The Boykin Mill Pond Incident

On the evening of February 3, 1860, Ralph Goodrich, an aspiring teacher in Owego, New York, received a letter from Alexander Leslie McCandless, superintendent of the Pine Grove Academy in Camden, South Carolina. “McCandless wants me to come immediately,” Goodrich wrote in his diary, “I shall start as soon as I can.” Goodrich traveled first by train to New York City, where he bought a ticket for Wilmington, North Carolina. His route would not be direct, however. His first hop was a short one by train to Philadelphia, where he caught a ferry across the Delaware to an omnibus that took him to another train to Baltimore. There he picked up another ferry that took him across the Susquehanna into Washington, D.C., where he caught a steamer into Richmond and then traveled overland to Petersburg and finally to Wilmington. This is where his trip into the Southern interior really began, through a “barrier of limitless forest ... shut out from every breeze so refreshing to the feverish cheek." "At night we lay in a hammock tormented by mosquitoes,' Goodrich noted in his diary, "lulled to sleep by the endless rattle of the locusts and the melancholy strain of the whipporwill.”

By the time Goodrich arrived in Camden he was homesick and tired, but he was happy to discover that the town seemed lovely, with its “houses peeping out of groves, mounted on pedestals of brick, and surrounded with flowers of almost every description.” The people were nice too, and although “very sensitive about slavery,” were almost universally polite.

His opinion shifted drastically upon meeting McCandless. Leslie McCandless was a Camden institution, holding despotic over the town’s major boys’ school for more than fifty years. “No other individual has left so deep an impression upon the men of Camden,” noted one of his students. He might have meant this literally, as McCandless was merciless in his use of corporal punishment. Born in 1820 in New Jersey, McCandless had lost his parents at an early age and was sent to an orphanage in Charleston, South Carolina. There he proved such a phenomenal scholar that locals sent him to South Carolina College, where he again excelled. By eighteen, he had landed the position as headmaster of the Pine Grove Academy in Camden, a post he would hold for most of his life.

Some of McCandless’s students would remember him fondly. “His scholarship was superb,” recalled one of his better pupils. “He had perfect mastery of the Greek and Latin classics, also of French, German, Italian, and Spanish. It is doubtful if the State has produced a finer scholar.” But upon the lesser students, McCandless’s “cuffs and buffets” fell like rain, accompanied by “such edifying epithets as, ‘You stupid jackass.’” His “besetting sin was his temper,” a student said, “which was violent and ungoverned.” Far from losing students on this account, McCandless gained them. “He was noted for severity and force if necessary,” noted one local. “Hence fathers would deliver over dull boys to his auspices to be dealt with at will. A term in purgatory would be about as inviting.”

‘A term in purgatory’ about describes Goodrich’s experience in Camden. Tired as he was after his long trip from Owego, he immediately presented himself at McCandless’s house but found the schoolmaster absent. Goodrich had just settled into his hotel when one of McCandless’s servants arrived to call him back to the house, where McCandless gave him a perfunctory greeting and then said that they would start fresh on Monday morning, when McCandless would attend Goodrich’s classes. The Monday morning sessions went well enough, but when Goodrich turned to Latin and Greek -- McCandless’s specialties -- then “came the tug of war.” After the children filed out, McCandless told Goodrich that he "was wholly incompetent to go on with those classes" and that he “would have dismissed [him] immediately but ... kinder feelings condemned the idea.” Instead McCandless slashed Goodrich’s pay, told him that he would no longer be teaching the language classes, and said that he would need to find a new job in two months. “I am feeling very miserable,” Goodrich confessed to his diary, “& have cursed the day that I wrote to him accepting the situation. I am alone among strangers & without money.”

