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Sandspurs, fireants and all

By Jefferson Weaver

I’ve never been convinced that Neil Sellers and Dave Brown killed Blanche Packer.

I spent a lot of time with Blanche, Brown, Sellers, Sheriff Lyon and others a few years back, and I have never been completely sure that the men hanged on the courthouse lawn in Elizabethtown were indeed murderers.

But whether or not Sellers and/or Brown were truly hardened criminals, or the victims of a lynch mob mentality in a racially-charged election year, is a moot point.

For those unfamiliar with the case – Blanche Russ Packer, 21, was the wife of a  sawmill hand named George Packer. They lived near Abbottsburg.

George worked for the Cape Fear Lumber Company, and Blanche was described “Fine Christian” woman from a good family. In the time I spent sneezing my way through court records, old newspapers and similarly arcane records, I never saw anything to dispute these statements.

Nor did I find anything to prove that Sellers and Brown were truly “fiends”.

On Sept. 3, 1904, Blanche was preparing a midday meal when she was murdered.

A hired boy fetched some potatoes for Blanche, and on his return found the kitchen “in disarray.” The pies that Blanche had been making for a surprise treat were “smeared across the floor.” The boy took off for the lumber mill.

It didn’t take long for the men of the community to assemble; George was well-liked, and Blanche was respected as well. Searchers, both black and white, fanned out through the area.

A volunteer tracker found a trail that led to the woman’s body, lying in a “stump hole.” She had been knocked out and dragged a short distance from the house, where she was raped and mutilated.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t long after some of these same men had seen Wilmington torn apart by the 1898 riots; rabble rousers on both sides were still stoking the fires that gave the white supremacists an excuse to make mischief, and gave the black anarchists a way to bolster their own platforms.

Even when cooler heads prevailed, the early 20th century wasn’t a great time to be a person of color in some parts of the Cape Fear region.

Bloodhounds brought from Maxton via the railroad followed a scent from the Packer house to a nearby timber camp where Neil Sellers and Dave Brown were “loafing”.

Sellers and Brown skipped work that day for some unknown reason, according to their straw boss. Three “strange Negroes” were reported near the Packer home around the time the hired boy went to the potato patch. Sellers would later admit that he had agreed with Brown to attack Blanche, but Sellers fled the Packer home before they even got close to the woman. He testified that he “left Brown there,” but did nothing to prevent the crime.

A three-day trial in October led to a hanging on the courthouse square on Nov. 16. There was an uproar when the foreman of the jury, W.K. Kelly, said he was not thoroughly convinced of the men’s guilt. After the sheriff broke up a fight in the courtroom, the jurors returned to their quarters. Half an hour later, they “affirmed the verdict.” It was the only time, Sellers showed any emotion, according to newspaper accounts.

Hangings were big affairs at the time; although we have a hard time imagining taking the family to see a man (or two) die, I’d point out that the average evening of television programming likely has far more deaths shown for entertainment purposes than our great-grandparents ever witnessed in the course of justice.

The men protested their innocence until the trapdoors opened under their feet, with Sellers supposedly accusing someone else of the crime. He died quickly, with the noose breaking his neck, while Brown strangled. Some observers noted this as a divine indication of Sellers’ innocence, although I personally would suspect the hangman’s hand more than that of God.

The widower and spectators cut pieces of the hanging ropes to take home as souvenirs. Brown’s eight-minute death was cited a few years later when legislators began talking about banning public hangings.

I first became interested in Blanche’s death when an SBI agent (who was a relative of the victim) told me about a tombstone inscribed with the word “murdered”. I’ve seen gravestone legends with some unusual statements but that particular word was unusual on a permanent marker, to say the least.

I visited the grave on a September afternoon, and sure enough, although sand, acid rain and age have had their impacts, the stone laid out its accusation for all to see. The neat little cemetery is maintained, but still a haven for fireants and sandspurs.

No one I spoke with knows where Sellers and Brown were buried.

We have bigger things to worry about these days, but I am still curious – who was Sellers accusing in his last moments, if he made an accusation at all? Who was the “Negro working in the field” originally accosted by the sheriff’s men? There are odd references to a third man along the way, not to mention three strangers seen nearby.

There are those who argue that such history has no place being remembered; I disagree. The family members I have talked to (both Packer and Sellers) are not ashamed of the roles their relatives played in that drama of 112 years back. It’s a source of fascination to some, and who knows but one day, a dedicated third-cousin twice removed will find hidden away a signed sworn statement by someone whose testimony would have messed up Sheriff Lyons’ reelection campaign, or at the very least rekindled the fires of ’98.

Even if Sellers or Brown could be exonerated, and the guilty party fingered after all these years – the tombstone in the family cemetery would still read “murdered”.

Sandspurs, fireants and all, our history is our history, and when we decide to sugarcoat or revise it to suit our own means, we dishonor those who walked here before.

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