From the March 1999 American Spectator: Florence King’s review of Ol’ Strom: An Unauthorized Biography of Strom Thurmond by Jack Bass and Marilyn W. Thompson (Longstreet, 359 pages).
IN HIS 1969 BOOK, Gothic Politics in the Deep South, Robert Sherrill noted that Strom Thurmond lives in a world of metaphysical absolutes: “It is a world of one Eden, one Hell, one Heaven, one Right, one Wrong, one Strom.”
South Carolina’s 96-year-old senior Senator is proof of the biblical injunction that the last shall be the first. No matter which way you slice him — powerbroker of both major political parties as well as one of his own, the Lancelot of Southern chivalry who addressed abortion advocates as “lovely ladies,” or the teetotaling lecher whose exploits make Bill Clinton look like a celibate — Ol’ Strom is a law unto himself.
The same could be said of his birthplace. Edgefield is the county seat of a region that stood out even in the fiery, class-conscious South Carolina of Strom’s youth. Charleston had snobbish aristocrats, the “Upcountry” had democratic aristocrats, and Edgefield had “nice people, but they’ll shoot you,” as one observer put it.
The place had a long, proud history of violence based on metaphysical absolutes. It was Edgefield’s congressman, Preston Brooks, who in 1856 beat Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner with his cane, nearly killing him. Another fractious native son was Sen. “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman, so called for threatening to stick a pitchfork in Grover Cleveland’s ribs, who told the Senate in 1902, the year of Strom’s birth: “When the Constitution comes between me and the virtue of the white women of the South, I say to hell with the Constitution.”
Strom’s father, who was Tillman’s personal lawyer and campaign manager, missed out on a political career of his own because, as Strom explains, “One time he had to kill a man.” It happened in 1897 when a drunken political enemy confronted him on the street and called him a “low, dirty scoundrel.” In reply, young Will Thurmond pulled out a pistol and shot him through the heart. At his trial, which was attended by his fiancée Gertrude Strom, he pleaded self-defense and was acquitted by twelve white male Edgefieldians who did not doubt that self-defense included defending one’s honor. Some years later, when Will Thurmond ran for Congress and lost badly (though carrying Edgefield), he used the occasion to instruct his eldest son. “Never kill anybody,” he told Strom. “It will hurt you all your life.”
The youthful Strom channeled his aggressions into vigorous calisthenics, which he still practices, daredevil motorcycling, and an obsession with control that forged lifelong traits of neatness, efficiency, and punctuality. As a child he liked to stack his family’s canned goods by size and became upset if he could not brush his teeth immediately after eating. Today his Senate office runs like a precision instrument, unsurpassed for prompt constituent service; no phone is allowed to ring more than twice and there is a 24-hour turnaround on all mail. He clocks his staff, putting them on a late list if they do not arrive by 9 a.m. sharp — and he still carries a toothbrush in his pocket.
AFTER GRADUATING FROM CLEMSON when it was still a military college, he briefly taught school, served as county superintendent of schools, then read law with his father and went into practice with him. Elected to the state senate in 1932, the 30-year-old Strom was a handsome, dimpled bachelor with washboard abs and a “shady reputation” among the young ladies in the Junior League, who had heard about his bevy of “big-busted girlfriends,” not in the Junior League and whose company he seemed to prefer.
The shady reputation entered the realm of galactic legend in 1940 when the still-unmarried Strom, by now a circuit court judge, was romantically linked with Sue Logue, the only woman ever sent to the electric chair in South Carolina.
The Logue murder case began when Davis Timmerman’s mule kicked J.W. Logue’s calf to death. Angry over his failure to get restitution for the calf, Logue confronted Timmerman in the latter’s general store. Grabbing a new axe from the shelf, Logue swung it at the merchant with intent to bisect, but Timmerman ducked in time, grabbed his gun, and shot Logue through the head.
After Timmerman’s acquittal on self-defense, the Widow Logue persuaded her sharecropper to kill him. But when he shot one of Timmerman’s hired hands by mistake, she and her brother-in-law, George Logue, decided to hire an assassin. Summoning their nephew, Joe Frank, a Spartanburg policeman, they gave him $500 and asked him to find somebody.
Joe Frank offered the job to Clarence Bagwell, Spartanburg’s town drunk, and drove him to Timmerman’s store. Bagwell entered and fired five shots into Timmerman, after which Joe Frank drove him home. The hapless pair were soon caught and Joe Frank confessed that Sue and George Logue had put him up to it. The sheriff and his deputy went to arrest them, but as they approached the house the Logues opened fire, killing the sheriff and fatally wounding the deputy, who managed to kill the Logues’ sharecropper before dying.
Ol’ Strom heard about the stand-off as he was leaving church and rushed to the Logue place, striding fearlessly onto the porch and calling out to the Logues to surrender. A voice from within replied, “Don’t come in, Strom, or we’ll have to kill you,” but he ignored it, talked his way inside, and persuaded Sue Logue to give herself up.
Sue’s uncharacteristic submissiveness lent credence to longstanding rumors that Strom already had had his way with her. As school superintendent he had given her a teaching job despite the rule that married women could not be hired, and it was said that they were caught in flagrante in his office. Moreover, she was reputed to possess an unusual “vaginal muscular dexterity,” as the authors delicately phrase it. Add that to her go-for-broke nervous system and you have a woman that Ol’ Strom was not likely to overlook.
The Logues and their hired gun were sentenced to the electric chair. They say Strom accompanied Sue when she was taken from the women’s prison to the state pen, and according to the driver, the two of them were in the back seat “a-huggin’ and a-kissin’ the whole way.”
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