Thursday, July 16, 2015

Legal Fallout from the Laurens, SC, Riot

Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues, with a description of the legal fallout in the wake of the Laurens, SC, Riot of 1870Racial and political tensions in post-War South Carolina continued to boil over in the Upstate. The first round of arrests and trials began. Here is the story:

The fallout came quickly from the Laurens and Clinton Riots and the successive dark and violent days of 1870. In January 1871, several Laurens and Clinton men were arrested by the State Constabulary and indicted under the Enforcement Acts. 

They were hauled before the federal Grand Jury in Columbia. By blackmailing the wealthiest in the county, "it was thought that these gentlemen, with the prospect of the penitentiary immediately before them, would 'pay out' handsomely."


Those arrested were Laurens physician and Intendant, Dr. D.A. Richardson, his son Turner Richardson, Sheriff Barney Smith Jones (D) of Clinton, Colonel G.F. Mosely of Laurens, "landlord of the only hotel in the place;" prominent Laurens attorney Colonel R.P. Todd, Clerk of Court, Captain R.E. Richardson, apothecary and druggist S.D. Garlington, Captain Hugh S. Farley, whom carpetbagger Erastus Everson thought to be head of the local Klan; and George Copeland, the wealthiest merchant in Clinton. 

            Their blackmail failed, as the men refused to play the game. Laurens physician D.A. Richardson's first grand jury verdict, for example, was returned no bill, "but another warrant was ready for his arrest before he could leave the courtroom." All of them were re-arrested. 

The prisoners applied to Judge T.O.P. Vernon for a writ of habeas corpus, but his own trial of impeachment at Joe Crews’ instigation was in the process of being voted on in the affirmative during that time, making his authority questionable. 

A $5,000 bail was announced for the prisoners, and the Columbia citizens guaranteed it. Each of the Laurens County men left Columbia a different way on horseback to avoid meeting new warrants at the train station. The bond was never called for.[1]

            Of course, the men were all accused of being part of a secret white supremacist society called the Ku Klux Klan. Klan activities in Upstate South Carolina were generally sporadic and unorganized. The only official county organizations were in York and Spartanburg. Union was active as well, but not officially. 

The 1871 trials in which these Laurens and Clinton men were involved, along with President Ulysses S. Grant’s signing of the Ku Klux Acts and stationing federal troops and martial law in nine South Carolina counties all worked together to drive the organized Klan out of existence. The Ku Klux Acts gave the United States courts jurisdiction in KKK cases, authorized the President to use military force to suppress KKK disorders and to suspend the writ of habeas corpus whenever he deemed necessary.

            John Leland of the Laurensville Female College writes, he says, without fear of equivocation "that there never has been a Ku‑Klux organization in the county of Laurens, neither before, during, nor since the riot of 1870." J.N. Wright was exasperated at the "strong effort [there] had been made to establish the fact of a K.K.K. in our county." Thompson says, "It is stated on reliable authority that the KK Klan never operated in Laurens County." 

Leland attests that the only contact he ever had with the Ku Klux was in the common jail during the conspiracy trials. He adds, “This fact was so notorious, that when certain citizens of this county were brought to trial in the United States Circuit Court, on a charge of 'conspiracy an murder,' no effort was made on the part of the prosecution to prove the existence of a single Ku Klux Klan. They had an inexhaustible number of false witnesses, ready to establish any fact, on oath, for a consideration; but even Crews himself was ashamed of this lie."[2]

            In the fall of 1871, a specter of gloom was cast over the whole of Laurens County. Dr. Jacobs lamented Clinton's condition. Her population had fallen to 176. "Her streets are deserted, the stores have no customers. Families speak of moving away. I feel convinced that all or nearly all of those I love the best will be gone by another year."[3]

            A bi‑partisan five member Congressional Committee came to the Upstate in late 1871 to investigate the politico‑racial situation.[4] Because of the apprehension in Laurens, a committee was appointed to go to Washington to explain the true state of affairs to President Grant and ask that Laurens "be excepted from the list of the proscribed counties." 

The Hon. W.D. Simpson, chairman, with R.S. Goodgion and J.A. Leland were the members who got the interview through US Senator Robertson. President Grant asked no questions but thanked them, advising that they "get before the Committee of Congress" and "politely bowed us out to make room for others."[5]

            On October 17, 1871, just a few days shy of a year after the Laurens and Clinton Riots, President Grant suspended the writ of habeas corpus in nine counties including Laurens in order to suppress rebellion. Ironically, these nine counties were the region of Scott's crucial gubernatorial votes where the militia had made his election sure in 1870.[6] 

Consequently, early in 1872, "those who knew themselves to be obnoxious to [Joseph] Crews & Co. suddenly retired to parts unknown." The first trial had shown them that no one was safe, and that there was no end to the witnesses who would swear to anything for money.”[7]


[1]Leland, pp. 80‑81; Wright, p. 1.
[2]"And martial law was to be proclaimed in certain counties of South Carolina, including Laurens, of course."Leland, p. 56, 86; Simkins and Woody, pp. 457‑464. Leland, p. 56.
[3]Jacobs, Life, p. 90.
[4]Wright, p. 2.
[5]Leland, pp. 88‑89.
[6]Wallace, p. 582; Thompson, pp. 55‑56. Included counties were Spartanburg, York, Union, Laurens, Chester, Newberry, and Chesterfield. James P. Shenton, The Reconstruction 1865‑1877, (New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1963), pp. 196‑209, gives information about Ku Klux trials in other counties, and the term for KKK confession which is to puke.
[7]Leland, p. 90. Leland continues, p. 79: "The previous course of the [Republican] party, all over the State, had made it notorious that they care nothing for these outrages and murders, in themselves considered, particularly when they were confined to the colored race; but when they could be made to subserve their party purposes, they could raise a howl which would reach from the Atlantic to the Pacific, from the Lakes to the Gulf. How else can we account for the fact . . . that the high crimes of conspiracy and murder alleged to have been perpetrated [in the Upstate] in the Fall of 1870 were ignored and unnoticed by the constituted authorities, till the Spring of 1872?"