A Night Tragedy on Upper Twin – 18 May 1889
Portsmouth Daily Times (18 May 1889)
In the spring of 1889, while the Hatfield and McCoy conflict of eastern Kentucky and West Virginia was grabbing national media attention, the Portsmouth Daily Times reported on an “old feud” in the area of Upper Twin Creek. “A Night Tragedy” provides an account of the shooting of Willam and Murt Cooper by Ambrose and Sandford Nickels. The Times reporter reinforces emerging stereotypes of lawlessness and feuding in the region, playing off popular interest in the Hatfield and McCoy “Feud,” while referencing the literary works of William Flagg, one-time resident of Buckhorn Ridge, the divide that separates Upper and Lower Twin.
As related in the Times article, below, Flagg’s stories were “full of life-like descriptions of the scenes and quaint characters of that locality.” Long forgotten and overlooked, Flagg’s local color writings contributed to Twin Creek’s reputation as a “wild, sparsely populated, hilly region,” whose “natives” were “as uncontrollable as the mountain streams that dash down the hollows into the creek.”
Murt Cooper, at the time of this report (18 May 1889), lay in a comatose state, under the care of local physician, Dr. Vaughter. From later editions of the Times, we know that Murt lived to testify in the murder trial, wherein Ambrose and Sandford Nickels were tried for the shooting of William Cooper. In the end, the Nickels brothers would be found not guilty. “The evidence adduced at the trial,” according to the Times, “was of a most interesting nature, and showed almost conclusively that the Nickels boys acted on the defensive.”
An Old Feud — The Nickels vs. the Coopers
Last Saturday, May 11th, intelligence reached this city of a terrible tragedy on Upper Twin Creek, eighteen miles distant, the previous night. Two men, brothers, had been shot in the darkness, fell in the road, one dead and the other in the throes of death, with his brains oozing out. Three pistol shots fired with unerring aim by Ambrose Nickels had done the work. It was the outgrowth of an old feud, and among thee class of people who inhabit these wild, hilly regions, a feud generally terminates in bloodshed.
Through the extreme south-western portion of this country flows two creeks, known as Upper Twin and Lower Twin. They both take their rise in Adams county, flow through a wild, sparsely populated, hilly region, and empty into the Ohio river — the lower stream at the pretty little village of Buena Vista, and the other about two miles above. Down about the mouths of these streams, where the valleys open out, there are nice farms owned and occupied by an intelligent and thrifty class of people.
But as you go up either of these creeks, the valley narrows, the country becomes rough and rugged, little land capable of cultivation is seen, and the creekers tend a hillside “patch,” and get their principal support from the forests that grow in the hills. Tanbarks, hoop poles, stave-timber and railroad ties are the chief “output” of the Twin Creeks. The dwellers up these creeks partake of the character of their surroundings. They are as rough and angular as the hills, and grow as free and wild as the mountain pines that surmount them, and are as uncontrollable as the mountain streams that dash down the hollows into the creek below.
These people are ready for a fight or a frolic. They prize courage above any other virtue; and physical strength and endurance are raised far above any moral qualities. Rough language, rude blows and a tough fight are common and popular. When called away from home up or down the creek, a native is accustomed to carry his trusty riffle with him to meet any emergency. In fact Twin Creek has not a very savory reputation. A woman who can tend a “patch” and whip any fellow who trespasses upon her rights is considered a heroine and develops into the belle of the Valley.
Twenty-five years ago Hon. Wm. J. Flagg, now of New York City, erected a log cabin on a commanding hill back of Buena Vista, finished and furnished it in elegant rustic style and resided there with his accomplished wife, a daughter of the late Nicholas Longworth. Mr. Flagg owned thousand of acres of timber and stone lands adjacent to his mountain home — “Buck Horn.” From this elevated spot he could take in a view of the two Twin Creeks. Mr. Flagg is a literary gentleman of no mean ability and has written a couple of entertaining romances, the scenes of which are located in that vicinity. His charming novel, “Woman the Stronger” is full of life-like descriptions of the scenes and quaint characters of that locality. He gives the names of “Upper Jimminy” and “Lower Jimminy” to the two Twin Creeks, and Buena Vista is “Barker’s Landing.” When the hero of the story, Mr. Wraxall brings his bride from New York to her log home on the hill, as they drive up the mountain road he very discreetly tells her. “We have not come here to live among people; we we are come to the hills, and woods, and their solitude — and to each other.”
And one who is acquainted on “Twin,” and along its tortuous course, will recall more than one “Mary Yerks,” known as the “Gray Eagle,” just as she appeared on one occasion, robed in an untidy calico dress, a cavalryman’s jacket, a pair of men’s calf boots, and old sun-bonnet. With a free and easy carriage and a manly swing, she could give Mose Hanker, “a decent lickin” and was always ready for “a perfectly fair fight betwixt two neighbors, and there will be found plenty of Hankers and Tom Hoopers, and Wiley Hummers, and Washington Atwills to this day hauling tan-bark and hoop-poles down the rocky creek bottom roadway of Twin.
