The Confession of John G. Lea as to his involvement in the murder of John “Chicken” Stephens at the Caswell Court House just after the Civil War.
John G. Lea was the son of Thomas L. Lea, the grandson of John “Canebrake” Lea, The great grandson of John “Country Line” Lea, the great-great grandson of James “Country Line” Lea, and my 2nd Cousin 4 times removed.
Latham Mark Phelps--2004
The North Carolina Historical Commission
OFFICE OF THE SECRETARY
J. BRYAN GRIMES, RALEIGH J. BRYAN GRIMES, CHAIRMAN
T. M. PITTMAN, HENDERSON R. D. W. CONNOR, SECRETARY
W. J. PEELE, RALEIGH
M. C. S. NOBLE, CHAPEL HILL
D. H. HILL, RALEIGH
July 2, 1919.
At the request of the North Carolina Historical Commission, I have written the true story of the events of the Reconstruction Period in this State, which centered mainly at Yanceyville in Caswell County, where the killing of the notorious, John W. Stevens,* took place in the courthouse. I have given all the facts of which I have full knowledge as a participant in the stirring events of that time.
(Signed) John G. Lea
Witness to the reading of the story and to this signature.
(Signed) Fred. A. Olds
*(Note: Last name usually spelled S‑t‑e‑p‑h‑e‑n‑s. JDW)
JOHN G. LEA'S CONFESSION
THE KU KLUX KLAN MURDER OF JOHN W. STEPHENS
Immediately after the surrender of General Lee, in April, 1865, a bummer named Albion W. Tourgee, of New York, from Sherman's army came to Caswell County and organized a Union League, and they were drilling every night and beating the drums, and he made many speeches telling the negroes that he was sent by the government and that he would see that they got forty acres of land. He succeeded in getting J. W. *Stevens and Jim Jones appointed justices of the peace of Caswell County and they annoyed the farmers very much by holding court every day, persuading the darkies to warrant the farmer, &c. Stevens was run out of Rockingham County for stealing a chicken. *(Other records show his name, spelled Stephens. JDW)
The first trial that Jim Jones had, a negro stole Captain Mitchell's hog. He was caught cleaning the hog by Mitchell's son and by a darky whose name was Paul McGee. He was carried before Jones and Jones turned him loose and said he had been appointed by Governor Holden to protect the negro and he intended to do it. Soon thereafter I formed the Ku Klux Klan and was elected county organizer. I organized a den in every township in the county and the Ku Klux whipped Jones and drove him out of the county.
J. W. Stevens burned the hotel in Yanceyville and a row of brick stores. He also burned Gen. William Lee's entire crop of tobacco, and Mr. Sam Hinton's crop. Ed. Slade, a darky, told that he burned the barn of tobacco by an order of Stevens and another darky told about his burning the hotel, also by an order. Stevens was tried by the Ku Klux Klan and sentenced to death. He had a fair trial before a jury of twelve men. At a democratic convention he approached ex‑sheriff Wiley and tried to get him to run on the republican ticket for sheriff. Wiley said he would let him know that day. He came to me and informed me of that fact and suggested that he would fool him into that room in which he was killed. He did so and ten or twelve men went into the room and he was found dead next morning. A democratic convention was in session in the court room on the second floor of the courthouse in Yanceyville, to nominate county officers and members of the Legislature. Mr. Wiley, who was in the convention, brought Stevens down to a rear room on the ground floor, then used for the storage of wood for the courthouse. I had ordered all the Ku Klux Klan in the county to meet at Yanceyville that day, with their uniforms under their saddles, and they were present. Mr. Wiley came to me and suggested that it would be a better plan, as Stevens had approached him to run on the republican ticket for sheriff and he had told him that he would let him know that day, to fool him down stairs, and so just before the convention closed, Wiley beckoned to Stevens and carried him down stairs, and Captain Mitchell, James Denny and Joe Fowler went into the room and Wiley came out. Mitchell proceeded to disarm him (he had three pistols on his body). He soon came out and left Jim Denny with a pistol at his head and went to Wiley and told him that he couldn't kill him himself Wiley came to me and said, "You must do something; I am exposed unless you do." Immediately I rushed into the room with eight or ten men, found him sitting flat on the floor. He arose and approached me and we went and sat down where the wood had been taken away, in an opening in the wood on the wood‑pile, and he asked me not to let them kill him. Captain Mitchell rushed at him with a rope, drew it around his neck, put his feet against his chest and by that time about a half dozen men rushed up: Tom Oliver, Pink Morgan, Dr. Richmond and Joe Fowler. Stevens was then stabbed in the breast and also in the neck by Tom Oliver, and the knife was thrown at his feet and the rope left around his neck. We all came out, closed the door and locked it on the outside and took the key and threw it into County Line Creek. I may add that it was currently believed that Stevens murdered his mother while living with him. Stevens kept his house, within sight of the courthouse and now standing, in a state of war all the time with doors and windows barred with iron bars and a regular armory with a large supply of ammunition.
