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Ground moles and blood at the polls: 50 Broad Street

May 9, 2019

 

According Dr. David Ramsay’s History of South Carolina, the Bank of South Carolina was organized once the state recovered from the post-Revolutionary War depression. In anticipation of its operation, in 1796 the bank purchased a lot at the northwest corner of Broad and Church streets from William Ancrum for £2,500. In 1799 construction began on an imposing brick building with a raised brick basement.

 

Commonly known by this first use as the “Bank of South Carolina Building,” it was set back from the intersection, intended to dominate the business district where most buildings were narrow and sited flush with the side walk. The T-shaped design featured an elegant pedimented façade with a slightly projecting center pavilion, keystone arches and two niches on the Church Street side. The white marble belt course and marble window lintels further proclaimed the bank’s status in the community.

 

Shortly after the bank’s completion, it is not surprising that it attracted would-be robbers, in a daring attempt popularly known as the “Ground Mole Plot.” The story broke in January 1802 in the first issue of the Charleston Courier, while slightly differing versions later appeared in the Charleston News and Courier, The Times and the City Gazette and Daily Advertiser.

It seems that a man named Withers, a.k.a. Weathers, was a horse dealer from Kentucky who brought his horse stock to sell but lost his profits gambling and carousing around town. Not wishing to go home penniless, he decided to recoup his losses by robbing the Bank of South Carolina. It was a bold plot. Aided by two accomplices, he lifted the iron grating at the corner of Church and Queen streets and entered the city storm drain. He made his way to a smaller drain in front of the bank from which he spent the next three months tunneling during the night. His only source of light was butter burning in a lamp. In time, he burrowed through the three-foot foundation and into the bank’s interior.

 

All went well until the night watchman heard strange noises at the corner. When a suspicious character was seen lurking around the bank late at night, the bank porter was notified. He searched the premises but found nothing.

 

Then on October 7, 1802, around 11 p.m. a strange man was observed loitering near the bank. The police were contacted the following morning. Further investigation revealed a loose brick covered with fresh dirt. Beneath it was a package containing cheese and butter, a pickaxe, chisel, clothes and a large hole with two legs moving “in hasty retreat.” Finding escape impossible, the “ground-mole” surrendered. His accomplices were arrested shortly thereafter. Because the plot had been foiled, charges were eventually dropped. Interestingly, Withers’ subterranean confinement later attracted the attention of the medical community who were amazed that he remained healthy for over ninety days in the dank tunnel while unseasonable weather caused yellow fever and other ailments in the city. The “ground mole plot” continues to be a tour guide staple and has appeared many times in print.

 

In 1835, the Bank of South Carolina moved to the corner of Broad and East Bay streets and sold the building to the Charleston Library Society for $15,000. During the Library Society’s occupancy, the building was embellished with the addition of an elaborate Victorian pediment over the central pavilion and a bracketed cornice along the eaves. The library moved their collections to King Street in 1914 and sold the building to the Chamber of Commerce in 1916.

 

In 1966, the Citizens and Southern National Bank bought the building and tried to return the building to its original design based on an old photograph taken shortly after “The War.” They also used an old photograph to reconstruct the iron fence on the street line of the property. The Victorian stained-glass fanlight over the main entrance was retained. In 1971, the building was placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

 

The city of Charleston purchased the building in 2006 and today it serves as offices. On September 19, 2011, Mayor Joseph P. Riley, Jr., dedicated 50 Broad St. as the William B. Regan Legal Center for the city of Charleston. Regan had been the city’s corporation counsel for 27 years and was instrumental in accomplishing Waterfront Park, Charleston Center and a vast expansion of city boundaries. According to Regan’s obituary, he “relished being a lawyer. His legal talents were only outmatched by his lightning quick wit and disarming charm … And, he had a gift for telling really good stories.” One of Regan’s best attributions is about John P. Grace, the feisty Irish politician who was twice mayor of Charleston.

 

Grace hated the British and championed a free Ireland his entire life. The attitudes of the Charleston elite fueled his dislike of the Anglophiles and this was not without some basis. Outgoing mayor R. Goodwyn Rhett elected to forgo the ceremonial passing of keys to City Hall and had them delivered to the newly-elected mayor by the building’s janitor. Grace was outraged at the snub, calling it an insult to the citizens of Charleston.

 

Grace’s campaigns were hard fought and three of the four of Grace’s mayoral primary elections were the most violent in Charleston history. In 1915, 1919 and 1923, the governor sent the state militia into the city to police the polls. In the recount of the 1915 primary, shots rang out in a ward favorable to Grace and Charleston Evening Post reporter, Sidney Cohen, was accidentally shot to death. During the confusion, Grace ballots were thrown out of a window and when the dust settled, Hyde had won by 18 votes.

 

Hyde lost to Grace when he ran for re-election in 1919. Again, the campaign was controversial. Although the outcome showed Hyde with a one-vote lead, after challenges, the Democratic Executive Committee declared Grace the winner. Grace’s final mayoral campaign was in 1923 when he lost to Thomas P. Stoney, the charismatic young champion of the Charleston elite.

Thus when Joseph P. Riley, Jr. was elected mayor, as Regan told it, the Catholic bishop of Charleston delivered a letter written by Grace addressed to “The Next Irish Mayor.” It read, “Get the Stoneys.” This fanciful anecdote has been incorporated into city folklore and has appeared in print both as fact and fiction.

 

            My appreciation to Robert Stockton and Lish Thompson for contributing to this article. Please contact pegeastman@comcast.net if you have any anecdotes about Broad Street’s rich history.

 

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