Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Laurens and Clinton Conspiracy Trials

Our series on Laurens County, SC, during Reconstruction continues with the 1872 Conspiracy trials in response to the Laurens Riot of 1870. 
The prisoners from Laurens and Clinton lived quite a hard life in the Columbia jail. They were attended by the Presbyterians of Columbia, "and representatives from almost every class of the old regime kept dropping in upon us." Soon they were hailed as moral heroes instead of alleged Ku Klux prisoners. In four weeks in prison, they never had the prison food. Instead, they were brought food from the outside. The prisoners ate better than boarders in "any hotel in Columbia."[1] 

On their first Sunday in prison, the local Columbia ladies brought "turkey and roast pork with all the necessary trimmings, rice, chicken salad, tea and coffee, etc." Dr. William Swan Plumer brought "the largest tin bucket in his hand with 'soup for the prisoners.'" Colonel John S. Preston sent them "a ten gallon keg of beer, which was opened and enjoyed by all."[2] 
           There was a continuous stream of visitors, among them many ministers. They received two sermons on Sunday and nightly devotions from local pastors,
one of them the prominent Presbyterian theologian Dr. Joseph Ruggles Wilson, father of future U.S. President Woodrow Wilson. As a result of the Christian devotional visits to the prison, “a gentleman of high standing, who, before his imprisonment, seldom attended church, and was rather sceptical in his views, [finally repented and found salvation in Christ Jesus.] A few weeks after his liberation, he appeared before the session of the Presbyterian Church of Laurens on a profession of faith, and has since become a Ruling Elder and one of the pillars of the church.”[3]

            The prisoners' jailor once lived in Laurens and worked for R.P. Todd. "He knew most of us personally," wrote J.N. Wright, and he offered to take a few of them out at night "for an airing." "We slipped out when the jail had become quiet‑‑ten or eleven o'clock P.M.‑‑and under the jailor's escort, we took in the city. He proposed to take us to the theater, hotel, or anywhere else we wanted to go." They steered clear of the College campus since J.N. Wright had been there in 1868 and might be recognized. They also avoided coming near the State Penitentiary since it was so ominous to their situation.[4]
            After a week in jail, the prisoners were marched down Main Street past the jeers of the base people on the street, to the office of U.S. Commissioner Albert M. Boozer, who oversaw the circuit and district courts in the federal Military District of South Carolina. John Leland describes the scene. "The room . . . was well supplied with chairs, but these were all filled by greasy wenches, who sat there to enjoy the spectacle of white men brought to grief."[5] It was April 8th, and Commissioner Boozer was present as
 a mere tool of Joe Crews, without whose instructions he says nothing in these cases. Joe was sitting by his side and looking more like a culprit than any of those before him. Asked when they were ready for a trial, [John] Leland the spokesman said, "just now, and just here as we are anxious to learn what has brought us from our homes at this busy season to the jail in Columbia." After a whisper from Joe, Boozer replied, "but the government is not ready, and can't be for a week or more." With this encouraging information we were marched back in the same order, having contributed something to the fees of these officials, Marshalls and Commissioner. No other motive could be seen for the parade.[6]
Witnesses could be had to say anything at a price, and their testimonies made the trials the kangaroos they were. One colored man who had sought and found shelter during the aftermath of the Laurens and Clinton riots at the home of Dr. William Plumer Jacobs, pastor of the Clinton Presbyterian Church, testified that he himself heard Jacobs cuss the black race up and down and sent some mounted whites to kill [Black SC General Assemblyman] Wade Perrin at Martin's Depot. Thankfully, the court did not receive the testimony against the Presbyterian pastor and future founder of Thornwell Orphanage, and Presbyterian College.[7]
Some of the evidence was marvelous. For instance, one witness swore that he saw Maj. Leland standing at the public well on the South side of the Court House (near where the Confederate monument now is) kill a certain man in Robertson's delivery stable. Col. [William Dunlap] Simpson, our Attorney, made a diagram of the grounds and showed that the bullet would have to go under or over or through the wooden building that stood where the Simmons Building now stands, or at almost a right angle, take the alley between that building and the next one to it, and after passing through the alley, make another right angle to the left to reach the stable. The evidence was accepted. Colonel Simpson appealed to the Commissioner to strike out the evidence as it was utterly impossible for that to be done, and when the commissioner said he would accept the evidence, he gathered up his papers and hat, and turning to the prisoners said if that kind of evidence was to be allowed against us, he could do nothing for us at this state of the case and may the Lord help us. The Commissioner threatened to have him arrested for contempt of court. He went to his hotel and came to see us after we got back to the jail.[8]
 After Simpson walked out of the hearing, a number of the prisoners were allowed to stay at a hotel close to the jail. Here Dr. Jacobs, pastor of the Clinton Presbyterian Church, preached to them of whom "a score . . . were members of my own church."[9]
One of the Clinton prisoners, Mark ‑‑‑, an ignorant foreigner who had come to Clinton after the riot, but just in time to be arrested, was placed in solitary confinement and restricted to bread and water. Marshal Hubbard starved him into swearing some statements against the Clinton prisoners which Mark would not divulge. At 4:00 on April 24, all eighteen were handcuffed and put on the train to the Charleston court.[10]
Most all the Laurens prisoners were released May 10 or 12, 1872, under $3,000 to $5,000 bond for a hearing in October.
            Some were transferred to Charleston: Leland, McCarley, R.R. Blakely, Cimeon Pearson, "and I think A.W. Teague." McCarley and Pearson were handcuffed together "but owing to the size of the Captain's wrist, the handcuff would not fasten. He told the U.S. Marshal that he “would hold it in his hand and would see that Pearson would not get away." Leland wrote his old friend, Stephen J. Field, a former classmate at Williams College, Massachusetts, then Associate Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, and gave him "a long Illiad of woes, beginning with my arrest, and ending with the scene in the courthouse. This letter secured the release of all of us a very short time afterwards."[11]
            Wright did not know if the letter to Fields did any good or whether they had "become tired of dragging men from their homes and families and convicting them on trumped up charges of murder."[12] In any case, they were released on mistrial and none of the cases were ever called.