As a strange coincident, Colonel Flagg, in his story, locates the home of old man Atwill, about two miles up “Upper Jimminy,” at the very spot almost where the recent tragedy occurred. According to the story, Atwill was engaged in making “duplicates” of the greenback currency of those days, and sending them out to enrich an impoverished world. Such artistic work is sometimes called “counterfeiting.” The inhabitants of “Upper Jimminy” may have been guilty of a great many, and great variety of crimes, but we do not believe they ever indulged in high art and skilled mechanism of reproducing Uncle Sam’s greenbacks. Yet, near by this very spot is “Money Hollow;” in the years gone by, the fires of smelting furnaces might have been seen, whereat spurious silver coins were turned out, bright and new, and where the dies were found that have the hollow the name it still nears. This hollow unites with “Dead Man’s Hollow” and forms a branch that sings and gurgles on its way to Twin.
The recent bloody affair is not the first one that has made red the waters of the Twin. We recall one back in the “fifties,” about 1859, when William Hodge shot his cousin, Milton Hodge, in a quarrel on Lower Twin, and was sent to the Penitentiary, from Adams county, for life.
At the trial when the widow was asked what were the expiring words of her murdered husband, she replied that the last thing he said was to look up in her face and “smile.” The fact is, a genuine Twin-creeker meets death with a smile.
On Upper Twin resides Amaziah Cooper and William, Murtaugh, Charles and John, his four sons. He has been a resident there for over twenty years. The Nickels have lived in that neighborhood for the past twelve years. For some time there has been bad blood between members of those families, a “grudge” they call it, and threats had been mutually made.
There had been trouble, especially, between Ambrose Nickels and William Cooper for a year or more, said to be about a girl — at least, they had a quarrel at church some time since.
There was to have been a dance at Amaziah Lewis’, about two miles up the creek, that is, that distance from the river pike, last Friday night. The folks began to gather for miles around, but for some cause it was declared off. Two of the Nickels appeared on the scene with their girls, but as no strains of music wooed the dancer’s feet to merry motions, they began to disperse. Ambrose and San[ford] Nickels started down the creek. The former had his girl on horseback, like a young [illegible].
The Moonlight Tragedy
About a quarter of a mile below they met William and Murt Cooper. This was after 9 o’clock at night. One story is that the former was on his way home from Buena Vista, and his brother had gone down to meet him. For what purpose? Another version is that the Coopers had followed them with abusive words, provoking a difficulty. At any rate a quarrel ensued, low epithets were flung back and forth, and Ambrose leaving his girl and his horse, stepped into the road with revolver drawn. William Cooper had an open knife in his hand. One shot, and the ball struck the latter in the right side below the heart. As he fell forward, another shot rang out and a bullet, striking him in the shoulder near the neck, plowed downward through his left breast. Nickels, turning his revolver upon Murt Cooper, declared he would shoot his brains out, and fired. His aim was true to his words, and the ball, striking above the temple, crushed the skull, and young Cooper fell unconscious. The witnesses to this bloody work were one [Ben] Bussey, and another man, and two women, Lania Abbot and Minnie Hodge. The two Nickels brothers at once disappeared and have not since been seen. We hear that Sant[ford] Nickels claims that he fired the shot that struck Murt Cooper in the head.
Charles Cooper, another brother, head the firing at Za Lewis’s house, and hurried to the scene. He found his brother William lying up the road with the extinct, still clutching his knife in his hand with vise-like grip. All was quiet, quiet as death. The fight was over. The dust of the road had soaked up the red [blood] of Bill Cooper. The pale moon being lighted up the ghastly scene, and the evening breeze stirred the leaves as it swept down “Dead Man’s Hollow.” The Twin Valley lay beautiful and quiet on that bright May night, and all smiling and peaceful, save men alone.
[Ben] Bussey had conveyed the unconscious Murt, with his brains exposed, to the house of Robert Cooper, near by, and the next morning he was carried to his father house, further up the creek. He lies in a comatose condition. Dr. Vaughters probed for the ball but was unable to find it. Pieces of the skull were taken out, and though he was still living Thursday morning, his recovery is thought impossible. He is the youngest son and is nineteen years of age.
William Cooper, the murdered man, was buried Sunday morning at ten o’clock, beside a favorite nephew, on his brother’s-in-law place. He was twenty-eight years of age, and after his rough, and reckless life, it would be a pleasing thought to know that all unkindness that hovers along the creek were buried in his [illegible] grave.
No arrests have been made.”
“Pistol Practice at a ‘Hoe Down,'” Harrisburg Telegraph (13 May 1889).
“Two Brothers Shot Dead; Fatal Result of a Quarrel at a Country Dance,” Cleveland Plain Dealer (14 May 1889).
“Made Good His Warning,” Louisville Courier-Journal (14 May 1889).
“A Night Tragedy on Upper Twin. Two Brothers Shot to the Death on the Road,” Portsmouth Daily Times (18 May 1889).
“Twin Creek Tragedy: The Two Nickel Boys Held for Murder in the First Degree. Murt Cooper in Court,” Portsmouth Daily Times (1 June 1889).
“Not Guilty! Sant and Ambrose Nickels are Acquitted of the Charge of Murder,” Portsmouth Daily Times (12 October 1889).