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Bigham family murdered
The story below jumped out at me mostly because it happened in what has become my home state, South Carolina, and because many years ago, during our first family trip from Rhode Island to Hilton Head, we stayed overnight at a motel in Florence.

Given all of the other national murder cases that were closely followed by the Syracuse Journal in 1921, I am puzzled that this first story is the only one I have found so far for the entire year. It received scant notice in other New York newspapers, too, perhaps because it seemed like an open-and-shut case, though police would decide the first logical suspect hadn't killed four people, then taken his own life, but that another Bigham family member had murdered all five.

In this South this case was page one news for several years. And these weren't the first murders involving the Bigham family, though they would be the last simply because when the dust cleared, there were no Binghams left standing, except for one woman who decided, perhaps wisely, not to have children.


Syracuse Journal

FLORENCE, S.C., Jan. 17 – Mystery today surrounded the deaths of five members of the Bigham family, near Pamplico, seven miles from here.

A quadruple murder, followed by suicide, was one theory officers were working on.

Discovery of the dead bodies of Mrs. L. S. Bigham, 60; her daughter, Mrs. Margery Black, 35, and the latter’s adopted son, 9 year old, resulted last Saturday when a statewide search for L. S. Bigham, 40 years old, son of the slain woman was instituted. At the same time Mrs. Black’s five-year-old son was found mortally wounded. The lad died early Sunday. All four had been shot through the head.

The body of L. S. Bigham was found yesterday in a seculded spot in the woods a half mile from the house with a bullet wound in his right temple. In his hand was clutched a revolver in which there were two unused cartridges.

The Bighams had long been prominent socially and politically in South Carolina, Mrs. Bigham’s husband having been a member of both branches of the general assembly and at one time a candidate for Congress.

L. S. Bigham was Leonard Smiley Bigham III, better known simply as Smiley. Many people believe this first story accurately described what happened. However, police had another theory, one that led to the arrest of Smiley's brother, Edmund. I have only skimmed the surface in my research of this fascinating, but apparently evil family, but it may be the police became suspicious because (I believe) it is unlikely a person who shot himself in the head would still be holding the gun after he pulled the trigger.

In any event Edmund Bigham was arrested for the murders, though he would be formally charged with just one – killing his brother. Thus began an unusual series of trials, verdicts in the first two being overturned. Because the result in each trial was a guilty verdict, Bigham was regarded by the press as being guilty of all the murders, which, in a way, is a logical conclusion. Bigham, however, maintained his innocence until the end, saying he was far away when the killings took place.

The Bighams were a prominent, but much despised family that settled near Pamplico, southeast of Florence, near the Pee Dee River. Leonard Smiley Bigham Jr. was a state senator whose death in 1908 had some folks saying he had been poisoned by his wife, Dora.

The rumor persisted, but no murder charge against Dora ever materialized.

However, police became convinced that another story circulating about the Bighams was true – that they had killed a teenaged Negro servant by driving a nail into his ear. I have found conflicting dates on when this incident took place. According to one story it happened in 1909, which would make Leonard Smiley Bigham III the defendant. However, another source, which quotes a story from the New York World, refers to the trial of Leonard Smiley Bigham Sr. and Leonard Smiley Bigham Jr. for the murder of a servant. Such a trial would have taken place before 1879, the year the elder Bigham died. (Incidentally, he also was suspected of killing a nephew who stood in the way of an inheritance.)

In any event, there was a Bigham murder in September 1909, strictly a family affair. Dr. G. Cleveland Bigham, brother of Smiley III, and an accomplice named William Avant, were arrested for the murder of Bigham's wife, Ruth.

Bigham's defense: he mistook his wife for a ghost and ordered Avant to shoot. Both were found guilty of manslaughter, but Bigham, at least, never went to prison. He was released on bond, pending appeal, but by the time the higher court upheld the guilty verdict, Bigham had fled the state.

So the Bighams were a weird bunch, but the trials of Edmund, brother of Smiley III and G. Cleveland, would write perhaps the strangest chapter in the family history.

His first trial, in Florence County, resulted in a guilty verdict that called for the death penalty. The judgment was set aside and a new trial ordered, in a different venue. This trial was held in Conway, near Myrtle Beach, in October 1924.

The defendant, who would maintain his innocence for the rest of his life, was in rare form. He declared that prosecutors and all witnsses against him would die before he did. From that point the trial became increasingly surreal. First, a witness had a heart attack and died while testifying. (Three more witnesses would die before Bigham had his last day in court, in 1927.)

