The Steele Creek Historical and Genealogical Society
Of the Old Steele Creek Township
Mecklenburg County, North Carolina
Incendiarism in Steel Creek
INCENDIARISM IN STEEL CREEK
(Louise Pettus submitted the following articles from the Yorkville Enquirer of 1907. Information has been edited to save space.)
JANUARY 29, 1907 – FORT MILL TIMES, January 24: Excitement in Steel Creek, just over the line, has been a high pitch for several days over what is thought to have been the work of an incendiary, by which three citizens of that section lost their barns, livestock and large amounts of feedstuff by fire. The first fire was that of Tuesday night shortly after dark, in which the barn, one horse, three mules and a lot of corn and hay, of Mrs. Brown Grier was reduced to ashes. The loss was estimated at $1,500 with no insurance. Later in the night the barn of Mrs. Chas. Knox, who lives south of Mrs. Grier, was discovered on fire, and despite the heroic work of the family and neighbors, the building with its contents, a horse, two mules, five bales of cotton, a quantity of cotton seed, peavine hay and other roughness valued at $1,800 was totally destroyed. Mrs. Knox carried a small amount of insurance. The third and most disastrous fire of the week was that by which Mr. W. H. Choate lost property valued at $5,000, with but little insurance. In Mr. Choate’s barn were five mules, two horses and several head of cattle, besides a large quantity of hay and fodder. The horses and mules burned were considered among the most valuable in the county. The citizens of Steel Creek on Thursday instituted a search of the burned premises, and to the rear of the Grier barn discovered on the soil the print of an iron heel on the left shoe of a man. The parties having this evidence at once spotted a Negro named Castles who lived on the farm of Mr. D. M. Garrison. The Negro was taken to where the tracks were found and the indentation of his shoes were found to tally exactly with those in the Grier farm. Castles was hustled off to Charlotte and was put into jail. Castle denied he had a part in the burnings.
APRIL 5, 1907 – CHARLOTTE OBSERVER, WEDNESDAY: The farmers of Steel Creek township met Monday afternoon at the home of Mr. John Smith. A committee was appointed to look into the origin of the fires which had destroyed several barns in the county recently. The citizens believe that an organized band of fire-bugs is at work and propose to raise money to offer as rewards for the apprehension of the guilty parties. A reward of $500 was yesterday offered by the county commissioners for the apprehension of the parties guilty of burning the barns of Mrs. J. Fox Kendrick and Mr. W. O. Bailes, both in this county. In addition to this amount Governor Glenn will be asked to offer a reward of $400, which if down, will swell the total reward to $900. It was hoped that the reward would stimulate the efforts of finding the guilty parties.
APRIL 23, 1907 – News was received here this morning of another incendiary fire in the Steel Creek section of Mecklenburg County. The barn of Mr. Frank Erwin was destroyed with contents including several had of mules and horses. The phone lines have been working so badly that it has been impracticable to get any definite or satisfactory information; but there seems to be no doubt that the fire was incendiary, the work of the fire-bugs who have had that whole section in a state of terror for some months past. This is the seventh barn burned in this same neighborhood since last Christmas.
APRIL 26, 1907 – There was a rumor in Yorkville Wednesday to the effect that three Mecklenburg barn burners had been caught in the act of making an incendiary attempt against the barn of Mr. S. M. Garrison, and that after one of them had been shot the other two had been run down by bloodhounds. The Charlotte Observer of yesterday morning gives details as follows.
Since Christmas six barns have been burned in Steel Creek townhip. It is believed that incendiaries are at work. Last Monday night, the barn of Mr. Frank Erwin, on the old Erwin place, was burned. The landlords of that end of the county are guarding their property. They are very uneasy, the mystery that surrounds the fire seems to grow.
