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Mendel L. Smith Papers, 1888-1934
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The papers of Mendel Lafayette Smith (1888-1934) reflect the career of a South Carolina legislator, lawyer and orator.

Extent: 31.25 linear ft. (25 cartons)
Location: Annex


1870 Born in Smithville, South Carolina on July 5th.

1883 Father dies in January; MLS moves to Camden, South Carolina.

1885 Enters The Citadel.

1889 Graduates from The Citadel.

1893 Plays on the University of Virginia Baseball Team in a tournament at the Chicago World’s Fair.

1894 Graduates from UVA Law School.

1895 Begins to practice law in South Carolina; Tries first case, Holland v Sanders; Marries Anna Dixon in April.

1898 Joins Kershaw Guards.

1900 Elected to South Carolina House of Representatives, Kershaw County.

1902 Re-elected to House of Representatives.

1903 Elected Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives.

1906 Becomes candidate for Governor.

1907-1910 President and founder of the South Carolina State League of Baseball Clubs.

1914 Becomes candidate for Governor.

1915 Elected Judge of Fifth Judicial Circuit.

1916 Becomes candidate for Governor.

1917 Joins Armed Forces Judge Advocate General Division during World War I at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina.

1918 JAG at Camp Meade, Maryland.

1919 Goes to France; Returns home from France as a Lieutenant Colonel, August 29th.

1921-1934 Trial of Edmund D. Bigham.

1927 Trial of Henry Townsend and Ethel Willis.

1927 Refocuses Townsend and Willis trial on Harmon Moore.

1930 Appointed to South Carolina Supreme Court.

1930 Becomes candidate for Governor.

1931 Enters VA Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.

1934 Dies at age 63, Camden, South Carolina, on June 15th.

Biographical Sketch

Mendel Lafayette Smith was a distinguished lawyer, legislator, politician and orator from South Carolina. The son of a merchant and farmer, Mendel rose to prominence in the state through his work in the legal profession and his time in the state legislature. He had a long career of public service for the state of South Carolina, and he was generally well regarded by citizens of all walks of life.

On July 5, 1870, Mendel Lafayette Smith was born in Smithville, South Carolina, to parents Lafayette M. and Medora Bradley Smith. In January, 1883, Mendel’s father died. At the age of thirteen Mendel moved with his family to Camden, South Carolina. He attended Camden public schools and spent one year at Wofford College. Mendel then enrolled in the Citadel, South Carolina’s Military Academy, from which he graduated in 1889. He then enrolled at the University of Virginia for his legal training.

While in college, Mendel was regarded nationally as one of the greatest student athletes of his day. His sport of choice was baseball: he was a power hitter and an outstanding first baseman. While with the University of Virginia, he traveled to the World’s Fair Exposition in Chicago to participate in the collegiate baseball tournament. While in the tournament he was said to have hit a homerun such a long distance that the record remained even after his death.

Even though major league baseball teams heavily recruited Mendel, he chose to enter the legal profession instead. In 1894 Mendel completed his law training at the University of Virginia. The following year, he was admitted to the bar in the state of South Carolina. His first case was Holland v. Sanders.

In April of 1895, Mendel married Anna Dixon. They had four children, two boys (Mendel, Jr. and Benjamin M.) and two girls (Mrs. W. W. Bates, Jr. and Mrs. W. P. Heath, Jr.).

Mendel was very active in civic organizations early in his adult life. In 1898 Mendel became a member of the Kershaw Guards. He was also on the Board of Trustees of the Camden City schools as well as the South Carolina Medical College in Charleston.

He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives from Kershaw County in 1900. In 1902 he was reelected to the South Carolina House and was named Speaker of the body. In 1906 he made an unsuccessful bid for Governor.

Mendel’s love for baseball resurfaced in 1907 when he helped to form the South Carolina State League of Baseball Clubs. He was chosen president of the league and he served at that post until 1910. As president, Mendel made all rule decisions and was often in charge of paying the players and umpires. Oftentimes he was held responsible for the conduct of the players and umpires as well. Many times he was notified of the drunken behavior of his employees. The stress of the job was too much for Mendel and he gave up the position of president in 1910. Eventually the league folded under because of financial difficulties.

