29 September 2007

Rabbit Lore #14 (1909)

Chatham RECORD, 1909 SEP 15, "Rabbits at the North Pole":
From the Asheville Gazette-News.

Tar Heels will recognize a lamentable weakness in Dr. Cook's story. He says the last signs of life he saw was a bunch of rabbits, as they disported themselves about a glacier. As all North Carolinians in general, and the good people of Chatham county in particular, will at once realize, this is a most extraordinary rabbit tale. Your well regulated rabbit is a vegetarian, and as there are no turnips and parsnips in the region of the pole, no rabbit would think for a moment of abiding there. This is a part of Dr. Cook's story that may only be explained upon the theory that they have a carniverous [sic] breed of rabbits up that way, such as the Washington Post is most familiar with.

Rabbit Lore #13 (1910)

Chatham RECORD, 1910 FEB 23, "Chatham Rabbits":
From the News and Observer.

Rabbit is the principal diet of Chatham's connoissuers and epicures. No rabbits are shipped from Pittsboro because the fastidious people of that county seat get their beauty and many other good qualities from a diet of rabbits. The best cooks have ninety-seven different ways of cooking the rabbit, and the animal is so good in each way that when Pittsboro folks go away from home they carry enough rabbits to give them at least one a day while they are gone. They have been known also to carry a broiler and to be found by their hosts broiling a rabbit in their room after they thought everybody else had retired. They do not understand how anybody can prefer canvas-back ducks or Lynnhaven bays to the succulent Chatham rabbit.

Rabbit Lore #12 (1882)

Washington POST, 1882 OCT 18, "Protection in North Carolina" (from ProQuest Historical Newspapers):
John Gubbins in the Raleigh News.

The season is approaching when hares and 'possums will be plentiful, and when large quantities of this species of game will come pouring into Raleigh by the Chatham wagons. Now, I have a splendid 'possum dog, and brother Jim, he has a good dog for rabbits, and his boys are cute, too, in setting rabbit gums. But it is a well-known fact that Wake county rabbits and 'possums are much shyer and harder to catch than Chatham rabbits and 'possums, and besides, they are scarcer here than they are in Chatham.

Now, Mr. Editor, I think these facts will justify me and brother Jim in asking the county commissioners to levy a tariff on Chatham rabbits and 'possums to enable our dogs and Jim's boys' rabbit gums to complete with these foreign rabbits and 'possums, which I think would produce some revenue to the county, if it did not amount to prohibition. At any rate, it would enable us to declare a larger dividend on the products of our dog and rabbit gums. It is true it would raise the price of rabbits and 'possums to the consumers of those delicacies to, perhaps, double what they now have to pay, but it is necessary that individuals must suffer for the general good. Indeed, brother Jim thinks the higher the tariff the commissioners should lay on Chatham 'possums and rabbits the cheaper they would be in the Raleigh market. I don't know how that is but if the argument will hold water, pleaes use it in inducing the county commissioners to grant us the relief asked for.

25 September 2007

The Irrepressible Levi Poe (1906 - 1910)

As told by the Chatham RECORD...

1906, OCT 25, "Notice":

I will be in Pittsboro on Thursday, November 1, 1906. All that I hold papers against will be there to settle with me, as I shall be there only one day. After that day the papers will in 'Squire Burns' hands for collection. Please don't ask for any more time.

I have 80 young mules that I want to put out on twelve months' time, good papers, better than I have brought to the county.

B.B. Wagner.

1906 NOV 22, "$25 Reward":
$25 Reward

I will pay $25 for the arrest and delivery to the sheriff of Chatham county of Levi Poe.

He is a tall white man, about 26 or 27 years old, spare built, no beard, light colored hair.

B.B. Wagner,
Pittsboro, N.C.
November 22nd, 1906

1907 MAY 2, "Local Records":
Sheriff J.R. Milliken received a telegram from Norfolk Tuesday stating that Levi Poe, a young white man of this county who is wanted here for disposing of mortgaged property, had been arrested and would be held until sent for.

1907 MAY 9, "Superior Court":
The May term of Chatham superior court began on last Monday. The judge is Hon. Robert B. Peebles, who arrived on the train after 1 o'clock on Monday and opened court as soon as he had dinner.


State against Levi Poe was a novel case, the first of its kind we have ever known in this county. He had been indicted for disposing of mortgaged property, and when the case was called for trial his attorneys insisted that he was insane and could not plead to the indictment. The following issue was then submitted to the jury: "Has the defendant sufficient mental capacity to understand his defense?" After hearing the evidence the Solicitor said he would not resist a verdict for the defendant, and the issue was answered "no," and the defendant was ordered to be sent ot the hospital for the dangerous Insane for treatment.

1907 MAY 16, "Commissioners' Meeting":
The county commissioners held their regular monthly meeting last week and audited the following accounts:


Chas. B. Wright, for conveying Levi Poe from Norfolk to Pittsboro .... 40 45 [$40.45]

1907 MAY 23, "Local Records":
Mr. Levi Poe has escaped from the hospital for the dangerous insane at Raleigh, whither he was carried at the last term of our court.

1907 SEP 26, "Local Records":
At last May term of our superior court Levi Poe, of Hickory Mountain township, was sent to the department for the criminal insane at Raleigh, from which he escaped shortly thereafter and returned home. He had been having all right until a few days ago when he again became violent and dangerous, and made desperate resistance when deputy sheriff James T. [illegible] and a posse went to arrest him. He not only tried to kill them but also tried to kill himself before they could secure him.

1907 NOV 7, "Local Records":
Levi Poe, a young white man who was put in jail here about six weeks ago to await trial on the charge of disposing of mortgaged property, escaped from jail here last Tuesday night by breaking the lock to his cell with a cold chisel which he had secured in some way and forcing an entrance throught the ceiling of the building.

1907 NOV 21, "Local Records":
Levi Poe, who escaped from our county jail two weeks ago, was captured last Saturday at Raleigh and was returned to the insane department at the penitentiary, from which he escaped several months ago.

1907 DEC 19, "Local Records":
The irrepressible Levi Poe has again escaped from custody, being the third time in less than six months. Last May he was sent to the criminal insane department of the penitentiary, from which he soon escaped. In October he was arrested in this county, after a desperate struggle, and confined in our county jail, from which he soon escaped. He was again arrested at Raleigh last month and returned to the penitentiary, from which he escaped last week and with him three others.

1908 AUG 19, "Superior Court":
The August term of Chatham Superior Court was held last week for the trial of civil actions only ....


The next case tried was that of H.G. Kime against L.N. Womble, which was a suit for the value of a horse alleged to have been bought of plaintiff by Levi Poe, who gave a mortgage on it and then sold it to the defendant. There was a good deal of evidence as to the identity of the horse, as to whether the horse bought by the defendant from Poe was the same on that had been mortgaged to the plaintiff. The jury decided that it was the same horse and rendered their verdict in favor of the plaintiff for the amount of $100. The moral, or lesson, to be learned from this suit is to be careful with whom you trade horses and to be sure that there is no mortgage on the horse you get.

At this point, Levi Poe seems to disappear for some time from the pages of the Chatham RECORD. Chatham County marriage records show Levi Poe, age 24, marrying Eula Jones, age 20, at Hickory Mountain Baptist Church on August 15, 1909, John R. Blair, J.P., officiating. His parents are listed as James W. and Anna Poe, while Eula's are deceased. Then Levi and Eula make one final appearance in the newspaper:

1910 FEB 16, "Levi Poe's Suicide":
From a Jacksonville, Florida, paper of February 2nd, we copy the following account of Levi Poe killing himself:

"Taking deliberate aim with a 44-calibre Colt's revolver held tightly clutched in right hand, Levi W. Poe, a young white man 25 years of age, sent a bullet crashing through his heart yesterday afternoon at 3:30 o'clock.