Tuesday night, E. K. Garrison, son of Mr. S. M. Garrison and a colored boy, were watching the Garrison barn when they saw two or three Negroes slip into the bushes and heard them talking. Instead of waiting to make sure, they boys opened fire on what they took to be would-be barn burners. Five shots were fired but no one was hit. The alarm was given and a messenger sent post haste for the bloodhounds that were at a chain gang camp of Capt. Little. An hour from the time the shots were fired the dogs arrived and were set upon the trail. The man hunters went over like they were after a fox, passing back of the home of Squire J. L. Mulwee, who was up when the guns began to fire and whose dogs ran and barked as if after someone passing near. Turning from the Mulwee place the dogs hurried on, as if they were on a hot track, to the home of a Negro cabin, where Will Jackson and Walter Pettus, two young Negroes live. After barking there a little the dogs circled and struck another trail which they carried across the country to the lodging place of Monk Cureton, another young Negro.
The last track gave out about 3:30 o’clock in the morning. Later warrants were sworn out and the three Negroes rounded up.
The suspect Negroes were taken before several justices of the peace and given a preliminary hearing and then committed to jail. It was indicated that the evidence against them is very flimsy.
"Quite a crowd attended the trial at Squire Smith’s but there was not excitement. The good people of Steel Creek are nervous but not wild. They want to see the right persons brought to trial and convicted."
The Negroes arrested yesterday are young fellows, nothing more than half-grown boys. One of them lives on the farm of Mr. Frank Erwin. It is generally believed that Pettus and Jackson know something about the burning of Mr. Erwin’s barn.
The three Negro boys, Monk Cureton, Will Jackson and Walter Pettus were not tried that day but were taken back to jail until the next Thursday when a hearing would be held. Many people, both black and white, had come to the hearing but all were in agreement that it would be best to wait until more evidence could be collected. They also thought that the county commissioners should go further than offering a reward and hire some good detectives to ferret out the people responsible. It is generally believed that an organized band of Negroes are at work, but no one can lay his hand on the guilty man. But if the proper authorities do not act, the people of Steel Creek will take the matter in their own hands and then somebody will be sorry. Many guns and an abundant supply of ammunition left here yesterday. The farmers are preparing to protect their property at all hazards.
APRIL 30, 1907 – Since Christmas six barns have been burned in the Steel Creek neighborhood, and Mr. W. L. Scott, deputy insurance commissioner of Raleigh, believes that he has solved the mystery and can lay his hands on the one who applied the torch. Mr. Scott is here and will remain in the county and investigate the matter thoroughly tomorrow.
It has been said by many who study crime in its various forms that some person of unbalanced mind had started the fires that consumed the barns in Steel Creek. The barns burned were along the main public roads, and the fires have started at about the same hour of the night and always in the loft in the fodder or other dry feel stuff.
It will be recalled that a crazy man tried to burn the town of Rockingham a few years ago. The officers were unable to find the fire bug. Finally, a man was arrested and was found to have a mania for burning. He said, " that the Lord had sent him to fire the world." Other examples were stated of "crazy" people who have a mania for burning.
Knowing of this fire mania Mr. Scott has watched the Steel Creek situation with interest. Before the last fire he told Squire S. H. Hilton and Solicitor Hariot Clarkson that
he thought he had located the guilty person. He had been in Steele Creek and gathered evidence against an old colored woman who travels up and down the fire district, and who had been in the neighborhood of each and every fire at the time they occurred. Sometimes she is clad in the dress of her sex, but at other times she wears man’s clothes.
The old negress talks about fires all the time. She always knows about the barns and the stock that are burned. The darkies of the community are afraid of her. She slips about and spends much time in the woods alone.
When ask by an Observer man what chance such a person as the old woman would stand to escape after she had set a fire, Mr. Scott said that such people were more cunning than a sane person. The woman was to be held and examined.
(Ms. Pettus was unable to find anything further about the Steele Creek burnings, but will watch for any more articles that might tell us how this case turned out. Perhaps a check of the civil court records of 1907 could determine the outcome of the case.)
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