Goodrich’s students may have sensed that their new teacher was out of odor with their principal. Regardless, they set upon him with their typical zeal. “The boys are wild,” Goodrich confessed to his diary, and “very obtuse.” One morning a group of them “stuck a pen in my chair … so that when I sat down, it would stick into me. It stuck up about half an inch.” Goodrich discovered the pen in time, but he admitted to his diary that he “had a hard time of it today. They are the worst creatures to govern I ever met.” Laughed at by the other teachers, sullen and silent at dinner, openly disrespected by his principal and his students, Goodrich was ready to condemn all of Camden. “The people may be chivalrous but they have appeared very cold to me,” he said. “I have not been a warm spirit in their hearts. None but my roommate to sympathize with. Laughed at for my awkwardness. I am deserted indeed.”

Saturday, May 5 dawned warm and pleasant. Goodrich’s time in Camden was drawing to a close, and, having the day off, he took a long walk in the woods where he “saw a beetle in the road & watched him roll a large piece of manure to the side of the road & dig a hole under it & take it by piece meal into it.” Goodrich fancied himself something of a naturalist and nature writer. “I quietly observe what passes around me,” he said, “noting what seems to be an anomaly in society or what is picturesque in nature, and treasure them up in the store-house of memory.” Goodrich had returned home and settled into a cup of tea when he began to hear the rumors. Something terrible had happened at Boykin Mill Pond about ten miles south. Pouring out onto the street, Goodrich found everything in bedlam. Men, women, and wagons, messengers and servants, were sweeping past, most on their way to the Camden depot. There Goodrich got a fuller picture of what had happened. A large group of the town’s teenagers had set off that morning for a May Day picnic and fishing expedition at Boykin Mill Pond. In the early afternoon, more than fifty of them had embarked upon a flatboat. A hundred yards from shore, they had hit a snag. No immediate danger was apprehended, but then the boat began to take on water. Watching from shore, their friends gradually stopped laughing and eating and then began to panic. Some few tried to swim out to them but it was too late. Most of those on the boat were young women and girls, whose skirts became extremely heavy as the boat began to sink. The boys on board tried to help, but most went down in a single mass, clinging to each other as drowning victims do.

By the time Goodrich reached the depot, the bodies were already arriving. Thirteen came in the first car, but Goodrich followed a wagon-load of four that all went to the same house. Goodrich helped dress the corpses as the mother “whose almost every child was gone,” wailed “‘& these too, & these too?’” over and over. Her “grief could not be measured,” Goodrich later wrote.

Goodrich was grief-stricken too. Hours before he had been watching a dung-beetle in the road and idly hating Camden and its children. Now twenty-four of them were dead, including one of his own students, and he was united with the town in its pain. “This occurrence has bound me closer to Camden & I will depart with far different feelings than I otherwise would,” he wrote in his diary. “Oh what lamentations the night witnessed! Truly in the midst of life we are in death. It deeply impressed my mind & the shock will not soon be removed. So teach me O God to number my days that I may apply my heart to wisdom.”

[Credit: The Ralph Leland Goodrich Diaries, 1859-1867 are available in an excellent online edition.]

The Boykin Mill Pond Incident Inquests

Displaying 1 - 21 of 21
Name Deceased Description Date Inquest Location Death Type Death Method Inquest Finding
Alice Robinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Amelia A. Alexander May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning

upon their oaths do say that the said Amelia A. Alexander came to her death by accidental drowning in the millpond of A.H. Boykin … by sinking of a Flat caused by the weight of between fifty-three & fifty-six persons

Benjamin Franklin Hocott May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Dorcas Page May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Elizabeth McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Jane Kelly May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Jerry R. McLeod May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
John Oaks May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Louisa McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Louisa Nettles May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Lucius LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Margaret McKeown May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Mary Hinson May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Mary Jenkins May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Pinder slave May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Samuel H. Young May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Sarah Ann Howell May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Selena Crosby May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
Smith T. T. Richboury May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
William LeGrand May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning
William McKagen May 5, 1860 at Boykin's Mill, Kershaw County, SC Accident drowning

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