Mark Powell’s Palmetto Past & Present: The Fibbing Minister And The Husband-Killing Wife

Edgefield South Carolina’s Infamous “Devil In Petticoats”

Getting your Trinity Audio player ready...

It doesn’t speak well of us, yet it’s true nonetheless. People are downright fascinated by a human being taking a fellow human being’s life. Perhaps that’s because, as Don Henley reminded us in his timeless song Dirty Laundry, “It’s interesting when people die.”

Want proof? Look no further than the international fascination with 2021’s ‘Murdaugh Murders.’

South Carolina is (obviously) no stranger to this grisly business. We’ve seen our share of homicides in our 353-year history. In fact, folks have been intrigued by them from the very beginning.

Take the infamous killer Becky Cotton (a.k.a. “The Devil in Petticoats”).

Never heard of her? It’s not surprising. She isn’t well known outside the Edgefield area. Yet her tale holds the stuff that would have made the cover of True Crime magazine today.

We begin with a cautionary disclaimer of sorts: Becky Cotton’s story was made popular by a sensational early-nineteenth century bestseller. Who could resist a book with the title: “The Bad’s Wife’s Looking Glass, Or God’s Revenge Against Cruelty To Husbands.”

The problem is, this book was written by Mason Locke Weems. You may know him as “Parson Weems.” A combination of ordained minister and book peddler, for a man of the cloth Weems seems to have had a casual relationship with the “Thou shalt not bear false witness” part of the Ten Commandments. He liked to take a good thing and make it better by enhancing the truth. For example, in his famed Life of Washington he gave America the inspiring tale of young George cutting down the cherry tree and then confessing, “I cannot tell a lie,” when confronted about it.

Historians have known for more than 150 years that this story was pure hokum – but it is nonetheless cemented in Washingtonian legend.



While Weems’ writings must be taken with a bag of Morton’s Salt, where there’s so much smoke – there’s usually some fire. And something fishy does seem to have happened in western South Carolina in the very early 1800s. Listen to Becky Cotton’s story and decide for yourself …

Cotton began her life around 1765 as Rebecca Kennedy. After her mother died when she was very young, Becky and her father – James Kennedy – grew very close. Around 1785, she married John Cotton and the two set up house. So far, so good.

Things wouldn’t stay that way for long, though …

Not long thereafter, Becky’s dear old dad got into a heated dispute with three of his neighbors – and fled to her home in the hopes of hiding out until things calmed down. The trio tracked him to the residence, though. One night, they burst into the home and murdered Becky’s father – shooting him dead in front of Becky and John.

This savage slaying was just the beginning of the story. To Becky’s twisted thinking, John had not done enough to protect her dear darling daddy. So from that moment on, she was consumed by one thought: Revenge.

One night around 1794, Becky crept quietly up the loft stairs of her and John’s home, slipped into his bedroom and tip-toed across the wooden floor toward his bed. From behind her back she produced an axe she had lifted earlier that day from the woodpile – and proceeded to split his head wide open with it.

(Click to View)

Actress Ashley Hatcher portrays Becky Cotton in a 2018 production of The Devil in Petticoats (Edgefield County Historical Society)

Enlisting the help of her brother, David Kennedy, John’s body was dragged to their potato shed – at which point she made a beeline out of town. Captured at Kings Mountain and put on trial for murder, Becky supposedly batted her beautiful blue eyes, unleashed the waterworks and charmed the all-male jury – which voted to acquit her. She even sealed the deal by marrying a juror named Major Ellis. A nasty legal fight ensued with John’s father over control of his estate – with Becky emerging victorious in that case, as well.

At this point, the story devolves into the murky field of legend. The beautiful Becky may — or may not — have remarried. Several times. She may — or may not — have lost these spouses under circumstances that were suspicious at best. One alleged spouse, Erasmus Smith, took a mattress needle to the heart as he snoozed by the fireside. Another alleged husband, Joshua Terry, was said to have been poisoned by nightshade berries. These men’s bodies were purportedly wrapped in bricks and thrown into Beaverdam Creek just south of Edgefield (the current site of Slade Lake).

Becky’s saga concludes by veering back into semi-credibility. She was supposedly flirting with a young gentleman on the courthouse steps in Edgefield on May 5, 1807 when her brother (a different one than the one who had helped her dispose of her first husband’s corpse) saw her, recognized her and feared she was luring yet another unsuspecting man to his doom.

So he did what he thought best: He picked up the nearest available rock and bashed in the side of her head with it in broad daylight. Becky died right there on the steps of the courthouse where she had enjoyed her most infamous success.

Her brother, Stephen Kennedy, was never charged. He is said to have packed up his family – including a few of Becky’s own children – and headed as far west as fast as he could go. His grave was eventually located in Mississippi a few years back, lending some credence to the tale. Becky Cotton’s grave has never been found.

Three years after Becky’s murder, in 1810, Parson Weems poured on the purple prose and memorialized the matter thusly: “Well, the Lord have mercy upon old Edgefield! For sure it must be Pandemonium itself, a very district of devils!”

If you have forty bucks burning a hole in your pocket, Weems’ book is available for purchase online. Factual, it ain’t. But it’s far from boring, too. Just as the good reverend intended.



Mark Powell (Provided)

J. Mark Powell is an award-winning former TV journalist, government communications veteran, and a political consultant. He is also an author and an avid Civil War enthusiast. Got a tip or a story idea for Mark? Email him at



Got something you’d like to say in response to one of our articles? Or an issue you’d like to address proactively? We have an open microphone policy! Submit your letter to the editor (or guest column) via email HERE. Got a tip for a story? CLICK HERE. Got a technical question or a glitch to report? CLICK HERE.


Get our newsletter by clicking here …


Related posts


The Post And Courier Got Hacked …

Will Folks

Charleston VA Investigating Employee’s Trump Assassination Attempt Comments

Dylan Nolan

Letter: Is South Carolina Actually Getting Hotter?


Leave a Comment