Justice Denied: Novel Based on Early 20th Century S.C. Case
On Sunday, Aug. 28, the "Great Storm of 1911" hit Charleston, S.C., the worst hurricane prior to Hugo in 1989.
Seventeen people were killed. Property losses exceeded $1 million. High tides and winds of 106 miles per hour drove salt water into the low country rice fields, destroying so many dykes that the rice industry never recovered.
For some in the black community, that "Night of Terror" was divine retribution for the execution the month before of Daniel Cornelius "Nealy" Duncan by the state of South Carolina, a man they believed was innocent of murder. For them the hurricane would forever be known as "The Duncan Storm."
The facts of this tragic miscarriage of justice have been laid out in two nonfiction books: "South Carolina Killers: Crimes of Passion" by Mark Jones, and "Charleston's Trial: Jim Crow Justice" by Daniel Crooks and Douglas Bostick.
In June 1910, Daniel Duncan, a young black man of respectable employment and temperament, was arrested on the eve of his wedding for the murder of a Jewish tailor and the assault of his wife. Four months later, he was tried and found guilty, all in less than 24 hours. When his appeals were exhausted a year later, and the white supremacist governor, Coleman Livingston Blease, refused to pardon him, Duncan was executed in a botched hanging on July 7, 1911. He was the last man to be executed by hanging in the state of South Carolina.
Now, former CBS News senior producer Batt Humphreys has written a fictional account of the Duncan case in his debut novel, "Dead Weight," which he will present Thursday, Oct. 22, at 4 p.m. at The Country Bookshop in downtown Southern Pines.
Ron Rash, author of the award-winning novel "Serena," says, "Batt Humphreys brings both a reporter's gift for research and a novelist's imagination to his vivid recreation of 1910 Charleston and one of that city's most shameful episodes of racial injustice."
Humphreys used newspaper and actual trial accounts to research the story, then wove in fictional characters. To bring an outsider's perspective, he created New York Tribune reporter Hal Hinson, who is assigned to cover the trial. He also gave him a love interest -- a smart, beautiful woman who owns the city's brothels.
In one scene, the reporter witnesses a backwoods gathering of the Ku Klux Klan: "The Klan here was spoiling for a little night dance at the end of a rope," Hinson writes in his column. "Someone will hang here and either way, he is likely to be innocent. In the torchlight, in their eyes, I could see the Evil and he is among us."
The author quotes much of the actual court testimony in his book as well as part of the letter Duncan wrote before he was executed: "Gentlemen: How can you have the heart to stand to see the advantage taken of a poor man for nothing? But anyhow, that will be all right. Tell my family and friends that I am at rest, because I am innocent, and the Lord knows that I am today. They have taken advantage of me for something that I know nothing about. But that will be all right. I will meet you when the roll is called."
The title of the novel, "Dead Weight," refers to the method used for hangings at that time. The condemned didn't climb a gallows. Instead, he entered the jail yard and stood on the ground. One end of a one-inch rope was made into a noose and placed around his neck. The other end was threaded through a pulley at the top of a 20-foot pole and tied to a 500-pound counterweight. When the "dead weight" was dropped, the body would be jerked into the air and the neck snapped.
In Duncan's case, there was no snap. He struggled and suffered over the span of 39 minutes before he was pronounced dead. "It was an execution as bungled as the trial itself," the fictional reporter writes.
Humphreys hopes "Dead Weight" spurs a constructive dialogue about racial issues in South Carolina. He has petitioned the governor and the S.C. Department of Probation, Parole and Pardon Services to posthumously pardon Nealy Duncan.
Humphreys, a Georgia native, began a career in television news in Charleston in the early 1980s. He moved to New York, where he wrote for Dan Rather and other on-air anchors, and was senior overnight/morning producer of the CBS "Early Show," managing the coverage of "several wars, elections, and the first few hours of coverage of the attacks on 9/11."
As a reporter he covered hurricanes, executions and more murders than he cares to remember. When he left CBS in 2007, after 15 years, one of his colleagues wrote, "Quite frankly, there's no one other than Batt that you'd rather have in the control room when news breaks. He worked ridiculous hours, through the middle of the night, and somehow managed to be sharper and tougher and more quick-witted than those of us who were less sleep-deprived could ever be."
While in New York, Humphreys got involved in sporting events such as polocross, a combination of polo and lacrosse.
"It's a rough sport, but I enjoyed it," he says. He crossed over to polo and served as president of the American Polo Association.
He and his wife, Laura, returned to the South to live on a 40-acre farm near Moncks Corner outside Charleston, along with horses, dogs and cats of varying populations. In addition to writing another novel, Humphreys is the director of corporate communications at Crew Carolina.
For information, call The Country Bookshop at (910) 692-3211.
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