The tragedy took place on a vacant lot on Myrtle avenue, only a short distance from Kings road and there were no witnesses to the suicide.

Having grown despondent over a nervous affliction, and having battled with odds against him with fickle fortune, Poe calmly and deliberately planned his self-destruction without giving the slightest intimation to the few friends he had here, or to his wife, that he contemplated putting an end to his life.

Poe came to Jacksonville in August, accompanied by his wife, from Goldston, N.C.

The couple had just married and with light hearts and a future that seemingly had much happiness in store for them they came to Florida to live. But all did not go well with Poe and his young bride. He soon lost his health and day by day he saw what money he had gradually dwindling away.

Recently Poe was driven to the last extremity, and through the kindly offices of a friend he secured the position as an attendant of an old invalid gentleman that resided on Kings road. His wife secured the position of assistant house-keeper at the Duval county experiment station. With the small stipend that each received they managed to keep the wolf from the door. But as the days wore on Poe's heart grew heavier, and yesterday, having reached the breaking point, the young man put an end to it all by snapping out his life.

How long Poe had planned to end his existence is not known as he appeared, or tried to appear, to the friends he had made since coming to this city, and to his wife, as being in a hopeful and happy mood. It is said that Poe could have obtained financial aid from his parents who are reputed to be well off, but this he persistently refused to do.

Yesterday afternoon at three o'clock, Poe walked into the grocery store of R.D. McCormick, at the corner of Myrtle avenue and Kings Road, and after chatting a few moments, walked from the store. That was the last seen of him alive. Five minutes later a pistol shot was heard, and on an investigation being made the lifeless body of Poe was found lying in the center ofa vacant lot adjoining the store he had just left. In his right hand was clutched a brand new 44-calibre Colt's revolver. The bullet had done its deadly work, for Poe did not move, nor did he utter a word after the shot was fired.

There was no farewell message, no note, nothing left by the suicide to his wife or relatives telling them why he had committed his rash act. But it was known to all who knew him -- he died because he could no longer withstand the disappointments that seemed to completely engulf him."

23 September 2007

Love Rabbit (1906, 1907, 1909, 1913)

If there's one thing that rabbits know about, it's love. Thus the old saying, "[love] like rabbits." So what better place to start digging an archaeology of the heart than the county where bunnies once ruled? Back in those days, folks did some things differently, especially in the area of getting started on marriage earlier in life. But other things never change, and there's plenty of that old familiar heartache to go around. I selected the following RECORD excerpts mainly because the couples (for better or worse) somehow selected each other.

The Daughter of John W. Griffin and Charles Young ("Local Records", 1906 Dec 27)
On Christmas eve the fourteen-year old daughter of Mr. John W. Griffin, of this township, eloped with Mr. Charles Young, formerly of Durham but who has been running a saw-mill near here for several months. They drove to Sanford and thence went by train to Durham to be married.

Man Marries Son's Widow ("Local Records", 1907 July 11)

Did you ever hear of a man marrying the widow of his son? There is a man in this county who married his deceased son's widow, and is the stepfather of his own grandchildren. Such a marriage brings about a medley of mixed kinship. For instance, the children of such a marriage are the uncles and aunts of their half-brothers and sisters!

A Night in the Forest ("Local Records", 1909 July 21)
Mr. and Mrs. J.W. White, an aged couple who live near Rocky river, about 7 miles from here, were taking a ride in a buggy one evening last week when some part of the harness broke, and both got out of the buggy to fix it. While they were at work on the harness, the mule in some way got entirely loose from the buggy and dashed off into the woods. Mr. and Mrs. White followed, and after vainly trying for some little time to catch the mule they attempted to return out to the road to their buggy, but soon found they were lost, in the woods. It being then dark, they concluded it better to stop where they were and spend the night than to ramble about in the woods. Mrs. White when asked how she fared through the night, said being very tired she pillowed her head on her husband's bosom and had a very good night's rest, though the night was cool and Mr. White had no coat and she no shawl or wrap.

Maggie Waters and James W. Pearce ("Chathamite's Romantic Marriage", 1909 September 29)
Special to News and Observer.

Greenville, N.C., Sept. 21. -- A romance that started from an advertisement in the News and Observer last March, concluded in a marriage here this afternoon. The parties to this romance were Mr. James W. Pearce, of Chatham county, and Mrs. Maggie Waters of Pinetown, Beaufort county. Mrs. Waters advertised in the News and Observer for a position as governess and Mr. Pearce answered the advertisement. From this a correspondence arose between, followed later by an exchange of photographs, a courtship by mail and finally a proposition to meet at a given point. The place of meeting agreed upon was Greenville, and both Mr. Pearce and Mrs. Waters reached here yesterday. They then met each other for the first time, and found no occasion for disappointment on the part of either. They decided to get married here and the ceremony was performed at Hotel Mason this afternoon by Rev. J.H. Shore, pastor of the Methodist church. Mr. and Mrs. Pearce, with the latter's little daughter, left on the 6:20 train for Raleigh, and from there will go on to the home of the bridgegroom near Siler City.

[Our congratulations are extended to the happy couple and we wish them much happiness. ED. RECORD.]

Josie Hammock and Benny Pegram ("Local Records", 1913)
June 11: On last Monday, about 7 o'clock p.m., Mr. Benny Pegram and Miss Josie Hammock left here in a carriage for Durham, where they were to be married, so it is said. Both are employed in the hosiery mill here, which seems to be a favorite place to promote marriages.
June 18: The couple that ran away from here on Monday of last week returned on last Saturday with a marriage certificate showing that they had been married at Richmond, Virginia. They first tried to get a marriage license at Durham, but could not succeed because of the youth of the bride, she being only fifteen years old. They went then to Raleigh, but could not get a license there, and therefore to Richmond. They are residing at the residence of Mr. S.G. Gunter.

Mamie Bounds and Henderson Cole, Jr. ("Secret Marriage Announced", 1913 June 25)
On the night of the first of last November there was a marriage at this place that was kept a secret until last week, when it was made public by the parties thereto. The couple were Mr. Henderson Cole, Jr., and Miss Mamie Bounds, both of Wilmington, and the announcement of their marriage was made last week in the Wilmington papers.

On the night of November 1st they arrived here on the train from Moncure and applied to Mr. John W. Johnson, our register of deeds, for a marriage license. He was at first doubtful about issuing the license, fearing that the lady was not eighteen years old, but she and the expectant groom insisted so earnestly that she was nineteen years old that he decided to take the risk and issue the license. They went to the residence of Squire Robert M. Burns, who with impressive manner soon married them, the witnesses being Sheriff Lane, Mrs. R.M. Burns and Miss Myrtle Siler.

The happy couple requested that their marriage be kept a secret until they were ready to announce it, and so well kept was their secret that nobody here knew anything about it. The groom was a student at Elon College and the bridge a stenographer in the office of the Southern Express Company at Wilmington, and they did not wish their marriage made until he graduated and she was afraid of losing her position if her marriage was known. They met by appointment here because, as they said, this place was so retired and quiet they thought that their marriage could better be kept a secret here than elsewhere.

