The Copiah County Election Murder

[This murder was related to the politics of reconstruction, as Matthews was Sheriff, in power with the
backing of black voters.  The murderer, Erastus Wheeler, represented the white political structure.  
This is the reason for the Senate investigation which followed.]

  "While in the act of voting at Hazlehurst East box on the morning of the 6th, [1883] John P.
Matthews was shot and almost "instantly killed."  We give the Coroner's verdict:  "In regard to the
killing of J. P. Matthews, it was suggested to me by T. P. Ware that I had better have a jury of
inquest over the body.  Before summoning the jury, I was told that E. B. (Erastus) Wheeler did not
deny the act.  I saw him, and he told me that he done it, and I could make out my verdict that way."
W. M. Robertson, Coroner.
   "Mr. Wheeler, we learn, surrendered to Sheriff Hargraves immediately after the shooting.  The
remains of Mr. Matthews wer interred in a private vault near the residence of his fahter, John R.
Matthews, of this city on Thursday.  At the time of closing this paper, all is quiet.  We have no
particulars on the cause of the shooting."

Article from the New Orleans Times-Picayune Concerning the U. S. Senate Investigation

   Mrs. Matthews, widow of J. P. Matthews, was sworn in to testify.  She lives at Oxford with her
family, having left Hazlehurst where she lived up to the time of the death of her husband.  She
had lived in Hazlehurst and was born and raised in Copiah County.  After her husband was killed,
a paper was sent to her home warning the family to keep quiet and make no effort to avenge the
death of her husband.
   Witness testified to the resolution already introduced warning her husband to stay home on
election day.  A mob of seventy-five men came to her house on the day before the election and
John McLemore brought the paper into the house to her husband.  She had seen the mob riding
around and had heard them firing guns.  The witness knew Erastus Wheeler.  He had often been
at her house and had eaten at her table with her husband before the murder.  She knew of no
quarrel or ill feeling between her husband and Wheeler.
   Mrs. Matthews is a very handsome woman of perhaps 50 years, brunette as to the eyes and
hair, with red and white complexion.  She broke down several times and wept in giving her
testimony.  She testified that her husband was a good and charitable man, kind to everybody.  The
widow and her two daughter were dressed in deep mourning."
   Miss Mary Matthews, daughter of the murdered man, a pretty girl who said she was 19 years
old, was called.  She testified to seeing the mobs pass by her house on Monday before the
election.  She was sitting on the gallery and counted the guns.  There were 90 guns.  They
stopped near the house and one man brought in a paper.  She saw the mob on Wednesday,
parading with guns and a brass band.  On the day of the election, she heard a gun fired and told
her mother that she believed her father had been shot.  She ran down town to the house where
the voting was.  The door was locked and Mr. Coxwell, an election inspector, was at the door on
the outside.  She wanted to go in, but Mr. Coxwell told her she could not.  Her uncle, Leon
Matthews, came up and the door was finally broken open.  She went in and found her father
dead.  She said her father was a good man and had never done a wrong to anybody.  She saw the
resolutions sent to the house after the funeral.
   Jessie Matthews, a beautiful girl, black eyes and hair, with an ivory complexion and oval face
and hair banged down to the eyebrows, was placed on the stand.  She was sick when her father
was killed.  She had heard about the mob and saw a man bring to the house the resolutions that
ordered the family to leave the place where her father had been killed.  She said that her father
was a good man.
   Suggs Matthews, son of John P. Matthews, the dead man, was sworn.  He saw the mob
marching around.  He saw brought to the house the resolutions that ordered the family to leave.  
He lives at Oxford with one brother and sisters.  Witness identified the following as the
resolutions brought to the residence after the death of his father.  The resolutions were brought
by John McLemore.  The widow and daughters of the murdered man also identified the
resolutions as the same served on the family after the killing.
The Story

   The white power structure had met the night before the election and drawn straws to see who
would kill J. P. Matthews if he tried to vote.  Erastus B. Wheeler had drawn the short straw.  J. P.
was shot with both barrels of a sawed off shotgun at point blank range to the chest.  He freely
admitted that he had committed the crime.
   There is mention of two men who filed affidavits against people in the mob.  They were
relatives of the murder victim, L. H. Matthews and H. H. Barlow.
   The trial was held in Hazlehurst in Copiah County, where the killing occurred, in April and May
of 1884.  The jury consisted of eleven whites and 1 black.  The defense attorney had been a
General in the confederate Army.  Erastus Wheeler was the town Marshall at the time of the
killing.  J. P. Hargraves was the Sheriff, he was seen in the mob with Erastus, riding around at
night.  A number of citizens left town so they wouldn't have to testify.
   E. B. Wheeler was found not guilty and set free.
   Black citizens didn't vote again in the county for 80 years.

Article on Senate Inquiry, New York Times, 1884

   Mr. Hoar and his associates on the Committee on Privileges and Elections have started for New
Orleans in a special car to inquire into the Copiah election murder.  Intimations have been thrown
out by ill-natured persons that they were choosing New Orleans as a headquarters as much from
a sense of danger, rather than because it is comfortable and convenient.  The Mississippi
Senators are indignant at the suggestion that the committee would be exposed to violence at
Copiah.  Mr. George, who talked with a local reporter today about the matter, said that there was
no foundation for the reports circulated.  "I am not at liberty," said he, "to repeat a private
conversation I had with a Senator, who is a member of the majority of that committee, but I can tell
you that the committee apprehended no danger, either to themselves or to anyone connected
with them.  The majority of the committee concluded to hold its meetings in New Orleans, at the
instance of political friends, who made, or endeavored to make, them believe that they could get
more out of the witnesses in New Orleans; in other words, that the witnesses would have less
scruple, i.e. swearing falsely, in New Orleans than they would in Copiah; not that the committee
want false testimony, but the instigators of this investigation do.  Nobody knows better than those
who were instrumental in getting up this investigation that there was nothing in the charges.  If
Republicans could get it out of their heads that the colored people were afraid of white people in
the South, were afraid to vote for whom they pleased, you would hear no more of such
foolishness.  So, Sir, this investigation will be beneficial to us.  Senator Hoar is an honest man and
will give a fair report of the fact.  That done and we have no fears."   
New York Times, February 13,
With much appreciation to Susan Barlow Holmes for sharing this story
with us.  I first found a brief newspaper article concerning the Senate
investigation after the murder, but I didn't have any of the details.  Susan
is a descendant of the murder victim.  She saw the article and
generously shared the rest of the story.