Alabama's Outlaw Sheriff, Stephen S. Renfroeby William Warren Rogers Sr
"This vignette of local southern history . . . recounts Renfroe's career as sheriff of Sumter County for a little more than two years, followed by six years of bizarre activities as a fugitive from justice before being lynched in July 1886. . . . He led the local Ku Klux Klan in 1868-69, participated in the Meridian riot of 1871, and took part in the killing of two
"This vignette of local southern history . . . recounts Renfroe's career as sheriff of Sumter County for a little more than two years, followed by six years of bizarre activities as a fugitive from justice before being lynched in July 1886. . . . He led the local Ku Klux Klan in 1868-69, participated in the Meridian riot of 1871, and took part in the killing of two active Republicans, one white and one black, in 1874. Rumors attributed other slayings to this violence-prone man who in 1867 had fled another county after killing his brother-in-law. . . . The story clearly illustrates the violent tactics of the redemption process."—Journal of American History
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Alabama's Outlaw Sheriff, Stephen S. Refroe
By William Warren Rogers Sr. Ruth Pruitt
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1972 Sentry Press
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFrom Birth to Young Manhood
Stephen S. Renfroe became a man during the holocaust of Civil War. The remainder of his relatively short life was spent on the fringes or, more often, in the midst of violence. A man of many contradictions, Renfroe impressed those who knew him with his animal grace, his pride, and his vitality. If his temper sometimes flared beyond control, Renfroe was also known for his generosity, and he commanded a lasting loyalty from his friends. His looks complemented his personality. An acquaintance who knew Renfroe as a man wrote that "Physically he was a handsome, magnificent specimen-over six feet high, 200 pounds weight, athletic build, powerfully muscled, active as a cat." His grey eyes dominated a face which "seemed to indicate a vicious disposition." Yet Renfroe had an outgoing personality and possessed a "positive degree of magnetism."
Another observer who hated Renfroe wrote that he was "a large, handsomely-formed man, but with a low over-reaching brow, and a movement like that of a panther." His critic quoted a remark from a man who saw Renfroe for the first time: "I never seen a puttier built man, but he's got the face of a cur on him, I'll be blamed if he aint."
Renfroe's life began in Georgia in 1843. He was the oldest of seven children born to J. G. Renfroe, a native of Georgia, and M. A. P. Renfroe, his mother-a native of South Carolina. Like many of his neighbors, the elder Renfroe gathered his family and such belongings as he had and sometime in 1852 or 1853 crossed the Chattahoochee River seeking a home and fortune in the cotton lands of Alabama.
The family settled in Butler County, a red clay region about forty miles south of the state capital at Montgomery. This area, primarily agricultural, was not quite so rich as the lands of the Black Belt (located just to the north) but more fertile than the piney woods and wiregrass tracts that lay between it and the Gulf Coast. The Renfroes homesteaded in a farming community known for taxing and election purposes as "South Butler." Never achieving the status of a planter, Renfroe became a yeoman farmer whose real estate was valued in 1860 at $2,422. His personal estate was a modest $200.
Growing up in the two stormy decades that preceded the Civil War, young Renfroe was the product of a land and society not far removed from the frontier yet sophisticated in many ways. His education, if sporadic and limited, made a lasting impression, for Renfroe was never a poor white, crude and unlettered. Later he developed a lucid, even graceful, writing style. Undoubtedly he was more concerned with hunting and fishing than arguments about states' rights or the abstract principles of slavery existing in the territories. But he was swayed by the magic names and oratory of Southern secessionists. William Lowndes Yancey, fire-eater without peer, was an Alabamian, and Thomas Hill Watts, the state's Civil War governor, was from Butler County.
Once secession was accomplished, raw recruits-youthful, awkward, but confident-formed themselves into volunteer companies. The pleasures of field and stream suddenly seemed tame compared with the exciting game of war. Young men gathered at the county seat of Greenville to offer their services to the Confederate government, and from there, one by one, the companies left for the front. Watching the clumsy tread of militia companies learning to drill, Renfroe determined to enlist. Renfroe was eighteen years old when he went to Greenville to join Captain E. Y. Hill's Jeff Davis Rangers on June 6, 186l. Arriving in Virginia, the Jeff Davis Rangers became Company G of the Ninth Alabama Infrantry Regiment, organized earlier at Richmond.
