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JUNE 27, 1850
Horace Simpson looked at his pocket watch for the third time in the space
of half an hour, then snapped it shut and absentmindedly let the braided
fob slide through his fingers. He regarded it for a moment as it began its
slow, pendulous arc, then abruptly snatched it back and stuffed it into
The body of the hanged negro he found that morning had swung in the same
manner, as the wind had toyed with the corpse, its hands tied behind its
back and its legs tied together. The gusts had blown the body in a
circular fashion -- the motion occasionally interrupted as the feet had
bumped the trunk of the oak. With each gust, the rope had creaked like a
Simpson ultimately helped to cut him down, for the young man from the
mayor's office obviously had no stomach for it.
"This isn't normal," the man stammered.
Simpson did not doubt that the young man was unaccustomed to dealing with
hanged bodies; he kept swallowing every few seconds, wiping his mouth with
the back of his coat sleeve as if the nausea might overtake him.
"Do you know who he is?" Simpson asked.
The clerk nodded. "His name is Lawrence Mills...a local cabinetmaker."
"And what did he do?"
"Probably nothing." The young man made several attempts to cover Mills's
face with a discarded feed sack, but the wind kept blowing it aside.
"There have been rumors of unrest among the negroes here in the city.
Mills's name came up, but we knew at City Hall that there was nothing to
it. We were pretty sure that a competitor implicated him just to cause him
"Looks like he succeeded," Simpson remarked with more than a trace of
The clerk's face was earnest as he met Simpson's eyes. "Charleston is not
usually like this. Things just aren't normal right now -- not since the
killings over in Habersham County. Civility is part of our upbringing
here. We treat each other with common courtesy...."
Simpson found himself smiling as he recalled the young man's remarks. How
typical of Charleston that a civil servant would describe a lynching in
terms of a social faux pas. Simpson guessed that the young man had not
worked at the mayor's office very long. In his own experience, visiting
Charleston as he had over the years, he knew that lynchings were rarely
isolated incidents. They seemed to be the result of too much steam
building in the pressure cooker. A black would step out of line, commit a
crime against a white man, and the whole city was thrown into an uproar.
Black "troublemakers" were rounded up; a few might get some sense beaten
into them, and a few might be lynched. After all, to the men who
perpetrated these acts, it was not a life -- it was just a nigger.
This particular civil servant, clearly a more sensitive type, had
obviously been rattled by the incident -- so much so that he had
subsequently spilled a great deal of information to a wily out-of-town
reporter. Characteristically, Simpson took satisfaction in manipulating
the situation entirely to his own advantage. How else could he have
landed this interview; he alone of all the reporters in town?
Simpson avoided the impulse to recheck his watch and glanced at the sun
instead. He again took stock of his surroundings.
He was on one of several wharf-lined spots of land jutting into
Charleston's natural harbor. The bay was calm today, more reminiscent of
a lake than a sea as it gently lapped at the skirts of the barrier islands
to the east.
The eight spires of Charleston's grand churches presided over the city.
The irony was not lost on the reporter. New York City had many imposing
churches, certainly more than Charleston, yet New York's other tall
buildings limited the view to one or two spires from any perspective. Here
in Charleston, however, one was hard pressed to find a spot where one
could not see all eight -- a constant reminder of the omnipresence of the
Almighty. This, in a town one northern theologian had dubbed "the
unholiest city west of Constantinople."
The steeple bells were always ringing for one reason or another. They
announced the hour of the day and the beginning and end of church
services. They rang for births, deaths, fires, and ships in peril. The
locals always seemed to know what they signified, but the constant ringing
was anathema to a visiting reporter. Simpson never knew if he should be
resetting his watch or dashing off to cover some catastrophe. He
ultimately resolved to ignore them altogether.
But the bells were blessedly silent now, for Charleston was napping.
Curled up in a blanket of summer haze and surrounded by green pines and
blue waters, her peace was only disturbed by the busy cicadas whirring to
each other in the heat, and irate seagulls calling out taunts as they
vied for position near the wharf where the fishing boats docked.
The wharves on the finger of land where Simpson stood were deserted. The
hoists and dollies were locked away in a nearby warehouse until the
shipping season. "Sandman's Storage," the wind-routed sign read. Simpson
chuckled at the irony. He had checked out the interior of the building
upon his arrival and found that it presently housed two militiamen
sleeping off a drunk. Both were armed to the teeth. Each napped with his
shotgun laid out beside him like a favorite doll, and one had a daunting
array of knives lined up in decreasing order of size like instruments in
Some of their blue-coated cohorts were making busy on a wharf on the next
finger of land about a quarter-mile north, calling to each other in lazy
backwoods drawls as they set their hoists in place. "Like water sloshing
around in a gutter," Simpson liked to say when describing southern speech
to his fellow reporters. "Most of what they say seems unintelligible
unless you know the secret." Here Simpson would pause and wink. "I have
discovered that after about three of their bourbons, it all becomes
Simpson bought the mayor's assistant a drink after their grisly encounter.