The Gilbert-Gill Affair ("Local Records", 1913)
July 9: A few days ago a warrant was issued by N.J. Wilson, a justice of the peace of New Hope township, for the arrest of J.E. Gill, a Wake County man, for eloping with the wife of W.W. Gilbert, formerly of Wake county but recently employed by Kelly Bros., saw-mill operators in New Hope township. Gill is a married man and is said to be well connected and possession some property.
July 16: Mention was made in these columns last week of a warrant having been issued in New Hope township recently for a man named J.E. Gill for abducting the wife of one W.W. Gilbert. After Gill's arrest in Wake county the woman came back to her husband who thereupon refused to prosecute Gill and asked that the warrant be dismissed, which was done for lack of evidence.

Betty Henderson and Ernest Petty ("Local Records", 1913 August 6)
- On last Sunday morning Ernest Petty, the 16-year-old son of Stephen Petty, of Hadley township, and Miss Betty Henderson, the 15-year-old daughter of Mr. Hiram Henderson, were married, both parties having the written consent of their parents when they obtained license from Register of Deeds Johnson on Saturday. The same day the couple were married the father of the young woman was drowned, as mentioned elsewhere in this issue.

- On last Sunday afternoon, Mr. Hiram Henderson, of Hadley township, started from his house on foot to a neighbor's and nothing later being heard of him, a searching party was organized to look for him. His tracks were seen as far as Dark's ford on Dry Creek which was greatly swollen all day by the heavy rains on Sunday morning. Monday morning his dead body was found on a fish-trap about half a mile below the ford which he is supposed to have entered not known how deep it was.
Ernest and Betty enjoyed 45 years together. Hiram and his wife, Bettie, lie not too far away.

18 September 2007

"Chatham Citizen Shot." (1908)

[Image of St. Leo's Hospital, Greensboro from the North Carolina Collection's North Carolina Postcards digital collection.]

What is the line that takes a man from "Citizen" to "Blockader"? Last week's post "Chatham Blockader Shot" told the violent story of the "noted blockader of Bear Creek township named John Cheek," who ran afoul of the sheriff of Moore County over 1500 gallons of illegal beer. Armed with a Winchester rifle, Cheek fired on the sheriff and his deputies; himself shot, he lay wounded under guard while the sheriff went for help.

A scamper six months ahead in the Chatham RECORD reveals no follow-up on the fate of John Cheek. But something does turn up from five years before. It raises some interesting questions about the blockader John Cheek (1908 July 29):
Chatham Citizen Shot.

From the Greensboro Record.

John Cheek, of the Bear Creek neighborhood, Chatham county, is a patient at St. Leo's Hospital suffering from a gunshot wound received at his home one night a week ago, his brother having mistaken him for a burglar and fired upon him, the load of buckshot taking effect in his thighs.

Mr. Cheek's residence had been robbed the night before and he and his half-grown brother were out in their yard watching to see if the burglar would return. After being on watch for several hours, Mr. Cheek handed a double-barrelled shotgun to his brother telling him he was going into another part of the yard and would return the same way. Instead of doing so he went around to the kitchen door and just as he reached it his brother blazed away, thinking he was a burglar.

His injuries are quite serious, but he is reported to be getting along very well and will probably be able to leave the hospital within in the next few weeks.

The account of the 1908 incident tells a lot about its own John Cheek in a few sentences. In a tense situation, he puts the weapon in his younger brother's hands, relays the plan, then botches it. For this mistake he gets the long bloody journey to Greensboro, and then a recovery. What does he think about as he lies in St. Leo's? Does he laugh for what a fool he was? Does the trauma harden his character?

Then, in 1913, a notorious criminal by the same name opens up on the sheriff and deputies at the site of his distillery. For this work he abandoned a wife and family back on the farm in Chatham. Did he die from his wounds in 1913? If he had, the RECORD would have mentioned it, and editor London taken the occasion to lecture on temperance and stronger laws against beer. But while his crimes in Moore County generate newspaper copy, they could also put a man on ice somewhere far away.

Knowing what we know, no one can blame the Rabbit for asking. Did the guy who was hit by buckshot as a young man, turn to the life of an outlaw? When cornered by the police, did the friendly-fire victim of five years before flash PTSD and open up with his Winchester?

The Rabbit confesses to blogging today with only fragments of evidence that neither indict nor clear 1908's John Cheek of brewing contraband beer and assaulting the police in 1913. I'll tell you a secret, rabbits occasionally take time to pursue other pleasures besides blogging, considerable though the latter be. See the postscript to this post for my research if you're interested in that kind of thing. But for now, certainty requires more -- a middle initial, a name for the brother, another exploit of the "noted blockader" in the RECORD.

And that's really the point of today's post. We can't know the answer to the questions that we have without digging deeper. But if you've read this far you must want to know. I do. These discoveries plot two points for a story to connect, and seeking and liking connections helps make me human, er rabbit. Our kind are weak for sweet story, the gooey nougat of narrative that makes for rich mind candy. I openly, actively, unabashedly root for the two John Cheeks to be the same guy. But I'll enjoy it best if I do everything in my power to prove they aren't.

History happens both inside and outside. At some levels it sweeps but at others it shuffles, and the little inducements lead to the critical moment that changes everything. We know that John Cheek the blockader lived outside the law. In one view he's a two-bit thug, dangerous when cornered, a hard man and a bad man. In another he's a soldier and a casualty in the War on Booze that culminates in Prohibition and the rise of gangster life in America. Which in turn feeds into the present-day global boondoggle called the War on Drugs, seems to the Rabbit.

In my original post I recommended the story to "action fans" and thereby reduced its violence to a cartoonish interpretation. A rabbit should respect more ... these are life and death affairs, not zany madcap adventures, no matter how arch the RECORD's coverage, or febrile the rabbit mind. Descendants of either John Cheek may live in these parts, and descendants of that notable family indeed do [see item B below for more on the Cheek family]. Stories don't have to be respectful but they can be. Despite last week's take on "Chicken Eats Flies" this is not some southern grotesque thing we're doing here. It's the story of the place where we live and it's complicated.


Just for fun, let's list the pertinent facts in these two pieces, and consider how to follow up in the documentary sources. First of all, there's one main fact driving this post -- each incident involves a John Cheek of Bear Creek township. So beginning with a name a place and the dates around 1900 and 1910, census records might help to identify possible John Cheeks.

Next, the main points from the 1908 piece. 1) The incident occurred at "Mr. Cheek's residence." The phrasing strongly implies that Mr. Cheek lives as head of a household, but does it also suggest that he owns the land? Here consult land records as well as census. 2) His "half-grown brother" shot him. Seek any evidence showing a John Cheek with a brother "half-grown" in 1908. 3) Cheek received treatment in St. Leo's Hospital, which is in Greensboro. These days hospitals notify police when treating gunshot wounds. Was the same true in 1908? Did the police take a report?

Finally, from the 1913 piece. 1) He was a "noted blockader" and "a fugitive from justice." So the RECORD may yield more about his exploits 1909-1911, and a rap sheet might turn up in the criminal records. 2) He operated in Moore County, so look for connections there. 3) He "abandoned his wife and family", so consult marriage records and keep an eye out for wives and children in the record. 4) He "owned a very good farm," which takes us back to the deed books.

Having no ready access to census records right now, I've pursued fewer of these avenues than I'd like. And as a rule, the directive "Ask Some People" always holds; of course oral history could probably do as much for this inquiry as anything. But there follow a few follow-ups.

A) I consulted Cemetery Census, which is a remarkable resource if you don't know about it. Great care goes into the extensive listing of names, dates and inscriptions from cemeteries around Chatham County. It goes without saying that I can't vouch 100% for the accuracy of data from an online source, but it must be very close to exhaustive, and it's highly usable. Listings there show that there could have been multiple men named John Cheek active in Bear Creek for several generations, including the period in question. Somehow, the inscription "noted blockader" doesn't appear on any headstones. In short, the cemetery listings do support the possibility that the 1908 and 1913 John Cheeks are entirely different John Cheeks.

