The Colt Navy (left, foreground) and Army (right, background) pistols of the 1860s were popular civilian weapons of that era. Thomas J. Mackey probably carried the slightly lighter, .36 caliber Navy model to City Hall in 1869. (Image credit: Wikipedia)
Friday, October 25, 2019 Nic Butler, Ph.D.

Political debate within Charleston’s City Council Chamber is sometimes harsh, but never as acrimonious as the night in late October 1869 when a pair of arguing aldermen drew their respective pistols to settle an overheated dispute. Today we’ll explore this little-known story by profiling the elected gunmen, uncovering the roots of their disagreement, and following the scene of bloodless mayhem at City Hall. It was a real-life cocktail of drugs, liquor, bullets, and rage. Who said that Reconstruction-era politics was boring?

If you’ve never heard about the 1869 shootout at City Council, you’re not alone. This dramatic event has received very little attention from historians, as it tends to get lost in the general turbulence that characterized post-Civil War Charleston. During that era when slavery was finally abolished and the Federal government required South Carolina and other Southern states to “reconstruct” their legal systems, it was as if the world of old Charleston had been turned upside down. Historians of this era have their hands full—there are so many intriguing story lines and strange twists of fate. As we mark the 150th anniversary of this bizarre shooting event, however, the time is ripe for a full airing of the city’s dirty laundry.[1]

Today’s story wasn’t exactly lost in the shuffle in 1869. It was front page news in the city’s multiple daily and weekly newspapers of that colorful era. The surviving editions of those old newspapers, which you can access on microfilm or online at the Charleston County Public Library, provide several different viewpoints on the action and recount the story with a surprising level of detail. My biggest challenge in compiling this narrative has been sifting through the lengthy reports in an effort to produce a reasonably compact summary. In short, if you’re searching for interesting stories like this one, get yourself to your local library and stick your nose in the old newspapers!

 

The Principal Actors

When I first encountered the description of the shooting in a City Council meeting while perusing the Charleston newspapers of late 1869, I immediately assumed that this act of violence was a manifestation of the racial tensions that characterized the era. The end of slavery and the beginning of Reconstruction launched black men into Charleston’s political arena for the first time, where they served alongside and debated ardently with white men. White members of the liberal Republican party mostly welcomed the participation of black politicians, but the vast majority of conservative white Democrats actively resented the enfranchisement of formerly enslaved men. A palpable tension routinely stood between the politically-opposing races, and tempers occasionally boiled over.

But such was not the case in the City Council shooting of 1869. The root cause of the gunfire, it turns out, had nothing to do with race, and nothing to do with the testy relationship between the opposing Republican and Democratic parties. The two principal actors in this scene were both liberal Republicans, and were even members of the same family tree. This was a fight about honesty, ethics, and character, perpetrated under the influence of a significant dose of morphine and a whiskey chaser.

Thomas Jefferson Mackey (ca. 1830–1909), our featured gunslinger, was a native of Charleston, about fifty years of age in 1869, the son of the late Dr. John Mackey (1766–1831) and his second wife. Thomas, or T. J., as he was commonly called, served in the Palmetto Regiment during the Mexican-American War of the 1840s, and fought in the Third Seminole War of the 1850s. In late 1857, he was arrested for violating the Neutrality Act of the United States by recruiting men from upstate South Carolina to serve in the Nicaraguan Army of deposed president William Walker. Mackey was tried and acquitted here in Charleston in May 1858 and retired from that “filibustering” business.[2]

Trained as an engineer, T. J. Mackey served in the Confederate Army during the Civil War and returned to Charleston at the end of that conflict. He joined the nascent Republican party in his home town, and by 1867 was a vocal proponent of the Federal Government’s Reconstruction agenda. Although he lacked a formal legal education, Mackey’s Republican zeal earned him an appointment as a magistrate, then trial judge. He was elected to represent Ward No. 3 in Charleston’s City Council in November 1868, at which time he was well on his way to becoming a political force in South Carolina.[3]

In late October of 1869, T. J. Mackey committed a violent “assault with intent to kill” on his half-nephew, Edmund William McGregor Mackey (1846–1884), who was the son of T. J. Mackey’s older half-brother, Dr. Albert Gallatin Mackey (1807–1881). The young Edmund Mackey, also a native of Charleston, was a classical scholar who studied law during the Civil War and passed the bar in 1868. In the spring of that same year, twenty-two-year-old Edmund Mackey also represented Orangeburg in the South Carolina Constitutional Convention. A few months later, in August of 1868, the junior Mackey was elected sheriff of Charleston County. In November of the same year, he was elected to represent Ward No. 2 in Charleston’s City Council. In short, we find Edmund Mackey in 1869 a young man at the beginning of an illustrious political career that was nearly cut short by his uncle’s rage.

