‘Fake news’ often more enticing, entertaining than reality

There has been significant discussion recently regarding “fake news.” Much of what is being touted as fake news would, in the past, simply have been labeled as the propaganda it is. On the other hand, some so-called fake news is simply mistaken reporting. Neither are new trends.

Take the latter: 95 years ago newspapers across the Carolinas ran a story detailing how workers toiling in a rural Saluda County church cemetery on July 2, 1922, had uncovered a macabre secret:

Grave diggers, while digging a grave at Dry Creek church, dug into a grave that seemed to have been dug in the wrong place and unearthed a skeleton, finding a rope around the neck with a large knot in the rope under the right ear. The condition of the skeleton showed that it had apparently been buried some 50 years. Parts of the coffin remained and the plate with the words, ‘Rest in Peace,’ could easily be read. There seems to be some mystery concerning the identification of the body. The grave itself was where no grave was supposed to be, and the oldest inhabitant of the community knows nothing of anyone who had been hanged being buried in the cemetery.

While the article itself didn’t suggest it, 50 years prior to 1922 would have been during the height of Reconstruction, a turbulent period when extralegal justice was meted out on a regular basis. To uncover a skeleton in an unmarked grave with a rope around its neck would suggest someone had met with an untoward end.

Of course, few lynching victims were sent off to their eternal reward in coffins with a plate inscribed “Rest in Peace.”

Initially, the unidentified skeleton was quickly reburied, but a short time later two men decided to inspect it more closely, according to a second story, which appeared in the Edgefield Advertiser on July 12, 1922. Edgefield is about 12 miles from Dry Creek Baptist Church Cemetery.

The skeleton was discovered to be that of a woman, and the “rope” was actually a long plait of hair that “had been coiled around her head coronet fashion, after the times,” according to the Advertiser.

With time and decomposition, the hair had come detached from the scalp and slipped down around the neck, giving it the appearance of a rope, it added.

But while the first story, with its mysterious insinuations, ran in papers in both South Carolina and North Carolina, the follow-up article only appears to have been printed in the Edgefield publication.

As a result, even today the tale of the unidentified hanging victim still has credence, despite the mystery having been cleared up within a couple of weeks of its discovery.

Even today, many love a good conspiracy story; reality, though, is often much less interesting and, as a result, fails to gain the same coverage.

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Recalling an honest man, ‘the noblest work of God’

old waxhaw graveyard

A number of notable individuals are interred at Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church Cemetery in South Carolina’s Lancaster County, just south of the North Carolina state line.

These include Andrew Jackson Sr., the father of the seventh US president; William Richardson Davie, who led American troops in the Revolutionary War, served as governor of North Carolina and is considered the founder of the University of North Carolina; and James Witherspoon, lieutenant governor of South Carolina from 1826-28.

One individual who doesn’t garner the recognition of the above but is certainly worthy of acknowledgement is William Blair, who came from Ireland to the US in the early 1770s.

Like many of the men buried at Old Waxhaw, Blair served the American cause in the Revolution. His contributions are etched onto the horizontal slab that sits atop a “chest tomb,” a brick and mortar edifice constructed over his grave.

Blair’s epitaph contains more than 300 words, engraved in fine script that must have taken a stone carver a fair bit of time to craft.

It details the date of Blair’s birth and death, that he arrived from County Atrium at age 13 and that he was preceded in death by his wife Sarah, who rests next to him.

What’s of particular note, however, is the description of Blair’s involvement in the American Revolution, and his life afterward:

“He was a Revolutionary Patriot: – And in the humble Stations of private Soldier and Waggon master. it is believed he Contributed more essentially to the Establishment of American Independence than many whose names are proudly emblazoned on the page of History. With his Father’s waggon he assisted in transporting the baggage of the American Army for several months. – He was also in the battles of the Hanging Rock. – The Eutaw, Ratliff’s bridge, Stono – and the Fish dam ford on broad river. …”

View of William Blair's gravestone at Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Click to see bigger image.

View of William Blair’s gravestone at Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church Cemetery. Click to see bigger image.

The engagements referred to are the battles of Hanging Rock, Aug. 6, 1780; Eutaw Springs, Sept. 8, 1781; Ratliff’s or Radcliff’s Bridge, March 6, 1781; Stono Ferry, June 20, 1779; and Fishdam Ford, Nov. 9, 1780.

Given that there were more battles and skirmishes fought in South Carolina than any other American colony during the Revolution, it’s almost a certainty that Blair saw action at other encounters, as well.

