The Trials of Edmund Bigham

Files of Catherine H. Lewis

South Carolina tried Edmund Bigham three times in the 1920s for the murder of his mother (Dora), his brother (Smiley III), his sister (Mrs. Marjorie McCrackin), and his sister's two children. The last two trials were held at the present courthouse in Conway. No trial ever held in Horry County have generated more interest over a longer period.

Two books (The Last of the Bighams by J. A. Zeigler and A Piece of the Fox's Hide, by Katherine Boling) recount this bizarre story. It has also been the subject of many newspaper and magazine articles and several television programs.

Events which led up to and followed the murders in 1921 span several generations. The Bighams were a prominent family in old Marion County, the part that is now in Florence County. Florence elected one of them, Smiley, Jr., the first state senator from the new county. If we concentrate only on the events that occurred in the senator's family, we begin with the senator’s death in May 1908. There was a suspicion in the community that his wife, Dora, had done him in with poison.

The community whispered horrendous stories about the treatment of family servants, including the murder of one young boy by driving a nail into his ear. Smiley was indicted for this crime. His trial was scheduled for October 1909.

On September 9, 1909, a month before trial was to begin the Horry Herald reported the death Ruth Bigham, the senator's daughter-in-law, wife of Dr. G. Cleveland Bigham. She was murdered at Murrells Inlet, some said to keep her from testifying in court against Smiley. Blood members of the family tended to mistrust those who came in by marriage.

Ruth often wore the long dresses of white or pale colors which were typical of the time. She was fond of strolling along the water's edge in the early evening dusk. According to newspaper accounts, her husband, Dr. G. Cleveland Bigham, persuaded a simple minded man named William Avant that the figure he saw in the gloom was a ghost. William Avant shot and killed the young woman.

Dr. Bigham and Avant stood trial for Ruth's murder. Because of the circumstances the jury found them guilty of manslaughter, not murder. After sentencing Cleveland Bigham to three years, the judge released him on bond, pending appeal. When the higher court upheld the verdict, he left the state without serving his sentence.

On January 15, 1921 the neighborhood near Pamplico in which the Bighams lived was alerted that something was wrong at the Widow Bigham's house. All about the place lay the bodies of shooting victims. Of the whole household, only Edmund Bigham remained alive. He claimed that, before she succumbed to a wound in the head, his mother had told him his brother had done the murders. Edmund claimed that Smiley had then taken his life.

Edmund Bigham's first trial in Florence County began on March 21, 1921. It resulted in a death penalty. A higher court later set aside the verdict and ordered a new trial, not to be held in Florence County. The court judged Bigham could not get a fair jury there. In the October term of court in 1924 Bigham went on trial again in Horry County. Conway, the county seat, took on a carnival atmosphere. Because of his notoriety, seats in the courtroom were in great demand. People came as to a theatrical performance.

The trial lacked nothing one might ask in suspense and dramatic events. Bigham declared that officials and all who testified against him would die before he did. He said in court, "They've lied on me, and every one of them will die before I do." Following this one witness had a heart attack and died in the box. In all four would die before the end of the Bigham trials.

He called down the wrath of God against his enemies and the rains came--and came. The result was the Bigham flood or freshet, which nearly drowned Conway.

During this trial one of the prosecuting attorneys thrust the skull of Dora Bigham toward her son's face and begged him to acknowledge his guilt. Two opposing lawyers engaged in fisticuffs in the courtroom.

Again the jury handed out a guilty verdict and the judge sentenced Bigham to be electrocuted. Again the sentence was set aside and a new trial ordered.

At the beginning of the third trial the court announced a delay, because of a “delicate and temporary condition.”. Rumor said Bigham's wife was pregnant. A special term of court met on April 4, 1927 for the continuation of the trial. In anticipation of a sensational trial the New York World sent Oliver H. P. Garrett, a special correspondent, to cover the trial. His dispatch to his paper was reprinted in the Horry Herald on April 7, 1927.

The postponement [from October term of court] came some weeks ago after country folk from miles around had driven into town in ramshackle Fords, and mule teams to see the man who has become a gigantic symbol of evil throughout the state and as far as the history of the Bighams is known. . . .

It didn't need the incident [the death of one witness on the stand] to establish that belief deep in the minds of the simple farmers of this and the neighboring counties.but the last minute postponement added new heights to the nature of mystery, superstition and legend which the Bighams had built about themselves. . . .

New converts to the Bigham legend were made in the crowded, stuffy courtroom. Bigham sat, calm and apparently certain of "God's hand," in the railed-in prisoners' dock, facing the judge. Upon the deep lined face of that official, in his black robes, the eyes of the gaping country-men lined about the walls, were fixed. In the little balcony, where the negroes sit, rows of dark fascinated faces peered down.

Lawyers gathered around the bench. The defense argued for a change of venue, arguing that “this man cannot obtain a fair and impartial trial in this county.” The judge refused.
The New York reporter continued:

Bigham’s thick fingers drummed steadily on the railing beside him, but his face, with its overhanging brows and loose chin, never changed expression. His lawyers looked depressed. Suddenly their faces took life.

“There are conditions existing new in this case,” said the judge, “of so delicate and curious a nature that they are not even brought out in argument here. To compel the defendant to go to trial during the temporary condition would be harsh, unfair and unnecessary. Therefore I order a special term of court for this trial to be conducted here by this court beginning April 4.”

Bigham was smiling faintly. It was the same smile, men say, as that his grandfather, Leonard Smiley Bigham wore in the Marion county court house the day the jury released him, and Edmund’s father, L. Smiley Bigham, 2d, from the charge of the murder of William Jackson, negro.

Edmund rose, and shook hands with those who came forward. He was asked how many men he had seen die in the death house since he was first imprisoned there, awaiting electrecution since 1921.

Again, a short delay occurred. The crowd of spectators was tense with anticipation of some new dramatic event. Finally the judge came in and announced that Bigham had pleaded guilty in exchange for a sentence of life imprisonment. Suddenly, the courtroom drama was over, but the Bigham story was not.

Edmund Bigham did outlive the prosecuting attorneys and the jury. He did not die in prison. In spite of the agreement that ended his trial, Senator Ralph Gasque of Marion succeeded in having Bigham paroled to his custody in 1960. He lived the last two years of his life in Marion.

The skull of his mother remained in an evidence box (actually a hatbox) in the Horry County courthouse for many years. A later senator from Florence, Tom Smith, got an injunction to claim it for reburial. Somehow the skull of Dora Bigham passed into private hands for some years before members of the Pamplico community finally buried it in Pamplico on April 14, 1990, more than 69 years after her murder.

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