Political Assassination in South Caroilna
by A.V. Huff, Jr.

 

      Keynote address presented, 29 Apr. 2006, at the 70th Annual Meeting

   of the University South Caroliniana Society

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The study of history reacts in strange ways to current events. The topic of political assassination has reappeared, perhaps as a part of the rising threat of world-wide terror. First, there was Stephen Sondheim's musical, "The Assassins," that focused on American presidential assassinations. It closed off-Broadway in 1990 and did not have a successful run on Broadway until after 9/11. Then in 2005 National Public Radio reporter Sarah Vowell published Assassination Vacation, a morbidly amusing book of her travels to sites related to presidential assassinations. Last week at the meeting of the Organization of American Historians there was a session on the topic.

Historians and sociologists interested in the American South have almost always identified violence as a hallmark of Southern society. In his now classic study, The Militant South, 1800-1861 (1956), John Hope Franklin demonstrated violence in the region at every level of society. The experience of civil war and Reconstruction modified but did not change the pattern. Statistics in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries show Southern states almost always leading the list of criminal homicides by percentage of the population. Perhaps the most widely-known analyst of the recent South is sociologist John Shelton Reed. In Reed's most comprehensive study, The Enduring South (1974, 1986), his chapter on Southern violence is entitled "South of the Smith and Wesson Line." In the study of South Carolina history is the sobering but aptly titled Carnival of Blood by our friend John Hammond Moore.

The struggle for political supremacy in the post-Civil War South led to generations of organized violence by groups with competing visions of the "New South." Lynching and gang violence have occupied our attention. But examples of political assassination in the region, as in the nation as a whole, are few and striking in their uniqueness. In other Southern states one thinks of the assassinations of Governor William Goebel of Kentucky in 1900 and Louisiana Senator Huey P. Long in 1935. In South Carolina there were four I have identified - all in succeeding generations and in quite different circumstances, but between adherents of rival political groups. My list is not exhaustive, and others do not fit. For example, the murder in 1958 of Bennettsville state senator Paul Allen Wallace by clerk of court William Allen Rogers seems to have been more personal than political.

The first assassination was that of a prominent African-American leader during Reconstruction - state senator and chair of the state Republican executive committee Benjamin Franklin Randolph. The second was Redeemer planter and former Confederate officer L.W.R. Blair of Kershaw County. The third, reflecting the hatreds of the Populist era, N.G. Gonzales of Columbia, the founding editor of the The State paper. The fourth was state senator Edward J. Dennis of Berkeley County, one of three generations of his family to serve in that position. They represent four generations of Southerners after the Civil War, and all were embroiled in the volatile politics of their particular eras.

Benjamin Franklin Randolph was born a free black in Kentucky and grew up in Ohio. He was educated at Oberlin College and ordained a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church. He was a chaplain in the Union Army stationed in Beaufort, and like many others of his generation - black and white - he remained in South Carolina with the support of the American Missionary Association, becoming assistant state school commissioner for the Freedmen's Bureau in Charleston. When it was established in 1868, he associated with the South Carolina Mission Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A newspaper editor, he was a delegate to the 1868 state constitutional convention, rose in the ranks to chair the state Republican executive committee, and was elected to the state Senate from Orangeburg County.

In October 1868 Randolph took a campaign tour to the upstate, delivering a speech in Abbeville on the 15th and the next day headed for Anderson. The Columbia Phoenixcommented that Randolph "was a persistent advocate of the social equality idea." On board the train from Abbeville to Cokesbury he "made himself obnoxious to many of the passengers by his violent expressions and threats, but was not molested." Changing trains at Hodges' Depot, he was gunned down on the platform by three white men who immediately mounted their horses and rode away. The coroner held an inquest over the body, and the verdict stated that Randolph "came to his untimely end at the hands of three persons unknown to the jury."

No one was ever arrested for the crime, though it was widely rumored that former Confederate colonel D. Wyatt Aiken had planned the assassination. Aiken was a prominent planter at nearby Cokesbury, a leader of the state Agricultural and Mechanical Society, a national leader in the Grange, and from 1877 to 1887 served in Congress.

About 1000 people, mostly African Americans, attended a meeting condemning Randolph's assassination in Charleston at White Point Gardens. Republican Governor Robert Scott issued a proclamation on October 20, charging the people of the state with anarchy and lawlessness. Randolph was buried in Columbia, not Charleston where Republican leaders felt that feelings ran too high.

