The Edgefield Tradition: Manly Honor and Masked Murder in the Old South

The Edgefield Tradition: Manly Honor and Masked Murder in the Old South

By James “Trae” Welborn III

The day had been like any other, and distinguished itself only in its tameness.  Situated between “sale day” and “court day,” this day had proceeded with unsettling calm—as lazy and hazy as the “dog days” ever were.  The sleepy village square—oft the scene of tumult and circumstance—seemingly yearned for its former glories, but found this thirst un-quenched in the July heat.  Many who wielded Edgefield’s public pen almost callously touted her tradition of “Murders, Duels, and the like” by proclaiming “The Dog-star must have been in the ascendant all Summer, if we may judge by the astonishing frequency of murders, duels, suicides, riots, rapes, etc., with which the newspapers have teemed.”[1]   They further ruminated, “Never do we remember to have heard the like, and we imagine it would even puzzle the ‘oldest inhabitant’ to recall so passionate a season.  Is it that the earth is growing worse as she descends the slope of time?”[2]  In this manner, they often fanned the flames of public distress . . . and journalistic intrigue.

Just as frequently, though, these purveyors of public opinion complained when the cacophony of the community languished.  Sale days (when farmers and merchants descended on the village to sell their crops and pawn their wares) and court days (when the circuit court judge presided over the local docket) figured prominently in the days of the “Dog-star.”  When such days went off without a proverbial hitch, our editors lamented their lack of fortune; “Our public day . . .   passed off very quietly and peaceably.  A single blood-stained countenance was all we saw to remind us of the sale-days of old. . .”[3]

But let us return to the day on which we began; that sultry summer evening in 1856 that seemingly promised to further frustrate Edgefield’s editors in their lust for foul play.  As evening drew near, however, a singular occurrence proffered repayment for their patience—in violent kind.  One George Dionysius Tillman pulled his pistol in a fit of passion and killed mechanic James Henry Christian over a game of faro.  These “combatants,” both respected white men in the Edgefield community, chose their words carefully while running their mouths recklessly—with a homicidal result.

This shooting on the square resembled many others across the Old South, as men of equal social standing settled their differences according to an honor code that bound them together as Southern men.  However, the limits of both honor and manhood became readily apparent in the wake of this fatal affray; Tillman referenced these cultural standards throughout the affair, and Christian’s family responded in kind, while each denied the other’s claim to such honor.  The resulting morass of manly honor and its murderous implications reveals the closet skeletons of an antebellum fixture—the Southern man of honor—and highlights Edgefield’s tradition of bearing his banner.

Our astute readers might perchance recognize the name of Tillman as one of some infamy in the Palmetto State; George’s younger brother Benjamin Ryan, twenty-one years his junior, seized the Governor’s office, and later occupied a Congressional Senate seat for South Carolina in the 1890s, achieving both distinctions with a brash and intensely personal political rhetoric.[4]  Benjamin frequently heralded George as “a second father to us all,” and much of the younger Tillman’s political persona and personal nature found a model in his elder brother.[5]  Prone to both bellicosity and brooding, George D. Tillman exhibited an early penchant for violence that pervaded his entire life, engaging in “numerous personal encounters” that tweaked his sense of personal honor.[6]

But lo, we’ve put the cart before the horse; the sordid deed upon which our countenance has fallen requires explication.  On the aforementioned evening of July 21, 1856, George D. Tillman engaged in a thereto friendly game of faro with Mr. E.T. Davis in the lobby of Edgefield’s Planters’ Hotel.  There being little else in the way of entertainment, this gambling exhibition acquired more interest than perhaps either its players or their skills warranted.  Notwithstanding this, a considerable crowd quickly gathered to witness the match.  Mr. J.H. Christian counted himself among this contingent, and as was generally his custom, stood by inconspicuously, taking in the affair.  However much his natural tendency leaned to the contrary, though, this particular incident would not long count him among the anonymous.[7]

When a dispute arose over the size of the bet placed on the most recent hand, Mr. Tillman supplicated the surrounding crowd for support.  Tillman, no doubt pleased with his developing hand and hoping to reap its benefits fully, contended that the bet had been set at ten dollars.  His opponent, anticipating Tillman’s current luck and propensity to imbibe spirits that fog the memory, countered that the bet had been only five dollars.  Once summoned, those in the crowd voiced their opinions, none more vocal than Mr. Christian, who denounced Tillman’s claim and came out in favor of Mr. Davis.  With a bellow heated by whiskey and disdain, Tillman declared Christian a “damned liar,” to which Christian promptly and passionately replied, “who do you call a damned liar?!”[emphasis added]  The mutual challenge made, both sides advanced toward one another.

