A-Hole: A Historical Meditation

May 31, 2019

In 1850 a young country doctor stopped in for a “fine mess of melons” at a Mississippi homestead belonging to a poor white family: “Here I beheld what I was astonished at,” the doctor later wrote in his diary. “All the little children were allowed a seat along with the adult company, each one (there were about seven) as dirty as the earth could make them and the smallest ones with their dressing tucked up behind, exposing their posteriors, [each] with a swarm of gnats after it.” Staring into a scrum of gnatty asses, the doctor wondered, ‘who are these people?’ “Thus live thousands,” he marveled, “and as happy as queens and Kings.” [1]

Enslavers and enslaved dominate our understanding of the Old South, but poor whites (“Dixie’s forgotten people” in the words of historian Wayne Flynt) dominated at the morgue—as victims, victimizers, and ‘hold my beer’ numbskulls. For the most part, these strong-lunged ‘sovereigns of the forest’ kept to themselves, tending their stills and obsessing over their daughters’ chastity. But on court-days and election-days, they poured into southern towns on broken-backed nags in a maelstrom of drunkenness and commerce, camaraderie and pugilism. [2]

A writer for Harper's captured ‘sale day’ in all its glories.

In South Carolina, no day was more sacred to the po-tacky than “sale-day.” “Whatever the first Monday of the month may be in other grand divisions of the earth,” noted one Harper’s editor, “it is always ‘sale day’ in South Carolina.” Watching the poor whites roll into town, the editor was particularly struck by the creativity of their conveyances. “Quite a number of vehicles, wonderfully various in appearance, but mostly rough wagons or rougher carts or dilapidated buggies, with ragged little oxen or the sorriest of horses and mules, dotted Main Street throughout its visible length of over a quarter of a mile. Not more than two or three of these ‘conveyances’ had leather tops; but some of the wagons were protected by rounded canvas roofs, usually rising to a peak fore and aft; and several of the buggies had white cotton umbrellas, six feet in diameter, standing in a socket fastened to the seat.” [3]

More than a swap meet, sale-day was a partial liquidation and re-solidification of society itself, a minor recasting of who owed what, owned what, and was what, celebrated in an air that crackled with greed, sorrow, and schadenfreude. South Carolina’s courts of equity were particularly aggressive: whenever property was abandoned, foreclosed upon, or in dispute, the answer was usually the same: sale day. As the Harper’s editor concluded, on sale-day “as many auctioneers as there are court-houses in the State mount suitable elevations and shout ‘Going, going gone!’ over bottom-lands, uplands, wood-lands, houses, log-cabins, buggies, stock, and household articles past enumeration…. It is unchallengeably the great day of the month … it is an institution, and lacks little of being a solemnity. There are South Carolinians who ride ten or fifteen miles to every monthly sale, and who would feel it to be something like Sabbath-breaking to fail in so doing, although mayhap they never bid off an article in their lives. Sale day is the occasion for meeting one’s friends, hearing the gossip of the district, discussing political news, learning market-prices, and making trades. It is also considered a proper time for [such] festivities as get[ting] drunk and fight[ing.]” [4]


Sale-Day, Monday, September 3, 1860, Conwayboro, Horry County, South Carolina

 

The five men loped down the road, two of them “tight as a tick” and “drinking very bad.” The inebriated men were Eli Thompkins, 64, and his son Gabriel, 28. Just ahead of them were Eli’s younger son, Benjamin, 21, and two members of the Hughes family, William P. and William R., both in their thirties. For reasons lost to time, father Eli “commenced cursing the seed, breed, and generation” of some of the Hughes’s clan. [5]

“Curse them only in part,” young Benjamin called out from the head of the staggering quintet, “as I [have] some of the family in connexion with me.”

Old Man Eli took this badly, racing up to his son, shaking his fist, and first damning and then “God Damning” him. Not wanting a fight with his father, Benjamin apologized, but by then his brother Gabe had swung around to give him a swift kick to the backside. Whirling, Benjamin hit the fraternal asskicker with a walking stick, but this only enraged him further, and the two boys fell upon each other in the middle of the street in a tangle of swinging limbs. When, from out of the scrum, brother Benjamin demanded a “fair fight,” the bystanding Hugheses realized that brother Gabe had pulled a knife. Looking to Eli expectantly, they signaled that it was probably time to break the boys up. Instead the old man yelled to Gabe: “pull his eyes out!”

