Robert Greenhow in Washington, D.C where she spent the rest of her days. (20) She died in 1850 at 65 years of age. (21)


<>The article above was researched, documents transcribed and written by
<>John W. O’Neal, II and Bev Crowe, of The O’Neal Genealogy Association.
<>To learn more about The O’Neal Genealogy Association visit the website at
Copyright, The O’Neal Genealogy Association, 2005


1                                            See The O’Neal Genealogy Association Website at for more information on the O’Neale family.

2                                            Ibid.

3                                            Ibid.

4                                            SOME INTERESTING NOTES ON WASHINGTON, D.C. by Michael J. O'Brien  “When Congress decided to remove from Philadelphia, the choice of a federal capital was left, by courtesy, to Washington, and by virtue of an act of Congress of July 16, 1790, the President appointed Thomas Johnson and Daniel Carroll of Maryland and David Stuart of Virginia, commissioners for surveying the district selected as the permanent seat of government of the United States. An act of the Maryland legislature "concerning the Territory of Columbia and the City of washington," passed in November, 1792, recited, in part, that Notley Young, Daniel Carroll of Duddington and many others, proprietors of the greater part of the land hereinafter mentioned, came to an agreement whereby they have subjected their lands to be laid out in a city and have given up parts to the United States," etc. Among the owners of the lots at this time I found on record ….. William Deakins, Lawrence O'Neale…”

5                                            PUBLIC CAREER.  LEGISLATIVE SERVICE: Lower House, Montgomery County, 1780-1781, 1781-1782, 1782-1783, 1783, 1784, 1785, 1786-1787, 1787-1788 (Grievances 2), 1788, 1789 (Grievances), 1790, 1791-1792, 1792, 1793, 1794, 1795, 1796. OTHER STATE OFFICE: Maryland Senate elector, Montgomery County, elected 1786, 1791.  LOCAL OFFICES:  collector, Frederick Town, 1765; surveyor, Frederick County, ca 1765; sheriff, Frederick County, 1773, `774; commissioner of the tax, Montgomery County, appointed December 29, 1779; militia recruiter, probably from Montgomery County, appointed June 25, 1781; justice, Montgomery County, 1787-1797; justice, Orphans' Court, Montgomery County, 1788.

6                                            Prince George's County Marriage Index – Marriage Record – John O’Neale to Eliza Henrietta Hamilton, 1/1/1810

7                                            1810 Montgomery County Census, Medley Enumeration District 4 - Jn Oneal of Law, male16-25=1; (John O'Neale) female 16-25=1; (Eliza Henrietta Hamilton O'Neale) all other free persons=1; (Sister) Slaves = 10

8                                            We visited the church in 2003 and were given this information in an interview with a Priest.

9                                            Birth-17 Oct 1816-Montgomery County, Maryland O'NEALE, Mary Ann, Parents: John O'Neale and Eliza Henrietta Hamilton Source: Church: St. Mary's Catholic Church in Barnesville - Baptism-27 Nov 1816-Montgomery County, Maryland O'NEALE, Mary Ann, Parents: John O'Neale and Eliza Henrietta Hamilton Sponsors: Henry O'Neale, Mary Anne O'Neale, Eliza M. Ke(cutoff) Priest: James Redmond Source: Church: St. Mary's Catholic

10                                        First Account: Governor And Council (Pardon Papers) 1817-1818, Box 18, folder 5 State of Maryland vs. Negro Jacob - Accession No.: 5401-18 - MSA No.: S1061-18 Location: 2/46/1/18

11                                        Estate of John O'Neal - Irons Mistake, Irons Mistake Amended, Rich Bottom, Sugar Bottom, Yankee Hall, Yankee Run, Big Spring , Prospect, Potomac Bottom, Great Sugar Camp, Maryland Right, White Oak Plains, Fertile Meadows, Little Expected, Timber Ridge, Gleanings, Other Yankees. Accession No: 17,898-12 299. MSA S512-12106  1/39/4

12                                        First Account: Governor And Council (Pardon Papers) 1817-1818, Box 18, folder 5 State of Maryland vs. Negro Jacob - Accession No.: 5401-18 - MSA No.: S1061-18 Location: 2/46/1/18

13                                        Handwritten manuscript of a paper presented by a Dr. Wootton to the Historical Society of Frederick County, Montgomery County Historical Society Library, undated. (Dr. Wootton was probably Dr. William Turner Wootton a native of Montgomery County who later lived in Frederick County.) Also, see Rose O’Neale Greenhow, Confederate Spy, by Mary Charlotte Crook, Published in May 1989 inThe Montgomery County Story, a publication of The Montgomery County Historical Society

14                                        The author ran this date through “CYBERSKY” an astronomical ephemeredes software program. On this date the moon was a waxing crescent at 26.3% full and was below the horizon all night.

15                                        The Will of John O’Neale - Montgomery County Register of Wills (Estate Record) L, pp 85-86 Will of John O Neale, 1818 - Accession No.: 5401-18 - MSA No.: S1061-18 Location: 2/46/1/18

16                                        Renunciation of Eliza O Neale, widow of John O Neale, 1817 Montgomery County Register of Wills (Estate Record) L, p. 56 - Accession No.: 5401-18 MSA No.: S1061-18 - Location: 2/46/1/18