Small towns play host to all sorts of strange happenings, which often give birth to legends. The real story often gets distorted to the point that folklore outweighs fact. Nevertheless, a seed of truth remains in the legend. In this way, odd bits of our shared history can persist for years and years.
Such is the case with the story of an odd incident that took place in the rolling hills of eastern Ohio over 150 years ago. The protagonists in this odd little play were a group of local hoodlums known by an ominous name, the Sons of Belial, a family by the name of Early, and, some say, God himself.
The Sons of Belial
John Early Sr. and his wife moved to Guernsey county in 1844. He bought a plot of land just north of the Tuscarawas county line, where he built his family a log cabin. A devoted Methodist minister, Early used an acre of property to build a meeting house (later known as a church) and a family cemetery. Early Sr. was interred in the family cemetery in 1853, alongside one of his sisters. After his death, the family continued to live on the land and parishioners continued to attend the church.
Enter the Sons of Belial. The diabolically named group was comprised of three men whose names are lost to history. They were notorious for their gambling, drinking, and all around unsavory behavior. Their haunt of choice was a place south of Newcomerstown named, appropriately enough, Whiskey Springs.
If the Sons of Belial sound more like boys being boys than anything diabolical, rumors about their activities cast a more sinister shadow. Local gossip from the day pinned the murder of a teacher, family name Hevelow, on the group. The teacher disappeared on the road from Coshocton to Newcomerstown. It wasn’t until 1859 that his skeleton, later identified by his sister, was turned up by a farmer’s plow. There was no hard evidence linking the Sons of Belial to the killing, but locals believed they’d killed the man for his pay.
The ruffians took a special interest in the Early family. It isn’t clear why. Perhaps it was due to the family’s pious nature, or there was some dispute between the family and the Sons that was lost to history. Nevertheless, the Sons of Belial were blamed for ruining the family corn field and breaking a new plow. They also allegedly stole plow horses, which they tied up near an embankment, resulting in the horses falling over the edge.
Their most infamous act was also directed at the Early family. It was a diabolical act of desecration that would go down in local legend.
A blasphemous act. A divine punishment?
Sometime in the early 1860s, parishioners arrived Sunday morning for their usual worship services. What they found was a scene of horror. Someone had slaughtered a lamb over the altar, spilling the blood all over an open Bible. Services were suspended, and the church goers spent the day cleaning out the mess and letting the house of worship air out. They resumed services the next week. Some wanted revenge, but a member of the Early family counselled the parishioners to let God have his revenge, as he surely would for such an act of blasphemy.
The legend goes that the Sons of Belial committed their despicable deed after a night of drinking. They stole the baby lamb from a local crippled child, and sacrificed it over the open Bible. One of the men reportedly shouted: “John Early, come forth from your grave!” Allegedly, not long after the words left his lips, a tongue of fire surged in through the door and struck the blasphemer blind and dumb.
Legend has it that the Sons of Belial did indeed suffer the wrath of God. The first died blind in an infirmary. The second died such a painful death that he allegedly thrashed hard enough to break down his bed. The third died a peculiar death, the details of which weren’t recorded.
Fact or folklore?
The church itself no longer stands. The blood stained Bible was last seen in 1964, when it was briefly on display in The Newcomerstown News’ office. After that, it was lost.
The whole affair sounds more like folklore than fact. It is based on the memories of witnesses who only reported on the events years later. I personally don’t doubt that a desecration took place, but some parts of the story, particularly the supernatural elements, ring hollow. Still, it is an interesting story, especially one telling detail that definitely smacks of invention more than fact but is intriguing nevertheless. It is said that the Bible was open to the Book of Galatians, which contains this passage: “Be not deceived, God is not mocked; for whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” (Galatians 6:7)
Casteel, William. “Desecration of Early’s Church Remains Local Legend.” Daily-Jeff.com. August 24 2010. The Daily Jeffersonian. Accessed on: February 6, 2014. Retrieved from: http://daily-jeff.com/local%20news/2010/08/24/desecration-of-early-s-church-remains-local-legend