Undoubtedly incensed by Christian’s implication of cheating, and emboldened by whiskey, Tillman wasted no time in reaching for his pistol.  His own honor thus affronted, and having provoked the honor of his opponent by calling him a liar, Tillman surely felt justified in his next action; he opened fire upon Christian, striking him in the breast at point-blank range.  Christian wheeled around, clutching his chest, and exclaimed, “Tillman, you’ve killed me!”  He expired within minutes, unarmed and quite literally unmanned.[8]

Given our newspapermen’s frequent lament of inactivity, surely this recontre rekindled their spirits!  But such was not the case; they deemed the affair “a most melancholy occurrence” and after recounting the incident in scant detail, concluded that “We forbear all comment.  The affair, we presume, will undergo judicial investigation.  For the present, however, Tillman has left and is not yet arrested.”[9]  Our readers undoubtedly harbor several emotions in light of this fact: the first concerns the apparent hypocrisy of the editors, who with a single breath decried the violent vagaries afflicting their community while growing nostalgic for past atrocities of a similar kind.  The second emotion—perhaps more exasperating—amounts to something in the way of “How can that be—not arrested?!  How for and whereto has Tillman escaped?!”  Before we expound upon the former, let us first address the latter.

Mr. Tillman absconded with his person—it soon became apparent—“to Nicaragua with Walker.”[10]  Here again, our readers might recall that famous personage William Walker, the “gray-eyed man of destiny” who achieved nothing short of idolatry among American men, especially in the South, between 1855 and 1857 for his filibustering exploits in Nicaragua.[11]  Whether Tillman actually served with Walker, or simply removed to New Orleans (where he willingly admitted upon his return having been delayed by a Yellow Fever attack) is open to conjecture.  The importance of his ties to Walker—regardless of their veracity—loomed especially large with respect to Tillman’s manly honor.  Without this honor, his actions against Mr. Christian the previous July appeared reckless.  With honor intact, he could claim to have acted in its defense, and thus have the Christian affair couched in its requisite language and behavior.  Linking his name—and explaining his immediate disappearance—with the martial valor credited Walker in Central America served at once to renounce his cowardice and reclaim his honor.

After presenting himself to the Edgefield County jail nearly two years distant his alleged murder of J.H. Christian, George D. Tillman received the most lenient treatment from authorities.  They allowed him to entertain family and friends, as well as resume his law practice, with minimal interference.  Authorities received Tillman into custody in February of 1858, and his formal trial began the following month.  The trial itself occupied only two days of the spring term’s docket, and after six hours of deliberation, a jury of Tillman’s peers returned a verdict of Manslaughter—reduced from one of Murder—that carried a $2000 fine.  The significance of this verdict cannot be overstated.  Manslaughter carried this steep fine but murder demanded the death penalty.  This decision by the court confirmed an old South Carolina adage; “If you’re going to commit a murder do it in Edgefield as jurors there understand the idiosyncrasies of a gentleman!”[12]

Our modern readers will undoubtedly recoil at the apparent absurdity of this decision that effectively allowed Tillman to get away with murder.  However, it is between the lines of this verdict, and the means by which it was rendered, that the true colors of the Southern honor code appear.  Any white Southern male of the period would have readily recognized the honor-bound language inherent in the Tillman-Christian affair.  Debates undoubtedly raged over Tillman’s proper course of action and whether he was justified in shooting Christian—who went unarmed—on this occasion.  Edgefield’s editorial paragons saw these discrepancies, as they felt compelled to announce their intimate acquaintance with the victim in stating: “Mr. Christian was well known to us . . . We drop an unfeigned tear of regret at his sad fate.  He was an independent and an honest man.  May God protect his widowed relict and fatherless daughters!”[13]  They continued this empathy for Christian when they included his family’s announcement, published after Tillman took flight: “Stop the Murderer!  We hereby offer a reward of Two hundred dollars for the apprehension and lodgment in the Edgefield Jail of George D. Tillman, who so ruthlessly Murdered our brother J.H. Christian, on the night of the 21st inst.”[14]  The announcement continued, “It is earnestly hoped that all true citizens, both in Carolina or elsewhere, will use their utmost endeavors in bringing this unprincipled wretch to justice.”[15]

Just as Tillman sought to secure his manly honor, both during the shooting and in his “filibustering” that followed, so too did Christian’s friends and family seek to establish the honor and manhood of J.H., while disparaging that of his murderer.  Much like the language exchanged during the melancholy occurrence itself, this honor-bound rhetoric would have found a ready audience among the general public, as well as the presiding judge and jury.  The community at large also recognized the stakes, again evidenced in the pages of the Advertiser; “Now that the heat of excitement, caused by his [Tillman’s] unfortunate reconter, has in large measure subsided, we trust that the friends of neither party will again allow their calmness to desert them.  So, all may yet be well, and the pangs of the past be righteously tempered by the kindness of the future.”[16]

Now, before our readers pass judgment upon Edgefield, her editors, and her judicial system, let them bear in mind the pervasiveness of manly honor in this bastion of the Old South.  Her editors and jurors, her judges and council, merely represented the voice of her people—a people well versed in the language and behavior of manly honor and its often-violent results.  “Nonsense!” our readers may say, “honor was but a convenient cloak for unbridled male excess!”  They might continue, “Those editors and jurors, those judges and councilmen, were nothing more than henchmen in a horrendous honor-bound homicide!”  To which we would respond, “The verity of your sentiments goes but so far.”