 

The Background

The motivations behind the 1869 shooting at a meeting of Charleston’s City Council are rooted in the convoluted story of the reconstruction of the city’s municipal government in the aftermath of the Civil War. In late February of 1865, elements of the Union Army imposed martial law throughout the city and suspended the civilian government. In late October of that year, Union forces permitted the incumbent members of City Council to resume their offices. The usual municipal elections then took place one year later, in November 1866, according to their normal schedule, and life continued under the new, topsy-turvy world of post-war Charleston.

Federal laws passed in the spring of 1867 to “reconstruct” the laws of the formerly-rebellious states soon trickled down to Charleston and disrupted the status quo. The Union Army removed the recently-elected mayor and several aldermen from City Council and replaced them with vetted liberal Republicans who were more in line with Federal objectives. This undemocratic action proved very unpopular, even with local Republicans, because it introduced a number of outsiders who seemed to be more interested in lining their pockets than helping the people of Charleston.

Several months after this Federal maneuver, Charleston went to the polls in November 1868 to cast votes for the usual biennial City Council election. Things did not go well. There were widespread complaints about blatantly irregular activities at the polls, and the results showed that an entirely new slate of mayor and aldermen had been elected. The incumbent members of Council—many of whom had been appointed by Federal decree—refused to vacate their seats. Over the next five months, Charlestonians saw two different City Councils holding independent meetings, each boasting of its own claim to legitimacy. No municipal business of any significance was transacted, and the city was in a state of limbo. In an effort to resolve this impasse, the alleged victors of the municipal election, either individually or collectively, contracted with a Yankee lawyer named Corbin to clear the legal path to their right to take office.[4]

David T. Corbin (1833–1905) was a native of New York who came to Charleston in the autumn of 1865 as part of the Freedman’s Bureau. A major in the Union Army during the recent war, Corbin resigned his commission in March 1867 (when the U.S. Congress passed the first “Reconstruction” act) and was immediately appointed U.S. Attorney for the state of South Carolina. At the same time, he was also elected to the South Carolina Senate, and was appointed editor of the ongoing publication of the state’s legal code (the Statutes at Large of South Carolina). Each of these several offices included a healthy salary, so Mr. Corbin was widely viewed as a peach of the Republican reform, and the apple of discord for those who crossed his path.[5]

After five months of complicated legal maneuvers (I won’t bore you with the details), the electoral questions were finally settled in the spring of 1869. The South Carolina General Assembly validated the city election results of November 1868, and Mayor Gilbert Pillsbury and eighteen new aldermen (nine black and nine white) were finally sworn into office on May 3rd. Charleston returned a state of relative peace in the summer of ’69, as men rode their new-fangled velocipedes around the city and watched the new game of baseball being played on Citadel Green. (You can refer back to Episode No. 120 and No. 121 to see learn about those pursuits.) Meanwhile, on July 6th, the members of Charleston City Council extended their gratuity to the talented Mr. David T. Corbin by electing him City Attorney, with an additional salary to supplement his already comfortable income.[6]

The City Council that grasped the reins of power in the summer of 1869 soon earned a reputation as the most extravagant, nepotistic, and corrupt band of city fathers (or “step fathers,” as one critic called them) to have yet walked the floors of Charleston’s City Hall, located at the northeast corner of Broad and Meeting Streets. At the bottom of a post-war depression, the city was reeling from high unemployment, historically-low property values, and a generally broken economy. Meanwhile, the mayor and his minions created a host of new, salaried positions designed simply to provide employment for their friends and families. They even installed a wet bar in an anteroom adjoining the Council Chamber, where the aldermen could partake of wine, liquor, and champagne to “still their angry passions.” These liquid refreshments only added fuel to the fire, however, because nearly every man in post-war Charleston was carrying a pistol under his vest, just in case a political question needed to be settled by force. Graft, corruption, favoritism, and violence were the order of the day.[7]

 

Paying the Piper

On September 10th, 1869, the members of Charleston’s City Council held the first of what would become a series of secretive, closed-door meetings. Leaks to the local press revealed that the elected officials were trying to determine how to pay their legal debt to David Corbin, which collectively stood as high as $7,600. One member proposed that the mayor and the eighteen aldermen should each contribute $400 to settle the bill, but a few of the members balked at the idea of paying such a rich sum out of their own poor pockets. The question of settling the legal fees dragged on through a series of secret meeting over the next two weeks, during which time some members of Council apparently paid Mr. Corbin privately for the legal services he rendered earlier in the year. By the end of September, City Council’s negotiated balance with Mr. Corbin stood at $3,000, and the mayor was determined to draw that sum out of the city’s already barren treasury to pay the proverbial piper. In short, the poor people of post-war Charleston were about to be taxed for the privilege of advancing the careers of several greedy politicians.[8]

