Two hundred and forty years ago, a British general lay dying on the floor of a Germantown home where present-day Queen Lane intersects with Germantown Avenue. Owned by the wine merchant John Wister, the stone and oak structure had been occupied by Brig. Gen. James Agnew just days before the Battle of Germantown broke out Oct. 4, 1777.
Arriving amid the chaos unfolding in the streets as colonial forces under Gen. George Washington advanced under a thick fog upon the British forces garrisoned in the neighborhood, Agnew was shot and hauled back to his commandeered lodgings. He bled to death within 15 minutes of sustaining his injuries as musket fire rang out through the murky haze outside the house.
The British government commissioned a stone grave marker in 1903 commemorating Agnew, who is buried in the DeBenneville family cemetery in West Oak Lane. While the stone reads requiescat in pace, some contend that the ghost of the slain general continues to lurk in the home where he perished.
Part of the evidence for this supernatural claim is a stain resulting from Agnew’s blood that to this day is visible on the home’s parlor floorboards. Purportedly, if visitors stand above the stain on Oct. 4 — the date of Agnew’s death — they can hear the general’s moans. Whatever would keep Agnew from eternal peace is uncertain, though there has been historical debate about his death, a point of contention that may bother the specter of a man of such high standing.
Throughout the 19th century, U.S. historians regularly attributed the deaths of important British officers to specific individuals. These assertions often fell well outside the standards of today’s historical writing.
Hans P. Boyer — a Germantown resident who did not belong to either the colonial army or allied militias — received credit for killing Agnew in books published during the antebellum period. However, other sources call Boyer “half-witted,” arguing that he was a mere “miserable, boasting fellow” who used his grand claim to solicit greater generosity from the Germantown Almshouse.
A more likely account of Agnew’s death emerges from a letter that his servant Alexander Andrew wrote to the general’s widow on March 8, 1778, claiming that the enemy was about “500 yards in front” when his master was fatally shot. Agnew “received a whole volley from the enemy,” Andrew writes, “The fatal ball entered the small of his back, near the back seam of his coat, right side, and came out a little below his left breast. Another ball went through and through his right hand.”
The general died from a hail of fire shot from inaccurate muskets discharged from a distance. Ascribing his death to the work of one man is a difficult task, indeed. Could Agnew’s ghost be in search of his killer’s true identity? Perhaps ghost hunters will figure out the mystery.
Outside of this grim tale, John Wister’s home possesses a rich history. Built by the wealthy merchant in 1744, the house remained in the family until the 1950s. The oldest known ginkgo tree in the United States rises above the building.
Wister’s granddaughter Sally kept a diary while living at the house during the Revolutionary War, providing historians with a teenager’s perspective of the time period. Later, her brother Charles Jones Wister renamed the house Grumblethorpe following his decision to live on the property year-round. Throughout his life, Charles Wister built scientific instruments and kept close tabs on meteorological phenomena in the Philadelphia area. His thorough and well-preserved temperature readings still serve as benchmarks for comparing present-day weather with the past.
Today, visitors can enjoy the reflective environment of Grumblethorpe’s restored garden while learning about this fascinating family from the nation’s early years. During this macabre anniversary in this most frightening month, however, Agnew’s unhappy ghost supersedes the Wister family as the home’s dominant presence.
Patrick Glennon is the communications officer for the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. firstname.lastname@example.org