The tale of murder, death, marriage, and family ties began simply; but as it so often happens while researching my Fowler family, I stumbled upon long, interwoven pathways into another, that of the Coleman family. Two Coleman family tragedies — a murder and a death by lightning — were linked to my family; thus, the following: a telling of events just a little over one hundred years ago near the sleepy, little village of Jonesville in Union County, South Carolina.
Robert Coleman, born in 1760 in Lunenberg County, Virginia…died in 1823 in Union County, South Carolina, must be considered to be the patriarch of the Coleman families who eventually populated the areas around Jonesville, Union, Gaffney, Pacolet. He was married to Elizabeth Treasy Smith (1765-1838) and they were the parents of five sons and five daughters.
The youngest of these was Reuben Coleman, born in Union County in 1802, married Letticia Faucett (1809-1893), had a passel of children of whom we will concern ourselves with Robert and Frank, penned his Last Will and Testament in 1851, and died in 1861.
It needs to be said that the three men who witnessed Reuben Coleman signing his Will in 1851 were closely connected to Henry Ellis Fowler: John Baxter Moseley, Joseph Fowler, and James Fowler.
I quickly glanced at the settlement papers, and the names of G.W Fowler, C.E. Fowler, W. Fowler, T. Fowler, and G.H. Fowler were glaringly apparent. It would not take much time to figure out that these men were Gilman H. Fowler, Charles Ellis Fowler, etc. My point is that the Coleman family and the Fowler family were solidly linked, by marriage and by other means.
Franklin Wallace Coleman was born ca. 1828 (or 1829), the firstborn surviving son of Reuben Coleman and Letticia Faucett. He was married twice — his first wife was Sarah Jane Rogers (1843-1870). Their three children were John Coleman, Mary Coleman, and Eliza Coleman.
In 1880, widower Franklin Wallace Coleman lived in the household of 66 year old Daniel Moseley. Why? Daniel Moseley was the son of John Baxter Moseley and Henrietta Fowler. To go back one more generation, John Baxter Moseley was the son of James “High Key” Moseley, and Henrietta Fowler was the daughter of Henry Ellis Fowler.
Daniel Moseley was married to a woman named Biddy (last name unknown). Two of their children — Damon P. Moseley and Martha Moseley — married Adeline Gibson and Starks Sims Gibson, both children of Tempe Fowler and James Gibson.
Daniel Moseley and Tempe Fowler were first cousins, and grandchildren of Henry Ellis Fowler. The marriages of their children were second cousins marrying second cousins.
The 1880 household of Daniel Moseley included Robert Gibson, son of Starks Sims Gibson and Martha Moseley, Franklin W. Coleman, and three of his children by his first wife, John, Mary, and Eliza.
Franklin Wallace Coleman had been a widower for several years before he married Suella “Ella” Gibson (1858-1929). His marriage coinciding with the timing of the 1880 census may explain why he was in the Moseley/Gibson household.
Suella was born out of wedlock, the daughter of Elizabeth “Lizzie” Gibson. who was the daughter of James Gibson and Tempe Fowler (1810-1862). Tempe was the daughter of Womack Fowler (1785-1849), son of Henry Ellis Fowler.
Franklin Wallace Coleman and Suella Gibson had two sons and four daughters.
Mary Coleman, daughter of Franklin Coleman and first wife Sarah Jane Rogers, was born in 1861, (although her headstone indicates 1863). She married William A. Fowler.
William A. Fowler was the son of Felix Parham Fowler and Edith “Edy” Fowler. Felix Fowler was the son of Womack Fowler and Susannah Moseley. Edy Fowler was the daughter of William Fowler and Rhoda Moseley. Yes, cousins marrying cousin. Again.
William A. Fowler and Mary L. Coleman married in 1885, and had four children before 1900. One child did not survive long enough for a name to be recorded in a census record. The three daughters who did survive:
- Pearl Lily Fowler 1891–1969
- Mattie M Fowler 1894–1900
- Sallie Aleane Fowler 1897–1916
Just a few months after the 1900 census was taken, little Mattie Fowler died at their Jonesville home on Saturday, December 29, and was buried at Gilead the following Monday. The family attended the funeral and returned home. A few hours later, Mattie’s father, Willliam A. Fowler, died in the same room in which his daughter had lain. He died from consumption, and he was buried at Gilead near his daughter.
Mary Coleman had lost two children and a husband in a short period of time. In 1907, she married James Wiley Pickens (1850-1933), It was a second marriage for him also. His first wife, Selina Harmon, had died in 1904.
