On a cold February day in 1860, a child was born in a cabin owned by the widow, Catherine Tapp. The baby girl was named Eliza Frances, but was known to her family and all those in Spotsylvania County as Phenie Tapp. The situation of the child’s birth – and her later escapades as an adult – looks like it was taken straight out of a soap opera script.
Her father was Thomas Richard Pulliam (also known as Tom Dick), the grandson of Thomas and Eliza Pulliam, who were tenant farmers and slaveowners on a neighboring property to the Tapps. Sarah Tapp was one of five siblings born to Catherine on the farm they leased from J. Horace Lacy. But Eliza and Catherine would become grandmothers together, linking the families by a scandalous affair between their children. Sarah pressured the reluctant Thomas into taking responsibility for Phenie, seeing as he refused to marry and make an honest woman of her. In June of 1860, he agreed to pay ten dollars a year to support Phenie and her mother until the child turned sixteen. His antics didn’t stop there when he had an affair with the wife of Oscar Mastin, the former Sarah Faulconer. Oscar found out, divorced her, and then Tom and Sarah were married in 1869, but the son they had together was already a year old. Tom’s exploits caught up with him in January of 1876 when he was murdered in his sleep by Tom Sutherlin over an old grudge.
Meanwhile, Phenie picked a bad time to be born in central Virginia. The first four years of her life would be marked by war, with the armies coming and going all around the Wilderness where she lived. Her father and uncles would enlist in Virginia cavalry regiments, and one would die of illness in the summer of 1863. The war for the Tapps would all climax on May 6th, 1864. Early that morning, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps chased A.P. Hill’s Confederate’s out of their earthworks. As the gray coats raced to the west and through the Widow Tapp Field, concerned soldiers warned the Tapp family of the incoming wave of blue. Phenie and her family escaped and she would later tell an interviewer that “the bullets struck the dirt around them, kicking up dust like the first drops of a coming storm.”
The Tapps would make it safely out of the Wilderness and away from danger. Their cabin, too, remained standing after the war. But the drama didn’t end for Phenie. After her grandmother died in 1876, she continued to live with her unmarried aunt Margaret. In 1881, Phenie gave birth to a daughter she named Madosha, father unknown. However, it is known that she was intimate friends with Isaac Jones until she met John Stanford, a sewing machine repairer, and went off with him to Washington D.C. in 1896. There, they were married, even though John was already married to his wife of 30 years, Isabella. He had left her in Fauquier County years before running off with Phenie and they would later agree to a divorce on the grounds of abandonment.
The juicy part of the story comes when Phenie and John return from Washington D.C. and run into Isaac at the home of Oscar Almond near Locust Grove. John had gone off to take care of some business with Constable Morris, while Phenie waited for him at Mr. Almond’s house. Isaac shows up to talk, but when Phenie’s new flame comes back to fetch her, an altercation ensued. By the end, Isaac was shot in the arm and John was badly brutalized with a hoe (the farming kind). The Constable and Phenie broke up the fight, but their names would be immortalized in the Fredericksburg Daily Star. Charles Henry Robey published this drama on March 26th, 1896. (for the full story, please see the reference below)
This incident didn’t convince Phenie to try to live quietly. In 1902, she would make headlines again. This time, for having relations and living with a black man by the name of Andrew Jackson Banks. He was working as a “hired hand” for the Tapps. The two were acquitted of the “offense” and they continued to live together for the next forty years. He would also become her partner in crime during the Prohibition when they distilled and sold moonshine. They were never charged with the crime of violating the Volstead Act.
In 1937, National Park Service historian Ralph Happel interviewed Phenie at her longtime home in the Wilderness and she told about what she remembered during and after the war as a child. On May 31st, 1944, at the age of 84, Eliza Frances Tapp passed away at the home of Calvin Macrae Jones, the son of Isaac Jones. In 1950, the Tapp property was sold to the National Park Service by her second cousin, Elsie Davenport. By 1972, the whole of Widow Tapp Field was acquired for battlefield preservation. Nothing exists of the cabin Phenie was born in, but what took place in the Wilderness would never be forgotten.
Reference for further reading about Phenie Tapp