Lovick William Rochelle Blair was born in 1821, the scion of wealth, reputation and violence. His father, James Blair, of Scots Irish descent, was known as "the Waxhaw giant" because of his six feet-six inch height. He was a planter, adjutant general of the state militia in the War of 1812, and a member of Congress until his death in 1834. His mother, Charlotte Rochelle, was of Huguenot descent and inherited the substantial property of her father who was hanged for his complicity in the murder of a neighbor over a property dispute.

The namesake of his Rochelle grandfather, Rochelle Blair, was schooled briefly in Virginia, but returned home to the family plantation, Red Oak Camp, and was tutored by a French schoolmaster. At the age of thirty-nine he married a local woman; they were members of the Camden Methodist Episcopal Church, South. In 1861 he joined the state militia with the rank of captain and was promoted to major in 1863.

In the waning years of Reconstruction, Major Blair espoused the racial orthodoxy and solidarity of the former Confederates seeking to recapture political control of the state government. He liberally shared his views in the Kershaw Gazette. As the early historians of Camden characterized them, he was "always straightest of the straightout." In December 1875 he denounced the fusion efforts of white Conservatives and reform Republicans: "Is it not true that every white man should cease to talk this fusion gibberish. Credulous Conservatives must open their eyes to the fact that one or the other of the two races must rule the State of South Carolina." Yet, in August 1876 he was espousing the moderate racism of Wade Hampton: "White and black are mutually dependent upon each other, and should respect, honor, and observe the rights of each other."

Once the Conservatives were victorious, Blair began to break ranks with the local Democratic orthodoxy. In the Camden newspapers and in public debate he championed the paper money policy of the Greenbacks against the hard money arguments of South Carolina Democrats. He was publicly jeered as an independent and a radical. He also attacked the fencing laws supported by the majority in favor of the free range practice of the antebellum period. In the 1880 gubernatorial election he was nominated for governor by a convention of independents, though he was soundly defeated by General Johnson Hagood. He attracted a number of African-American supporters in the election.

He continued to air his ideas in the local papers. In the Camden Journal in March 1882 Blair denounced "the bugbear of negro supremacy" as "groundless and absurd.... Even in the darkest period of radicalism [South Carolina] was ruled by a few cunning and unscrupulous white men." He reminded his readers of Hampton's promise to treat African-American citizens fairly. Now, he wrote, "our legislature passes a registration and election law framed purposely to defraud more than half of the colored citizens of their vote." Local black citizens rallied to him as their champion.

On July 4, 1882 - a day celebrated since the Civil War in South Carolina only by freedmen and the decreasing number of white Republicans - there was a gathering in Camden described by the local historians as "a throng of darkies." Major Blair towered over them.

About eleven o'clock in the morning Blair was confronted by Captain James L. Haile, some twenty years younger. Haile was a Confederate veteran who had initially settled in North Carolina after the war but returned to Camden to take up planting. Haile and Blair had a confrontation the previous week at a Democratic Club meeting, and Haile, armed with a rifle, ordered Blair from the meeting.

On the morning of the Fourth, Haile demanded an apology for accusations made by Blair about him. Blair refused. Haile then went into the county treasurer's office and returned with a rifle and a pistol. When Blair appeared to reach inside his pocket, Haile fired at Blair three times, killing him on the spot. According to the reporter from the News and Courier, Haile was quickly surrounded by African Americans on the street. The sheriff was summoned, and Haile was taken off to jail. The next day Haile was lauded by Gen. John D. Kennedy and Colonel Haskell "as brave and true a man as ever breathed." At his subsequent trial, Haile was acquitted and before the year was out he began his ten year tenure as sheriff of Kershaw County.

The major political assassination of the next generation was that of N.G. Gonzales, heir of the old Confederate establishment that had been politically defeated by Benjamin Ryan Tillman and his farmers' movement.

Tillman had swept into the governor's office in the election of 1890 after years of attack on the Redeemer government. He organized the farmers county by county and laid the blame for the agricultural depression at the feet of Wade Hampton and his regime.

The bitterness between the old Confederate leadership and the upstart farmers was stoked by both sides. The Hamptonites were systematically turned out of office after 1890, and Tillman eventually rewrote the South Carolina constitution in 1895 not only to perpetuate white supremacy but also to ensure that his followers retained control of state government in perpetuity.