At a special Council meeting held on Wednesday, October 13th, Alderman David Barrow of Ward No. 3, who was known to be quite fond of strong drinks, introduced a motion to adopt a resolution providing the sum of $3,000 out of the city treasury to David T. Corbin for legal services rendered to the city earlier in the year. Alderman George Cunningham seconded the motion, but several of his Republican colleagues were not inclined to support the measure. Acting out a prearranged maneuver, Aldermen Thomas Jefferson Mackey and several of this like-minded colleagues immediately and dramatically stormed out of the meeting in an effort to derail the motion. The discussion of any motion or resolution involving monetary matters required the presence of a supermajority of aldermen, called a “money quorum.” The sudden exodus of several members left an insufficient number of aldermen present to sustain the motion on Corbin’s bill, so Council adjourned for the evening.[9]

Two days later, at another special meeting of City Council held on October 15th, Alderman Barrow introduced the same resolution to pay $3,000 to David Corbin, which Alderman Cunningham again seconded. The youthful Alderman Edmund Mackey stood and confidently offered a motion that Mr. Corbin’s bill should first be referred to the Committee on Ways and Means for review. Eyebrows raised throughout the room. Everyone in the Council Chamber knew this maneuver would surely lead to the death of Corbin’s bill. Alderman Mackey’s uncle, Alderman T. J. Mackey, chaired the Ways and Means committee, and the elder Mackey had been a vocal opponent of the idea of using city funds to pay Mr. Corbin. The motion to send the matter to the Ways and Means was carried, but it caused a great deal of argument and confusion in the Council meeting.[10] Incidentally, I’ll point out that Alderman T. J. Mackey was absent from this meeting because of illness. He was allegedly suffering from a severe toothache, or perhaps a fractured jaw, for which a physician had allegedly prescribed a course of morphine. This detail might seem trivial at the moment, but its significance will become clear later in this story.

At the next Council meeting, held on the evening of Tuesday, October 19th, Alderman T. J. Mackey, chair of the Ways and Means committee and known opponent of Mr. Corbin’s bill, read his committee report on the infamous matter. After due consideration, Mackey said, he and the members of the committee strongly recommend that Council pay the stated sum of $3,000 out of the city treasury. The elder Mackey had secretly switched sides. While he was reading his turncoat report, several members of the anti-Corbin faction stood up in disgust and walked out of the chamber. Council was now, once again, without a money quorum. Arguments and finger pointing commenced. Through the noise, Alderman Mackey finished reading his committee report in favor of Corbin’s payoff. Alderman Barrow, who was observed to be quite drunk, per his custom, seconded the motion to adopt the committee report. Another alderman not-so-politely informed brother Barrow that a money quorum was not present. Arguments, speechifying, and grandstanding continued, all threatening to derail the meeting.[11]

Alderman T. J. Mackey then suggested to Council that a money quorum was not necessary simply to adopt a resolution to legitimize Mr. Corbin’s bill, and proposed a new motion to move the issue forward. At this point the anti-Corbinites returned to the chamber and lambasted the senior Alderman Mackey for his duplicity. Had he not argued vehemently against Corbin’s bill just last week? During Mackey’s most recent appearance in the Council Chamber, had he not made snide remarks about Mr. Corbin? What sort of bribe or blackmail had induced him to change his mind? The elder Mr. Mackey offered several earnest but hollow excuses and then tried to distract attention from his motives by resuming his previous efforts to pass a resolution to pay Mr. Corbin’s bill. After a torrent of squabbling about backstabbing and parliamentary procedure, one of the anti-Corbinites shouted a motion to adjourn the meeting. The mayor called for a vote, and the motion carried by one vote. The members of the opposition and their supporters in the audience cheered in jubilation, and City Council again adjourned without resolving the matter of Mr. Corbin’s $3,000 legal bill.[12]

