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Sunday Pastries With the Dead 28
The graves of a legendary Revolutionary War-era Bucks County, PA gang.
Situated just outside the weathered fieldstone fence of an unassuming Quaker cemetery in Bucks County, PA are two headstones positioned back-to-back; each reads An Outlaw. As in life, death has relegated Levi and Abraham Doan to the fringe—but not without warrant. They were members of the most infamous group of robbers and Revolutionary War Loyalists on the East Coast, comprised of brothers Moses, Joseph, Levi, Mahlon, and Aaron Doan and their cousin Abraham. Meet the Doan Outlaws.
The crew—also known as the Plumstead Cowboys—was an absolute menace to the area between 1774 and 1783. Angered by rebellion taxes imposed on their family farm, they spied for the British and sold secrets to the King’s Men. In fact, ringleader Moses—known as the “Eagle Spy”—almost changed the course of the Revolutionary War when he sent Hessian troop Colonel Johann Rahl a letter warning of Washington’s approach to Trenton. Rahl was busy playing cards and slipped it into his pocket; it was found, unopened, on his dead body after the historic battle that marked a turning point for the Patriots in the war. It read, "Washington is coming on you down the river, he will be here afore long. Doan.” Can you imagine a world where Moses’ warning had circumvented Washington’s famous crossing of the Delaware?
The Outlaws were also renowned horse thieves—legend has it they stole as many as 200, sometimes selling them to the Redcoats, sometimes just doing it for sport. They were said to be attractive and charismatic, and they used their natural gifts to every advantage—Joseph once duped a rich Philadelphia family into thinking he was a visiting British dignitary; he stole their silverware and money while staying under their roof, then had the gall to send them a follow-up letter as his alter ego after he split.
One of the many colorful stories I came across during my Doan research is that of Eva Piper, the original proprietress of the Pipersville Inn (now known as the Historic Piper Tavern). 20-year-old Eva was ironing clothes in a back room when—knowing her husband, a Colonel in the PA militia—was out of town, a few members of the Doan Gang arrived to stir up trouble. Legend has it, she emerged with the iron in hand and told them to leave. When they refused, she threw it at one of them and broke his arm, then grabbed her husband’s sword and drove them out the door. I stood outside the inn today and blew a big fat kiss to Eva’s spirit. She was a real one.
The Doans regularly robbed Tory tax collectors (which illuminates their crimes in a bit of a Robin Hood-hued light), but the felony that made the Gang the stuff of legend was their robbery of the Newtown, PA treasury in 1781—they stole £1,307, which is equivalent to about £180,625 today. The money was never recovered, and locals persist in believing that treasure and more (some say $2 million worth) is stashed away in one of the many Bucks County caves that the gang often hid in. By 1783, the state had officially declared them outlaws.
With a £300 reward on each of their heads, tragedy was inevitable. The gang’s downfall began on August 28, 1783, when—knowing authorities were hot on their heels—they hid at a friend’s log cabin on his farm just above Fleecydale Road in Solebury Township.
When the friend’s young son was sent out to pick up flour from a riverfront mill, he let spill that the gang was hiding out at his house and word got to Revolutionary War Colonel William Hart, who was drinking at the nearby Gardenville Tavern.
The Colonel gathered several men, including Major William Kennedy, and then descended upon the cabin; Moses and Kennedy were ultimately killed in the ensuing shootout, though the rest of the gang escaped.
Moses was buried in an unmarked grave in a field near Fisherville, PA (now known as Pipersville). That same year, Mahlon escaped to New York City. In 1784, Joseph fled to Canada (but only after changing his name and pretending to be a teacher in New Jersey for a year—old habits die hard!) In 1787, Aaron was tried and sent out of the country.
Abraham and Levi were arrested and hung on September 24, 1788. They were raised as Quakers, and the church granted them burials with the stipulation that they be laid to rest outside the bounds of the graveyard wall.
I struggled to scale the high wall and get up close and personal with the stones; had I known climbing would’ve been required, I might not have worn super-short cutoffs. I imagine the outlaw ghosts enjoyed their eyeful.
Abraham and Levi’s markers at the time were uninscribed; the headstones that stand there now are more recent replacements (Abraham’s original stone still remains between the two), underscoring their lasting impact on the area. Legend says one should “Never sneak up on a Doan dead or alive,” so if you visit, tread with a heavy step.
Until next Sunday, fellow taphophiles!
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