City Directories and History: The Rock Hill Herald reported on April 8, 1899 – “The Iredell Land Company of Rock Hill has been placed in the hands of a receiver by the action of the First National Bank of Charlotte, a large creditor. The company does not have funds to repay its loans. It was organized in 1893 for the purpose of improving and selling real estate in Rock Hill. It was the competitor of the Rock Hill Land and Site Company for the location of Winthrop College.”
The Herald reported on Jan. 6, 1900 – “Land of the Iredell Land Co., has been sold at auction. Of the 51 lots, 21 were sold. Julian Friedheim and W.B. Wilson purchased the lots.”
On May 29, 1879, just three days before Churchill (Church) Williford was killed, the people of Rock Hill enjoyed a picnic at Strawberry Plains, (Rock Hill historian Wm. B. White, Jr., refers to this as Strawberry Hill, not Plain), the home of Captain Iredell Jones. One of the many guests was 23- year-old James (Jim) P. Caston and his date, Annie McLaughlin. The Rock Hill Record reported on Oct. 6, 1924 – “G.W. Harvey, for the past two years Supt. of the Iredell-Jones farm (Strawberry Hill), has rented the storeroom adjoining the Robinson’s Sporting Goods Store on Hampton Street and will open a fancy grocery business.”
Jim was a quiet, peaceable man and a consistent member of the Episcopal Church. Two years earlier, in 1877, he opened a dry goods business in Rock Hill on Railroad Street, now Trade Street.
Around noon while Jim and Annie sat in his buggy under the shade of a tree, William joined them. When Annie asked Jim to get her some water, he asked Frew to stay with her while he went to a nearby well. Annie quench her thirst, handed the glass back to Jim, and he went to return it to the well. On his way back, he saw that Church Williford was at the buggy and heard him say something about her having done him “a dirty mean trick,” and then Church exploded, “By God, Miss Annie, you are no lady.” Frew grabbed Williford by the shoulder and commanded, “Hush, Church!”
Jim, now at the buggy, heard Williford cursing Frew for interfering, and he told him to quiet down, but Williford continued. Sarah McMatthews, a black woman who lived at Strawberry Plains was at the well when the arguing took place and saw Charlotte Williford, Church’s sister, come on the scene with her escort, J. L. Walker. When Charlotte tried to get her brother to calm down, he shouted, “I don’t care for a common man’s life. What do I care for a poor man’s life? I have the money to pay for it!”
Some distance away, Captain Allen Jones, brother of host Iredell Jones, nudged his brother and pointed out the row that was brewing. Allen mouthed to his brother to keep the band playing to distract the guests.
When Jones arrived on the scene, he tried to get Williford to settle down. When Williford refused to listen to reason, Jim decided it was best to get Annie away from the irate man. As he was helping her out of the buggy, Caston, Jones, and Frew were all trying to get Williford to hush. When Jim and Annie walked toward the house, Church shouted, “By God, Miss Annie, you are no lady!” And to Jim, “You G_____ son of a b____, do you take it up?” Caston did not reply and Williford shouted, “Never mind, I’ll get you!”
Williford jerked loose from Frew and made a move as though he was about to pull a gun. Frew told him to go ahead, that he was not afraid of him. Gradually, the others rejoined the picnic, but Williford hung around a while and made a nuisance of drinking and using abusive language. Among his friends he made a number of threats against Caston, saying, “Yes, d___ him, I intend to cowhide him,” and, “I’ll whip Jim Caston and Frew before night.”
When Williford finally left the picnic, everyone thought they had seen the last of him, but around 4:00 in the afternoon he returned, confronted Caston, and said, “I understand you want satisfaction tomorrow. I will give it to you at anytime, of any shape that you want.”
Some said the quarrel between Caston and Williford resulted from Williford being denied a position in the Catawba Rifles. But others said that the man was prone to take up a quarrel solely based on an imagined offense. Williford came from a well-to-do family, and he was known to have made remarks like the one he said to his sister about buying a poor man’s life. Those who were acquainted with him described him as being frank with a lively temperament that lead to his loud-mouthed attitude, which was worse when he was drinking.
