By Jana E. Pye, Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org
The murder of local attorney James U. ‘Red’ Watts, Jr. is tale that has haunted Darlington for decades. With a touch of irony that is as mysterious as his death, the timing of the launch of a book about his murder is uncanny.
“Oddly enough, I put the book out 63 years to the day from the murder, April the third,” said author M B Spears. “From 1952 to 2015. This is the same time of year that he died.”
Dr. Beverly Spears’ latest book “Unsolved” covers the story of the murder victim, the events leading up to his death, and the trial that shocked this small community.
“When I first started researching this over in Florence, looking over Florence Morning News issues, the librarian in the archives room said, ‘This must’ve been a really important murder. It made front page all this time’ – and I said yes, it was.” said Spears. “It never occurred to me that anyone well-read would have not known something about it.
But, then again, why would they? It’s just never been written about. It is just whispered about. It was resented. And there were people saying things like, ‘Oh, nobody would do anything this horrible. It’s just too horrible.’ But- somebody did. How can you say nobody would ever do this? Although, now we live in a time when so many horrible things happen that it is hard to go back to a time when a public murder unsolved was an unusual thing.”
The murder occurred when Spears was in junior high, when she lived on Warley Street in Darlington. “Red Watts was a member of the Men’s Sunday School Class at Trinity Methodist Church,” recalled Spears. “So was my father. There were probably 50, 60 men in that Sunday School class at least. The undertaker was in that class, the Clerk of Court was in that class, the newly elected solicitor was in that class. There was just intense interest in it, besides the fact that Mr. Watts had been saying for several months he suspected an attempt to be made on his life.”
“The murder happened this time of year, this beautiful beginning of spring. As I say, nobody does spring better than South Carolina. It is hot, but it is so beautiful and we put up with the pollen. There is a chapter in there called ‘timing” that deals with that,” she continued. “The first part of the book deals with the victim alive before the murder. One reason I don’t like the usual murder story is that you never know the victim; it’s just the victim, and you get to figure out the mystery of what happened. But these are real people whose lives are ended in these horrible ways. And they leave children behind.”
The News and Press assisted with her research by publishing an invitation for people who remembered the crime to contact her, which brought two sources to Spears.
“One led me to a third source, who got in touch with me again yesterday. Bob Beckham, who is the hero in several of the chapters lives in Augusta, GA was recently here with his grandchildren showing them around Darlington.”
Beckam was the youngest deputy in South Carolina at the time of the murder, and had grown up in Darlington County. His father was the jailer in Darlington, and his mother did all the cooking for the facility.
“Even Bob will be surprised at some of the things in the book,”” said Spears. “But even he was mystified that what the investigation had done wasn’t enough. He knew it was flawed, he didn’t know how flawed. He thought that there was no way that they had the wrong people. That was his conviction. And he said that to me.”
Spears met Beckham after 65th high school reunion from 1949 last year in Hartsville; he and his wife invited her to come over and shared his memories, and many photographs from that time period.
“James Bunch, who is in the book a lot, contacted me from Florida because he takes the News and Press as a subscriber. He has been interested in all this. Actually, all of Darlington has taken a real interest. It’s about the community and how they have gotten involved. Nobody has forgotten it; when a heinous crime like this one having to do with an upstanding member of the community happens, and there is no solution, then, suspicion just multiplies. Now, people thought they knew who was behind it; but, since nobody could prove anything, you start thinking- well,maybe people I would have never suspected really were involved. I don’t think there is anybody that reads that book who won’t be surprised by at least some of it.”
Spears did not fancy herself an investigative writer, despite being urged to write about this story for years.
“When it was first suggested to me…well, I didn’t know I was becoming a full time writer.” said Spears. “I was an editor, I was a teacher, I was various other things. I never really thought I would have time to just sit down and write books. But now that I am doing it – and I’ve written two – I realized that what I was asked to do probably decades ago, I was ready to do. Nobody had done it. Everybody was expecting a book to come out about this, because several people had been researching it. But nobody has come out with a book.” Her training, however, did help with her investigation.
“I write as a skeptic. Maybe it is because I was trained as a journalist, that was my first major at the University of South Carolina. I switched in my senior year to just English, and ended up being a college professor. But, maybe you go into journalism because you don’t accept everything at face value? Or, maybe being in journalism helps you to not accept everything at face value.”
Spears shared that on of the other people writing a book is an attorney by trade, and not from Darlington.
“If he does come out with a book, it will be from a different viewpoint. Mine is from the puzzled, and I guess some would say outraged, Darlington reaction. You know, they took the trial away from Darlington because they said we were too involved. They wouldn’t let it be here. That’s why it was moved to Dillon. Can you imagine the citizens of Darlington rioting?” Spears laughed.
“We are perfectly well behaved people! But anyway, the head of defense painted it otherwise, and got the trial moved out of Darlington. So, whoever wanted to see it had to go way up to Dillon. Which in ’52, if you had a job at all, you were not going to be off work to go to the trial. That’s what it would have taken. But, the courtroom was packed every day anyway. The courthouse was standing room only.”
Spears has written two other books, “County: Memory is my Name” and “Mineral Springs 1940s : Memory is My Name”.
“I’ve been told by people that have read the proofs that this book is easy to read. I have it set up so the readers are not confused. In fact, at the end of 1952, I have added what I call a calendar of the murder year in which I go over every significant date, and what happened on that date…becaue there is so much to remember. And the trial, which I always capitalize as The Trial, was in March of 1953, which was 11 months after the murder. Which I keep thinking of as an assassination.”
She is not certain if there will be a follow up book, although she has enough information beyond the mid-fifties for another book. Her next book will be set in Ireland.
“I’ve got to do that because I am probably going to sell my place over there pretty soon,” said Spears, who owns a home in county Kerry. “I have lived over there for 18 years and I can’t just let that go. I mean, a South Carolina country girl fits right in Ireland, believe it or not.”
The book is available for purchase on Amazon: Unsolved
The Darlington County Historical Society Spring meeting will feature Dr. Beverly Spears discussing her new book. The event is scheduled for April 23rd, at Mr. B’s Restaurant in Lydia. The meeting will begin at noon and conclude around 1:30 p.m. The meal is $9.50 (tip included) and all members and guests are encouraged to attend. For more information, please call the Darlington County Historical Commission at (843) 398-4710.