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Richmond Times-Dispatch                         October 21, 1934

Home    >    Newspaper Articles    >     Who Were Killers of John Stephens?




Who Were the Killers of John Stephens?

Danville Nonogenarian May Be Last Living Witness

Of Execution of Yanceyville's Public Enemy

No. 1 in Stirring Days of Reconstruction

By Gerard Tetley


A gentleman of the old Southern school who a few months ago entered his ninety-second birthday sat in a chair by his bedside in Danville the other day and slowly but deliberately combed his memory for vivid events in the era of Reconstruction. It was a mental game of chess in which the aged Confederate veteran, now frail of limb but firm in purpose, resisted a reportorial onslaught for hitherto unwritten facts, more especially the long protected details concerning the assassination of John W. Stephens at Yanceyville, N. C., which played an important part in the future of North Carolina and Virginia history and of which, there is good reason to believe the now aged man is the last living witness.

The man was Captain John Lea who for 60 years has kept the pledge he made in youthful days when, as the accepted leader of the Invisible Empire of Caswell County, he risked his life with other bold spirits to combat Negro supremacy, and embarked on a course which brought the country into a state of insurrection and, finally, the impeachment of a governor who imposed humiliation on a free people until they cowed him by the strength of their defiance.


Captain John Lea


It was a curious interview, with knowledge of the part of the younger man that within the scope of the Confederate's telling repose the true facts of an important chapter in Carolina history--so far told only with broad reliance on insinuation and a chapter so clothed with fallacious legend as to raise historic doubts concerning all but the main elements of an expedient homicide.

Captain Lea was conscious of all this and , if frail of body and with no illusions as to the security of life, an admirable mental poise brought Queens and Pawns to check openings to the recess of his mind whence could emanate the real truth of the Stephens episode. Here and there he shed a touch of color to illuminate the factual record of the putting to death of a man deemed a public enemy in his day, and he would approach the very essence of the fateful hour in which history was written in blood, and then veer away from it with all the wiles of a diplomat.


*            *            *


But, if unassailable in an interview, Captain Lea let it be known that eventually the full story will be told, but not so long as any member of the band which did away with John Stephens is living. He does not admit that he was present, but there is abundant reason to believe that he was, since only 10 years ago he went to Raleigh and admits making a "deposition" to State authorities, carefully surrounded by safeguards. This will tell the story of what actually happened, without admitting any names and preserving the bond of brotherhood on which rested the security of the Ku Klux Klan during the days when it performed real and essential service to the Southland and when it was not blemished by the alleged inferior ideal of bigotry to which it descended in imitatory latter day phases. The fact that this deposition exists and is surrounded by pledges of security gives it unusual status in that it promises to fill out the present uncertain record of the times, will dissipate legend and constitute an important chronicle.

Nothing is known precisely about the circumstances surrounding the death of Stephens. On only one point is there agreement, that seven men saw him come to his end privately, expeditiously, within the walls of the temple of justice itself.

De Roulhac Hamilton, North Carolina's learned historian attributes it unquestionably to the Klan and the broad suspicion deepens with the realization that Captain Lea, who knows more than he cares to tell, has been historically recorded as the head of the Caswell Den, as it was called. Some, however, have contended that Masons did away with Stephens and others that a group of white men decided to rid the state of him in a political emergency which afforded the opportunity and one taken only with courage.


*          *          *


Southern loyalty has never deprecated the acts of violence which were committed in the name of the people which, after losing the war at untold cost of physical suffering and mental anguish was subjected to the tortures of a Reconstruction by the agents of the Republican party who lacked understanding of southern ideals and who practiced a vicious punishment not only through the revilings but by robbing them of the security of the courts.

The picture in Caswell County during the spring of 1870 was dark and ominous. Governor W. W. Holden's administration was in full swing--a regime marked chiefly by efforts to remove the last vestige of power from the white Democrats. The elections were coming on and it was important that the liberated Negro vote be effectively allied with that of the Republicans, in order that the position of that party could be entrenched throughout the State.

The situation was very much what "The Birth of the Nation" and the works of Thomas Dixon have proclaimed it to be. The Union League which had been founded in 1860 was assuming more and more executive functions. Men of courage but of small scruple were chiefly in demand, to mingle with the Negroes, to animate them with political ambition and to whip them into active participation as new American citizens.

