Deputy Marshal Ledford killed at birth of Landrum

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, May 12, 2015

In the mid-1870’s, U.S. Deputy Marshal J.S. Ledford was a young, up and coming law officer for Greenville and Spartanburg Counties in South Carolina and Polk, Transylvania, Henderson and Rutherford Counties in North Carolina.

Only in his twenties, he had earned a reputation for hard-nosed enforcement of federal tax laws on whiskey making. He confirmed every federal distillery permit and made sure that the full tax due on every gallon produced was duly paid.

He was even harder on those who attempted to produce illicit whiskey without paying the federal tax. He seemed to delight in catching the elusive distillers of moonshine who had no respect for the interference of Washington, D.C., taxation into their “God-given, inalienable right” to make their own spirits.

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A number of unlicensed distillers had not only been charged and fined to the fullest extent, but several had lost their homes to tax liens in the process. They spread the word that Marshal Ledford would be a dead man the next time they saw him.

They were soon to get their chance.

The new Asheville and Spartanburg Railroad had completed laying its track from Hayne junction on the Charlotte and Atlanta route to Hearthstone Ridge on the side of Bird Mountain.

Railroad officials announced that on June 12, 1877, the first train from Spartanburg, consisting of an engine, a passenger car, and two flat cars with makeshift plank seats, would make its inaugural run to Landrum’s Station. A number of notables would be on board, including Deputy Marshal Ledford.

A large crowd of people from upper Greenville and Spartanburg Counties and lower Polk County gathered at the depot at Landrum’s Station to see the miraculous locomotive and to enjoy barbecue. They stayed for the sale of sub-divided lots along the railroad, which was the beginning of the town of Landrum.

Friends of Deputy Marshal Ledford learned that some of the moonshiners who had threatened to kill him were in the crowd. They suggested that he stay hidden in a corn crib on the site of the solitary house near the railroad. He took their advice.

After the sale, final speeches were made and the engineer made a check of and oiled all joints and gave a long pull on the whistle rope, the signal for everyone to begin loading for a return to Spartanburg. Since there was no turnaround, the train would have to back all the way.

Folks from the surrounding area began heading for home. Friends of Deputy Marshal Ledford determined that the men who had threatened him had left already, so they had the lawman leave the crib and board one of the flat cars.

The engineer lingered to make sure that all passengers were aboard before he began to stoke the engine with firewood.

A friend of the men who had threatened the lawman saw him on the flat car and spurred his horse toward Gowensville to let them know that he was aboard the train. They galloped at breakneck speed to reach the train before it departed.

They climbed aboard the flat car and headed toward the lawman. In the scuffle, Deputy Marshal Ledford fell off the train on the depot side. While shots were heard, he was not hit by any of them. Instead, a knife had been plunged into his back. It was quickly pulled out and forced into the hand of a bystander.

Friends grabbed Deputy Marshal Ledford and placed him back on the flat car, yelling for the engineer to get the train moving so that the lawman might get to medical assistance as soon as possible.

The train lurched backward and quickly built up speed toward Spartanburg. The effort was fruitless, however, for the lawman died as the train was backing up Gramling Hill.

The whereabouts of the lawman’s grave was a mystery for many years. It was finally located in an obscure, overgrown area once known as Jarrett’s cemetery in the West Asheville area.

The broken, moss covered tombstone carries a lengthy epitaph: “J.S. Ledford, son of J.M. and E.R. Ledford, Born in Tenn., July 7, 1847. Killed by a band of highway murderers in the presence of two hundred people at Landrum’s Station, Spartanburg County, S.C. June 12, 1877. Died in 46 minutes. Pray the Lord to have mercy on him. A United States Marshal and an honorable man.”

Tradition says that the bystander, a youth of extremely poor mentality in whose hand the knife was forced, was tried for involuntary manslaughter, but was acquitted. No attempt was made to identify any others responsible for his death.