Monday, March 14, 2011

How did Sen. John "Chicken" Stephens die? Shot or stabbed?

I read up on some ancient history last week and wrote about the resolution pending in the state Senate to pardon former Gov. William Woods Holden, convicted March 22, 1871of high crimes and misdeanors. He was the first governor in the United State to be impeached and removed from office.

One of the things he was impeached for was trying to rein in violence by the Ki Ku Klux Klan. The column quoted from Edgar E. Folk and Bynum Shaw's "W.W. Holden: A Political Biography," that a state senator from Caswell County was shot and killed by the Klan while he was trying to help Holden gather information on the Klan. Specifically, they wrote, "the Klan ... in broad daylight in the Caswell County Courthhouse, before numerous witnesses, shot Republican State Senator John W. Stephens to death."

Sharp-eyed reader David Kinney, a student of history as well as editor in chief of Business North Carolina, sent a note point out that Stephens was assassinated by knife. "The ku-kluxers did lure John “Chicken” Stephens into the courthouse’s basement during the county Democratic convention, but they killed him by putting a noose around his neck and stabbing him with a pocket knife," Kinney wrote.

Online accounts support that version. Another interesting question: How did John "Chicken" Stephens get his nickname?  Well, of course, accounts vary, but they usually have to do with an altercation after he shot a chicken on his own property.

Read Wikipedia's version abou it here.


RSF said...

The coroner's jury concluded that John W. Stephens "came to his death by strangulation caused by a small rope drawn around his neck in a noose and by three stabs with a pocket knife, the blade of which is about three and half inches long . . . done by the hands of some unknown person, or persons. . . ." Reports also circulated that one of his ankles was broken, presumed to have happened as Stephens fought for his life. He reportedly was a powerful man who would require great force to subdue.

Rick Frederick

Archivist and Webmaster
Caswell County Historical Association

Anonymous said...

I just wanted to point out that it's KU Klux Klan... Not KI.

Michsel Perdue said...

My homeplace in Wentworth was the location of one of Stephens’ residences there. His name was quite familiar there during my childhood but today mostly forgotten. He was a member of our Methodist Church there as he was later in Yanceyville. Sometime around the end of the war JWS killed the chickens of the town postmaster and merchant, Thomas A. Ratliffe. Supposedly, the Ratliffe chickens had “strayed” over to Stephens’ yard next door. JWS killed the chickens and so the story goes offered them to a much-upset Mrs. Ratliffe who then had Stephens arrested and placed in the Wentworth jail for theft. The next morning JWS was released next door to Ratliffe’s Store and had an altercation with the merchant. No official documents or contemporary news articles have survived from the time of the event as this happened around the end of the war- in nearly forty years research in local history and I’ve yet to find any documentation. Nevertheless by the time JWS moved from Wentworth to Yanceyville his nickname was duly applied. His mother soon joined the family in Yanceyville and suffered a very strange death- falling out of her sickbed and cutting her throat on the broken edge of a chamber pot. Many Caswell and Rockingham County residents suspected that her throat was deliberately cut- possibly by JWS.

Ratliffe’s family lived in Wentworth until 1987 and the story about JWS in Wentworth was essentially what has been given in other accounts.