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The Cherry Mountain Fiasco


There are two sides to every story. This version is presented courtesy of The Shotwell Papers, a three volume set of books published in 1931 by the NC Historical Commission.

Six years after the civil war, in the midst of reconstruction, folks had-had enough. The war had been lost, but the Yankees didn’t go home. The North kept it’s large thumb on the South and was mashing her flat. Our fallen leaders were in disgrace, not respected or trusted by the Union. Every government post was filled by a loyal Union leader, regardless of competency. The “carpetbaggers” had arrived and were in positions of leadership. Many of them were common crooks. Times were tough.

The Freeman’s Bureau and the Union League supported the Republican leaders and they were impossible to beat in local elections. Oddly, it was a Republican, H.H. Helper who wrote in 1870, “One of the greatest evils affecting society in North Carolina may justly be set down to the incompetent and worthless State and Federal Officers now in power.”

There was no need to seek justice in Judge Logan’s court at Rutherfordton. There were so many false arrests and trials it made a mockery of the judicial system. It was common practice to arrest people at harvest time. When people had crops in the field they were easy to coerce into making false statements. It was not unusual to be freed simply by agreeing to vote Republican. In fact, some twelve hundred cases were resolved in that manner.

Man-hunters, protected by the court, carried pockets full of blank warrants and filled them out at will. Since “sheriffs” were paid five dollars for each arrest, a lot of arrests were made. Some people were arrested repeatedly. Conditions at the county jail were deplorable and overcrowding made it miserable, but at five dollars a head the sheriffs kept bringing in prisoners. The jailers were making some money too, they were given funds to operate the jail based on how many prisoners they had in it.

A large organization, the Ku Klux Klan, rose up in the south as an avenger. It was a grass-roots political weapon intended to restore power to the people. Yankees go home.

In our area, owing to great distances and poor roads, National KKK delegates were rarely able to visit councils meetings. The Klan  in Western Carolina more closely resembled the Clans of the Highlands – all for one and one for all. The local boys were primed for trouble when a chance visit by Randolph Abbot Shotwell, on behalf of the Order, set them off.

Shotwell, a newspaper editor and Rutherfordton business man, had been asked by the Klan to take over this area. Shotwell was not a Klan member and refused, but there was a problem, local boys were making unauthorized night rides and had to be stopped. He agreed to speak with them, but as a local business man not as a Klan representative. In retrospect, Shotwell regretted very much the ease with which he had agreed to come to Cherry Mountain.

For several weeks, in June of each year, there were gatherings at Cherry Mountain. This was due to Amos Owens, a distiller of some reputation, having plenty of Cherry Bounce on hand. Cherry Bounce was an alcoholic beverage distilled at Owen’s home-farm. Sometimes as many as 300 people gathered, usually on Thursdays and Saturdays during the cherry season.

Shotwell didn’t personally know the boys from this area and it’s doubtful they knew him. He’d only been in Western North Carolina for three years and one of those three was spent in Asheville. Although he was a stranger, he was a newspaper man and so arranged to come out and meet with certain folks about the questionable night riding. He attended the Saturday gathering on June tenth and explained to some of the local men that these unsanctioned rides must not continue.. Having done his duty, and having consumed some of the famous beverage he returned to town in merry spirits, satisfied the matter was settled. He was mistaken.

Back at the Cherry Bounce gathering, the idea got ’round that it was high time to ride on Rutherfordton and teach those high and mighty folks a thing or two. The first and foremost target would be the unscrupulous Judge Logan.

Second on the list for a visit was Judge Logan’s son, Bob. Bob was the only attorney who won cases regularly at Judge Logan’s court. A defense attorney, Bob had never read law nor had he passed the bar. His qualifications were simple, he had a father on the bench. He had taken out a license to practice and it was common knowledge that if you hired Bob you’d win your case. Not only did Bob practice law, he was the editor of the Star, Rutherfordton’s local paper. Its offices were downstairs in the back of the courthouse. It was in close proximity to the Judge’s offices and the Judge pretty well controlled the paper.

