Dead man, struck down in 19th century feud, gets last word

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A standard precept of law is that one can’t libel the dead. It stands to reason then that one can’t sue the dead for libel, either.

In pastoral Restland Cemetery in Bamberg, SC, lie the remains of Charles F. Jones. A gravestone erected by his parents reads, “Son / Charles Franklin Jones / Murdered by T. Heber Wannamaker and W.W. Wannamaker / June 22, 1897”

The facts, at least as described in late 19th century newspapers, provide a different account.

According to a New York Times’ report filed June 23, 1897, Thomas Heber Wannamaker, a South Carolina businessman, killed Jones in self-defense.

The incident came about as a result of bad blood that developed following a murder trial two years earlier.

In that case, Dan C. Murphy was convicted of gunning down Robert Copes, the treasurer of Orangeburg, SC. During the trial, Wannamaker was called to testify to the character of Jones, who had served as a special detective in the case, with Wannamaker delivering an unflattering appraisal.

From that point forward, Jones expressed a determination to seek revenge on Wannamaker whenever the opportunity presented itself, according to the Times.

In the summer of 1897, Wannamaker, a member of the New York Cotton Exchange and representative of New York-based Robert Moore & Co., was traveling throughout the South for his firm.

July 23, 1897 headline from New York Times detailing shooting of Charles Jones by Heber Wannamaker in Bamberg, SC.

July 23, 1897 headline from New York Times detailing shooting of Charles Jones by Heber Wannamaker in Bamberg, SC.

On July 22, near Bamberg’s livery stables, Wannamaker and Jones met face to face for the first time since the Murphy trial. Jones came at him with malice in his heart, according to the Times.

“Jones immediately attacked him, and, being a man of powerful physique, would soon have killed him with the knife he brandished,” according to the publication. “Mr. Wannamaker warned him to keep back, but Jones advanced rapidly, and was about to strike a fatal blow, when a well-directed shot through the brain stopped him. He fell dead at the feet of his intended victim.”

The Times, employing an editorial bent common to papers of the era, added that the killing was “clearly in self-defense,” and added that Wannamaker would soon be released on bond.

It’s unclear why Heber Wannamaker’s brother, William W. Wannamaker, was also labeled as a “murderer” on Jones’ tombstone. The handful of stories available about the incident on the Internet don’t mention William Wannamaker being involved or even on hand when the confrontation took place.

Heber and William Wannamaker, both of whom had attended prestigious Wofford College during an era when few individuals managed to make it through high school, would go on to enjoy successful careers.

Heber Wannamaker, for example, would go on to serve as president, treasurer and majority shareholder of Glencoe Cotton Mills of Columbia, a 5,000-spindle mill that began operation in 1909 after being capitalized with $100,000 in stock, the equivalent of more than $2.5 million today. He would die in Columbia in 1926 at age 63. William would live until 1945, dying in Orangeburg at age 73.

Still, nearly 120 years after Heber Wannamaker acted in self-defense in the killing of Charles Jones, seemingly borne out by the fact that he was never prosecuted, he and his brother, thanks to a gravestone in a small South Carolina cemetery, remain tainted with the label of murder.

Charles Jones, it would seem, got the last word in at least one respect.

(Top: Gravestone of Charles F. Jones in Restland Cemetery, Bamberg, SC.)

10 thoughts on “Dead man, struck down in 19th century feud, gets last word

  1. Perhaps the families of those dying as a consequence of being denied benefits to which they are legitimately entitled could copy this, using the name of Ian Duncan Smith, the man responsible for the shambles…but given the way the U.K. is going the monumental mason would probably be arrested on suspicion of terrorism…
    Am I glad to be out of there!

  2. Except he didn’t erect his own gravestone. So technically I’d argue that you could sue whoever authorised it. It’s a bit like someone might write a letter to the editor, and if it’s libellous the editor/newspaper can get sued too.

    • Yes, his parents were the ones who probably have been on the hook had anyone wanted to pursue it. But I suppose going after the grieving parents, no matter if their son was in the wrong, doesn’t make good sense.

  3. I’m a member of the family. Uncle Charlie agreed to stay at the barn while the other men went to church. He was outside the barn propped against the side of the barn in the sunshine with his eyes closed. Wanamaker walked up and shot Charles through the eye. Charles never saw him or attacked Wanamaker. At that time there were no laws, as far as I know, that prohibited tombstone accusations.

    • Yes, it would seem that justice was rarely served in the “good old days.” It would appear that the Wannamakers had a good deal of money, which likely helped them avoid prosecution. And as far as the tombstone, something isn’t libelous if it’s true, right?

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