Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Dutch Billy

Wilmington Star, Dec. 18, 1927
Most of the history we have about historic Mill Creek Hundred, and therefore most of the posts here, deal with what would be considered to be the upper middle and upper classes of the area. You know, the people who owned the large farms, the people whose names are on the old maps, and the families who show up in the old biographies (like Runks). What should be obvious but sometimes isn't is that there were many other people who lived in MCH. People who were born here or moved here, lived their lives here, and died here. People who, for the most part, we know almost nothing about and probably never will. Once in a while, though, one of these "common folk" will make such an impression on their neighbors that stories about their life (and/or their death) will survive to be passed on or written down. One such person in the later 19th and early 20th Centuries was a loner -- sometimes even referred to as a hermit -- called Dutch Billy by his neighbors. He was such a memorable figure that his life and his death (and beyond) rose to the level of folktale in the area.[Thanks go to Hugh Horning for bringing this story to my attention.]

The man called Dutch Billy was actually named William Losien, and was born in Germany in 1844. He came to America in 1882, according to this feature written by Andrea Cassel for a Friends of White Clay Creek State Park newsletter, as well as the 1910 US Census. Presumably his "Dutch" moniker came about the same way as the "Pennsylvania Dutch", which was a mistranslation of Deutsch, or German. He was said to have been heavy-set with a full beard, probably very "mountain man" looking. I choose to picture him much like Victor French's "Mr. Edwards" from the Little House on the Prairie TV series.

Dutch Billy lived very much the life of a frontier man from what was even then becoming a rapidly bygone era. He lived in a small cabin in the woods, south of Pleasant Hill Road west of Paper Mill. (Probably a ways out past the A.J. Whiteman House.) It was near the border of four properties (Harkness, Niven, Hopkins, and Lamborn), and Cassel writes that every few years some of the local men would move his cabin so Billy wouldn't have to pay rent. He had a small garden and some chickens, and did some work as a handyman and as a butcher, but Dutch Billy mostly made his living the way you'd expect someone like him to -- hunting and trapping. He hunted small game like skunks, squirrels, rabbits, and raccoons. Billy also raised fox hounds, which he both used himself and sold to hunters in places like West Chester.

According to the newspaper article reporting his passing in 1927, although everyone in the area knew and liked him, only one nearby farmer (John Winen) could be found who knew Billy's real name. He often went into Newark for his supplies, but it sounds like Dutch Billy was truly a legend in his own time and was probably the topic of many a conversation. It's not known where he first settled after coming to this country, but as best as can be told he took up residence in his shack in the woods sometime in the 1890's.


With his almost anachronistic lifestyle (even for that time) and his likable personality, Dutch Billy's life alone would have made him the stuff of folktales. The circumstances surrounding his death, however, pretty much sealed the deal. By 1927 Billy was 83 years of age, and considering the way he lived they were a hard 83 years. He apparently never married, and lived alone with his hounds, which it was said he loved more than human beings. Earlier that year a neighbor had reportedly heard Billy say that he was thinking of getting rid of his dogs, burning his shack, and killing himself. Maybe it took a few months to get up his courage, maybe he needed to get his things (such as they were) in order, or maybe it was the added feelings of the holidays. Whatever the final push was, it seems that Dutch Billy finally carried out the deed that December. On the morning of Wednesday, December 14, 1927, Dutch Billy's little shack in the woods was burned to the ground, presumably by his own hand.

At first it was thought that Billy himself had perished in the fire, but upon further inspection no body was found. Three days later the mystery was solved when Billy's body was discovered by neighbors Clarence and Frank Jester and Benjamin Hendrickson, in the woods at a spot about 200 yards from his home. He had shot himself with his trusty shotgun (his only real possession) and chose to surround himself in death with those he loved in life -- his dogs. The spot he selected was the burial site of hundreds of his canine companions throughout the years.

Dutch Billy, 1921

Although Dutch Billy died penniless, his neighbors (led by J. Leslie Eastburn) in MCH would not see him resigned to an unmarked grave in a potter's field. They took up a collection, had a funeral for him in Newark, and saw him interred in a plot at the Mill Creek Friends Meeting House. The meeting house had a section set aside for indigents who were not Friends. William "Dutch Billy" Losien was buried at Mill Creek on December 20, 1927, along with his shotgun, a stone marking his final resting place. Even after all this, though, Dutch Billy's story is not quite over.

