Murder and Mystery: The Life and Death of John “Chicken” Stephens

On Saturday, the 21st of May, 1870, the Conservative Party of Caswell County met in Convention, at the Court-house of the county, to nominate candidates to represent the county in the next Legislature and for county officers, and on an occasion of the kind it is to be presumed that many persons would be present, and the number in attendance on the occasion spoken of was fairly estimated at 300 souls. The convention was held in the Court room, and the subject of this history was of the audience that day, who heard speeches from Mr. Philip Hodnott, Hon. Saml. P. Hill, Col. Bedford Brown and perhaps others.

The Court-house, of Caswell County, at Yanceyville, is a magnificent structure of art; but few buildings, upon this continent, probably, public or private, equal it, and none surpass it in beauty of style and finish….In beauty and splendor of outline and elegance of artistic skill within, it would be ‘a fit temple for the indwelling of Gods.’

In this temple the body of John W. Stephens found a temporary sepulchre. This temple dedicated to justice, is converted into a theatre where the assassin wields the blade of death, imbrues his hands in the life blood of a human being–a fellow-mortal–in the broad and unostructed light of day, in the midst of hundreds, and the eyes of no one save that of the perpetrator or perpetrators of the act rest or gaze upon the scene.

The history of that day–the 21st of May–touching the movements of John W. Stephens, the reader will find very fully set forth in evidence before the Coroner and his jury which is published here in full, and in the language and manner deposed.

–from Murder & Mystery: History of the Life and Death of John W. Stephens, State Senator of North Carolina, from Caswell County by A.J. Stedman.

The 1870 pamphlet includes the coroner’s report on the killing of John W. “Chicken” Stephens. The Republican state senator was lured to his death in the Caswell County courthouse by Frank Wiley, a former Democratic county sheriff whom Stephens urged to accept the Republican nomination for re-election. Wiley led Stephens from the courtroom to a downstairs storeroom at the back of the building. A group of Wiley’s fellow Klansmen were lying in wait there and beat and stabbed Stephens. They left his body on woodpile, where it was discovered the following day. Details on those responsible for Stephens’ death did not emerge until 1935, when the last member of the Klan execution ring died and his sealed statement describing the killing was opened.

In response to Stephens’ killing, Governor William W. Holden called out the militia under the leadership of Colonel George W. Kirk. The “Kirk-Holden War” ensued and eventually Holden was impeached by the Democratic-controlled state legislature.

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