William P. thought this a little harsh. “Damn [Eli] it don’t do [to do] so,” he said, moving toward the tangled brothers. As soon as his back was turned, however, Eli pounced, wrapping his hands around William P.’s neck and beginning to choke him. Eli was in over his head, however, and the fight quickly petered out. William P. threw the old man to the ground while William R. separated the still-clutched brothers. By the time Eli got back to his feet, his rage had unseated his reason.

“Don’t you come on me,” William P. warned him, “or I will kill you.”

Eli came on him anyway.

“Don’t you come on me or I will kill you,” William P. repeated.

“God damn you and all your weapons,” Eli responded, rushing forward.

William P. calmly shot Eli and, then, as the old man staggered forward, gutted him with a knife.

William P. calmly shot Eli and, then, as the old man staggered forward, gutted him with a knife. “On Examination,” the doctors said at Eli’s inquest, “we find the External appearance to present in drawing a line from the crest of one hip bone to the other, the wound commencing an inch above the left hip bone … and penetrating the descending colon, or large gut just below the fexion … through the smaller intestines & omentum, thence passing upward and backwards in the direction of the sacrum entering the rectum just below the sigmond frection.” William R. put it more succinctly: Eli lay there with his “guts cut and lying out.”

Historians should always speak of their subjects with a perfect balance of objectivity and empathy. Dispassion is our armor, detachment our claim to authority. Even so, I find it difficult to capture the character of Eli Thompkins without recourse to the word ‘asshole.’ What kind of father encourages one son to gouge the other’s eyes out? There is only one answer: an ‘asshole.’ No other word will do; no other word comes close. As historians, I believe we have reached an academic Rubicon; either we will embrace a taxonomy that spans the entire human range of psychological types or we will admit defeat.

I would agree that applying the word ‘asshole’ to a denizen of the nineteenth century is a stylistic anachronism. (An 1818 Scottish etymological dictionary defined it this way: “ASSHOLE, s. 1. The place for receiving the ashes under the grate. 2. A round excavation in the ground, out of doors, into which the ashes are carried from the hearth…. [also] esshole, ashole.”) Not until the twentieth century would a more vulgar, more specific definition take hold. [6]

Admitting that ‘asshole’ cannot be defended chronologically, I submit that it has become vital conceptually.

If ‘asshole’ cannot be defended chronologically, however, it must be defended conceptually. In 2008, philosopher Aaron James was standing in line when a stranger cut to the front of the queue. “Gosh, what an asshole,” James thought. For the next seven years, James engaged in philosophical reflection on precisely what made an asshole an ‘asshole.’ “If you [had] asked me what it means to call someone an ‘asshole’” prior to this event, James noted, “I probably would have suggested [that it was] just another term of abuse, a way of simply expressing one’s disapproval.” Dilating upon his feelings, however, James came to understand that an asshole was something precise. “The asshole,” he said, “is the guy who systematically allows himself special advantages in cooperative life out of an entrenched sense of entitlement that immunises him against the complaints of other people.” [7]

James’s definition is perfect, wanting only historical precision to be cleared for academic use. So: let’s do this.

First, we must differentiate ‘asshole’ from other opprobrium, especially ‘ass,’ ‘dick,’ ‘prick,’ ‘motherfucker,’ ‘shit,’ and ‘douchebag.’ Being an ‘asshole,’ I would argue, is more or less a deliberate choice; it is not just a lifestyle but a philosophical stance, rising almost to a religion. In every interaction, the ‘asshole’ seeks to do the greatest good for the smallest number, caring not one whit how it all looks. The ‘ass,’ by contrast, cares deeply about appearance; this is, in part, what marks him as an ‘ass.’ Similarly the ‘dick,’ like his preppier cousin, the ‘prick,’ certainly engages in one-off abuses, but he is rarely beyond redemption because his actions are unreflective; he can be schooled. The ‘asshole,’ on the other hand, is determined to be an asshole; he has taken a deliberate position vis-a-vis the rest of humanity. When traffic has to consolidate, he looks forward to rushing to the front and demanding to be let over. He knows his move isn’t especially clever or fair, but clever and fair are for suckers. Ask yourself: if someone applied one of these labels to you behind your back, which would hurt the most? ‘Asshole.’ And the reason is simple: Language is not perfectly elastic. Asses and dicks may posture and preen, but an ‘asshole’ is an asshole because it shits all over everything. ‘Assholes’ don’t just like winning; they like watching other people lose.

