Assassination of John Walter Stephens

The year 1870 is one of the years that will go down in history as one of great social and political significance, and it well marks the culmination and the decline of the Ku Klux organization. Never before, nor perhaps since, was there a time when prejudice and feeling, intermingled with crime, ran so rampant along social and political lines. It was a time when the Negro, or the white man who took any part with the Negro in politics, on hearing after Nightfall the clattering of horses’ feet or the loud tap on his door, would feel his blood run cold in his veins for fear there was a raid on foot and perchance he might be the victim.

John Walter Stephens was born October 14, 1834, in Guilford County, N. C. His parents were good people, comfortably situated on a farm, and were consistent members of the Methodist church. His father died when he was about 18 years of age, leaving a wife, four sons and two daughters. Walter, with his brothers, lived on the farm and supported the family. A few years later he learned to make harness, and went into the harness business. His education was of a very ordinary sort, for he had only the advantages of the common schools. He studied a great deal at home, however. When he grew into more matured life he “often mourned his lack of education, and he used to say that was what every poor man owed to slavery.”

In 1857 he married Nannie E. Walters, who died two years later, leaving him a little girl one year old. At this time he was engaged in the harness business in Wentworth, N. C. In 1860 he was married the second time to Frances Groom, of Wentworth.

About this time he began to trade on tobacco, and connected himself with one Powell, a manufacturer. He worked as collector and agent for Powell, spending the greater portion of his time in Yorkville, S. C.

The war now came on and he went to Greensboro, N. C., and stood an examination, by which he got an appointment. He belonged to what was known as “press agents,” a class of men who went over the country pressing horses to be used in the war. He was not in the war until its close, having from some cause been allowed to return to his home in Wentworth.

He was known by all as an honest, fair dealing, Christian man. He was a most loving husband and kind father, and an energetic worker in the Methodist church.

Soon after his return from the war he got into a difficulty with Tom. Ratcliffe. There was a grudge between the two in this way: William Ratcliffe went to Greensboro at the same time Stephens did to stand the examination for an appointment. Stephens was some sharper than William Ratcliffe and got the appointment. This angered his brother, Tom Ratcliff, to some extent, and it seemed that he determined to get even with him for his brother’s sake.

Tom Ratcliffe lived next door to Stephens and ran a store just across the street. Ratcliffe’s chickens and he had a great many-kept using in Stephens’ barn and eating up grain and other foodstuffs. They were also destroying his garden. Stephens asked him to make some arrangement to prevent this. Ratcliffe, though warned several times, seemed to pay no attention whatever to the matter. One morning Stephens went down to his barn and found it well stocked with Ratcliffe’s poultry. He at once made chase, caught two, and executed them on the spot. Calling to Mrs. Ratcliffe, who was in her garden near by, he told her that he had killed two of her fowls, and that she could have them, and that the cause of the killing was evident. She flew into a passion and would not accept the chickens, and Stephens, without having any words with her, good natured and smiling, carried them into his house and ordered them cooked. Ratcliffe is informed of it, and thinks that now is his chance. He goes to the courthouse and procures a warrant for the arrest of Stephens, charging him with having stolen the chickens. Stephens was arrested and placed in jail, where he remained all night. Early next morning he gave bond and returned home.

Ratcliffe was seated on his store porch enjoying the invigorating breeze of the early morning, chatting with some gentlemen. Stephens had very little to say; he was a man of very few words, and in this case he acted. Placing his revolver in his pocket, and taking up a large; heavy hickory walking stick, he went out and walked coolly and calmly across the street to Ratcliffe’s store porch. He stepped up on the steps, and, without hesitating, struck Ratcliffe a heavy blow on the head. Lieutenant Baker, an enrolling officer who was standing on the porch, interfered, and when he did so, Stephens pulled his pistol and began to shoot. When the smoke had cleared away Lieutenant Baker was found to have an ugly scalp wound; the ball, starting just over his eye, cut a deep furrow around to the back of his head. It was indeed a close call, but turned out nothing serious. Also Patrick Law, a magistrate’s son, was accidentally shot through the arm.

At the magistrate’s trial he was bound over to court. This affair would not have given him much trouble had he not gone into politics. Every politician then of any note had stolen a cow, pig, horse or chicken, or was accused of it, especially if he happened to be a Republican.

