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The John C. Calhoun Office Building, which once held the office of the State Constabulary.

South Carolina State Constabulary

1868–1974

The constabulary’s prime mission of countering illegal whiskey was difficult and dangerous. Remote areas in mountains and swamps saw a near fanatical belief by residents that laws from beyond their domain held no sway in their territory. “Moonshine” liquor was part of the culture and a way some chose to earn a living when times were tough.

South Carolina’s first organized state-level police force emerged with Act 11 of 1868 as a “state constabulary.” A product of Reconstruction, it did not last long. While established by the legislative Act of the South Carolina General Assembly, the constable and a constabulary derived from English common law. The Act required South Carolina constables to, “…at all times obey and execute orders of the governor in relation to the preservation of the public peace, and the execution of the laws throughout the state.”

Notably, South Carolina’s first black Supreme Court justice, Jonathan Jasper Wright, sponsored the legislation that created the constabulary while serving as a state senator. Even though the constabulary of 1868 did not survive, the relationship between constable and governor remained intact, evolving with new duties, additional authorities, and eventually a different name.

By 1893, Act 313 established the Dispensary System, giving dispensary constables the mission of enforcing the ban on non-dispensary alcohol. Many citizens found these restrictions disagreeable. The depth of displeasure was not fully apparent until March 1894. That month, a grave threat to the rule of law erupted with a deadly riot against dispensary constables in Darlington.

Cast as spies searching private homes for alcohol, at least seven state dispensary constables died in adversarial actions in South Carolina between 1894 and 1913. Yet, somehow, the constabulary survived the chaos of enforcing compliance with extremely unpopular laws. Its attention remained focused on alcohol, and from 1919 to 1933, the constabulary enforced Prohibition—seemingly a job with little long-term security.

Before the end of Prohibition, Act 91 of 1923 authorized state constables to “assist in the detection of crime and the enforcement of any criminal law.” It also allowed the governor to make appointments with or without compensation. Constables worked general criminal assignments but concentrated on alcohol and vice offenses. While constables had always performed various duties, Act 91 officially recognized state officers aiding local law enforcement. Assistance was required when the resources of local sheriffs and police departments were inadequate for the tasks. They frequently were. After all, in the early 20th Century, many sheriff or police departments consisted only of an agency head and one or two deputy sheriffs or police officers, if staffed with any subordinates.

While there was a chief constable for the state constabulary, his role was limited in selecting constables. Gubernatorial appointment of constables, often based on the recommendation of the local senator, contributed to the perception of the constabulary as political. Appointments were local matters, and support from the local senator was crucial. Until “one man—one vote” became the law of the land, individual state senators could wield significant power. Persons appointed to office, including constable, were obliged to the senator and the governor. From a practical perspective, the senator often made the hiring decision rather than the governor. This fact sometimes made the constable obligated to the senator, even though constables served at the pleasure of the governor. Nonetheless, the governor issued a commission that conferred authority and enabled the exercise of law enforcement powers, such as making misdemeanor arrests without a warrant.

The constabulary’s prime mission of countering illegal whiskey was difficult and dangerous. Remote areas in mountains and swamps saw a near-fanatical belief by residents that laws from beyond their domain held no sway in their territory. “Moonshine” liquor was part of the culture and a way some chose to earn a living when times were tough.

In the “Dark Corner” of Greenville County, a mysterious and mountainous region, state constable James Holland Howard was shot and killed on January 31, 1924. The “Ballad of Holland Howard” memorialized his death at the hands of Holland Pittman, who had been making illegal corn whiskey with a pair of brothers named Plumley before a squad of officers raided. The work ranged from one side of the state to another.

In the 1930s, poor working conditions led to organizing efforts among textile workers. Local law enforcement working labor strikes found themselves understaffed for the task. In June 1932, Spartanburg authorities requested state constables assist with policing a strike at Arcadia Mills. State constables went there and elsewhere to deal with the labor unrest. During much of the 20th Century, race relations also required the assistance of constables and later their successor SLED agents due to the injustices of Jim Crow laws and racial hatred of some.

After its amendment in 1933, the Volstead Act allowed the sale of low-alcohol content wine and beer, and by December of that year, Prohibition ended with the repeal of the 18th Amendment. Under Act 232 of 1935, constables had a new purpose of regulating, not prohibiting, the manufacture, sale, and possession of alcohol. Prohibition introduced “moonshining” and “rum-running” along the coast’s barrier islands and organized crime to exploit smuggling opportunities created by Prohibition in big cities. The stereotype of a mob gangster gave way to new crimes like bank robberies committed in numerous counties and multiple states by actors like John Dillinger. The nation was impressed with the news reports of cases solved by federal agents, and states began to establish new state investigative agencies.

Gov. Burnett Maybank, a former Charleston mayor, proposed in 1939 the establishment of an agency to act as a state FBI. House members passed a resolution suggesting a joint legislative committee consult with Maybank, but the idea died in the Senate. Still, many thought the state needed a police agency with high standards. During this time, the constabulary was a division of the governor’s office. “South Carolina Law Enforcement Division” appeared on agency letterhead, even as the officers continued to be known as constables. Maybank wanted them to be known as “Governor’s Officers,” and the term appeared on official badges for a time.