Writing in 1947 in a larger work about Delaware churches (page 145 of the PDF), Frank Zebley tells that local residents say that at midnight on the anniversary of his death, Dutch Billy can still be heard firing his beloved shotgun. I won't even try to weigh in on the veracity of the ghost tale part of it, but I do take issue with another part of Zebley's story -- the date. In his telling, Billy's death occurred on February 28, 1921. In Andrea Cassel's stirring story she got the year right, but repeated (maybe from Zebley) the incorrect date of February 28th. I think, given the firsthand report of the newspaper article cited, that there's no question that Dutch Billy's true date of death was December 14, 1927. That's assuming he ended his life the same day as burning his shack, which was almost certainly the case. So if anyone happened to hear a lone shotgun blast the other night (or on any other December 14th), be sure to let us know. You just might have tapped into one of Mill Creek Hundred's most colorful folktales, about one of its most unique residents.

Added 11-4-15:

In addition to the fabulous (just by its very existence) picture, we can add a few more details to the story of Dutch Billy, by way of family lore passed on by Rob Hobdell. From what he's been told, Billy was a devout Quaker (and therefore a pacifist), and left Germany to avoid conscription into the army. With some aid from by a network set up by the Society of Friends to help conscientious objectors, Billy was directed to the community surrounding the Mill Creek Meeting. (In the story Rob was told it was the Union Meeting, but with "Union" being the name taken by Corner Ketch when it got a Post Office in the 1870's, I think it's safe to say the Union Meeting was a local name for Mill Creek.) Depending on the version of the story, either Billy attended the meeting for a while before drifting away or he lived in the woods by himself from the start.

One piece of information Rob shared gives us some insight as to why Billy may have chosen to live his secluded lifestyle. Apparently he was afraid of being found by German spies and returned home to be hung for desertion. I don't know whether there was any realistic reason to fear this or if it was just paranoia, but it does help explain why he never wanted to settle on a permanent homestead. It also explains why Billy had Rob's Great-Grandmother Myrtle Whiteman Lamborn send and receive letters to and from his mother in Germany. (Myrtle was the daughter of Henry Whiteman, whose house was covered in a previous post.) There seems to be a disagreement as to whether this practice began with Myrtle's mother Sarah Ann (Moore) or her mother-in-law Emma (Dixon) Lamborn. In either case Billy was always welcomed at the Lamborn's home near Ashland, and often attended holiday meals there.

5 comments:

  1. I don't really remember Mr. Edwards from "Little House..." but the USA network's catchphrase of "Characters Welcome" reminds me a bit of Dutch Billy. Like Scott pointed out in his article, not a major player, not a big landholder, not anyone that anybody has heard about before...but he will live on through the MCH blog. I'll listen for shotgun fire next December 14th.

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  2. I made a slight edit to the post. I found Billy in the 1900 Census, which confirmed that he immigrated in 1882, but it says he was born in February 1844. Also, once the snow is gone and I have the chance, I think I'll try to make it up the the MC Meeting House and see if I can find the grave. If anyone else gets there before I do and can send me a picture of the headstone (assuming it's still legible), I post it with credit.

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    1. I've been working on the FindAGrave memorials for Mill Creek Friends Burial Grounds. I added a memorial for William Losien and just put a link to this story in the bio. http://www.findagrave.com/cgi-bin/fg.cgi?page=gr&GRid=121798998

      Rich Morrison

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  3. Thanks Rich for posting his memorial. I will upload a photo of Dutch Billy to it. He worked odd jobs on the Lamborn farms and surely others. We considered Billy sort of family. G-Grandmom, Myrtle Whiteman Lamborn, used to post letters to Billy's Mom in Germany, for him.

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    1. Awesome pic, Rob! Would you mind if I posted it here, as well (with whatever attribution you'd like)? Honestly, the thought of ever seeing a photograph of him never crossed my mind. Regardless, thanks for sharing the pic on Find-A-Grave!

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