A graph may help. Let us, on the x-axis, measure intentionality or self-awareness. And let us, on the y-axis, measure effectiveness. The ‘ass’ is almost wholly unself-aware, almost completely ineffective. The ‘asshole’ stands defiantly at the other corner of the graph; he is deliberate; he is effective; and he is proud to be an asshole.

asshole-o-meter.jpg

This brings us to a second point: we must understand that ‘asshole’ is deeply gendered and raced. Yes, there are female assholes, black assholes, and queer assholes, but the true asshole is always an abuser of privilege. Again, this abuse is deliberate; the asshole revels in getting away with a thing not for the thing he gets away with but for the satisfaction of getting away with it. He doesn’t love power; he loves the abuse of it.

Third, and most important for present purposes, the ‘asshole’ must be historicized. Yes, ‘assholish’ behavior has existed for all time, and there is no question that ‘asshole’ is a psychological type, baked into the human genome—a specific combination of As, Ts, Cs, and Gs that science deeply needs to identify and, if possible, eradicate. As historians, however, we know that no human conduct is perfectly transhistorical. The expression and inflection of ‘assholery’—like the expression and inflection of sympathy or kindness or charity—depends deeply upon historical context and circumstance. Let us, then, return to the headwaters of Americans’ assholish tendencies. Here William Faulkner’s famous portrait of the southern frontiersman provides a perfect point of departure. Even if you’ve read it before, the passage deserves quoting in full as one of the first and best depictions of the American Asshole in his original habitat:

“the tall man roaring with Protestant scripture and boiled whiskey, Bible and jug in one hand and like as not an Indian tomahawk in the other, brawling, turbulent, uxorious and polygamous: a married invincible bachelor without destination but only motion, advancement, dragging his gravid wife and most of his mother-in-law’s kin behind him into the trackless wilderness, to spawn that child behind a log-crotched rifle and then get her with another one before they move again, and at the same time scattering his inexhaustible seed in three hundred miles of dusky bellies: without avarice or compassion or forethought either: felling a tree which took two hundred years to grow, to extract from it a bear or a capful of wild honey.” [8]

For all its sublimity, Faulkner’s depiction is still a little grand. His “tall man” bestrides the Earth like a rape-y Paul Bunyan or the Judge from Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. Such characters are always a recrudescence of the God of the Old Testament, culus primus, who really was an asshole. Smiting and vaporizing His children for petty infractions, Yahweh’s Iron Age parenting style presumed a life of endless pissing contests punctuated by random acts of cruelty.

Transplanted to South in 1838, the English actress Fanny Kemble described the South’s poor whites as “the most degraded race of human beings claiming an Anglo-Saxon origin that can be found on the face of the earth.” For others they embodied the ferocious independence and native cunning that would forever ensure the republic’s perpetuity. Here E. W. Kemble, no relation, illustrates various poor white ‘types.’

In his earlier days, in his finest drunk, Eli Thompkins might have approximated Faulkner’s “tall man.” More likely, he was a small man invested with ridiculous power by an absolutist culture that made every man a king, even those with a permanent case of the staggers. To be sure, the southern frontier produced perfectly nice gentlemen too. Abraham Lincoln grew up in the same milieu as Faulkner’s quintessential hornswoggler, and yet Lincoln developed a “streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets.” He didn’t curse, chew, hunt, drink, smoke, fish, fight, or fornicate. He liked the theater better than sports. And he cried too much. He cried when he left Springfield; cried when Elmer Ellsworth was killed; cried over freedmen in Richmond; cried when he read a good book or watched a good play; cried when six horses died in a stable fire. Read any ten reminiscences about Lincoln and it seems like he’s bawling in half of them, the tears (invariably) streaming down the craggy ravines of his desiccated face.

My point, however, is a more specific and serious one: When it comes to virtually every dimension of historical causality, historians will never be able to explain anything until they admit that a small but significant percentage of Americans are and have always been thoroughgoing assholes. It is not enough to say that they were racist or sexist or selfish. Instead we must historically specify a more radical defect of character, a defect that I submit can only be properly captured by the word ‘asshole.’ Indeed, I would suggest that history as a discipline stands at a crossroads: either it will or it won’t take past assholery (or ‘pastholery’) seriously. Lost in large households, taunted by local bullies and older siblings, emotionally abused by their own pasthole parents, such pastholes-in-training defensively escaped into roll-your-own-realities so exclusively steeped in grievances and grudges that their overriding sense in every human interaction was ‘the world owes me something.’ Beating by beating, their own feelings and opinions became magnified in importance and expression. The feelings and opinions of others grew distant and disposable. Their reaction to another’s advancement was invariably, “Why should she benefit?” Their reaction to another’s misfortune was always, “Why shouldn’t he suffer?” Their ‘assholery’ had gone asymptotic: Being an asshole was all they knew; being an asshole was their first and last line of defense in an anarchic world with just one rule: devil take the hindmost.


