Name: John Walter Stephens
Reference Number: 11201
FACT: Chicken Stephens
Birth: 14 OCT 1834 in Guilford County, North Carolina
Burial: Yanceyville United Methodist Church (Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina)
Death: 21 MAY 1870 in Yanceyville, Caswell County, North Carolina
John Walter Stephens (1834-1870)
(for larger image, click on photograph)
Several newspaper accounts of the death of John Walter (Chicken) Stephens (1834-1870) described him as a large and powerful man. This apparently is incorrect.
State vs. J. T. Mitchell
Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina
Wednesday, August 31, 1870
Testimony of Joseph C. Pennix/Pinnix for the Defendant: He has known Mitchell 10 or 15 years; his character is good. Womack was raised near him; he knew him while a slave, and his character was not very good. He was a trifling, loafing and worthless fellow; do not know where he has lived lately. He knew Stephens, who was not a very stout man, and weighed about 140 or 145 pounds. He thinks the deceased was quick and active.
The following is from "Captain Ball on the Stephens Murder," Daily Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 2 and 3 February 1911:
When the cases had been disposed of, Stephens came to my room. He was a slender, sinewy man, with fair complexion, pale blue eyes and light brown hair, not prepossessing in manners or appearance; illiterate and unpolished, but very earnest; belonging to the plain classes of the South.
In June 1868 after being elected to the North Carolina Senate from Caswell County, John Walter (Chicken) Stephens wrote to the newly elected Republican governor William W. Holden, describing his difficult situation:
"I wish to call your particular attention to the condition I have placed myself in by coming out & standing up for the Republican party in this Co. & ask your support & protection in the matter. Before I taken this stand (whitch I did becaus I thought it was rite & have never Regretted and hope I never Shall.) I had many friends & credit for any thing I wanted but now I have neither[.] [T]he trouth is that I have not means to buy what I actualy kneed for the support of my family. My creditors have pushed on me and taken every thing that the law would allow & I can look to know source but the Republican party[.] [I]f thaire is any thing that you can do for me in this hour of kneed pleas let me know what it is."
Source: Horace W. Raper, ed., The Papers of Williams Woods Holden, Volume 1, 1841-1868, (Raleigh: North Carolina Division of Archives and History, 2000), 314-315.
He was murdered by the Ku Klux Klan in the Caswell County Courthouse. For more information go to Senator John W. Stephens.
The State Against F. A. Wiley and Others
The Weekly Standard (Raleigh, North Carolina)
31 August 1870 (Pages 1-2)
Dr. Roan was then called as the first witness. He gave a description of [the] Court house building. He said that he was sent for on Sunday morning; went into the room where the body lay; the door was opened before he got there; the corpse was lying in a hollow in the pile of wood at the north side of the room; knees and arms were drawn up, three stabs were discernable, a rope was around the neck, known as a grass rope, with two ends both hanging from behind; two of the stabs were in the neck, one severing the windpipe; another pierced the heart; a knife was lying near the body, it had a buckhorn handle, two blades, one of which was open, about 3 inches long and 3/4 an inch in width; the rope was drawn tightly around the neck, sinking into the skin; there were considerable signs of blood on the wood and plastering; the stabs had been inflicted rapidly, and strangulation was effected before the infliction of the wounds.
No portion of the body touched the floor; it lay in a space in the wood-pile, and could not have been seen during the night-search, from the windows; a few sticks of wood were under it. The back was toward the east, the side towards the wall. There was no doubt that Stephens was killed in this room. Saw no signs of blood at the window till next morning, then saw a drop on the granite sill and on the box, as if it fell and split; it was florid and fresh. He had ordered the use of the box at the window ledge for the night-search. There was no blood on the floor. A servant got the box. One of Stephens' brothers made examination. A candle was used, for the night had set in. When the windows were down a stick was usually put up to confine them; the door of this room was bolted as he learned that night; there was a thumb bolt at the hasp.
He was not present when the door was opened. No key was seen by him. The spot of blood on the window sill might have been made by the print of a finger, a step could have produced it, but there was no blood on the floor. The body might have been seen in the day. It was not discoverable by candle-light. Had been asked permission to search the Courthouse on the night of the murder. The South window was too high to make an examination, both windows on the East were used. Permission was asked for the search by Mr. T. Stephens and Cooke. Door was closed. Didn't know where the key was. Was not asked for it. Granite would not absorb blood as readily as wood, and stains upon it would appear more plain and distinct.
John W. Stephens, after being in the meeting upstairs, until about 5 o'clock in the afternoon, was called out by a man named Wiley; with whom Stephens had been in frequent conversation during the day, trying to induce Wiley to become an independent candidate for sheriff. Wiley was a Democrat and Stephens had pledged him the Republican vote of Caswell county. After the two went out together Stephens was not seen alive by any one innocent of the murder.
No doubt Wiley enticed Stephens from the meeting and admitted it. But according to a letter from Hon. R. Z. Linney (recently deceased) published in the News-Observer, Dec. 29, 1891, credited to the Statesville Landmark, "a gentleman of intelligence who was at Yanceyville at the time of the tragedy," declared that he had information regarded by him as altogether reliable, that Wiley was not in the room when Stephens was killed, but had arranged to get him from the courtroom, to extort from him a promise to leave the county; and the promise not being given Stephens was killed.
According to the "gentleman of intelligence," Wiley was "very angry" with the men who had slain Stephens - a lame excuse, it must be admitted; although his "anger" was quite creditable. Mr. Linney, it may be stated, in passing, said in his letter, that Wiley died at his (Linney's) house near Taylorsville, and that the "measure of the corpse was about seven feet in length." This statement seems astounding, but as I recollect him, Wiley was a very tall man. Upon one occasion, during the Kuklux troubles, I saw him on horseback, going from Yanceyville, with a long rifle resting in the hollow of his arm - an incident characteristic of the times. He looked like a wind mill on horse back.
