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Upheaval in Charleston

Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow

Susan Millar Williams
Stephen G. Hoffius
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Upheaval in Charleston
    Book Description:

    On August 31, 1886, a massive earthquake centered near Charleston, South Carolina, sent shock waves as far north as Maine, down into Florida, and west to the Mississippi River. When the dust settled, residents of the old port city were devastated by the death and destruction. Upheaval in Charleston is a gripping account of natural disaster and turbulent social change in a city known as the cradle of secession. Weaving together the emotionally charged stories of Confederate veterans and former slaves, Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius portray a South where whites and blacks struggled to determine how they would coexist a generation after the end of the Civil War. This is also the story of Francis Warrington Dawson, a British expatriate drawn to the South by the romance of the Confederacy. As editor of Charleston's News and Courier, Dawson walked a lonely and dangerous path, risking his life and reputation to find common ground between the races. Hailed as a hero in the aftermath of the earthquake, Dawson was denounced by white supremacists and murdered less than three years after the disaster. His killer was acquitted after a sensational trial that unmasked a Charleston underworld of decadence and corruption. Combining careful research with suspenseful storytelling, Upheaval in Charleston offers a vivid portrait of a volatile time and an anguished place.

    eISBN: 978-0-8203-3958-0
    Subjects: History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xx)
    Susan Millar Williams
  4. Chapter One THE GREAT SHOCK
    (pp. 1-3)

    On the evening of Tuesday, August 31, 1886, shock waves swept across North America at 7,200 miles an hour, accelerating when they reached rigid rock and lagging in softer sand and clay soils. They surged through pastures and pavements, factories and farms, through the mountains and valleys of Appalachia and the flats of Chesapeake Bay. They pulsed through tall buildings and one-room shacks, sent worshippers scrambling through church windows, stampeded audiences in opera houses, and broke up lodge initiations. They ruffled the leaves of cornstalks and cotton plants, set tomatoes and melons trembling, and shook green apples from the trees.¹...

    (pp. 4-16)

    Two hours earlier on that Tuesday evening, Grady’s friend and rival Frank Dawson was sitting in his Broad Street newspaper office in Charleston sifting through a stack of stories. Over the weekend, a series of mild earth tremors had rocked the city and the nearby town of Summerville. Superstitious people were saying that the end of the world was near. Thunder and lightning had split the sky. Stars were falling, the sky had turned to blood, and the earth had trembled. When two more comets and a cyclone arrived, the prophecies of Revelation would be fulfilled. The righteous would be...

  6. Chapter Three “THE EARTHQUAKE IS UPON US!”
    (pp. 17-29)

    Crystal drops from a chandelier exploded on the floor around Frank Dawson. His desk and writing table bumped across the bedroom. Cracks ripped through the plaster ceiling. Windows shattered. Pictures and mirrors leaped from the walls, scattering broken glass. Outside, someone shouted, “God save us!” Water from the rooftop cistern poured down the hall wallpaper and cascaded over the stairs. Dawson picked up the telephone to call his office. The line was dead. Then the shaking began again, and the screaming outside grew louder. He stepped carefully through the torrent on the stairs. In the entranceway statues sprawled, wrenched from...

    (pp. 30-38)

    As the summer sun rose over Charleston Harbor on Wednesday, September 1, people streamed out of the parks, heading home to see what was left. Few had slept, except in snatches. They had endured a long night, with four hard shocks before midnight and others at two and four in the morning.¹ Houses slumped on their foundations. Gutted buildings smoldered. Mills and warehouses sprawled along the wharves like broken toys. A white dust shrouded everything—streets, ruins, grass, and people. In some places the ground was covered with wet sand.

    Atop the Orphan House, the huge wooden figure of Charity...

    (pp. 39-52)

    At the constitution offices in downtown Atlanta, the lobby was so crowded around the bulletin board by eight on the morning after the earthquake that employees had to squeeze in and out of the building. Around ten, a telegram arrived and the newspaper posted a notice: Charleston had been hit by an “awful catastrophe.” Unconfirmed reports said that the city had been engulfed and ocean waves were breaking over the historic steeples. The only landmark still visible was the top of the Custom House on East Bay Street. At least sixteen hundred people had died.¹

    Henry Grady’s heart beat faster....