Abram Rabon, Jr., Hanged by Law, 1856

 

Like Eli and the rest of the unhappy-in-their-own-way Thompkins clan, the Rabon family belonged to a social caste historians talk too little about: the landed poor. In 1730 a Rabon patriarch received a chunk of Horry County for unknown service to the crown. After the War of 1812, his grandsons received additional land as a payment for military service. By 1850 the Rabons owned more than a thousand acres of land fit only for pigs. Horry County would one day be home to Myrtle Beach, but before the Civil War it was honeycombed by rivers and swamps, the poorest county in South Carolina. Largely cut off from the outside world, Horry operated as the “Independent Republic of Horry.” Most of the county’s white families didn’t work slaves because they couldn’t afford them; most signed their name with an ‘X.’

Near dusk on September 4, 1849, the Rabon patriarch, Abram Rabon Sr., heard the distinct sound of a hog holler on the edge of his property. He rightly guessed that the recalcitrant pigs belonged to his brother William and that the hog hollers belonged to his infernal nephews. The two families had long been at odds about grazing rights.

Moving quickly, Abram and two of his sons caught their relations in flagrante depigto, the cousins’ hogs still over the property line. Incensed, Abram sicced his dogs on the pigs and his boys on their cousins. Son Duke caught one cousin by the legs and threw him to the ground. Abram Jr. went after the other cousin with a “certain knife, of the value of fifty cents” and did “strike and thrust ... in and upon the right side, and under the right breast, between the ribs of him”; “said cousin” did receive “one moretal wound, of the breadth of two inches, and of the depth of six inches.” With “blood running down him,” he made it about forty yards “and there ... Expired in or near fifteen minutes after … the said stab.” [9]

csid_images_rabons_in_jail2.jpg
The 1850 census lists the Rabons—Abraham, Abraham Jr., and Duke—as ‘residing’ with the Horry County jailor.

Abram Sr. and his two sons were arrested for murder and taken to the Horry County jail. Killings weren’t completely uncommon in the county, but (maybe accurate) rumors that Abram Sr. had ordered the murder of his own brother’s son captured the attention of the State. “Where two or more, acting with a common intent, are present at the commission of a felony,” claimed the State’s lawyer at trial, “it matters not by whose immediate agency the crime is consummated;—all are equally guilty. The act is the act of all and the act of each.” On appeal, son Duke got off on a technicality. Since he had neither murdered anyone nor directed anyone’s murder, he garnered a distant sympathy, and his lawyers managed to implausibly claim that he had never been at the scene. Having let one Rabon go, however, the State’s attorneys were determined to make an example of the rest. Abram Sr. and Jr. were both sentenced to hang. [10]

Here the historical record becomes murky. Witnesses verified that Abram Sr. had ordered his sons to confront their cousins at any and every opportunity, but had he really called for this particular killing? Though he later became known as the “man who drove himself to his own hanging,” it seems improbable that the governor saved him from the gallows at the last second. What is clear is that Abram Sr. successfully petitioned the State to have custody of his namesake, Abram Jr., while the family brought in the crops. Then he drove his son to the gallows in a rickety ox-cart with his younger children riding on a coffin in the back.

Other whites had probably been executed in Horry County, but it had been a while, and the novelty of a good, old-fashioned public hanging brought out a massive crowd. Ellen Cooper remembered that her father gathered her up, in the early morning at the age of twelve, to drive her and her brother out to learn the meaning of Old Testament justice. “The gallows stood where the Baptist Church now stands,” Cooper remembered in an interview more than sixty years later. “It made such an impression that I have never forgotten it. I am now an old lady, but I remember well how it all looked, and I have never wanted to see such a sight again.” [11]

