| Greenville News
CAMDEN – The Tales of Tragedy Guided Tour started at the Old Presbyterian Burying Ground. That sounds reasonable.
Are you going on a guided tour in tragedies?
It may be the part that does not make sense, at least on paper. Why spend four hours learning about extraordinary death and destruction and loss in 2020, a year in itself damaged by unparalleled disaster?
But a tour of tragedies seems fitting when you stand in a cemetery on a sunny Saturday morning with a couple dozen people calling this city home.
They’re the type who have Camden shirts and masks that say “we’re all in this together.” They put a historic social sign on the front of their cars. Their last names are just the greenest branch of their family tree – they can stand in a cemetery and tell how they are relatives of almost all names carved in stone.
That’s because we’re in Camden, a proud and honest and old place. And an important one too.
The 7,000 people here have a great influence on our lives today. Their legacy is based on maintaining a good memory: During their 252 years, they have worked hard to remember who they are and what they have done right and what they have done wrong.
That was the theme of this tour, a story that is repeated in cemeteries, churches, on the side of country roads and by a tree-lined lake. It was about how the Camden people repeatedly created something out of the destruction. What they lost in the battles, the fires, the deadly duels inspired measures to keep similar and horrible things from happening again, anywhere. A victim even helped end a war.
They are also used to outsiders paying attention to what is happening here: They have been making headlines around the country since Camden became Camden.
In 2020, the spotlight returned to Camden and its county, Kershaw, as it was home to the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 in South Carolina announced on March 7.
Back in March: Epicenter for coronavirus in SC is a proud, old place that faces an uncertain challenge
In April, these early falls also gave Kershaw County one of the highest per capita fall rates in the United States. Coronavirus did not stay in cities. This was an urban and rural, and everything in between, crisis.
Greenville News visited Camden in March as the number of cases increased and restrictions on daily life arose to limit the spread of the virus. We met resilient people who knew they could trust each other.
As of December 22, officials confirmed 3,225 cases of coronavirus and 64 related deaths in Kershaw County. A spokeswoman for the South Carolina State Emergency Response Team Joint Information Center said health officials conducted contact tracing there in March, but they did not know how the new coronavirus entered this village outside of Columbia.
We may never know, the email said.
There is still so much to know about Camden. And people with Long Gone Historic Tours, the organizers of tragedy stories, are more than happy to share.
People like Elizabeth Canada. She visited us at the Old Presbyterian Burying Ground. It took her less than 30 minutes to cover a century of Camden. She began with the battles of the revolution here.
And yes, the Colonial Americans lost. More than once. But after the recent relocation, the British troops suffered heavy enough casualties to leave the city. They burned the city on their way back to Charleston, but still left, Canada said.
And the almost Americans in Camden were so awkward that British forces had to abandon plans to join the redcoats collection in Yorktown, Virginia.
This was where the colonialists would win the war.
Then she talked about the last legal duels in South Carolina from the 19th century. Yes, you can legally settle a point with a pair of 19th-century South Carolina guns.
These are gnarled stories bound with family and glory, a fistfight and a few thousand dollars, a couple of lawyers and an insult, printed in poetic form.
Canada says it best, and it takes time we do not have now. But what is important is that Camden founded an anti-dueling society after a small feud cost his life in 1829.
The same community tried to stop the last duel in South Carolina in 1880. Apparently they did not. But city officials arrested the “winner” for murder but failed to secure a guilty verdict in court because, by law, a death in a duel was not an illegal killing.
This time, the outrage in Camden reached the capital. Months later, state lawmakers banned duels, Canada said.
Compassion for the dead – and their loved ones left to mourn – prevented death, prevented grief.
Charity is fundamental in Camden. Just ask Rusty Major.
We met him at our next stop, the former site of Cleveland School. It is located opposite the South Carolina Equine Park. It is marked with a memorial with the names of the dead.
