Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Caswell County Courthouse

Courthouse Square
Yanceyville, North Carolina
Front facade of the Caswell County Courthouse.
Photo taken for the Historic American Buildings
Survey (HABS), courtesy of the Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division.

I must admit that I’m torn about this blog entry. On one hand, the location and the story are fascinating, but on the other there isn’t much paranormal phenomena reported. But, I’m disregarding my reservations and writing about it anyway.

There is a room in the Caswell County Courthouse with a door that opens and shuts on its own accord. According to two different sources, (though I think one source likely used the other) that is the only phenomena reported in this magnificent edifice. But then again, the story behind it is just as fascinating.

Oblique view of the courthouse.
Photo taken for the Historic
American Buildings Survey (HABS),
courtesy of the Library of Congress,
Prints and Photographs Division.
The Caswell County Courthouse is the county's fourth courthouse and was constructed between 1857 and 1861. The architecture is unusual for a government building of the period in that it employs the Italianate style; a style quite different from the other buildings in the area. The courtroom, located on the second floor is noted in one description as one of the most beautiful in the state with carved benches and partitions and an ornate plaster ceiling.

Within this marvelous structure a heinous act occurred; an act indicative of the area’s rough transition following the Civil War. Reconstruction was a difficult process for much of the South. Nearly everything was in upheaval: the economy, cities and plantations lying in ruins, the social order and African-Americans suddenly thrust into a new social standing. Add opportunists into this mix, especially Yankees with a carpet bag in hand and a glint in their eye, and you have an explosive combination.

It is against this turbulent backdrop that 34 year-old John Walter Stephens made his arrival in Caswell County. He is described as a difficult fellow, but of course, that all depends on who you talk to. Stephens was born in North Carolina and had worked as a tobacco trader as well as being active in the Methodist Church. Apparently, shortly before his move to Yanceyville, he had been involved in a scuffle with a neighbor whose chickens had wandered onto his property. Stephens killed the chickens and the neighbor had him sent to jail. After getting out, Stephens confronted the neighbor with a gun and in the fight that broke out, two bystanders were wounded. This incident provided Stephens with the nickname, “Chicken.” It was something that he would never live down.

While continuing to work as a tobacco trader, Stephens also worked as an agent for the Freedman’s Bureau and was a member of the Republican affiliated Union League, which helped to control the African-American vote in the South. Needless to say, he was politically unpopular with the white citizens of Caswell County. Through the efforts of the Union League and the African-American citizens of the county, Stephens was elected to the North Carolina State Senate in 1868. Slanderous gossip was spread through town and Stephens received death threats, but he remained in his position.

According to the affidavit of John G. Lea, Stephens was tried by a Ku Klux Klan jury, found guilty and sentenced to death. This death sentence was carried out on May 21, 1870 in a storage room on the ground floor of the courthouse. Stephens, who was attending a session to nominate county officers and members of the legislature, was lured downstairs and took him into the storage room where a group of KKK members awaited. After Stephens was disarmed of his three pistols John Lea rushed in. Lea, the last of the conspirators to die, described the scene in an affidavit sealed until after his death:

He arose and approached me and we went and sat down where the wood had been taken away, in an opening in the wood on the wood-pile, and he asked me not to let them kill him. Captain Mitchell rushed at him with a rope, drew it around his neck, put his feet against his chest and by that time about a half dozen men rushed up: Tom Oliver, Pink Morgan, Dr. Richmond and Joe Fowler. Stevens was then stabbed in the breast and also in the neck by Tom Oliver, and the knife was thrown at his feet and the rope left around his neck. We all came out, closed the door and locked it on the outside and took the key and threw it into County Line Creek.

Governor William W. Holden.
The turbulence, already boiling in the area, rose to a fever pitch after Stephens’ murder. The Ku Klux Klan stepped up its terror of African-Americans and their white enablers and in Graham in Alamance County to the south, an African-American town commissioner was lynched in a tree on the courthouse lawn. State Republican Governor William W. Holden, upset over the uproar in the area and the political threat to his seat from the mostly white Democrats, declared Caswell County to be in a state of rebellion and sent some 300 troops under the leadership of George W. Kirk to march on Yanceyville. Under the governor’s orders, some 100 local men were rounded up and jailed. With the suspension of habeus corpus, these men were held for some time and quite possibly mistreated during that time. The event, which ended later in 1870, became known as the Kirk-Holden War, despite the distinct lack of fighting.

With the August 1870 election, the Democrats swept the legislature. The governor was tried on charges of corruption for his participation in the Kirk-Holden War and he was removed from office. The New York Times reported in 1873 on a bill in the state legislature to give amnesty to the murderers. It describes a Republican representative giving an explicit account of the murder on the House floor. The bill passed, but I have not discovered if it was ever signed into law.

Things quieted down in Yanceyville, but there is still discussion of this turbulent bit of area history. And still, the door to the storage room on the courthouse’s ground floor opens and closes by itself. Is John Walter Stephens still walking the county?

Barefoot, Daniel W. North Carolina’s Haunted Hundred, Vol. 2,
     Piedmont Phantoms. Winston-Salem, NC: John F. Blair, 2002.
Caswell County Historical Association. Caswell County Courthouse.
     Accessed 5 April 2011.
Caswell County Historical Association. Kirk-Holden War (1870).
     Accessed 5 April 2011.
Caswell County Historical Association. Senator John Walter Stephens.
     Accessed 5 April 2011.
“Life in North Carolina: The Murder of Senator John W. Stephens—
     A Terrible Scene—Shall His Assassins be Amnestied?” New York
     Times. 26 February 1873.
Stone, Jason. “The Ghost of Chicken Stephens.”
     Accessed 5 April 2011.

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