Sunday, July 26, 2015

Laurens County Conspiracy Arrests

The W.D. Simpson house in Laurens, SC,
as far as J.N. Wright ventured into Laurens
Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with the response to the Laurens Riot of 1870 with the surprise Federal arrests of leading men in Laurens and Clinton at the end of March 1872.

Laurens County folk did not know what new things were in store for the New Year 1872, and it was to be a year to remember. The Laurensville Herald reported the local hunting news on March 1, 1872: 
"WILD CAT - A party of the chase‑loving gentlemen in the lower part of this District, a few days since, captured a well‑grown specimen of this primitive animal, on the plantation of Captain William Young, south fork of Duncan's Creek. More are supposed to be in the vicinity.

By the end of the month in Laurens County, some of these “chase-loving gentlemen” would themselves become the chased. And Joseph Crews would be the hunter. His long awaited revenge for the Laurens Riot and its aftermath was about to be unleashed.
English: Pres. U.S. Grant (between 1870 and 18...
President Ulysses S. Grant
US President Ulysses S. Grant had been granted the right to suspend the writ of habeas corpus under the Enforcement (or Ku Klux Act) of 1871. William Watts Ball says that word quietly passed into Laurens in the month of March that something sinister was at the gate.
One night in the spring of 1872, Lige McMorris, a blacksmith, active Radical, and very black man, came to the Colonel's house on the plantation and told him that United States cavalry were in the village to make arrests and that he was on the list. The Colonel rode away and hunted foxes with his friends in upper Laurens County and in the Greenville mountains the next six weeks, and Lige McMorris would have been beaten with stripes by his own party if it had learned how the Colonel had notice.[1]
What Lige McMorris told Colonel Ball was true. Before it was all over, Joseph Crews had between forty and fifty citizens of Laurens County arrested by the deputy U.S. Marshall John B. Hubbard. In Clinton, a captain with infantry marching into town from Newberry interrupted a meeting forming the Clinton High School Association.
          In Laurens, people were surprised on a quiet Sunday morning, March 31, 1872, when a lieutenant with cavalry closed off the town and "made short work of it." Most of the male citizens of Laurens were arrested and put in the courthouse jail until the Clinton prisoners arrived. Their charge was cloudy. Anything from "conspiracy against the rights of persons of color" to "conspirators against the peace, prosperity and unity of this great government" were used.
            J.N. Wright, who later wrote about  his experiences of being arrested and tried as a Conspirator, attempted to list the prisoners from both Clinton and Laurens. "Am sorry [I] can't give all their names. I remember [from Clinton] Dr. Craig, George Davidson, Sam L. West, Sim Pearson, Henry Suber, and Dr. W.C. Irby. There were two colored men ‑‑ Bluford Meadors and ‑‑‑‑ Johnson.” The Laurens party included Maj. J.A. Leland, Dr. Thomas McCoy, Capt. A.W. Teague, Beverly Potter, W.E. Crisp, Capt. Aleck McCarley, Enoch West, Capt. Robert E. Richardson, B.F. Ballew, W.T. Finley, Samuel Bolt, Watt Allison, John Allison, W.E. Black, James M. Hudgens, Sam Oliver, and J.N. Wright.[2]
              "Men were indicted who were in their graves at the riot," wrote John Leland, principal of the Laurensville Female College. Warrants with charges were made out with a blank for the name. The Laurens Male Academy and all the businesses were closed, mainly because all the proprietors were in jail. "The town had the appearance of having been overcome by some great calamity." J.N. Wright and Colonel Ferguson would not risk being seen on the street. Wright had a foreboding, "I brought my wife to her Mother's . . . [because] I had heard that there was a warrant for me and I thought it best she should be with her father and mother if I was taken." Instead they ventured down as far as Colonel Simpson's home on West Main Street and inquire about news in town. "We got very little information from anyone passing for they would not tarry enough, for they had the appearance of men going somewhere and a short notice to make it in." After two or three days, Wright and Ferguson went down as far "where the stand pipe of the City water plant now is," when U.S. Marshall Leway and four U.S. soldiers caught them. They were arrested and hauled to the county jail. Wright continues:
I had quite an ovation on my way to the jail. Was hailed from every house along the way with words of cheer and comfort. All this was from the ladies as the men that were not in jail, were in the woods or fleeing from the wrath to come, with the exception of the very old men. I had a very warm reception at the jail by the prisoners. They told me from the windows that they were looking for me and had saved a place for me. There wasn't much sleeping done that night. Between the snoring of the Clinton men, and the rats‑‑the biggest I ever saw‑‑and the hard pallets, there was very little chance to sleep. The Laurens Bible Society through Rev. J.R. Riley, pastor of the Presbyterian Church, presented the Laurens prisoners with a Bible to be used while in prison.[3]
         From the county jail, next they were marched to Joe Crews' fortified home. Crews was very sensitive to his social position because he knew people considered him to be the lowest of criminals. "For it is a notorious fact, that he offered exemption from arrest to any who would sign a document certifying to his respectability and social position."[4] Every one of the prisoners refused to sign it.

            The prisoners also secured three attorneys for their defense: W.D. Simpson, Carl Yeager, and W.C. Harris. Meals were sent from the prisoners' homes until they left early on a cold, bleak, drizzling morning to head for trial in Columbia. Not many were present in Laurens to bid them an affectionate farewell because "there were not many left to bid farewell. Major Watts, with the old Civil War Veterans' instinct for taking care of himself, viewed the procession from the top of a pine tree standing near the house built by the late Dr. J.T. Poole."[5]

            It had been rumored that Joseph Crews would make them walk to Columbia, so Laurens citizens provided wagons for the prisoners. The weather was cold, rainy, and the roads were bad. Federal authorities divided the prisoners for transport to Columbia. The Laurens group of prisoners was transported through Union. The Clinton men were conducted through Newberry. The Laurens men ate lunch without stopping and reached the county jail in Union about dark, receiving no supper. 

            The citizens of Union left a big breakfast outside the jail, but the prisoners were allowed to eat only what they could carry with them. J.N. Wright later wrote about the morning, "I took three or four big links of sausage and my partner, B.F. Ballew, got the bread and we made our breakfast." They later arrived in a howling mob in Columbia, and the fifty Laurens County prisoners were placed in a cell designed for twenty. Later some of the prisoners were moved upstairs to tend to a prisoner named Enoch West who was very ill.[6]


[1]Ball, State, p. 139. Thompson, pp. 56‑57, said arrests in the upstate were mostly at night, without warrants, or evidence. Several hundred from Spartanburg, 200 from Union, 195 from York were the heaviest arrests. President Grant announced: "It is believed no innocent person is now held in custody." Now the President may have been correct, but it was not etiquette to judge the prisoners before their trials, no matter how ridiculous the trials would be.
[2]Leland, pp. 91‑93; Jacobs, Literary, p. 20; Wright, p. 2.
[3]Wright, p. 2‑3.
[4]Leland , p. 93.
[5]Wright, pp. 2‑3.
[6]Wright, pp. 4‑5.