Source: Extracts from Newspapers Showing the Disorders of Reconstruction, Collected by Dr. R. E. Park. Author(s): R. E. Park. Source: The Journal of Negro History, Vol. 7, No. 3 (Jul., 1922), pp. 299-311. Published by: Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Inc. Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2713423 Accessed: 25/09/2011 14:37.
Caswell County suffered bitterly at the hands of the League, which was under the guidance of John W. Stephens, who was one of the governor's detectives, a man of bad reputation and of evil political life. In organizing the League, he had advised violence and, finally, at a meeting at the home of his brother-in-law, one Jones, gave to each of the twenty negroes present a box of matches, still a rarity among them, and told each one to burn a barn. Not all followed his instructions, but nine barns were burned in one night. Some time afterwards, a white man in the neighborhood overheard two of his negro hands mention Jones as connected with the burning, and that night, Jones was taken from his home and given an opportunity to tell what he knew. He refused at first, but when the hickory sprouts began to strike his bare back, he confessed the whole thing.
Source: Hamilton, J. G. De Roulhac. "Reconstruction in North Carolina." Studies in History, Economics and Public Law. Columbia University Faculty of Political Science, Editors (Volume LVIII, Whole Number 141). New York: Columbia University, 1914, pp. 473-474.
The following is from At the Foot of the Lake: The Pattillo-Patillo Family and Allied Lines, Millard Quentin Plumblee (1987) at 102-109:
Prior to 1850 and later the home of A. A. Pattillo was on the south side of present South Second Street at the intersection and on the north side of Julia Street. On the east side of the same intersection a spring furnished water for many families. it is still in evidence. [Webmaster's Note: This is in the area of the Dillard School.]
On 16 February 1983, 3:15 P.M. this writer interviewed Mrs. Martha (Lea) Little, a widow (b. 6 November er 1904, died 29 November 1983) who was the daughter of Thomas Sidney Lea (born 23 February 1873, died 25 October 1963) and his wife Julia (Hill) Lea 9born 4 March 1880, died 23 July 1978). Thomas Sidney Lea's father was Carl Lea; his wife was Martha Lea.
The purpose of the interview was to secure information about an old school house which was supposed to have been the home of A. A. Pattillo in the 1850s, later the home of State Senator John W. Stephens, who was assassinated in 1870 in what is now the old Courthouse, Yanceyville, North Carolina. The interviewer stated that he had been told that the A. A. Pattillo - John W. Stephens house was located where the present Fulton Funeral Home now stands. Mrs. Lea exclaimed, "No it was not."
She stated that the Stephens house was one and the same as the Yanceyville School for black children and that she attended there when she was a child. She said that it was always called the "Stephens-House" and that her grandmother, Martha Lea, worked for the John W. Stephens family at the time he was assassinated. Later it was torn down and another frame school building was erected there when N. L. Dillard was principal.
Mrs.Little stated that the Pattillo-Stephens School was of frame construction with two rooms and a hallway between and had identical rooms upstairs. Large chimneys and fireplaces were at each end, but no fireplace upstairs. Her story continued by stating that when she was seven or eight years of age her mother once went there, sat down, looked up and made a pattern of the overhead ceiling design of tulips with raised petals. From this pattern she made a quilt. Mrs. Little then went to another room and brought out the old quilt and showed it to the interviewer. With her consent it was carried to the Caswell County Museum and exhibited for several months.
This writer interviewed both Roy Graves, age 85 or more, and Mrs. Mary Lea (Florence-Gatewood) Nicks of Yanceyville, North Carolina, and they agreed to the description and location of the Pattillo-Stephens School building.
Again, reference is made to the writing of "Jeems Goslin" quote:
"The present colored graded school building was the home of John W. Stephens at the time of his assassination in May 1870 and in the early 1850s the home of A. A. Pattillo."
Later A. A. Pattillo moved from his residence to one a few hundred yards south. This one was called his "Mansion House."
Since John W. Stephens is frequently mentioned in connection with the house in which A. A. Pattillo lived, mention is made of him. The black people soon after the Civil War began to exercise their privilege of citizenship. Wilson Carey was elected to the North Carolina House of Representatives in 1868-70. He also served as postmaster at Yanceyville, North Carolina, for several months in 1869. He also served in the House of Representatives, 1874-79, and again in 1889.
John W. Stephens, white, and a Republican, was elected to the North Carolina State Senate for 1868-69 from Caswell County, North Carolina. Recently, 13 December 1975, an estate sale was held at the home of W. A. Bouldin of Southern Caswell County, North Carolina, and about three or four miles from the homestead of Zacharia Pattillo. It may be noted that Zachariah Pattillo named his wife, Mary L. Pattillo, James Bouldin, and Thomas Pendergast as executrix and executors of his will which was dated 26 December 1824. A Box of old papers and miscellaneous items were offered for sale at the W. A. Bouldin auction. No bids were made thereon. From that box an old handwritten letter was discovered and preserved. A xerox copy of the original was obtained from J. Burch Blaylock. An attempt has been made to make an exact copy in so far as possible, paragraphing, spelling, etc.
State of North Carolina
State Senate Chamber
December 3, 1868
Mr. Turner Pattilor
I call your attention to the fact that you will be having an election for magistrate and constable in January. You should hold a Republican Convention and enominant suitable men to fill those offices as it (is) very important that you have good Republicans in those offices as they whold for two years.
As soon as you deside on your candidates send me the names & I will have your tickets printed & send in time for the election. See G. T. F. Ganaway & tell him to attend to the same thing in Poplar Grove Dist. & tell him to write to me also -- let me here from you all soon. I an anctious to know how you are all getting along.
J. W. Stephens
Oh, what has become of our friend Bolden that he don't write to me. How did he vote in the last election -- did he cum square out or was he scared off by the Rebs.
