How Pamma got his name
By Peg Eastman
Affectionately known as “Pamma,” John Palmer Gaillard, Jr., was the 58th mayor of Charleston. He was tall, dashing and movie-star handsome. He had a smile that reached from ear to ear and would have succeeded anywhere.
After serving as a navy pilot during World War II, he founded the Seaboard Lumber & Supply Company. He won a seat on Charleston City Council in 1951. In 1959, he set his sights on the mayor’s office, held by William McGillvray Morrison, a three-term mayor. After his candidacy was announced, his reception at the next city council meeting was cold. “I felt like the bastard at the family reunion,” Pamma recalled. It was a hard-fought, typically bitter Charleston mayoral campaign, which Gaillard won narrowly.
Under Gaillard’s leadership, the city expanded dramatically by annexing major portions of West Ashley, James Island and a small portion of the neck area. The city completed a sewage treatment plant on Plum Island, which succeeded in cleaning up the polluted Charleston Harbor, purchased new fire engines and constructed housing for the poor. The city also constructed a municipal auditorium. During the civil rights movement, when other Southern politicians were resisting de-segregation, Pamma said, “We will follow the law,” and the Municipal Golf Course and the Municipal Pool on George Street were integrated without incident. Gaillard was re-elected mayor three times.
In 1975, he resigned to accept appointment as deputy assistant secretary of the Navy for Reserve Affairs and later became vice president of Ruscon Corporation. He died in a car accident in 2006.
Gaillard’s Huguenot ancestors were part of the Lowcountry planter aristocracy. Among them were Senator John Gaillard who had the unique distinction of being president of the United States for a day, and Colonel Peter Charles Gaillard, CSA, who served as commander of the Charleston Battalion, went north with Johnson Hagood in the last-ditch effort to save the Confederacy and returned to become Charleston’s mayor in 1865. Gaillard lost his lower arm at the Battle of Secessionville in 1862; his hand-carved wooden prosthetic hand and forearm is now in The Charleston Museum. U.S. Army Colonel David DuBose Gaillard is credited for conquering the notorious Culebra Cut in the Isthmus of Panama during the construction of the Panama Canal. It was posthumously renamed the Gaillard Cut.
With a nationally-known name, many wondered why the mayor’s middle name was spelled Palmer and pronounced “Pamma.” The family tradition is a tale that parallels the terror experienced by little Catherine Chicken when she was tied to a tombstone and abandoned in the darkening churchyard of Strawberry Chapel in St. John’s Berkeley Parish.
In 1715, John Pamor (Palmer) was born in Berkeley County. He was the eldest son of English immigrants who came to the colony in the early years. He married Marianne Gendron, the daughter of Huguenot emigres John Gendron and Elizabeth Mazyck. When his father died, he inherited a sizable estate, including Gravel Hill plantation, and through marriage and state grants enlarged his holdings to more than 10,000 acres in Craven and Berkeley counties. He experimented with the production of turpentine and acquired the nickname “Turpentine John.” Pamor became wealthy providing ship masts, lumber and turpentine to the British government. He served in the Commons House of Assembly from 1762-1765, was also a justice of the peace, a churchwarden for St. Stephen’s Parish, and held other offices in the colonial period.
Concurrently, Parliament was upsetting many colonials, especially by a policy of sending “placemen” to replace colonials in public office as was done to Chief Justice Charles Pinckney. Morever, the taxation imposed on the colonies to pay for the French and Indian War caused increasing resentment of British authority among the colonials. As a result, both John Pamor and his brother Joseph became ardent Whigs who rejected British rule. Their politics incurred the animosity of local Tories who were loyal to the king.
When hostilities broke out, there was a virtual civil war in Carolina that only worsened once the British set their sights on subduing the South. By the Waxhaw Massacre in spring of 1780, Carolina tempers were at a fever pitch. During the campaign to capture Charles Town, there were numerous skirmishes in the outlying areas, and the British used Biggin Church (St. John’s, Berkeley, Parish Church) near Moncks Corner as a depot for supplies and munitions.
The church was a handsome, substantial brick building that had been built on land originally donated by John Colleton in 1712. On the north side of the churchyard were two large underground vaults, one of which contained the remains of Sir John Colleton, who died in 1777. Among the parishioners of St. John’s, Berkeley, were Henry Laurens, one-time president of the Continental Congress and William Moultrie, the hero of the battle of Sullivan’s Island.
Sadly, a Tory mob seized the elderly Pamor brothers and took them to Biggin Church to be tried for treason in the hope that this humiliation would discourage other locals from joining the patriot forces. The brothers were summarily sentenced to the closest available prison, which happened to be the Colleton family crypt. They were unceremoniously cast into a darkness that reeked with the putrid smell of damp and decay. Without so much as a blanket for warmth, the brothers survived on water brought from the nearby creek and scraps of food thrust into the vault.
When it was thought that they had suffered enough, the brothers were released as examples of what could happen to other prominent persons who dared to defy the king. When the door of the crypt was opened, the prisoners were blinded by the light. Weak and disoriented, the brothers discovered that their skin was blanched a ghostly white and their clothes were caked with filth.
Their tormentors told them to go home. They washed off the smell of the prison in Wadboo Creek and journeyed on foot to Gravel Hill, half a league away. The aged men had become stiff from the long confinement and tired easily. When too weak to walk, the brothers sometimes carried each other on their backs. Whenever they heard horses or people approaching, they hid fearing further mistreatment. The grueling journey to Gravel Hill took two days. Scarcely recognizable, they were put to bed to recuperate.
The Tory machinations backfired. The brothers’ imprisonment in Colleton’s vault had exactly the opposite result that the loyalists had wished. John Pamor’s three sons joined the ranks of the patriot forces.
Turpentine John died on February 2, 1785; he was buried in Gravel Hill cemetery. His resentment of the British was still so strong that he stipulated in his will: “I will and order that my three sons, instead of spelling their names Pamor, shall forever hereafter spell their names Palmer.” The men followed their father's mandate but retained the original pronunciation of the surname “Pam- muh” (sounds like hammer). This injunction has been honored for more than two centuries.
Pamor’s will is mentioned in the Biographical Directory of the South Carolina House of Representatives and the story is preserved in “Find a Grave” on the Internet. Catherine Chicken later married Benjamin Simons III and lived at Middleburg plantation. She is buried in Pompion Hill churchyard. Her horriffic ordeal may be found in Little Mistress Chicken by Mrs. Gordon Rose.
My appreciation to David J. Rutledge for preserving the Palmer family lore and to George Palmer, Bob Stockton and Mendel Rivers for contributing to this article.
A Charlestonian by birth, Margaret (Peg) Middleton Rivers Eastman is actively involved in the preservation of Charleston’s rich cultural heritage. In addition to being a regular columnist for the Charleston Mercury she has published through McGraw Hill and The History Press, as well as in Carologue, a publication of the South Carolina Historical Society.