Caswell had suffered from the activities of these men and chief among them was John W. Stephens, generally understood to be acting in detective capacity for Governor Holden in a county, which, like Alamance, was less responsive to Republican blandishments than had been hoped.

His background has never been adequately treated. Captain Lea recalls that he was a native of Rockingham County, formerly a farmer, of doubtful political faith, and not above stealing chickens--witness the fact that he was known through the section as "Chicken" Stephens.


*          *          *


To Yanceyville came this man armed with an arrogance born of the mandate he bore from the Governor of the State. He came preaching a policy of violence among the Negroes, instilling into the the doctrine that they were equal to the white race and were accorded the same privileges. Once, he gave to each of 20 Negroes a box of matches, a rarity in those days, and bade them go abroad firing barns. Nine were burned that night--one instance in policy of attempted white intimidation.

The Caswell Ku Klux came into being when Negro suffrage and its ultimate effect were seen to be inevitable, in 1866, and gained strides so rapidly that during most of the Holden regime it plagued him, finally causing him to take the step to suppress it which led to his political downfall and impeachment. When the activities of Stephens had reached their zenith and when it was realized that this man was exerting a subversive influence on Negroes who were being cajoled or threatened to perform the duties of citizenship which few of them wished to enjoy, he became the special subject of Klan consideration.

Whether this is legend or truth cannot be said, but a cross was burned one night in the Clan Convocation ground, a spot overlooking County Line Creek, not far from Yanceyville at which the solemn determination was reached that Stephens, thrice warned to leave the county only to bring hot diatribes from him, must be removed for the benefit of white women's virtue specially, and the welfare of the county citizenship generally. His fate was sealed, so the story goes (Captain Lea does not vouchsafe endorsement but smiles on hearing it), the fiery cross burned low and it was left to picked leaders to determine the means of his end.


*          *          *


The crucial date was May 21, 1870, with the campaign for the August election already in full swing and with a steadily mounting tide of vitriolic campaign oratory. Conservative Republican candidates were exhorting the Negroes to stand by the party that had liberated them. Democrats accepted the challenge and called on the real bulwarks of the county constituency to meet the race menace while some of them warned the colored people against self-evident exploitation, urging them to stay with those who best understood them.

Yanceyville was little different in that day to what it is today. The courthouse today is the same, a substantial stone two-story structure faced by a large public quadrangle where, on that day, was gathered a multitude of people fully conscious of the dangerous currents of thought propelling Democrats to a realization that only through desperate measures could white supremacy be maintained. Negroes, under the extravagant promises of the white Northern carpetbaggers, or renegade Democrats, were being spurred to unaccustomed liberties designed to establish the feeling of citizenship. The air was full of pending trouble that May day. Governor Holden was uttering sharp threats of punishment toward the Klan for numerous whippings. Only a few weeks previously Caswell had been electrified by the action of Frank Wiley, a retired Democratic sheriff, who had called Stephens a "damned chicken thief" to his face, when the latter he charged had sought to seduce him from his political faith by offering him Republican support if he would run on the Republican ticket.


Caswell County, North Carolina, Courthouse


Midday came. White men and Negroes mounted the curving staircase to the high pitched courtroom with its fluted ceiling, its high judicial rostrum and the pewlike benches of the day. The spellbinders in their long coats and wearing their thin black ties gathered with supporters on separate sides and exchanged thin smiles of forced cordiality.

Judge John Kerr was speaking as a preliminary and below him seated on the floor of the rostrum was Stephens, taking copious notes. He was not to speak but was to prepare a special report of things said, to be forwarded to Governor Holden.

The name of the messenger who worked his way to the front of the courtroom has escaped memory at this late day, but he whispered to Stephens that Wiley wished to confer with him on an important matter downstairs. Stephens, sensing compromise and strategic advantage stuffed his papers into his pockets and followed the messenger out of the courtroom and down the steps. The building was filled with Negroes. Some of them were boasting loudly of their new day while white Democrats in grim silence listed taxes for the privilege of casting a vote they felt would be stolen from them.


*          *          *


There can be small doubt that the whole enterprise, even though swiftly determined upon, had been carefully rehearsed, for in the long corridor were klansmen who, on hearing the first outcry from Stephens, were suddenly to become embroiled among themselves. It was to be a noisy fight among good Democrats with heavy imprecations to drown the sound of the business on foot.

