MIDDLEWAY — The story goes like this.
Adam Livingston was a nearby resident of the town not yet formally incorporated as Smithfield, Va., having moved his family from Pennsylvania four years earlier, when one night, around 1790, Livingston, a devoted and hard-working Lutheran, answers a knock at his door and is greeted by a stranger, middle-aged but otherwise of respectable appearance, whom he takes in as a boarder.
The stranger soon fell ill and entreated Livingston to summon a priest so as to grant him last rites. Livingston, an inveterate anti-Catholic, huffed, “that he knew of no priest in that neighborhood, and if there was one, he should never pass the threshold of his door.”
The stranger soon died cursing the Livingston family and Livingston hired a man named Jacob Foster to keep vigil over the corpse through the night.
You know what comes next, don’t you?
Many are the variations to the more than 200-year-old story of the Wizard Clip — one version describes the stranger as a tailor: how else to explain the precise cuts made to clothing following his death — but there remains one constant: the story is, all these years later remarkably well-documented, according to Peter Fricke, who lives in Middleway and serves on Middleway Conservancy Association.
“It was been documented at the time of all this going on,” Fricke said. “In those days, people who called themselves naturalists were there taking temperatures and recording the various phenomena while they were happening.”
And what was happening was this: on the night the stranger died neither Foster nor Livingston could keep a candle lit in the corpse’s room. According to a 1904 article in the West Virginia Historical Magazine Quarterly, on the night after the man was buried, Livingston was aroused from sleep many times by the sound of horses tramping around his house. A week later his barn burned, his cattle all died, his money disappeared, his crockery was thrown to the floor and broken, and turkeys and chickens he kept soon lost their heads. Nearly every piece of fabric of cloth and leather were found to be cut to pieces.
The phenomena attracted a good deal of attention up and down the valley. A trio of young men from Winchester came to Livingston’s home to “confront the devil himself” but soon were driven out when a large stone was lifted out of the fireplace and flung itself around the room.
An old lady from Martinsburg, thinking to protect her silk cap from being cut up, wrapped it in a handkerchief and put it in her pocket before going into Livingston’s house, but as she was leaving, found the cap cut in narrow ribbons.
All of these things were accompanied by a “persistent clipping sound,” notes a brochure that advertises a walking tour of the town’s five-block historic district, which remains, after all these years a well-preserved example of a post-colonial American crossroads settlement.
Indeed, a number of the houses and buildings that line Queen Street, the town’s main thoroughfare, and its side streets, are plastered log houses and stone dwellings that have survived since the middle of the 18th century. Both the Daniel Fry House, the home of the town’s first postmaster, and the John F. Smith House were built around 1750, as was the earliest portion of Sam Stone’s Tavern, now called Virginia Hall.
“Many of the houses are still occupied by direct descendants of the people who built them,” said Fricke, a onetime owner of the Fry home. Fricke, who came to the United States, from England, moved to Jefferson County in 1990.
Fricke said part of the work of the conservancy is to find a way to make Middleway vital again.
The town was once a hub of 18th century industry — by 1734, both a grist mill and a hemp mill were in place. In 1806, the town had a post office. Growth continued along a main street lined with shops and houses. By 1810 there were two churches, three dry-good stores, an apothecary, a distillery, four shoemakers, five weavers, a wagon maker, a saddlery, a milliner, three blacksmiths, three tailors and a tanner, as well as professional services available from an attorney and a physician.
Middleway, then still called Smithfield, began its long decline in the mid-1800s after failing to grant a patent of land to the incoming Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, which planned a rail line from Harpers Ferry to Winchester that ultimately came through Summit Point. In 2007, the 270-acre printing industry plant owned by Eastman Kodak closed its doors. As recently as 1990, the plant, situated along Turkey Run and which functioned as a woolen mill where U.S. Army blankets were made, employed as many as 300 people.
Fricke said there remain a number of challenges to making the town a viable area for commerce, the most prominent of which remains where to park cars.
“As a historic village one of the problems is you typically build on a corner and are able to use the rest of the lot for a garden or for animals, but there is no room for parking,” Fricke said.
Livingston eventually found relief from the visitations that haunted him, but it took his finding a Catholic priest from Shepherdstown who would perform mass at his home. Some accounts have Livingston converting to Catholicism, whereupon his visitations became suddenly benevolent.
It’s at this point that the incident becomes a kind of conversion narrative. Indeed, Father Joseph M. Finotti, writing in an 1879 collection titled, “The Mystery of the Wizard Clip,” called the occurrence “one of the most wonderful manifestations of God’s benevolence during the struggles of the primitive Church in these United States.”
In 1802, Livingston deeded his 40-acre homesite along the Opequon Creek to the church. Today that property is known as Priest Field Pastoral Center, a Catholic retreat that offers walking trails through the woods and along the creek, water gardens, outdoor decks and patios, as well as individual guest rooms, dormitories and hermitage buildings, two chapels, a dining hall, conference rooms, an exercise facility and a social hall.
Fricke said some people still refer to the village of Middleway by the name that describes that strange moment in its history — Clip.
In 1985, the conservancy mounted signs on a number of buildings in the historic district to mark the event. The placards show a pair of scissors and a crescent moon, reported to be the shape of the cuts made by Livingston’s unwelcome eidolon.
“Something definitely happened,” he said. “When you have those sort of witnesses, it’s very difficult for people to try to pull tricks.”
— Maggie Wolff Peterson contributed to this story.