Council reconvened on the evening of October 20th in an attempt to work through unfinished business, but the staggeringly intoxicated condition of Alderman David Barrow turned the meeting into a circus. He repeatedly interrupted discussions and, in the words of one reporter, “bored the Council beyond endurance.” He repeatedly banged his desk and demanded to know “who is the mayor of Charleston?” His patience tested to the extreme, Mayor Pillsbury repeatedly threatened to eject Barrow if he would not stay in his seat and hold his tongue. “Barrow could only reply in a maudlin voice: ‘I ‘peal ‘cision chair. Won go. Yeas, nays. Don wan l’go out. . . . No after dinner show for me.” After several hours of rather unproductive discussion, and some very embarrassing scenes of comic relief, the meeting adjourned. The reckoning over Mr. Corbin’s legal bill would have to wait for another day.[13]  

 

The Showdown

City Council convened on the evening of Thursday, October 28th, for yet another special meeting to address a growing backlog of unfinished business. After reading through a number of petitions, Council rushed through the reading of several new ordinances that were ratified and engrossed in great haste. In a curious non-sequitur, one reporter noted that a “certain alderman” made the “astounding proposition . . . that not a single member of Council was addicted to the use of strong drinks.” Alderman George Cunningham then stood and renewed the motion to confirm the legal bill for $3,000 due to David T. Corbin. Alderman Edward Wall immediately moved to adjourn the meeting, but Alderman T. J. Mackey leapt to his feet and claimed to hold the floor, after which “some confusion ensued.” George Cunningham again repeated his motion to accept the bill, and then Alderman Edmund Mackey arose and began speaking against it. The Mayor shouted for order, but the crosstalk continued. Amidst the shouting and confusion, Mayor Pillsbury called for a voice vote on Corbin’s bill. Witnesses in the audience described hearing two or three voices shout “yea,” while at least four aldermen replied “nay.” It appeared that the Corbin bill was again defeated, but the Mayor—contrary to all available evidence—announced that the motion had passed and “declared the question adopted.”

Edmund Mackey, still on his feet, shouted at the Mayor: “This is an outrage; if the report has been adopted, as the mayor has decided, it has not been done legally.” “The City Council had been gagged,” he said, “and a regular conspiracy had apparently been formed to steal $3,000 from the city to pay the private debts of the members. . . . Such an outrage had never been witnessed before, and no body dared say that the vote was legal in any manner. Even if the vote was legal it was uncertain whether the question was carried or not, and the action of the mayor himself was shameful.”

Mayor Pillsbury interrupted young Mackey’s speech and sternly informed him that the question had already been decided and he should resume his seat. Edmund continued his tirade and reminded the audience that his uncle, T. J. Mackey, had recently switched sides on the matter for suspicious reasons yet unknown. Two other aldermen now stood, pointed at the elder Mackey, and stated that he had assured them he would vote against the Corbin bill, if it was introduced. T. J. denied the assertion, saying that he had only suggested the bill might not be introduced at tonight’s meeting. The nephew renewed his condemnation of the mayor, and then dropped a hint that his uncle was not speaking the truth.

The hint enraged T. J. Mackey, who rose to his feet. “This fellow only brands me with a falsehood,” he said, “because he owes it to the place he is in [that is, the Council Chamber] that he is not chastised as he deserves.” The younger Mackey replied, “You need not attempt to bully me. I came here to fight this robbery, and am not afraid of you or of any of the parcel of men who are attempting to rob the city of $3,000 to pay your private debts.”

“I must check this fellow,” shouted T. J. “I cannot sit here and be accused of telling a lie; I will not stand such impertinence—such insolence. I will have to punish the fellow.” His nephew, Edmund, replied “You cannot do it; it would take two or three of such scoundrels as you are to whip me; here I am, attempt it if you dare.” Uncle T. J. arose from his seat and took the bait. “I will chastise the insolent puppy when he leaves this room,” he shouted as he pushed open a door and sallied into the adjoining hallway, “daring his nephew to follow him.” Edmund, too, stormed towards the exit, but three nearby aldermen grabbed him and dragged him back to his seat.

Confusion reigned for several minutes as the aldermen and audience fanned themselves and gasped in awe of the irregular proceedings. The elder Mackey remained out of sight, either waiting in the hallway for his nephew or fortifying himself in his office nearby. Once the nervous chatter within the Council Chamber subsided, Edmund Mackey arose and renewed his vociferous condemnation of the mayor’s actions. Another alderman moved that Council should adjourn for the evening. While objections were shouted across the tables, Alderman T. J. Mackey quietly returned to the chamber through the northwest door to the room.

Several witnesses later testified that Mackey returned in what appeared to be a savage state of mind. A reporter noted that he “trembled from rage,” while the Clerk of Council observed that the alderman had “the appearance of an insane man” who “looked wild and his eyeballs were enlarged as big as his fists.”[14] Mackey was wearing his customary pistol belt outside of his vest now as he stormed across the floor towards his nephew. “I shall have to have to chastise this fellow for his insolence,” he shouted as he drew his long, .36 caliber, single-action, Colt Navy revolver from its holster.[15]

The breathless audience dropped to floor and began a collective skedaddle for the nearest exits.

