Uncover the bloody history of Edgefield

  • Posted: Thursday, October 31, 2013 12:01 a.m.
    UPDATED: Thursday, October 31, 2013 12:03 a.m.
Staff photo by DeDe Biles
Pictured is Ashley Hatcher, who portrayed legendary Edgefield murderess Becky Cotton in the play 'The Devil in Petticoats' last year at the Edgefield County Theatre Company.
Staff photo by DeDe Biles Pictured is Ashley Hatcher, who portrayed legendary Edgefield murderess Becky Cotton in the play 'The Devil in Petticoats' last year at the Edgefield County Theatre Company.

The square in downtown Edgefield is as picturesque as one can ask for, but look closer and you'll see markers and stones commemorating some of the bloodiest moments in what is a violent history for the town.

A deadly duel, a shooting spurred by a card game, a charming seductress who axed her husband to death and even a violent assault with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate – all well known figures in a bloody history for the quiet town. Tricia Glenn, an archivist for the Edgefield County Archives, has spent years poring through court documents, newspapers and coroner's reports pertaining to the county's grisly former image.

“I decided to document everything to do with violence,” she said. “It's not just murder; it's all the other little crimes that happen.”

She's currently focusing on the time period from the town's establishment in 1785 to the end of the Reconstruction period following the Civil War.

“By far, when you see it all laid out like that, the violence in Edgefield was beyond description. At one point, there were 30 murders in one month,” Glenn said. “During Reconstruction, it was a very violent time here.”

'Every man for himself'

Glenn said the Cherokee War of 1760-1761 sparked a wave of violence with the emergence of the Regulators. This vigilante movement believed one should forgive one's enemies, “but not before they were flogged or hanged.”

By the time Edgefield County was established in 1785, the Indian wars, the Regulator movement and the American Revolution had created the resilient and feisty leaders of Edgefield's future, according to Glenn.

“The shootouts, everybody carrying guns, the whole backcountry wild west movement subsided before the Civil War,” she said. “After the Civil War, it was every man for himself.”

While general crime in Edgefield was no worse than in other parts of the country, Glenn said it was more publicized because it was often Edgefield's prominent, politically-active citizens implicated in the violence.

“A lot of it was committed by the very political leaders of this area, and there were many of them,” she said.

Ten South Carolina governors hailed from Edgefield, including Benjamin Ryan Tillman, also known as “Pitchfork Ben.” Tillman, who was governor from 1890 to 1894, was known for his “rough, backcountry” way of governing and his prejudice against blacks, Glenn said.

U.S. Rep. Preston Brooks, a slavery advocate famous for beating Massachusetts Rep. Charles Sumner nearly to death with a cane on the floor of the U.S. Senate in 1856, was from Edgefield. Sumner angered Brooks by calling South Carolina the “harlot of slavery,” and also criticizing Brooks' uncle, who was a senator from Edgefield.

Glenn said Edgefieldians were cheering what Brooks did.

“'Hit him again, hit him again' was the cry in the newspaper,” she said, adding that a welcome back party was even held at the Edgefield courthouse in Brooks' honor.

Brooks' own father was involved in a duel in front of the Edgefield courthouse years earlier in 1840.

“From the 1880s on, you saw the law working better and punishment being meted out,” Glenn said.

The violence was stoked by the news media's frequent sensational headlines. While the editors of one local paper usually condemned the violence, on other occasions they lamented the fact that there was nothing “exciting” going on.

'The Devil in Petticoats'

One of the most famous legends in Edgefield is that of Rebecca “Becky” Cotton, who lived from 1765 to 1807. She was married to a plantation owner named John Cotton. As a result of what she believed was his cowardice, she came to resent her husband to the point of hatred.

“One night, she waited for him to go to sleep, got an ax, crept down the stairs and killed him,” Glenn said. Cotton got her brother to help her dispose of the body, first in a potato patch and then in what is now Slade Lake. The body was eventually discovered and Cotton was put on trial for her husband's murder.

“She was so beautiful, so sweet and so gorgeous the jury found her not guilty,” Glenn said. “One of the men on the jury fell in love with her and she married him.”

Cotton was dubbed “the devil in petticoats” by minister Parson Mason Locke Weems in 1810, who went on to call Edgefield “pandemonium itself, a very district of devils.” Variations of Cotton's story have suggested she married (and murdered) multiple times, skewering one husband with a needle and poisoning another.

“People say she had lots of husbands and killed lots of husbands – that sounds like a great story but that actually did not happen,” Glenn said. “She killed one husband.”

Years later in 1807, Cotton was killed by her own brother, who was disgusted with his sister's lack of remorse. While riding through town, he saw her chatting on the steps of the Edgefield courthouse and crushed her skull with a rock.

“He was filled with such guilt from helping her bury her husband. He despised his sister so much that he couldn't help himself,” Glenn said. “He got off the horse, picked up a rock and threw it at her head, and it killed her.”

Her brother got back on his horse and rode out west.

“That's a wonderful story, but there are so many stories of things that happened in Edgefield,” Glenn said.

'We're so tame now'

In present-day Edgefield, the gunshots no longer ring out across the town square and the blood has since washed away. The county currently maintains the lowest violent crime rate in the state, according to the most recent report by the State Law Enforcement Division.

“Every square foot of Edgefield Square has had blood on it. We've had so many shootouts on the town square and on the steps of the courthouse,” Glenn said.

The violent moments memorialized on the monuments around the town square are more than just shock and gore, and they have their place in a rich history.

“We're so tame now,” she said. “I think we have become a very quiet place that's proud of our past, in a weird way.”

Teddy Kulmala covers the crime beat for the Aiken Standard and has been with the newspaper since August 2012.

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