Just as interesting is what follows after the details of Blair’s service:

“In one of these battles (it is not recollected which) he received a slight wound: but so far from regarding it, either then or afterwards, when it was intimated to him that he might avail himself of the bounty of his Country and draw a Pension (as many of his Camp associates had done) he declared that, if the small Competence he then possessed failed him, he was both able and willing to work for his living; and if it became necessary, to fight for his Country without a penny of pay. He was in the Language of Pope, The noblest work of God – an honest man. ‘No farther seek his merits to disclose, Or draw his frailties from their dread abode; (There they alike in trembling hope repose) The bosom of his Father and his God.’”

Blair died on July 2, 1824, at age 65. He and his wife Sarah had seven children, including one son, James, who served four terms in Congress.

Today, Americans remember the likes of George Washington, Marquis de Lafayette and John Paul Jones when they’re able to recall any military leaders from the Revolution War at all.

But were it not for William Blair and thousands of others like him, men who served dutifully during the conflict and then quietly went about the business of building a nation, it’s difficult to imagine that the Founding Fathers’ ambitions would have ever been realized.

(Top: View of Old Waxhaw Presbyterian Church Cemetery, Lancaster County, SC.)

A memorable finale not always all it’s cracked up to be

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Some desire an impressive demise, that they may be remembered by posterity. Sometimes, though, a conspicuous passing not only comes at a heavy price, but leaves a melancholy shadow for future generations.

Take John King. He’s buried in Elmwood Cemetery in Charlotte, NC. His grave marker depicts an artfully designed elephant and palm tree carved into a marble shaft. It reads:

“Erected by the members of the John Robinson Circus in memory of John King. Killed at Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 27, 1880 by the elephant CHIEF. May he rest in peace.”

King was an elephant trainer and Chief one of seven elephants that were part of the John Robinson Circus, a family-owned circus that toured the country from 1842 until 1911.

Chief, described as a large bull elephant, was apparently a handful and not fond of King. However, all the other elephants in the circus were said to love their trainer, who was quite accomplished at his trade, according to a story the New Orleans Picayune ran more than a quarter century after the event, based on a 1907 interview with an individual who was on hand when King was killed.

One elephant in particular, named Mary, was said to be “crazy” about King, and would “trumpet with delight whenever she saw him approaching,” Ed Cullen told the New Orleans paper.

Mary was far bigger than Chief, and her weight and power gave her the right to shine in the role of the wife who wears the trousers, but for all Mary’s Amazonian tendencies she was not a flirt, and gave Chief no cause for jealousy. But Chief early took a dislike to King, the trainer, for no other reason, I believe, than that Mary showed great affection for the man, and there were times that if King ever came near Chief the elephant would give unmistakable signs of anger and a dangerous gleam would show in his mean little eyes.

Once Chief lashed out at King with his trunk when the trainer was sweeping Mary’s sides with a broom, and the swing of the blow just missed the man. King jumped to one side, and as he did so Mary, with a bellow of rage, smashed the smaller elephant a blow on the head with her trunk that brought Chief to his knees. Mary was ready for a charge, her big head lowered to serve as a battering—ram, and Chief would have fared badly that had not King acted promptly. He knew that he could trust Mary. And, springing in front of the big beast, extended both his arms, and cried: ‘Get back, girl: there now!’ His order was obeyed, and Mary, wheeling around, went off quietly to her place, and so a panic in the elephant house was averted.

The John Robinson Circus traveled not by train but by using its elephants and horses to move its animals and wagons from town to town, Cullen recalled. Mary was particularly adept at keeping the other elephants in line, moving wagons out of ruts on hard country roads, carrying tent poles in their trunks or handling other manual labor as needed.

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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.

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Dirtbag desecrates Civil War veteran’s grave

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Grave robbing may not rank up there with murder, rape or assault with a deadly weapon, but there seems something particularly heinous about the crime. One supposes an individual willing to disturb the dead has, in all likelihood, little respect for the living, either.

It’s unclear how often this reprehensible act takes place, but it likely occurs more than most of us realize.

Among the most recent cases is one that came to light earlier this month in Georgia.

Nearly 150 years after a Confederate officer succumbed to disease contracted during the War Between the States, his remains were desecrated and dug up from a Crawford County cemetery.

First Lieutenant James Alexander Nichols of Company F of the 57th Georgia Infantry Regiment died from dysentery on Nov. 9, 1866, and was buried in Old Bethel Methodist Church Cemetery in west-central Georgia.

More than likely, Nichols’ remains were disturbed by a cretin looking for artifacts, such as uniform buttons or similar items. Many men who served in the Civil War, particularly those who died during or just after the war, were buried in their uniforms.

