Facts of 1910 hanging make for good fiction

Staff writerAugust 16, 2009 

  • Batt Humphreys

    Joggling Board Press, 224 pages

Sometimes, facts are the best source of fiction. Batt Humphreys' "Dead Weight," a new novel set in 1910 Charleston, stems from a tragic true story.

At its heart, it's a story of injustice. Daniel Cornelius "Nealy" Duncan was the last man hanged by the state of South Carolina. Humphreys and many others believe he died for a murder he did not commit.

In June 1910, someone walked into the shop of a Jewish tailor in Charleston and beat him to death. Weeks later, the tailor's widow reopened the shop, and someone attacked her.

Duncan, unfortunately, was in the wrong place at the wrong time. A hardworking black man, he was employed by a baker who'd taught him to read and write. The day the tailor's widow was attacked, Duncan was on his way to the tailor shop with plans to make the last payment on his wedding suit. When people searching for the widow's assailant saw Duncan, they grabbed him, certain they'd found the culprit.

Though the white lawyer assigned to defend Duncan didn't meet him until the first day of the trial, he did make a concerted effort to defend him, to no avail.

Shortly after Duncan was executed, a hurricane hit Charleston. To some in the black community, it's still known as the Duncan storm.

Humphreys, a former CBS News senior producer who lives Charleston, used newspaper and trial accounts to research this story.

But he also adds characters. To bring an outsider's perspective, Humphreys creates New York Tribune reporter Hal Hinson, who arrives in town to cover the trial. He also gives Hal a love interest -- Randy Dumas, the smart, beautiful woman who also happens to own the city's brothels.

When he finished the novel, Humphreys says couldn't stop thinking about Nealy Duncan -- the man whose life was cut short just as he was to marry a woman named Ida. So decent was Duncan that he wrote a letter before his hanging, forgiving those who had acted against him.

Humphreys thought about the children the young couple never had, the whole families and generations "that failed to come to pass."

That's when he decided to file a petition asking the state of South Carolina to posthumously pardon Duncan. He's inviting people to add their names to the effort at www.deadweight.us.

Humphreys has found no living relative of Duncan's. Still, "if you do believe in the continuity of souls, somewhere he may know and it might make a difference," he says.

pkelley@charlotteobserver.com or 704-358-5271

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