[1]Leland, 101.
[2]Wright, 5, 6.
[3]Leland, 105;. 97: He adds that the Bible they used for devotions during their jail stay "is now deposited in the Presbyterian Church in Laurens, on the table under the pulpit, as a memorial of the troublous past." Wright, 6, says: Dr. Wilson preached to them, "the father of our great and beloved president of these United States."
[4]Wright, 5‑6.
[5]Leland, 108‑109, 111‑114.
[6]Leland, 108.
[7]Jacobs, Literary, 35‑36. The court did not take it as truth. Dr. Jacobs saw the man later. He said, "Aw, Dr. Jacobs, I knew they wouldn't believe me. I was just saying it in fun."
[8]Wright, 6. Leland, 109‑110: did not know about the riot until 2:00pm when parents of the girls at the college requested him to keep them there for safety.
[9]Jacobs, Literary, 20.
[10]Leland, 117. They did the same thing with one of the York prisoners. Leland adds, 121: "We heard from the Clinton delegation to‑day, and they informed us that they had rather a rough time of it going down [to Charleston.] After they had been paraded through the streets of Columbia, in handcuffs, they were locked up in the same car, with the colored witnesses against them, including the famous 'Ferguson.' Arrived in Charleston, they were marched a mile and a half through the streets to the 'House of Correction,' formerly known as the 'Sugar House.' But kind friends were awaiting their arrival, and they were faring now even more sumptuously than they had done in Columbia."
[11]Leland, 115‑116.
[12]Wright, 8. "I am still under bond in the sum of 3500.00 for any appearance at U.S. Court, Columbia, S.C., to answer to the charge of conspiracy and murder. The rest of the party have passed to the beyond."