A pastor’s double life unearthed

The Reverend James Murphy

The Reverend James Murphy

The following article originally appeared in 2013. Some of the present-day references have changed, but the history remains. 

As the minister of Ulster County’s Rochester, Wawarsing and Clove classis of the Dutch Reformed Church from 1814 to 1826, Dr. James Murphy was a popular, influential religious leader. Successful in attracting large, devoted congregations, he was respected for his scholarship and later published a book titled The Bible and Geology. After he died at age 69 in 1857, Murphy was listed and eulogized in the commemorative volumes profiling eminent men published by the Dutch Reformed Church.

But Murphy had a painful secret. According to an extraordinary document discovered in the Historic Huguenot Street (HHS) archives by researcher and educator Susan Stessin-Cohn, he was actually born a slave on a large estate in Dutchess County. His father, David Johnston, was one of the wealthiest and most prominent men in New York, and his mother was Johnston’s black slave Jane. Murphy and his mother were the sole slaves, out of 15 on the estate, to be freed in Johnston’s will. (Jane’s manumission was conditional on the death of Johnston’s wife, who predeceased him.)

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After Johnston died in 1809, the light-skinned boy, who had been trained as a saddler, reinvented himself as white, somehow learning to read and write, taking on the surname Murphy and attending the New Brunswick Theological Seminary. The ruse worked for a while, but in 1824, when he was a married father of four and well-established in his career, two prominent members of his congregation wrote a letter to the Albany synod of the Dutch Reformed Church presenting evidence confirming Murphy’s true identity, in a vicious attempt to oust him.

Stessin-Cohn, HHS’s director of education, told Murphy’s story at a recent lecture in New Paltz. She is a walking encyclopedia of local history. Her forays into historic archives and wide-ranging research on specific topics and personages, funded by numerous grants, have lent her distinction, including an award for her work on the Ulster County Poorhouse. Diaries, gravestones, letters, wills and ancestry.com are the tools of her trade. She seeks to decipher the lives of ordinary people, that great mass of anonymity who’ve been left out of the history books, with a special focus on local slaves.

Steeped as she is in marvelous facts and anecdotes unearthed in her researches, nothing prepared her for the sensational revelations for the narrative that unfolded in a 20-page manuscript that she discovered in a box in the HHS archives some five years ago. It was titled The Memorial of Ann Bevier and Rachel Westbrook, members of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of Rochester and written in a melodramatic, convoluted but highly literate style. Stessin-Cohn copied the document and read it with a SUNY-New Paltz colleague over the next month.

“There were words I’d never heard used before. We were reading the vocabulary of two women back in the 1820s,” she said.

Intrigued, Stessin-Cohn put her crack research skills to work and began connecting the dots. She combed through the archives of Dutch Reformed churches, searched for censuses and wills in municipal record offices and contacted local historians in order to learn more about the story of the black man who masqueraded as a white minister.

She was already familiar with Ann DeWitt Bevier, the wife of a retired Revolutionary War captain who was one of the wealthiest women in Ulster County. After her husband’s death in 1802, Bevier raised eight children herself and managed a large estate in Accord, including the buying and selling of a dozen or so slaves. Ironically, it seems, given her slaveholder status, her seven daughters attended Litchfield Academy, the alma mater of Harriot Beecher Stowe. Bevier’s big stone house is now a bed-and-breakfast.

Bevier “was a tough cookie,” according to Stessin-Cohn, and in the months before composing and sending their missive to the Albany classis, she and Westbrook collected two affidavits. One consisted of a copy of a letter that James Murphy had written to a friend describing his mother’s death and burial during a visit he made to Dutchess County back in 1814, a couple of months after he had become minister of the Rochester church. The second affidavit showed the problem with that: Signed by David Johnston’s legitimate son, John Johnston, in 1824, it confirmed not only that Murphy was the son of Jane, but also that the “mulatto” woman, as he referred to her, was alive and well. To prove it, Jane, who was now living under the surname Cox, had affixed an X to the document.

According to Bevier and Westbrook’s letter, Murphy had promoted false rumors about his relation to Cox. “Again and again has it been asserted, and the rumor has been widely circulated that Mr. Murphy is not the son of Jane Cox,” they wrote. “It appears to have been his own anxiety and that of his friends mainly to do away the imputation of African mixture in his pedigree.”

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