In the mid-1760s, violent criminal activity began to spread throughout the sparsely populated interior of the colony of South Carolina. Residents in these areas, alarmed at what was occurring, pled with the government for assistance. None would be forthcoming. Instead, individuals residing in the area turned toward the idea of communal, ritual punishment to stem the tide of criminal activity. This type of punishment often involved capturing and public flogging of an individual. Soon, these and other rites of public humiliation and intimidation would be used not only against criminals but against anyone deemed to have violated the moral and social order sought by the leaders within this new movement, known as the Regulation. Such activity was not novel, but part of a much older tradition brought to America by colonial-era settlers.
Violence accompanied with ritualised humiliation and intimation has been found throughout the history of much of Western Europe and America. This type of violence is collectively known as ‘rough music’, a phrase that has thought to have originated in England in the later seventeenth century. The rites of this activity are often accompanied by a ‘rude cacophony’, which may employ any number of forms, including the playing of formal instruments, banging on pots or even jeering, shouting, and chanting. Rough music has been known by a number of names. These include but are not limited to charivari, skimmington, wooseting, and ‘riding the stang’. The application of rough music often involves some transgression of a community’s social and moral norms resulting in collective punishment by the local citizenry. Methods of discipline include tarring-and-feathering, the burning of an effigy representing the offender, parading the offender out of a settlement on a pole or donkey accompanied by primitive noise or chanting. The rough music ritual is associated with a phrase that many in America (and perhaps in the British Isles) are familiar with, namely, ‘riding [someone] out of town on a rail’.
Rough music was a custom taken by migrant settlers to the Americas and performed throughout history, including later derivative brutal practices by groups such as the Ku Klux Klan. Of particular interest is how the custom of rough music and related ritual manifested in the South Carolina backcountry in the second half of the eighteenth century. The South Carolina backcountry, a term in common usage during the eighteenth century, is defined as the interior region of the colony away from the coastal region and the seat of government, Charleston.
The condition of the settlers in the South Carolina backcountry can be summed up as early as 1753 by then Governor James Glen, who stated on a visit to the settlement of Ninety-Six that parents did not ‘bestow the least Education’ on their children and that men and women ‘in the back Woods come together without any previous Ceremony, and it is not much to be wondered at that the Offspring of such loose Embraces should be little looked after.’ Glen further stated that children were often naked, the women pregnant, and there was no organised church or ministry to support moral order. Anglican itinerant minister Charles Woodmason, during his travels in the backcountry, once remarked that he could not identify many settlers as English, Scots-Irish or Carolinian in their origins yet the practices of ‘Revelling Drinking Singing Dancing and Whoring’ were commonplace. Many of these backcountry inhabitants were described as ‘drifters and outlaws.’ The tenuous nature of this backcountry society would prove fertile ground for the rise of ritual violence and frontier justice.
Settlements in the South Carolina backcountry largely emerged between 1730 and 1770. The inhabitants of these settlements, members of varied ethnicities and religions, ‘was not well integrated during the late colonial period’ within the region or the whole of the colony. The experience of living on the southern frontier served to weaken the family unit, religious practice, and social order of those who settled in the region.
The chaos of the backcountry was the setting in which Reverend Woodmason left his prolific journal, inclusive of his interactions with the diverse groups of people who lived in the region in the 1760s and 1770s. Woodmason’s writings about his experiences in the backcountry provide an illustrative examination of the varied peoples in the region.
Woodmason repeatedly makes references to his interactions with frontier settlers in South Carolina. He describes the back settlers as ‘…People around, of abandon’d Morals, and profligate Principles—Rude—Ignorant—Void of Manners, Education or Good Breeding—No genteel or Polite Person among them.’ This statement exemplifies the prejudices found throughout his journal. Many of his exchanges with people in the backcountry were decidedly negative and, in one case, involved an incident that is characteristic of rough music.
Woodmason held concept for many of the Presbyterian and Baptist adherents in the region, and it appears that in many cases, the feelings toward Woodmason mutual. In 1767, Woodmason set for the Head of Hanging Rock Creek where he was confronted by ‘debuach’d licentious fellows’ and ‘Scots Presbyterians who had hir’d these lawless Ruffians to insult me’. These ‘ruffians’ proceeded to inform Woodmason that they ‘wanted no Damned Black Gown Sons of Bitches among them—and threatened to lay [him] behind the Fire’. Woodmason continued to state that other individuals present stepped in to protect him from those who would do him harm. The following morning the church service was ‘interrupted by a Gang of Presbyterians who kept hallooing and whooping…like Indians.’