B) As to the connections to Moore County, they exist in number. The name of Cheek is a very old and distinguished one in both Bear Creek and Moore County. Cheeks took land grants along the Deep River in Moore and Chatham; they stood and fought as Regulators; and they propagated and prospered throughout the counties of Moore, Chatham, Orange, and elsewhere. See this extremely well-researched genealogy web site for some of the big picture, and this page of it for an example of a John G. Cheek (1801-1892) who migrated to Chatham County and lies with his wife Jane in an eponymous cemetery in Bear Creek. Chatham Deed Book AD 276-277 [pdf's] also designates a "John Cheek of the County of Moore" who acquires land on Tyson's Creek that had been granted to Robert Cheek. This John Cheek may be a grandson of Robert Cheek of Moore County; see here under "2. Richard CHEEK". A John Cheek with the dates 1811-1897 lies at Bear Creek Baptist Church.

To stress again the prominence of the Cheek family in the county, I'll add that Chatham County 1771-1971 lists "J.D. Cheek" among the founding members of Siler City Mason's lodge No. 403 [p. 314]; a J.D. Cheek (1826-1912) is buried at Brush Creek Baptist Church in Bear Creek township, and a Mason's insignia adorns his headstone. A Mason insignia likewise marks the grave of Joe J. Cheek (1870-1928), who lies at Bear Creek Baptist Church.

C) A deeds search turns up of a handful of John Cheeks buying land in Bear Creek at varying rates and amounts in the relevant time frame. Again, nowhere does the text solve our problems by referring to any of them as a "notable blockader".

D) Legal actions would have fallen under the jurisdiction of Moore County, though records may exist.

E) I don't have the Chatham RECORD from 1909-1911 but this story has convinced me to fill the gaps on my next visit the NCC Microfilm Collection. More stories could turn up on the "noted blockader" and other intriguing topics. Let's just say John Cheek has become a person of interest in the Rabbit's pantheon.

13 September 2007

Justice, Chatham Style

Rabbit's post "Chicken Eats Flies" was so good I had to respond, in a way.

In reading that old standby "Chatham County 1771-1971" I came across this tidbit. There were four courthouses built in Pittsboro. The first was moved from its original location south of town to downtown proper, where it remained as a store until burning down in the 20s. The next two were so shoddily built they didn't last. Here is the story of one of them, from the book:

The second courthouse, also constructed of wood, was so flimsy that during a dramatic moment in a trial being held there, a strong wind blew off the roof. All the jurors, spectators, witnesses and court personnel were so frightened they fled, leaving the judge and defendant. The judge is reported to have found the defendant "not guilty," saying, "He stayed with me when all others fled and I will stand by him."

About this time the jail burned and the county commissioners decided to build a new courthouse and jail, this time of brick.

This story is so good it deserves a follow-up. I'll report more when I can track down contemporary court records and get a comment from Superior Court Judge Allen Baddour.

Update: From Judge Baddour, in the comments:

As to the defendant in that particular case, I can find no reference to it in the Court of Appeals. I suppose the State did not appeal, jeopardy had attached and the matter was not continued due to the sudden emergency; a not guilty, or more properly, dismissal by the court for failure to prosecute, is the remedy.

Fiddlin' (1908, 1914)

With a modern-day "old-time" fiddlers' convention taking place at Shakori Hills in a week, the Rabbit takes notice of similar events in 1908 and 1914. Nothing has turned up so far on fiddlin' in 1906-7 or 1912-13, other years for which I have copies of the RECORD. Gotta love the use of archaic spellings in the first two items. If anyone knows anything about the musicians named below, drop me a line at the email address in the sidebar.

July 8, "Local Records". We are requested to announce that "Ye olden tyme fiddlers' convention" will be held here next Tuesday night (the 14th) for the benefit of the Methodist parsonage. Many old time fiddlers are expected to be present and play the old familiar tunes. Admission 25 cents reserved seats 10 cents extra.

July 15, "Local Records". Ye old tyme fiddlers' convention, held in the school auditorium last night, proved to be quite enjoyable to the audience in attendance despite the threatening weather. Nearly a dozen musicians participated in the contest, one of the instruments used being a banjo and another an autoharp the rest being the genuine old-fashioned 'fiddle and the bow.' The first prize was awarded to Mr. O.T. Williams, of Rock Rest township, the second to Mr. J.P. Taylor, of Columbia, Texas, the specialty prize to Mr. L.H. Sanders, of this township, while to our musical townsman, Mr. W.B. Hartson, fell the booby prize. The success of the entertainment (the proceeds of which went to the Methodist parsonage) is largely due to the efforts of Mr. Walter G. Jerome.
May 13, "Local Records". At the fiddlers' contest held here last night Bosier Williams won the first prize of $5, and Has Hackney won the prize of $2 as the best banjo picker.

Deep River is Deep and Wide (1908)

Follows up on "Lee Takes Egypt", (April 8, 1908):
A magistrate in this county was requested, a few days ago, to marry a couple in Lee county. Deep river is the dividing line between the two counties, and they proposed to stand on the Lee county bank and let the magistrate stand on the Chatham side and perform the ceremony, but he correctly decided that they must also be in Chatham.

12 September 2007

Erasing the Stone Tape

"The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time."

--Willem de Kooning

Once upon a time, a sturdy house sat overlooking a creek in Pittsboro. Sandwiched between the public buildings on West Street and Pittsboro Elementary School road, it was roughly a three acre slice of 19th Century Chatham county. Built around 1838, it was originally known as the William Hardin Home. When I first saw it, it was called the old Rectory, and its date with oblivion had been set.

In 1946, however, it was the setting for a treacly ante-bellum tale of ghostly lost love. The 26 April issue of The Chatham Record recounted the story told to them by W.B. Morgan:

"The daughter of William Hardin dashed joyously down the steps of the new mansion high on the hill. Down the steep, winding path she ran, pausing for a moment to wave to someone below. The moonlight splashed on her golden curls and her full white dress, fashioned in the ante-bellum style, appeared to float about her as she ran to the boy who stood beside the big stone at the door of the spring-house. The boy, Phillip Jones, a successful young Chatham County planter, seemed in the grip of some mysterious, unreal force as he watched the lovely girl. 'Why you're just like an angel,' he said. 'Promise that you will always stay the way you are tonight!'

'I promise,' she answered shyly.

Suddenly her hand fled to her left side and she swayed for a moment, and Phillip in alarm moved to steady her.

'It is nothing,' she said quickly, 'Perhaps I ran too fast to meet you, and then, too, I'm so happy to think that I, Helen Randolph Hardin will next month, June 1839, become the wife of Mr. Phillip Jones.'"

I would transcribe more, but already have tunnel vision from this syrupy mess. It's just not worth full-blown diabetes. For your sake as well as mine, I'll hurry through to the end: the girl dies in her sleep that night from a heart attack, presumably brought on by having to deliver such lengthy exposition. The lad, grief stricken, sees her luminescent apparition coming to meet him as he waits to keep their appointment by the creek the following night.

The article goes on to cite Scotland Scurlock as a later witness of Ms Hardin's phantom. Scurlock told William E Brooks, a later owner of the house, who was also able to find collaborative accounts of this haunting, though he himself had no direct experience.

You and I, dear reader, can neither confirm nor deny the veracity of this reputed local haunting. Even if unimpeachable witnesses testified to seeing something float down to the creek and vanish on those moonlit nights in June, it is beyond reason to call that strange vision the persistence of Ms Hardin's earthly personality.