"Ku-Klux Murder. Dr. Roan Confessed on His Death Bed That He Killed Senator John W. Stephen [Stephens] in 1879 "
Raleigh, N.C. Dec. 5.--Dr. Felix Roan, a prominent citizen of Caswell county, on his death bed has confessed that he killed Senator John W. Stephen [Stephens] twenty years ago and named as his accomplices Dr. Stephen Richmond and the sheriff of the county [Frank A. Wiley]. All the parties are now dead, but the confession lifts the suspicion which has attached to several prominent men still living.
[On May 21, 1870, during the height of the Ku-Klux reign in this state, Senator John W. Stephen [Stephens], of Caswell county, was found dead in the tower [not correct] of the courthouse at Yanceyville. There were numerous stabs in his body and a rope around his neck. Court was in session at the time and a tremendous sensation was created. Gov. Holden caused a large number of arrests on suspicion, among them several prominent democratic politicians and an ex-judge of the superior court. No clew [sic] was found and the matter has ever since remained a mystery.]
Source: The Daily Journal (Logansport, Indiana), 6 December 1891.
In the west room of the Graves-Florance house, N.E. Corner of the Yanceyville, North Carolina, public square, 17 September 1985, and in the presence of Ira and sister Janie Ruth Pleasant, Mary Lea (Florance-Gatewood) Nicks (a Lea descendant) stated to this author that in the 1840s and 1850s the A. A. Pattillo-John W. Stephens school house was called "The Academy," and that Jeremiah Alexander Lea (1841-1916) attended school there. His parents then lived in the William Long-Sally (Womack) Wiggins (granddaughter of Bartlett Yancey, Jr.) house on State Highway #62 immediately south of Yanceyville, where the pecan trees shade the driveway.
Later Jeremiah A. Lea joined the Confederate Army 6 July 1861 Thirteenth Regiment, known as the "Caswell Boys," was sent to training camp near Company Shops (Burlington, North Carolina). Later his regiment became the Sixth North Carolina Troops. Captains were Alfred A. Mitchell (Yanceyville Druggist), William J. H. Durham, Thomas J. Ruffin, and then Jeremiah Lea. Lieutenants were Quinton T. Anderson, William Flemming Covington, Samuel P. Hill, Monroe Oliver and Lewis Hardy Walker.
The following is from Color-Blind Justice: Albion Tourgee and the Quest for Racial Equality from the Civil War to Plessy V. Ferguson, Mark Elliott (2006) at 136 (footnotes deleted):
His color-blind creed was class-blind as well. Tourgee was particularly ostracized, in fact, for his close association with John Walter Stephens, an uneducated native white Republican. Dubbed "Chicken" Stephens in the Conservative press due to an allegation that he once killed his neighbor's chickens, Stephens had committed the dual social breach of being poor and openly associating with blacks in both political and fraternal societies. Stephens, despite his lack of formal education, became a justice of the peace [in Caswell County] after Tourgee personally tutored him in the law and administered his bar exam. Both were excluded from the genteel fraternization of the North Carolina State Bar Association. "Judge Tourgee had offended the lawyers, because he boarded with Stephens," one insider explained of the association's social snubbing of the judge, continuing, "They considered it beneath the dignity of so high an official to make his home with a man so low in the social scale . . . they insisted that they would have treated [Tourgee] with respect, if not with cordiality, had he not shown these degraded tastes. . . . They believed that their only associates, on terms of equality, should be of their own order."
From the same book (at page 157) comes the following:
Fearing his own death, he wrote several letters to friends and politicians explaining the situation. he reported to Martin B. Anderson that the Klan had sentenced him to death, and informed him with "notices of the time appointed, a coffin placed at my door, a paper pinned to the gate with a knife stating that I had been doomed . . . and etc. etc. I still live but really do consider the tenure very precarious." To U.S. Senator Joseph C. Abbott he made a poignant and well-reasoned appeal for federal action against the Klan. "Our friend John W. Stephens, State Senator from Caswell, is dead," Tourgee informed him, Calling Stephens a "brave" and "honest" Republican, he wrote:
Warned of danger, and fully cognizant of the terrible risk which surrounded him, he still manfully refused to quit the field . . . he was accustomed to say that 3,000 poor, ignorant, colored Republican voters in that county had stood by him and elected him, at the risk of persecution and starvation, and that he had no idea of abandoning them to the Ku-Klux.
In A Fool's Erand By One of the Fools, Anonymous (Albion W. Tourgee) (1879), John Walter Stephens is memorialized in the life and death of the character John Walters.
According to a Bigelow family member, James Weldon Bigelow related that a doctor (Dr. Malloy) in town (Yanceyville) said that he (Dr. Malloy) watched the man who cut the jugglar of Chicken Stephens die and that, "he never saw man nor animal die a harder death. . . ."
John Walter Stephens (John "Chicken" Stephens) was born 14 October 1834 near Bruce's Crossroads, Guilford County, N.C. In 1857, he married Nannie (Nancy) E. Walters, who died two years later leaving an infant daughter. In 1860, he married Martha Frances Groom of Wentworth, N.C., who also gave birth to a daughter. An active Methodist, John Stephens was an agent for the American Bible and Tract Society for about a year. In 1866, Stephens moved to Yanceyville, N.C., where he served as an agent of the Freedmen's Bureau and became an active member of the Union League and the Republican Party. In 1868, he was elected to the state Senate. These activities led to him being socially ostracized and expelled from the Methodist Church. On 21 May 1870, while observing a Democratic Party county convention at the courthouse, he was lured away from the proceedings by Frank Wiley, a former Democratic sheriff, and murdered by Wiley and members of the Ku Klux Klan. Details of the murder were not revealed for 65 years, but the involvement of the Ku Klux Klan was suspected from the beginning. It was in response to this crime that Governor William W. Holden called out the militia under Colonel George W. Kirk (the Kirk-Holden War). Materials are chiefly newspaper clippings about the life and death of John Walter Stephens and the involvement of the Ku Klux Klan in his murder. There is also a videotape titled "The Murder of John Stephens" (a Piedmont Community College FVPT Production). [Adapted from the entry by Allen W. Trelease in the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, volume 4 (1991).]