Stephens was never aware of the plot until he reached the chamber that was to be the scene of his execution. As the door opened, he was conscious that he was surrounded by seven strange men who were crowding him and in the press he felt the significant thrust of blunt metal about his body, and he was hustled into the room, to outsiders as though in the midst of a group of urgent conferees. The room itself was not being used and in it was a quantity of lumber and other equipment in storage.

There are two versions of the killing, the accepted records holding that Stephens was at once told that he must die and that unless he held his peace it would be immediate. He was swiftly gagged and bound, his body being rolled behind a pile of lumber so as to be beyond the range of vision of a window, slightly above head level on the south side of the building. Three seven-shooters were removed from convenient holsters underneath his coat and thus helpless he remained under the trained revolver of a guard who also secreted himself. The other six men left the room within a few moments.

To pursue this version further, one must believe that the plot for Stephens' assassination provided for his hanging at midnight from a tree limb in the public square, his swinging form to be a silent gesture of Democratic contempt for his activities and defiance to the master he represented, but, the plan was changed for within a few minutes the same six men retraced their steps, re-entered the room and charged Stephens formally with the sins attributed to him. He was garroted without delay by a rope, a sharp blade found his throat and another penetrated his heart. Who the executioner was for half a century has been a speculative subject. The six who have died never revealed him, nor has any confession been recorded.


*          *          *


The other story--and this comes from traditional testimony--is slightly different. Stephens, on being shown the open door, pulled back against his captors but a flying noose caught his neck in the doorway and before a cry could be uttered his body was hurled over the pile of lumber where his neck was broken, his throat being immediately cut.

Authors of the deed slipped out one by one and the door was locked. Tradition has it that the key was taken to Country Line Creek and dropped in the stream.

Stephens was not missed for hours. Vigorous oratory swept the crowd upstairs to footstamping or derisive cries and Stephens' absence was not material for he was mysterious in his goings and comings. But after the public speaking, certain Republican leaders had important business with the Governor's factotum and he was hunted high and low. Foul play was not suspected, for Stephens had been seen during the speaking among a great crowd a majority of whom were his Negro acolytes who fawned on him for promised favors. It is a matter of dispute if Stephens had a stalwart bodyguard since the warning reached him to leave the county. Captain Lea says that this was not the case, because Stephens with his strong and rugged face was a man of personal courage. One well authenticated detail is that Frank Wiley during the murder of Stephens was riding a white horse outside the courthouse in full view of the crowd, establishing a carefully laid alibi and safeguarding himself from proceedings as an accessory, at least, before the fact.

The next morning vague rumors were current that Stephens had disappeared and search for him was redoubled, Governor Holden being informed of his vanishing. It remained for a boy of doubtful identity peering through the window in which the slain man lay to see red stains emanating from the loose end of rope, the other end of which still incased Stephens' neck. Through the rope came seapage and telltale evidence. The door was broken down and the body long in rigor mortis was carried out.

A great cry of rage went up from the Republican entourage of Holden for this new evidence of accepted Klan audacity--for the crime at once was saddled on the invisible empire. It was a powerful blow. The Negroes were being won by the Republicans through cajolement into active usage of the franchise and the fact that the Governor's agent, the man who had told them that they were "the same as white folks" had been boldly slain sobered them and threw them into doubt.

While Stephens' body lay in his home which stood where today stands Yanceyville's Negro public school--a grim play of fate--and while he was being laid in the town cemetery where two boxwoods mark the head and footstones, Governor Holden was preparing for avenging his death and summary treatment of the suspected groups composing the Klan.

Holden had a double motive in exerting all the force at his command. Whispers reached him of the belief entertained in certain quarters of the party that Stephens had been done to death by members of his own party. A surprisingly large number of white active Democrats seemed to be of the same opinion. This grew out of a previously quoted remark of Holden that "we must get rid of Stephens." What the Governor meant, undoubtedly was that since Caswell County was rapidly falling under the domination of the Klan that Stephens must be recalled and more adroit political leadership exerted.


*          *          *


It has been the understanding that great affection fell upon the people of Caswell County at once, but it came only after spies had flooded the area, none of them succeeding in securing one iota of evidence against the klansmen nor against the seven men who accomplished Stephens' end. But when Holden struck, he struck hard. On July 8 he declared Caswell County in a state of insurrection and he dispatched Colonel George W. Kirk to Yanceyville with 300 of his "lambs," an evil assortment of freebooters, recruited from the Tennessee and Carolina mountains and forming a police force which Holden found he could use more to his own advantage than the occupationary and disciplined troops of General Grant.