The election of 1914 saw Mendel running for Governor once again. It was probably his best showing, but the anti-Blease candidates dominated the voter turnout. In 1915, though, Mendel was elected Judge of the Fifth Judicial Circuit. The election of 1916 saw another failed attempt by Mendel to be elected Governor, but with war on the horizon, his life would take a different path. In 1917, Mendel resigned as Circuit Judge and enrolled in the Armed Forces Judge Advocate General (JAG) Division. He spent time as a JAG in Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, and was then sent to Camp Meade, Maryland, in 1918. After eight months in France with General Pershing in 1919, Mendel returned to Camden with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

In 1921 Mendel began working on one of the longest and most notable cases of his career, the Edmund Bigham murder trial. Lasting almost thirteen years, this case charged Edmund Bigham with the slaying of his entire family. After many long appeals, Mendel and the legal team averted the death penalty when Bigham received a life sentence in prison.

Another involved murder trial was the 1927 Henry S. Townsend and Ethel Willis case. In this trial, both Townsend and Willis were charged with conspiring to kill Willis’ husband, Sam Willis, who was also the local sheriff. It was alleged that Townsend and Willis were having an affair, but there was not enough evidence to convict either of them. Later, a man by the name of Harmon Moore admitted to committing the murder of Sheriff Willis, but there was some question as to his mental stability.

In his lifetime, Mendel was involved in over 250 capital murder cases. Not one person he defended ever received the death penalty. Eight were convicted of murder, many were convicted of manslaughter and many were acquitted. His skills as a defense lawyer took him out of state to defend clients in states such as Georgia and Texas. Mendel was generally regarded as one of the finest lawyers in South Carolina.

In 1930 Mendel ran for Governor for the final time and once again was defeated. During that same year he was appointed as an Associate Justice of the State Supreme Court. By 1931 his health had begun to fail him, and he was admitted to the VA Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. For the next few years his health continued to fail him, but he still remained active in his law practice and continued to give speeches around the state. On June 15, 1934, at his home in Camden, Mendel Lafayette Smith suffered a stroke of apoplexy and died.

During his lifetime, Mendel was a member of many different social and fraternal organizations. These organizations around the state allowed him to shine as a great orator. Speeches he gave as a member of the Shriners, the Woodmen of the World, The Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the American Legion, the Knights of Pythias, and the Masons, were recognized statewide. As a result, he was asked to deliver speeches everywhere in South Carolina; although he did not accept every invitation, he still delivered an estimated 3,000 speeches in his lifetime.

Mendel Lafayette Smith was looked upon by the people of South Carolina as a man of great success. He achieved this prominence in his college athletic days, his legal practice, his political ambitions, and in the many fraternal organizations that he was a member. At the time of his death, Mendel had lived a long and accomplished life.

Sources Consulted:

Boling, Katharine, A Piece of the Fox’s Hide, Columbia: Sandlapper Press, 1972.

The Camden (South Carolina) Chronicle. 1934. 22 June, p. 1.

Columbia (South Carolina), The State. 1934. 15 June, pp. 1, 5; 16 June, p. 1; 17 June, p. 2.

Hemphill, J. C., Men of Mark in South Carolina; Ideals of American Life: A Collection of Biographies of Leading Men of the State, Washington, D.C.: Men of Mark Publishing, Co., 1907, v4, pp.347-348.

Who’s Who in South Carolina, A Dictionary of Contemporaries Containing Biographical Notes of Eminent Men in South Carolina,1934-1935, Columbia: McCaw Publishing, 1935, p. 552.

Scope and Content Notes

The papers of Mendel Lafayette Smith (MLS) (1870-1934) consist of approximately forty linear feet of materials that document his career as a military man, a lawyer, a politician and a judge. While documents range from 1888 to 1934, the bulk of the collection consists of materials from the years 1900-1930. The collection consists of correspondence, newspaper clippings, legal records, pamphlets and legislative materials. Most of the correspondence centers around either MLS’s legislative activities or his law practice. The majority of his legal cases were murder trials. The collection is divided into five series: personal, military, judicial, legal and political.

Series I, Personal

This series consists of documents outlining various activities of MLS’s personal life. It includes documents on various sporting events that he either participated in or attended, as well as information on the South Carolina State Baseball League of which he was president for two years. This series also contains invitations he received from various organizations, addresses he made, and memberships in various fraternal organizations including the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, the FreeMasons, the Knights of Pythias, the American Legion and the Shriners. Also included in this series is correspondence with various political acquaintances. Individuals that he corresponded with in this series include the following lawyers, politicians and acquaintances:

E. H. Aull
J. T. Barron
Cole L. Blease
Niels Christensen
Tom Connally
Wilson G. Harvey
Charles S. McCain
K. D. McKellar
Phillip J. McLeon
L. A. Mitchell
G. E. Murtiashaw
T. D. Murtiashaw
J. K. P. Neathery

Series II, South Carolina State League of Baseball Clubs

Series II contains the papers of the South Carolina State League of Baseball Clubs. Smith was the founder of the organization and served as its president from 1907-1910. Included in the series are player contracts, correspondence with league officials and umpires, by-laws of the league and comments on the pennant race and the protest that followed. Correspondents in this series include Frank Ager, J.S. Hemrich, E.B. Houseal and Charles Jordan.