The Ninth Alabama was a fighting regiment, and Renfroe first saw action at the siege of Yorktown in April 1862. The next month Private Renfroe was with his regiment at Williamsburg, and in June he fought in the battle of Seven Pines. On June 30, he was wounded at Gaines' Mill, His wounds and assignments to detail kept him out of the fighting at Frazier's Farm, Second Manassas, and Sharpsburg in 1862, but he returned to the fighting and participated in the battle at Fredericksburg in December 1862. In 1863 the Ninth Alabama fought at Salem Church, Gettysburg, Bristow Station, and Mine Run. But Renfroe was absent on detail in every instance. The nature of his details is unknown. On January 30, 1864, Renfroe deserted.
Such an inglorius end to an otherwise honorable military career may not have been the disgrace it appears on the surface. To have served on various details. Fought in five battles, and been wounded in one hardly constituted a dishonorable record. His desertion may have been an act of cowardice, but his previous record makes that improbable. It is possible that as the oldest child in the family, Renfroe. Like many other Confederate soldiers. Went home to help out on the farm and never returned to his regiment. In any event, his military career ended in January 1864.
With the war over, Renfroe, still a young man in his twenties, faced the future and the problems of Reconstruction with more optimism than did many of his older comrades. He began a courtship with Mary E. Shepherd of Butler County, and won her with his virility and charm. The two were married on September 2, 1865, by Justice of the Peace Coleman O'Gwynn at the Butler County Courthouse. Ii Where Steve and "Mollie," as he called his wife, resided at first is unknown. By their second year of marriage they lived on a farm a few miles from Calhoun Station in Lowndes County, located between Montgomery and Butler counties. The Renfroes shared their house with Mollie's sister and her husband, Dr. Thomas Mills. Renfroe and Mills, a well known man who had resided at Greenville and Montgomery, worked the farm together and Mills also practiced medicine.
This dual household arrangement might have lasted indefinitely but for an improbable whimsey of fate. On July 9, 1867, Mollie and her sister began an argument over some chickens. This sisterly spat undoubtedly grew into proportions far beyond its original importance because when the men returned home, each wife reported her grievance to her husband. Tempers flaring, the husbands became involved in a really serious dispute. So intense did the quarrel become that Renfroe left the room only to return shortly with a double-barreled shotgun. Although the details of the fight are unknown, some provocation from Mills caused Renfroe to raise his weapon abruptly and fire point bank. Knocked backwards by the blast's impact, the physician fell dead.
This family squabble instigated the first flight-the first of many more to follow in Renfroe's enigmatic career as a fugitive from justice. He fled from Lowndes County rather than remain to face the consequences of this murder. The community became excited and organized a pursuit. Newspapers reported the affair but refused to condemn Renfroe. Two weeks after Mills was killed, Governor Robert M. Patton issued a proclamation offering $200 reward for Renfroe's capture. The details of the slaying inspired the first of countless newspaper descriptions and philosophical speculations concerning Renfroe. The more materialistically inclined-those interested in claiming the reward-were content with the state's detached description: the fugitive was "thin visaged" and slender, weighing 139 pounds. He had a fair complexion, grey eyes, black hair, and wore a light mustache. The mustache became his trademark.
Renfroe never returned to Butler or Lowndes County. His family, other than his wife Mollie, and his home were cut off from him for the rest of his life. Sumter County and its county seat of Livingston became his new home. A resident of the county who saw him then remarked that Renfroe "was fair and delicate looking as a girl." He was dressed in "the prettiest suit of clothes I had ever seen, a home-made check, handsomely worked and bound with silk braid. He was a handsome, tidy young fellow, and his delicate features, fair face and neat attire contrasted strikingly with the tawny, coarsely dressed ex-soldiers of the dark days after the war."