Kirk was a savage character, brutal by instinct and just the man to visit harrowing punishment on the people of Caswell resisting the now flagrantly preached doctrine of "all men are equal." The regiment made its way to Caswell, leaving a trail of plunder and rapine behind it. Into Yanceyville they stormed and were quartered all about the public square, striking terror into womanhood and openly threatening to pistol anyone who thwarted them. Some time later when Captain George Rodney was sent to Yanceyville with a small detachment of Federal regulars, more as a precaution against open rebellion than to preserve the Holden regime, he wrote that Kirk's men ran riot in the Caswell County seat, roaming the town, trying to stir up hostility. Described as ignorant jacobins, they were prone to undress and bathe in public and no white woman was safe so long as they remained.

Arrests were made right and left soon after the riffraff troops arrived. Some two hundred of the county's outstanding Democrats were seized and marched to the courthouse which became a prison for weeks. There was brutal treatment for the sheer invisibility of the invisible empire made every white man of Democratic leanings suspect.


*          *          *


While this was going on, Mayor "Pink" Graves of Danville, a dozen miles away, sent word that he would raise a band of 500 men and would come over as a posse to liberate the county leaders held in the courthouse, some of them in the very room where Stephens died. Kirk heard of this and sent back word that he would turn his guns on the hostages the first time a Virginian turned the corner into the square. The posse remained at home.

But Holden's retaliation was his own undoing. The judiciary was still functioning, if lamely, and there were fearless and honest men on the supreme court bench at Raleigh. Captain Lea played an important role in securing writs of habeas corpus but kirk and George Bergen, his chief lieutenant, who later fled to Danville, only to be run down by bloodhounds as a common thief and who, after escaping trial, went to Washington to win an appointment as American consul to Pernambuco, refused to recognize the court writs.

Eventually the Caswell hostages were removed to Raleigh and there indicted and tried for the murder of Stephens and other Klan activities by three Federal judges.

The Republicans won the August election and won it with the negro vote, but the Holden administration was weakening and it was a chastened form of carpetbaggery which prevailed from that time on in Caswell County. The Klan was riding high, wide and broad across the hills.

The following December Governor Holden was impeached. A long, corrupt and unsavory administration was behind him. The judiciary committee of the Legislature voted 60 to 46 for his ousting. He was tried on five counts, one of them being his action in declaring Caswell County in a state of insurrection and another for recruiting his own legion unconstitutionally, to promote his own policies. Still another was for the arrest of John Kerr "and three others," one of the latter being Captain Lea. Holden was convicted on every count, the vote ranging from 3 to 6 for conviction. Before the impeachment, Holden was converted and baptized and, during the trial the evidence caused him to groan aloud and to shudder, as he listened to a recital of his high crimes and misdemeanors.


*          *          *


No record of the stormy era would be complete without reference to the broken coping over the portico of the Caswell Courthouse--a permanent relic of Josiah Turner, the tempestuous publicist who defied Holden, stinging him with his writings in the Burlington Sentinel and who did much to whet the courage of the long-suffering white people. Throughout the rise of the carpetbaggers he had been a thorn in the side of the State government. Holden finally decided to arrest him and he was taken to Yanceyville for imprisonment. Long a popular idol among the Democrats, a general melee threatened when he arrived and one of Kirk's men became so excited, the story has it, that he dropped his rifle, bayonet down on the upper galley of the courthouse, splitting one of the coping stones which remains unrepaired to this day. But Josiah Turner went to jail with a smile on his lips for he had just printed the following personal communication to the Governor:

You say you will handle me in due time. You white-livered miscreant, do it now. You dare me to resist you, I dare you to arrest me. I am here to protect my family; the Jacobins of your club, after shooting powder in the face of Mrs. Turner, threw a five-pound rock in her window near one of my children. Your ignorant Jacobins are incited to do this by your lying charges against me that I am king of the Ku-Klux.

"You villain, come and arrest a man and order your secret clubs not to molest women and children.

"Yours with contempt and defiance, habeas corpus or no habeas corpus,


This is the story of the murder of John W. Stephens with its frenzied aftermath and the fight which Caswell made for the preservation of its integrity. It is all still clear to the last living man who went through all of its turmoil. The missing pages could be supplied, with many unknown incidents, from his memory, but the pledge he took 62 years ago in the ruddy light of a blazing pine-knot still holds good, and Captain Lea intends to pass on with the badge of honor untrammeled.



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