The above account qualifies as an episode of rough music directed towards Woodmason. The Presbyterians, many of whom were from or one generation removed from living in Scotland or Ulster, were explicitly informing Woodmason that he was unwelcome and were prepared to use humiliation and violence to force him from the immediate area. Although not clearly stated as such, the music, in this case, was in the form of jeering, yelling, or rude noise provided by the Scots Presbyterians and their ‘ruffians.’ Furthermore, Woodmason’s account is indicative of the sectarian environment that existed in the backcountry in the decades before the American War of Independence. Many of those who settled in the South Carolina backcountry, particularly from Ulster and Scotland, had come from families who held animosity against the established Anglican Church who, in concert with the colonial government, regulated the legality of and fees associated with the issuance of marriage licenses in the Carolinas. These grievances added to already strained ethnic divisions that would produce an explosive mixture resulting in violence.
During Woodmason’s travels in the back settlements, there was an increase in criminal activity. As previously mentioned, the backcountry hosted an increasing number of vagrants. During the mid-1760s, there was a corresponding increase in robberies, theft, assault and murder. In response, area leaders came together to impose legal and social order.
As early as 1765, reports of violent robberies in the backcountry appeared in Charleston newspapers. One report stated that a local business owner, Richard Baldrick and his family were accosted by men pretending to be customers. The thieves bound and blindfolded the Baldricks and placed a knife to the throat of Mr Baldrick whilst demanding information as to where he kept his money. After obtaining the money, the group of men left the property. The event disturbed the local community to the degree that one hundred pounds reward was offered for the capture and conviction of the offenders. A local newspaper went on to report that ‘robberies, some even attended with murders, have been frequent in the back settlements lately.’
Disorder continued to spread throughout the region into the coming years. Charles Woodmason would repeatedly remark about the problem of horse thievery throughout his travels. Furthermore, reports conveyed that the situation in the backcountry had deteriorated to near lawlessness. Residents in back settlements would make repeated appeals to the colonial government in Charleston for assistance in the form of local jails and courts with the intended aim of bringing stability into the affected communities. These pleas were disregarded, in practice, by the colonial legislature.
In response to the continued threat of chaos, many prominent men coalesced in groups to apprehend and punish wrongdoers in the backcountry. These men, calling themselves Regulators, would often use ritual violence as a means of achieving their goals. Likewise, those who resisted the Regulators found use for ritual violence on their accusers.
One of the most common means of ritual punishment used in the backcountry by the Regulators was public whipping. The use of the whip was virtually unknown in traditional rough music rituals in the British Isles. Yet there are repeated mentions of whipping as a means of communal punishment in the backcountry of South Carolina. One such incident in 1768 mentions a Mr Dozier who was found to be abusing his wife and refusing to work, leaving his family at risk of starvation. A group of local Regulators were asked to intervene. After finding that the threat posed by Dozier was credible, a Mr Samuel Boykin had Dozier removed from his house, stripped of his clothing, tried to a tree and whipped thirty-nine times. Another similar report in 1769 mentions the ritual punishment of John Harvey, an accused horse thief. Harvey was tied to a tree and whipped whilst participants in the rite played fiddle and drum music. Both of these reports are similar in the means by which punishment was administered. However, the Harvey incident includes the mention of the performance of music. There are several less detailed reports of whippings by Regulators in the late 1760s. The Regulators certainly participated in a number of similar extrajudicial rites that were never formally recorded in Charleston newspapers.
The use of ritual public whipping is notable as a somewhat formalised, rigid form of rough music. The application of the whip and the use of drums and fiddle, as stated in the discipline of Harvey, suggests that such punishments were inspired by rites associated with military service. Members of the Regulator movement unequivocally state this. Punishment was meted out after conviction by the judgement of the Regulator militia ‘over the Drum Head in the Muster Field’. This provided an appearance of legitimacy to vigilante action.
The inclusion of public whipping and the music or noise that would have accompanied these incidents held a twofold intent, to punish and intimidate. It is not unreasonable to conclude that ritual punishments were loud, public affairs. The primary objective served to punish a presumably guilty party. The event also served to intimidate others who either witnessed the event or might hear of it by word of mouth.