The Crawford County sheriff, Lewis Walker, said he was initially unsure why someone would disturb the grave, but, in a comment showing remarkably little intuition, said he was “hoping family members of the deceased might have ideas.”

Last year, two Georgia men were arrested and charged with grave robbing after the remains of five Confederate and Revolutionary soldiers were disinterred in Burke County, Ga., which is due east from Crawford County, on the border with South Carolina. Both men were later sentenced to five years in prison.

According to records, Nichols was elected brevet second lieutenant for Company F, 2nd Regiment, Georgia State Troops on Oct. 14, 1861. He was mustered out in 1862 and elected second lieutenant for Company F of the 57th Georgia on May 3, 1862, in Savannah. He was promoted to first lieutenant on Jan. 11, 1863.

Nichols was surrendered at Vicksburg on July 4, 1863, and paroled three days later. According to terms of his parole, Nichols agreed not to “ … take up arms again against the United States, nor serve in any military, police or constabulary force in any Fort, Garrison or field work, held by the Confederate States of America, nor as guard of prison, depots or stores, nor discharge any duties usually performed by Officers or soldiers, against the United States of America, until duly exchanged by the proper authorities.” Continue reading

Idiot fined for pretending to be ghost in graveyard

It was said that Samuel Colt’s famed revolver was the great equalizer in that it put men on a comparable footing when it came to defending themselves. That wasn’t necessarily the case, however, unless one knew how to wield a weapon.

The real equalizer has always been and will always be alcohol, for if one imbibes enough one can sink to a level of idiocy on par with most any other Grade A souse.

Take Anthony Stallard of Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, who was fined for, among other things, pretending to be a ghost in a cemetery, according to The Guardian.

The unemployed 24-year-old had been out drinking with friends when they went to Kingston cemetery in Portsmouth, where they started to play soccer.

Witnesses reported the group then began engaging in rowdy behavior, with one – Stallard – throwing his arms in the air and saying “woooooo” within earshot of mourners visiting graves, according to a Hampshire police spokesman.

Stallard was fined £35 (nearly $60) and ordered to pay a £20 (nearly $35) victim surcharge and £20 in costs.

Stallard also had an extra three months added to a conditional charge for previous harassment which he was found to be in breach of, according to a Crown Prosecution Service spokeswoman.

A charge of causing criminal damage to gravestones was dismissed.

Sure, some potted lout throwing his arms in the air and saying “woooooo” is good for a laugh, but the part about doing it while people visit the graves of family members and the damaging of gravestones is hardly funny.

As the photo above indicates, Kingston cemetery is filled with many old gravestones; just because Stallard is without self-respect doesn’t mean he should get away with disrespecting others, whether they be dead or living descendants of the dead.

Wreaking havoc in cemetery may seem to some a victimless crime, but the desecration of gravestones shows a very real contempt for society as a whole.

A more fitting punishment would have been to have Stallard repair damage done and spend weekends maintaining the graveyard. While unlikely, there’s always the chance he would have gained at least a small understanding of why cemeteries are held to be reverent and historic locales by many.

However, one suspects this won’t be Stallard’s last brush with the law, so it’s likely there will be future opportunities for a judge or judges to consider interesting sentences for this miscreant.

(Top: Kingston cemetery, Portsmouth, Hampshire, England. Photo credit: The Guardian.)

A glimpse back at SC’s dissonant past

Conventional wisdom holds that the subject of race in the South is an inflexible, immutable issue, separate and distinct as regards blacks and whites. Just as importantly, it always has been, according to popular notion.

A couple of cursory examples:

  • Southern blacks today are overwhelmingly seen as being aligned with the Democratic Party, while a solid majority of Southern whites are Republicans; and
  • If you visit a so-called “black church” or a “white church” you’ll rarely find many people of the opposite race on hand.

But as selectively segregated as some institutions may appear to be today, there’s no doubt that race relations have thawed considerably in the region over the past 40 years. Obviously, Jim Crow didn’t do a whole lot to bring people of different backgrounds together prior to that, nor was it designed to.

However, one occasionally stumbles across a glimpse of a past that shows that not everything was as neatly delineated between the two races as today’s stereotypical view of yesteryear might have us believe.

If one looks hard enough, there are examples that show the South, like any part of the United States, was and is an infinitely more complex region than today’s television pundits and political opportunists would have us believe.

Case in point: Earlier this month while rambling through the South Carolina Upstate, I came across New Enoree Baptist Church, located in rural Newberry County, about six miles northeast of the town of Newberry.

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