In order to keep the Conservative cause alive and to challenge the supremacy of the Charleston News and Courier, the Columbia State launched its first edition early in 1891. Its editor and leading light was Narcisco G. Gonzales, son of Cuban revolutionary general Ambrosio Jose Gonzales and Harriet Rutledge Elliott, a descendant of South Carolina's founding families. Born on Edisto Island in 1858, N.G. was educated during the Reconstruction era in Cuba, at home on the Elliott plantation, and briefly at a private school in Virginia. He went to work as a telegrapher and soon was on the staff of the News and Courier. Inspired by opposition to Tillman and weary of the Charleston newspaper's lukewarm criticism of the "One-Eyed Plowboy," N.G. left the Columbia bureau of the News and Courier and helped launch The State. A fiery, crusading editor, he was known for his intemperate editorial language, though in person he was rather quiet and reserved.

The Tillmans of Edgefield were well-known for their violent temperament. Fighting and killing characterized three generations. Born in 1869, James H. Tillman, the son of Congressman George Tillman and nephew of Pitchfork Ben, inherited the brawling and violent temper of the family. Studying law in Winnsboro in 1890 in the office of his brother-in-law, Jim Tillman campaigned for his uncle Ben and first encountered N.G. Gonzales in heated debate. In 1900, at age thirty-one, young Tillman sought to inherit the family political mantle as a candidate for lieutenant governor. When he was successful, The State unleashed its criticism of the newest Tillman officeholder. But N.G.'s campaign against Jim Tillman accelerated two years later when the lieutenant governor became a candidate for the governor's office. In a stream of bitter attacks The State accused Tillman of embezzlement, fraud, and lying. When Tillman was defeated, he later accused N.G. Gonzales as the chief reason for his defeat.

When the General Assembly convened in Columbia in January 1903, Tillman was serving out the remaining days of his term as presiding officer of the Senate. On Thursday, January 15, about 1:00 p.m. when the Senate adjourned, Tillman made his way from the State House across Gervais Street. On the corner of Gervais and Main, he met N.G. Gonzales on his way home for lunch. Tillman fired one shot from a German Lugar into the editor's stomach. Tillman was immediately arrested, and Gonzales died of peritonitis on January 19.

In the following September began one of the most sensational trials in the history of South Carolina. The trial was moved out of Richland County, a center of anti-Tillman sentiment since the Farmers' movement of the 1880s, to Lexington County, a Tillman stronghold. The presiding judge was "Cousin Frank" Gary, nephew of Martin W. Gary of Edgefield, a bitter enemy of Wade Hampton and a friend of the Tillman family. The solicitor was J. William Thurmond, father of the future U.S. senator. Jim Tillman had defended the elder Thurmond six years before when he was tried for murder. The court stenographer was James F. Byrnes of Aiken, future U.S. senator, Supreme Court justice, and secretary of state. To maintain family solidarity, Senator Ben Tillman appeared in the court room the day the trial began.

During the final week newspaper reporters feared that violence might erupt at the trial. Every man in attendance had at least one gun in his possession, some two. After twenty hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict of not guilty. The State proclaimed the trial a farce and turned its energy to raising funds for a public memorial to its fallen editor.

The fourth political assassination occurred twenty-seven years later during the Progressive Era in July 1930 in Moncks Corner in Berkeley County.

Berkeley County was formed in 1882 from a part of Charleston County. It was part of the old plantation belt, but much of the land was covered by low-lying land known as Hell Hole Swamp. As staple agriculture declined after the Civil War and the lumber industry grew, many subsistence farmers turned to the manufacture of illegal whiskey to supplement their incomes. As the prohibition movement gained strength in the state, the demand for illegal whiskey grew, especially with Berkeley's proximity to the port of Charleston. Once the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in 1920, the market for illegal whiskey grew larger still. Rumors were rife in the low country that the bootleggers of Hell Hole Swamp sold their wares directly to the mob in the large urban areas of the North and Midwest.

Local political control of the county for most of its history was in the hands of the Dennis family. The progenitor of the family was Edward J. Dennis, born in 1844. He attended The Citadel, but left school to join the Confederate army. After the Civil War, he became a cotton planter and surveyor, and in 1884 he was admitted to the bar. He joined the Hampton campaign to end Reconstruction in 1876 and served three terms in the state House of Representatives. He twice ran unsuccessfully for the state Senate, joining the populist forces of Ben Tillman. Elected to the senate on his third attempt, he served from 1894 until his death in 1904.

Dennis's son, Edward J. Dennis, Jr., was born in 1877 at Fair Springs plantation, attended Clemson and read law in his father's office. He served three terms in the state House of Representatives before succeeding his father in the Senate in 1905. He remained in the Senate until his death in 1930. His son Rembert fell heir to the family's political mantle and served in both the House and the Senate.

