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Shooting at York Tavern in 1768


The General Gates house is one of York County Heritage Trust’s historic restorations. It is so named because it is said to have been the residence of Horatio Gates when he served as president of the Board of War [forerunner of the Defense Department] during part of the time Continental Congress met in York during 1777-1778.

Researcher Becky Roman has been trying to find out more about Joseph Chambers, who is credited with building the sturdy stone Gates house on East Market Street in 1751. She recently found Chambers mentioned in the papers of the Court of Oyer and Terminer for York County (Pennsylvania State Archives). It doesn’t have anything to do with Chambers’s stone house, but it is an interesting story, one that would probably make the news today. It also raises some unanswered questions.

The document concerns a Coroner’s Inquest of March 26, 1768 into a February 16th shooting at a York tavern. It reads, in part:

“…Before Joseph Adlum, York, Coroner of the County aforesaid, upon the view of the body of John Curtis, then and there lying dead, upon the oaths and affirmations of Joseph Chambers, David Hunter, Christopher Slagle, Michael Hahn, Michael Doudle, William Matthews, Joseph Garretson, William Leas, Joseph Updegraff, David Cantler, John Hay, Daniel Spangler, John Herbagh, Andrew Finley, and James Miller, good and lawful men of the county…that the said John Curtis on the sixteenth day of February last past, being at the house of Conrad Byrer in York Town received a wound on the left thigh by a discharge of gun loaded with powder and a wadd of tow [tow is flax fibers not yet spun into thread], which gun John Ord, Junior, of the same place then and there held in his hand and discharged, but not of malice aforethought, nor with an intent to kill or injure the said John Curtis or any other person…Which wound, together with other disorders, the said John Curtis languished until the 26th instant, and then died.”

[Instant means in the present month, so Curtis must have hung on for five and a half weeks.]

In an accompanying document, dated February 16, 1768, David Jameson, M.D. attests that he was called to Conrad Byrer’s tavern at about seven that evening by John Orndt [very possibly the same as John Ord] to examine John Curtis. Jameson describes the wound, mentioning “the parts round about the wound burnt with powder.” Since Jameson didn’t find “ball or shot or any hard body,” he concluded that the wound was not mortal. It seems Jameson was proved wrong. He states that the wound was about an inch and a half wide and an inch deep, plenty of injured area to become infected.

So, why did the “good and lawful men of the county,” whose names are familiar as leading citizens of the time, attest that John Ord didn’t mean to harm anyone? Was Ord cleaning the gun with the wad of tow? Why did the gun accidently go off, possibly by accident, very close to John Curtis’s leg, as the powder burns indicate? We will probably never know, but the account gives us another glimpse of life in York County in Colonial times.