Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Mystery of the Deathbed Signature

by Rocky G. Macy

(First published in Heritage Quest Magazine, Issue #45, May/June 1993.)

The query didn't seem unusual at the time. There was, in fact, very little to distinguish it from the dozens of other genealogical questions which arrived each month for my newspaper column, Rootbound in the Hills.

Darrel and June Cole, a husband and wife school teaching team from Tussy, Oklahoma, were trying to learn more about Darrel's great-grandfather, Dr. John Cole, who had been practicing medicine at Vian, Indian Territory, at the time of his death in 1899.

Dr. Cole and his son, Charles Alexander Cole, had each been married in McDonald County, Missouri. The doctor wed Caroline Raridon on 8 May 1879, with the marriage license indicating that he was fifty-four years of age and the bride was fourteen. Charlie Cole, under the age of twenty-one, had married Lizzie Holloway, under the age of eighteen, on 27 February 1892. Lizzie was the daughter of G.H. Holloway.

The query ran in the summer of 1989. There was no response. A few weeks later I ran a reminder about the Cole query. Still no response.

A year passed before Dr. Cole again surfaced in Rootbound's mail. A good friend who is a professional genealogist in northwest Arkansas forwarded a copy of a magazine article along with a note of apology for not sending it sooner. The article, he explained, dealt with a doctor who had been discussed in my column previously. After quickly studying the enclosure, I knew that there was much more to the story of Dr. John Cole that his great-grandson had shared in the query.

The article, The Mystery of Dr. John Hunt Cole, was written by Mike Grissom and had been featured in the September 1988 issue of The United Daughters of the Confederacy Magazine. What a story it told!

Dr. Cole, it seems, made a deathbed confession to his family that he was actually John Hunt Morgan...Confederate General John Hunt Morgan, one of Dixie's better known commanders who was famous for his ingenuity and daring. General Morgan was supposedly killed on 4 September 1864 during a surprise nighttime attack on a house in which he and some of his men were quartered. Dr. Cole, in explaining how he survived, told of changing coats with an aide to confuse the enemy in the event of his capture or death.

Although wounded in the attack, General Morgan, according to the Cole family, was able to flee and eventually made his way to Illinois where he located and married an old friend, Maggie Critzer. It was at that time that he assumed the surname "Cole."

Within a few months of settling in Illinois, the story goes, John Hunt Cole was recognized as General Morgan, a revelation which led to gunplay and the deaths of several men. Cole and his in-laws, the Critzers, then decided that a change of scenery might be advantageous to their health and well-being.

The two families settled on the plains of Kansas where Maggie Cole gave birth to five children. But bearing five children on the harsh prairie proved to be more than Maggie could endure. In an effort to slow his wife's deteriorating health, John Hunt Cole moved her and the children to Southwest City, Missouri, in 1879. It was in that community that he used his extensive education to assume the title and practice of medical doctor.

Maggie passed away shortly after the move, leaving Dr. Cole in need of a mother for his children. He married Caroline Raridon later that same year. John and Caroline had four sons.

During Dr. Cole's lifetime he kept his past a virtual secret, choosing only to confide in his wife and oldest son, John Morgan Cole. But after contracting pneumonia in November of 1899 and realizing that his demise was imminent, the old physician summoned his family to his bedside. There, amidst his last few moments on earth, Dr. Cole wrote the signature "John Hunt Morgan" on a slip of paper and told the stunned assembly, "This is who I really am."

Not long after details of this mystery were published in Rootbound it was linked to an equally peculiar occurrence from the Civil War. An Arkansas reader wrote in to suggest that Dr. John Hunt Cole might possibly have been Captain Charles Cole, a convicted traitor who confessed to his crime, signed an amnesty oath, and was released "never to be seen again."

Citing material published in Confederate Agent, a book by James D. Horan, the lady from Arkansas described Captain Charles Cole as a Confederate officer who had served with both General Morgan and General Nathan Bedford Forrest.

Captain Cole had volunteered his services to Captain Thomas Hines (who had also served under General Morgan) in September of 1864 while Hines was plotting to capture the USS Michigan as it patrolled on Lake Erie. Captian Hines seems to have been planning the release of Johnson Island Confederate prisoners who could then be marched to Sandusky, Ohio, to assist with the capture of that city's federal arsenal. The newly freed prisoners might then form the nucleus of an army which could be used for greater things.

Captain Cole moved to Sandusky and pretended to be a wealthy Philadelphia banker. He met the captain of the USS Michigan, and he also became friendly with the commander of the Johnson Island Camp and visited that facility. Captain Cole set up contact with the local Copperheads in Sandusky. They were supposed to storm the prison from the outside while the prisoners attacked from within. Unfortunately for the Confederate cause in general and Captain Charles Cole in particular, the plot was uncovered resulting in Captain Cole's arrest, conviction, and subsequent self-banishment.

Darrel and June Cole responded to the correspondent relating that they, too, were familiar with the "Northwest Conspiracy" and had read extensively on Thomas Hines and Captain Cole. For a variety of reasons, though, the contemporary Coles persisted in their belief that Dr. John Hunt Cole was actually General John Hunt Morgan rather than Captain Charles Cole.

There is a body of circumstantial evidence which points toward Dr. John Hunt Cole and General John Hunt Morgan being the same person. Similarities exist between the names of Dr. Cole's children and relatives of General Morgan. Also, General Morgan may have had an aide named Captain Cole, and it was reported that one of the general's officers had masqueraded as his leader on an earlier occasion in a maneuver which allowed the general to escape.

But Darrel and June Cole feel that the most telling evidence to support the "single person theory" is the uncanny resemblance which they see as apparent in photographs of young General Morgan and old Dr. Cole. At this stage of their investigation, Darrel and June are planning to turn a collection of photos of the two men over to an expert at aging images through the use of a computer. In that way they may be able to prove, at least to their satisfaction, that the doctor and the general were one-and-the-same.

Handwriting analysis would be a more positive proof. Copies of General Morgan's handwriting and signature exist today. Unfortunately, the signature which Dr. Cole scrawled on the scrap of paper at the time of his death has been lost during the intervening years. One of the reasons that Darrel and June Cole originally wrote to Rootbound was to see if any of the column's readers might have an old family medical record with Dr. Cole's signature or other example of his penmanship. A handwriting sample might ultimately bring that matter to resolution.

If descendants of Dr. John Hunt Cole cannot prove that their ancestor was General John Hunt Morgan, they would like to be able to establish the opposite - that he was not General John Hunt Morgan. Documentation of Dr. Cole's existence before 1864 would mean that he could not have been General Morgan or Captain Charles Cole. As of yet, the Coles have no record of the doctor prior to the end of the Civil War.

Coincidentally, there is another group that has a personal interest in this mystery. General John Hunt Morgan had a wife and children at the time of his death or disappearance. Some descendants of that family have been openly skeptical of Dr. Cole's deathbed claim, regarding it as an unwarranted blemish on the record of a good soldier who died honorably in the service of the Confederacy.

Dr. Cole unleashed a controversy at the time of his death which rages on almost a century later. His descendants, Darrel Cole and others, are trying to resolve questions of history and genealogy, things which still define their ancestor, and to some extent, themselves as well. They truly are on a heritage quest.

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