Vaughan House restoration continues

Published 8:20 am Saturday, March 28, 2009

Volunteers worked with an architect to remove broken furniture, wires, boards and piles of debris from the Rebecca Vaughan House in Courtland on Friday.

The demolition work was the next step in an ongoing effort to restore the historic structure to its 1831 appearance. The house was the scene of the last murders of whites during Nat Turner’s slave insurrection, which occurred in August of that year.

“Working on this house is special because of its historical significance,” said Jerry Traub, an architect with Raleigh, N.C.-based Traub Architecture & Design. “It is structurally sound, but a lot of the finishings are missing.”

Several members of the Southampton County Historical Society toiled in the dusty, two-story house as Traub and his assistant, David Card, knocked down historically unimportant wood from ceilings and walls. They also tossed out a few pieces of broken furniture and ripped out electrical wiring, some of the evidence that the house had been rented out as late as the 1980s.

“Part of this mission is to clear out the debris and stabilize the building,” Traub said, pointing to some of the wood beams supporting the house. “You can see the craftsmanship that went into the house by looking at the joints.”

Traub said the next step in the restoration process was to take photographs of the house, record their findings and submit them to the Virginia Department of Historic Resources.

“Every little clue we uncover will be helpful in finding out a little bit more about this house,” Traub said, adding that the DHR did not have a lot of information about the structure.

Friday’s interior demolition work revealed a few surprises. It was discovered that a window on the east side of the house was not there when the house was first constructed, possibly as early as the 1790s. An interior wall on the first floor was also added later.

But there was one head-scratcher: the hole worn into the floor at the foot of the steps leading upstairs.

“Everyone has their own theory about that,” Traub chuckled.

Lynda Updike of the Historical Society believes that over time, people going upstairs wore a hole into the floor when they put their weight down on their left foot before raising their right foot onto the first step.

Rebecca Vaughan and her niece, Anne Eliza Vaughan, were the last two whites slain by Turner’s insurrectionists. William Sidney Drewry’s book “The Southampton Insurrection,” which was published in 1900, described the events of the morning of Monday, Aug. 22, 1831, in grim detail:

“Proceeding to the house, the negroes found two defenseless women – Mrs. Vaughan and Miss Anne Eliza, daughter of Mr. John T. Vaughan, who was visiting her aunt and was at the time upstairs,” Drewry wrote. “Hearing much talking below, she came down to see the meaning of it. She was murdered and her body thrown into the yard, to decay in the hot August sun. Thus perished a lovely young girl of eighteen, the beauty of the county.”

Drewry continued, “Her aunt asked to be allowed to pray. But she prayed too long, and after repeated oaths and threats, the negroes ascended the stairs and murdered her upon her knees, her blood still staining the floor, upon which traces may still be seen.”

Updike said she had seen the dark-brown spot on the floor where Rebecca Vaughan had met her end, but no traces of that murderous act remain; she said someone had stolen the bloodstained floorboards long ago.

Ina Gee and John “Jack” Pittman donated the house to the Southampton County Historical Society in 2004. It was moved from its original location on Barrow Road to Courtland in 2006.

The house is on both the National and State Registers of Historic Places.