Raising Hell in a District of Devils: Honor & Violence as Edgefield Family Tradition

Raising Hell in a District of Devils:
Honor & Violence as Edgefield Family Tradition

By James “Trae” Welborn III

Anglican itinerant Parson Mason Locke Weems once reviled the Edgefield District of the colonial South Carolina backcountry as “pandemonium itself, a very district of devils.”[1] His rather harsh appraisal could easily be deemed the mere ravings of a frustrated clergyman (and sometimes book peddler) short of converts, congregants, and subscribers. But upon examining the turbulent history of Edgefield, violence abounds—much of it prosecuted in the name of masculine honor—and Parson Weems appears both intuitive critic and perceptive prophet. As colonial Edgefield matured into its antebellum years, it never outgrew its raucous frontier beginnings and increasingly exalted its honor-bound traditions. These latter-day recontres may have taken on the more genteel trappings of the code duello, as Edgefield’s most prominent men paraded through the halls of the South Carolina Statehouse and the United States Congress, but back home in the ‘field, honor often assumed its more primal forms. The three families that populate these pages—the Glovers, Tillmans, and Samuels—personify this Edgefield tradition for honor and violence. In them, we witness firsthand the prevalence of honor and its often viciously violent ends. And through them we glimpse the dark personal urges lurking behind the Old South’s public display of honor and manhood.

Scant record of Edgefield’s Glover family survives, beyond census returns and newspaper reports revealing their relative wealth, at least as measured by their considerable slave property, a clear marker of wealth and status in the Old South’s slave society. Their most conspicuous presence in the historical record comes on the county court docket, where they repeatedly found themselves involved in affrays and fisticuffs of the most egregious kind. One such happenstance took place September 2, 1844, when Joseph W. Glover exchanged shots with Lovett Gomillion on Edgefield’s courthouse steps, ultimately meeting his maker by a bullet “in the right breast which killed him instantly.”[2] Arising from an undisclosed dispute, Glover accosted Gomillion outside the courthouse amid a bustling sale dale crowd, exclaiming, “Damn you Gomillion, prepare and defend yourself!” before firing, and missing, his mark. Gomillion briefly retreated, then wheeled around pistol ablaze with the final fatal shot. The whole affair elicited a pointed call by Edgefield’s journalistic paragons for legislation prohibiting“the pernicious practice of carrying concealed and deadly weapons,” asserting that the “welfare of the community” demanded “the attention of our Legislators” in whose “hands must the remedy be found.”[3]

The Glover clan again found trouble nearly a decade later when Eldred Glover strode into Doby’s Bar, just off Edgefield’s Courthouse Square, and demanded that Dr. Walker Samuel explain a certain letter, which Glover alleged Samuel to have written and which contained a number of perceived insults. Dr. Samuel flatly refused an explanation and challenged Glover to meet him the next Monday at Sand Bar Ferry (a noted dueling ground on the Savannah River), saying “and you shall have satisfaction with the weapons of warfare.” After another inquiry by Glover regarding the letter, Samuel tersely responded that he “wished to have no correspondence with a damned rascal.” At this affront, Glover, who went unarmed, punched Samuel, rendering him slightly askew and causing him to drop his saddlebags. The Dr. quickly recovered, however, and drew his pistol, firing twice at Glover inside the bar. Glover took to the streets, with Samuel in hot pursuit, firing at will in Glover’s direction. One of these found their mark, entering Glover’s side and exiting through his abdomen. He perished within twenty four hours.[4] Edgefield’s editors here abstained from comment regarding “the character and complexion of the difficulty,” their staunch reprisal of those carrying concealed weapons apparently not extending to cases where personal friends and esteemed physicians were concerned.[5]

As boisterous as the Glovers appear, their “exploits” pale in comparison to those of the more widely renowned name of Tillman. Our faithful readers will no doubt recall our previous exposition on the heinous murder committed by one George Dionysus Tillman upon the personage of a mechanic of James Henry Christian, wherein we expounded upon the affair’s incorporation of the violent traditions associated with manly honor.[6] Though the elder George certainly set a high standard for belligerence, his siblings rivaled him nonetheless. The youngest Benjamin Ryan undoubtedly kindles the our readers’ memories of the one-eyed plough boy who attained the South Carolina Governor’s mansion in 1890 and entered the U.S. Senate in 1894, serving until his death in 1918. His record of rhetorical vitriol and violent deeds needs no explication here. Another middling brother, John M. Tillman, upheld the family’s pugnacious tradition well, and was thus hurried to his grave on one inauspicious occasion in April of 1860, when he was gunned down on the Plank Road between Edgefield Courthouse and the town of Hamburg in the southerly section of the district. In route to the family steam mill, Tillman’s progress was obstructed by George R. Mays and his son John, who took issue with Tillman, calling him a “damned rascal” and refusing to yield their position to allow Tillman passage. Tillman, in true family form, declared them both “damned liars” while announcing himself unarmed. George Mays vehemently responded “Damn you I’ll kill you anyway!” and fired a shot that lodged in Tillman’s chest. Tillman defiantly proclaimed, “I am a dead man, shoot until you are satisfied!” and the Mays accepted, pouring in three more rounds that found flesh. In the confusion that ensued, Tillman fled in a flurry to his mill, where he related his travails to Dr. Walker Samuel (our esteemed doctor and accomplished pistoleer of yore). The victim exhibited his stout constitution by lingering in a prostrated state for nearly three weeks before expiring.[7] Edgefield’s public pen again remained complacent, acknowledging only that Tillman’s killers were acquitted in court.[8]

