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Jim Wise's Murder in the Courthouse

Durham journalist's tale of 1870s Tar Heel political bloodletting



Murder in the Courthouse: Reconstruction and Redemption in the North Carolina Piedmont
By Jim Wise
The History Press; 160 pp.

The Civil War continues to spawn endless literature and film, but Reconstruction, which followed and may have been of greater and longer historical importance, gets relatively little attention.

No surprise there. The period is defined by lazy inaction, corruption and compromise, rudderless leadership and crippling poverty. Not to mention the birth of white supremacist terror. Its landmark events are difficult to identify and summarize, heavily localized and thus resistant to broad, tidy narrative. Even the dates are blurry. Did Reconstruction end in 1877, when the federal government pulled its troops out of the South, or in 1896, the year that the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court case dropped the "separate but equal" bomb on integration? Regardless, both spans are inconveniently wide and include long stretches where little seems to have happened.

One thing that certainly happened was the 1870 murder of North Carolina State Senator John W. "Chicken" Stephens by Ku Klux Klansmen in the Caswell County Courthouse. That incident inspired Murder in the Courthouse: Reconstruction and Redemption in the North Carolina Piedmont by Jim Wise, an éminence grise of Triangle journalism. (Wise, in his occasional capacity as theater critic, once reviewed a play I wrote.)

The only crookedness in this very straightforward book is the minor bait-and-switch of its title: Stephens' murder is really just the hook for Wise's well-researched and thorough study of what might be more accurately called The Life and Times of William Woods Holden.

Born in Hillsborough, Holden later described himself as "young, poor and ambitious." He parlayed a printer's apprenticeship into a powerful position as a Raleigh newspaper boss; from that perch he wrote windy editorials, entered politics and, after the Civil War, became governor. He was removed in 1871, by impeachment, but by then his fingerprints were all over North Carolina's reconstruction. A self-aggrandizing, nearsighted opportunist, Holden provides historians with an example of the old axiom that those who crave power are usually also least suited to wield it.

Holden switched allegiances and parties whenever it suited him; he opposed secession and then supported it; curried favor with Washington, even as his policies flouted the Constitution; publicly deplored the KKK's guerilla violence while combating it with his own lawless militia (the vicious "Kirk-Holden War" that led indirectly to Stephens' murder); and failed to stop a massive railroad-bond scandal that deepened the state's already gigantic debt. In an assessment indicative of both Holden's reputation and his era's attitudes, the Greensboro Record declared that he "deceived every party he ever belonged to, and his putrid carcus [sic] was so politically corrupt that even the negroes love him."

Holden isn't solely to blame. The potential for authentic reconciliation and healthy recovery probably perished with Lincoln's assassination, which came just after Appomattox and darkened the tenor and terms of the larger but less celebrated surrender a fortnight later at Durham's Bennett Place.

Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson, was inherently compromised by his standing as a Unionist Tennessean. His dithering presidency got him impeached, although he (unlike Governor Holden) managed to finish his term, stalemated with a splintered Congress. Ulysses S. Grant presided fecklessly for eight years over the devastated South's millions of suddenly unmoored and penniless blacks amid seething white resentment and prejudice—a "desolation of peace," in the words of the venerable local scholar Pauli Murray.

Into this breach swept not just Holden but all manner of "perfect political mushrooms," as the Raleigh Sentinel called some of the noxious fungi who sprouted up after the storm of war. The "unpleasant, unpopular, disagreeable and odious" Chicken Stephens (he got his nickname by aggravating a dispute over his neighbor's poultry coops) was barely literate, but he was dubiously placed on the magistrate's bench by Albion Tourgée, a Yankee lawyer who fought for the Union and moved in 1865 to Guilford County, where he set up a co-operative farm.

It's too reductive to call Tourgée a carpetbagger, although to Southerners that's what he was. Self-righteous and intransigent, he was nevertheless deeply committed to helping blacks gain a foothold after the war. His civil rights swan song was his pro bono prosecution of Plessy v. Ferguson. He lost, and Jim Crow became law. Two years later, Wilmington experienced a bloody white-supremacist "race riot." Not until Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. arrived, half a century later, were the blunders of Reconstruction finally redeemed.

But readers looking for redemption in Wise's book won't find it despite the word's appearance in the the title, which conceals another bait-and-switch, this one linguistic: Southern conservatives applied the term "redemption" to white counterattack after 1877.

That's why there is so little real redemption to be found here. There is Tourgée's loss in Plessy; there is his protégé, Stephens, antagonizing Klansmen with fatal results; there are the railroad-bond scammers perpetrating a similar fraud in Florida.

And there is Holden. After his impeachment, he got a postmaster job from President Grant but lost it after he supported Grant's failed bid to reclaim the presidency in 1880. Dismissed by President James A. Garfield, Holden promptly resigned from the same Republican Party for which he had once fled the Democrats out of wartime political expediency. He died in 1892, a lawsuit against him still in court.

But nothing went as thoroughly unredeemed as the murder of Chicken Stephens. John Green Lea, a Caswell County KKK organizer, planned the killing—a sham Klan "trial" convicted Stephens in absentia of trumped-up "crimes." Stephens knew he was a marked man, and even bought a life insurance policy, but nonetheless crashed a Conservative (make that Konservative) meeting in the courthouse. He was lured into a back room, where some Klansmen dawdled and dallied before finally committing a bumbling but nevertheless fatal attack; they left the mortally wounded Stephens to a slow, gruesome death.

John Green Lea protected his robed and masked accomplices by refusing confession for 50 years, long after the others were dead. He finally gave remorseless testimony in 1919, on the condition that it remain sealed until after his own death, which he staved off until he was 92. No one was ever tried, let alone convicted of Stephens' murder. Lea and his henchmen, not their victim, were the chickens.

At one point in Murder in the Courthouse, John Green Lea describes Albion Tourgée as "a bummer." That word had a different meaning then, but the modern sense applies to nearly all of Wise's dramatis personae. Small-minded, rebarbative, self-promoting and often inept, they're a collective bummer to read about, and they sullied our state. Wise's history is an honorable book about dishonorable men.

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