But let us, for the sake of argument, or for the sake of blogs needing posts, stipulate both: a young girl died, and her ghost was seen.

A generally accepted theory (reserving all rights, of course--there are many who consider any such theories to be idiotic) of explaining such repetitive, non-interactive "hauntings" is called the "Stone Tape." Essentially, it allows that, for whatever reason, our environment is capable of "recording" highly emotional events, and "replaying" those events under similar atmospheric conditions. Was there something about the Hardin House, or the creek, still extant, or the rocks and water that define that creek, that could have somehow captured the movements of this girl? Could her unfulfilled desire have made such an impression?

(We would do well, at this point, to remember Charles Fort's take on such explanations: "I conceive of nothing, in religion, science or philosophy, that is more than the proper thing to wear, for a while.")

In the 1990s, the Hardin House, by then known as the Rectory, was bought by RAFI. Their worthy goal was initially to restore it to use as their offices. Too late they realized the impossibility of ever making the structure compliant with ADA requirements. They graciously offered the house free to anyone willing to move it. My wife and I toured the house, admiring the broad wall planks and floorboards. We went underneath and marveled at the enormous white-pine sills, just as we had the wood pegs that held the ancient roof together. We couldn't move the house, despite our efforts, and it was dismantled. Months later I saw pieces of it for sale in an Asheville architectural antiques store.

In a way, it was just as well. The house was so clearly part and parcel of the land on which it was situated. To move it, though the more desirable option, would have obliterated that context. It's gone forever, not to be retrieved.

And I don't doubt that, because the environment was so profoundly altered, Ms Hardin's apparition ceased to manifest itself. Even ghosts must sense when they're not wanted.

We imply permanence by saying that something is "written in stone." But headstones, and stone tapes, can be erased. Because this town, this area, and its inhabitants have traditionally only been "land rich," we are forever trading our magic beans for cows. What little historical and natural assets we have continue to be devalued and sold off, because we have neither the will nor the resources to preserve them. I wonder, as the bulldozers and backhoes ply their trade along the 15-501 corridor, what other tapes are being erased as I write, and as you read. Many of us know the price of what we've sold, but few know the value.

11 September 2007

"Chatham Blockader Shot." (1913)

[The Rabbit samples stories from past issues of Chatham County's longest-running newspaper. See description of Chatham Rabbit Reads the RECORD, version 2.0.]

Here's one for the action fans. Also, fans of moralizing, finger-wagging condemnations (an H.A. London specialty. June 4, 1913):
Chatham Blockader Shot.

On Monday morning of last week a noted blockader of Bear Creek township named John Cheek was shot and captured in a raid by Sheriff Blue and deputies, of Moore county, about 10 miles northeast of Carthage.

The officers had known of the existence of this still for a long time, Cheek having negroes to run it for him and seldom going near it. The still was of eighty gallons capacity. Fifteen hundred gallons of beer were at the still when it was captured.

When the officers came upon the still Cheek and a negro were found there. They immediately retreated and began a running fire with the raiders. Cheek was armed with a Winchester and the two officers were equipped with pistols. After the running fire had continued for some time Deputy Sheriff Phillips brought Cheek down with a bullet wound through the right leg just above the knee. After overpowering the distiller Sheriff Blue went back to Carthage for a doctor, leaving Phillips with the wounded man for an hour and a half.

Until a few years ago Cheek was considered a hard-working, law-abiding man, owning a very good farm, but for some time he had been mixed up in the blockading business, had abandoned his wife and family and was a fugitive from justice. His present trouble is but the logical outcome of his career and is but another illustration of the truth that when one becomes involved in the illicit manufacture of whisky sooner or later he will have to suffer for it.
Wonder what they did with the 1500 gallons of beer? Anyway, times sure have changed -- these days the Sheriff hangs out where they make the beer, without shooting anyone. I note for the record that it looks like a sweet tea he has there. On the other hand I can say unequivocally that this blog owes its existence to legal beer.

"Chicken Eats Flies." (1913)

[The Rabbit samples stories from past issues of Chatham County's longest-running newspaper. See description of Chatham Rabbit Reads the RECORD, version 2.0.]

The Rabbit has long harbored a diabolical scheme by which I capture the world's imagination by passing off a sample of my own prose as the first two paragraphs of a long-lost Flannery O'Connor story. But I must abandon my dreams today, for I realize that I could never do any better than the following, from the RECORD of June 11, 1913:
Chicken Eats Flies.

Our venerable townsman, Capt J.J. Crump, has a pet chicken that he is raising on flies, and the chicken seems to enjoy its diet. The captain is so disabled by the wound in his leg received at the battle of Reams' Station that he walks with much difficulty and spends much of his time seated in a large armchair on the sidewalk in front of his room. One of his amusements is killing flies with a fly-swatter, at which he has become an expert, and the chicken stays near his feet and watches the movements of the fly-swatter with much interest and quickly seizes and swallows every fly that is hit.

It is quite amusing to see that chicken watch the fly-swatter and pounce upon the smitten fly. It is very tame and does not become frightened at the approach of strangers.
As in an O'Connor story, the thing one loves must be lost forever within two weeks, no more (June 25):
Pet Chicken Dead.

We regret to announce the death of the pet chicken of Capt. J.J. Crump, of this place, mention of which was recently made in these columns. It is not known whether too large a consumption of flies was the cause of death. To console him for the loss of his pet the captain has adopted another pet chicken which he is also feeding flies, and it is hoped that this diet will not have the same fatal results as on the former chicken.
(Honest, I wrote all of this post up to here before I read on Wikipedia that when she was five, Flannery O'Connor taught a chicken to walk backwards. Or that her chicken appeared in newsreels around the country and she said, "That was the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. It's all been downhill from there." You have no reason to believe this, I know. But it's wondrous true.)

High Strangeness: The Four-Footed Tribe

I was gratified to receive an email from a reader yesterday which sent me scampering through a thicket of North Carolina folklore.

Down near Robeson creek, so the story goes, a witch once lived back in the woods, on the creek that runs by Johnny Burke road. Two hunters were out in this area long ago, and one shot a deer. The blood trail led them back into the woods to a tiny house. There they saw a little old lady, sitting on the porch in her rocker. To their horror, she had a gunshot wound in her upper right chest area--exactly where the deer was hit. My correspondent heard this story as a child, some 40 years ago, and it was already old news then.

It was instantly familiar to me, however, and after some searching I found my friend Roger Manley's "Weird Carolinas," which put me on the right path.

It's worth noting that deer were a rarity at this time, before some well-meaning people (no doubt related to those who thought planting kudzu would be a good idea) re-introduced them after Jordan Lake's completion. (We can thus conclude that deer should be considered fair game either because of paucity or abundance.)

The story of the unfortunate witch is reminiscent of a romantic explanation of how Daniel Boone found his future bride by wisely refusing to shoot a blue-eyed "deer" during a nighttime fire hunting excursion.

There are also echoes in the legend concerning the fate of Virginia Dare. Spurning an Indian suitor, she was turned into a white doe, and later killed. (It's impossible not to recognize an unsubtle example of white female exceptionalism here; an inverted riff on Public Enemy's "too black, too strong"--"too white, too frail." What's the first white girl to do when surrounded by amorous savages? Change species!)