  9. Chapter Six AFTERSHOCKS
    (pp. 53-72)

    Just two days after the quake, frantic people jammed the sidewalks outside the Charleston telegraph companies, begging to send messages. Western Union brought in extra operators from Washington and Savannah. The local office owned only one horse and buggy, so the manager scrambled to rent other vehicles in order to deliver incoming messages. None could be found. Forty additional men were hired and sent out on foot, but it was almost impossible to find recipients amid the wreckage. Soon the company gave up attempting deliveries.¹

    At least forty thousand people were “tenting” in Charleston by September 3. A new city...

  10. Chapter Seven AN ANGRY GOD
    (pp. 73-85)

    On sunday morning, September 5, Frank Dawson knelt with hundreds of other Catholics beneath the ruins of St. Finbar’s Cathedral, surrounded by fallen stones and sagging tents. Smoke from dozens of campfires mingled with the smell of incense and unwashed bodies. The bishop of Charleston, speaking under a hastily erected shed, told his flock that God had sent the earthquake to punish the city for its arrogance. “We have been too vain,” he thundered, “too fond of the world, and the things of the world, and God has made the earth to roll under our feet like the waves of...

  11. Chapter Eight LABOR DAY
    (pp. 86-100)

    Rev. william heard and his colleagues were not alone in mistrusting Charleston’s official relief committee. On September 5 the city received a petition from the local chapters of the Knights of Labor (kol), a national organization of working men and women that included artisans of all kinds, including carpenters and joiners, window glassworkers, telegraphers, cigar makers, machinists, and blacksmiths. The petition was signed by nine labor leaders, who asked that the committee turn over a portion of the relief fund for them to distribute. They would appoint three Knights from each ward to search out those “who are in distress...

    (pp. 101-118)

    At midnight on Saturday, September 4, Charleston mayor William Ashmead Courtenay sat in the saloon of the Cunard Line steamship Etruria. It was the last night of his vacation, and he looked forward with a mixture of dread and pleasure to the moment when the ship would clear quarantine and dock in New York City. It had left Liverpool the day before the earthquake. Although the Etruria was the fastest commercial passenger ship in the world, the transatlantic crossing still took at least six days. The wireless telegraph had not yet been invented, so until a ship put into port,...

  13. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
    (pp. 119-131)

    Seismology offered a reassuring alternative to visions of the apocalypse. Like many Charlestonians, Edward Wells’s little daughter sobbed in terror when the first shock hit. Then she heard someone explain the earthquake in scientific terms. “Papa,” she exclaimed, “if I had known it was an earthquake, I wouldn’t have cried!” Two days later Wells found her reading about seismic phenomena in Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology

    Vast impersonal geophysical forces were, for many people, far less frightening than the idea of God’s wrath. Science held out the possibility that men could understand exactly what had happened and so predict or...

  15. Chapter Eleven RELIEF
    (pp. 132-147)

    With aftershocks rattling houses and Wiggins Day imminent, drugstores did a booming business. “I cannot live without my powders,” a schoolteacher confessed. “I sleep very little at night and am very nerveless in the morning.” A physician wrote to a colleague that his whole family was still in “a terrible condition of mind” and apologized for his shaky script: “I can scarcely write as my mind is not clear enough from the Mental perturbation which I has pass through.”¹

    One woman lost most of her hair, which fell out in clumps. Her doctor diagnosed “paralysis of the scalp” caused by...

    (pp. 148-159)

    According to the New York newspapers, Ezekiel Stone Wiggins was growing “daily more positive in his prediction” that an even more destructive earthquake would occur in late September. He pinpointed the exact time: two p.m. on Wednesday, September 29. New Orleans, Macon, and Mobile would be ruined, and Atlanta, Jacksonville, Baton Rouge, Houston, San Antonio, and Galveston would suffer catastrophic damage. The earth’s center of gravity was shifting, Wiggins explained, the result of a conjunction of Jupiter, Saturn, Mars, and the moon, plus another invisible moon that he had recently discovered. This analysis was confirmed by the president of the...

  17. Chapter Thirteen RISING FROM THE RUINS
    (pp. 160-169)

    Three hard shocks jarred Charleston on October 9. Knowing that they would be reported around the world, Dawson cabled Sarah that all was well, though he admitted in a follow-up letter that he could now rock the whole house just by standing on the balls of his feet and raising and lowering his heels. He estimated that a hundred cartloads of fallen brick still lay scattered around the yard, but the most recent series of shocks made him reluctant to continue repairs. Even Dawson was beginning to lose heart after five weeks of shaking.¹

    For one thing, hiring someone to...