Col. A. K. McClure of Philadelphia, Pa., came to Yanceyville. He was for Horace Greeley against Grant. Wilson Cary, a colored man, better known as the "Archives of Gravity," replied to Col. McClure and said that Senator Stevens, who had been elected to the State Senate by the negroes, stole a chicken and was sent to the State Senate and if he would steal a gobbler he would be sent to Congress, and you could have heard the negroes yell for miles around and there were at least 2000 negroes present.
The first state election we had in North Carolina, when Gov. Holden was elected, we had a 2800 negro majority. The Freedmen's Bureau Agent from Michigan, Captain Dawes, came down to take charge of the election. I carried him down home with me. He and I fought each other in the Civil war. I carried him out fox hunting and had a beautiful chase, and on the day of the election he came to me and said that he was sent to carry the election by the government and if it was found out on him he would be courtmartialed and possibly shot. He told me where he put the ballot box, so I worked on the ballot box until twelve o'clock at night and then rode to Locust Hill, nine miles distant, and counted until day, and we elected a ticket by twenty‑seven votes. Caswell's bonds stood at par, while Person and Rockingham, adjoining counties, went down to five and six dollars.They went Republican.
To show the feeling, I may say, at the first State election after the War, in 1866, Tom Lea, colored, voted the democratic ticket. A great mob of negroes gathered in Yanceyville and we learned that they had seized him. There were hundreds in the mob, and when we came up we found that they had Tom on a rail and were carrying him around, singing and shouting as they went. With me were Sheriff Griffith, Thos. L. Lea and Weldon Price. We rushed upon the crowd and the sheriff struck several of the mob and knocked them down and we took Tom from them, unhurt.
Governor Holden was born in Caswell County and knew the situation. That was why he was so prejudiced against the county. He declared martial law and had every prominent citizen arrested by a regiment of cut throats, who could neither read nor write, from western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee, commanded by Col. Geor. W. Kirk. Col. George Williamson got a writ of habeas corpus from Judge Mitchell of Salisbury but Col. Kirk and Governor Holden did not obey it. He then went to Chief Justice Pearson, with the same result. I then came to Raleigh with Col. Williamson and saw General Matt. W. Ransom and told him of our troubles and he said that he would go that night to Elizabeth City and see Judge Brooks, U.S. District Judge. He issued the writ, and we went back to Danville. Captain Graves and Col. Williamson served the writ. Lt. Colonel Burgin of Kirk's regiment told Col. Williamson that if he ever put his foot in Yanceyville again he would shoot his head off.
They failed to arrest me on the day of the general arrest, so I went home and the next day they came and arrested me and brought me to Raleigh. Major Yates came to my house with ten or twelve men and when he came to the house I was lying down, asleep. It was raining and my sisters came running into the house and told me there was a crowd of Kirk's men out in the yard. I rushed to a drawer and got my pistols, but my sister grabbed me and told me not to go out in the yard nor to try to use my pistols. The major came to the door and said: "I came to arrest you and take you to Raleigh as a witness." I said, "By what authority do you make this arrest?" and he said, "by authority of the Governor of the State." I told him that I could not walk to Yanceyville, seven miles distant. He told me to have my horse sent up to the church that he had more prisoners up there. When I arrived at the church Lil Graves, a colored man, said: "Mars' John, I didn't bring them. "They made me come. They have sent Mars' Nat on." They sent me with one man, a youth of 24, with a rifle slung at his back, on an old horse twenty‑four years old belonging to Dr. Garner, while I was on my speedy fox hunting mare, I could have made my escape easily but on account of my younger brother I thought it best for me to go. When I got to Yanceyville, to my surprise I found my brother in great glee, laughing. I asked him what was the matter. He said that a threshing machine had just come into town and Kirk's men thought it was a cannon and they rushed into the courthouse and grabbed their guns. The soldier that carried me begged me all the way to
Yanceyville not to let anybody shoot him. He also asked me to let him get behind me. He then unslung his gun and we went into the town. This guard begged me to let him come to my house and work for me, saying he did not expect to find so many kind people and that he would be glad to live in the neighborhood; that he had been brought down from the mountains, not knowing where he was going nor what he was to do, or what sort of people he would be among. When Kirk's men arrived in Yanceyville, Old Aunt Millie Lee was selling ice cream at the courthouse. It was the first they had ever seen and several of them said, "Ain't this the best frozen victuals you ever tasted?"
A man by the name of John Spellman, editor of a Raleigh paper, went to Governor Holden and had me released on my own recognizance. I then went over to the hotel at Raleigh and found Judge Kerr, Col. Williamson, Sam Hill and others. Judge Kerr advised me to take the first train out and go to Arkansas, saying if I stayed here they would hang me. I told him that I had two uncles living near Little Rock, Ark., who came to my father's every summer and they looked so much like a corpse that I was like General Grant,
"I believe I had rather be hung here than die of slow fever in Arkansas." So the next day they arrested Capt. Mitchell, Sheriff Wiley, Felix Roan and myself and tried us before the Supreme judges, Dick, Settle and Pearson. The trial lasted for a week. Ex‑Governor Bragg and Judge Battle defended us. Bailey and Badger prosecuted and they never did prove that there was a Ku Klux Klan in Caswell County.