Edmund Mackey sprang from his desk and squared to face his uncle, brushed his coat back to reveal his own pistol, and put his right hand on the grip. “You dare not attempt it, you scoundrel,” he shouted at his wild-eyed uncle.[16]

Tune in next week for the exiting conclusion to the true story of the 1869 gunfight at Charleston’s City Hall. Will the Mackey boys destroy each other and the Council Chamber to settle a private score, or will the calming power of reason restore order to this violent political scene? Next week we’ll peek between our fingers and watch the drama unfold!

 

 

[1] For more information about Reconstruction-era Charleston, see Bernard E. Powers Jr., Black Charlestonians: A Social History, 1822–1885 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1994); Wilbert L. Jenkins, Seizing the New Day: African Americans in Post-Civil War Charleston (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998); Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861–1877 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965); Hyman Rubin, South Carolina Scalawags (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006).

[2] See Charleston Courier [hereafter Courier], 26 October 1857, page 1, “Emigrants for Nicaragua”; Courier, 22 May 1858, page 2, “Trial for Violation of the Neutrality Laws”; William O. Scroggs, Filibusters and Financiers: The Story of William Walker and His Associates (New York: Macmillan, 1916), 319, 324.

[3] See the obituary for T. J. Mackey in [Columbia, S.C.] The State, 9 April 1909, page 1.

[4] See City of Charleston, Year Book, 1881, pp. 359–67.

[5] See obituary in Charleston News and Courier, 12 December 1905, page 5, “David T. Corbin”; [Columbia S.C.] The State, 16 December 1905, page 6, “David T. Corbin. Further Facts about His Career in South Carolina.”

[6] For the identity of the new aldermen, see Charleston Daily News [hereafter Daily News], 4 May 1869, page 3. For Corbin’s election, see the abstract of the proceedings of City Council meeting of 6 July in Courier, 7 July 1869, page 4.

[7] Courier, 30 October 1869, page 2, “The City Council of Charleston”; Daily News, 22 October 1869, page 2, “The City Hall Saloon.”

[8] See Courier, 11 September 1869, page 1, “Some Secret Caucuses”; Courier, 28 September 1869, page 1, “Crumbs.”

[9] Courier, 14 October 1869, page 1.

[10] Courier, 16 October 1869, page 1.

[11] Alderman Barrow’s inebriated condition was implied in the abstract of Council proceedings of 19 October published in Courier, 20 October 1869, page 4.

[12] See Courier, 20 October 1869, page 1.

[13] Alderman Barrow’s inebriated condition was explicitly described in the abstract of the Council Meeting of 20 October in Courier, 21 October 1869, page 1. Barrow’s habit was the subject of an editorial in Daily News, 22 October 1869, page 2, “The City Hall Saloon.” The official text of the proceedings of the City Council meeting of 20 October, published in Courier, 2 November 1869, page 4, contains no mention of Alderman Barrow’s behavior.

[14] These choice quotes came from Clerk of Council, W. R. Mitchell, in Daily News, 5 November 1869, page 3: “A Municipal Menagerie”; and Courier, 5 November 1869, page 1, “Let Us Have Peace.”

[15] The Courier, 29 October 1869, page 1, “Let Us Have Peace,” described the weapon as a “Colt’s navy revolver,” while the Daily News, 29 October 1869, page 3, “The Pistol in Council,” described the weapon as “a large Colt’s revolver, army size, which the alderman always wears, and the muzzle of which could, at almost any time, be seen projecting about a quarter of an inch beneath the rear portion of his coat.” The Colt navy (1851 or 1861 models) and army (1860 model) pistols are nearly identical in size and appearance, but the .36 caliber navy model is a bit lighter than the .44 caliber army model. I suspect the gun in question was the navy model, which was the more popular sidearm for civilian use at that time.

[16] Unless otherwise stated above, the text of my reconstruction of the action and dialogue of the City Council meeting of 28 October 1869 represents a synthesis of facts and quotations presented in robust abstracts of that meeting published in Courier, 29 October 1869, page 1, “Let Us Have Peace”; and Daily News, 29 October 1869, page 1, “The Pistol in Council.” The official text of the proceedings of City Council meeting of 28 October, as prepared by Clerk of Council, W. R. Mitchell, appear in Courier, 15 November 1869, page 4, and contains far less dialogue.

 

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