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Ghost Fry

For Robert Manson Jolly of Anderson District, S.C., the title of “unreconstructed rebel” was no hollow token of sullen defiance. In the six months following the end of the Civil War, Jolly had probably killed as many men within 10 miles of his farm as he had in four years in Virginia. His victims were federal troops, whom he murdered on principle, and newly freed slaves who did not conform to his exacting norms of proper behavior. Despite a $10,000 price on his head, Jolly killed and robbed with impunity, protected by the administration of his white neighbors and the fear of his black ones.

On the night of Oct. 9, 1865, Jolly, Crawford Keys, Robert Keys and Elisha Byrum rode to Brown’s Ferry on the Savannah River six miles east of Hartwell, Ga. They had heard that 15 bales of cotton seized for taxes by federal troops were there awaiting shipment to Augusta, guarded by three soldiers.

Jolly was familiar with Brown’s Ferry. A few weeks earlier he had come to the Georgia side late one night, to the house of Francis Gaines Stowers, a prosperous planter and former Hart County state senator who ran a flat-bottomed transport boat between the ferry and Augusta. Jolly had come hunting a federal officer from Hartwell who was at the Stowers place preparing to go downriver. The bluecoat had already gone; Jolly and Stowers had a face-off with drawn pistols, but the senator allowed Jolly to sleep on his porch that night, probably out of fear of retaliation.

On Oct. 9, Jolly and his men returned to the Carolina side of the ferry where they surprised three young Michigan soldiers guarding the seized cotton. Elisha Byrum later said that they had planned from the first to kill the soldiers and that he had sworn to Jolly that he would kill one of them himself, but when he heard their please for mercy, he lost his nerve.

Jolly sat the young men on the ferry dock and shot each one in the head; their bodies fell into the Savannah. Jolly and his men took the ferry to the Georgia side and took F.G. Stowers’ boat back across. They loaded the cotton, took it two miles downriver to Piney Island, hid it, returned the boat to Stowers’ dock, and went back to Anderson.

Within a few days, the bodies and the cotton were found and Jolly’s ssociates arrested, but not Jolly himself. F.G. Stowers, on a boat run to Augusta, was seized by federal troops and charged as a participant in the murders. The evidence against all four was flimsy: Byrum and the Keyses apparently had owned some of the seized cotton; Stowers’ boat was the most likely one to have carried it to the hiding place.

All four were taken to Castle Pinckney in Charleston harbor where a four-trap gallows was built outside their cell window. The guards told them that they had been tried in absentia and were shortly to hang. By one account, this was a bluff to get information out of them; by another account, they were actually sentenced to death by a military court, but execution was stayed. They were taken to the Dry Tortuga, near the Florida Keys, and imprisoned for several months until President Andrew Johnson dismissed the charges against them.

No further charges were brought, even though Byrum never made a secret of his and the Keyses’ role. F.G. Stowers’ health had been ruined by the ordeal, and he died of pneumonia within a year. He and his descendants stoutly maintained that he had no part in the murders nor ever had any association with Manse Jolly. When Jolly is remembered at all today in Hart County, it is not as swashbuckling Robin Hood, but as an outlaw who brought shame and sorrow to the Stowers family.

And Jolly himself? Although not charged in the Brown’s Ferry murders, Jolly felt that he had pushed his luck long enough. On Sunday morning, Jan. 29, 1866, he bade Carolina farewell by riding his horse to the intersection of East River and Fant streets in Anderson, digging in the spurs, and flying through the federal army camp, pistols ablaze.

That afternoon he and several associates headed west, stealing horses along the way. They settled in Milam Couty, Tex., where Jolly went back to farming, complaining in letters home about the lawless and irreligious nature of his new home. He married in 1867, and on July 8, 1869, when his wife was five months pregnant, he drowned while crossing a flooded creek on horseback. He was 29 years old.

Jolly’s one surviving brother, Freeman Liberty Jolly, moved to Hartwell and eventually commited suicide. Jolly’s daughter was born four months after his death. She married a Fort Worth banker and died in 1940. Jolly’s widow remarried and lived until at least 1925. The three Michigan soldiers murdered at Brown’s Ferry are buried in the Presbyterian churchyard at Anderson.

The resting place of most of Jolly’s other victims was unknown until the early 1940s when a well was cleaned out on the old Jolly farm; workers found the well bottom choked with human bones and hundreds of buttons bearing the initials “U.S.”

Manse Jolly is known to have killed at least 15 men after the war’s end. His tally was probably higher, if not up to the 100 mark claimed in some versions of his legend. Manse Jolly’s terror was different from that carried on in grander scale by the Klan only in that South Carolina’s red-headed monster never wore a mask and took personal credit for his own butchery.

Next Week: A Black Velvet Coat and a Green Carnation: Oscar Wilde’s 1882 Georgia Tour.

© 1995, John Ryan Seawright


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