The albino deer, a convenient metaphor for Ms Dare's uniqueness, has much deeper roots in North Carolina Indian folklore about the "four-footed tribes." It was, if we are to believe what we're told, the chief of the deer tribe, and responsible for ensuring that hunters made proper atonement for their kill. As soon as a deer was hit by an arrow, he was there, and "asked the blood" on the ground if the hunter had made the proper apology to the victim. If not, the blood trail would lead to the murderer, who would then be cursed with rheumatism. To atone is to make ourselves "at one" with those we have injured, as witch woman suffers the wounds of her surrogate, or as hunter "covers up" the bones of the dead with offerings to appease the bereaved.

It pains me to conclude that, in all probability, the story of the Deer Witch Woman was calculated only to spook the crap out of an impressionable lad. "It scared me that day in the woods," my correspondent confided, "especially when [my friends who told me] took off running like they just seen the little old lady." But that story, told by children, is a variant on stories told about the first colonists, even older stories told by the aboriginals who co-existed with them, and ancient stories told before humans ever set foot in this wondrous land of Caroline, as our collective ancestors scratched curious images on sacred rock walls and explained the world, one to another.

[I'm always on the lookout for Chatham strangeness--folktales, ghost stories and the like. Email me with yours: pborowest@yahoo.com]

10 September 2007

Who Defaced the Chatham Confederate Monument?

[This post follows up on a 4-part series about the Chatham Confederate monument. The image of the "Negro Domination" headline is taken from a special "Supplement to the Chatham RECORD", published November 3, 1898.]

Late summer 1907, Pittsboro, North Carolina. The week after the Winnie Davis Chapter of the United Daughters of the Confederacy and a reunion of Confederate veterans some 300-men-strong unveiled the Chatham Confederate monument before a crowd of six thousand, someone defaced it with shoe polish and grease. I wrote a three-part series on the monument project, the unveiling and the defacement, and posted it late in August and last week. Since then I've had the opportunity to discuss the incident with some highly informed readers.

In part 3, I had placed an emphasis on the possibility of the defacement as an act of protest, performed by an African-American who saw the statue as an overt symbol of racial inequality. I also suggested in passing that the defacement might have been a result of disgruntlement with Henry London, or resentment toward the unveiling event. My correspondents suggested taking the idea of disgruntlement further to encompass something that everyone who participates in elections in Chatham comes to know at some level -- animosities related to local politics. That's right, it's like the guy who held up the "Buck Funkey" sign at the January, 2004 court house protest. Except different, because not just goofy and personalized, but racial and broad.

As I wrote in part 1 of the series, the monument was a very public project of Henry A. London's. London was a staunch Democrat who relentlessly used the pages of his newspaper to taunt the Republicans, Populists and those who fashioned the Fusion coalitions of the previous decade. One way to get back at London would be to desecrate the statue that he had placed so much fund-raising and editorial effort upon.

Furthermore, London used race as a political wedge wherever it would be effective. He had learned the lessons of 1898 well. He learned them as a participant; in the "Local Records" section of the RECORD of September 24, 1898, he wrote:

A friend at Wilmington has sent us a copy of the negro paper at Wilmington, dated August 18th, in which is published that vile and infamous libel on the poor white women of this State. We would be pleased to show this paper to any and all persons who will call at the RECORD office, and they can see for themselves that it is not "a democratic lie."
Here he references the infamous editorial, purportedly by Alexander Manly, which appeared in the Wilmington DAILY RECORD. Manly's assertion that some relations involving white women and black men were consensual (see the excerpt here) lit the fire under the powder keg of the "white supremacist summer" of 1898. After the Red Shirts staged their racial insurrection in Wilmington, London wrote (November 17): "WILMINGTON is once more ruled by respectable white men and all her citizens are now safe and secure in their lives, liberty and property. Peace prevails ...."

The drumbeat of race and the hammering of the Fusionists continued through London's career. Perhaps because he didn't want to offend the Populists directly, or possibly to marginalize them, London focused his haranguing fire on the Republicans. Still, in October of 1906, leading up to the election before the unveiling of the memorial, London looked into his heart and wrote:
When the Fusion gang had charge of our county they appointed negro school committeemen in charge of schools for white children, and this was endorsed by the present Republican candidates. What do the white men of Chatham think of this?
One of my correspondents assured me that Populist sentiment ran high in the county. Democratic sympathies would have been concentrated in Pittsboro, where Mr. Pittsboro himself, London, developed a personal and professional relationship with Democratic kingpin Josephus Daniels, publisher of the Raleigh NEWS & OBSERVER. Populists thrived in the other parts of the county (according to my correspondent). There the smaller farmers developed their political consciousness via the Farmer's Alliance. They briefly forged their coalition with the Republicans and took power before the race scares of 1898 broke it up. The RECORD's relentless taunting must have galled them considerably.

With this background, perhaps it makes more sense to suggest that a Populist aimed the racially-charged vandalism of the memorial directly at London and the RECORD. Or perhaps the target was more broadly the Democratic elite, whom the shoe-polish phantom saw embodied in that figure posed in the center of Pittsboro. Along similar lines, it could have been a scalawag. Or as one of my correspondents suggested, it could have been some teenagers who got into their father's corn liquor.

But the simple fact is, I was probably wrong in my original estimation. The act was too swashbuckling to be a statement about racial (in)equality. As I said in part 3, lynching was not a common practice in Chatham at the time, but the fear of lynching or other horrific punishment would have persisted. An African-American caught on the plinth with a bottle of shoe polish in the dead of night could have paid for the transgression with his or her hide. A white Republican or Populist would escape with a night in jail, a fine and a stern finger-wagging from Henry A. London. It would have been unpleasant for a while, but a scant day or two later, the perp would have been on his way, enjoined to return for court week in a month or so. The incident might even have given the a certain lightness to his step on the way home.

High Strangeness: Against Tramping

I admire my friend Rabbit.

He was kind enough to invite me to post on this blog. My desire is to inhabit a separate territory; my own section of pasture. In order to be a good, complimentary neighbor, I need only to stay away from Rabbit's strengths--"research" and "good writing" come to mind. It's a relief, really, to not take on such responsibilities.

My own niche will be a parochial overview of what the English charmingly call "high strangeness." Essentially, various anomalies have been visited upon the region and its inhabitants: ghosts, mysterious lights, a shower of blood. I will try as best I can to draft a psychogeographic map of Chatham's paranormal terrain, avoiding only the canonical and clich├ęd.

I need your help. Folklore, superstition, and rumor will be gratefully received and included in the topography. Email me: pborowest@yahoo.com

In honoring Rabbit's role as iconoclast, my first goal is to expose that appalling fraud known as the Devil's Tramping Ground. Noteworthy only in its lameness, let us agree to never mention it again.

If we allow the conceit that Old Nick has appeared in Chatham, he certainly doesn't waste his time kicking empty FunYun bags out of a crappy little circle of land outside Siler City. No; if anything, he would come visit us only to lay down, rubbing his temples, temporarily overwhelmed by the manifest ascendancy of his agenda worldwide. After recovering, he might indulge himself to polish, with long, deliberate strokes, the ready rifle of our Civil War Memorial. The "Our Confederate Heroes" epitaph must surely be the kind of subterfuge that would make his eyelids flutter, if only for a moment.

It cannot be doubted, if we stipulate his existence, that he merrily led the blasphemous parade on several occasions to the various lynching trees in town, up to the corner of Midway and Hillsboro, or down old Lockville Road, hooting on his pipe triumphantly.

But the Devil's Tramping Ground is dull, varnished with stupid. Away with it. We can do better. We have done better. Allow me, in the posts that follow, to demonstrate.

Maps and Plats of Chatham

[This page collects references to maps and plat drawings of interest in this blog's studies. Plat drawings are PDF's borrowed from the Chatham County Register of Deeds database.]