His mother’s name could have joined the 77 listed today. Major said just as much. He probably would not be standing here today, in the shadow of the monument, if his mother and grandfather did not care about their neighbors.
On May 17, 1923, they would be at Cleveland School with an estimated 300 others packing the auditorium. The program was also packed with a play and a beginning. Major’s uncle was one of the candidates.
But Major’s mother had the flu, which meant the whole family stayed home to stop the spread.
Quarantine was a given at the time, he said through his mask. If someone was sick on the farm, not everyone left the farm for several days.
Major’s mother also fell ill just five years after the 191st pandemic. It is estimated that this deadly flu strain infected a third of the world’s population. About 675,000 Americans died.
Major thinks his family would have sat with McLoeds that night if it were not for the flu. McLeods was his grandfather’s people. They got there late and sat in the back row. Dorothy, only four at the time, stood up in her seat so she could see the students perform “Miss Topsy Turvy.” Major calls her Aunt Dot now.
As the comedy unfolded on stage, an oil lantern crashed behind the stage. Aunt Dot saw the curtains lit. She told Major it sounded like a gust of wind.
Hundreds rushed to the only exit from the auditorium on the second floor. The only way out was a narrow staircase on the other side of the closet.
The flames rose. Smoke thickened. Panic swelled.
There were too many people and the stairs were too small and time was running out.
The crowd pushed Dorothy towards the exit. She suddenly felt her hands around her small upper body. They were big and strong and unknown.
They picked her up. They threw her out the window on the second floor.
She landed in the grass below. Her knees and legs were bloody. Her Sunday best dress torn.
But she was alive. People trampled outside the stairs did not. Not even those who were stuck in the bottom of the stairs. They could not open the door. It just swung inside. They were crushed, just inches from safety. The stairs collapsed from the weight of those who pressed against the door that they did not know did not open.
Some who managed it ran in again to help others. Jack West’s grandfather, Shelton, was one of them. He did not make it out of the fire for the second time. He was 37.
Jack West described his grandfather’s last heroic act at this memorial a few years ago, Major said.
Jack West, a State House lobbyist and son of a governor and US Ambassador John West, died of COVID-19 in March.
It was the first reported death from coronavirus in Kershaw County.
There are three western values listed on the Cleveland School Memorial; Shelton is remembered as Shell. Aunt Dot’s family name is 14 rows above the western world. Eight McLeods died that night, M. Baum McLeod was 63. Milton was one.
Dorothy was the only one who survived.
Only about 25 of the victims were identified. In so many cases, the fire took entire families. There was no one left to recognize the bodies.
The non-applicants are now buried in a mass grave at Beulah Methodist Church Cemetery, a few miles from the school site and the third stop for the tragedy tour.
An illustration of another tombstone hit the front pages of newspapers across the country just days after the fire. It is said here are the victims of the burned school. “The doors opened inward.” That image and phrase signaled the beginning of a nationwide grassroots movement to make public spaces, especially schools, safer.
The effort resulted in fire drills in schools and fire codes, such as occupancy limits and clearly marked exits. And that all the doors were opened in both directions.
Our last stop took us to Boykin Mill Pond. In May 1860, a boat capsized. Twenty-four people drowned. We do not know much about what happened or even all the names of the dead, said Beth Webb, who was waiting for us there.
What we do know is that Ralph Leland Goodrich wrote it down. Webb found his diary online. Goodrich came from New York and came to Camden to teach. One of the children who drowned was a student.
Much that has been forgotten, even in a place like Camden. It takes time. It always takes.
Long Gone Historic Tours ended the day at Swift Creek Baptist Church, which despite its name is actually close to Boykin Mill Pond.
There is a cemetery next to the chapel. You can not really see it; brush and bush bury the markers. If you look closely, a couple of rocks still bend just above the creeping vines.
Your $ 10 ticket will be used to fund the redevelopment of the cemetery, organizers said. They are not sure who is buried here, they said before we got in our cars and drove in our different directions
However, it does not matter.
What is important is that they are here.