Series III, Military

Series III contains papers that document MLS’s tenure as a Judge Advocate General during World War I at Camp Wadsworth, South Carolina, and Camp Meade, Maryland. Included are service papers, insurance records, camp bulletins, memoranda, and general court martial papers. Also included in the collection is correspondence in which MLS arranges for his son, Mendel, Jr. to be transferred to Camp Meade with him. Correspondents in this series include Eugene B. Gary, A. Frank Lever, Governor Richard I. Manning, J. Willard Ragsdale and Ellison D. Smith.

Series IV, Judicial

Series IV consists of papers that outline the judicial career of MLS. Documents in this series include correspondence from his candidacy for Circuit Judge, endorsements he received from political figures and county bar associations, letters of appreciation, invitations to make addresses, and papers from the Court of Common Pleas and the Court Of General sessions, 1915-1917. Correspondents in this series include James F. Byrnes, John Gary Evans, Eugene B. Gary, Governor Thomas McLeod, Governor Richard I. Manning, and Ellison D. Smith.

Series V, Legal

Series V contains papers from various legal cases that MLS was involved in either directly or indirectly. Cases range from railroad disputes to murder cases. Other cases he argued include election disputes, cotton speculation, bribery and an investigation into the State Highway Department. MLS’s first case, Holland v. Sanders, 1895, is also included. The largest case that Smith argued was the Edmund D. Bigham murder trial, in which Bigham was accused of murdering his brother, mother, sister and adopted brothers. Also included is the Henry S. Townsend and Ethel Gray Willis murder case. Both were charged with the murder of Ethel’s husband Sheriff Sam D. Willis of Greenville County, South Carolina. Harmon Moore was later charged with the crime. This series consists of murder cases argued from 1896 to 1933. Correspondents include:

Governor Martin F. Ansel
W. W. Bates
Val Branham
Ollie Brisbane
Governor Wilson G. Harvey
Richard M. Jefferies
Governor John G. Richards
E. M. Seabrook
W. W. Tripp
B. C. Wallace

Series VI, Political

Series VI contains documents from MLS’s political career as a state legislator. Contained in this series are general House records, support for various candidates (such as Albert C. Ritchie, Franklin D. Roosevelt and Melvin A. Traylor), presidency of the state Democratic Convention, taxation legislation, service as Speaker of the House, and legislation on intoxicating liquors. The series also contains “A Complete Diary of a Campaign for the House of Representatives for the Year 1912,” and records from his candidacy for governor in 1914. Also included are many newspaper clippings on various legislative topics and political opponents. Individuals with whom MLS corresponded in this series include Governor Duncan Clinch Heyward, Governor Thomas G. McLeod, Louisiana Governor J. Y. Sanders, and Governor J. C. Sheppard. He also corresponded with representatives from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union and the South Carolina Anti-Saloon League.

Description of Series

Personal, 1888-1934, undated (Boxes 1-4, 15. Oversized flat files)

Arranged alphabetically by topic. Includes personal correspondence, sporting events, newspaper clippings and speeches.

South Carolina State League of Baseball Clubs, 1905-1910, undated (Boxes 4 and 15)

Arranged alphabetically by topic. Includes correspondence, by-laws, player contracts and protests.

Military, 1917-1919, undated (Boxes 4-5, 15. Oversized flat files)

Arranged alphabetically by topic. Includes service records, bulletins and general court martial papers.

Judicial, 1914-1934, undated (Boxes 5- 6, 15-16. Oversized flat files)

Arranged alphabetically by topic. Includes correspondence and endorsements.

Legal, 1895-1934, undated (Box 6-8, 16-25. Oversized flat files)

Arranged alphabetically by topic or case. Includes court records dealing with political disputes, money disputes and murder cases.

Political, 1900-1934, undated (Box 9-14, 25. Oversized flat files)

Arranged alphabetically by topic. Includes campaign correspondence, political memorabilia, newspaper clippings, and a diary.

Container List

The container list for the Mendel L. Smith Papers consists of a thirty-nine page file available in

Adobe Acrobat PDF formatPDF Version     (To update software visit Adobe Acrobat homepage.)

Microsoft Word formatMS Word

Administrative Notes

Location: Annex
Processed: Ryan P. Semmes, Project Assistant (April 1999)
Notes: Information concerning copyright must be secured in writing from the Director of the South Caroliniana Library.


This page updated 5 March 2004
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