It was to be a short-lived marriage for the new Mr. and Mrs. Pickens.
On Thursday night,July 29, 1909, about nine o’clock at night, tragedy struck. Mary L. Coleman Fowler Pickens was at home with her daughter, Pearl Lily Fowler Kirby, and some small children.
Mr. James Wiley Pickens had gone to Lockhart to visit his daughter when a bolt of lightning struck the chimney of his home. His wife Mary had just walked from the kitchen into the main room of the home when when she was struck, and at once fell to the floor, dead. All attempts to revive her proved unsuccessful and she was buried at Gilead the next day..
From The Progress, July 30. 1909: Mrs. James Wiley Pickens, whose husband owns a farm about 1 mile from Jonesville, was struck by lightning and instantly killed at her home last night (29 July) about 9 o’clock. Her husband was at Lockhart visiting his daughter and those who were in the house were her daughter, Mrs. Kirby, and some small children. She was about 45 or 50 years old, and before her marriage to Mr. Pickens about 2 years ago was a Mrs. Fowler. The funeral will be held today.
Pearl Lily Fowler Kirby — although in the house when lightning struck — lived until 1969. Her sister Sallie Aleane Fowler had married Samuel Sherbert (1892-1973). Sallie Ailene gave birth to a son, Paul, in 1916. Both mother and son died in 1916 and were laid to rest at Gilead.
Tragedy was only a few years away for another member of the Coleman family.
.Franklin Wallace Coleman had a younger brother named Robert D. Coleman, born in 1847. Robert married Nancy “Nannie” R. Smith (1852–1910), and they had two sons: Roland Coleman (1877–1941) and Harry William Coleman (b. 1885)
Harry William Coleman was known around town as a problem. His character was said to be the total opposite of his father, Robert D. Coleman, who was a well respected, upstanding neighbor and citizen of the community. Everyone called him “Uncle Bob” and loved him dearly.
Harry Coleman drank hard liquor and gambled and associated with a lower class of people. His father greatly disapproved that his son lived a hard life and ran with the wrong crowd. Everyone could clearly see that trouble was in the cards.
It was known that Harry Coleman abused and cursed his own mother. When Roland Coleman attempted to end the abuse, the two brothers argued. The elder brother trounced the younger, and their relationship became strained.
Roland Coleman packed up and disappeared in 1908 when his mother and father sided with his brother Harry, the abuser. His family did not know where he had gone. He swore never to return, and he made good on his promise.
Nancy Smith Coleman died March 1, 1910 and was buried at Gilead; thus, the household was reduced to two men in 1910 — father Robert D. Coleman and his adult son Harry William Coleman. It was reported that both men never cared that much about the wife and mother, and both were in their beds as Mrs. Coleman lay dying, neither caring enough to get up to see about her or to lay eyes on her after her death.
Did the son Harry inherit a callousness from the father Robert? Or was it just too difficult to see a loved one’s suffering?
Several factors perhaps came into play preceding the events of January 31, 1913:
- Robert D. Coleman had over two hundred acres of valuable farm land.
- Robert D. Coleman had amassed a good amount of cash.
- The whereabouts of Roland Coleman were unknown.
- Robert D. Coleman’s only heir was considered to be son Harry Coleman.
- Robert D. Coleman had left his estate to Harry Coleman in his will several weeks prior to the murder.
- Robert D. Coleman did not hide his disgust at son Harry Coleman’s behavior.
With Nancy Smith Coleman lying in the graveyard at Gilead, and older son Roland Coleman out of sight, out of mind, and possibly lying in a graveyard far away, the only thing standing in the way of Harry Coleman’s coming into a rather large inheritance was the life of his elderly father, Robert D. Coleman. And on the thirty-first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand, nine-hundred and thirteen, that one thing — the life of the beloved Uncle Bob — was removed, forever and ever, amen.
There was a cool, calm, collected son accused of the murder of his father. There would be three trials and circumstantial evidence. There would be accusations, and bloodhounds, and threats of lynching, and misinformation, and a long parade of witnesses. There was everything and more that accompanies a sensational murder trial.
This senseless crime rocked the very foundations of the tiny town and county. Not until Susan Smith sent her two little boys rolling into the cold, dark waters of the John D. Long Lake in 1994 would there be a murder case of such intense interest and indignant outrage in Union County.
