Among the papers of a former Judge in North Carolina, one David Schenck, was found a document that has come to be called the “Autobiography of Edward Isham,” also known as Hardaway Bone, an alias. Schenck defended Isham against a charge of murder. He lost and Isham was hung in 1860 in Greensboro.
Isham was illiterate. The judge, for whatever reason, however, wrote down Isham’s life story, and the document affords one of the few up close and intimate looks at the life of a unpropertied white person in the deep south before the Civil War. There seems to be debate about the quality of life—for the unpropertied white person—in the south before the Civil War. Some claim that most were honest, hard working and god-fearing yoemen.
Those opposed to slavery tended to characterize the whole of southern society as corrupt and among the lowest of the low were unpropertied southern whites. Isham’s story might lend support to their thesis. The autobiography is short. I read most of it, and it appears that all Isham did for most of his adult life was fight, beat up on people, wrestle, cheat, and lie in wait to kill somebody. Authorities believe the document is authentic. I find it difficult to get my imagination around Isham’s way of life.
Here’s a little bit of the document—to give just a taste of the flavor of Isham’s life:
They met at a grocery where we were all drinking. I had two pistols and two bowie knives. They fought and I kept the crowd off with my knife. Harmands pistol wouldnt fire and he then drew a bowie knife and cut Reeder very badly. Reeder then broke loose and ran and as he went I fired my pistol at him but missed him. We pursued him to the grocery but were shut out. Reeders friends came and we fled. We went out to John Borrows and got money and horses and went down to my old home in Johnston county leaving my wife. From there we went to Napoleon and then to Memphis, there to Paducah, being afraid we would be taken, then to Smithland. Here I fell in with "Jim Ingles" whom I knew in Chattanooga and we gambled together for awhile but lost all our money. I had but a half dollar left, and went to chopping to get some; but meeting a wagoner I went with him to "Nashville."
Apparently all Isham did was get in fights, then run away either from relatives of the person he had beaten up, or whatever law enforcement there was back then, and occasionally he would work. And then he got hung for murder. I thought Davy Crockett was a mean idiot, as based on my reading of his “autobiography,” but this guy takes the cake. Nobody is going to write “The Ballad of Hardaway Bone,” though it has a nice ring to it.
Wait maybe here’s a bit:
One cold night down in Georgia state
No one knows the date or place
A woman let out a moan
And gave birth to Hardaway Bone
And he lived a life to tell
Of a short cut straight to hell
He lied and cheated and drank—that was his way
Until they strung him up that day
In Greensboro up in North Carolina State
1860 was the date….
Well, that’s enough of that.