And soon after Bigham called down the wrath of God against his enemies, the city of Bigham was hit by a torrential rain that flooded the streets.

Bigham also called upon God to strike him dead when he refused to acknowledge his guilt after one of the presecuting attorneys confronted him with the skull of his mother, Dora Bigham, a colorful, but bizarre moment, considering Edmund Bigham had not been charged with that particular murder.

Oh, yes, during the trial two opposing lawyers had a fistfight. Remaining above the fray was Bigham's lead attorney, Mendel Lafayette Smith, who would be involved with the case until he died in 1934.

Again Bigham was found guilty, and again a new trial would be ordered.


Gloversville (NY) Morning Herald 1927

Third Trial for Murder
of Five to Begin Today

CONWAY, S.C., April 3 (AP) – After six years behind prison bars, most of which was spent in the death cell at the state penitentiary, Edmund B. Bigham, alleged slayer of his mother, brother, a sister, and the latter’s two adopted children, will go on trial for his life tomorrow for the third time.

He faces the charge of murdering his elder brother, L. Smiley Bigham, for which he has been convicted twice by juries, only to be given a new trial.

Bigham has never faced trial for the slaying of the other members of the family that all but wiped out the family of L. Smiley Bigham, the elder, on January 15, 1921. Indictments in these cases are still pending.

A special term of court has been called for the trial.

Bigham received the death verdict after his second trial with the same composure and equanimity that he displayed during the first trial, when prosecuting counsel held before his eyes the skull of his mother and demanded of him if he did did not kill her. “I hope God may strike me down if I did,” the defendant calmly replied, raising high his arm as if to invoke divine witness.

As he made the remark, he was sitting in the same chair which a few days befofre one of the state’s important winesses had toppled and died before completing his testimony.

The death of this witness formed one of the chief grounds on which the Supreme Court allowed a new trial.

The Bigham slaying occurred at the family homestead in Florence County, a lonely section on the South Carolina coast lowlands, near Pamlico. Mrs. Margie Black, and Lee and John McCracken, adopted children of Mr. Black, were shot to death on the premises. A few hours later the body of L. Smiley Bigham as found in a pine thicket about half a mile from the house. A revolver was clasped in his hand.

 

This time there would be no circus. Bigham, likely on the advice of his lawyer, agreed to a deal that prevented his execution.


Oswego (NY) Palladium 1927

Slayer of Five Escapes Death
South Carolina Farmer Will
Be Sentenced to Life Imprisonment

CONWAY, S.C., April 6 (AP) – For the first time in nearly six years Edmund D. Bigham, a Palmico country farmer today found himself out of the shadows of an electric chair.

Twice saved from execution by the state Supreme Court granting new trial, he obtained a new outlook on life yesterday when at the third trial a jury found him guilty with a recommendation for mercy which carries life imprisonment. He was charged with five killings.

The verdict was rendered after his counsel had reached an agreement with the prosecution to accept a directed verdict with that recommendation. The defense claimed, however, it did not concede Bigham guilty of the murder of his brother, J. Smiley Bigham, with which he was charged, but that in view of circumstances a better victim could not be hoped for.

Bigham also is alleged to have slain his mother, a sister and the latter’s two adopted children. The slayings occurred in January 1921 on the Bigham family homestead near Pamlico.

Edmund Bigham made good on his promise. He outlived the prosecuting attorneys and perhaps all of the witnesses and most of his juries. Though his third trial had sentenced him to life imprisonment, he was paroled in 1960, thanks to the efforts of State Senator Ralph Gasque of Marion. Bigham was paroled in Gasque's custody and lived in Marion for the last two years of his life. His daughter, Louise, moved to Chicago and remained childless.

Dora Bigham's skull was kept in a hatbox in the evidence room at the Horry County courthouse for many years after the third trial before it was taken by someone, perhaps for part of a collection of morbid objects. Eventually the skull was located and buried in Pamplico in 1990, more than 69 years after her murder, which was never officially solved.


Books on the Bigham family and the murders:

"The Last of the Bighams" by J. A. Zeigler

"A Piece of the Fox's Hide" by Katherine Boling

"Horry County, South Carolina, 1730-1993" by Catherine Heniford Lewis. The first two books are devoted entirely to the Bighams; this one includes a brief summation of the Edmund Bigham case because his last two trials took place in Horry County.

A short course on the Bigham family tree

And for a tale abot the ghost of Edmund Bigham: GhostPlace.com

 
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