The events unfolded on a cold, winter day — Friday — the last day of January of 1913. Both father and son had separately made the two mile journey into Jonesville. The elder Coleman had returned from town with a newspaper around 5 o’clock. Two hours later, he sat in front of the glowing amber flames of the fireplace, and read his paper by the light of an oil lamp on a nearby table. He did not know that his life would end in mere moments.
The younger Coleman had gone to Jonesville to sell two bales of cotton. According to his later testimony in court, he had been at Bowen’s store until 5 p.m., had visited several other places of business, had been at Ed Smith’s restaurant until 6:30 p.m, had purchased a half-pint of whiskey, then walked to Richard Foster’s house and stayed there for ten minutes, then proceeded to the Cook home where he and the residents heard two gunshots at approximately 7 p.m.
Harry Coleman, Lizzy Coleman, Smith Cook, and some children from the Cook household walked to the nearby residence of Robert D. Coleman. The elder Coleman had been shot in the head and lay on the floor in a pool of his own blood, his face partially blown away. Slugs had also pierced his right hand as he held the newspaper, reading the last words he would ever read.
One of the young girls fainted at the sight of the dying man on the floor. It took several moments before the party realized that Robert Coleman was not yet dead. It was not until Eleazer Mabry arrived and suggested that a physician be called for to attend the injured man. Robert Coleman never regained consciousness and died the next morning.
Harry Coleman did not appear to be distraught in any way over the tragedy that had just befallen his father. He was more interested in discussing political matters with the lawmen who arrived at the house, and he refused to see his father or look at his injuries; instead, he went back to dine at the Cook home. His behavior was odd and did not go unnoticed by the crowd assembled in the Coleman home.
An investigation that immediately began determined that someone unlocked a blacksmith shed in the yard, taken a double barreled shotgun, hidden behind a jasmine bush near the window behind which Robert Coleman sat reading his paper, and fired the fatal blast. The shotgun was returned to the shed and the murderer fled.
There were tracks going from the shed to the bush near the window, back to the shed which was left unlocked, to the Cook home. The footprints indicated that one of the shoes had a worn spot on the sole. The shoes that Harry Coleman wore matched the prints left by the man who fired the fatal shot. Only two men had a key to the shed, Robert Coleman and his son Harry.
Bloodhounds were brought from the State Penitentiary the next morning. The dogs tracked a path from the shed to the Coleman home, back to the shed, and then to the Cook home, then back to the Coleman home — straight to Harry Coleman who had returned home. Just to be certain, the sheriff asked Harry to go a short distance and wait. The dogs followed his trail once again and found him in a tree that he had climbed.
The shotgun was retrieved and it was determined that it had recently been shot and was, in fact, the murder weapon. Robert Coleman was killed by his own gun.
The evidence was circumstantial against Harry Coleman, but there was great fear that he would be lynched. Robert Coleman had been a man held in the highest esteem of everyone who knew him. He was successful in his business affairs and pious in his religion. Perhaps his only fault was having a depraved son of such ill repute and no apparent conscience. Harry Coleman was taken in custody to the Union jail for his own protection as much as the suspicion that he had murdered his father in cold blood.
The first trial was held within a month, in February. Lizzie Coleman testified that she had been living with her uncle Robert Coleman for about 4 years. John A. Fowler who lived very close by testified, as did my great grandfather, T.G. (Thomas Gillman) Fowler.
I would like to take a moment to look at the Fowler connections to Robert Coleman. Thomas Gillman Fowler was the son of Mary Fowler, daughter of Reuben Fowler (b. 1797). His paternal line was Cook, although I have not a first name for his father.
The Cook family who lived on Robert Coleman’s property and who were so deeply intertwined in this saga, was the family of Robert Smith Cook, who was the son of Albert Cook. Robert Smith Cook died in 1912; thus, the Cook household, at the time of the murder in 1913, was headed by the widow of Robert Smith Cook — Mary Jane Adelaide Fowler, daughter of Martha Fowler, daughter of Reuben Fowler (b. 1797).
Thomas Gillman Fowler and Mary Jane Adelaide Fowler Cook were first cousins. Beulah Cook and her brother (Albert) Smith Cook, both of whom had gone to the Coleman home only to discover the dying Robert Coleman were the children of Robert Smith Cook and Mary Jane Adelaide Fowler.
The motive given for the murder was that Harry Coleman stood to inherit his father’s estate upon his death, estimated to be worth $10,000 — a fortune in the early 1900s. A second motive was the father’s disapproval of the son’s lifestyle. It would have been easier for Harry Coleman to do as he pleased without the displeasure of his father hanging over him.
