Thursday, September 21, 2006

Can you solve this mystery?
Decades before I was born, on January 23, 1928, Mary Jane Higgs died and took her family's secret to her grave. She was the last of seven mysterious Higgs women who lived along Love's Branch of Cathey's Creek in Maury County, Tennessee. They are buried in a row in Sheboss Cemetary.
Ever since I was a child, I have been fascinated by these women. Like most local residents, I wonder, "Who were they really?" "Why were they carrying so much gold and why didn't they use it?" "What was their past history?" Were they fleeing from someone?" "Why, when they became such a beloved part of the community, did they remain so close-mouthed about their history?"
I'm convinced that someone has the answers, probably someone from middle Tennessee, east Tennesseee, from Virginia or thereabout. If you know someone from that part of the country, feel free to pass this article on to them in the hope that they might know something. I'd love to finally solve these woman's mystery.
Their story, as far as middle Tennesee is concerned begins in 1856. Late one night, a wagon was heard rumbling along the road that parallels Cathey's Creek (the creek ran through my family's land and was named after them.) Isom Community store owner Mr. Stephen Worley looked out through his store window one foggy morning to see something on the sandbar in front of his house. As the fog lifted, he saw a group of people, who had apparently camped for the night. He went out to see what was going on, and he found two adult women and five girls (one local stories says that the fifth girl was born after the women appeared).
The women told Mr. Stephen Worley that they were on their way to West Tennessee to look for work. Their driver took sick and went to seek aid at a friend's home at the head of Love Branch, leaving them stranded. Worley promptly invited them to come eat breakfast with his family. They would not accept unless he would allow them to do some work for their meal. This upset Mr. Worley's notions of middle Tennessee hospitality, and he could not imagine taking any kind of payment for feeding hungry children! But, the Higgs women stood their ground, and Mr. Worley and all of Cathey's Creek soon learned that the women would accept not hospitality of any kind without earning their own way.
The women were gifted in carding, weaving, spinning, and sewing. Mr. Worley assured them that they could find work in the Cathey's Creek area. He offered them a vacant house on his own land. They settled there. Later on, he bought a small tract of land on which he built two houses, one for each sister and her respective children.
Upon their arrival, the women had $600 in gold with them. They asked Mr. Worley to keep it safe for them. It does not seem as if they ever dipped into this gold, but worked in exchange for everything. I don't know what happened to the gold.
During the Civil War, the women returned the favor. They sewed the Worleys' savings into pockets they had made in some special undergarments they had designed and sewed. They "wore" Mr. Worley's money all through the war, thus keeping it safe from the many soldiers and thieves who were raiding that part of the country looking for money, food, and supplies. Can you imagine walking around with all of that weighting your steps and fearing being searched by Union or soldiers or worse, outlaws? When the war ended, Mr. Worley had no worries that these women had stolen any of his money. But, they insisted on bringing the petticoats to Mr Worley and ripping open the pockets so that he could count the money in
front of him. Knowing how easily embarrassed the men of that area and that era could be, I wonder if he nearly fainted at this!
The women were very religious, and they were known for their honesty. They were always willing to help with the sick, to sit up all night with the newly dead (a local custom), and to give aid in anyway they could. They were always willing to help others, but, again, if someone tried to help them, they always did something in return. Though they were fiercely independnent, they were surprisingly gentle. They were spotless housekeepers, and each woman had her own cup and plate. None of the younger five women ever married.
They were somewhat eccentric. Whenever they went out, even if it was only two of them, they walked single file, like ducks or in what was then a native American tradition. They were said to dress "oddly", though I don't know what older people meant by that.
Though Mary Jane took the family secret with her into death, she did reveal a few facts. The two mothers of the five girls were sisters from a family whose surname was Circle. The sisters had married brothers named Higgs.
The sisters apparently came to central middle Tennessee directly from the eastern edge of Middle Tennessee. Some local stories say that they may have had connections to Virginia or to what later became West Virginia.
Local store records show that the women occasionally bought little items needed for their spinning and weaving work. It's interesting to me that they were still finding work doing this long after homespun had gone out of fashion.
No one ever learned what happened to the two Higgs men. Mary Jane's birth certificate is on file in the county courthouse, which leads me to believe that she was, indeed, born after the sisters arrived in Middle Tennessee. The certificate lists her father as being unknown. The oldest adult sister listed her occupation as farmer in a census. In a census, when Mary Jane was 79 years old, she listed her occupation as "farmer".
My grandfather gave Mary Jane a lift home in his buggy or wagon not long before she died, but she did not reveal their secrets to him.


Rowan said...

Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm glad I returned the favour as this is a fascinating story, it would by wonderful if someone was able to solve the mystery. You need a family historian who could maybe trace marriages or births for the two women. I'd love to know more about them.

Elizabeth said...

Thanks, Rowan.

I am hoping to find someone who is doing genealogy on the Circle/Higgs clan and could provide some help. I've wanted to know who these women were ever since I was a child. Several older relatives told me all they knew about the stories that had been passed down about them. My parents showed me where their graves are. There was an article about the msytery in a local newspaper one time, but the reporter didn't solve the mystery, either.


plainandsimple said...

I too really enjoyed this story Elizabeth. It would be so nice if you could solve your mystery. Keep us posted!

Stephen said...

Well,These Higgs/Circles may have been fleeing a cult for all we know.
To let you know how they were "Circles" was that in their bible was written inside the name.
I have searched and dug around their house, and not that. I know many things about the Higgs.

Elizabeth said...

Hi Stephen,

Do you live in the area still?

BethK said...

Hello Elizabeth, not sure if you will receive this comment since this is such an old post, but my name is Elizabeth (Beth) Worley Kickirillo. I am the great-great granddaughter of Stephen Worley, and grew up in the Cathey's Creek community. I was searching online for family history information and this blog post popped up! Needless to say, I have heard the story of the Higgs Women all my life. If you do get this message, I would love to talk with you further about it if you are still interested.

Beth Kickirillo

S.E.A.M. said...

Hi Beth,

I tried to email you in return, but didn't see an email address in your reply.

I'd love to chat about the history of the area. I knew a relative of yours, Stephen Alonzo Worley, who went to our church in Atlanta. Mother knew him and his kin from Cathey's Creek/Isom.

S.E.A.M. said...


I commented while signed into another account, so wasn't sure that you would recognize that it is Elizabeth, with the same email.