He probed for inside information on the trial and on the political
machinations of the locals. He queried the young man about the presence of
the militia in such large numbers for the trial. The clerk seemed loath
to speak of them at first, as if their coarseness was yet another blot on
the city's character.
"You're right," the young man finally conceded quietly. "There are more of
them here than we need for the trial. But you must remember, the Smythe
plantation is less than a hundred miles away. We were not sure at first if
the uprising there was the beginning of a general insurrection or, at the
very least, a spark that might set off a similar incident."
"From what I have heard," Simpson countered, "the incident in Georgia
hardly seemed an uprising. Ten dead, weren't there? Four of the Smythe
household, the overseer, three of the house slaves, and two bounty
hunters. All within twenty-four hours. A murderous rampage, yes. But I
do not see evidence of a vast conspiracy...and they caught all but one
of the murderers."
"That's just the point. They didn't catch the ringleader, Jebediah Jones.
Rumor has it that he is roaming the countryside, recruiting an army."
"Don't you find it hard to believe that runaways could be present anywhere
in such numbers? If even one escapes, a posse of bounty hunters is on the
trail immediately." Simpson shook his head. "I can't believe that runaways
are massing in numbers anywhere."
"It isn't really runaways that people are worried about. You must remember
something, sir. We have about twelve thousand negroes here in Charleston,
a number almost equal to that of the whites. Most are law-abiding, I give
you. But there are a few bad apples..." He glanced around to see if anyone
appeared to be eavesdropping, then lowered his voice. "I'm sure you have
heard of Denmark Vesey."
The young man sighed and shook his head. "For some reason, the fear never
Simpson understood. He guessed that it had come ashore with the first
slave ships, like a plague transported with the cargo. For the
slaveholder, the fear was incubated with the hatred of the heathen souls
they could not, would not, assimilate -- a hatred that would one
day rise up and exact a terrible revenge.
Thirty years ago, their worst fears were almost realized. Denmark Vesey,
a slave who bought his freedom after winning the lottery, apparently
formulated a horrific plan -- an uprising involving hundreds of slaves
and free blacks. Simpson had stumbled across old newspaper accounts while
sharing a bottle with a couple of cronies deep in the tombs of the
Tribune one cold winter night. Piece by piece, investigators
exposed the threads of a plot to murder all white slave owners and seize
control of Charleston. The blacks would then commandeer the ships in the
harbor and sail to Haiti, but only after their vengeance was complete and
Charleston lay in smoldering ruins. Slaughter was avoided only because two
slaves had misgivings and revealed the plot to their masters. Subsequently,
hundreds of conspirators were arrested, and over sixty were hanged,
including Denmark Vesey. The severity of the threat and its chance
revelation raised goose bumps on the reporters. Simpson could only imagine
the effect on Charleston's whites -- the folks with the keys to the
"So the militia were called up right after the Georgia uprising," Simpson
"Shortly after, yes. The governor activated them for our protection."
Simpson leaned forward. "What did your mayor have to do to get the governor
to cooperate? Your governor never grants anything without a quid pro quo.
I also understand that there has been a history of conflict between those
"I really wouldn't know anything about that, sir."
At that point the interview ended. Then, this morning, a messenger arrived,
offering the most unlikely of interviews -- one so important Simpson had
trouble concentrating throughout the day. The rendezvous was to be here,
at this isolated location, at 3:00 p.m.
But Simpson's contact was nearly one hour late -- unacceptable even by
southern standards. An idea now began to gnaw at the back of his mind. What
if he had been drawn here for some other purpose? What if no one was
coming? He looked back at the city and stared for a long moment. Had
someone dangled the bait of a secret meeting to keep him from a real scoop
When the fire bells began to ring, they did not surprise the reporter. He
had already begun to retrace his steps toward town. A plume of smoke was
rising at the south end of the city. Simpson guessed that it was just
blocks from his lodgings.
A sound behind him caused him to turn his head, and for a moment he froze.
"My God! What is going on here?"
The militiamen were standing stock-still also, staring right at him. Even
at a distance, their expressions and body language were unmistakable.
Within a few quickened heartbeats, Simpson leaped to the realization that
the sole intent of the appointment was to deliver him to this place, and
that his promised contact would never arrive.
He turned and began to run, aware that he had probably uncovered the best
story of his career, but might never escape to tell it. He did not look
back behind him, just at the rising plume of smoke to the south. He ran
until the shuffle of his shrinking strides was swallowed by the thud of
footfall around him. He was approaching the first block of buildings, the
first paved street. Now he only needed to round the corner and melt into
Then came the explosion -- or maybe it was only in his head -- sparks and
darkness. When the light came back, he found he didn't hurt -- not really.
But he knew beyond doubt that his body was irreparably broken.
As the light began to fade, he willed himself to focus on the face bent
over his. Then maybe he smiled a little at the final irony that the Prince
of Darkness should prove to be a young man with blond hair.
Copyright © 2007 by Geoffrey Edwards