The first trial ended without a verdict, and a second trial was held the following May. The witnesses were again paraded before a judge and jury. The evidence remained the same. The demeanor of the accused also remained the same.
Harry William Coleman once again displayed no emotion or compassion regarding the brutal murder of his father. When handed the gun that fired the kill shot, he did not hesitate to take it. He tossed the slugs around in his hands like they were stones and not the very ones that had punctured his father’s head and taken his life.
Harry William Coleman did not flinch or even blink his cold, grey eyes as his many depravations were exposed in the courtroom. He seemed proud, almost, that he drank and gambled with men of bad reputation, and he boasted that he was perhaps the father of mulatto offspring. It was well known that Harry Coleman had illicit relations with Lula Smith, and it was well known that his father had run her off the Coleman property.
Harry William Coleman took the stand and testified that there was no ill-will between himself and his father, although others testified that father and son were estranged. Harry Coleman told the jury that he had gone to extreme measures to not let his father know of his many vices. It seems unbelievable that Robert Coleman would not have known of the immoral behavior in which his son indulged. The whole of the community knew the character of Harry William Coleman, and it did not set well with them.
The second trial also ended in a mistrial.
A third trial was put onto the Court schedule. Harry William Coleman’s strange behavior was witnessed again, with many believing that he was a consummate actor with no shame and some believing that the 28 year-old, heavily-built man with the black hair was evil incarnate. ,
It has been said that the “third time’s the charm” and this was true in the third trial of Harry William Coleman, In September of 1913, the jury finally returned the verdict that would satisfy everyone but Harry Coleman: Guilty with Recommendation to Mercy. This meant that he would not be executed in the electric chair, but would spend the remainder of his life in prison.
One has to wonder how many times Harry Coleman would have been put on trial if the verdicts had continued to end in mistrial? But no matter, justice for Robert Coleman’s senseless murder had finally been served. The elder Coleman lay in his grave. The younger Coleman would languish behind iron bars.
The next year, interest in locating Roland Coleman –dead or alive — began to stir in the community. No one knew where he had gone when he left in 1908. He had written four letters home, but the last letter was received in November 1908, His declaration to cut all ties with his family was not made in jest.
Samuel Littlejohn had seen Roland Coleman in Roanoke, Virginia in 1908. He was the last person from Union County to know with certainty where the oldest son of Robert Coleman went after he left home.
L.G. Southard drove his car to Spartanburg, SC and caught a train to Roanoke. He was given the task of locating Roland Coleman or determining where he was buried. Upon his arrival in Roanoke, he was told that Mr. Coleman had long departed for Mansfield, Ohio. He set off for Ohio and eventually finally found his old acquaintance from home. The two men were truly glad to see each other.
Mr. Southard was sent to tell Roland Coleman that his father had been murdered, that his younger brother Harry had been convicted of the crime, and that Roland was in line to inherit at least part of the estate.
Roland Coleman had heard of the death of his father. He told Mr. Southard that he had decided to travel to Australia after hearing the news. He wanted to get as far away from his family in South Carolina as possible. He traveled to Denver, Salt Lake City, and San Fransisco, but returned to Ohio when he realized that it would be weeks before he could set sail for the land down under.
Roland Coleman had married a well-educated, respectable woman in Roanoke in 1908 and they had a son and a daughter. I do not know if he intended to take his family to Australia. I feel that he did, but no matter. He lived the rest of his life in Ohio, died in 1941, and was buried there. He never returned to South Carolina.
I shall not go into all of the details of how Harry Coleman transferred the deed to the property to relatives when he went to prison; or how Roland Coleman did not need the money from the estate because he had done very well in his life, and wrote that the money and property should go to another relative in Union County. I will not relate to you all of the details when the Secretary of the Governor’s office sent a telegram. to the newspaper that printed the said ten thousand dollar value of the Robert Coleman estate, instead stating that it was worth a mere $1090.
Perhaps you would be more interested in knowing that the January 9, 1915 issue of the State Newspaper reported that South Carolina Governor Coleman Livingston Blease granted a full pardon to Harry William Coleman.
Harry William Coleman married at least twice, had at least six children, moved to Florida, and died after 1940. He served less than two years for the murder of his father.
On November 3, 1915, Harry Coleman and his new bride Vera Adams became the parents of their first-born child. The baby boy was named Blease Hope Coleman, named no doubt whatsoever after Governor Blease who was responsible for letting a convicted murderer walk free.