[Plat_1_40], or Plat Book 1, Page 40: "Map Showing Boundary Lines of the Town of Pittsboro, N.C." A survey done by George Love, 1937.

[Plat_1_56], or Plat Book 1, Page 56: "Map of Pittsboro." A map drawn by surveyor R.B. Clegg [1890?].

[Plat_1_79], or Plat Book 1, Page 79: "Map of G.W. Blair's Farm, Pittsboro, NC, Surveyed Dec. 1943." Shows area now occupied by Central Carolina Community College and the soon-to-be Moore's Ridge development. Otherwise known among rabbits as "The West Pittsboro Delta" for the way US highways 87, 64 Bypass and 64 Business enclose it.

09 September 2007

The Rabbit's Miscellany (2007 SEP 9)

1) This blog changes. Today Chatham Rabbit proudly becomes a group blog. tommy yum's first post, written in ink derived from the fluid that collects beneath the rotting floor of the Patrick St. Lawrence House -- Pittsboro's glory, Pittsboro's shame -- immediately precedes this one. Some of you may know tommy yum as Tom Maxwell, whom I'm proud to call my friend and neighbor. With his post, Chatham Rabbit officially becomes a group blog, and I hope that the "group" part of that designation will grow over time.

2) Rabbit's not-so-secret identity. Tom points out that I have never revealed my true identity on the blog, though the information was available in my blogger profile. Thus I will confess to being Will Sexton, of Pittsboro. Twice a graduate of UNC-Chapel Hill, I do information technology stuff for Duke University Libraries, and in case my rooting allegiances aren't clear, let's just say I like this picture. I started this blog in July for reasons which I managed to articulate for the most part in the first post. Other reasons? I like telling stories, and I discovered a wealth of them in the research material for a documentary project that I started on the development boom happening in these parts. The theme of this blog is "change in Chatham County".

3) Reads the RECORD v. 2.0. Since I have anecdotal evidence that a few people may now on occasion read this blog, I should account for the fact that my previous explanation of the Reads the RECORD (version 2.0) feature was bloggered a month or so ago. So here's how it works. For a separate research project, I read and take notes on whole sections of the Chatham RECORD's run at a time. As I go, certain stories strike me as worthy of sharing on the Rabbit blog, and this I do in the recurring "Chatham Rabbit Reads the RECORD" feature, or "Reads the RECORD" for short. That's about it. Now that I've finished writing the lengthy series on the Chatham Confederate memorial, I'll probably return more often to the "Reads the RECORD" style of posting for a while.

More RECORD. Today I visited the North Carolina Collection and scanned a new range of issues of the Chatham RECORD. To be specific, I scanned the years 1912-1914. While scanning issues from this period, when the RECORD ran as four pages, I scan the leftmost four or five columns of the inner two pages, where the editorial and the "Local Records" sections lay. Here is where most of the topical information on the county appears in the RECORD of this period. The rightmost three columns usually contain advertisements and a few public notices.

I'll likely return to the NCC and scan the years 1915-1918 in the near future. My reasoning for selecting this range relates to my own larger research objectives; these years represent the height of the Good Roads movement in Chatham County and elsewhere in the south. The upshot for Chatham Rabbit is that items will appear from this period in the "Reads the RECORD" feature and elsewhere.

The Yellow House, and What You Can Do With It

There is a movable wall in the Patrick St Lawrence House, which, when lifted and hooked into place horizontally near the ceiling, opens two normally separate parlors into a main room large enough for an 18th Century dance. This, along with exotic wood balusters, newel posts and enormous window sills, is one of the many features of the “Yellow House” that nobody gives a shit about.

If, for some reason, you’ve read about the house on a local historical site, you’ll know to hang a left onto Chatham from South Street, then a quick right between two other historic houses nobody gives a shit about, into a new-ish parking lot. If you know where you’re looking, or if it’s Fall and the trees are bare, you can see the Yellow House on the left, dolefully rotting away in its third and possibly final location.

Keen students of history—hand wringers all—know that the Yellow House was built in 1787, the year that Pittsboro was chartered. It was constructed by the obscure and suspiciously flamboyant Patrick St Lawrence, who distinguished himself by marrying a wealthy widow. Building the house bankrupted both himself and his contractor. He fled somewhere and died somewhere else. We can’t be concerned with him. He was a Mason.

The house wandered around Pittsboro for a couple centuries, starting in the northwest corner of the Courthouse lot, then spending some time south of where the jail used to be, and finally ending up at the end of South Street. It’s been private residence, an inn and a tavern, a boarding house, and, in its latest incarnation, a white elephant. In 1984 its epitaph was written by the National Register of Historic Places. It’s now the oldest house in the county, if you care about that kind of thing. It sure is taking a long time to go away.

Frankly, the Yellow House is kind of an embarrassment.Because it’s falling apart on government property, it can’t be quickly mowed down like Betty Bell’s old mansion on West Salisbury. No, there it sits, free to whoever can afford the $100 grand to move it.(Somebody better show up quick, because there are plans for that space.) The County is so aware of the house’s value that they let the Historical Association, after much mewling, barely raise enough money to fix the leaky roof. Town employees refrained, by all accounts, from throwing black walnuts at the men who made the repairs.

It’s well established that the house is old and in the way. But the main problem with the Yellow House is that it’s, well…you know, not like other Chatham county houses. It’s not a plain, sturdy farmhouse. It’s ostentatious and big, and was designed for having dances and socials. It has “architectural details:” elaborate chair rails and the aforementioned hinged wall and exotic woods. It was originally painted bright yellow.

Do I have to come right out and say it? It’s the gayest historical landmark we’ve got.

So, what’s to be done with this leaky, gay behemoth? The County could take a page from it's own book with respect to history management: let developers bulldoze it and name the fake-ass little village that sprouts there “St Lawrence Place.” If the house still had its chimneys (which it doesn’t—do you know what a pain in the ass those things are to move?), then those could be kept, restored and left standing as a monument to the developer’s reverence for history.

But that will never happen.Local government can’t participate so obviously in the free market. If the Yellow House is going to fall down, it had better be quick about it, and reduce the surplus population of local historical money pits. Haven't there been enough pictures taken of it? We all know what it looks like.

Until such time as the house is dismantled or mysteriously implodes, and if you love the smell of mildew or have a fondness for water stains, you can get the key from the town manager and see the Yellow House for yourself. If you fall through the rotting porch floor the Town cannot be held responsible. You might, once you see the enormous green double doors on the second floor that used to open onto the veranda, fall in love with the place. If so, congratulations. Pittsboro needs another foot soldier in the Pyrrhic Wars.

Rabbit Lore #11 (1913)

Chatham RECORD, 1913 JAN 15, "Chatham Rabbits Electrocuted":
From Raleigh News & Observer,

The electrocution of one hundred rabbits Tuesday morning on the lot of the Buckhorn Power company's property is a Chatham rabbit story that former Representative R.H. Hayes, tells with full comprehension of its astoundingness.

The superintendent of this transmission company has been greatly worried by the Chatham rabbits, which have made depredations upon his cabbage patch and utterly annihlated his prospects for food. Last week set "hollows" for them, but the rabbits demurely dodged the dead fall. It made him mad, and built an expensive barbed wire fence about the patch. The wires pulled together so ingeniously that when Brer Rabbit bounded up he got stuck and when he started to crawl through the barbs harpooned him. The Buckhorn superintendent then threw the electric current into the wires. Tuesday morning the rabbits, making an effort to escape, jumped against the fence and were shocked to death. One hundred were found by the fence that morning.