The Regulators were not only the persecutors of accused wrongdoing. Others saw them as guilty of misconduct either against the state or the liberties of those they accused. In July 1768, a meeting of the Regulators convened to address their abuse at the hands of ‘Banditti, consisting of Mulattoes, Free Negroes, & notorious Harbourers of run-away slaves…whom they were ordered to remove.’ Another report stated that a local magistrate, Mr James Mayson in the Ninety-Six District, was taken out of his house forcibly with his hands tied hind his back and dragged ‘about eighty miles distance’ by perpetrators who opposed the activities of the Regulators. These two incidents demonstrate that the banditti and others would also target their opponents with intimidation and violence.
The latter incident regarding the local magistrate was indicative of a significant issue with justices being involved with the application of ritual violence. There were repeated calls for the removal of magistrates in the interior region by the colonial government related to their involvement with the Regulator movement. As early as 1767, Governor Charles Montagu recognised that the Regulator movement acted in a subversive manner and in ‘defiance of government’ and must be dealt with appropriately. In 1769, John Savage of the Ninety-Six District, along with Barnabas Arthur and Benjamin Farrar, all recognised as justices of the peace, were removed from ‘the Commission of the Peace’, for involvement in Regulator activities. Individuals not recognised as holding any legal authority in the back settlements were also charged and convicted of crimes including riot and assault. These actions indicate the perception that the Regulators, despite their rationale for bringing about social order, were seen as a disruptive influence and usurping the role of the government.
Ritualised violence and rough music were by no means only connected to the Regulator movement in South Carolina, although the most vivid accounts of these activities come from the 1760s. The American War of Independence and the years leading up to it recorded a multitude of ritual violent acts, including the use of tarring and feathering, a common rough music ritual. The use of tar and feathers as a means of intimidation was used in nearby North Carolina as late as 1775. That same year, a South Carolina newspaper declared that tarring and feathering was justified under the medieval statutes of King Richard I of England. It is not unreasonable that such activities would have occurred in South Carolina during this same period.
Accounts of extrajudicial judgement during the War of Independence are plenty but rarely do any of these accounts align with the rites of rough music. After the war, there was some threat of a return to the conditions that prompted to the Regulator movement. These threats included vagrancy, banditti, and violent retribution against former Crown Loyalist sympathisers. One account from Ninety-Six in the years following the war mentioned an individual named Loveless. Loveless, a former Loyalist, had been accused of stealing a horse. A local court pronounced him innocent when a group of men immediately seized him from the courthouse in front of the judge and hung him from a nearby tree. There is little indication that this was reminiscent of traditional ritual violence designed to humiliate an offender, yet it is derivative of the communal punishment aspect of the custom of rough music.
Rough music was not only connected with extrajudicial punishment and intimidation. In Bertram Wyatt-Brown’s text, Southern Honor, there is a discussion of a 1796 law in South Carolina that allowed for public ritual shaming of women. The law indicated that a woman guilty of ‘bastardy’ could be ‘forced to walk behind the “cart’s tail,” as the phrase went, as it was drawn through the streets….’ According to Wyatt-Brown, the goal was to encourage the local citizenry to throw items, presumably anything from stones to food, at the woman as a public shaming to discourage the practice of fornication and out of wedlock pregnancy. Issuance of this statute demonstrates that such activities likely occurred in South Carolina throughout the period of initial settlement and were codified into law after the War of Independence. In addition, the law is indicative of the public mood toward individuals who dared to transgress against the social order as established in South Carolina at the close of the eighteenth century.
This discussion of rough music and ritualised violence as practised in South Carolina in the late colonial period and into the first years as a state is meant to provide an illustrative synopsis of how and why ritual violence was performed. The custom of rough music, brought to South Carolina by western European settlers, was adapted to the environment and circumstances that many people found themselves. The inhabitants of the back settlements were individuals and families separated from social institutions of their ancestral home countries and who found themselves in an almost lawless environment. Rough music and the rites of punishment, undoubtedly cruel by contemporary standards, found utility in the South Carolina backcountry. Further research is planned in this area of inquiry and will be expanded to look at how the influx of Ulster Presbyterians influenced the trajectory of communal violence from the colonial era into the antebellum period in both North and South Carolina.