Under the provisions of the state Constitution of 1895, which Edward Dennis the elder had helped to fashion, the single county senator was the chief local political power, having control of the county supply bill adopted by the legislature. By the 1920s the illegal whiskey interests were allied with the anti-Dennis forces in the county. Governor John G. Richards later attributed the violence and hatred between the political factions in Berkeley to Senator Dennis's efforts to stop whiskey production in Hell Hole Swamp. Numerous cases were brought against bootleggers, and the presence of both federal agents and state constables was familiar on the streets of Moncks Corner, the county seat. In 1928 Dennis's opponents secured an indictment against him for violating federal liquor laws, but the charges were dropped.

The Columbia State referred to the county as "bloody Berkeley," much as Carolinians had once referred to the old Edgefield District as "bloody Edgefield." Shootings were sometimes described as "buckshot affairs." On May 3, 1926, for example, three were killed in a gun battle in Moncks Corner. One of the three convicted as a result was Jeremiah Wright, generally recognized as a close friend of Senator Dennis. In 1928 Wright was pardoned by Governor Richards but violated his parole in a fistfight in Cordesville. Returned to the state penitentiary, Wright was pardoned once again but was convicted of the shooting on May 31, 1930, of Glen McKnight, brother of one of the victims of the 1926 shooting. In addition, McKnight was a former federal prohibition agent who was widely known as one of the kingpins of the illegal whiskey industry in the county. Meanwhile, one man was killed and another seriously wounded in an ambush on the highway near Huger.

In June 1930, after the shooting of Glen McKnight, a group of fifteen men from Berkeley met with Governor Richards to request state assistance in investigating the shooting. Shortly thereafter Senator Dennis and his political ally Sheriff Lee Bradwell led a group of twenty men and women to see the governor as well. They proposed that the governor call out National Guard troops to keep order in Moncks Corner.

The political tensions were running high. The newspapers regularly commented that it was the hottest summer in many years. On June 25, the Berkeley County Court House was the scene of a stump meeting featuring the two candidates for United States Senate - the incumbent Coley Blease and his challenger who had been defeated in a sensational race six years before, James F. Byrnes. Dennis was a candidate for reelection, and he was opposed by Marvin M. Murray, representing the anti-Dennis faction. After his recent meeting with Governor Richards, Dennis told a reporter from The State newspaper: "They can't beat me at the polls so they know that the only way to get rid of me is to shoot me." He was prepared to defend himself if he had the chance. The reporter noted that the men in the delegation with Dennis were armed, some with two weapons.

In July Dennis visited the governor once again and suggested that state troops be dispatched to Berkeley County to protect the polls in the primary election. Governor Richards gave him no definite answer.

On July 24 on the main street of Moncks Corner, shortly after nine o'clock in the morning, Senator Dennis left the post office to walk to his office. Outside a meat market, Senator Dennis stopped to purchase a watermelon. Across the street thirty-year old W.L. (Sporty) Thornley placed a shotgun on the radiator of his car and fired a load of buckshot into Dennis's brain. Investigators later said that Dennis never knew he had been shot. The senator died the next day in Riverside Hospital in Charleston.

Arrested almost immediately, Thornley denied any knowledge of the shooting. Within hours he was transported to the state penitentiary in Columbia because Sheriff Bradwell feared he might be lynched in Moncks Corner. Within days there were four more arrests. Former Deputy Sheriff Clarence L. Woodward had been removed from office by Governor Richards. As chief of police in Moncks Corner, he was one of the chief witnesses against Dennis in the federal case accusing him of conspiracy to violate the prohibition law. In addition to Woodward, Sporty Thornley's brother Curtis was arrested, as was Fred Artis, the bodyguard of Glen McKnight, and eventually McKnight himself who had fled to Charleston and checked himself into Baker Sanitarium. Sporty Thornley told the coroner's jury that McKnight had furnished him a car, the gun and shells, the promise of protection, a house for his family, and cash money.

In the subsequent trial, Thornley alone was convicted of Dennis's murder. Later in the penitentiary, he wrote to Dennis's widow indicating that he had been paid to shoot the senator and listing others who were involved.

Perhaps a conviction at last in a political assassination helped to end the practice in South Carolina. By no means did it end the tradition of violence in the state, especially among the economically deprived and racial minorities. But by reducing the outer limits that society would tolerate even for the political elite, the state took a small but tortured step toward improving the quality of life.

 

 

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