West's Mystery at Catawba



This is one of the sites we'll be visiting on our Absegami Yesteryear tour...for those of you who don't have the book I thought over the next couple of weeks I would post some excerpts on each site so you'll have a background on each site.

"Solitary and broken, almost hidden by scrub oak, the grave marker of George West at Catawba is all that remains of a strange tale of happiness and prosperity, tragedy and mystery, dating from more than a century ago.

It was the late eighteenth century and a prosperous Burlington County merchant moved his family into Gloucester County and settled in a promising community of some size along the Great Egg Harbor River. A beautiful mansion was constructed and furnished in elegant style. Its site commanded a fine view of the river and the ships plying the coastal trade, with Mays Landing their port of call.

Thus did George and Amy West come to Catawba, with little premonition of the terror to strike their home a quarter centurey later. The mystery and suspicion that followed were to drive entire families from the community and turn the village into the ghost town it is today.

The skeleton in the West family closet was to be son Joseph, eldest of their three children. Though of excellent appearance and background, Joseph was to leave his mark as one of the most hated, feared, and notorious characters in South Jersey.

His business dealings as a lawyer and surveyor were ruthless, and his extravagance and arrogance caused difficulties that involved even the President of the United States.

The legend is told that the President (though it is not stated which one) traveled with four fine white horses and an outfitted coach. So did Joseph West...with four mules and a mulatto driver, and West made every effort to be as conspicuous as possible, even to the point of carrying silk bedclothes for his personal use when he stopped at inns and hotels.

The President wrote West, asking him to change his style of travel, but a second note was necessary before he would comply. West kept his promise then by driving three white horses and and a white mule.

Disaster began to strike the West Family. James West, aged nineteen, died on August 24, 1829; then George West, Jr., 23, died just nine days later. George West, Esq. died seven days later on the 10th of September, and Amy West passed on only five days later. Their "illnesses" were of extremely short duration, and, being a family that enjoyed robust health, the curious passing of the prominent family was a strange occurrence....particularly since only son Joseph was to survive.

The passing of his parents and brothers left Joseph West in command of the family estate. But law enforcement techniques and personnel being at an absolute minimum, no investigation followed, and Joseph wrote flowery epitaphs, sealed the graves, closed the mansion, and vanished from the scene.

Neighbors believed the community cursed, and within months Catawba was a ghost village.

Legend has it that prior to Joseph West's departure he rigged a shotgun to the front door of the Catawba family mansion to do away with the first prolwer to enter. Then many years later, finis was written to the story of Catawba when Joseph strangely reappeared, and forgetting his own trap, killed himself upon opening the door to the old homestead."

The mansion is no longer in existence; the fireplace mantle was privately owned as of the book's publication. We will be visiting the mansion site and family burial plot.

Boucher, Jack. Absegami Yesteryear. Atlantic County Historical Society and Laureate Press Inc., 1963. p. 50-51


Apr 4, 2004
Browns Mills, NJ
Here is my theory, for what it is worth. The man was obviously ruthless and mean spirited. Greed drove him to do his family in. What quicker and better means, then by poison. I don't feel there ever was a boobie trap, lazy and incompinate officers or plain old gossip started this one. Obviously, he could no longer live with what he had done, therefore he went back home and killed himself.

Margaret Dunn


That seems to be the thoughts of the villagers of the time, too, as far as the poisoning...hard to imagine such ruthlessness. Boucher does state that the rest of the story was added later, I think you are right about the possibility of plain old gossip.