The few historians who have written about this event treat Abram Sr. as a sort of stoic hero. Submitting to the State, driving his son to his own hanging, Abram Sr. had adhered to Biblical notions of an eye-for-an-eye. He had (effectively) killed his brother’s child. His brother had (effectively) killed his child. They were even. As he drove off in the rain, his namesake in a box, Abram Sr. achieved a kind of redemption. Abram Jr. achieved a kind of redemption too. In committing murder, he had lived by a code and died by the letter of family law: devil take the hindmost. His grave marker says all that you need to know: “Abram Rabon, Jr., Hanged by Law, 1856”

There’s another possibility, however—a narrative opportunity lying dormant in the interstices of these records, an alternate way of connecting the dots: What if we allowed for the possibility that every last person in this drama was a total asshole? And here I don’t mean to employ an unspecified opprobrium but a new category of human analysis. As an historian, I can never, will never, pass a moral judgment on my subjects. But who am I if I am incapable of historical judgment? Have I not defined my terms? Have I not explained my methodology, my typology?

After his release from jail, Abram Sr. and his sons continued their criminal depredations on their neighbors and kin. Abram Sr. and sons Duke and George were found guilty of assault and battery in 1854; the following spring, he and Duke were found guilty of “killing a horse in the night time.” (Why it matters that the horse was killed after the sun set is also lost to time.) By then, Abram Sr. was considered “a dangerous man,” as one Horry County resident remembered, “feared by most.” [12]

csid_image_rabon_discharge.jpg
Duke Rabon was discharged from the Confederate Army for chronic diarrhea.

When the Civil War broke out, Abram Sr.’s older sons, George and Duke, joined and then managed to unjoin the Confederate Army. George quickly got sick and went to the hospital; whether by his own action or an army oversight, he is listed as a deserter for most of 1862, reappearing with his unit for only a few months in early 1863 before being formally discharged. His brother Duke had been discharged the summer before with chronic diarrhea. “This soldier had become much prostrated from an attack of diarrhea becoming chronic in its character,” Duke’s discharge notes, “and obstinately resisting remedial means … render[s] him entirely unfit for duty.” [13]

Here the historical record again gets fuzzy. The weight of evidence suggests that at least some of the Rabon boys broke even badder, joining forces with a band of deserters and brigands hiding out in the Horry County swamps. Fifth born Gabriel, at least, carried out regular raids on the hog yard of a neighbor, Johnathan J. Carroll, who threatened variously that if he caught Gabriel on his property again he “would be carried away with a bloody head” or “the Buzard would eat him if his friends did not cary him away.” On October 6, 1862, Carroll found Gabriel again poaching hogs and shot him in the chest. “The load penetrated the Thorax,” said the examining doctor, “obliquly at the articulation of the fifth and sixth ribs with the sternum on the right side, passed through the Heart [which] was badly laserated and through the lower lobe of left lung and lodged below the scapula on the left side.” [14]

We do not know how Gabriel’s wife, Polly, felt about her husband’s murder. We know she had four “infants of tender age at home.” We know that she, like most of the Rabons, signed her name with an ‘X.’ And we know she started sleeping with Gabriel’s brother, George.

As the war dragged on, the Rabon brothers appear to have escalated their criminality beyond hog-poaching. The best witness we have to these events is Ellen Cooper Johnson, the woman who had watched Abram Jr. hanged as a little girl. Johnson recorded her memoirs in 1924 at the age of 80, and the resulting document bears the tell-tale signs of literary license, but there is nothing in her record at odds with what we know, and oftentimes she appears to have built the memoir around the scaffolding of a diary or other contemporaneous record. Regardless, let us tell her version through before we engage in verification, and then speculation, about how it all connects to the Rabons.

At the outbreak of the Civil War, Cooper was a young schoolteacher, living with her sister and brother-in-law at Cool Spring, a remote enclave twelve miles north of Conwayboro (now Conway), Horry’s county seat. The family made a good living, especially for Horry County, raising hogs, selling lumber, and distilling turpentine. They held slaves on the plantation, but not many, and most of them had run off. In 1863, the brother-in-law had joined the Waccamaw Light Artillery and was detailed to Charleston, leaving the plantation in the care of Ellen and her sister. Horry County’s relative poverty and swampiness made the isolated property, as Ellen said, a perfect target for “deserters from our own army who would lie in the woods and would rather steal from defenseless families than work or fight for their state.” [15]