Source: Caswell County Historical Association Collection (1791-2000s), The Southern Historical Collection at the Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library (University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina).
But no aggravation plagued the white power structure of Caswell County like State Senator John Walter Stephens, a man called "Chicken." The senator bore the nickname not because he was regarded as cowardly--which he most assuredly was not--but because he was believed to be a chicken thief. Wilson Cary, a Caswell Negro noted for his wit, said, "Mr. Stephens stole a chicken and was sent to the state senate, and if he'd steal a gobbler he'd be sent to Congress." Cary had an even stranger nickname, the "Archives of Gravity." Stephens and Cary proved an effective team, capturing control of the county government for the Republican party in the late 1860's. Never a supporter of the Confederate cause, Stephens after the war displayed considerable hostility toward the ex-slaveholding gentry, whom he blamed for the war and for many of society's ills. He became involved in the work of the Freedmen's Bureau, the Union League, and the Radical Republican party.
His political success was one reason for the violent antagonism he aroused among conservative Democrats. And if the stories that circulated about him were true, his public and private behavior gave them even more reason for the mounting opposition he inspired. Born in nearby Guilford County in 1834, he was the son of a poor but respected tailor named Absalom and a gentle, careworn mother named Letitia. When John was six, his father died. His fellow Masons built a home in Leaksville for the widow and orphans. Later, while his mother and sister were away, Stephens reportedly sold the house and used the money to finance a move to Yanceyville, a town where he had once sold Bibles for the American Bible and Tract Society.
At the Yanceyville Methodist Church, his fellow Methodists were unhappy at Stephens' friendliness with Caswell County Reconstructionists. Dr. Allen Gunn protested to Stephens about his associations. The doctor reported to the church that Chicken had told him his sole object was to make money and had even offered to get him elected sheriff for $4,000. The Methodists voted to strike Stephens' name from the church's membership rolls.
Excommunication failed to stop Chicken Stephens. In 1868 he ran for the State Senate on the Republican ticket but lost to Bedford Brown. He contested the election, pointing out that his opponent had served in the Confederate state legislature and was therefore ineligible to hold public office. Brown was excluded, a special election was called, and this time Chicken won. At about the same time he became a justice of the peace by appointment of Judge Tourgee, who for $20 also issued him a license to practice law. Meanwhile, his widowed, epileptic mother, whom he had deserted in Leaksville after the rumored embezzling of her property, followed him to Yanceyville. On June 20, 1868 she was found with her throat cut. The senator said his mother had fallen against the jagged edge of a broken chamber pot. A coroner's jury agreed with him but many of his enemies were convinced the job had been accomplished with a knife.
As a justice of the peace, he received a share of the fines and costs assessed. For undercover work for Governor William W. Holden he received an additional $7 a day plus expenses. In addition, his enemies charged, he used his considerable political influence for further income, employing such devices as extortion and arson. In early 1870, Governor Holden himself was quoted as calling the senator a "clog to the party," and suggesting that a more respectable man should replace him in office.
As the election of 1870 neared, Klan violence erupted in Caswell and Alamance Counties. Judge Tourgee fortified his home and rode to court heavily armed. Stephens, only too well aware of the danger, slept in an iron-barred cage in his bedroom, surrounded by an arsenal of weapons. Increasingly jumpy now, he carried knives and pistols in public. On Washington's Birthday in 1870 he bought $10,000 worth of life insurance and on April 7 he had Judge Tourgee draw up a will for him, dividing his property equally among his wife and two daughters. Though a healthy man of 36, he seemed to sense his end was near. And it was.
On May 21, 1870, an unseasonably chilly Saturday, the Caswell County Courthouse bustled with activity. The courtroom on the second floor was occupied by some 300 county conservatives in convention session. On the first floor, in the grand jury room, property owners were declaring their taxes to the county treasurer, while the corridors were crowded with county employees and visitors. Stephens declared his taxes and then proceeded to the convention, where he took notes on a speech by his old political rival, Bedford Brown. Glares from angry conservatives were leveled at him since it was common knowledge he was an informer for the governor.
Source: McIver, Stuart. "The Murder of a Scalawag." American History Illustrated (April 1973), pp. 12-18.
The following is from Captain Ball on the Stephens Murder, Daily Record (Greensboro, North Carolina), 2 and 3 February 1911:
When the cases had been disposed of, Stephens came to my room. He was a slender, sinewy man, with fair complexion, pale blue eyes and light brown hair, not prepossessing in manners or appearance; illiterate and unpolished, but very earnest; belonging to the plain classes of the South. His origin was respectable, although born into a poor family, in Guilford county. He had courage and tenacity. He was the leader of the Caswell county Republicans, being one of the few white men who dared to profess Republican principles in that locality. He was bitterly hated by the "Conservatives," and this boded him no good. Yet knowing it all, accused of petty crimes, which he had not committed, held up to ridicule by such a man as Jo. Turner, then a veritable potentate, Stephens had stood up boldly in the midst of a hostile population, with no backers but the timid negroes, which only intensified the hatred of his enemies. No romance of chivalry has ever invested its heroes with a nobler spirit than his, which was more than equal to that of the bravest of his traducers - for who of them all would have faced the dangers that he was facing?