John London, however, said he was dangerous when he was angry “whether sober or not.” He could not tolerate rejection, as was evidenced on the day of the picnic when he spoke with Annie McLaughlin. A year before he had created a scene at the Presbyterian Church when a young woman declined his offer to escort her home, by cursing and firing his pistol.
Later in the evening after seeing Annie home, Caston went to his business to take care of a few matters. He was soon joined by Allen Jones. Sitting on the store’s front porch, Jones warned the young merchant that he needed to be on guard if Williford came around. M. Ivey and R. K. Gordon came up and joined in the conversation. Ivey said it was a shame Williford was at every picnic drinking and brandishing a gun and wondered if the town wardens should put him under a peace bond. Jones disagreed, saying it would do no good since Williford would only ignore it.
Gordon was of the same mind as Jones, that Jim Caston needed to be on guard. He said he overheard Williford say, “I fight no man a fair fight, and if Caston gets me before I do him, he’ll have to be d___ quick.” Caston took his friend’s advice and began to carry a pistol.
Later in the evening, Ed Keistler, Jim Caston’s nephew, was in the store when 17-year-old Hyder Ratterree, a cousin of Church Williford, walked in. The boy had been ordered by Church’s father to ask Caston if he was planning to fight his son. The boy was very angry when he approached Caston, apparently believing that his cousin had been the one ill-treated. In spite of Hyder’s protests, Caston described the events that took place at the picnic, which seemed to cool Hyder’s temper.
Caston explained that he could not afford to fight his cousin since his mother had recently died and he was the only support for his blind father. He went on to say that he was not a fighting man and had rather seek the friendship of all — old and young, black and white. Eventually, Hyder agreed with Caston that Williford had been wrong. Caston told Rattaree (Ratterree) he had his answer for Church’s father.
Having spent the weekend in Yorkville (present-day York), Church Williford arrived in Rock Hill with Calvin Parrish on Monday, June 2. They went to Williford’s father’s livery stable and made several stops before arriving at J. M. Howe’s barroom, a few yards from Caston’s store. G. “Dock” Robinson met Williford and Parrish near Caston’s store, and upon seeing Caston inside, Williford pointed to him and said to Robinson, “There’s that d___ son of a b____ I am going to whip.” Caston overheard the threat. Several times that morning Williford walked past Caston’s door as though provoking a meeting.
After playing several games of billiards, Williford asked Howe to take his place while he stepped out front. Williford picked up a split-bottom chair, leaned it against the barroom wall, and sat down with his feet crossed and propped up on a rail. Occasionally, he would turn his head toward the doorway and speak to the men inside.
About 40 feet away, H. P. Haslam, a native of New Jersey who was discharged from the US Army in 1876, was leaning against a signpost in front of Hagin’s Store. About 10-15 minutes after Williford sat down, Haslam saw Jim Caston step to his door and fire a pistol toward Williford. Almost in the same instant, 19-year-old Charles Patton, who was working at a bench in the depot shed across the street, looked up just as Caston fired.
The pistol ball entered Williford’s right thigh, traveled upward, and severed the aorta. Reeling from the shot, Williford turned into the doorway and cried out, “Oh, my God, I’m shot. Jim Caston has killed me.” He staggered a bit and slumped into a chair, where he bled to death in minutes.
Howe rushed to Williford’s aid, thinking he had only a flesh wound, and began removing his pants. A pistol fell from Williford’s back pocket. In the meantime Caston, still not knowing he had killed Williford, began preparing for an expected retaliation. He grabbed one of the Catawba Rifles’ breechloaders and rushed out of the back door, running the 50 or 60 yards to Howe’s back door to keep from being shot in the back. Howe stepped out and said, “Jim, don’t shoot in here.”
“No, Mr. Howe,” he replied. “I have too much respect for you.” Howe informed him that Williford was dead. Doctor R. H. Hope arrived 1½ hours later and pronounced him dead. Caston immediately surrendered himself to the police, and an inquest jury was summoned.
