Last Execution in Beaufort County
"Murder Most Foul" Leads to the Last Execution Conducted in Beaufort County
"Murder Most Foul" was the headline in the Beaufort Gazette on August 30, 1906. The previous Sunday, August 26, George H. Harvey, a friendly Bluffton gentleman of 75 years, had traveled out to Lady's Island to visit with his son H.H. Harvey and his family for the day. The younger Harvey managed the planting interests on W.F. Sander's farm. During the afternoon the younger Harvey family went out to visit neighbors, leaving grandpa resting at the house. When they returned they found that Mr. George's “brains had been shot out”. A gun, originally reported as a pistol, belonging to Harvey was missing. Shortly thereafter the telephone rang at Sheriff James McTeer's home on Charles Street. McTeer grabbed his trusted deputy Matty White, along with a posse of tried and true men, and headed up the river on a steamer to northern Lady's Island.
The investigation didn't take long. A desperate character named William Bennett was found as a result of locating the missing gun. Clues around the weapon led the Sheriff to Bennett. He was taken into custody and brought to the jail on King Street, along with a material witness by the name of William Ferguson. Mr. Harvey was buried at St. Luke’s Church on Bull Hill.
On Monday September 17th, 1906, when Judge R.O. Purdy convened General Sessions Court, Solicitor Jervey presented indictments to the grand jury in six murder cases, including the case of William Bennett. The Grand Jury returned a true bill before lunch, and a trial was scheduled for Thursday. On the appointed day the jury took their seats and heard a convincing argument from Solicitor Jervey. Before the sun set that evening, Bennett was found guilty of murder.
The next morning his attorneys petitioned the court for a new trial. Judge Purdy mulled the issue for a day, and since they were trying cases on Saturday anyway, he made the decision on Saturday that Bennett did indeed deserve a new trial. It was set for the following Tuesday.
The “evidence was even more conclusive and convincing than the previous trial and the jury rendered a verdict of guilty,” reported the Gazette. With the successful conclusion of the second trial, Judge Purdy passed sentence.
“He should be taken to the place where he last came from, there be safely and securely held by the Sheriff until Friday, November 2, 1906 between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., where he should be taken to the place provided for execution and there be hanged by the neck until he was dead, and God have mercy on your soul.” General Sessions came to a close with that order.
On November 1, Sheriff McTeer announced that the scaffold was ready and that the execution would be carried out as ordered the following day. He did say that he would allow about twenty witnesses inside the jail yard to observe the event. This was the first execution by hanging in over six years in Beaufort County.
On Friday morning, November 2, Bennett was escorted by Deputy White, Sheriff McTeer and two ministers up the seventeen long steps to the platform overlooking the gathered witnesses. Bennett turned and faced the crowd with little emotion. He asked to be allowed a few words, and Sheriff McTeer agreed.
With a strong voice Bennett spoke out to the group. The Beaufort Gazette later printed his speech verbatim.
“Young man, keep away from bad company and whiskey and live nearer to God. Whiskey and bad company have brought me to this and shortened my days. I committed the crime, and whiskey and the devil made me do it. I am sorry, but I know it is too late to be sorry. I ought of thought of this before. Let me be an example to you. I have made up my mind and am prepared to die. I have asked God's forgiveness, and He has forgiven me, and I die with a clear conscience.”
Sheriff McTeer, Sanders and the younger Harvey then questioned Bennett for several minutes about the crime. Bennett admitted that there had been no argument with Harvey , however Bennett did admit that he owed Mr. Harvey forty cents. Bennett, in his intoxicated state, had felt that Harvey was upset with him as they talked. Bennett stated that a shotgun was leaning against the wall on the porch, and he picked it up. Harvey repeatedly asked him to set it down, and when he refused, Harvey stepped towards him. Bennett shot once and killed Harvey. He fled, hiding the shotgun in some bushes a distance from the house. With this, the interrogation closed. Bennett knelt down and removed his shoes. When he stood back up the noose was placed around his neck. At 11:20 a.m. Sheriff McTeer gave the signal, and the gallows door opened. It was over in a minute.
This was the last execution conducted in Beaufort County. In just a couple of years the Legislature passed law that all executions would take place at Central Corrections Institute in Columbia. The crime, indictment, two trials and execution had taken less than 90 days, one hundred years ago.