Sunday, November 21, 2010

The Congressman With Too Many Wives

C.C. Bowen was a member of the United States House of Representatives from the State of South Carolina. He was born Christopher Columbus Bowen in Providence, Rhode Island, but the family moved to Georgia when he was eighteen years old. There, he farmed, studied law and was admitted to the bar in 1862. He actually practiced law in Charleston before he decided to enlist in the Confederate Army.

The Biographical Directory of the United States Congress simply notes Bowen “served throughout the war as a captain in the Coast Guard.” But authors Jane H. Pease and William H. Pease observe Bowen forged the signature of a commanding officer, one Colonel William P. White, on an extended leave pass in order to go on a gambling binge. After his capture, Bowen was court-martialed, stripped of his rank and dishonorably discharged. In the spirit of calculated revenge, Bowen attempted to arrange for the murder of the officer that had caused him such grief. Thus, one author may have been prone to understatement when he wrote that Bowen was "a mischievous fellow who would stop at nothing in trying to accomplish his purpose." But the cover up of the murder for hire scheme was not done well. Bowen and the private who actually did the shooting were soon arrested. As fate would have it, Federal (Northern) troops arrived in Charleston and had all prisoners released!

Bowen resumed the practice of law in Charleston after the war and placed particular emphasis on pro bono suits in behalf of African-Americans. He joined the Republican State convention in May of 1867 and became the first chairman of the Republican State central committee. On a platform emphasizing civil rights and suffrage, he was elected as a delegate to the State constitutional convention in November 1867. When South Carolina was readmitted the Union, Bowen was also elected as a Republican to the Fortieth and Forty-first Congresses. His career in Congress stretched from 1868 to 1871.

But March 17, 1870, was a date of particular importance for Bowen. That was the day that he married a widow eight years his senior, one Susan Petigru King. Bowen had met King in Washington. At the time, she was working as a clerk-translator in the Post Office Department. But she was far from the normal "Susan."

She was, in fact, the largely “ungovernable” daughter of James Louis Petigru, one of South Carolina’s most influential citizens. The elder Petigru was an able and respected lawyer who served as the state’s Attorney General and Federal District Attorney. It is also said that Abraham Lincoln had also seriously considered nominating him for a position on the United States Supreme Court. Petigru was Founder and President of the State's Historical Society and also distinguished himself by taking a position as the only high profile and vocal opponent of John C. Calhoun (Petigru opposed secession until his death).

After her marriage to Henry Campbell King, Susan distinguished herself with a series of short stories (Every-Day-Life, My Debuts, Old Maidism v. Marriage, A Marriage of Persuasion) and novels (Busy Moments of an Idle Woman, Lily, Gerald Gray’s Wife). A general theme throughout her work was disillusionment with marriage. So, when her husband was shot and killed fighting for the cause of the Confederacy, Susan honored his memory by bragging that she had a special relationship with Confederate general P.G.T. Beauregard.

Southern misfortunes eventually convinced Susan that it would be more convenient to be popular with the Yankee side of the equation. So, most of her relatives were shocked and dismayed to learn about her marriage to the Radical Republican as they were reading the newspapers. But the honeymoon was short-lived enough.

Tabitha Park, a manger of brothels, soon appeared on the scene. Park brought suit against Bowen claiming she was, in fact, his real wife. According to Park, Bowen left her three-years earlier in order that he might live in “open adultery with another woman.” Bowen offered a settlement of one thousand dollars, but Park suspected a member of the United States Congress could do better than that. A bigamy trial followed and Bowen escaped conviction because one member of the jury would not find him guilty. Peace and Peace note a distinct “likelihood” that the juror “had been well rewarded beforehand for agreeing to hang the jury.”

Frances Hicks then appeared before a federal grand jury. She claimed (and had evidence) that Bowen had actually married her, in 1852. This time, the jury took only twenty minutes to reach a verdict and Representative Bowen was found guilty as charged. Susan Petigru played a more visible role in the second trial and dramatically offered up herself for sentencing, as a substitute for the person who was claiming to be her current husband. She also informed the court that she could not part with Mr. Bowen because he was “too pure” and “too good.” On June 13, 1871, Bowen was sentenced to two years in the Albany penitentiary and fined two hundred and fifty dollars.

That's when the "unmanageable" Susan Petigru King Bowen decided to seek help directly from the White House. When President Grant declined to see her, she took it upon herself, without hesitation, to seek a letter of support from General Sherman. She then followed the Grants to their summer home in Long Branch, New Jersey. There, she managed to get the ear of Grant’s wife, Julia Dent. Less than a month after Representative Bowen’s conviction, President Grant signed a “full and unconditional pardon” for his fellow Republican.

Grant’s clemency warrant stated the Representative was “innocent of any intentional violation of the law” and “acted in good faith believing his former wife to be dead.” The warrant also gave Bowen credit - amazingly enough - for rendering “good service” to “the cause of the Union during the late rebellion and since its termination.” The application for pardon was described as having been supported by United States Attorney Fisher, eleven of the twelve jurors who found the verdict against him, and “many other citizens of the highest consideration and weight.”

On December 2, 1871, Bowen was admitted to the South Carolina House of Representatives despite the fact that he had committed “an infamous crime.” Bowen ran against Robert DeLarge for a seat in the State House again in 1872 and the controversies only increased. DeLarge claimed a lawyer he had hired to investigate the outcome had been “tampered with” and “bribed” by Bowen. A committee concluded that the charges were true, but deemed the election packed with "frauds and irregularities” which were “great” on both sides.

Meanwhile, Bowen was also elected, and sworn in, as sheriff of Charleston County where he proceeded to distinguish himself with a string of continuous questionable financial activities and suspected bribery of jurors. In April of 1875, he was actually arrested for the instigation of the murder of Colonel White - eleven years earlier. But the star witness of the conspiracy to murder trial (the man who actually pulled the trigger for Bowen) disappeared never to be seen again.

Susan died of typhoid fever in December of 1875 and, mysteriously, her will and all of her fine jewelry vanished. Bowen married the eighteen year-old daughter of the Governor of South Carolina within a year. In declining health, he attended his party’s National Convention, cast his vote for the man who pardoned him, and convinced others to support General Grant. When he died, in 1880. A newspaper wrote that the City of Charleston and the State of South Carolina could rest “happy” that there would not soon be another “political agitator at once so bold, so unscrupulous, and so influential.”

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