Murder Will Out.
[From the Raleigh Signal, J. C. L. Harris, editor, Thursday, March 31, 1892.]
After twenty years--The truth at last--The confession of Dr. Felix Roan--The murderers of State Senator John W. Stephens, of Caswell County--Governor Holden vindicated--The scene in the legislature of 1872--Other facts concerning this horrid political tragedy.
Raleigh and the State has been all agog during the past week over the confession of Dr. Felix Roan as to the murder of State Senator John W. Stephens, of Caswell County, on May 21, 1870. According to Dr. Roan the murderers were: Dr. Steve Richmond, F. A. Wiley, Sheriff of Caswell county; J. T. Mitchell, Dr. Felix Roan.
The history of this celebrated case is as follows:
The reign of the Kuklux Klan was at its height in this State during the year 1870. Many murders and numberless outrages of less criminal import had been committed the previous twelve months. The organization was so thorough and complete, and disguises were so well conceived, that it was almost impossible to detect any of the mystic Klan who raided by night and murdered, outraged, whipped, and terrorized without let or hindrance throughout the state. The jurors were so fearful of a midnight visitation that they promptly returned verdicts of not guilty whenever one of the Klan was put on trial. The terror inspired by these outrages lost the State to the Republicans in August, 1870.
John W. Stephens, white man, was elected State senator in 1868, by the Republicans of Caswell County. There was a large negro majority in this county and there was not a half dozen white Republicans beside Stephens in the county. Stephens was not a man of particular ability, but he possessed the absolute confidence of the negroes, and through his efforts they were solidly organized. The Democrats thought that if Stephens was out of the way that the negroes would become so demoralized that the Democrats would be able to carry the county at the next county election. It was this motive that led to the murder of Stephens on May 21, 1870. On this day there was a Democratic meeting in the court-house at Yanceyville. Stephens was in the crowd, and after remaining for some time he was asked by F. A. Wiley, who was a Democrat, and who had been elected sheriff at the suggestion of Stephens that no Republican could give the bond, to go downstairs. Stephens went and was never again seen alive. He had told his family, who resided about 400 yards from the court-house, that he would be home as soon as the meeting adjourned. His wife, fearing that he would be assassinated, had implored Stephens to stay away from the court-house while the meeting was going on, but he apprehended no violence in daylight and went. He was at this time a candidate for reelection to the senate.
Not reaching him as soon as the convention broke up his wife became alarmed and search was made and he could not be found anywhere in the town. He had not been seen to come out of the court-house and search was made in several of the rooms, but the keys to the clerk and master's room could not be found. A watch was kept on the court-house during the night, and next morning one of the negro watchers looked in the window of the locked room and saw Stephens lying on the floor with a small rope around his neck. The coroner was sent for and the door was broken open, and it was found that he had been choked, and the jugular vein had been severed and a bucket was on the floor full of blood. There was also a stab in the left breast to the heart. It appeared that Stephens had been laid on a table and choked and murdered in the manner stated, and that the blood was caught in the bucket to prevent attracting attention of persons passing through the court-house, should the blood run under the door.
Attempts were made to show that Stephens had been murdered by negroes who were members of the Union League and who were at enmity with him, but there was no foundation for this theory.
Soon after this killing William W. Holden, who was then governor, having been elected by the Republicans under the reconstruction acts in April, 1868, declared the counties of Alamance and Caswell in a state of insurrection and suspended the operation of the civil law in these two counties. Governor Holden then ordered out the militia and a number of men were arrested in Caswell County. Among this quantity was Dr. Felix Roan, F. A. Wiley, the sheriff of Caswell County, J. T. Mitchell, and Dr. Steve Richmond. These four men were bound over by the supreme court to the superior court of Caswell County to await action by the grand jury for the murder of Stephens.
Of course the grand jury did not find a true bill against these four men and they are all dead. Dr. Felix Roan died on Tuesday last at his home in Caswell County, and Mr. Joseph A. Harris, editor of the Hillsboro Observer, is authority for the statement that Dr. Roan, while on his deathbed, confessed that he and Dr. Steve Richmond, J. T. Mitchell, and Sheriff F. A. Wiley murdered Stephens, and detailed the particulars as follows:
"The Kuklux Klan had decreed the death of Stephens, but were deterred from making a raid into the town of Yanceyville because of the large number of negroes residing there, and they designated Roan, Wiley, Mitchell, and Richmond to kill Stephens in some other way. The Democratic meeting furnished the long-sought opportunity, and when Stephens was seen to go upstairs in the court-house the conspirators held a consultation downstairs in the sheriff's office and agreed upon a place of murder. They got the key to the room used by the clerk and master and closed the blinds, carried in 2 buckets and a rope. Roan and Richmond each had the lancets they carried with them as physicians. Thus prepared Roan, Richmond, and Mitchell were left in the room and Wiley went upstairs after his victim.
"In the crowd in the court room were nearly all the Kuklux who had decreed Stephens's death, and they knew that the execution of their order was near at hand. And for sometime after Stephens and Wiley had gone down to the ground floor there was much cheering and stamping of feet-the intention being to drown any noise that might proceed from the clerk's room.
