On August 31, 1886, an earthquake reduced much of Charleston to rubble. The tremor’s aftermath was so tumultuous that more than a century later, William Baldwin based an historical novel—2005’s A Gentleman in Charleston and the Manner of His Death—around its aftershocks, focusing on the killing of News and Courier editor Frank Dawson. Now, readers can dig into a nonfiction version of the tale, as Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow hit stores in June.
Local historians Susan Millar Williams and Stephen G. Hoffius spent 12 years conducting primary research and writing about the social unrest following the earthquake. While the book is most enthralling in its attention to the legacy of Dawson—who was praised as a hero in the wake of the earthquake but shot to death less than three years later—its scope is wide, tracing the racial antagonisms brought to bear by the distribution of disaster relief, the negotiation of fair wages for building repairs, and the perception of the phenomenon as a divine judgment against white supremacy.
For a smart summer read, pick up a copy at Historic Charleston Foundation; Blue Bicycle Books; Barnes & Noble; or The Preservation Society of Charleston, who is hosting a tour, tea, and signing at the Wentworth Mansion on August 28. Find details on this as well as an August 31 discussion and signing at Addlestone Library at upheavalincharleston.com.