Jeff Downey (Thomas Jefferson Downey) was a fellow Klansman who lived near town. The brothers of the Order had a little bone to pick with him. Jeff’s reputation was such that, when he joined the Klan, several members threatened to quit rather than have any association with him. He had been seen hanging around the courthouse and the prosecutor, Jim Justice during Klan trials and was suspected of being a turncoat.

The boys had a little business to see to with Old “Puky” Biggerstaff too. He’d been spreading rumors about Klan activities. It was rather popular in those days to be unpopular with the Klan, and Biggerstaff had invented several stories about how he’d been visited and persecuted. His imagined visitations were about to become real.

And then there was James Justice. James or Jim Justice was the paid prosecutor for the county. He had been prosecuting some Klan cases and advanced his Republican political career at every opportunity. He was often quoted in the paper and had recently, in a public speech at Burnt Chimneys (Forest City), said, “three fourths of the people in North Carolina ought to be in hell and the balance made slaves for life. “When he was warned that this sort of talk might provoke certain folks, he lit into a tirade against the KKK, calling them “cowardly skunks” and said they wouldn’t “dare come after him.”

Some fifty-four men, twenty or so from Cherry Mountain and the Logan’s Store communities, assembled at Burnt Chimneys around eleven PM on Sunday, June 11, 1871 to raid Rutherfordton. It was a wild night, a terrible storm blew in and drenched the group. Never-the-less they were set on their course and would not turn back.

The sounds of the storm masked the noise of their arrival. One group was dispatched to Jim Justice’s apartments to roust him, and roust him they did. He awakened to the sound of his door being broken down. His first thought was to flee, but there was no time. Telling his wife to lay still, he proceeded to hide behind the bed. He testified that he was thinking of jumping from the second floor window. The men of the Klan testified they drug him out from under the bed. At any rate, they had him.

The men who were sent after Biggerstaff missed him, he heard them coming and got away.

Bob Logan fled too and his father was not in town at the time.

Jeff Downey was visited by another party. The men argued over his punishment starting with 300 lashes. They reduced the whipping until it amounted to a few strokes of a pine branch, which absolutely infuriated Downey. He was invited to quit the Order and turn in his gear. Which he did. There after, he became a star witness for the prosecution, testifying against Klansmen at every opportunity.

Intimidation was the Klan’s chief weapon, and if Jim Justice described their disguises accurately from the witness stand, they were an imposing group of men. After they entered his bedchamber they lit a candle. Jim could see their disguises plainly. he testified:

…disguised men looking more like one would imagine the devil to look then you could ever suppose [a] human being could fix themselves up to look. Some had disguises and strange fixings on their bodies. The greatest number had only a broad mask over their faces. These were of red with eyes bound with white and the nose white, and horns that stood up ten inches. Some had long white beards. Some had horns which were erect; others had horns which lopped over like mule’s ears; and their caps ran up to a point with tassels. One had a red suit out and out: there were a number of stripes on each arm – made of something bright, like silver lace. There was something round, of a circular form, on the breast of one of them, who stood right in front of me.

Justice was dragged outdoors in his nightshirt. Once out, he began to yell for help. One of the men hit him in the head with a pistol. He lost consciousness and didn’t remember the trip down the stairs. Revived by the rain, he was forced to accompany the men on foot to meet the larger party gathered on the outskirts of town. After being questioned and threatened with hanging, he was told he must change his ways. They told him to stop persecuting the Klan, that he should drop out of politics and behave himself. They asked him to meet with them later to tell where they might find Biggerstaff and Logan and to swear he would keep the whole matter secret. He swore he would and they let him go.

Since they’d missed Bob, a strike against his office had been ordered. The men dumped boxes of type on the floor, broke a handle off the press and burned file copies of past issues – they actually made torches out of them so they could see what they were doing. All in all about ten dollars worth of damage was done.

Within days national headlines screamed of this outrage. A strike against a Federal Prosecutor? A raid on a Newspaper? National notoriety came to Rutherdfordton portraying the town as a hot-bed of KKK enthusiasts. Dragging a Federal Prosecutor out of bed was outrageous and newsworthy. The demolition of a newspaper (although they didn’t miss a single issue) was headline producing and swept the nation, becoming a KKK attack on a Republican Paper. The Republican Party used the fiasco to attract further national attention.

