In 1871, Massachusetts-born Erastus Watson Everson was summoned by a government committee which was investigating the “Ku-Klux Klan conspiracy”. Erastus had worked for the Freedman’s Bureau after the Civil War throughout South Carolina. In particular, he was summoned for an experience he had after his duty in the Freedman’s Bureau, when he was working again for the army as an assessor. Erastus was an inadvertent witness to the Laurens County, SC riot in October 1870. He testified his belief that the riot was planned in advance in part by the Ku Klux Klan.
He testified that he had traveled to Laurens county to purchase a horse for his boss. On the way over, he encountered numerous armed men. In the town, he inquired of a colonel who was stationed there with his troops, and was told that an election was occurring the following day. The colonel advised Everson to stay in town until the election was over. While staying at a hotel that night, Everson overheard a plot to throw the election that was to occur the following day by capturing the ballot boxes and starting fights with the state constables and any colored voters. Everson sent word to both the army colonel and his troops stationed in the town, as well as a note of warning to Mr. Crews, a politician who led the local armed colored militia. Erastus’ actions briefly helped saved the election day, or so he thought. Crews lined up his militia by the election station, and although white agitators verbally abused the troops, no physical fighting occurred. Although tensions flared, the election went seemingly went smoothly. But it was not enough.
That night Erastus heard conversations and drunken boasts that the ballot boxes had been stuffed anyways. But that was soon to be the least of Erastus’ worries. The following day, the infamous “Laurens County riot” occurred, in which thousands of armed riders came into the area, where brawling soon became deadly as the riot turned “into a negro chase”. Erastus ran outside to determine what was happened, and avoid the brawling and gunshots now spreading all over the area. Erastus fell in the street, and rolled out of the way of the chaos. Mr. Copeland, the general store owner, and Mason, took in Erastus during the midst of the riot, and promised him a safe place to stay for the evening, shortly after which Copeland soon left. Men came in and out of the house all evening, and some of them were bragging about the death of Wade Perrin, the most powerful black politician who had been elected the previous day. Erastus thus found himself in a difficult position – he discovered too late that he had been saved by Klan sympathizers. Everson determined he could not escape into the night with the horse that he had purchased, because the roads were filled with armed men looking for a fight. After Erastus went to bed, a man called for him – it turned out to be Hugh Farley, a former Confederate officer who Erastus had dealt with a few years previously. Although a former enemy, Erastus considered him a gentleman, and when Hugh Farley promised to help Erastus get out of the area, Erastus took him up on the offer. They rode off into the night from Laurens County to Newberry County, almost 40 miles. Farley rode with Erastus and would often go ahead to picket groups of men along the way, then let Erastus pass. The rioting had spread throughout the entire county, with thousands of men causing violence. Along the way, Erastus was threatened and almost shot several times. Through discussion with Farley on their journey, however, Erastus was soon horrified to discover that Farley was a probable Ku Klux leader. Once in Newberry, Erastus encountered a large group of men, several of whom he had formerly arrested as “bushwhackers” – who were not pleased to see “that God-damned Everson!” Farley had promised Everson safe passage, and then made Erastus Everson agree that he would make a statement supporting them later. He was to tell the government that the riot was necessary, and that no one was to blame in the matter. “I had promised Farley that if he would see me safe through, I would come down here and go before the executive committee of the reform party to make a statement, but I had to do things that a man would not ordinarily do. I went back on my word, because I could not do such a thing. I think, however, that I had no other way of saving my life. I know it, and so I have never been before that committee, and I never will go, because I cannot tell them what he wanted me to tell.” Once in Newberry, he was handed off to another man, but Erastus soon escaped and ran to the train tracks, where he caught a train. Aboard, he found three state constables who were escaping as well, along with Senator Owens. Erastus and the Senator hid in the mail-car privy, and made their way to safety.
Everson, who had been injured several times during the Civil War while serving on behalf of the Union, and then dedicated years of service to the Freedman’s Bureau where he helped protect the rights of newly freed slaves in the South, had inadvertently found that his life had been saved by Ku Klux Klan members. He broke his promise to them, however, and reported all that he heard during his stay and remarkable escape from the Laurens County.
Learn more about the Laurens County, SC riot here.