Friday, June 26, 2015

Days of Terror in Laurens County, SC

Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues, with a description of the days of terror in the wake of the Laurens, SC, Riot of 1870.

The Laurens Riot took place October 20, 1870, the day after the general election, and racial and political tensions in post-War South Carolina were bound to boil over somewhere. The account of the Laurens Riot is found here, but the aftermath was even darker. Here is the story:

By nightfall the whole thing seemed to be over, that is until riders from surrounding counties and outlying areas came into Laurens and into the barrooms in Clinton,[1] having heard the rumors flying of race war.
However, Leland says, “as to the number of these armed men thus assembled, there has been much exaggeration. It can be safely asserted that no time after the row, were there more than three hundred nonresidents in the town, at one and the same time. Most of these, as soon as they saw that their services were not needed, quietly turned their horses' heads the way they had come.[2] Nevertheless, Laurens resident J.N. Wright and carpetbagger Erastus W. Everson claim that by eleven o'clock that evening there were 4,000‑5,000 mounted men all around town from the surrounding area.[3] The whites tore Joe Crews' office on the courthouse square to pieces.
            "Volney Powell, a handsome young white carpetbagger constable from Ohio, who had been elected Probate Judge the day before, and Bill Riley (Reily), a prominent negro Republican, set out for Newberry in the direction taken by a company of United States regulars" who had left Laurens at four that morning. They intended to bring them back to Laurens to enforce the peace. Armed men caught Powell and Riley three miles from Laurens at Milam's (or Milton's) trestle and
buckshot them to death.
            Two Negroes were found shot to death in the Rocky Springs community. Black state representative Wade Perrin (R), re-elected the day before to the SC House, was indeed assassinated below Martin's Depot (Joanna) near the railroad and county line. His body lay in the road a day later as many Republicans fled toward Columbia. On his way to Newberry, Everson saw Rep. Wade Perrin’s body in the road with his pockets turned out. They stopped in at Dr. Francis’ medical practice and asked him to call the coroner.[4]
            Meanwhile in Laurens the two thousand or more mounted men, in search of a good time since they had ridden so far, turned the riot "into a negro chase." "By every highway approaching the village they could be heard riding and yelling all night long. . . It was two or three days before they [the negroes] began to steal out of the woods and swamps."[5]Four miles west of Laurens a man considered an obnoxious negro was taken from a cabin where he had sought refuge and was "so maltreated that he died a few days later. The body of another negro was found, stark and stiff, on the side of the public road [near Clinton], with no indication to show the manner of his death."[6] The Laurens citizens were outraged at the armed men from the other counties intent on punishing the blacks. Leland calls them a "handful of ruffians," and insists "there is no evidence that they even belonged to the county."[7]

[1]Leland, p. 61.
[2]Leland, p. 62.
[3]J.N. Wright, "Some Recollections of 1870, 1871, and 1872," (Unpublished, June 21, 1918), p. 2. "Colonel T.W. Woodward of Fairfield who was a terror to the ruling powers, kept his club of 100 mounted men in their saddles at Winnsboro waiting to see if they would be needed.", Everson Testimony, Ku Klux Report, 346.
[4] Ku Klux Report, 330-349; 1307.
[5]Ball, A Boy's, p. 4.
[6]Jacobs, Life, pp. 88‑89; Leland, pp. 62‑ 63; Ball, A Boy's, pp. 3‑4; Daily Phoenix, October 25, 1870. The Phoenix estimates the mounties at 2,000 to 2,500 men. Leland tells of speculation that the great number of murders occurring on the highway next to the railroad may have been done by one party going home to Newberry County, and they may have been searching for Crews who would have fled in the direction of his friends in Columbia.
[7]Leland, pp. 62‑63. He continues: "And even if they did [belong to the county], what county is there, north, south, east or west, which cannot furnish rowdies enough to perpetrate all that was done in Laurens, in a time, too, of excitement the most intense?"