The raiders’ first target was the family barn, which sat right along the public road. The bandits made off with most of the cotton and corn and, more ominously, shot the farm's two yard-dogs, signaling that they would return. “This has been a terrible week with us,” ellen wrote in her memoirs, which sounds strangely present tense. “We [sleep] little for fear of being killed or burned out … nothing to do but to wait and watch.” A week after the raid on the barn, the sisters noticed a fire leaping up in the turpentine still yard. With more than a thousand barrels of turpentine and resin, the flames soon shot up “higher than the tallest pine tree,” raining back down in “burning pieces of resin.” The effect was almost beautiful, but shifts in the wind could send flaming ash onto the roofs of the surrounding buildings. Ellen grabbed a large tin dipper, ran up the steps to the upper floor of the turpentine still, where she could access the vast still tank, which she knew was always full of water. Then she spent the next eight hours throwing water up as high as she could onto the smoldering roofs of her sister’s outbuildings. “The heat was unbearable,” she said, but the night was cool and her clothes were smoldering and wet. Her arms ached. Occasionally she would stop to rest for a just a moment before going back to work. When dawn rose, the turpentine was still burning—it would burn for days afterward—but at least “the house was not in danger.” [16]

The next day the sisters felt almost defeated. Ellen was so hoarse she could not speak above a whisper. Her hands and arms were so swollen and stiff they hung uselessly at her side. Her head ached massively. More than anything she felt “lonely [and] helpless.” The raiders hadn’t managed to burn them out, but she knew they would be back.

The sisters dispatched one of the remaining servants to Conwayboro, where their father lived, requesting help. In the meantime they concentrated on salvaging whatever they could before the scavengers returned. They buried the best of their household things—dishes, goblets, clothing, bed-linen, keepsakes—in a box under the floor of the smoke-house—and buried a few barrels of food (pork, syrup, and corn) in the mule stalls, then covered the hole with fresh straw. “If we could save these barrels,” Ellen later remembered thinking, “we would not perish for something to eat.” As the sisters were working they periodically noticed a “strange woman” loitering in the road. “She was always alone and always seemed to be in great haste,” Ellen later recalled. But she didn’t think much of it until the next morning when the sisters discovered that the raiders had taken down fence rails, maneuvered a cart into the yard, and then actually tunneled under the smoke-house door to make away with the box of household goods. They had not (yet) discovered the supplies in the mule stall, but they would undoubtedly be back for the provisions in the smoke-house now that it was perfectly exposed. [17]

During the day, the sisters were surprised to be visited by an “old white-headed, long-bearded man.” “He was a rough talker,” Ellen said, but she didn’t immediately recognize him—Abram Rabon—“once sentenced to be hung … for the murder of his nephew.” [18]

“I have come to help you,” Rabon announced, “I know the raiders are planning another raid—I know that they are near here and that they know you have provisions, and they are going to have them…. If you will trust me I will take some of your corn and meant and put it in my house, and I will promise you that it will not be troubled. They know me. I will kill the first man who enters my house. After this thing is settled I will bring your things back. If you lose everything else, at least you will then have something to eat.” [19]

Rabon was notorious, and he clearly knew the people who were doing this to them. But with so few alternatives the sisters gave him a barrel of pork and three of corn and hoped for the best.

That same day, they had another visitor, C. L. Johnson, a wounded Confederate soldier returning from Virginia to Conwayboro. Ellen would later marry him, so it is not clear whether she and Johnson knew each other, were in love already, or were perfect strangers. Regardless, he agreed to stay. Unable to walk on a leg splintered at Cold Harbor?, he could still shoot, and so he would spend the night on the porch, “rifle and cartridge box beside him.” Ellen and her sister would stay inside, hunkered down with pistols on either side of the bedroom door where the children were sleeping just in case the men got inside.

“Here we sat waiting, watching, and listening,” Ellen later remembered. “It was a dark, rainy night. The hours passed—nine, ten, eleven—about this time we heard very slight noise” … followed by a rifle shot. As the raiders returned Johnson’s fire Ellen and Lou scrambled into the bedroom and pulled all the children onto the floor. A bullet “passed through the room, knocking off the arm of the rocking chair.” Another “went through the wardrobe which we had pulled up to the foot of the bed to protect the sleeping children.” Ellen “could hear the deserters cursing and swearing that they were going to come inside the house.” Ellen ran into the hallway, peering through a window into the darkness. When she saw a rifle flare, she returned fire, hoping to convince the raiders that an assault on the house wasn’t worth it. “Now all became quiet,” she remembered. “Not a sound for about an hour.” Later they could hear the raiders driving their carts into the yard, but they made not attempt come into the house. Instead they dismantled the entire side of the smoke-house and took everything in it—all of the salt, all of the barrels of pork and corn, along with fifty-eight hams—leaving behind “one lone ham and some of the shoulder meat.” [20]