He resided about a quarter of a mile from the Yanceyville court house, within plain view of it. His house was veritably his castle, where he had fortified himself. He was besieged at home and was under obsession everywhere; yet he seemed to hold danger in contempt. On this occasion he wore a sack-coat of medium length, with side-pockets. He said he had been warned by anonymous letters to leave the State. "But," he said simply, "I have a right to be here and can't be scared away from my home and family." Continuing, Stephens told me how well he was prepared for emergencies; and he displayed two single- barreled, breech-loading Derringers. He showed me how rapidly he could load them and seemed expert in handling the weapons. He carried a pistol in each side-pocket of his coat, within easy reach. He said he never permitted anyone to approach unless he knew him to be a friend; that he always carried the Derringers, but that on "public days," he also had with him what I understood to be a seven shooter. In his estimation this was a public day, because a crowd was in town, attracted by the cases before his magistrate's court. Yanceyville was but a small village, with a court house and a few dwellings, stores and shops, and ordinarily not many persons were on the streets. There was no hotel. Throwing back his coat, Stephens, displayed to me his other weapon.
With his temper and dangerous surroundings, he was a man to be dreaded by his foes, for he meant to kill any assailant. He could be overcome only by treachery, as will be seen hereafter. To me, his words had peculiar significance, when considered in connection with the occurrences of the next few days; for it should be noticed that he declared he never suffered anyone to approach, unless he knew him to be a friend. But, he added, "I think the worst is now over and they," (meaning the Kuklux) "are becoming frightened at their own acts." Alas, how little he knew or understood the venom of his enemies! Our conversation was on Monday. The next Saturday, May 21, 1870, Stephens was murdered in a lower room of the Yanceyville court house.
Note that the North Carolina Manual 1874 (The Legislative Manual and Political Register of the State of North Carolina for the Year 1874) shows Bedford Brown elected to the North Carolina Senate in 1868, but makes no mention of John W. Stephens.
The following is from: Hamilton, J. G. De Roulhac. "Reconstruction in North Carolina." Studies in History, Economics and Public Law. Columbia University Faculty of Political Science, Editors (Volume LVIII, Whole Number 141). New York: Columbia University, 1914.
Caswell County had been troubled by very little disturbance, but reports of disorder reached the governor, who wrote Thomas A. Donoho, a prominent citizen, and appealed to him to use his influence to restore quiet. Donoho replied that the reports were exaggerated and that the county as a whole was in good condition. He placed the blame for most of the trouble on John W. Stephens, and suggested the employment of some moderate" gentleman of character" to do the same work that Dr. Jones had done in Orange. Stephens was one of the governor's detectives and was devoting a large part of his time to incendiary politics. On May 21, he was murdered, and investigation failed to reveal the offenders. Wilson Carey fled in terror and the governor wired Pool and Abbott that he had been driven out of Caswell and that Congress should act. On June 6, the governor issued a proclamation reciting eleven outrages supposed to have been committed by the Klan, offering a reward of five hundred dollars for the arrest of any person connected in any way with the crimes, and enjoining all officers to bring the offenders to justice.
The campaign for the August elections was now in progress. The governor was deeply interested in the result and the prospects were dark. He was in constant consultation with his chosen advisers, who were in favor of putting the condition of affairs in the State to practical political advantage, and accordingly, in pursuance of a plan devised by Pool, on July 8, he proclaimed Caswell County in a state of insurrection.
In reporting his death, one newspaper described him as "a negro."
Death Notice: Stephens, John W., a negro, late state senator from Caswell County, found dead May 19, 1870, in one of the rooms of the Caswell County Court House (North Carolina Citizen, June 2, 1870). Source: Marriage and Death Notices from Extant Asheville, N.C. Newspapers 1840-1870, An Index, Robert M. Topkins, Compiler and Editor (1977) (1983 Reprint Edition) at 125.
Webster's Weekly: Mrs. Stephens, whose death was noted last week, was the wife of Sheriff [Senator] Stephens, ("Chicken Stephens") of Caswell county, who was mysteriously murdered in the court house at Yanceyville during reconstruction days. The sorrow caused by that terrible event doubtless cast a shadow over her entire life. Source: The Landmark (Statesville, North Carolina), 5 February 1891.
The Ghost of Chicken Stephens.
Stephens Really Dead - From Raleigh papers of Thursday we learn that the report recently received there relative to the death of J. W. Stephens, president of the Senate, from Caswell County, was really true. The last time he was seen alive was in the courthouse at Yanceyvllle last Saturday, on the occasion of a Democratic meeting, which place he left in company with a friend. He was not discovered until next morning, when he was discovered in the office of clerk and master in equity, with a rope around his neck, his throat cut in two places, and a knife wound in the body. The affair is shrouded in great mystery, as no facts were elicited at the examination before the jury of inquest tending to convict any one. Governor Holden has issued a proclamation offering $500 reward for the murderer.
Source: The Charleston Daily News (Charleston, South Carolina), 28 May 1870.
Will of Martha F. Stephens
Rockingham County, North Carolina
Will Book E, Page 475
I give devise and bequeath to my stepdaughter Lenora Stephens [various personal property] and my one-third interest in the house and lot in Yanceyvile which was owned by my husband John W. Stephens deceased to have and to hold the same to her and her heirs forever.
I give, devise and bequeath all the rest and residue of my estate of every character and description to my daughter Ella Walters Groom, wife of John W. Groom, to have and to hold the same to her and her heirs forever.
Written: 12 July 1890
Judge Pearson in chambers today commenced the examination of the bench warrant cases of the State vs. Wiley. Nineteen negroes and four whites for the State, and thirteen whites and three negroes for the defence, were sworn as witnesses. This was completed at half-past ten, and the court was adjourned until three o'clock. On the reassembling of the court three witnesses were examined for the State, and the court was again adjourned. Nothing was elicited beyond a description of the building where Stephen's body was found. Judge Pearson was applied to, but refused to call out Bergen, who was bailed to appear today, he having gone to his command. Counsel stated that they had affidavits that Bergen had threatened the life of released prisoners who made affidavits regarding his cruelties and tortures.
