Saturday, June 06, 2015

Laurens County, SC's most corrupt election

Laurens County Courthouse built 1838
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with an account of the corrupt and violent 1870 election in Laurens County, SC. 

As the 1870 fall election season got fully underway, Laurens County chairman of the Radical Republican Party, Joseph Crews, continued making election speeches across the county, and the more he talked, the more ridiculous his speeches became. 

Crews told black voters that they possessed the State government and must keep it or die, that it was necessary to their liberty and safety that he be elected to the SC House, that he had given them arms and bullets and they must use them, that they had the torch and matches were cheap, that everyone over fifteen years old could vote – he had passed the law himself. 

On top of it all, Crews consolidated his election machine in an old, dilapidated building called Tin Pot Alley opposite the southwest side of the Laurens Courthouse. There, Joe Crews, as both chairman of the county Republicans and head of the Election Commission, assembled in one building the offices of the Trial Justice, the Census Taker, the Deputy U.S. Marshal (without commission), the Election Commission, several black-owned businesses, and 1,000 stand of arms.[1]

Just before the election, in what today is suspicious in the least, Joseph Crews, in his role as head of the County Election Commission, ordered all county precincts closed and the ballot boxes brought to the Laurens Courthouse Square. In this way, he said, he could protect his voters and control who voted. He had four boxes on the four corners of the Square and one in Tin Pot Alley.

No grass was growing under the feet of the white conservatives in Laurens County, either. As the 1870 election approached, Laurens merchants ordered cases of Winchester rifles “which were opened and distributed in the broad light of day” as an obvious threat. Leaders were appointed by the Democratic Club to lead in case of a racial collision.[2]

The day before the election, Monday October 18, 1870, whites began to ride in from the countryside to prepare for election day and a possible confrontation. They met at the hotel on the Laurens Square, the younger men pushing for “a difficulty,” They began to lay plans, choosing to avoid a confrontation with US troops in town, but to focus on the state constabulary. Mounted armed men rode all night, stabled their horses across the street from the hotel saddled, and talked of seizing one of Crews’ ballot boxes on the square. When state assistant assessor of internal revenue and carpetbagger Erastus Everson overheard their conversation from his hotel room downstairs, he sent word to Joseph Crews.[3]    

       By Election Day, Tuesday October 19, 1870, tension was at a fever pitch. At one of the polls, there was a “little falling out between some colored men and white men,” J.C. Raiford[4] and another man, and though pistols were drawn, nothing violent happened.  
       In addition to heading the local Republican party, Joe Crews was himself a candidate for both the South Carolina House and for County Election Commissioner. He “indignantly refused” a bipartisan committee's request to allow “two men of the Reform party be present at the polls.” 
          Freedmen came from all over the county. Crews reportedly had told women to come dressed as men to vote. No one is certain if it happened, but according to John Leland’s account, of the 1,000‑1,200 blacks on the Square all day, 1,900 votes were cast.

 The courthouse square was literally covered with a perfect black sea of colored voters, [and] all access to any of [the boxes] was physically impossible to any but the [Republican] party. . . . In the afternoon, a runner brought the news that the negroes were arming in Crews' premises.[5]

         About ten that morning, two constables at different times came out to the encampment of the company of the 8th US Regulars to ask Colonel Smith for help. They reported being driven away from the polls on the Square. Colonel Smith did not think it wise to bring out his troops at that time. Later on a colored constable came out to the camp saying it appeared there was going to be a fight. He reported that a State constable named Tyler had been driven out of Clinton that morning, and he came to Laurens to Joe Crews’ home to draw up the colored militia there.[6]

            John Leland says that Joseph Crews had a fortified barn at his home with state-issued arms and ammunition for the negro militia. “At Crews' own house, some quarter of a mile distant [on West Main Street], his barn had been converted into a temporary armory, ditches were dug on the inside along the four walls, and loopholes cut very low so that the besieged might stand in the ditch and fire with the least exposure!” [7]
            Erastus Everson, himself a former US Army officer, urged Colonel Smith commanding the unit of 200 of the 8th U.S. Infantry to “go right up there at once and stop this thing or there will be a terrible row right off.”  Colonel Smith left his troops and went alone to Crews’ home on West Main Street. Indeed, he found the black militia was lined up and loaded. And more than that, the white men, many veterans of war, were formed up at the head of the street, facing the militia, ready to charge them. 
             Colonel Smith went to Mr. Tyler who had drawn up the militiamen and asked him what he planned to do. Tyler, a young Ohioan of little discretion, said, “I intend to fight if they charge me.” Smith saw from Tyler’s face that he meant what he said, so the colonel then went to the white men and through his efforts was able to avert a full-scale battle. Smith then accosted the twenty to thirty militiamen who were in line with arms in hand. The black militiamen played off the tension.[8]

            “We only funning,” they protested, “We got through voting, and thought we would have a little fun in drilling for a little while.” The colonel then ordered them to go home if they were finished voting. The Columbia Daily Phoenix reported that Colonel Smith told them “that they were the weaker race, and that if they provoked a collision, they would go under.”[9] There was no more trouble on election day once this confrontation was averted. Colonel Smith with his 200 of the 8th US Infantry regulars, apparently having quelled any problems and with none in view following the election, marched out of Laurens in the wee hours of the next morning.[10]

            Statewide, gubernatorial election returns were 85,071 for incumbent Republican Robert K. Scott of Ohio, former head of the South Carolina Freedman’s Bureau. Reform (Conservative) challenger Richard Carpenter of Kentucky received 51,537 votes. News of Scott’s victory made the militia more threatening.[11] Out of the violent counties of Spartanburg, Union, York, and Laurens, only in Laurens did Reform gubernatorial candidate Carpenter receive more votes than the Democrats did in 1868.[12] Trouble was brewing all over the Upstate. The election results made clear to white conservatives that it would be impossible for whites and blacks to work together as long as the Radical Republicans from the North controlled the state government. Only a full force Democratic takeover of state government would be satisfactory.

[1]           Daily Phoenix, October 25, 1870. 
[2]           Leland, p. 56. 
[3]           Testimony of Erastus W. Everson, Ku Klux Report, 331. 
[4]           J.C. Raiford may have been from Clinton according to Erastus W. Everson. 
[5]           Leland, pp. 56‑57. Simpson’s testimony in the Ku Klux Report, 1304. 
[6]           Testimony of Erastus W. Everson, Ku Klux Report, 332. 
[7]           Leland, p. 55. According to Simkins and Woody, p. 454, in Newberry the militia intimidated the Negroes into voting Republican. A near riot occurred when a Negro voting Reform was beaten by Negroes.  
[8]           Testimony of Erastus W. Everson, Ku Klux Report, 332.  
[9]           Daily Phoenix, October 25, 1870.   
[10]          Testimony of Erastus W. Everson, Ku Klux Report, 330.   
[11]          David Duncan Wallace, South Carolina: A Short History 1520‑1948, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1951), p. 581. In Chester, black militias threatened to burn the town to the ground. In early January 1871, Union County Negro militiamen murdered a white man for refusing to give them the whiskey he was hauling. On January 4, the Ku Klux Klan retaliated, taking two of the black militiamen from the Union jail and lynching them. When word got out that the remaining prisoners charged would be moved to Columbia for safety, five to six hundred Klansmen broke open the Union County jail and lynched the rest of the prisoners.   
[12]          Simkins and Woody, pp. 453‑454.