The Rock Hill Record reported on April 1, 1909 – “In Sharon News, Mr. C.L. Herbert and family are now living in Sharon. He is a carpenter and is working with Dempsey Good, his brother in law. Mr. Good has a contract for Good Brother’s Store.”
Whether it’s a town of 300 like Sharon in Western York County or a metropolis like New York, towns perform a lot of unseen tasks to provide services for their citizens. For a small town, especially around the turn of the 20th century, these tasks were more simple, as the 1891-1920 treasurer’s ledger for the town of Sharon reveals. In those days, one or two men were all that were needed to provide water, a sewer system, sanitation, and law enforcement for a small town, whereas today, each service requires a separate department and a battery of employees.
In 1889 when the town of Sharon was chartered, its councilmen were immediately faced with providing their citizens with certain services — water, good roads, sewage disposal, and the endless job of maintaining order and keeping residents within the bounds of the law. Water being one of the basic needs of people and animals, the town’s leaders began working toward a public water system by digging a well in the middle of town.
Since most homes would have retrieved their water from nearby springs or dug wells in their yards, the public well was primarily for use by merchants and animals. This public, rock-lined well was probably 50 or 60 feet deep and was covered by a wooden cover and lid under a simple, shingled roof. A watering trough, bucket, and dipper accompanied the well. Periodically (usually once each year), the well was cleaned of any rubbish, rodents, or birds that might have fallen in. In 1905 the town was paying $1.50 for the performance of this task. In 1913 Dempsey Good was paid $105 for digging a new public well. John Rainey Saye, son of Doctor Saye, was paid $1.40 for filling in the old well while his uncle, John S. Rainey, purchased the old well house for $2.50.
A second service offered by the budding town was a public restroom (privy). Though it’s not a pleasant thought, the privy collection pit had to be cleaned monthly, sometimes twice a month during hot summers. This job paid $1.00 to $1.50 each time the cleaning was performed. Several local men — Dave Lee, Charley Pratt, and Hayes Robbins — performed this job for years.
Usually, the performance of a town’s services, both today and yesteryear, quietly takes place without notice. This, we would certainly expect from a small, rural town near the turn of the 20th century. In reality, those were violent times, and towns across the county sometimes resembled the Wild West. A perusal of county coroner’s records and police logs might startle you (or anyone) with the frequency of violent acts and blatant disregard for the law that was countywide.
Less than a year after the chartering of the town of Sharon in 1889, Matt Darwin was walking on the railway tracks outside of Sharon on his way to work on the George Leech farm near Hickory Grove. Most pedestrians used the train line, as it was the shortest route and was easier to walk on than the dirt roads. He was just outside of Sharon when he discovered a mangled body scattered for several yards along the tracks. He continued on to his employer’s home — George Leech was also the magistrate for Broad River and Bullocks Creek townships.
Leech visited the scene, and someone later had the messy job of collecting the body parts, putting them in a box, and taking them to Sharon. There, Leech conducted an inquest on May 28, 1890. The jury concluded that “John Doe” was struck by a train while walking on the tracks intoxicated.
Within a few days, a second inquest was held to positively identify the body. William Ross noted the body was “torn to pieces and packed in a box when I saw it. The head was not entire.” Yet, he was able to identify it as the body of Robert Bradford. Bob Sutton could not make much of the mangled pieces but recognized the shoes as belonging to Bradford. Inquest juror W. L. Plexico, a resident of Sharon, gave positive identification, saying that he knew it was Bradford by the remaining portion of his face and moustache.
Bradford’s death passed from most people’s memory. After all, drunks are struck by trains all of the time. Three years later a couple of inmates (Matt Byers and Fred Rainey) were in the York County jail waiting for their trials, sitting up late one night “chewing the fat.” Matt Byers had been arrested for housebreaking, and Fred for selling illegal liquor. During that late-night session, Byers confided that three years earlier he and three others had killed and robbed a man near Sharon.
Rainey passed the conversation to George Witherspoon, the jail cook, who passed the story to Deputy Sheriff P. W. Love. Once the story was made known to the public, W. D. Grist of the Yorkville Enquirer came to interview Byers on March 29. The prisoner was escorted from his cell to the debtor’s room where Grist and Love heard his story. Byers pretended “to be ignorant at first and did not want to talk about it,” but when Love suggested that he might be able to help him on the larceny charge, Byers began to spill the beans.
Byers said that during the afternoon of May 28, 1890, he, Thomas Jackson, and Robert Bradford were walling in a well when Bert Byers came by to see Jackson. He visited with Jackson for about 30 minutes and, in the course of conversation, found that the men were going to be paid later that day. Greed began to permeate Byers’ soul.
Sometime later during the day, Bert met with brothers George and Ed McCaw and told them how they might lay their hands on some easy money. The three plotted to waylay Bradford on the railroad tracks just outside of Sharon as he walked home that evening. The men gathered at the chosen site and began playing cards to pass the time. After some time, Matt Byers came by, and they decided to cut him in, making it a four-way split. Matt was sent up the tracks to hide in the bushes and give a whistle when he saw Bradford coming.
By the time Bradford was leaving Sharon, the sun had already set, but the moon was so bright, it was easy to travel by foot. Matt stayed at his position, not knowing that Bradford had left town by an alternate route and would join the main tracks past his position. When the other men saw Bradford, he was nearly upon them, but they decided to go though with their plan.
The McCaws stepped onto the tracks and asked their intended victim for a drink of whiskey. When he told them that he had none, one of the assailants called him a liar and grabbed him by collar and threw him to the ground. Another began beating Bradford unmercifully with a heavy stick. Byers heard the commotion and arrived at the scene as Bradford was “kicking his last kick.” After robbing their victim, they decided that the best way to cover their crime was to place the body on the tracks, even placing it so that the neck laid on a rail. When they finished, they threw the club into Bullocks Creek and hid behind a cedar bush to wait for the night passenger train to do its bloody work.
Several days after Byers made his confession to Deputy Sheriff Love and Grist, Yorkville (now York) attorney Hart came to hear the account straight from Byers. Hart had been hired by the railroad company to investigate the “accident” in case they were sued for damages. Hart had “come to knowledge and belief from facts and circumstances” that Bradford had been murdered and placed on the tracks to cover the crime, clearing the railroad of any responsibility.
Matt Byers’ trial was placed on the fall docket and began on October 31. Love’s testimony and plea for leniency obviously was effective since the jury returned a verdict of “Not guilty.” He was released within hours of the trial. The others paid the price in the state penitentiary.
J.L. West – Author
This article and many others found on the pages of Roots and Recall, were written by author J.L. West, for the YC Magazine and have been reprinted on R&R, with full permission – not for distribution or reprint!
Please enjoy this structure and all those listed in Roots and Recall. But remember each is private property. So view them from a distance or from a public area such as the sidewalk or public road.
Do you have information to share and preserve? Family, school, church, or other older photos and stories are welcome. Send them digitally through the “Share Your Story” link, so they too might be posted on Roots and Recall.
User comments always welcome - please post at the bottom of this page.