Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Laurens, SC, Riot

Laurens, SC, Courthouse viewed from the direction of Tin Pot Alley
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues, as the 1870 Election sparks a major riot on the Square in Laurens.
 
             It was rainy the morning after the election,[1] Wednesday, October 20, 1870. Court was in session, and Wednesday being the great court day, a large group of whites and blacks were on the square as everyone attended court in those days.[2] Some number of blacks had come to "receive their rewards" from Joseph Crews and his cronies for their election work.
            About eleven that morning on the Courthouse Square, a fist fight began near Tin Pot Alley, Joe Crews’ politico-military compound. According to later testimony presented before the Grand Jury, the fight started when a white Republican constable apparently called a citizen Democrat named Johnson "a tallow‑faced son‑of‑a‑
bitch,"[3] and immediately a large crowd of negroes gathered around to watch. "A friend of the citizen, pistol in hand, went up to the scene of the fight, to see fair play, as he said. Seeing that his friend had got the best of the fight," he was putting his gun back in its pocket when it accidentally went off. Immediately the gathered blacks screamed, "They are firing on us!" and they all disappeared into Tin Pot's armory. Soon there were guns pointing out of the upstairs windows into the square, and a volley of twenty rifles was discharged.
            A cry "ran like lightning that the negroes had begun the war."[4] Leland recounts what happened next:
There was quite a sprinkling of men on the square, and yet 'nobody was hurt.' This is easily accounted for. These bold militiamen thought their only agency was in 'cocking the gun and pulling the trigger,' and that the blood‑thirsty bullet would itself seek its victim independently of all aim. The effect of the volley on the scattered crowd was startling enough. A hornet's nest suddenly turned over, and could not have produced more flying to and fro, or more rage.[5]
Then a black man showed his head on a balcony, and a bullet from the square dropped him dead to the ground below. The whites rushed Tin Pot, broke down the door, and the combination was a one‑two punch upon the negroes.[6] The blacks fired through the weather‑boarding as they retreated. Two white men and a little boy were wounded. Two black men were wounded on the retreat‑‑one mortally.[7]
            The gunfire cleared the court which was in session, except for Judge T.O.P. Vernon and his clerk who would not allow a little riotous gunfire assail the dignity of his robe. Erastus Everson entered the Square just as the firing began. It was so hot for him that he fled from the alley into the Courthouse and up the stairs into the courtroom right behind the judge. Judge Vernon was standing and turned and asked Everson what was the matter. Everson told him a terrible riot was going on down in the square.[8] Judge Vernon dismissed court and ordered Sheriff Barney Jones call out the posse comitatus to take possession of the arms at both the Tin Pot and Joseph Crews' militarized home on West Main Street and put them under guard in the sheriff's office. Sheriff Jones said he had already done so. The whites also called for help from their neighbors to the north. According to later testimony by Erastus W. Everson, the conservatives fired strategically-placed cannons to spread word to Spartanburg County that there was trouble in Laurens.[9] 
Everson himself fled the Square and headed down the railroad tracks for Columbia, but four miles out of Laurens near a trestle, he was shot at and arrested by armed white men who accused him of being a constable, but he denied it. They yelled, “Come here you damned galoot, I’ll guard you to the bushes,” a figure of speech meaning they would execute him. They asked where he was from. He lied and said Trenton, New Jersey, thinking that if he told the truth and said Massachusetts, the young men would consider that excuse enough to kill him. 
           They were preparing to execute Everson, and he opened his coat, bore his breast, and said, “You call yourselves South Carolina chivalry to shoot an old soldier this way. I can take it.” Everson in desperation then gave the Masonic hail. At that point, the captain of the group, Captain John W. Little of Laurens, came off his horse, and stood between Everson and his men. Everson was saved finally, even though a man named Spencer tried several more times to shoot him anyway. Eventually he was let go at the Copeland’s house between Laurens and Clinton when the captain, a heavy man, protected him from being shot. 
         While hidden at Copeland’s house, which was a place for riders to stop and eat and pass along news, Everson heard the evening of the riot the news that newly re-elected black representative Wade Perrin had been assassinated at Martin’s Depot. The young riders said, “We have got Wade Perrin.” He also heard Mr. Copeland name twelve who had been shot, two lying in the road within a quarter mile of his house. After being secreted at the Copeland’s house for several days, Everson was escorted by Hugh Farley to Newberry.[10]
            And where was Joe Crews in all this commotion? He was on the square when the riot broke out, and he promptly ran the other way, along with the county election returns, and hid for ten days. The Anderson Intelligencer reported that "It will be observed that the name of Crews is not mentioned as being connected with the fight. He made good his escape, and we have no doubt is safe and sound to‑day."[11] John Leland, headmaster of the Laurensville Female Seminary adds that, "even his infamous coadjutor,' the Hon. Senator Owens,' had made his exit, and shed his perspiration, under a load of wheat straw, in a wagon bound for Greenville." If there had been a white conspiracy to foment a riot as Crews later alleged, the white Conservatives would have made sure he would not have lived to get off the Square.[12]



[1]           Erastus W. Everson Testimony, Ku Klux Report, 330.
[2]           William D. Simpson Testimony, Ku Klux Report, 1306.
[3]           Samuel Austin, foreman, Presentment to the Grand Jury October, 1870. William D. Simpson, who was inside the courthouse examining a witness in another riot case and was not on the square the moment it happened, tells the story just a bit differently: “I was in the courthouse myself, engaged then in a case - I was examining a witness on the stand in a riot case when this thing commenced.  A man named Johnson, who belonged to the white party, and a white man, one of the State constabulary, who belonged to the negro party - I do not know his name - got into a row. ... Johnson had heard that this constable had denounced him as a tallow-faced son-of-a-bitch, and he called upon him to know whether he had said so.  This fellow denied it, and acted pretty boldly for a man under his circumstances.  He asked who had told him so.  Johnson said somebody, and he said he was a damned liar - so I understood - and conducted himself with a good deal of manhood, surrounded as he supposed himself, because at that time there were a good many standing around” Ku Klux Report, 1306.
[4]           Columbia, S.C. Daily Phoenix, October 25, 1870.
[5]           Leland, pp. 58‑59.
[6]           William Watts Ball, A Boy's Recollection of the Red Shirt Campaign of 1876, (Columbia: The State Company, Printers, 1911), 3.
[7]Daily Phoenix, October 25, 1870.
[8] Testimony of Erastus W. Everson, Ku Klux Report, 332.
[9] Testimony of Erastus Everson, Taken by the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States (hereafter Ku Klux Report) (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1872), 1307.
[10] Everson, Ku Klux Report, 333, 340. Everson thought Hugh Farley was the head of the Ku Klux in Laurens.

[11]Anderson Intelligencer, October 27, 1870.
[12]Leland, p. 65, 69.