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Becky Cotton: The Devil in Petticoats

"Oh mercy! cries the reader—what! Old Edgefield again! Another murder in Edgefield! Why, ‘twas but t’other day that you gave us a history sufficient to freeze the blood with horror—the history of a husband murdering his wife! And now you talk of a history ten times, if possible more unnatural and horrible still—the history of a Wife murdering her Husband! And all in Old Edgefield! Well, the Lord have mercy upon old Edgefield! For sure it must be Pandemonium itself, a very district of Devils! (The Bad Wife’s Looking Glass or God’s Revenge Against Cruelty to Husbands, Mason Locke Weems, 1816).

This is the story about a murder in Edgefield—the tale of a wife murdering her husband! Who could do such a horrid deed as murdering her husband, you ask? Why none other than Edgefield’s Devil in Petticoats herself—Becky Cotton.

Rebecca Kennedy, born in ca. 1765, was the only daughter of James Kennedy and as her mother died when she was very young, her father was very dear to her. In ca. 1785, Becky married John Cotton. When Becky’s father had a dispute over land with three of his neighbors and they threatened to kill him, he fled to his daughter and son-in-law’s house to seek refuge. While there, the men burst into the house and shot Becky’s father right in front of her, and John did nothing to stop it.

From this moment on, Becky became consumed with poisonous thoughts of revenge. She felt that she had to make her husband pay for his act of cowardice. On one particular night, in ca. 1794, Becky quietly crept up the loft stairs where her husband was sleeping, grasping an axe that she had taken from the woodpile earlier that day. She swept quickly across the floor and drew near to his bed.  Lifting her axe, she drove it into his defenseless head. Poor John Cotton died almost instantly.

She convinced her brother, David, to help her drag John’s lifeless body to the potato vault. She then fled the area, but was later captured at Kings Mountain. She was put on trial for murder, but her bewitching beauty captivated the all-male jury and she was acquitted of all charges. She even became the administrator of her dead husband’s estate after a legal battle with her father-in-law, Thomas Cotton, which was extremely rare for the time period.  She also married one of the jurors, Major Ellis.

Now, there are those who say that this was not the only time Becky Cotton committed murder. Some believe that there were other husbands who met their end by her hand. One was Erasmus Smith, who had a mattress needle driven through his heart while he slumbered by the fire. Another was Joshua Terry, who was given a deadly dose of nightshade in his herbal tea. 

Legend has it that she dragged the lifeless bodies of these men to a deep section of Beaverdam Creek, wrapped them in bricks, and threw them into the murky water. This spot has become known as Beck’s Hole (now a part of Slade Lake), and it is said that the wails of these men can sometimes be heard from the bottom of the hole. 

However, justice did finally catch up with Becky Cotton. On May 5, 1807, while standing on the steps of the courthouse (which was at that time located on the site of the old Plantation House hotel) one day flirting with a young man, her brother, Stephen, spotted her. He knew what evil lay behind the beautiful face and was tired of her always getting away with her foul deeds. Without a moment’s hesitation, he picked up a stone, ran up to her, and hit her in the side of the head. There, Becky Cotton fell and died as her blood pooled all around her. 

Stephen was never charged with Becky’s murder, and even took several of her children with him when he migrated west. Stephen’s grave was found recently in Mississippi, inspiring the Cotton and Kennedy descendants to research their family history in Edgefield. The location of Becky’s grave has never been confirmed.

In an interesting side note, a travelling preacher named Mason Locke Weems wrote many pamphlets in his day, including The Bad Wife’s Looking Glass or God’s Revenge Against Cruelty to Husbands, which is the fateful tale of Becky Cotton. He wrote it in 1810, just three years after her actual death.

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