Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Political Legitimacy and Local Courts: "Politicks at Such a Rage" in a Southern Community during Reconstruction

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern History

Political Legitimacy and Local Courts: "Politicks at Such a Rage" in a Southern Community during Reconstruction

Article excerpt

ACCORDING TO THE TESTIMONY OF TWO WHITE WITNESSES--TAKEN DOWN in late May 1871 by a justice of the peace in Anson County, North Carolina--Jim Coppedge, a fifteen-year-old freedman, had said that on Saturday night, the twentieth of that month, his stepfather, Ned Myers, came to Coppedge's house, "woke him up and told him to come on." The two then left the house, went to the gate at the road, "and there met Lewis Coppedge [Jim Coppedge's brother and also Ned Myers's stepson] and George Chambers." "Then they all come down the road and got over the fence into the orchard." From there the four men walked "to the corner near an aspen tree and stood there until every person left the Store." The general store, located at a crossroads called Whites Store in southwestern Anson County, was owned by Townley Redfearn, one of the area's largest merchants, and was operated by James W. Redfeam, probably one of Townley Redfearn's relatives. Only one other person was employed in the store--Jim Coppedge. (1)

"Then Lewis went behind the well[,] Ned behind the Stable[,] George in the corner of the fence near the Shoe Shop and [Jim Coppedge] at the other end of the Shoe [shop[ near the fence." "After Mas Jim [James W. Redfearn] fed his horse and started back to the Store," went the testimony, "George & Lewis advanced on him at the same time." "Lewis got to him rather first and struck the first lick," and Jim Coppedge said that he could not be certain but thought that George Chambers struck Redfearn too. Whatever the case, Redfearn cried out "Oh: when he was first hit" and struggled briefly before dying. Lewis Coppedge and George Chambers then "searched his pockets," Coppedge searching "the most." Shortly afterward, Lewis and Jim Coppedge along with George Chambers "went into the store" and "left Pop [Ned Myers] outside." The three young men "searched the house for money," taking "nothing out of the Store but money, a tin box and some clothing and tobacco." Sometime later that evening, they left the store, and Lewis and George "went into a gully near the Store and looked over the money." "Pop took a little--George a little"; they gave Jim Coppedge "one dollar"; and "Lewis took off the most of the money." They then parted company, and Jim Coppedge "went home and went to bed." (2)

The following month this testimony was used to convict Lewis Coppedge and his stepfather, Ned Myers, of murder--as well as Jim Coppedge himself somewhat later. Although the general outline of Jim Coppedge's story was later confirmed by a confession from his half-brother, Lewis Coppedge, there were a multitude of things wrong with the evidence in this case, most seriously, the circumstances under which the confession by Jim Coppedge had been exacted. This information was widely known in Anson County but was never introduced into any court proceedings. According to Ralph P. Buxton, the superior court judge who tried the case, "the prisoner Jim, after he was sentenced, on the night before I left Wadesboro [the county seat] sent for me to see him in his cell." The judge went "expecting to hear a confession, but he [Jim Coppedge] asserted most solemnly that he was not guilty," whereupon Buxton "reminded him of the confessions he had made to the witnesses, who had testified in his trial." Jim Coppedge then "indicated that the confessions were not freely made, but extorted thro fear, that he was in chains and in fear of his life in an angry crowd, who insisted he was guilty and would not hear to the contrary." (3)

Later Jim Coppedge's lawyers confirmed from other sources in town that, in the lawyers' words, the young freedman "had been apprehended on suspicion, chained by the neck to a tree, kept under strict guard, carried off to a pond and there threatened." Moreover, the lawyers found that many of the details in Jim Coppedge's testimony had been supplied by members of the crowd. Information on the movements of Redfearn's attackers outside the store and on articles taken during the robbery, for example, had been forced upon Coppedge by a man in the crowd named John D. …

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