Political Arena

After the above incident, when he entered the political arena he was given the name of “Chicken” Stephens, by his opponents. This went much harder with him than it otherwise would have done for this reason: In 1866 he moved to Yanceyville, which is the county seat of Caswell County. He moved before court convened. The two places were only about 25 miles apart, and he awaited a summons to trial; but none came. Still other courts convened and the case was never called, nor did they send for him. Finally he learned that the case had been dismissed; and so he was never given a chance to exonerate himself or let the testimony come out in its true light.

All of his life up till about now, he had been a Democrat, but had never taken any very active part in politics. In Yanceyville he was engaged in the tobacco business for some time. Then he served the people for several years as Justice of the Peace in a very satisfactory manner. He had the respect and confidence of the entire county.

But now came the great turning point in his life. He changed from the Democratic Party, with which he had voted so many years, to the Republican. The Republicans had a large majority in Caswell, consisting mostly of Negroes. Stephens was at once recognized as leader of the Republican forces and received the nomination for the State Senate. He ran against Hon. Bedford Brown, a man who had been in the U. S. Senate for twenty years. This campaign was one in which much feeling was displayed. The neighbors and friends, who had held Stephens in high esteem, turned their backs upon him and circulated slanderous reports concerning him. In fact, it may truly be said that he was socially ostracized.

Bedford Brown was old and experienced, and was thought to have manipulated the vote so as to be counted in. Stephens at once contested the election and obtained his seat. This victory immediately called forth the most bitter abuse that could be heaped upon him. He served one term in the Senate, was re-elected and served another. He con- ducted himself in a manly and most dignified manner, and commanded the respect of that body.

When Stephens was nominated for the Senate, such a sentiment was worked up against him, and so diabolical were the threats made by the adherents of the opposite party, that for his protection at night he had his windows barred with iron and heavier locks put on his doors, and a number of fire arms, that would be available on short notice, placed in his home.

The Ku Klux were abroad in the land and nightly were they whipping, burning and hanging. These were the adherents of the opposite party and many nights Stephens heard them come, stop at his house and then ride on. They seemed to have no idea of attacking Stephens in his own house, as their actions plainly demonstrated; but they were continually warning him that, did he not leave the country, change his political affiliations, or cease to assume the leadership of the Republican party in that, the 24th Senatorial district, lie might expect the worst, and that his wife would be a widow and his children orphans. So loud and strong were these threats, that for the protection of his family he had his life insured for $10,000 and carried two deringers, one in each vest pocket, all the time. His position was a trying one, but he bore it heroically. He was ostracised, jeered at when on the streets, abused, vilified and slandered, yet he went his way quietly and opened not his mouth. Finally he was expelled from the Methodist church for his political opinions.

It was in the campaign of 1870, on Saturday, May 21st, that there was a Democratic speaking and mass meeting in the courthouse at Yanceyville. Stephens lived almost in speaking distance of the courthouse and could get a plain view of it. He saw the people from the country coming in, and he decided that he would go over and see what was going to be done. He was in great danger and was conscious of the fact, but he went to show them that he was not afraid to go, and also to see what tactics the Democrats would use in the campaign. When he started, his wife, trying to prevail on him not to go, said: “Mr. Stephens, you know that is a Democratic meeting, and I am afraid you will get into trouble.” But on he went. He had to pass his brother-in-law’s house and a niece came out and spoke to him. He told her he was going to the courthouse to the Democratic speaking. She tried to persuade him not to go, and said she feared there would be trouble. He replied, “I am not going to bother any one and one had better not bother me.” She saw that it was of no use to talk to him longer, for he had determined to go. He little thought then that there had already been set a trap to catch him and put him out of the way, and that the Ku Klux were the planners. But such was the case; and they had laid their plans well. Before entering the courthouse he met ex-Sheriff Wiley, whom he had been trying to induce to run for sheriff of the county on the Republican ticket, as there were few in the Republican ranks who were competent to fill such an office. Wiley was a Democrat and seemed to be taken with the idea. He told Stephens that he would give him a definite answer before the day closed.

