- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 24, 2016

UNIONTOWN, Pa. (AP) - Nicholas Dukes was a Uniontown attorney, newly elected to the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, when he wrote a letter in December 1882, insulting the virtue of his fiance, Lizzie Nutt, to her father as he broke off their engagement.

Warning “Read this in private,” the letter noted, “What I have to communicate concerns your daughter, and will almost drive you to madness, because I know how you worship her.”

Captain A.C. Nutt, a Civil War veteran who traveled between his Uniontown home and job in Harrisburg as a state Treasury official, was outraged.

Dukes accused Lizzie of impropriety with himself and a number of men.

Nutt wrote back, “I shall convince you that I have the physical courage to espouse my daughter’s cause, and defend the honor of myself and family.”



On Christmas Eve, Nutt confronted Dukes in his room at the Jennings House in Uniontown, resulting in Dukes shooting Nutt dead. Dukes was arrested and stood trial the next March, but was acquitted on grounds of self defense. The community erupted in anger.

Months later, Lizzie’s brother James Nutt avenged their father by killing Dukes, shooting him several times outside the Uniontown Post Office. Nutt was brought to trial in Pittsburgh in January 1884 where he was acquitted because of monomania, “a doctrine of irresistible impulse.”

The scandal catapulted Uniontown into an international spotlight with stories published in newspapers on four continents and even comments from President Chester Arthur.

Yet, today, the story remains unknown to many.

Christine Buckelew, president of the Fayette County Historical Society, said, “I think it was such a stain on Uniontown that they wanted to forget.”

The story is being retold at the historical society in a new exhibit called “An American Tragedy” at the Abel Colley Tavern and Museum, located in Menallen Township on Route 40.

And Andrew Porwancher is the author of a newly published book about the scandal called “The Devil Himself: A Tale of Honor, Insanity, and the Birth of Modern America.”

“This is a gripping tale of love, murder and revenge,” said Porwancher, a native of Princeton, New Jersey, who decided to write the first known book on the scandal after coming across 19th century trial transcripts that had been bound and sold on the streets.

Porwancher did research locally, thanking in his book’s acknowledgments Maria Sholtis at Uniontown Public Library as well as Christine and Thomas Buckelew and Mick Gallis of the historical society.

Porwancher, assistant professor of classics and letters at the University of Oklahoma, spent academic year 2013-14 writing the book as part of a fellowship at the University of Oxford, which also published the book.

In addition to its more salacious aspects, Porwancher commented that he found the scandal addressed deeper anxieties of the time.

He noted, “This is a story in which people were willing to live or die for a code of honor. It resounded in a society that longed for traditional values in a world of rapid change: urbanization, industrialization and immigration comprised the triple crown of tumultuous forces in the Gilded Age that were remaking American society. These trends predate the Gilded Age, but the Gilded Age accelerated them as America shifted from a rural agricultural past to an urban industrialized era.”

Interest is already growing in the book, available on Amazon, which took its title from Dukes’ letter when he wrote of Lizzie: “Her beauty and affectionate manner would disarm the devil himself.”

Porwancher said, “The implicit question is who is the real devil? Each character possesses the potential for both good and evil, and history often doesn’t give us easily defined heroes and villains.”

In writing the book, Porwancher commented, “I learned that realities of history are far more fantastic than anything I could have conjured up in a novel.”

Those realities will be addressed in the historical society’s exhibit as it breaks down the story into a series of panels featuring different aspects of the case, such as the Dukes trial, the Nutt trial, the accused suitors and the jurors.

Christine Buckelew and Jo Lofstead, secretary, recently showed off some materials, including a copy of a booklet called “Lizzie Nutt’s Sad Experience,” that was published in German; a portrait of James Feather, a witness in the first trial who went on to become a millionaire; and a portrait of James Nutt in a sketchbook by Allegheny County Clerk of Courts Leon Long.

The women noted many complexities in the story: A.C. Nutt was revered as an officer who led Company K in the 3rd U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War and then played a role in uncovering the conspiracy around President Lincoln’s assassination. Two thousand people attended his funeral and burial in Oak Grove Cemetery. But, it was later discovered Nutt had embezzled money from the Pennsylvania Treasury to invest in oil.

In addition, jurors in the first trial were threatened for their verdict, Pennsylvania legislators tried to keep Dukes from taking his seat and three psychiatrists who testified in James Nutt’s defense then served on a medical panel that determined he had returned to being sane.

That’s not to mention James Nutt later moved to Kansas where he shot two people, was tried and sentenced to 15 years in prison. He did not serve the full term.

“There is just so much in this story,” said Lofstead, “It’s incredible.”

“An American Tragedy” runs from noon to 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through June. More information is available at www.fayettehistoricalsociety.org .

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Online:

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Information from: Herald-Standard, https://www.heraldstandard.com/

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