Saturday, August 21, 2010

Trial and Conviction of a
Baptist Minister
for Murder—His Suicide

The North State Whig, of the 30th ult., published at Wilmington, North Carolina, publishes a condensed report of the trial of Rev. GEORGE W. CARAWAN, for the murder of Mr. C. H. LASSITER, a school-teacher, in Hyde County. The whole case is remarkable, on account of the status of the accused, the depravity developed, and the tragical issue of the trial. Eminent counsel were arrayed for both the prosecution and the defence, and much excitement prevailed during the proceedings. The paper before us gives the following particulars:

Carawan is a56 years old, and for many years has been a popular preacher in the Baptist Church—a man of strong will, exercising a powerful influence over his friends, and feared as much as hated by his foes. Lassiter was a quiet young man, engaged in the business of teaching. Some months before the murder Lassiter boarded in the house of Carawan, and a quarrel arose between them, Carawan alleging that Lassiter was too familiar with his (C.'s) wife. Carawan talked very freely among his neighbors n the subject—said that L. ought to be shot—that shooting was too good for him, and that he and L. could not live in the same neighborhood, &c., &c., and finally tried to get out a peace warrant against L., alleging that he had attempted to take his life. He went on this way for some time, when L. sued him for slander, laying the damages at $2,000. A few hours after the writ was served on C., Lassiter was killed.

He [Lassiter] had finished a school on Rose Bay, and on Monday, the 15th of November, 1852, started on foot, with a carpet-bag in his hand to go to the Lake [Mattamuskeet] where he had engaged another school. About 3 o'clock, P.M., he passed C.'s house on his way to the Lake. Shortly after he passed, C. left his house and went across the field toward the woods which lie between the house and the spot on the road where L. was killed, his wife following with a gun wrapped up in her apron. She returned to the house immediately; Carawan not till sundown. That night he was absent from home.

Tuesday he remained at home; but on Wednesday, a rainy day, he took a hoe and went into the woods, and was gone for several hours. On Thursday, before L. was missed, (the people on the Lake thinking he was at the Bay, and the people on the Bay thinking he was at the Lake,) C. went to one of the neighbors, and inquired if he had seen anything of L., stating that his (C.'s) family had seen him pass his house on Monday with a package of clothes, and he was thinking he had run away. On Friday evening, when told that the people were searching for L. he expressed great surprise that he should be missing—never had heard anything of it.

On Saturday morning, the search for L. still going on, he wrote to a friend to come and see him—that L. was missing—supposed to be killed—and added that he (C.) was at home all day Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, and that he could prove it by Carawan Sawyer, (the main witness on the trial for the State,) his nephew, a boy who was living with him. The body of L. was found on Saturday evening in the swamps behind C.'s house, in an open lot, which was surrounded with briars, underbush, &c., and covered with moss. The moss over the grave had been carefully removed, the grave dug just large enough to hold the body, the body pressed into it, the grave filled up even with the surrounding earth, and pressed down, and the moss carefully laid back up in it. The moss leaving no trace of a foot-print, there was no sign that anybody had ever been there, except that the moss over the grave had faded a little; about a handful of fresh dirt was near it; and a dead limb of a tree had apparently been recently disturbed, the bark which had evidently just fallen from it lying in one spot and the limb in another. The men who were searching for the body had stopped in this lonely spot to rest, having given up the search for the day, when these appearances attracted their attention, and the body was found.

L. was killed by gunshot wounds. Several shots were taken from the body—three from the heart. There were three sizes of shot found in the body, and in one of the barrels of C.'s gun, found in his house, just such shot, and of three sizes, were found. That night C. left Hyde County, telling his nephew, (Sawyer,) that if he staid there he should be hung; and that he should send for his family, and he (S.) must go with them. On Sunday morning he landed from a canoe at Durham's Creek mills, in Beaufort County, about twenty miles from his home, telling the man who rowed him over that he was after a piece of land which another man was trying to buy, and that was the reason of his hurry, and charging him to keep his movements a secret.

From this time till his [Carawan's] arrest at night in his house in January following, the State did not know his where-abouts. But from letters received by the sheriff of Hyde, from Tennessee, it seems he had been sin that State, preaching, under the assumed name of John Forbes.

After his imprisonment in Hyde County Jail, he [Carawan] tried to get a friend to hire the witness Sawyer to go away. He had offered this same witness, before the body of L. was found, a negro, if he would swear that he (C.) was at home all Monday, the day on which the murder was committed. And while in Hyde County Jail he wrote to a friend (the letters were produced in Court,) to get Sawyer out of the way. He had given, he said in one of his letters, Mary (his wife) $500 to get Sawyer off; if that wouldn't do, give him $1,000; and if that wouldn't do, he (his friend) must get rid of Sawyer "by hook or by crook," and not suffer his (C.'s) neck to be broke.

The defence set up for the prisoner was that three of the witnesses (including Sawyer) had sworn falsely, committed willful and deliberate perjury, and that it was impossible for Carawan to have gone through the woods after Lassiter passed his house quick enough to have cut him off.

The Jury, after a protracted sitting, brought in a verdict of guilty, and the Judge ordered a recess of the Court for an hour. As the crowd was leaving, the prisoner suddenly drew two pistols, one of which he fired at Mr. Warren, the counsel for the State, and with the other shot himself through the head, killing himself instantly. The ball of the other struck Mr. Warren on the breast, just above the heart, but fortunately glanced off, and left only a slight wound. The North Star Whig says:

"Carawan maintained his self-control throughout the trial. He was as fine a looking man as one would find among a thousand—tall, admirably built, with a massive head, showing, with enormous animal passions, large intellect. These passions have destroyed him, he having given himself all his life to their unbridled sway. His wife, apparently about his own age, and his children, have been with him during the trial, accompanying him to and from the Court-House and Jail."

This article was published in The New York Times, December 5, 1853
The story of George Washington Carawan was also published in Dead and Gone: Classic Crimes in North Carolina by Manly Wade Wellman, 1954. The story of the crime and the trial with all the details were printed in The North Carolina Tragedy in 1853. This book can be found at

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