Justice seems to have altered his testimony several times in order to make the attack seem more politically motivated than it was. In his initial testimony, they said, “Come out you damned rascal…” By the time he testified at Raleigh he’d remembered they actually said, “Come out you damned Radical…” (slang for Republican).

Funny how things are remembered, isn’t it? It made for good press. Consequently, a strike by locals against crooked politicians was misconstrued in the media and in court until it had little – if any – resemblance to what it had been in the first place.

The Ku Klux Klan Act, passed in 1871, declared secret societies illegal and allowed for Federal intervention. Federal troops were dispatched and some of the Klansmen were rounded up, some picked up in the round up were not Klan members. The pastor of First Broad Church, Rev. Berry Rollins, was released without being charged.

A partial list of people who were arrested during the time Shotwell was in jail:

Moses W. Simmons, Esq., Lafayette Eaves, Issac Padgett, N. Thorne, Esq., Henry Jenkins, Rev. Thos. J. Campbell, Capt. J. Crowell Camp, Wm. Edgerton, Jas. H. Sweezy, Bruce Morgan, Johnathan Whitesides, (one-legged soldier), John Cooley, Daniel Martin, Thomas Liles, Wm. McEntyre, Mich McGroney, Gaither Philbeck, Erwin Philbeck, Wiley Walker, Esq., (70 years old), John Porter, Henry Green, Kinley Green, David Cochran, Wm. Teal, John Moore, Thos. Withrow, Julious Fortune, Doc. B. Fortune, Spencer R. Moore, John Doggett, Rufus Doggett, Saml. Whitesides, R.N. Robinson, Geo. H. Holland, Benj. Wall, W.H. Green, Esq., Capt. Jno. Nicholson, Alvin Johnson, David Scruggs, Wiley Spurlin, Thos. Harris, Calvin Teal, Jesse Gidney, James Green, J.E. Saunders, J.J. McDaniel, Ben Fortune, Ben Spurlin, Wm. McSwain, Wm. Hames, Cleveland Wood, Geo. B. Pruitt, A.W. Biggerstaff, Richd. Hardin, Wm. Ledbetter, J.M. Spurlin, John Hamrick, John Harris, J.C. Mode, Wm. Wilson, J.M. McDaniel, Tom Wood, F.C. James, Jas. Green, N.T. Thorn.

Parties under bond:

Dr. Romeo Hicks, D. Green, Alex. Bridgers, L. Hamrick, J.W. Hamrick, Geo. Hamrick, John Hamrick, W.T. Hill, Thos. Harris, S.B. Padgett, W.W. Bridges, A.P. Tisdale, W.S. Tisdale, W.S. Haynes, Wm. Haynes, J.O. Haynes, D.D. London, David Hoyle, Silvester Weaver, Thos. Edgerton, Jacob Surratt, W.C. Goforth, Posey Smart, Richard Smith, A. Gettys, Lawson Brooks, Richd. Hardin, Willis Owens, R.R. Biggerstaff, Joseph Fortune, Anderson Williams, Capt. W.D. Jones, Wellington N. Hicks, Jas. Goode, John Witherow, Jas. Hunt, John Hunt, L. Beam, Thos. Elliott, Wm. Burnett, Olin Carson, Thomas Toms, Scott Toms, M. Tucker, Ben Biggerstaff, Saml. Biggerstaff, W. DePriest, D.H. McCown, Jason Witherow, Stanley Haynes, Michael Grigg, Walter Grigg, Sam. Goforth, W.C. DePriest, Taylor Carson, Leander Toms, Amos Owens, Daniel Fortune, Barton Biggerstaff, Alfred Biggerstaff, Adolphus DePriest, Thos. Fortune.

“A Federal Grand Jury at Raleigh indicted nine hundred and eighty one persons for alleged Ku Klux depredations; Thirty seven were convicted including Randolph A. Shotwell, a democratic editor, who was sentenced to serve six years in a federal prison.”

Rutherfordton’s “Grand Chief” Shotwell used his time in prison to write extensively. After serving two years he was pardoned by the governor.

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