The day that Kirk arrived in Yanceyville I went to Judge Bowe and said to him that there were enough ex‑Confederate soldiers there to whip Kirk's regiment and Judge Bowe said that that would never do, that we had better go into the court room, where the candidates were speaking. We went and he took his seat inside the bar. I sat down behind him. Col Kirk marched his men, four abreast, up the steps. He walked in front of Bowe and asked if this was Bowe. Bowe told him it was. He said "I arrest you." Judge Bowe asked him by what authority. With an oath he shook his pistol at him and said, "By this," whereupon Judge Bowe shoved him back and told him that was no order. I had a large hickory stick in my hand. I raised the stick to hit him, when To be Williamson caught it and kept me from striking him, and you had better believe I was glad he did. I left Yanceyville that evening and went over to Danville and got the writ of habeas corpus as above stated.
The day I was arrested I was carried to Yanceyville and all the prisoners had been sent over to Graham except a few from Alamance who had confessed being Ku Klux. I was carried over to Graham the next day and all the other Caswell boys started to Raleigh next morning. Late that afternoon Judge James Boyd, United States Judge, came and asked me how I would like to take a walk; that he had permission to take me out provided I would agree to come back. I agreed, so we walked awhile, finally coming to his house. he asked me to have a seat on the porch. In a few minutes the bell rang for supper. I told him I had plenty to eat at the courthouse, that my friends had sent it to me, Mr. Banks Holt and others, but he insisted on my taking a warm supper and as soon as we finished eating he said to me, "Lea, I was a Ku Klux. I have disgraced myself and my little wife." I asked him how. "I turned State's evidence." Why did you do it? He replied "Moral cowardice. When Kirk's men hung Murray up by the neck and they let him down he was apparently dead (he lived 20 years after this, but really died from the effects of this injury), they then came to me and put the rope around my neck and I wilted." He and his young wife both cried like a baby and Boyd said, "Lea, I will never expose you. I know you are the county commander in Caswell." I said, "Oh no, there are a great many Leas in Caswell; I am not the one."
The day the arrest was made in Yanceyville, late that afternoon, Lt. Col. Burgin with eight men went down after ex‑sheriff Wiley, nine miles from Yanceyville; went in his tobacco field where he was standing and told him they had come to arrest him. He asked them by what authority. Burgin shook his pistol at him and said, with an oath, "This is my authority. His men rushed on Wiley, who knocked down seven of the, but one slipped up behind him with a fence rail and knocked him down; they then put Wiley on a horse, bare back, tied his feet to the horse and whipped him nearly all the way to Yanceyville. The blood flowed freely, he being in his shirt sleeves. Burgin told me that Wiley was the bravest man he ever saw. When they arrived in Yanceyville, that afternoon, Burgin took him into a room in the courthouse, ordered his men to draw their guns on him, and told him that if he did not tell who killed Stevens they would kill him. With his head straight as could be, he opened his coat, slapped his chest and dared them to shoot.
The night I reached Graham they put Sheriff Wiley and Josiah Turner in jail with a crazy negro who hollered all night long. They didn't sleep a wink. Next morning they were taken out to go to Raleigh and Mr. Turner kept repeating that the powers of the judiciary were exhausted and Col. Kirk told him to shut his mouth. He then flapped his arms and crowed like a rooster and said, ""Well, I reckon I can crow." Kirk then said, "Hush up that, tool" The militia detachment were terribly frightened, thinking that they would be attacked in Durham. They closed all the windows and barred all the doors.
The night after Jones was whipped the Ku Klux went up to see if he had moved, having been ordered to do so. There were three very worthy darkies living in the neighborhood, named Stephen Taylor, William Garland and Frank Chandler. They were carried up to the grave yard by the Ku Klux, where we had left our horses. I walked through the grave yard, placed my hands on Will's naked shoulder and it nearly scared him to death. He shook all over. The next day Will came by my house and Capt. Graves, my brother‑in‑law, asked him where he was going. Will said, "Lordy, Mars' Billy, I'm going across the creek." "What's the matter, Billy?" asked Capt. Graves. "Dem things got me last night. They were as tall as the eaves of this house. I knows they came out of the graves, for I saw them with my own eyes and one came up and put his hand on my shoulder and his hands chilled me clean through. "
While I and the three others referred to were being tried before the Supreme Court, on the lower floor of the Capitol, on the bench warrant issued for us, the trial of the prisoners from Caswell County taken by the writ of Judge Brooks, which was the third writ, was being held in the Senate Chamber, directly over us. Our case was dismissed and we left cannon were fired, tar barrels burned and speeches by a great many prominent men were made. Judge Kerr's speech created great excitement and enthusiasm. Only Wiley and Josiah Turner went to jail. When I reached home, Sheriff Griffith, who had been a prisoner, came and summonsed me to go with him and we ordered the heads of the Union League of America to leave the county within twenty‑four hours and they did so without exception, going to Danville.
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