The next morning, a Captain Ervin arrived with the local home guard, presumably sent by Ellen’s father. Searching through the woods, they apprehended the mysterious woman whom the sisters had seen scouting from the road. The woman admitted that the deserters were in the swamp, but she refused to divulge where. This was apparently enough of a lead, however, that the following morning Captain Ervin returned with a captive. In her memoir, Ellen identified him as “young Abe Rabon—son of the old man who had befriended us,” but this is impossible, not least because Abe Rabon, Jr. had been hanged in 1856 in an execution that Ellen had witnessed. More likely he was Abe’s grandson, George’s son, eighteen-year-old Abram Jr., who was also AWOL from his unit and who would later murder his own child in the womb. Regardless, the young man was “tied to a tree in the yard and … told that the law for deserters from the army was death.” This threat was enough that he told Ervin where the other raiders were and where some of the stolen items could be found. The box of household items had been divided up among local families and were only partially recovered, but the corn and pork barrels were found in the swamp exactly where he said they would be. Ervin and his men spent the day sweeping through the swamp, wounding some of the raiders and dispersing the rest. Then they returned to Conwayboro. [21]

We will probably never know exactly which Rabon boys made common cause with the swamp men who deserted their posts, stole from their neighbors, burned down a turpentine yard, and fired into a bedroom full of women and children, all to abscond with more food than they could ever eat. What is clear is that Abram Rabon, Sr. returned the provisions that had been vouchsafed to his care.

So wait: Was Abram Sr. an asshole? That is actually a good question. Let me repeat for my academic peers: That is a really good question. It is a question my undergraduates would certainly ask. It is a question the American public would already have asked and answered before now, even if they were wrong, even if they never read this far. It is a question my graduate students would deny asking even as they answered it silently to themselves and maybe felt a little guilty about it. And yet it is a question no self-respecting academic would ask in print. Isn’t that a problem? If I am right—if ‘assholes’ are not in the eye of the beholder but are instead social-scientifically demonstrable character types upon whom the whole of our politics grossly depends, then isn’t it incumbent upon someone to be precise? And yes, I realize that if historians take up the mantle of such precision they set themselves up as a latter-day Anubis, weighing human hearts against a feather in an eternal scale of justice. But if historians are not Anubis reincarnate, who are we? Who is? In addition to or in the absence of god, who keeps the dead’s judgments against the living? Who keeps the living’s judgments against the dead? As historians, we must. We should. And we should humble about it, even as we go about our immortal work.

In 1866, Abram Sr. sued his daughter-in-law, Polly. Perhaps he resented George’s desecration of Gabriel’s memory and Polly’s determination to shack up with another man. Perhaps he worried for his grandchildren. Perhaps he hoped to reclaim his dead son’s “one tract of land in the District and state aforesaid on Chinners Swamp containing one hundred and ninety acres more or less.” Regardless Rabon vs. Rabon is one of those cases that only a family “unhappy in its own way” can produce. In his suit, Abram Sr. claimed that Polly was “unable to support and maintain” her children and “led an immoral life … with a brother of their [dead] father”—meaning his other son. [22]

Q. “Have you not been living an immoral life with your brother’s wife?”... A. “If I have slept with her, you prove it. [I’ve] helped her with her crops.”

Q. “Have you not been living an immoral life with your brother’s wife?” the prosecutor asked George in the ensuing case. [23]

A. “You can’t expect me to answer that question,” George replied. “I expect to go there if I want to—If I have slept with her, you prove it. [I’ve] helped her with her crops.”

During the trial a witness was asked: “Would you think [the] morals of [the] children endangered by [George] remaining with [the] mother?”

A: “If she puts George away and keeps him away, she should have her children.”

The court found in Abram Sr.’s favor; Polly’s children were placed in their grandfather’s custody; her land fell to the gavel. On sale-day, December 1866, Abram Sr. pocketed the proceeds, turned Polly out and seized custody of her children. For her part, Polly never ‘put George away’; instead she bore him four children.