Certainly, behind the mask of manly honor lurked darker masculine abuses of power that included domestic violence against women, children, and slaves, as well as fraternal violence against other white men.  Egregious as this violence may seem to modern sensibilities, the exercise of such violence—within the bounds of the honor code—formed the basis of social power in the Old South.  The honor ideal enabled and empowered white men to lead, to rule, and to master their households, their communities, and their state.  But as evidenced in the Tillman-Christian case, this ideal often failed to match reality, serving only to mask masculine misgivings.  These misgivings appear all too real when viewed in the tradition of Old Edgefield, and epitomize the complexities of white male culture in the Old South.[17]

– JHW

[1] “Murders, Duels, and the Like,” Edgefield Advertiser, August 31, 1854, Edgefield County Archives (hereinafter ECA).

[2] Ibid.

[3] “Sale Day,” Edgefield Advertiser, April 5, 1854, ECA.

[4] For more on the life and career of Benjamin Ryan Tillman see: Francis Butler Simkins, Pitchfork Ben Tillman: South Carolinian, (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002 ed.), and for the role played by his older brother George, see especially pp. 31-35; 84-86; 293-294.  Also see Stephen Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman and the Reconstruction of White Supremacy, (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2000), 23-24.  On the Tillman family generally, see John A. Chapman, History of Edgefield County, South Carolina: From the Earliest Settlements to 1897, (Greenville, South Carolina: Southern Historical Press), 203-206.

[5] As quoted in Kantrowitz, Ben Tillman, 24.

[6] As quoted in Simkins, Pitchfork Ben, 32.

[7] “The Murder of J.H. Christian by George D. Tillman,” Edgefield County Judge of Probate: Coroner’s Book of Inquisitions, July 21, 1856, ECA.

[8] Ibid.

[9] “Most Melancholy Occurrence,” Edgefield Advertiser, July 23, 1856, ECA.

[10] “Mr. George D. Tillman,” Edgefield Advertiser, November 25, 1857, ECA.

[11] Amy S. Greenberg, Manifest Manhood and the Antebellum American Empire, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), 135-169.

[12] Bettis Rainsford and Tricia Price Glenn: This quote attributed to Wade Harrison of Troy, South Carolina.  It is representative of the reputation Edgefield “enjoyed” across South Carolina.  Over the last seventy-five years, Mr. Harrison’s father and grandfather told him this fact many times over.  The origin of the quote itself is not known, but the elder Harrison gentlemen were fond of repeating it, ECA.

[13] “Most Melancholy Occurrence,” Edgefield Advertiser, July 23, 1856, ECA.

[14] “Stop the Murderer!”, Edgefield Advertiser, October 15, 1856, ECA.

[15] Ibid.

[16] “G.D. Tillman, Esqr.,” Edgefield Advertiser, February 10, 1858, ECA.

[17] For more on Southern honor and manhood as depicted herein see: Bertram Wyatt-Brown, Southern Honor: Ethics and Behavior in the Old South, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982); Kenneth Greenberg, Honor & Slavery:Lies, Duels, Noses, Masks, Dressing as a Woman, Gifts, Strangers, Humanitarianism, Death, Slave Rebellions, The Pro-slavery Argument, Baseball, Hunting, And Gambling in the Old South, (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1996); Stephanie McCurry, Masters of Small Worlds: Yeoman Households, Gender Relations, and the Political Culture of the Antebellum South Carolina Low Country, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Steven M. Stowe, Intimacy and Power in the Old South: Ritual in the Lives of the Planters, (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987).

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3 Responses to The Edgefield Tradition: Manly Honor and Masked Murder in the Old South

  1. Angela says:

    Beautiful writing! Enjoyed it immensely!

  2. MCH says:

    Glad to see both Greenberg and Wyatt-Brown made it into the notes on honor… not sure why but people seem to neglect the former.

  3. John. Tillmann says:

    From a fellow by the name of Tillmann,here in Canada, I somewhat enjoyed the article. I’d just like to indicate that I believe that a man should still have recourse to carry a weapon, and settle any personal issue with it. Thinking this way, is not popular today, in our castrated and feminine society, so maybe I’m descended from the Tillman family of Edgefield South Carolina. Nonetheless I would not hesitate to strike anyone down, with whatever is at hand, if I felt justified in doing so. Thus, after the passage of a century and a half, the honor system is still alive and well, quite far from the old south, up here in “cooler” latitudes.

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