Judge Brooks, of the United States District Court, opens his court tomorrow, and will probably release thirty or more prisoners now under arrest. Kirk and Bergen will be present to answer for contempt, in not delivering the prisoners who were brought before Judge Pearson; also the civil writ for damages.
Felix Roan, who was released by Judge Brooks at Salisbury, for whom a bench warrant was issued by Judge Pearson, appeared today and was bailed.
Source: New York Herald (New York, New York), 23 August 1870.
Led by President Grover Cleveland, the only Democrat elected to the presidency during the Republican domination that covered 1860-1912, Democrats in the Congress (with a majority in both chambers) sought to repeal what the South viewed as oppressive Civil War and Reconstruction legislation. This was the first time since 1857 that the Democrats controlled the Presidency, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Included in this legislation was an attempt to repeal the laws adopted in 1865 that allowed federal supervision of elections. Those 1865 laws related to, among other things, armed federal troops at state election places, the appointment and powers of federal supervisors of elections, and the appointment and powers of special federal deputy marshals.
The bill (H.R. 2331) was referred to committees in both the House and Senate, which, as stated, were controlled by the Democrats. The House Report essentially was adopted by the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections during the Second Session of the Fifty-Third Congress (1893-1894). Senator Zebulon Baird Vance of the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections submitted the Committee's majority report. Whether Vance was Chairman of the Committee is not known; he died 14 April 1894. Of course there was a minority report in both the House and the Senate. The minority report of the Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections was lengthy and included a substantial Appendix, which included:
Account From The Raleigh, N. C. Signal of December and March 31, 1892, of The Assassination of State Senator John W. Stephens on May 21, 1870, As Revealed by the Deathbed Confession of the Assassin in 1891.
Murder Will Out.
After twenty years--The truth at last--The confession of Dr. Felix Roan--The murderers of State Senator John W. Stephens, of Caswell County--Governor Holden vindicated--The scene in the legislature of 1872--Other facts concerning this horrid political tragedy.
[From the Raleigh Signal, J. C. L. Harris, editor, Thursday, March 31, 1892.]
Raleigh and the State has been all agog during the past week over the confession of Dr. Felix Roan as to the murder of State Senator John W. Stephens, of Caswell County, on May 21, 1870. According to Dr. Roan the murderers were: Dr. Steve Richmond, F. A. Wiley, Sheriff of Caswell county; J. T. Mitchell, Dr. Felix Roan.
The history of this celebrated case is as follows:
The reign of the Kuklux Klan was at its height in this State during the year 1870. Many murders and numberless outrages of less criminal import had been committed the previous twelve months. The organization was so thorough and complete, and disguises were so well conceived, that it was almost impossible to detect any of the mystic Klan who raided by night and murdered, outraged, whipped, and terrorized without let or hindrance throughout the state. The jurors were so fearful of a midnight visitation that they promptly returned verdicts of not guilty whenever one of the Klan was put on trial. The terror inspired by these outrages lost the State to the Republicans in August, 1870.
John W. Stephens, white man, was elected State senator in 1868, by the Republicans of Caswell County. There was a large negro majority in this county and there was not a half dozen white Republicans beside Stephens in the county. Stephens was not a man of particular ability, but he possessed the absolute confidence of the negroes, and through his efforts hey were solidly organized. The Democrats thought that if Stephens was out of the way that the negroes would become so demoralized that the Democrats would be able to carry the county at the next county election. It was this motive that led to the murder of Stephens on May 21, 1870. On this day there was a Democratic meeting in the court-house at Yanceyville. Stephens was in the crowd, and after remaining for some time he was asked by F. A. Wiley, who was a Democrat, and who had been elected sheriff at the suggestion of Stephens that no Republican could give the bond, to go downstairs. Stephens went and was never again seen alive. He had told his family, who resided about 400 yards from the court-house, that he would be home as soon as the meeting adjourned. His wife, fearing that he would be assassinated, had implored Stephens to stay away from the court-house while the meeting was going on, but he apprehended no violence in daylight and went. He was at this time a candidate for reelection to the senate.
Not reaching him as soon as the convention broke up his wife became alarmed and search was made and he could not be found anywhere in the town. He had not been seen to come out of the court-house and search was made in several of the rooms, but the keys to the clerk and master's room could not be found. A watch was kept on the court-house during the night, and next morning one of the negro watchers looked in the window of the locked room and saw Stephens lying on the floor with a small rope around his neck. The coroner was sent for and the door was broken open, and it was found that he had been choked, and the jugular vein had been severed and a bucket was on the floor full of blood. There was also a stab in the left breast to the heart. It appeared that Stephens had been laid on a table and choked and murdered in the manner stated, and that the blood was caught in the bucket to prevent attracting attention of persons passing through the court-house, should the blood run under the door.
Attempts were made to show that Stephens had been murdered by negroes who were members of the Union League and who were at enmity with him, but there was no foundation for this theory.
Soon after this killing William W. Holden, who was then governor, having been elected by the Republicans under the reconstruction acts in April, 1868, declared the counties of Alamance and Caswell in a state of insurrection and suspended the operation of the civil law in these two counties. Governor Holden then ordered out the militia and a number of men were arrested in Caswell County. Among this quantity was Dr. Felix Roan, F. A. Wiley, the sheriff of Caswell County, J. T. Mitchell, and Dr. Steve Richmond. These four men were bound over by the supreme court to the superior court of Caswell County to await action by the grand jury for the murder of Stephens.
