The Fratricide of Wyoming - John and Henry Pencel

The Fratricide of Wyoming - John and Henry Pencel

We often hear that the Civil War was ‘brother against brother.’

This makes it easy to forget that the Revolutionary War was the same way. More so, perhaps, as the Civil War was determined mostly by the State a person lived in while the Revolutionary War was based on an individual’s political ideals.

The ‘Fratricide of Wyoming’ is an important, if mostly forgotten, tale which illustrates this idea perfectly.

History of the Story

The ‘Fratricide of Wyoming’ is a story whose validity has been questioned.

The tale which follows was passed through folklore for almost 100 years until, in 1909, Oscar Jewell Harvey and Ernest Gray Smith wrote A History of Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. Finding this book was a great revelation for me, as they provide a well-researched version of the Pencel murder and specifically address the reasons the story was questioned and prove that the events did indeed take place. (It can be read here for free.)

This was one of the few pieces I was nervous to write until coming across Harvey/Smith book. Now that I have confirmed its authenticity, I am happy to tell you one of the most shocking stories of the American Revolution.

The Wyoming Massacre

Wyoming County, Pennsylvania was, at the time of the American Revolution, overseen by Connecticut. This piece of land was controversial, as these two States were at odds over who actually had jurisdiction over the area.

What could not be disputed was that the area was viewed as the frontier. In July of 1778, the Revolutionary War came to town with the Battle of Wyoming. Also known as the Wyoming Massacre, a contingent of Loyalists and Native Americans absolutely obliterated an American force.

Of the few Patriots that escaped, a handful made their way to Monocanock Island in the Susquehanna River. This is where the real trouble began.

The Pencel Brothers

Several Loyalist followed the refugees to the island. While the Patriots who fled left their guns behind, the King’s Men still had their weapons.

The Americans hid where they could.

One of these men was quickly found. His name was Henry Pencel.

The Loyalist who found him was John Pencel.

It was quite a predicament for two brothers to find themselves in.

Henry walked out of his hiding spot and dropped to his knees. He begged for mercy and swore allegiance to his sibling.

John called him a ‘damned rebel’ and shot. He stood over the body and hacked him with a hatchet before taking his scalp as a prize.

Apparently, even the Loyalists he was accompanied by were shocked.

The Curse of Henry Pencel

Word of this event quickly spread around the area and John became one of Wyoming County’s greatest villains.

John Pencel’s story has an equally terrifying, if harder to confirm, ending.

After the Revolutionary War concluded, John was forced to flee to Canada (he was clearly not welcome back in Wyoming County).

Legend has it that Pencel was attacked by wolves. He was fortunate to be saved by a group of local Native Americans.

The following year, he was again attacked by wolves. Again, the local tribe saved him.

It seems that John’s story had followed him, and the Native Americans decided that he was cursed for his earlier crime.

Believe it or not, John Pencel was attacked by wolves a third time! On this occasion, the Native Americans decided not to mess with the curse and allowed him to be devoured by the wild animals.

*Please Note: While I have seen today’s subject’s last name spelled more frequently as Pencil, however, I have decided to go with Pencel as it is the favored spelling used by the Harvey/Smith book I trust so much.

If you would like to read about two other brothers who found themselves on different sides of the Revolution, check out these articles:

Issac Low Organizes the Committee of Fifty-One

Nicholas Low Clears His Family’s Name

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Want to read about the often forgot Wyoming County’s part in the American Revolution?

'The Battle of Wyoming’ takes an in-depth look at this much underappreciated (and horrifying) time and place in American history.

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