A Man of Bad Reputation

The Murder of John Stephens and the Contested Landscape of North Carolina Reconstruction

By Drew A. Swanson

220 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, 14 halftones, notes, index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-7471-1
    Published: August 2023
  • Hardcover ISBN: 978-1-4696-7470-4
    Published: August 2023
  • E-book EPUB ISBN: 978-1-4696-7472-8
    Published: August 2023
  • E-book PDF ISBN: 979-8-8908-6381-2
    Published: August 2023

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Awards & distinctions

2023 North Caroliniana Society Book Award

Five years after the Civil War, North Carolina Republican state senator John W. Stephens was found murdered inside the Caswell County Courthouse. Stephens fought for the rights of freedpeople, and his killing by the Ku Klux Klan ultimately led to insurrection, Governor William W. Holden’s impeachment, and the early unwinding of Reconstruction in North Carolina. In recounting Stephens's murder, the subsequent investigation and court proceedings, and the long-delayed confessions that revealed what actually happened at the courthouse in 1870, Drew A. Swanson tells a story of race, politics, and social power shaped by violence and profit. The struggle for dominance in Reconstruction-era rural North Carolina, Swanson argues, was an economic and ecological transformation. Arson, beating, and murder became tools to control people and landscapes, and the ramifications of this violence continued long afterward. The failure to prosecute anyone for decades after John Stephens's assassination left behind a vacuum, as each side shaped its own memory of Stephens and his murder.

The malleability of and contested storytelling around Stephens's legacy presents a window into the struggle to control the future of the South.

About the Author

Drew A. Swanson is Jack N. and Addie D. Averitt Distinguished Professor of Southern History at Georgia Southern University.

For more information about Drew A. Swanson, visit the Author Page.


"A short, crisply written account . . . . Swanson has a feel for human drama and for Caswell County itself, set amid the “rolling red clay hills” of a once-prosperous tobacco-growing region whose inhabitants were divided almost equally between white and black . . . . a valuable contribution to the literature of Reconstruction."—Wall Street Journal

"Drawing on personal testimony, newspaper reports, and period correspondence, Swanson attempts to reconstruct John Stephens’s life—and to show how his murder shaped North Carolina politics for years to come."—The Civil War Monitor

"A significant work that exemplifies historians’ use of microhistory—this book makes fresh arguments about how Reconstruction unfolded differently in particular locations, and how historical narratives from the Reconstruction era remain influential into the twenty-first century."—Bruce Baker, Newcastle University

"With a lucid and engaging style, Drew Swanson demonstrates the usefulness of analyzing Reconstruction at the local level to unravel the political, social, and economic context in which postemancipation struggles took place. This powerful book is a page-turner that will attract specialists and curious readers alike. It is sure to inspire readers to contemplate the messiness of history through an exploration of the limitations, complications, and nuances of the era after the Civil War."—Adrienne Petty, William & Mary