Judge Reddick and the Devil
You say there went a line of fire
‘Round yonder Knob or Crown or crest?
On such a ghastly night as this,
The ghostly horseman’s on his quest.
Hark to the din!
See, see them now –
Circling the haunted mountain brow.
Cling to my hand the closer, child,
And I’ll relate the legend wild.
HANOVER TOWNSHIP, Pa. — A few days ago, on just such a cold, windy, “ghastly night” as described by old-time newspaper editor Harry Moore in his poem, a group of about 40 people – neighbors, followers of local history — convened on a lonely hilltop on the Pennsylvania-West Virginia state line, at the singular gravesite of Judge John Hoge Reddick.
Gathered around a windblown campfire which did little to dissipate the chill, they had come to see the tomb, and to hear the various legends told of Judge Reddick, a landowner, horseman and judge in early Beaver County, Pa., who, the stories say, bet his very soul on a horserace with the Devil … and lost.
In some of the tales, Reddick employs a trick of the law to outwit Ol’ Scratch and deny him his soul. In darker tellings, the Devil eventually runs down Reddick’s ghost, claims his soul and transforms him into a great white or gray stallion, riding him on stormy nights in ghostly races over the nearby hills.
What is not in question is that when Reddick died, he had himself buried on what was then the Pennsylvania-Virginia state line, on a hilltop of his Hanover Township farm, within a 10-foot square, chest-high wall of dressed sandstone. He was laid out, according to the stories, with his feet in Pennsylvania and his head in his native Virginia, facing east, in an open-ended chestnut coffin.
The reason for this arrangement was so that when the Devil came after Reddick’s soul in one state he would slip into the other, standing on the law and demanding legal writs of extradition in an effort to frustrate the Devil’s claim.
Reddick’s grave is located along the western edge of what was his farm and residence in Hanover Township, Pa., now bordering Hancock County, W.Va.
A man of local prominence in Beaver County, he was a veteran of the Revolutionary War who likely received 300 or so acres as a soldier’s bonus; he also served as a colonel of the Westmoreland County militia in the War of 1812.
Thrice married and the father of a number of children, Reddick was an attorney, and was one of three associate justices appointed after Beaver County was created out of parts of Westmoreland and Allegheny counties in 1800. He served on the bench from 1804 to 1830, when he died.
His passion — perhaps his bane — was horseracing.
“Some of our citizens of the South Side have filled very important offices; the Judiciary has been filled by such able men as Judge Reddick, who presided over the Beaver County Courts and rode horseback to his home in Hanover Township, a distance of twenty-five miles. He is credited with making the ablest charge to a jury that was ever made in a court up to that day.
“Judge Reddick was eccentric. I have visited his grave many times; it is located exactly on the Pennsylvania and West Virginia State line, and was put there according to his wish. A stone wall some four feet high surrounds the place. He was a great horseman, having a race track on his farm.” (From Historical Events of South Side Beaver County, Pennsylvania and Home Coming
Week Celebration Including Addresses Delivered, Hookstown, Pa. August 18th to 23rd, 1924, compiled by Robert M. Bryan, pg 77.)
Thomas White, in his book “Legends and Lore of Western Pennsylvania,” wrote: “Reddick was known for being a fair judge and encouraging settlements that were acceptable to all parties.
But horse racing, not law, was Reddick’s real interest. He built a racetrack at his farm in
Hanover Township and hosted races on a regular basis. Reddick participated in the races as well. His prize horse was said to be a large, fast and powerful gray stallion that brought him many victories. After one particular race that he won by a great distance, Reddick boasted that not even the devil could beat him in a race.”
When Reddick’s boast reached the Devil’s ears, he was angered, and contrived a plan to trap and punish Reddick.
“He challenged Reddick to a race. If the judge won, the devil forfeited a large supply of gold. If the devil won, the judge forfeited his soul. Reddick couldn’t pass up the opportunity to outrace the Devil, so he agreed. They met at midnight on his track.” (White)
As written by Denver L. Walton (Milestones historical newsletter, 1995), Reddick, mounted on
his prize white stallion, was confident of victory, but unfortunately “had overlooked the possibility that the demon’s mount might possess unnatural talents.” Though the Devil’s mount was “an old black mare that looked as if it had been resurrected after a long rest underground,” the skeleton nag breathed fire at the judge’s horse each time it tried to pull ahead, and the race was lost. The Devil could now collect Reddick’s soul when he died.
As the tale is most often told, the judge spends the rest of his life figuring out how to renege on his bet. Recognizing it as a legally binding verbal contract, he contrives a legal stratagem to nullify it.