Stephens then entered the courtroom and sat down just in front of one of his brothers. Another brother was just across the aisle and a brother-in-law was also in the room. ‘Squire Hodnett, one of Caswell’s prominent citizens, was speaking. Stephens took out a notebook and pencil, and seemed to be jotting down some things the speaker was saying. The crowd cast very sour looks at him, and the speaker said: “Ah! There sits that Stephens now, taking notes.” From this he began to abuse him. Stephens said nothing, but a smile could be seen to play over his face occasionally.

Ex-Sheriff Wiley

Presently ex-Sheriff Wiley came in and touched Stephens on the shoulder, and said one or two words to him. He arose, and he and Wiley went out together. His brothers noticed it, but gave it very little thought. There were scores in the room, however, who understood its meaning full well.

There was an old room in the lower end of the courthouse, on the first floor, which was formerly the clerk’s office, but was now used for a wood room.
The speaking was over and he had not come home. Night came on and still he had not returned. Suspicion was aroused at once. His wife was almost raving and said she knew her husband had been killed, or he would come to her. She always knew where he was and knew when to expect him home.

His brothers went in search of him, and several other white citizens, on hearing of his disappearance, kindly volunteered to assist in the search. On making enquiry, this white man had seen him in one place, that one in another, and some saw him leaving town and so on, all about the same time. But strange to say, as many Negroes as there were, not one of them had seen him leave the court house; and if any one would notice his movements it would certainly have been they, for he was all in all to them. It was settled in the minds of many that he was still in the courthouse, and it was immediately surrounded and every room in the house searched, except one, and the key to that could be found nowhere.

The Negroes came in great numbers and said that they knew their leader had been killed, and that he was still somewhere in the courthouse. A careful watch was instituted for the night around the building. Although the Negroes were satisfied that their leader had been foully dealt with, they made no demonstration except that of sorrow and grief, for they loved him. It is said that it was strange to see the troubled faces of the Negroes on this night. They offered no violence at all, and during the whole night nothing but order prevailed. It is said by some who were on guard that night that they expected that at any minute the Ku Klux would make a raid on them, but according to the watchmen’s calculations, the Clan thought they had done a good day’s work and would rest for the night. Another thing was noticeable: As many white people as there were on the streets when the search was begun, they had quietly broken up in small groups and talked in undertones, and then quietly departed for their respective homes early in the evening, seemingly not aware that the leader of the Radicals was missing and that it was causing much concern among his followers.

At the first appearance of light next morning, a tall Negro mounted the shoulders of another and looked through the window of the wood room, which could not be opened on the night, before. There a horrible sight met his vision. The long, slender body of Stephens was lying on a pile of wood with a slip noose around his neck. The noose was buried deep in the flesh and the jugular vein was cut. The coroner, Dr. Yancey, who was near by, was immediately sent for, and the door was forced opened. The coroner was the first one to enter. Upon examination it was found that, besides being strangled and his jugular severed, he had been stabbed twice in the region of the heart and his leg broken. Beside him lay his hat and the bloody dirk with which he had been stabbed. The two derringers, which he was known to have had, on going to the courthouse, were gone; but his gold watch and chain were still on his body. There were only a very few drops of blood on the floor and one on the windowsill. It was quite evident that the assassin, after committing the deed, had gone out at the window, for the door was found to be locked and thumb-bolted on the inside.

Coroner’s Inquest

The coroner’s inquest resulted in the decision that the “deceased had come to his death by the hands of some unknown party.” It seemed to all, who really knew the depths to which politics and some political leaders had sunk, and the great extremes to which so-called good citizens would go, before they would see the black man led to an honest victory, just this: When he left the court-room with ex-Sheriff Wiley he was decoyed down to this room, pushed in, seized and given no showing, deprived of his weapons and rendered helpless. He was then foully assassinated in sight of his own home. From the window of the room could be seen his two little girls playing on the lawn. The body was removed to his home and buried in the afternoon, which was Sunday afternoon, a large number of the citizens attending the funeral; and, to be plain, no doubt some of his assassins were attendants. Suspicion pointed to several prominent citizens, but it seemed impossible to get any evidence on account of the Ku Klux organization, which had now, as it always had, power to execute any plan or purpose however questionable, and then have the assurance that it could not be proved on them.