"Wiley and Stephens walked down stairs together and when they reached the room Wiley pushed open the door and thrust Stephens in and shut the door. Immediately tho rope was put around Stephens' neck and he was choked so that he could not make a noise. He was then told that if he made any outcry that he would be instantly killed. He promised not to cry out or make resistance and the rope was slackened. Stephens was then told by Dr. Roan that he must leave the State or join the Democratic party-that he could not be allowed to organize and control the negroes of Caswell County against the white people, and that if he was away from there that the negroes would become demoralized and the Democrats would carry the county. Stephens firmly refused to do either, and told them that they might kill him, but that he would not leave the State nor desert his principles as a Republican. He was then told if he maintained this attitude that they would kill him while in that room. Stephens again refused to comply with either of their demands, but vowed before Heaven that it they would release him that he would never divulge what took place in that room.
"The conspirators would not take this risk and told Stephens that he must die then and there. He then asked to be permitted to take a last look at his home, which could be seen from the window. This request was granted and, as he gazed out of the window, he saw two of his little children playing in the yard in front of his door. He looked at them for a minute or two and then his wife passed through the yard. This was the only time that Stephens showed signs of emotion. He then requested to be allowed to pray and he knelt down and prayed and made signs that he was praying for the men who were to murder him, and when he arose from his knees the rope was drawn tight and he was choked until he was powerless to resist and he was then laid on a table, and Roan and Richmond each cut the jugular vein and Roan plunged a knife into his heart. The blood was caught in the buckets. When dead he was laid on the floor and the murderers left the room and threw away the key."
Sheriff Wiley moved away from Caswell and located in Catawba County and died there. Dr. Steve Richmond died at his home in Caswell County some time after the murder. Wiley, Mitchell, and Richmond went to visit Dr. Roan, and while there they talked over the killing of Stephens, and were overheard by two negroes who were hired as house servants by Dr. Roan. Both negroes immediately quit the employ of Dr. Roan and went to Greensboro, where they saw Judge Albion W. Tourgee, author of that celebrated book, "The Fool's Errand." They told the judge what they had heard, which tallied with the facts which he had gained while he was riding that circuit and with the evidence before the supreme court.
Judge Tourgee came to Raleigh and told Governor Holden the story of the negroes.
During the session of the legislature of 1872 and 1873, J. W. Bowman, of Mitchell County, was a member of the house of representatives, and in the course of a heated discussion, in which the murder of Stephens was referred to, Mr. Bowman graphically described the killing of Stephens and by whom done, as the negroes had heard Roan, Richmond, Mitchell, and Wiley talk it over. As soon as the members gathered the full import of the revelation made by Mr. Bowman, pandemonium broke loose. Every Democratic member sprang to his feet and Mr. Bowman was plied with questions, asking his authority for the statement he had made. If a loaded bombshell had been exploded in the house the excitement and consternation would not have been greater than it was. All business was suspended, the discussion ceased, and the members crowded round Bowman and endeavored to get more information from him. Governor Holden and Judge Tourgee were both on the floor, as they primed Bowman for the fray. The scene will never be forgotten by those who participated in it, and by those who witnessed it. The editor of The Signal was reporting the proceedings of the house on this day and he has always believed that there were men present in that house who knew the facts as stated by Mr. Bowman were true. Whether they participated in the murder or were familiar with the facts as members of the Kuklux Klan, or had been told by those who knew, is, of course, a matter of conjecture. A full account of the scene was telegraphed to the New York Times.
The account of the murder of "John Walters," as detailed in the Fool's Errand, is the story as told Judge Tourgee by the negroes who overheard the conversation of Roan, Mitchell, Richmond, and Wiley.
This murder was one among the many which influenced Governor Holden to declare the counties of Alamance and Caswell in a state of insurrection and to suspend the civil law in these counties. What is known as the "Kirk-Bergen war" followed, and the constitution forbidding the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus was said to have been violated and Governor Holden was impeached, convicted, and deposed from his office for high crimes and misdemeanors in office.
Governor Holden now has no mind. He can not understand that he is vindicated in his effort to prevent murder for opinion's sake by the confession of Dr. Roan.
The judgment of disability against Governor Holden may stand, greatly to the discredit of the able and powerful Democratic party, but in the hearts of all liberty loving people Governor Holden committed no crime against the Constitution, and such will be the verdict of the impartial historian.
"Ku-Klux Murder. Dr. Roan Confessed on His Death Bed That He Killed Senator John W. Stephen [Stephens] in 1879 "
Raleigh, N.C. Dec. 5.--Dr. Felix Roan, a prominent citizen of Caswell county, on his death bed has confessed that he killed Senator John W. Stephen [Stephens] twenty years ago and named as his accomplices Dr. Stephen Richmond and the sheriff of the county [Frank A. Wiley]. All the parties are now dead, but the confession lifts the suspicion which has attached to several prominent men still living.
[On May 21, 1870, during the height of the Ku-Klux reign in this state, Senator John W. Stephen [Stephens], of Caswell county, was found dead in the tower [not correct] of the courthouse at Yanceyville. There were numerous stabs in his body and a rope around his neck. Court was in session at the time and a tremendous sensation was created. Gov. Holden caused a large number of arrests on suspicion, among them several prominent democratic politicians and an ex-judge of the superior court. No clew [sic] was found and the matter has ever since remained a mystery.]
Source: The Daily Journal (Logansport, Indiana), 6 December 1891.