The bustling merchant town of Hamburg, on the north bank of the Savannah River in Edgefield’s southern environs, bore witness to the final fatal affray to draw our gaze; one perpetrated by members of the Samuel family hailing from that vicinity. It’s unclear whether this clan claimed kinship with Dr. Walker Samuel who we’ve already twice encountered. Regardless, this collection of Samuel brothers—Joseph, Wade, and Musco—took a different tack in displaying their honor and manhood. On the 18th inst. in December of 1860, the Samuel brothers confronted one James Reynolds, also of Hamburg, regarding a perceived insult he paid them some time past. Reynolds denied the accusation outright, which denial Wade Samuel quickly labeled a “damn lie!” Joseph Samuel then challenged Reynolds to combat, which Reynolds again refused. Being thus denied “satisfaction” twice over, the Samuel brothers pilloried Reynolds with epithets and accused him of abolitionist sentiments. Reynolds, again, refused to acknowledge or deny these accusations, and the brothers proceeded to beat him mercilessly with a cane (an homage to fellow Edgefield pugilist Preston S. Brooks, perhaps) until he fell limp at their feet. The brothers threatened to shoot Reynolds but were convinced otherwise by the gathered crowd, whom they now warned against assisting Reynolds on pain of being shot. One of this crowd, however, did step forward to aid Reynolds, one Stephen Shaw, and the Samuel brothers quickly dispatched his poor soul with twelve pistol shots at point-blank range. Both Reynolds and Shaw expired immediately, the former from a fractured skull and the latter from a bullet to the head. This time, Edgefield’s courts rendered effective justice and convicted the Samuel brothers of a double homicide.[9] Yet Edgefield’s journalists forbore outright celebration of this verdict; they begrudgingly accepted the verdict but evinced a tacit acceptance of the affray and its honor-bound forms.

Thus, here we see Edgefield and her unbridled masculine excess; honor fomenting violence in the name of upholding white manhood. What we don’t see here is how public acceptance of such honor-bound violence could and did permeate hierarchies of race and gender to the decided advantage of the white male head of household. However, the willingness to countenance such honor and violence between white men implied an unwritten approval of the even more violent means of maintaining these relations between blacks and whites, men and women. Honor, in Edgefield and the Old South, could excuse masculine violence and justify its ends, and its actors went to great lengths to portray themselves and their actions in the requisite honorable light, despite their often dark and devilish intent.

– JHW


[1] Mason Lock Weems, The Devil In Petticoats, or God’s Revenge Against Husband Killing, (Edgefield, South Carolina: Advertiser Print—Bacon and Adams, 1878 ed.), 1.

[2] “The Murder of Joseph Glover by Lovett Gomillion, September 2, 1844,”  Edgefield County Judge of Probate:  Coroner’s Book of Inquisitions, 1844-1850; “Fatal Recontre,” Edgefield Advertiser, September 4, 1844—Edgefield County Archives (ECA).

[3] Ibid.

[4] “The Murder of Eldred Glover by Dr. Walker Samuel, March 2, 1852,” Edgefield County Judge of Probate:  Coroner’s Book of Inquisitions, 1851-1859; “Melancholy Affray,” Edgefield Advertiser, March 4, 1852—ECA.

[5] “Melancholy Affray,” Edgefield Advertiser, March 4, 1852—ECA.

[6] “The Murder of J.H. Christian by George D. Tillman,” Edgefield County Judge of Probate: Coroner’s Book of Inquisitions, July 21, 1856,; “Most Melancholy Occurrence,” Edgefield Advertiser, July 23, 1856; Mr. George D. Tillman,” Edgefield Advertiser, November 25, 1857; “Stop the Murderer!”, Edgefield Advertiser, October 15, 1856; “G.D. Tillman, Esqr.,” Edgefield Advertiser, February 10, 1858;

[7] “The Murder of John M. Tillman by George R. Mays and John C. Mays, April 19, 1860,” Edgefield County Judge of Probate:  Coroner’s Book of Inquisitions, 1859-1868; “Inquisition into the death of John M. Tillman, May 6, 1860,” Edgefield County Judge of Probate: Coroner’s Book of Inquisitions, 1859-1868; “Death of Mr. John M. Tillman,” Edgefield Advertiser, May 9, 1860—ECA.

[8] “Court Week,” Edgefield Advertiser, October 1860—ECA.

[9] “The Murder of James Reynolds by Joseph Samuel, Wade Samuel, and Musco Samuel, December 18, 1860,” and “The Murder of Stephen Shaw by Joseph Samuel, Wade Samuel, and Musco Samuel, December 18, 1860,” Edgefield County Judge of Probate:  Coroner’s Book of Inquisitions, 1859-1868; —ECA.

Advertisements
This entry was posted in 19th Century, General Commentary, JHW. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s