Of course the grand jury did not find a true bill against these four men and they are all dead. Dr. Felix Roan died on Tuesday last at his home in Caswell County, and Mr. Joseph A. Harris, editor of the Hillsboro Observer, is authority for the statement that Dr. Roan, while on his deathbed, confessed that he and Dr. Steve Richmond, J. T. Mitchell, and Sheriff F. A. Wiley murdered Stephens, and detailed the particulars as follows:
"The Kuklux Klan had decreed the death of Stephens, but were deterred from making a raid into the town of Yanceyville because of the large number of negroes residing there, and they designated Roan, Wiley, Mitchell, and Richmond to kill Stephens in some other way. The Democratic meeting furnished the long-sought opportunity, and when Stephens was seen to go upstairs in the court-house the conspirators held a consultation downstairs in the sheriff's office and agreed upon a place of murder. They got the key to the room used by the clerk and master and closed the blinds, carried in 2 buckets and a rope. Roan and Richmond each had the lancets they carried with them as physicians. Thus prepared Roan, Richmond, and Mitchell were left in the room and Wiley went upstairs after his victim.
"In the crowd in the court room were nearly all the Kuklux who had decreed Stephens's death, and they knew that the execution of their order was near at hand. And for sometime after Stephens and Wiley had gone down to the ground floor there was much cheering and stamping of feet-the intention being to drown any noise that might proceed from the clerk's room.
"Wiley and Stephens walked down stairs together and when they reached the room Wiley pushed open the door and thrust Stephens in and shut the door. Immediately tho rope was put around Stephens' neck and he was choked so that he could not make a noise. He was then told that if he made any outcry that he would be instantly killed. He promised not to cry out or make resistance and the rope was slackened. Stephens was then told by Dr. Roan that he must leave the State or join the Democratic party-that he could not be allowed to organize and control the negroes of Caswell County against the white people, and that if he was away from there that the negroes would become demoralized and the Democrats would carry the county. Stephens firmly refused to do either, and told them that they might kill him, but that he would not leave the State nor desert his principles as a Republican. He was then told if he maintained this attitude that they would kill him while in that room. Stephens again refused to comply with either of their demands, but vowed before Heaven that it they would release him that he would never divulge what took place in that room.
"The conspirators would not take this risk and told Stephens that he must die then and there. He then asked to be permitted to take a last look at his home, which could be seen from the window. This request was granted and, as he gazed out of the window, he saw two of his little children playing in the yard in front of his door. He looked at them for a minute or two and then his wife passed through the yard. This was the only time that Stephens showed signs of emotion. He then requested to be allowed to pray and he knelt down and prayed and made signs that he was praying for the men who were to murder him, and when he arose from his knees the rope was drawn tight and he was choked until he was powerless to resist and he was then laid on a table, and Roan and Richmond each cut the jugular vein and Roan plunged a knife into his heart. The blood was caught in the buckets. When dead he was laid on the floor and the murderers left the room and threw away the key."
Sheriff Wiley moved away from Caswell and located in Catawba County and died there. Dr. Steve Richmond died at his home in Caswell County some time after the murder. Wiley, Mitchell, and Richmond went to visit Dr. Roan, and while there they talked over the killing of Stephens, and were overheard by two negroes who were hired as house servants by Dr. Roan. Both negroes immediately quit the employ of Dr. Roan and went to Greensboro, where they saw Judge Albion W. Tourgee, author of that celebrated book, "The Fool's Errand." They told the judge what they had heard, which tallied with the facts which he had gained while he was riding that circuit and with the evidence before the supreme court.
Judge Tourgee came to Raleigh and told Governor Holden the story of the negroes.
During the session of the legislature of 1872 and 1873, J. W. Bowman, of Mitchell County, was a member of the house of representatives, and in the course of a heated discussion, in which the murder of Stephens was referred to, Mr. Bowman graphically described the killing of Stephens and by whom done, as the negroes had heard Roan, Richmond, Mitchell, and Wiley talk it over. As soon as the members gathered the full import of the revelation made by Mr. Bowman, pandemonium broke loose. Every Democratic member sprang to his feet and Mr. Bowman was plied with questions, asking his authority for the statement he had made. If a loaded bombshell had been exploded in the house the excitement and consternation would not have been greater than it was. All business was suspended, the discussion ceased, and the members crowded round Bowman and endeavored to get more information from him. Governor Holden and Judge Tourgee were both on the floor, as they primed Bowman for the fray. The scene will never be forgotten by those who participated in it, and by those who witnessed it. The editor of The Signal was reporting the proceedings of the house on this day and he has always believed that there were men present in that house who knew the facts as stated by Mr. Bowman were true. Whether they participated in the murder or were familiar with the facts as members of the Kuklux Klan, or had been told by those who knew, is, of course, a matter of conjecture. A full account of the scene was telegraphed to the New York Times.
The account of the murder of "John Walters," as detailed in the Fool's Errand, is the story as told Judge Tourgee by the negroes who overheard the conversation of Roan, Mitchell, Richmond, and Wiley.
This murder was one among the many which influenced Governor Holden to declare the counties of Alamance and Caswell in a state of insurrection and to suspend the civil law in these counties. What is known as the "Kirk-Bergen war" followed, and the constitution forbidding the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was said to have been violated and Governor Holden was impeached, convicted, and deposed from his office for high crimes and misdemeanors in office.
Governor Holden now has no mind. He can not understand that he is vindicated in his effort to prevent murder for opinion's sake by the confession of Dr. Roan.
The judgment of disability against Governor Holden may stand, greatly to the discredit of the able and powerful Democratic party, but in the hearts of all liberty loving people Governor Holden committed no crime against the Constitution, and such will be the verdict of the impartial historian.
Named by John G. Lea: John Green Lea; Frank Wiley; Captain Mitchell; James Denny; Joe Fowler; Tom Oliver; Pink Morgan; and Dr. Richmond.
Named by Dr. Felix Roan: Dr. Felix Roan; Dr. Stephen Richmond; Sheriff Frank Wiley.