In this Black Belt section of Alabama Stephen S. Renfroe was to become the protagonist on a stage of violence. He came to Sumter County a stranger, and in spite of all the lives there which he touched and changed he died a stranger. The people never knew him.
Chapter TwoSumter County and Reconstruction
Into what kind of land did Renfroe wander to seek refuge? Among what kind of people did he ply his gifts? The answers to these questions are important because the area and circumstances were to supply the backdrop for a turbulent career spanning the next twenty years. Sumter County had a deep history monumented by the name itself. Created in December 1832, the county was carved out of the Choctaw Indian Nation and named for General Thomas Sumter, a South Carolina hero of the American Revolution.
The county was a rich, verdant region, bounded on the west by Mississippi, on the east by the wine-colored Tombigbee River (to the north and south lay Choctaw and Pickens counties). Its one thousand square miles of undulating black prairie lands were interspersed with ridges and hills. Cutting across the county were the languid Noxubee and Sucarnatchie rivers and a number of large creeks. Near the county's center and bordering Mississippi was the Flat Woods, a belt of post oak flatwoods varying in width from five to eight miles and forming the perfect refuge for a man like Renfroe.
Sumter County was settled early in the nineteenth century by men from Virginia and the Carolinas. By the 1850's the area was a leading producer of wheat and cotton, dotted with medium-sized. Farms but dominated by large plantations worked by hundreds of slaves. In 1860 the county's 5,919 whites, 18,091 slaves, and 25 free Negroes gave it rank among the state's top fifteen slaveholding counties. Broadcloth aristocrats maintained a benevolent despotism over the yeoman white majority and controlled, not always so benevolently, the slaves who outnumbered the total white population more than three to one.
Laid out in 1833, Livingston derived its name from Edward Livingston, friend of Andrew Jackson and prominent politician. It was at Livingston, an oak-lined village of two thousand people, that the wealth and civilization of Sumter's gregarious ante-bellum society centered. Joseph G. Baldwin, author of the widely read and important The Flush Times of Alabama and Mississippi, was living at Livingston when his book was published in 1853. Gainesville and Gaston were other important towns, and there were numerous communities such as Warsaw, Sumterville, Ramsey's Station, Belmont, Moscow, and Cuba.
Such was the country that Renfroe found. Although the postwar population was about the same as that of 1860, the scene had changed. Proud planters, now penniless, joined the yeomen as farmers. Former slaves not only were free but soon would vote and hold office. They congregated daily at the courthouse square, lounging around the bored well, a town landmark located in the square's northwest corner. The courthouse, a tall, boxlike frame building with numerous small windows, dominated a square that was ranged on two sides by stores and offices. The freedmen's broad drawls contrasted strikingly with the clipped speech of Federal soldiers and Northern civilians who had come South. At Choctaw House, opened in 1836 and badly in need of repairs since 1861, the register had never reflected such a cosmopolitan clientele. Another inn, Bell's Hotel, would be opened in 1872. A British traveler found Livingston a "considerable town...."
The newcomers, or carpetbaggers, rapidly became objects of hate, accused by the native citizens-sometimes truly, sometimes falsely-of manipulating the Negroes at the polls in order to put the Republican party in power. There were also the scalawags. These native Southerners cooperated with the new regime and were considered undesirable at best, traitors at worst. Dislike for the scalawags equalled or surpassed the local contempt for the carpetbaggers. One white Sumter countian who joined the Republican party wrote, "In the loss of property, the loss of business, and by social proscription I am not only brought to want but very nearly ruined." His lot was an example of the natives' wholesale condemnation and ostracism of their own who joined the enemy's camp. The setting of Reconstruction was not one which lent itself to rational analysis or objective evaluations.
The Republican power structure in Sumter County, as elsewhere in the South, was based on the Negro vote. Carpetbaggers and scalawags, constituting only a sprinkling of the population, made the basic political and economic decisions. The system was sustained by Union soldiers and such agencies as the Freedmen's Bureau, the Union League (sometimes called the Loyal League or more simply, the League), and various educational and religious groups.