  18. Chapter Fourteen THE OLD JOY OF COMBAT
    (pp. 170-179)

    People who have experienced the unthinkable become conditioned to expect the worst. After a month of living in the ruins and feeling the ground shiver under their feet, the residents of Charleston were so traumatized that even chalk marks seemed like harbingers of doom. In early October “certain cabalistic signs” began appearing on sidewalks, curbs, and walls. The marks looked like “a cross between an Algebraic formula and an example in short division.” Whites wondered if this mysterious graffiti might be a way for blacks to broadcast plans for an insurrection. One of Dawson’s reporters asked around to find out...

    (pp. 180-190)

    As the new year of 1887 dawned, Frank had not seen his family in more than eight months. Sarah wrote that she was feeling better than she had since Ethel was born—but she was lying. On February 1, Dr. Amos Bellinger, the man who had killed Stephney Riley in 1885, showed Dawson a letter from Sarah confessing that she was seriously ill and asking him for help. On the advice of her Swiss doctor, she was drinking asses’ milk, a remedy Dawson and Bellinger both regarded as worthless.

    Frank left for Europe at the end of February. By March...

  20. Chapter Sixteen FAULT LINES
    (pp. 191-203)

    As the patriotic glow of Gala Week died away, Dawson’s star reporter, Carlyle McKinley, began writing a book about America’s problem with race, one that reflected the growing aggression of white attitudes. McKinley complained that every year the authorities assured people that “now the Union is certainly restored, and sectionalism is no more” (original emphasis). He was tired of hearing the old line that there was “no North, no South,” which Dawson had repeated over and over as donations rolled in after the earthquake. Each new assertion, McKinley said, showed “how little of truth there was in the last.” The...

  21. Chapter Seventeen STANDING OVER A VOLCANO
    (pp. 204-216)

    The man whipping up most of the discontent among Democrats was Dawson’s one-time ally Ben Tillman. Using a metaphor all too familiar to those who had suffered through the aftermath of the earthquake, Tillman told delegates to the state Democratic convention: “We are standing over a volcano, gentlemen.” Though he held no office, Tillman controlled one of the most discontented constituencies in the state—farmers. His great crusade was to establish a state agricultural college, a project that took on new life in the spring of 1888, when John C. Calhoun’s son-in-law, Thomas Clemson, died and left a large endowment...

  22. Chapter Eighteen KILLING CAPTAIN DAWSON
    (pp. 217-229)

    On the first day of February 1889, a new crisis started unfolding inside the Dawson household when Celia Riels, Sarah’s new cook, brought her sick baby to work. She knew that Dr. Thomas McDow’s home and office were just around the corner, and she sent word to ask if he would be willing to make a house call. McDow came over right away. He was a short, dark, intense man who spoke with great animation.

    Hélène Burdayron carried the infant into the room. When she left, McDow bombarded Celia with questions. Who was this girl, where was she from, how...

  23. Chapter Nineteen THE TRIAL
    (pp. 230-248)

    Dead! Dead!!” exclaimed the News and Courier the morning after the murder. “His chair is vacant. His pen is still. His work is done.”¹

    Former President Grover Cleveland sent Sarah a brief telegram of “heartfelt sympathy and condolence.” Newspapers across the country remembered Dawson as a “fearless spirit” who “when the ground of Charleston was heaving … held his post and with his devoted band toiled through the night and brought … to wretched thousands the blessing of news.”²

    Thomas McDow sat in a jail cell muttering, “bad, bad, bad!” Reporters asked him about the grave in his closet, and...

    (pp. 249-258)

    The verdict outraged newspaper editors from New York to San Francisco, spawning indignant editorials. The case was invoked not to honor Dawson’s strong stands but as a reason to disfranchise blacks and bar them from serving on juries. The Savannah Morning News acknowledged that black jurors may “intend to do what is right, but in many instances they are not capable of discerning the right.” Even some of the northern press, such as the New York World, warned that blacks “are not safely to be trusted with the function of juryman in cases of a publicly exciting character.”¹

    Letters appeared...

    (pp. 259-260)
  26. NOTES
    (pp. 261-318)
    (pp. 319-324)
  28. INDEX
    (pp. 325-340)