Six years later, Abram Sr. was shotgunned in the chest by his son-in-law. As with everything related to the Rabons we have only bare legal notices to go by. We know Abram Sr.’s youngest daughter, Mary Polly Rabon, was 17 in 1863 when she married a British-born widower, Joshua Long, forty years her senior. Joshua had fathered nine children by a prior marriage; his eldest child, at 34, was twice the age of his new wife. The liniments of the dispute between Joshua and his father-in-law are lost to time. Easier to understand is the result: Abram Sr. was “Instantly Killed” at the age of 78. In the aftermath, George successfully petitioned for custody of the nephews and nieces he had lost in the original case of Rabon v. Rabon.

The Rabon family imbroglio, as laid bare here, isn’t a tragedy; it doesn’t span enough time to be a saga; never set to music it can’t be a ballad, and yet it’s something deeper than a “Hold-My-Beer” Hamlet or a double-wide disaster. All that might give Abram Sr. human texture is beyond my ability to know. All that I have to trace the record and wreckage of his family’s implosion are the legal records that paint him at his worst. Was Abram Sr., in sparing his neighbors from his own sons’ wrath, attempting to arrest the spiraling assholishness of his own progeny? Or was he, directly or indirectly, responsible for all that befell his family, from the hanging of his own son to his own death at the hand of a son-on-law old enough to recognize him as an ‘asshole’?

Certainly Abram Sr. was a ‘hard man.’ When, Anubis-like, I put his heart in a scale against a feather, am I really willing to defy thirty years of historical training and call him an ‘asshole’?

Yes.

Footnotes: 
  1. Lynette Boney Wrenn, ed., A Bachelor’s Life in Antebellum Mississippi: The Diary of Dr. Elijah Millington Walker 1849-1852 (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2004), 72, 109-10.

  2. Ibid.

  3. "Parole D'Honneur,' Harper's Magazine, volume 37, 1868, p. 372.

  4. Ibid.

  5. "The State of South Carolina vs. the Body of Eli Thompkins," September 5, 1860, South Carolina Department of Archives and History. All quotations are from this source.

  6. John Jamieson, Supplement to the Etymological Dictionary of the Scottish Language (Edinburgh: University Press, 1825), p. 28.

  7. Aaron James, “The Meaning of ‘Asshole,’” The Philosopher’s Magazine (October 2015); available online at

  8. William Faulkner, Big Woods: The Hunting Stories (New York: Knopf, 2011), p. 1.

  9. "The State of South Carolina vs. the Body of Willis Rabon," September 5, 1860, South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

  10. J. S. G. Richardson, Reports of Cases at Law Argued and Determined in the Court of Appeals and Court of Errors of South Carolina, Volume 4 (Columbia, S.C.: A. S. Johnston, 1851), p. 264. Duke did have his partisans who didn't believe a man should be hanged for the crimes of his brother: “We have been informed by one of the members of our Bar, that Duke Rabon has been acquitted. This is most grateful intelligence; and now we most sincerely hope and pray, that our good and amiable Governor will pardon the other two. We may be wrong; but we cannot help thinking that their present miserable fate is owing to undue excitement, on the part of the witnesses and the jury that tried them.” Winyaw Observer, reprinted in Semi-Weekly Camden Journal, April 11, 1851, p. 2

  11. Ellen Cooper Johnson, Memoirs (Conway, S.C.: 1924).

  12. "The State vs. Duke Rabon, Abram Rabon Sr. and George Rabon," 1854 Fall Term, Horry County Court, South Carolina Department of Archives and History; "The State vs Abraham Rabon," 1855 Spring Term, Horry County Court, South Carolina Department of Archives and History; "The State vs. Abraham Rabon Sr., Duke Rabon, and Alex Ludlam," 1855 Spring Term, Horry County Court, South Carolina Department of Archives and History; Cooper, Memoir.

  13. "Certificate of Disability for Discharge for Duke Rabon," August 16, 1862 [accessed via fold3].

  14. "The State vs. the Body of Duke Rabon," October 9, 1862, South Carolina Department of Archives and History.

  15. Cooper, Memoir

  16. Ibid.

  17. Ibid.

  18. Ibid.

  19. Ibid.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Ibid.

  22. "Petition for the Sale of Land and Custody of Children," Horry County Probate Court, October 1862; Rabon, A. Compiled service record. Capt. Mayham Ward's Co., South Carolina Lt. Art'y, NARA. If this Abram Rabon Jr. was George's son, it is possible the "mysterious woman" was Polly, whom George had taken up with.

  23. "Rabon vs. Rabon," Horry County Probate Court.

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