Some weeks after, Governor Holden ordered Kirk’s men to Yanceyville to investigate the matter, make arrests and endeavor to bring the criminals to justice. They were about three hundred in number, with Kirk, Major Yates and Colonel Burgen at their head. It was a rough and reckless, but determined band.

There was a Democratic speaking in the courthouse and Hon. J. M. Leach was speaking. It was whispered about among the Negroes that Kirk’s men were coming. The Negroes seemed to know all about it. They would say Kirk’s men were so many miles away, soon they would say they were at such and such a point, and at length they said “they are here.” One who had been catching these whisperings among the darkies looked out of a window, but immediately took his head back in, for around the court house, with guns pointing up at the windows and looking determined, were Kirk’s men indeed. Guards were placed in the hall and at the doors, and no one was allowed to go out. The affair seemed to have been worked up well beforehand, for Major Yates immediately entered the room with a posse of men and with a long list of names, and began to make arrests.

Mr. Leach, the speaker, when he saw the uniforms, glittering swords and large guns proceeding down the aisle, very gracefully bowed and said he would resume his speech under more favorable circumstances.

The first person arrested was an old man named Bow. When told to consider himself under arrest, he jerked back violently and straightened his arm to its full length at the face of Major Yates. The Major said nothing, but drew his revolver and fired a shot over Bow’s head. This was enough, and the remaining arrests were made without anything to mar the solemnity of the occasion.

Colonel Burgen, by this time, was on his way with a posse of men, to ex-Sheriff Wiley’s home, some seven miles distant in the country. He was found in his field and tied on a bareback horse. His hands were tied behind him and his feet tied together under the horse. In this manner he was brought to Yanceyville and placed under guard. He was afterwards carried to Graham, together with the others who had been arrested.

District Judge Bond issued a writ to have Wiley and the others brought to Raleigh for trial. They went. The trial lasted for many days, but the testimony amounted to very little in solving the mystery and proving who did the killing. This was so because the witnesses largely belonged to the Ku Klux, and they swore in favor of each other. The jury, too, no doubt, was composed of members of the same organization. Wiley testified that he called Stephens out to tell him he could not run for sheriff on the Republican ticket, and that he left Stephens at the bottom of the steps, went across the street and saw no more of him. Others corroborated his statement, and finally it ended in an acquittal of all. This was a time when “ignorance was bliss,” for it was certainly “folly to be wise,” especially so if one told what he knew.

Hamp. Johnson, an old Negro living only a few feet away from the room in which Stephens was killed, whispered it among the Negroes that he saw those who went in the room and heard a tremendous scuffle. But the Ku Klux, it was thought, found the means of silencing him, for “Old Hamp” never after that knew anything at all and lived in good style without working.

Some years ago ex-Sheriff Wiley was on his deathbed, and it is said that he was raving and continually talking of Stephens, saying that he could see him and that he had helped to kill him. This report, however, was denied by his friends.

Less than two years ago Felix Roan, a citizen of Yanceyville, died; and it is reported that before he died he confessed that he helped to assassinate Stephens, and that Wiley also helped. The newspapers reported it, saying that Stephens’ widow was present and Roan asked her forgiveness before he died, and that Mrs. Stephens said she would forgive him. It is almost a settled thing in the minds of many people who remember the occurrence, that Roan helped to assassinate Stephens and that he confessed it on his deathbed. But his friends and relatives denied it, and it was soon covered up. As to Mrs. Stephens forgiving him, that is entirely untrue, for she had then been dead three years.

Other cases have been reported in which certain men on their deathbeds have made or have tried to make, confessions concerning this assassination, but they were silenced or suppressed.

John Walter Stephens’ courage and organizing ability was unquestioned, and under his lead it was known that Caswell County would continue to give an “overwhelming Radical majority, and for this he was killed. He gave up his life for the rights of the people— the right of equal manhood suffrage.” He was unswerving in his brave adherence to the principals he professed. He crowned a worthy life by a martyr’s death; he was pursued with fearful malice and bigoted hate to the very portals of the tomb. The perpetrators of this foul deed have escaped the punishment of their crime, at least by the law.

NOTE.-The material for this paper is taken from family records, and statements of citizens who are thoroughly acquainted with the incidents related. L. M. C.

Trinity College Historical Society. Historical Papers of the Trinity College Historical Society. Durham, N. C.: The Society. 1897-1956.

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