Both governors Olin Johnston and Ransome Williams called for a state police-style organizational model instead of the constabulary, which at the time had an office on the statehouse grounds in the Calhoun Building. But the General Assembly remained unconvinced. Momentum was building for a professional state-level law enforcement agency to address crime better using scientific investigation techniques. Expectations of police were changing.

During World War II, state constables played a role at home, enforcing blackouts along the coast. Constables and highway patrolmen patrolled areas frequented by soldiers and sailors to maintain order and watch for German spies. After World War II, improved mobility profoundly impacted law enforcement.

The late Bruce Littlejohn, Chief Justice of the state Supreme Court, referring to post-war societal changes, said, “People litigate because they go places and do things and create problems.” Moving about also created opportunities for crime. Roving safecrackers were hurting businesses. Sheriffs gathered in Columbia in 1946 for an annual meeting and reported help from the state was critical. Gubernatorial candidate Strom Thurmond was listening. The constabulary had to evolve.

Following his election, Gov. Thurmond recommended moving the identification unit of the Highway Patrol into the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division and establishing a state bureau of investigation. In January 1947, he named Highway Patrol Lieutenant Joel Townsend chief constable.

In February 1947, T.W. Brown, a white taxi driver, was robbed and killed in Greenville. The suspect was Willie Earle, a 25-year-old black man. Earle was taken to the jail in Pickens County because of tense conditions in Greenville. Earle was removed from the jail by a mob at gunpoint and brutally murdered in Greenville County despite the precautions. Thurmond instructed Townsend to send state constables to assist in the investigation.

Constables investigated the case with Greenville city and county officers and FBI agents. Despite identifying and charging members of the lynch mob, a Greenville County jury found them not guilty. The awful crime made the need for a modern professional state investigative agency clear.

A concurrent resolution dated March 26, 1947, sponsored by Rep. Sol Blatt of Barnwell, called for the transfer of the identification unit of the Highway Patrol to the S.C. Law Enforcement Division, as requested by Thurmond. The resolution passed and became the de facto end of the constabulary. However, it would take time for the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (SLED) to become fully enabled by statutes as the successor agency. As SLED, the agency would support law enforcement agencies and conduct investigations assigned by the attorney general or governor.

The complete transition from state constabulary to SLED arguably would not be done for several years. However, as the demands for case acceptance grew, so did the agency. Chief James Preston “J.P.” Strom emerged to lead the agency for much of the 20th Century. Under Strom, the agency’s mission was to provide “agents,” as they had come to be known, for investigative and technical assistance to chiefs and sheriffs.

Relationships with the governor, attorney general, and general assembly matured. Finally, Act 1240 of 1974 effectively ended the state constabulary. The South Carolina Law Enforcement Division became an independent agency with the Senate’s confirmation required for appointment as chief. The governor’s sole discretion in selecting a chief was the rule until superseded by Acts following Act 11 of 1868. Restoration of the confirmation requirement came with Act 1240 and strengthened both the position of chief and the agency, by extension. Strom’s leadership lasted over the terms of nine governors, ending with his death while still the agency’s head. His long service and somewhat similar physical appearance often drew comparisons to the late FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

J.P. Strom began his law enforcement officer career as a state constable. This fact faded from the collective memory of agents later, possibly because many looked on the constabulary as a vestige of the past, a relic of early less professional law enforcement. But Strom was a thoroughly competent investigator with good political savvy. Over the transition years from constabulary to SLED, Strom introduced critical law enforcement investigation techniques and technologies to South Carolina. Ballistic identification and comparison, chemical analysis of evidence, and connecting the state to other states with law enforcement teletype communications began under Strom. In the 1960s, the state started its legal transition from segregation to integration, and Strom played an essential role in managing the law enforcement response on behalf of the governors.

Accepting that the law protected civil rights and represented a necessary societal change was a struggle for some. The accompanying unrest passed, some say, with less violence in South Carolina than in other Southern states, notwithstanding the 1968 tragedy in Orangeburg. If true, it was partly the peacekeeping work of constable then chief J.P. Strom, who, charged by the late Fritz Hollings as governor, was instructed, “Go find out what went wrong in Mississippi and make certain it doesn’t happen here.” With that mandate, the state constabulary played a triumphant swan song in South Carolina history, even though it was already known as SLED.

The constabulary is gone as a state agency, but the “constable” remains a public office used by the governor to commission and empower officers for various purposes. Some state agencies that are not primarily criminal law enforcement agencies but have an incidental need for “police” authority employ state constables. Some are volunteers working with local police when authorized. Some are retired law enforcement officers. The transition from the state constabulary to SLED saw the first entwined with the second, giving the current agency a 19th-century connection and 20th-century ancestral roots.

Huguley, M. (2017, October 30). The Governors’ Officers: A Short History of the Establishment, Mission, and People of South Carolina’s First Organized Police. Retrieved from South Carolina State Library Digital Collections: http://hdl.handle.net/10827/25809

South Carolina Statutes at Large. (1868, 1893, 1923, 1935, 1974).

Citation Information

The following information is provided for citations.

  • Title South Carolina State Constabulary
  • Coverage 1868–1974
  • Author
  • Keywords moonshine, state constabulary, SLED, highway patrol, law enforcement, state dispensary
  • Website Name South Carolina Encyclopedia
  • Publisher University of South Carolina, Institute for Southern Studies
  • URL
  • Access Date June 25, 2024
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update January 12, 2024
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