Charles E. Spencer Papers, 1874-1985
| Manuscripts Gifts 2009 | Front Page 2009 | Previous Issues | Friends of the Library |
A gift to SCL Manuscripts Division announced in 2009
Two hundred thirty manuscripts, 1874, 1877 - 1894, 1925, 1938, 1985, and undated, consisting chiefly of letters from Charles E. Spencer (1858 - 1887) to his future wife, Ada Emmaline McCall (1859 - 1895), document their remote courtship during his attempts to establish himself in an occupation.
| Manuscripts Gifts 2009 | Previous Issues | Endowments | Friends of the Library |
Spencer, a native of Bishopville (Lee County, S.C.), and McCall, who was teaching in Mars Bluff (Florence County, S.C.), began their engagement in 1877. During the first half of that year Spencer worked at his father’s store in Bishopville, but his letters centered on his affection for Ada, political matters, and social activities in the town. On 9 May he described a recent meeting during which it was decided to draw up a petition to lobby for the formation of a new county with Bishopville as the county seat. Spencer speculated that this would happen within five years and that the new county would be called Wade. Lee County would eventually be created in 1902, formed from parts of Darlington, Kershaw, and Sumter Counties with Bishopville as the seat of government. Spencer devoted a part of nearly every letter to the description of parties and other entertainments, typical of these was the "Cravat Party" mentioned in a letter of 8 July 1877. He noted that "the Cravats were brought out in a hat and I was allowed first ‘pick,’ was very glad when I opened mine and found that it corresponded with Miss Mary Ambroses dress."
On 15 September 1877 Spencer moved to Camden (Kershaw County, S.C.) and found employment in Robert Kennedy’s dry goods store. The day after his arrival he reported that he had taken charge of the "Clothing Department" and thought he would "like it quite well when I learn the stock." Overall, Spencer seemed pleased with his employment and told Ada in a letter of 6 October that he tried to make "Mr. Kennedy’s interest my interest, must say that I take quite a pride in keeping my department in nice order."
On 16 October 1877 he noted that he had gone "down this morning about half past Six (6) Oclock... my time between then and breakfast is taken up by dusting my stock, trade does not begin until between Ten and Eleven Oclock." Much of his "trade" seems to have been conducted with African-American members of the community, and in the letter of 6 October 1877 he complained that he had been kept busy for most of the day "waiting on darkeys," which "is the meanest kind of trade, for none of them hardly ever buy much at a time." Spencer remained in Camden until the end of the year but never seemed to change his initial opinion of the city, which he stated in a letter of 25 September - "I dont think Camden a very pleasant place to live at, as there appears to be quite a selfish air about the place."
Upon his return to Bishopville, Spencer decided to try his hand at cotton farming, began the study of medicine, and took a renewed interest in selling sewing machines on commission to families in and around Bishopville and Lynchburg. He wrote Ada on 22 January 1878 to inform her that he would began his work as a farmer the following morning and declared that he thought "as long as the novelty lasts I will be very apt to like it." By the following April, Spencer seems to have begun considering a career in medicine, for in a letter written on 2 April 1879 he told his fiancé that she would be "surprised to learn that I am now studying Medicine, since I feel sure you only thought me joking when I was over. I am reading under Dr. McLeod, am only with him one day out of the week, balance of time I read at home find it very interesting." There is no evidence that Spencer ever received a medical degree.
Of all his avocations, his efforts at trying to sell sewing machines for the White Sewing Machine Company, or "machineing" as he styled it in a letter of 26 April 1879, is discussed the most in the letters written after Spencer’s return from Camden. He seems to have had the machines delivered to the railroad depot in Lynchburg and would travel throughout the surrounding countryside until he had sold all of that particular shipment. He wrote to Ada on 29 May 1879 during one of these trips and explained that it was "always a hard matter for me to tell when I will get back home for it is oweing altogether to my sales, if I make a good manny sales of course I have to return for more Machines."
When not discussing his work, Spencer filled his letters with comments on political activities, crime, entertainment, and civic improvements in the town of Bishopville. In letters written during October and November 1878 Spencer described events surrounding that year’s election in great detail. On 20 October he informed Ada that the Democrats in Bishopville were "determined to carry the election... by some means or other we hope by fair means, but there is one thing certain, if we can not gain it that way we will have to try some kind of a game on the ‘Rads.’" Writing after the election on 10 November, he explained one process by which the Democrats were able to secure the votes of African Americans - "several of us managed to get the Republi-can tickets. Some of them took as many as Thirty - the Rads were awful mad but could not help themselves they had to write out all of their tickets, and in the mean time we had the opportunity of geting a good many Negro votes." Spencer went on to describe how he and other citizens of Bishopville fired the town’s cannon every half hour on the night prior to the election and that on the following night, after a rumor spread "that the Negro’s were going to try and take the box at Carters Crossing," he and several other men "carried the cannon down... but... there was not a sign of a Darkey." He closed this letter by remarking that, "Sam Lee a colered office holder in this community is going to try and arrest several partys in the County... expect we will have him to ‘Lynch’ yet, he is a very impudent fellow."
Spencer also kept Ada abreast of murders and robberies committed in and around Bishopville. On 19 March 1878 he described an attempted murder which affected his immediate family. He informed her that an African-American nurse had tried to poison his cousin’s baby with "Corn Salve," a mixture of "three deadly poisons a single drop of which if swallowed would prove fatal." He continued by reporting that the nurse had been tried, found guilty, and sentenced to receive "One H[un]dred and Eighty Five lashes with a Buggy trace... she can only take Forty Six, lashes at [a] time, so it will have to be administered in separate doses."
Spencer continued his practice of commenting on social activities including the excitement generated by baseball games played between the club from Bishopville and those from surrounding communities. He first mentioned the sport on 14 October 1877 while still in Camden - "Hear that Bishopville is made somewhat lively by match-games of Base Ball now, the young ladies turn out to see them play, think if I were some of the young men, I would have some excuse not to play, and would have a pleasant time with the ladies." He retained this opinion regarding the game and maintained that croquet was a much better way to pass time since members of both sexes could participate.
As a businessman who could benefit from civic improvements in Bishopville, Spencer continued to take an active interest in anything which could help the town grow or add to its prestige, including the establishment of a streetcar system and the construction of a jail (23 June 1878), the filling of "a reservoir by the means of which we can supply the residences" (11 July 1878), the construction of new buildings and the improvement of existing structures (24 August 1879), and the possibility of making Lynches River navigable from Bishopville to the railroad (11 November 1879).
Charles E. Spencer and Ada Emmaline McCall were married in February 1880 after an engagement of nearly three years. They would go on to have three children, all boys, before Charles’s death in 1887. Items extant in the collection following his death consist chiefly of correspondence between members of the extended family and his widow prior to her death in 1895.