I do have a sort of schedule of future blog posts, but it keeps getting farther and farther behind because questions come in that have to be answered and when they become candidates for blog posts as well, well no better time than the present. Recently we got an inquiry, handwritten on notebook paper, from Ohio, asking about public hangings in Forsyth County.

I have known for some time a little about all of them and have been meaning to nail them down, so here goes:

One morning in early June, 1851, Barbara Yokely woke up and found her husband John slumped on the floor in the front room of their house. There was a lot of blood and it was obvious that he was dead. So she summoned the sheriff.

Since the Yokelys lived in a nebulous area known as the Northern Division of Davidson County, by the end of the day three sheriffs, from Davidson, Davie and Forsyth counties, had paid a visit to the site. Each noted that John Yokely had suffered a couple of severe head wounds, and each noted the bloody ax lying nearby.

Colton1860

There were many mapmakers in the mid-19th century. It is almost impossible to find any NC map from that period that shows all county borders accurately. A good example is this 1860 Colton map, which has one part of Forsyth County’s line correct and another incorrect. The blue tinted region, which includes the Panther Creek area, is incorrectly shown as being part of Forsyth. That did not happen until 1927. The green tinted area was correctly shown as being a part of Davidson, which became a part of Forsyth in the late 19th century. John and Amos Yokely and Howard May all lived in the extreme northwestern part of that area, where the county lines of Forsyth, Davidson, Davie and Yadkin now converge. It was far from certain which county any of them actually lived in, thus the confusion as to which county had jurisdiction in the murder.

Yokely was a prosperous farmer, with a home valued at about $1,000 and owned a dozen or so slaves, so suspicion naturally fell upon them. But each seemed to have the same airtight alibi. Yokely had clearly been killed the night before, and the slaves had all been in attendance that night at a corn shucking at Yokely’s brother Amos’ house, some distance away, into the wee hours of the morning.

And during questioning, more than one of the slaves mentioned that a white neighbor, Howard May, had recently taken an unseemly interest in John Yokely’s doings. When that was confirmed by white neighbors as well, May became the chief suspect. But by then, he had disappeared. Another white man named Kennedy somehow figured into the equation, but he was also missing, so the investigation ground to a halt.

A few days later, John Yokely’s sons issued an offer of a substantial reward for the apprehension of Howard May in the death of their father, including a somewhat detailed description of May, which was published in several area newspapers. That came to nought.

RewardYokely

John Yokely’s sons posted a $200 reward for the apprehension of his supposed killer, Howard May. This notice appeared in the Salisbury paper, a week after it appeared in the Salem People’s Press. The amount is the equivalent of about $5, 520 in 2014 money.

A little over a year later, in the fall of 1852, someone suddenly arrested one of John Yokely’s slaves, Charles, and charged him with the crime.

In those days, newspapers were mainly political organs and did a very poor job of reporting actual news, so we don’t know which sheriff arrested Charles or why or where he was jailed or which county court he was tried in. Both the Salem “People’s Press” and the Salisbury “Carolina Watchman” seemed to be saying that it was Forsyth County.

Whatever, Charles was convicted and sentenced to be hanged. On Thursday, November 25, 1852 it began raining, which continued into Friday, the 26th. Even so, a huge crowd of all colors, around 2,000 in number, gathered near the scaffold on Friday morning. The Moravian minister C.L. Rights delivered a funeral sermon based on Isaiah 29:15: “Woe vnto them that seeke deepe to hide their counsell from the Lord, and their workes are in the darke, and they say, Who seeth vs? and who knoweth vs?”

According to the People’s Press,  Charles “seemed very penitent, confessed his guilt, and warned his colored friends to beware of the influence of liquor, the effects of which had brought him to this sad end.” After a good bit more of praying and hymn singing, Charles was hanged.

But that was not the end of the story. A week after Charles’ death, the Peoples Press published a full transcript of Charles’ confession, which, perhaps, told the true story. As originally suspected, Howard May, and the man Kennedy, may have taken advantage of a drunken slave, promising him his freedom in return for carrying out their dirty deed.

It turns out that Charles had been on loan to May and living at his farm. On the night of Amos Yokely’s corn shucking (be aware that a corn shucking was not a mere work session, that corn shuckings held at night were usually accompanied by music, drinking, dancing and who knows what other shenanigans), May took Charles along with him, dispensing drinks and commenting that Charles’ master, John Yokely was a wealthy drunk whose house might burn down at any time because “…the old man was drinking all the time and the spirits running from the barrel all over the floor.”

May told Charles that if he would go that night and kill his master and get his money and bring it to him he would buy Charles his freedom and give him enough money to start a new life. After refusing several times, Charles secretly took one of Amos Yokely’s horses, rode to his master’s house, took an ax from the woodyard, went into his master’s house where he found John Yokely drunk with his head in his hands and struck him twice on the head with the ax.

He then broke open the desk, took four bags of silver and a pocketbook containing papers and money and left, burying the silver under an old log on May’s farm. Back at Amos Yokely’s party, he handed over the pocketbook to May and, after a number more drinks, they went home to May’s farm.

The next morning, May moved the silver to another location, then had Charles take it off his property and bury it in the mud at a nearby spring, marking the spot with a stick. By then, the sheriffs were involved, May and Kennedy had disappeared and Charles thought that he was safe. He even returned to the spring some months later and retrieved a bag and a half of silver, which might well have led to his undoing.

Neither May nor Kennedy was ever apprehended, although May was back living in the same area by 1860. There are questions that remain about Charles. Who arrested him? Where was he held in jail? In what court was he tried? And where was he hanged?

The Peoples Press, November 28, 1852, said that he was hanged about “two miles from the Court House, at a little settlement called ‘Calaham Town’.” Normally, such a contemporary news report would be conclusive, but the editor of the Peoples Press often admitted that he was reporting on matters by hearsay, having been too “busy” to actually attend an event.

DavieJail1839

If the contemporary newspaper account was correct, Charles was probably held in the Davie County jail, built in 1839, and converted into a residence in the 20th century.

DavieCthse1839

Again, assuming that the newspaper account was correct, Charles would have been tried here, in the Davie County courthouse in Mocksville, erected in 1839 and demolished in the early 20th century. This photo was taken around 1900.

In this case, if his reporting was accurate, “Calaham Town” would have been an area in western Davie County, indeed about two miles west of the courthouse in Mocksville. But some 35 years ago, I interviewed several oldsters, including the legendary brick maker George Black, who claimed to know about this event directly from people who had witnessed it. The first one told me that Charles was convicted in Forsyth County superior court and that the hanging occurred at what is now Hanes Park, near the corner of Reynolda Road and Northwest Boulevard, and that since Reynolda was then the main road from Winston and Salem to Betahbara and Bethania, the body was left hanging for several days as an object lesson to those traveling the road.

I did not necessarily buy that, but then a second person told me the same story. And then a third. And so on. Oral history is a very dangerous matter. What people remember is rarely anything like what actually happened. But is that any more dangerous than the typically sloppy reporting by newspapers in the mid-19th century?

Here ends the first installment of “Swinging into eternity…” More to come.

Advertisements