The Wild West used to be right at our front door
Believe it or not, the town of Edgefield, just 20 miles north of Aiken, used to have a reputation for violence as great as that of Dodge City, Kan., or Tombstone, Ariz. The now-peaceful town square with its small landscaped park was once the scene of a number of notoriously bloody deeds spanning the first half of the 19th century.
In 1807, on the steps of the courthouse, which once stood in the center of the square but was relocated to the northeast corner in 1839, Stephen Kennedy crushed the skull of his sister with a large rock. This act of premeditated murder was prompted by Kennedy’s fear that his sister may have targeted him for a similar fate.
His paranoia was not without some justification since Rebecca Cotton had garnered considerable notoriety after she buried an axe in her husband’s head in 1797. Legend says that her beauty prompted the all-male jury to acquit her of the deed – one member eventually married her – but in the popular imagination, the so-called “Devil in Petticoats” was someone on whom it paid to keep a watchful eye.
In a version of Becky Cotton’s story made popular by Mason Locke Weems, popularly known as Parson Weems, the young woman’s deft handling of her axe is said to have been not her first homicide but her third. Weems contends that she pierced the heart of her first husband with a mattress needle and dispatched her second with poison. Since Weems is also responsible for propagating the cherry tree episode in his early narrative of the life of George Washington, readers today may doubt the absolute accuracy of his storytelling, but there can be no doubt that Becky Cotton lived under a cloud after her famous trial. Eventually, it was not she but her brother who cracked under the strain of living with her notoriety.
The county courthouse, this time in its present location, became the scene of another lurid act of violence in 1840 when local resident Louis Wigfall posted a notice on the door, labeling his neighbor Whitfield Brooks a “scoundrel and a coward” in part because the latter would not face him in a duel. This act of publicly humiliating a reluctant opponent was sanctioned in “The Code of Honor,” a handbook on dueling written by John Lyde Wilson, a former governor of our state, and published in 1838.
During the act of posting his notice, Wigfall was confronted by friends and relatives of Brooks, and in the confusion of the moment, Wigfall exchanged fire with one of Brooks’ nephews and killed him on the spot. Subsequent duels were then fought between Wigfall and Brooks’ brother-in-law, James Carroll, with no injury to either party and between Wigfall and Preston Brooks, the son of his antagonist, with minor injury to both.
Wigfall ended up leaving Edgefield and relocating to Texas where he eventually became a U.S. senator and Confederate general; Preston Brooks made it into the history books for his vicious attack on Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner, an outspoken abolitionist, on the floor of the U.S. Capitol. In that notorious incident in 1856, some of the violence that marked relations between the citizens of Edgefield found its way, via Brooks, to the halls of Congress.
The same year that Brooks beat Sumner with a cane in the Senate chamber until the latter lay unconscious on the floor, back in Edgefield, a local lawyer named George Dionysius Tillman shot a man during a card game at the Planter’s Hotel in the town square. The present building on the site was constructed in 1919, but its unhappy predecessor was the scene of the fateful game of faro that cost a man his life. The victim, a relatively unassuming mechanic named Henry Christian, presumably made a suspicious movement – at least it appeared suspicious to Tillman – and the lawyer shot him dead at the table.
Tillman fled to California rather than face arrest, but he eventually returned to Edgefield to give himself up to the authorities and serve two years in prison. Apparently his incarceration had little effect on his personal reputation because he was eventually elected to the U.S. Congress. In general, it can be argued that having a violent past seems to have enhanced the political fortunes of a number of Edgefieldís most prominent citizens.
Indeed, in Edgefield in the first half of the 19th century, the line between the Old South and the Wild West was very, very thin.
A recipient of the prestigious Carolina Trustee Professorship, Dr. Mack holds the G. L. Toole Chair at USC Aiken. His new book entitled “Hidden History of Aiken County” is forthcoming from The History Press in Charleston.