The House of Payne
By Peg Eastman and Margaret Seidler
Commercial buildings located on the north side of Broad Street where the Payne auction house was located.
From Art Work of Charleston, part 9, published in 1893.
In 2020 this column featured two articles about Founding Father Pierce Butler, who is best remembered for introducing the Fugitive Slave Clause at the Constitutional Convention. Known as “the Major,” Butler was the third son of an Irish baronet who purchased a commission in the British Army to secure his son’s future. The Major came to Charles Town to seek his fortune before the American Revolution. Through marriage into the prominent Middleton and Bull families, he settled in the Lowcountry and used his wife’s sizable dowry to become one of the richest men in English America.
The Major’s nephew, Edward Butler, accompanied by William Payne, emigrated from Protestant Ireland to Carolina to seek their fortunes in the mid-1780s. William Payne was the son of servants to the Irish baronet. Because of Major Butler’s social connections, both young men were readily accepted into local society.
William Payne was appointed a clerk to Butler, but by 1790, both he and Edward had gotten into hot water with the Major. In letters to his sister back in Ireland, Butler described how angry he was: “The allurements and dissipations in Charleston proved too much for them, both wanted to be rich at once.” He called his nephew “unworthy and ungrateful” and branded Payne an Irishman “well-versed in hypocrisy and falsehood; even though he married the daughter of a Respectable Good Man, he was ever a ‘scoundrel.”
That “Respectable Good Man” was John Torrans, a merchant from New York City who came to Charles Town in 1758 to expand the Irish trade opportunities. Torrans served on the very important Pilotage Commission with Henry Laurens, and in their term they also purchased Morris Island for the first ever “light beam” to guide ships safely into the bay.
Torrans also established a prominent merchant firm, Torrans, Greg and Poaug, on Bay Street. In 1761, they influenced the legislature to create a bounty program to help populate South Carolina’s backcountry frontier and protect early settlers from Indian tribes. In just a few years, the firm reaped the financial benefits of bringing hundreds and hundreds of Ulster Irish Protestants to the colony.
But after Torrans, Greg and Poaug served as agents for the ship Nancy of Belfast, the bounty program ended ignominiously. The advertised capacity of the ship was an exaggerated three-and-a-half times greater than its 80-passenger capacity. As a result, when the ship arrived in Charleston in June 1767, more than 60 aboard were sick or dying. The South Carolina Gazette reported that the firm “not only nipped them of the provisions allowed them but heaped them one upon the other, to such a degree in their berths that it must be absolutely impossible they could survive.” The legislature failed to renew the bounty program, and Torrans’ firm suffered a sizable loss of income. They then repurposed their ships and shipping contacts to transport hundreds of captured Africans to the city.
After Torrans’ death in 1780, William Payne married his daughter, Maria Margaret Torrens. Payne’s first business venture was at 129 Broad St. when he advertised items for sale from a brigantine, the Sea Nymph. He moved to various addresses on Elliott Street and for five years continued a “Cash Store” retail business.
By then, Payne had purchased two adjacent properties at what is now 34 Broad St. (numbers were different at the time of the purchase) and expanded his business. His first recorded advertisement to sell enslaved Africans occurred on March 21, 1796. This sale was on behalf of the estate of John Witherspoon, which included three “Negroes.”
Payne’s efforts to run a cash store retail business with his partner, William Collier, ended in bankruptcy in 1803. In what seems to be an act of desperation, Payne sold the western parcel of his Broad Street property, keeping for his residence and business what would have been numbered 32 Broad St. He placed ads daily for several months seeking items for sale, which led to an auctioneering and brokering business that created a successful family enterprise. According to the newspaper ads, Payne brokered property for estate sales, debt collections such as mortgages, and tax delinquencies as an agent for the city sheriff.
In 1806, Payne began serving as secretary-treasurer of the Santee Canal Company, a position that gained him connections across the Lowcountry to further his brokerage business.
Payne and his son John William Payne, who joined the business in 1812, became the “auction house of choice” for many wealthy plantation owners such as John Ball. According to Slaves in the Family by journalist Edward Ball, one of John’s descendants, “He (Ball) possessed seven plantations and 695 people … the Auction House of William Payne & Son handled the business, and the sale began Monday morning, February 8, 1819. For two days the auditorium thronged with merchandise and buyers, as one family after another stepped onto the block — 367 people all told.” The Ball family owned one of the largest numbers of enslaved Africans in the South, at one point numbering in the thousands.
William Payne & Son’s payment — documented “Sales on a/c of the Estate of John Ball Esqr. ... 8th & 9th February 1819” — reveals that the 1 percent commission paid to Payne & Son was $3,083.18, roughly the equivalent of $64,346.43 in 2020.
Payne & Son’s business also included public auctions at their Vendue office on Bay Street, private sales in their offices or sales at the client’s site. Local newspapers reveal the number and, in many cases, the names of the enslaved persons, along with their work skills and familial status. In some instances, three generations of families were sold together, the assumption being that families were more valuable, as they were less likely to run away.
After William Payne’s death in 1834, his son Josiah S. Payne continued selling local enslaved persons as demand rose with the growth of the abolitionist movement in the 1850s. Josiah also developed his farm into 225 lots named Cool Blow Village. The upper Meeting and Romney Street areas of today, which includes Cool Blow Street and One Cool Blow condominium complex, comprised Cool Blow Village. Before being subdivided, it was called “Payne’s Farm.”
The residential area survey work for Cool Blow Village was done by Josiah’s brother, Robert Keith Payne, a surveyor in the city of Charleston, who was raised and had his office for a period of time at 32–34 Broad St. Robert Payne’s surveyor’s protractor is on exhibit at Charleston’s Fireproof Building museum, home of the South Carolina Historical Society.
Thanks to the efforts of Margaret Seidler, a descendant of William Payne, a marker is being placed at 32–34 Broad St. to memorialize the busiest auction house of its time. Sponsored by The Center for the Study of Slavery in Charleston at the College of Charleston, the marker provides a reminder that sales and viewings of the enslaved took place there and at other Broad Street businesses before outdoor sales were banned on the streets of Charleston in 1856.
The Payne family profited from the sale of at least 9,217 enslaved people, making it a “house of pain” for the individuals tragically caught up in this “peculiar institution.” The full story is available on a Post and Courier podcast: “Understand SC: Uncovering untold stories at 4 historic sites in Charleston.” Stay tuned for a follow-up to this article.
Anyone with an interesting Broad Street story for the Charleston Mercury is welcome to contact firstname.lastname@example.org.