Proctor, Bradley David (2009). The Reconstruction of White Supremacy: The Ku Klux Klan in Piedmont North Carolina, 1868 to 1872 (Master's Thesis). University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
Sent: Sunday, October 20, 2002 7:56 PM
Subject: Absalom Stephens Family
We were very pleased and surprised to receive your letter this weekend. Thank you for all of your help. I hope that you have received the article by Luther M. Carlton. It offers a unique perspective on the life of John Walter Stephens because it was written by a family member. You mentioned that you thought that John Walter's daughter Ella may have married a relative. Well you were correct. John W. Groom was her first cousin. John W. Groom's father and mother were Thomas and Eliza Groom (my husband's great grandparents). Thomas Groom was the brother of Matha Francis Groom Stephens. What a tangled family line my husband has!
We were going over the March 8th, 1851 letter that was written by Letitia Stephens. We were extracting information and we noticed an error in the transcription that you included with your letter. The first sentence of the fifth paragraph should say "you askt to know the name of my babe (baby) it is Dollyann." In the transcription "babe" was misread for "slave." Dollyann was Letitcia and Absalom's youngest daughter born about 1850 according to census and other documents that I have collected. The next sentence of the letter compares Dollyann and her older sister, Letitia.
We want to thank you again for all of your help. We really appreciate all of the time you took transcribing the letters for us.
Mary Anne Stephens
[This letter is in our files here at the college. We have not heard from her in several years. Bob Carter. December 2011]
In June 1870, North Carolina Governor W. W. Holden appointed former Union officer George Kirk of Tennessee to command a militia unit composed of western North Carolinians. Kirk?s militia sought to restore law and order in Caswell and Alamance Counties. In these counties, Klansmen purportedly had terrorized and murdered citizens, including Senator John Walter Stephens (1834-1870), and their alleged actions had not been addressed.
In a claimed effort to protect the citizens of Alamance and Caswell, Holden declared the counties in a state of insurrection and called in the militia to stop all Klan violence. Between mid-July and late August, the militia imprisoned 102 men with suspected connections to the Klan and Holden suspended the writ of habeas corpus in Alamance and Caswell Counties.
The arrest and imprisonment of these 102 men became known as the Kirk-Holden War.
Eventually, writs of habeas corpus were recognized by both Federal Circuit Court Judge George W. Brooks, sitting in Salisbury, North Carolina, and by North Carolina Chief Justice Pearson, sitting in Raleigh, North Carolina. In addition, Judge Brooks also was presented with 14th Amendment motions -- that the prisoners had been denied due process of law.
The writ of habeas corpus is an order by the court for the arresting authority to present prisoner to the court for a determination whether the arrest was proper and whether the prisoner could be further detained.
Judges Brooks and Pearson ordered most of the prisoners released. The few who were not released because the evidence against them was considered adequate for trial, were never tried, with the charges being dismissed for various reasons.
Thus, someone or some persons killed North Carolina State Senator John Walter Stephens Saturday, May 21, 1870, in the Caswell County Courthouse at Yanceyville, but no person was ever tried for his death.
Albion Tourgee Letter 1870
1860 United States Federal Census
Name: John W Stephens
Age in 1860: 27
Birth Year: abt 1833
Birthplace: North Carolina
Home in 1860: Northern Division, Rockingham, North Carolina
Post Office: Wentworth
Household Members: Name Age
T W Patterson 27
Ellen Patterson 23
Dennis Patterson 7
James Patterson 5
Alfred Patterson 3
Turner Patterson 2
Alfred M Scales 33
John H Boyd 27
Andrew J Boyd 23
Seth Norris 60
John W Stephens 27
James Boggs 26
U.S. Federal Census Mortality Schedules, 1850-1880
Name: John Stephens
Marital Status: Married
Place of Birth: North Carolina
Estimated birth year: abt 1835
Month of Death: May
Cause Of Death: Murdered
Census Year: 1870
Census Location: (City, County, State)
Yanceyville, Caswell, North Carolina
Father: Absalom Stephens
Mother: Letitia Johnson b: ABT 1817 in North Carolina
Nancy Edwards Waters b: 31 JUL 1840
16 JUL 1857
in Rockingham County, North Carolina
North Carolina Marriage Collection, 1741-2004
Name: John W Stephens
Spouse: Nancy Waters
Spouse Gender: Female
Marriage Date: 11 Jul 1857
Marriage County: Rockingham
Marriage State: North Carolina
Source Vendor: North Carolina State Archives
North Carolina Marriage Bonds, 1741-1868
Groom: John W Stephens
Bride: Nancy Waters
Bond Date: 11 Jul 1857
Bond #: 000121868
Marriage Date: 16 Jul 1857
Level Info: North Carolina Marriage Bonds, 1741-1868
Record #: 01 246
Bondsman: David M Matthew
Witness: Wm M Ellington
Performed By: B M Williams, Minister of the Gospel
- Lenora Stephens b: ABT 1858 in North Carolina
Martha Frances Groome b: ABT 1834
25 AUG 1860
in Rockingham County, North Carolina
North Carolina Marriage Bonds, 1741-1868
Groom: John W Stephens
Bride: Frances Groom
Bond_Date: 25 Aug 1860
Bond #: 000121869
Marriage Date: 25 Aug 1860
Level Info: North Carolina Marriage Bonds, 1741-1868
Record #: 01 246
Bondsman: Jas A Allen
Witness: William M Ellin
Performed By: D R Bruton, Minister of the Gospel
North Carolina Marriage Collection, 1741-2004
Name: Frances Groom
Spouse: John W Stephens
Spouse Gender: Male
Marriage Date: 25 Aug 1860
Marriage County: Rockingham
Marriage State: North Carolina
Source Vendor: North Carolina State Archives
- Ella Stephens b: ABT 1867 in Reidsville, Rockingham County, North Carolina