When Williford’s body was opened at the inquest autopsy, the physician found that nearly a gallon of blood had emptied into the stomach cavity. Caston pleaded self-defense, but upon hearing a number of witnesses, the jury found Jim Caston needing to stand trial. He was taken to the Yorkville jail, where he stayed until being released on bail.
Caston’s trial was scheduled for the upcoming General Sessions court in July. The trial had created more public attention than any other in years. The courtroom was packed, and the July heat became so stifling that the sheriff called for a carpenter to remove the windows from their sashes to let in more air. A clean-shaven Caston was led into the courtroom neatly dressed in a black suit, where he was defended by a battery of experienced attorneys: Witherspoon & Spencer, J. D. Gage, and J. C. Witherspoon, all of Yorkville, and J. D. Wylie of Lancaster County. The prosecution consisted of Solicitor Gaston, Giles J. Patterson, and the law firm of Wilson & Wilson of Yorkville.
Jim Caston pleaded self-defense and testified that he was not aware of Williford’s presence in front of Howe’s barroom until he came outside to move some wooden ware out of the sun. Looking up the street, he said that he saw Williford 20 feet away and that Williford saw him at the same time. Caston testified that he saw Williford move his hand up under his coat as though he was reaching for a pistol from his hip pocket, at which time Caston pulled a pistol from his own coat pocket and fired. He went on to say that not knowing his bullet had found its mark, he cocked his pistol again and ducked back into his store.
The prosecution set out to disprove Caston’s plea of self-defense. Their case rested on the supposition that Williford had been looking into Howe’s barroom when he was shot and had not seen Caston as he came up on his blind side. Attorney Wylie tried to destroy Haslam’s testimony that he could see both Caston and Williford at the same time from where he was standing, due to gutter boxing between the stores.
Haslam held to his testimony, denying the boxing completely hid Williford, and said he had seen the dead man move his hand under his coat.
Still trying to refute Haslam’s testimony, the prosecutor called S. G. Keistler to the witness stand. Keistler was shown a sketch of the crime scene drawn on a paper bag. The witness went over the drawing, explained the building locations supporting Haslam’s testimony.
John Hooper was called to prove Caston had premeditated the murder and was determined to shoot Williford on sight. Hooper testified that he talked with Caston in his store shortly before the shooting, asking if Williford had made any threats. Hooper said Caston threatened, “If Church fooled with him, he would shoot him.”
Hooper’s character was questionable, and the defense delved into his past. Hooper testified that he had come to Rock Hill from Virginia six years earlier and lived in town for two years before returning. He then moved back to Rock Hill the year before and worked as a bartender for Bob Morrison. The defense brought to light Hooper’s sporadic work record.
He left Morrison because he could not get along with his employer and he’d had, in fact, a fist fight with him. From there he went to bar-tend for a Mr. Roach, but that did not work out because he claimed Roach would not pay him what he thought he deserved. Then he went to Bodenheimer’s barroom in North Carolina, but again he was not satisfied with his pay. Next, he kept a bar in Salisbury, NC and later in Chester, SC. When Hooper was questioned about his lifestyle, he answered, “I generally knock around barrooms,” and he slept on a quilt at Johnson’s Harness Shop.
Witnesses from Yorkville stood by their former citizen, giving positive testimony of Caston’s character and reputation. However, upon cross-examination, they admitted he could be difficult when he was drinking and his violent reputation was better known in Rock Hill.
Following a three-day trial in a sweltering atmosphere, it was not until 11:00 in the evening when the jury brought in a verdict of not guilty on the charge of murder.
The packed courtroom erupted with applause, and the judge ordered the court to be cleared. Williford’s father was so furious over the verdict and the Rock Hill people’s testimony against his son that he sold his business and moved out of the county. Caston soon sold his business and moved from Rock Hill.
So ended the trouble that began at Strawberry Plains. (The Jones plantation was most often referred to as Strawberry Hill.)
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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