In the early years of the 20th century, Rockingham was a city on the move. Coming out from under Reconstruction, the city wanted to be one of the first to move into the New Age. Having only one or two textile mills before the turn of the century, two more large mills were built, Hannah Pickett and Entwistle.
Downtown Rockingham boasted of having a newly built ultra-modern Rockingham Hotel. Local business owners built 20 new brick stores, two banks, three livery stables, two garages and even a new Presbyterian church.
With the population growing by leaps and bounds, Rockingham residents built 25 new houses in 1910 alone. Industrial leaders built the 18 miles of railroad track to connect their mills to major lines headed all over the country. Why, even over at the Pee Dee River, the first hydro-electric dam on the river was being constructed to provide electricity to all the Pee Dee Valley and beyond.
Rockingham’s new building surge and population explosion didn’t go un-noticed by larger cities’ papers. The Charlotte Evening Chronicle wrote, “Rockingham is used to doing big things and making little noise over it.” Why, in 1910 alone, Rockingham spent $272,000 more on industrial expansion than did the City of Charlotte. Also, the Wilmington Morning Star reported, “Rockingham … is destined to be one of North Carolina’s leading towns.”
Rockingham had around 2,155 citizens in 1910, but the Wilmington paper predicted, “within the next decade, Rockingham will be a city of more than 20,000 people and it will take a dozen banks to care for her financial interest.”
What could derail Rockingham growth with all its entrepreneurs, financiers, strong town leadership and a growing work-force? Could it have been a fire, disease, war — or a demonic curse placed on three of the town’s most prominent citizens? The town, which some predicted would be home to 20,000 people by 1920, remained less than half that size nearly a century later.
So, what happened?
The story begins in the spring of 1908. Rockingham’s leaders knew that before any real growth could be a reality for their city, it had to have a citywide water and sewer service.
When building all these new utilities, you need civil engineers, skilled laborers and a lot of ditch diggers. Digging by hand in the hot summer sun of the South is not a glamorous job — but in this case, it paid hard cash.
A construction crew was hired and with the crew came a black man by the name of Henry Harvey. Harvey was from Roanoke, Virginia, and traveled from job to job digging ditches and doing other unskilled work.
Harvey was just an ordinary man but with his unpredictable personality he didn’t seem to make or keep many friends. In fact, if’en he hadn’t been the last man to hang in Rockingham, he would have been a forgotten man long before now.
As the back-breaking work drug on under the summer sun, Harvey began to act very strange. Maybe it was the sun — or the hard liquor he drank every night — but somehow a madness or evil spirit began to take over Henry Harvey’s life.
By mid-July, Harvey would act as though he was in a different world for days. Then one Friday afternoon, Harvey’s boss described him as being unusually nervous. This would be the last day of hard-labor Henry Harvey would ever perform.
The next morning found Harvey with no appetite. He could barely get a little soup down for lunch but somehow, he managed to get all liquored up by that very afternoon.
As night came, Harvey and his roommates, Gilman Dickerson and Hugh Price, began a game of craps. The three men shared an old shanty together within hollering distance of the Richmond County courthouse, which was located on the square. As the game went on, Harvey started losing and, as most drunken gamblers do, he began getting very upset and began threatening Dickerson. Price tried to calm Harvey down but instead he became the new focus of Henry Harvey’s crazed and drunken rage.
Finally, things calmed down and as the cool night air settled in, it found all three asleep on their shanty porch. Later, Dickerson would testify that he kept an eye on Harvey during the night because he thought Harvey might harm them — but he never did.
The next morning, Sunday, July 19, Harvey woke up feeling calm and rational. He wandered on down to a neighboring shanty where a woman inside offered to cook breakfast for Harvey and his two friends. As the woman cooked, Harvey rounded up his two friends and sent them over to eat. Before heading back, Harvey took a large drink of liquor. That was a big mistake because the liquor stirred up Harvey’s inner demons.
By the time Harvey got back to eat breakfast, he was crying and laughing at the same time. Then as he sat down to eat with his friends, his anger raged so that he slapped a child right there in the woman’s house for no apparent reason. If anyone got on to him, history doesn’t record it.
Before finishing his meal, Harvey’s inner demon struck again. He jumped up from the table, his eyes as red as fire, and then busted out the door as though he had to take care of something right then. Why, he slammed the door so hard that the door knob fell off on both sides. His friends continued eating their meal in peace, or so they thought. However, that peace would not last very long!
In a few minutes, Harvey reappeared standing outside the shanty hollering that he intended to kill everyone inside. With this short warning, Harvey burst inside, gun in hand, and started firing. He hit Price first, with a shot that probably killed him. He then turned the gun on Dickerson and the woman who were both fleeing out the back door. With a lucky shot, Harvey managed to shoot Dickerson in the leg — but, by then, the gun was empty.
When he ran out of ammo, Harvey left, reloaded, and returned to the woman’s shanty. By then there was no one there except Price lying on the floor. If Price wasn’t dead to start with, he sure was by the time Harvey emptied the gun in his head.
Ironically, the evil spirt inside of Harvey was satisfied, at least for the moment. But that’s the way it worked in Harvey’s mad mind, leaving him calm just long enough to lure people in and then exploding and turning him into a very dangerous man.
After the incident, Harvey put down the gun, and walked through the neighborhood singing hymns and asking for a piece of paper so he could write home. He showed no interest in trying to escape.
Sheriff M.L. Hinson and his deputies quickly arrived to arrest him, but Harvey was not quite ready to go to jail. “I have killed a man or two,” he told the Sheriff very calmly. Then he said in a demon-like voice, “I want to kill some more.”
The officers didn’t give him the opportunity. They tackled him, placed him in a pair of cuffs and hauled him off to jail.
Next week, I’ll tell you about the trial and execution of Henry Harvey and later, about the three shocking premature deaths of prominent Rockingham citizens that followed on its heels.
J.A. Bolton is a member of the N.C. Storytelling Guild, Anson County Writers’ Club, Anson and Richmond Couty Historical Societies, author of the book “Just Passing Time” and co-author of “Just Passing Time Together.”