Monday, July 06, 2015

Joseph Crews' escape from Laurens, SC

Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with the aftermath and fallout of the Laurens Riot of 1870, including the ignoble escape of the infamous Joe Crews from town.
An antebellum-style handcar in New Bern, NC
In the wake of the Laurens Riot, rumors flew of groups coming to burn Laurens, that Governor Scott was sending a complete regiment of black militia, that the President was going to declare martial law, and the superstitious were pointing to the bright appearance of the aurora borealis every night. Patrols were detailed every night for the protection of the citizens.[1]
            Four days later the contingent of US Regular troops arrived in Laurens in response to the riot under command of Captain Estes who garrisoned his men in the abandoned railroad depot. Then six days after their arrival, on October 30, 1870, Joe Crews appeared before Captain Estes demanding U.S. protection and safe conveyance out of the county. He looked so haggard from ten days on the run that the Captain agreed to help him, and
asked him to come back at five the next morning for departure. Crews arrived well before time and disgusted Captain Estes so much with his constant boasting and threats that Estes decided to put Crews in his place.
            With the railroad abandoned, Captain Estes decided to use an available handcar at his depot headquarters to convey Crews to safety. With two U.S. soldiers on the crank and two armed soldiers standing guard, Captain Estes concealed his fearful passenger by making Crews wrap up in a canvas to represent a side of beef.

           After a few miles down the track toward Clinton, Crews began to complain incessantly, distressed that he would die if forced to breathe that same air under the canvas any longer. Captain Estes reminded Crews to obey orders, or he would leave him to his own safety, but the whimpering continued until Estes cut a slit in the canvas. Once Crews got some fresh air through the canvas opening, he began again to swagger. Captain Estes found, though, that he could silence Crews’ constant mouthing by asking his men did they not see suspicious men watching from a distance.
            While making their way down the track toward Newberry, Captain Estes and his men could not resist having a little fun at Crews’ cowardly expense. One ruse they used was to stop on the tracks and pretend to Crews they were under attack. After fooling their arrogant “side of beef” with fear of attack at one stop, Captain Estes assured Crews that everything was all right, that he and his troops had just stopped to pick blackberries. Whereupon Crews sat up and said, "Damn your blackberries when a man's life is in danger." Captain Estes’ threat to leave him to his fate transformed Crews again into a quarter of beef. On reaching Newberry, he harangued his listeners and boasted "in a strain that ancient Pistol might have envied. . . Such was the exit of this famous ‘Colonel of Militia.’”[2]
            Joseph Crews, now safe in Columbia, introduced a resolution in the House to impeach Seventh Circuit Judge T.O.P. Vernon, a Republican‑elected conservative, in retaliation for his court-ordered confiscation of arms at Crews' home and Tin Pot office. Junius Mobley, run out of Union by the Klan, introduced a bill to disband the police and enforce martial law in Union, Laurens, Spartanburg, Newberry, and York. Governor Scott gave no support to these bills since he no longer needed the militia as much since his reelection.[3]
            A Committee of Three from Laurens (J.W. Simpson, town patriarch; S.R. Todd, oldest and richest merchant; and J.A. Leland, president of the Female College) got an interview about conditions in Laurens with Governor Scott with the help of Captain Estes of the Laurens garrison. Joe Crews, they later discovered, was

shut up in an adjoining chamber, with the door ajar, that he might hear every syllable uttered! The truth of this is found on Joe's own statement, confirmed‑‑for all his statements required confirmation‑‑by the fact that Captain Estes left him closeted with Scott when he returned to conduct the committee to the Governor's mansion. He certainly could testify to the time‑honored adage, that eaves‑droppers never hear any good of themselves.[4]

Joseph Crews took notice. He was not finished with getting his revenge on the citizens of Laurens County.

[1]Leland, p. 75. The aurora is mentioned in the Anderson Intelligencer, October 27, 1870. "The appearance of this electrical phenomenon has been more frequent this fall than at any time within the memory of our steadfast and never‑failing friend, 'the oldest inhabitant.'"
[2] Leland, pp. 67‑ 69
[3]Holt, p. 142.
[4]Leland, pp. 76‑77.