Personal comments from my research and family history regarding Copiah County in 1883 and the U.S. Senate Investigation and report.
"As a first cousin three times removed of the Erastus Wheeler
mentioned in the U.S. Senate Committee Report, I feel I should make a few comments. First, one should be very careful with names and dates. There were at least three people with the name Erastus
Wheeler living in MS in the mid 1800s. Their Civil War records are hopelessly intermingled and confused. The person who killed John P. Matthews is named Erastus Benjamin Wheeler (aka Ras). He was born in
1840 in Copiah County, MS the son of Thomas H. & Permelia Wheeler. He died in 1901 in Polk County, TX.
Second, the portion of the Senate Report that is placed on the Copiah Web Site is equivalent to
the prosecutor's charge at the beginning of a criminal trial. To put the situation in context, you must read the complete report which approximates 1000 pages. There are three known copies: one
in the US Senate Library, one in the Copiah-Jefferson Library in Hazlehurst, and one in possession of the Matthews family. In addition I would recommend a book by William Ivy Hair published by the LSU press
and named "Carnival of Fury".
The events were widely reported in all of the local papers including New Orleans where the Senate Committee Investigations were held. Most of these papers are
available on microfilm. Subsequent to the US Senate Committee Investigations a criminal trial was held in Hazlehurst, MS in 1884. Erastus B. Wheeler was found not guilty of murder by a racially
mixed jury. The justification was the fact a pistol was found near the body of John P. Matthews and John's brother testified that John always carried a pistol. Thus the argument was the killing was in
self defense. Reasonable people could look at the data and reach a different conclusion, but that was the verdict rendered in that court room on that day.
It was 80 years later before African Americans
voted in any meaningful numbers in Copiah County again. The Civil War and Reconstruction were sad and violent times in our history. Hopefully we can move forward to the times described in Martin Luther
King's " I had a Dream" speech."