Good Old Days of Rutherford County Much in Doubt
Good Old Days of Rutherford County Much in Doubt – Bishop Found Evil Conditions
By D.W. Crawford
From The Rutherford County News
April 23, 1942
Those who deplore modern trends, believe the world is headed for perdition, and sigh for the “good old days” might do well to take an occasional glance at some of our local history of a century ago and thereby be convinced that those were anything else but the good old days. Aside from the lack of many creature comforts, conveniences, and luxuries we enjoy today, some of the social and political customs and practices are not very complimentary.
Bishop Asbury, who visited Rutherfordton in 1805 and was able to get only 12 people together to hear him preach, states in his diary that people seemed to be more interested in “gaming, drinking and carousing than anything else.” This good bishop, who made annual trips through the South and as far west as Ohio over a period of some ten years, does not appear to have ever visited this section again. Saunders Donoho, a young lawyer of Rutherfordton, writing to his former teacher, Judge Murphy, in 1807 said: “I have always been induced to view the conduct of mankind on the most favorable side, but since I came here I have witnessed such depravity of heart and such a total want of moral rectitude as to make me disgusted with the world. My prospects are blasted by the idleness, the poverty, and I might add the villainy of the people.”
Attempting to stem this tide of “moral depravity,” there were, of course, a few religious leaders of deep convictions. In fact, one of these leaders had such “deep convictions” that he appealed to a magistrate’s court to stop certain preachers whose doctrine and theology did not coincide with his own. The early years of the 19th century witnessed a so-called religious awakening, but in many instances the “revivals” and camp meetings were largely exhibitions of emotionalism indulged in by a few fanatics who worked themselves up to the pitch where they went into trances, were afflicted with the “jerks”, believed they had special revelations from God about their business affairs, even as to whom they should marry. In 1809 the North Carolina Synod of the Presbyterian Church sent a special investigator to the Knobb Creek Church to inquire into some of the “exercises” reported. This investigator found that one woman member of the congregation had become a “nuisance” on account of having such frequent revelations as to what neighbor was supposed to do her farm work, and two old maids had procured husbands when they let it be known that God had instructed them to marry certain eligible men of the community. This investigator quotes one member as follows: “When I fell into these extraordinary exercises I found such pleasure in them that I could not think of parting with them; yet when they wore off I found the power of religion so declining that I know I was in no state to enter the kingdom of heaven.” This religious fervor was off-set in many instances by the rowdy element of the community which frequently broke up religious services by throwing rocks through the windows, shooting off pistols, and yelling about the church. This is evidenced by the court records, for we find that the Rutherford county court in 1801 placed William Metcalf under a peace bond of 100 pounds for “disorderly behavior” at Bills Creek Meeting House.
Prior to 1817 there were 28 crimes that carried the death penalty, and petty larceny was punished by whipping on the bare back and branding the forehead with a letter “T.” Theft of a horse was punished by cutting off both ears and branding a letter “H” on the right cheek and a “T” on the left, the ears remaining tacked to the pillory until sundown. A Negro was tried and found guilty of murder at a special term of Rutherford court in 1801, and was ordered hanged. An entry of a “further order” was to the effect that “his head be separated from his body and stuck on a pole as a terror to evil doers and all persons in like cases offending, and his body be entered under the Gallos.” Three Negroes were tried for theft at the 1805 term of court and found guilty. Two were given 39 lashes and branded with the letter “T”, while the other who had stolen only two “middlings,” was given 20 lashes and branded.
It was not until about 1830 that any noticeable agitation against such inhumane treatment of criminals became aroused. In that year Robert G. Twitty petitioned the court to allow him and other citizens of Rutherfordton to “take down and remove the stocks and whipping post, and put them up in good order at the back of the jail.” This would indicate that such punishments as branding, cutting off ears, and whipping were administered in full view of any who chanced to pass along the main street of the county seat.
Although Rutherford county was levying a tax of 10 cents on the poll and a 4-cent property tax in 1832 for the support of the poor, a pauper petitioned the legislature of that year to allow her to be removed from the poorhouse and placed with a friend, stating that “a poorhouse is a very disagreeable place for a religious person.” It was also at the 1832 session of the Rutherford County (court) that John Lankford presented an affidavit that the widow Catharine Bridgman was “abusing and beating her children in an inhumane manner.” Whereupon the court ordered that they be “bound out.” The court also ordered that the sheriff bring in the children of Clemmy Grant “to be dealt with according to the law.” At the next term of court two people gave bond in the amount of $75 that they would not become county charges.
The 1830’s witnessed a very perceptible change of sentiment regarding a number of social and political ills of that time. Notable among the forward steps of that period was the adoption of a new State Constitution, a change in the penal code, and legislation looking toward better care of the unfortunate. The latter was influenced greatly by the work of Dorthea L. Dix, a humanitarian of note who visited jails and poorhouses throughout the state and published her observations. The publicity she gave the horrible conditions existing in some counties set in motion legislation which soon resulted in the establishment of institutions for the insane, blind and deaf. In Mrs. Guion Johnson’s excellent work, Ante-Bellum North Carolina, she has the following to say about Rutherford County’s treatment of its orphans: “The Rutherford county court was especially careful in protecting its orphans. It insisted that masters make greater provision for the apprentice at the expiration of his term then called for by law, for example, a horse, bridle, and saddle, two suits of clothes, one homespun and one of store-bought goods, an ax, maddock, and other tools valued at $20, and $60 in cash.”
Research by Don Bailey