07 September 2007

How Chatham County Got Its Name

The story goes that the slave found the huge diamond while working the mines, then cut a wound in his calf to make a place to hide it. From the mines of Parteal in south central India he escaped to the seacoast, where he offered the stone to an English sea captain in return for passage to a free country. The captain agreed, then set sail, took the diamond, and flung the slave into the ocean.

The captain sold the 410-carat piece to a prominent diamond merchant named Jamchund. But how could fate permit the murderous captain to live well? He took to drink and dissipation, lost his mind and hung himself. A rabbit who studies the affairs of humans gets used to tales of pointless cruelty, but with this one, perhaps one of you can explain to me ... why not just give the slave his freedom?

In December 1701, the gems dealer Jamchund approached the "President of Fort St. George", or the British colonial governor in the Indian city of Madras, and offered to sell him the large diamond. He asked for a sum approaching £85,000, but the governor knew his way around a deal. He had made his fortune on the Indian seas as an interloper, or a rogue trader, operating in contravention of the East India Company's legal monopoly. Then he parlayed that wealth into property that granted him a seat in the House of Commons. The influence that he gathered to himself and his reputation as a savvy trader compelled his old nemesis, the East India Company, to charge him in his present position. The governor passed on purchasing the diamond and the dealer departed.

Jamchund returned in February to offer the stone again. The governor and the dealer haggled until the price came down to £20,000. The governor's son returned with the stone to England, where a two-year project of expert cutting produced a flawless 136-carat brilliant. Relieved of his post in Fort St. George, the father returned to England and became so paranoid about possessing the diamond that he never showed it to anyone or slept under the same roof two nights in a row.

In 1717 the financier John Law brokered a deal to relieve the former governor of the burden of owning the finest diamond in Europe. The sale to the French regency netted £135,000 whereupon the stone became known as the "Regent". Louis XV wore it on his crown for his coronation, then took to wearing it on his hat. Marie Antoinette wore it and Napolean Bonaparte, after taking the title of First Consul by coup d'etat, hocked it to the Dutch for funds to
consolidate his power and finance an adventure or two. He later redeemed it and set it in the hilt of his sword. It resides now in the Louvre.

It's a good story, but what's it doing here? What's its relationship to the clay backroads and rustic farms of Chatham County, North Carolina? Shouldn't rabbits concern themselves wi
th the most delicious lettuce in the fields, rather than the finest crown jewels of Europe?

After its cutting the diamond was known as the "Pitt", for Thomas Pitt, the colonial governor who acquired the stone and made a fortune from it. With that profit, he established his family's enduring fortune. Thomas Pitt's eldest son, Robert -- the one who shepherded the stone back to
England -- sired William Pitt, a prominent Whig politician and British statesman. William distinguished himself in two ways: first, as a savvy architect of British empire, and second as a staunch supporter of leniency, though not independence, for the colonies in America. In 1766, as Prime Minister of Great Britain, he took the title Earl of Chatham, created especially for him.

Thomas Pitt was as self-made a man as any in Great Britain at the turn of the 18th Century. The wealth he gained early in life earned his family a seat in the House of Commons. Still, it's doubtful that his grandson would have reached the levels of power and influence that he did without the fortune brought to the family by the sale of the Regent diamond.

In December 1700, not long after the diamond turned up in the mines of Golkonda, Englishman John Lawson set out to explore the Carolina backcountry. His journey carried him up the trading paths that connected the Yadkin River Valley to the Eno. He praised the regio
n highly, and the map that appeared in his 1709 account labeled the area between the Deep and Haw Rivers as "no poor Land here." Of his visit to a Native American village in the area now Hillsborough, Lawson famously declared, "The Savages do, indeed, still possess the Flower of Carolina, the English enjoying only the Fag-end of that fine Country."

Over the following decades, drawn by the perfume from that flower, European settlers nibbled at the edges of the area of what's now Chatham County. They came along the trading paths to the northwest or up the Cape Fear and then past its confluence with the Haw. By mid-17th-Century a handful of households stood within the area that was then southern Orange County. The place always presented challenges to travelers. Crossed by several prominent rivers prone to flooding, rocky and bypassed by the trading paths, it attracted a rough-and-tumble sort. No surprise, then, that these industrious and hardy farmers joined the Regulator movement that protested the corruption and unfair land management practices of the colonial government.

In November of 1768, the month after William Pitt resigned as Prime Minister, a group of men from around the border between sprawling Orange County and Cumberland County to the south got together and wrote a petition. To the governor of North Carolina, William Tryon, they argued:
[T]he petitioners live at to [sic] great a Distance from the Several Court houses Occasioned by the great Extent of Orange and Cumberland Counties Several Rivers frequently unpassable by Reason of freshes &c. To the great hinderance of Juries Election and general Musters for which we are liable, to fines if we do not appear, &c. We therefore pray that as Several Counties of less Extent have been divided for like Reasons that a New County may be laid out which we pray may Begin where Johnston and Orange meet Cumberland and with a North Course 12 Miles thence West 42 miles thence South 34 miles thence Est [sic] 42 miles thence North to the Beginning ...
Two years later, in December 1770, the Assembly introduced "An Act for establishing a New County between Campbleton and Hillsborough, by taking the Southern Part of the Inhabitants of Orange County, and by erecting the same into a distinct county, by the Name of Chatham County, and St. Barholomew Parish." A few months later, the bill passed, and within weeks, the Regulator movement ended in the bloody Battle of Alamance Creek.

But the new county had come to be. No doubt the Assembly were trying to tell the Regulators something by naming it after that advocate of indulgence, leniency and forebearance -- but not independence -- for the colonies, William Pitt, Earl of Chatham. In 1781, the county seat of Pittsborough was established and named after William's son, William Pitt the Younger, who had just himself entered the House of Commons. William, however, did not inherit the earldom of Chatham, which went to his eldest brother, John Pitt. On the latter's death in 1835, the title became extinct.

One more thing to know about William Pitt the Elder. He was enormously popular as a politician, but when he gained the seat of Prime Minister he accepted his earldom and held a gala event in London. At that instant his popularity dissipated. It doesn't do for a Whig to act a Tory, as William's grandfather Thomas would have told him, and probably did. William earned a new name for his family, but a generation later, and Chatham was gone from the peerage. What can we say? Thanks for the name, William!


Dalton, Cornelius Neale. The Life of Thomas Pitt. Cambridge: The University Press, 1915.

Lawson, John. A New Voyage to Carolina; Containing the Exact Description and Natural History of That Country: Together with the Present State Thereof. And a Journal of a Thousand Miles, Travel'd Thro' Several Nations of Indians. Giving a Particular Account of Their Customs, Manners, &c. London: [s.n.], 1709.

Streeter, Edwin W. "The Pitt or Regent," in The Great Diamonds of the World: Their History and Romance. London: George Bell & Sons, [1898?].

Wheatley, Henry B. "Precious Stones: A Chapter in the History of Personal Ornaments." The Antiquary XIII (1886), 152-157.

The Correspondence of William Tryon and Other Selected Papers. Edited by William S. Powell. Raleigh: Division of Archives and History and Division of Cultural Resources, 1981.

Chatham County, 1771-1971.

Davis, et al. "Map of the study area locating Occaneechi Island, Occaneechi Town (Fredricks site), and Upper Saratown." Excavating Occaneechi Town. Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 1998.

Wikipedia articles accessed September 5-7, 2007:
Image of the Regent diamond hotlinked from "Diamond, known as the 'Regent'", Louvre web site.

Image of William Pitt borrowed from "Secretary Pitt", the Library of Congress Rare Book and Special Collections Division.