Native Southerners, and none more than the outwardly placid, easy-going Black Belt contingent, harbored a scathing contempt for their "Yankee rulers." In turn, respresentatives from the Federal government came to distrust the defeated Southerners. As a result, passive resistance turned to hate and violence. According to a Northern reporter, "The old Union soldiers will remember the tall, scrawny, long-haired Alabamians they used to meet in battle, how bold they were, how enduring, and how relentlessly cruel when chance or hard fighting gave them a victory. These are the sort of men that inhabit Sumter County."
Whether Renfroe was ever tried for the slaying of Dr. Mills or whether the charges were dropped is not known. The acquaintance who had admired his checked suit said that Renfroe's wife joined him in Sumter County in 1868. Only twenty-two, Mollie died of unknown causes on August 2, 1868, and was buried at the Bethel Cemetery in Sumter County.
Renfroe was hardly a man to remain single long. By 1869 he had attracted the favorable attention of Mary M. Sledge, oldest daughter of one of the county's most prominent men. Mary fell in love with the daredevil, swashbuckling Renfroe. The couple was married by the Reverend W. H. Palsy on November 20, 1869, just three days after "Pattie," as she was better known, celebrated her twentieth birthday. Of serene nature, the young bride had attended Judson Institute at Marion in neighboring Perry County and was a strong worker in the Missionary Baptist Church.
It seems certain that Pattie, described as "ladylike, thoughtful, considerate and self-sacrificing," attempted to restrain some of Renfroe's reckless impulses. If she did not know the particulars, Pattie was aware of the general outlines of her husband's double life: during these years he was both a respectable farmer and a leading member of the Ku Klux Klan. Turning to the soil in 1870, Renfroe had purchased 355 acres of land (he paid $1,000 cash and signed notes to pay the remaining $2,000) and appeared to be accepting if not enjoying the burdens of Reconstruction. He served on county juries three times in 1871, collecting in all $18.70 for his civic duties.
Pattie became suddenly ill in the summer of 1871 and died at her family home near Payneville on July 11. Renfroe interred her at the Old Side Cemetery. Some sense of sentiment caused him to move Mollie's body from Bethel and bury her by the side of Pattie.
Once again without a wife, Renfroe soon was courting Cherry V. Reynolds, who lived at Livingston but had family ties at Meridian, Mississippi. (Meridian, only thirty-eight miles away and described as "sprawling over sandy mounds in a wide open bosom of the forest," was the nearest town of any size. Many Sumter County residents traded there, and it was a principal supplier for Livingston wholesale merchants.) Cherry, twenty-three and renowned for her beauty, was as susceptible to the broad-shouldered stranger as the others had been. She and Renfroe were married at Meridian on January 9, 1873. This was to be his last marriage. Apparently Cherry was a person of means because sometime during 1873 she loaned Renfroe $600.
On the surface, Renfroe led a quiet and unexceptional life. In 1872 and 1873 he was paid for rendering jury service and acquired a reputation as a good farmer. On one occasion he raised a turnip that measured twenty-five inches in circumference in two directions and twenty-seven inches in two other directions. Renfroe's amazing product was celebrated in the Livingston paper. He reported the first cotton bloom in the county on June 11, 1874.
Excerpted from Alabama's Outlaw Sheriff, Stephen S. Refroe by William Warren Rogers Sr. Ruth Pruitt Copyright © 1972 by Sentry Press. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
William Warren Rogers Sr. is the author or coauthor of a number of works, including The One-Gallused Rebellion: Agrarianism in Alabama, 1865-1896; August Reckoning: Jack Turner and Racism in Post-Civil War Alabama; Convicts, Coal, and the Banner Mine Tragedy; Labor Revolt in Alabama: The Great Strike of 1894; and Alabama: The History of a Deep South State. All are available from The University of Alabama Press.
Ruth Pruitt was a faculty member in the English Department at Jacksonville State University, Jacksonville, Alabama.
Paul M. Pruitt Jr. is Special Collections Librarian in the Law School of the University of Alabama.
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