After Reddick dies, his body is placed according to his instructions in the special coffin and buried squarely on the state line. When the Devil arrives to take his soul to Hell, the judge’s ghost demands a writ of extradition, claiming Satan lacks jurisdiction in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. The Devil, perhaps enjoying this duel of wits as much as he did the race, complies by obtaining a warrant from Harrisburg, only to find upon returning to the tomb that Reddick has moved to the other side and now reposes in Virginia.
The happy ending to this tale relates that Reddick keeps up this ruse, sliding back and forth between the states, until the statute of limitations expires on the contract and the Devil is forced to renounce his claim.
An internet blogger added this witty postscript to Reddick’s tale: “Geez, you’d think with all the lawyers collected in Satan’s realm, he would have been better served . . . But hey, now we know there’s at least one barrister whose soul wasn’t claimed by Ol’ Nick.”
Did Reddick really fool the Devil? A different, darker ending to Reddick’s tale has it that Satan eventually obtains simultaneous writs from both Harrisburg and Richmond, claims Reddick’s soul, turns him into a ghostly stallion and rides him through the surrounding hills on stormy nights.
The Pittsburgh Press gave Reddick’s tale its widest circulation when it published yet a different version in its Sunday Family Magazine on May 31, 1953.
The newspaper’s writer, George Swetnam, reworked the flowery writing style of Harry Moore, identified as a small-town editor “in adjacent regions of the West Virginia Panhandle and Eastern Ohio.” Moore’s version was included in collections of local lore published in paperbound booklets in 1910 and 1925.
Moore added anecdotal historical information: “Judge Reddick is said to have been the son of a Virginian who was killed in one of the raids on Fort Henry, now Wheeling. His mother died soon afterwards … He appears to have been involved in a swindle over supplying troops in the Indian wars of the 1780s, and fled to the wilderness to escape prison.”
Making the tale more lurid, the Moore/Swetnam version says Reddick believes in the transmigration of souls, and had studied black magic, citing his use of an invisible blanket to escape death by the Indians at the rout of St. Clair in 1791. He supposedly learned of the Devil’s anger over his boast from a buzzing insect, and kept abreast of the Satan’s plan through use of a magic opal amulet. Moore said Satan acted in this tale through one of his demons, Asmodeus.
Reddick, who had a number of children by three wives and left the third, Catherine, a widow, was described as a bachelor who kept a slave concubine. Yet the admittedly sparse historical record says he was a vocal abolitionist.
A main point of departure from other versions is that there was neither bet nor horserace between the Devil and Reddick. Moore/Swetnam tells that the judge, knowing of the Devil’s anger over his boast, makes elaborate plans to guard his soul after death, including placement of the tomb and reliance on respect for the law regarding extradition. He also tells his concubine to look for him to return in a different form if his scheme fails.
Sure enough, the demon secures a joint writ of extradition, but still has to chase Reddick in circles inside his tomb for 24 years before catching him and transforming him into a gray stallion, “the very counterpart of the one whose race had caused him to make his proud boast.
And though the race track was long deserted, hunters passing that way at night would hear the thunder of hooves, and wails of agony as the steed was ridden along, ‘mid the demonic laughter of his satanic master.”
Stories of bargaining with the Devil with one’s soul in the balance are as old as the 13th century Germanic folk origins of Faust, and as new as Charlie Daniel’s 2000 song “The Devil Went Down to Georgia.”
“The Devil and Tom Walker,” a popular story in this tradition by Washington Irving, was published in 1824, six years before Reddick’s death. (Steven Vincent Benet’s “The Devil and Daniel Webster” is based on the Tom Walker story.)
Judge Reddick was reputed to be an agnostic, so he would no more have believed in Satan than in God or an afterlife. Is it possible that the judge arranged for his unusual tomb, and told friends of his plans for outwitting the Devil, either in jest or with the goal of creating just such legends as have endured?
The fact that no tombstone was placed on his grave – nothing bearing his name, nor dates of birth and death, which normally would have graced the resting place of such an important person – argues that just maybe Reddick didn’t want to give the Devil any assistance in locating his ghostly remains.
Two unforeseen occurrences have upset the judge’s well-laid plans. One is that the state line was resurveyed in 1882-83, after West Virginia separated from Virginia during the Civil War, leaving Reddick’s tomb 10 feet inside Pennsylvania.
The other is that about 30 years ago, the Hookstown American Legion Post arranged for a marble military marker to be placed on the grave. There’s no hiding from the Devil now, no need for joint writs of extradition.
On Halloween, as clouds scud low on darkening October skies, happily expectant, costumed children will trick-or treat, knocking on doors of homes widely scattered along Ross, Hardin’s Run and Mack Hallow roads.
… Just like children everywhere, with one exception: if they strain their ears, these children may catch the distant thunder of ghostly hoofbeats, demonic laughter, and the wail of a lost soul.