The July 1909 Filbert picnic was held on an ideal day with perfect weather, a large crowd, and good food. As usual, the Filbert camp of the Woodmen of the World (WOW) hosted the event. The committee of arrangements invited Benjamin R. Tillman, E. D. Smith, E. J. Watson (commissioner of agriculture), Professor Ira Williamson of the farm demonstration work, M. L. Smith of Camden, Claudius C. Featherstone, Cole L. Blease, D. E. Finley, and T. B. Butler of Gaffney. None of these, other than Butler, made an appearance.
- B. Jennings of York was asked to act as chairman and introduce Butler after Rev. R. M. Stevenson of Clover opened the event with prayer. Butler had nothing political to say but instead spoke of fraternal orders, like WOW and their objectives and accomplishments near and far. At the conclusion of Butler’s address, Jennings suggested taking an offering for the fund of a monument to the women of the Confederacy. A little more than $7 was collected.
The remainder of the day was spent enjoying dinner, socializing with friends and family, and being entertained by the Yorkville Cornet Band. This was in stark contrast to the last large gathering in York County earlier that year.
By the turn of the 20th century, outdoor public hangings had become a thing of the past, although hanging remained the chosen means of execution in South Carolina. They took place in county jails away from the public eye; however, once performed, the public was allowed to view the body while still suspended from the scaffolding. The last county execution took place on May 14, 1909, when a 16-year-old boy was hanged.
For most of his life the boy had been an orphan and at some time became the ward of a Fort Mill family. There, he grew into a teenager alongside the farmer’s daughter, who was three years younger.
In April of 1908, the boy became enamored of the young girl and attempted to force himself on her one morning. She successfully rejected his advances, but he pressed for her favors later, while they worked in the fields. Again, she was able to fight off his insistences, but quarreling between the two teens was off and on throughout the day.
Stung by her rejections, he left his plow and went to a nearby home, asking to borrow a shotgun to kill a mad dog. Returning, he shot the girl point blank in front of the other workers. The sight of his young love with a gaping wound was too horrible to face, so he fled.
Eventually, he was apprehended in Van Wyck, NC, and turned over to Sheriff Hugh G. Brown. While confined in the county jail, the boy learned about a planned jailbreak. Hoping to alert the sheriff, he passed along a note. But the prisoner who carried the message was illiterate and did not understand the urgency, so it did not reach the sheriff until the attempt was made.
When the teen came to trial before Judge George W. Gage, Solicitor J. K. Henry prosecuted for the state, and J. Porter Hollis was appointed defense attorney. The jury brought in a verdict of guilty without mercy, which automatically carried a penalty of death by hanging. Hollis made an appeal to the SC supreme court, but it was denied. Even Solicitor Henry petitioned Governor Ansel to commute the sentence to life, citing the boy’s difficult childhood and his attempt to aid the sheriff. But the petition was denied as well.
The execution was set for May 14, 1909. That day, several hundred thrill-seekers gathered around the jail prior to the appointed time, hoping to have a chance to view the body. Without any obvious emotion, the young man mounted the steps of the scaffolding. He said nothing as the noose was adjusted around his neck, his legs were tied, and a black hood was placed over his head.
According to the law, the sheriff read the death warrant and then asked if the condemned had any last words. For a moment the boy hesitated but then said, “I want to thank the sheriff and the rest of you for being so kind to me and I want you all to see where I am for what I have done, and I want you to meet me in Glory.” Again he paused and then said to the sheriff, “I’m ready to go.”
The sheriff replied simply, “Goodbye, son.”
“Goodbye sheriff,” he solemnly replied. With that Sheriff Brown, with all his might, swung the hatchet that triggered the trap door.
A full 30 minutes passed before Dr. Miles Walker was allowed to pronounce death. That done, the sheriff then opened the doors and allowed spectators to file into the jail, momentarily view the corpse, and file out. No one claimed the boy’s body, and the county provided for burial on the grounds of the County Home.
This was the last execution in York County. Shortly after the hanging, the South Carolina legislature made a provision that all future executions, beginning in 1912, would be performed in Columbia at the state penitentiary by electrocution.
Perhaps it was because so few speakers appeared at the 1909 Filbert picnic that interest in the event was so small the following year. And it did not seem to get any better; even the main speaker, E. D. Smith, failed to appear in 1910.
William Hand gave a very discouraging report on the condition of the state educational system, saying that of 166 high schools in the state, only 13 met proper standards. None of the schools in York County met the standards. It would not be until 1917 that the University of South Carolina would be accredited, the first in the state.
If the 1910 picnic was a disappointment, the one in 1911 made up for it. This picnic broke all previous attendance records with 3,000-4,000 people from all over the county. Senator W. H. Stewart of Rock Hill acted as the master of ceremonies and opened the day’s event at 10:00 that morning with a hearty welcome, followed by an invocation by J. C. Comer of York. The July picnickers enjoyed Friday’s bright, clear weather in the pine grove, where several refreshment stands had been built.
Probably the one invited speaker so many wanted to hear was Governor Blease, who had been elected to the office in the 1910 fall election, after two previously unsuccessful races. Blease was a crude loudmouth who had strong support of farmers and mill workers. So enamored with him, some named their children for him.
Blease won South Carolinians with his loud denunciation of government’s intrusion into private lives but did nothing to curtail violence that was rampant across the state, once declaring that lynching was “necessary and good.” One can imagine their disappointment when Senator Stewart announced the Governor had telephoned that he was unable to attend due to circumstances requiring him to remain in Columbia. But once the people accepted that the governor would not be there, they settled down to enjoy the other speakers and entertainment.
Major John G. Richards of Liberty Hill, the previous year’s candidate for governor and now candidate for railroad commissioner, spoke on the importance of the Farmers Union. This union represented the interests of cotton farmers and opposed other organizations that attempted to curtail the output of mills to lower the price of cotton. Only recently had they been successful in limiting the amount of bagging used to wrap bales of cotton for shipping. Richards said he witnessed farmers in Lancaster and Kershaw counties being forced by cotton buyers to cut off part of the bagging before it was purchased. Former Congressman John Gary Evans of Spartanburg stressed the importance to farmers of diversifying their crops since cotton growers in the west were fast becoming competitors, and it was doubted that the South could compete.
Though it was not mentioned from the speaker’s stand, the most talked-about subject was the brewing rumor that Cherokee County was scheming to take a strip of land from York County measuring four miles wide and 12 miles long. But it would not become public for several weeks until 30-40 men from that area came to get registration certificates to vote on the secession question.
- B. Butler and E. E. Decamp, both of Gaffney, had been meeting with people in the area, telling them the advantages of being annexed into Cherokee County. They made promises of a steel bridge over the Broad River at Smith’s Ford, better roads, lower property taxes, and a commutation tax of only $1 instead of York County’s $3. R. W. Whitesides believed the town of Smyrna was not included, but E. D. Darwin said it would certainly be included, along with a strip of the Kings Mountain battleground and Piedmont Springs. Eventually, several square miles was allowed to secede from the rest of the county.
Next part: The 1912 picnic and destruction falls from the skies over Clover.
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!
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