Clarifying the sad story of Bishop William Guerry
Your June 9 article on the murder of Bishop William Alexander Guerry in 1928 needs correction because it slants the story away from the truth in an attempt to depict it as modern civil rights, “politically correct” tale. It is a sad, dramatic story that deserves to be put into context.
The armed priest, according to your report, was “irate” about the bishop’s efforts to advance racial equality in the diocese, so he shot Bishop Guerry and then himself.
The truth is that the priest was no longer from the bishop’s diocese, but from a small parish in Darien, Ga. The “racial-equality’’ controversy had been settled in a compromise at state church conventions held between 1910 and 1915.
The Rev. James Herbert Woodward, a one-time Methodist minister, had drifted to the Greek Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and was finally ordained an Episcopal minister at the University of the South.
He served small churches around Bluffton and left South Carolina for Georgia in 1925 after having killed a black burglar, which deeply unnerved him. His 16-year-old daughter died the next year, followed by the deaths of his mother and two sons-in-law. He was living alone near Darien, without his daughters or his nine-year-old son.
The “boll-weevil” depression was acute in the South at the time.
Mr. Woodward must have felt desperate for help when he came back to Charleston seeking a pension from the church.
The day of the murder, Miss Henrietta Jervey, the secretary, had stayed in her office at the bishop’s request, because he recognized the unstable emotional state of the minister. Apparently the bishop offered him some immediate financial aid which did not satisfy the distraught man.
After a conference behind a closed door, Miss Jervey reported hearing two shots and rushed to the bishop’s aid, to no avail. Mr. Woodward had carried a pistol loaded with two bullets. He shot Bishop Guerry, then himself.
The Diocese of South Carolina lost a great soul and an outstanding leader. His funeral services were held at St. Michael’s Church, followed by burial at St. Philip’s, where an imposing Irish Cross marks his resting place.
I do not remember Bishop Guerry, though I do recall the hushed discussions my parents had when daily reports arrived with our morning and evening newspapers. I was eight years old at the time, and we were members of St. Michael’s Church.
I have subsequently met one of the Rev. Woodward’s grandchildren and learned of the multiple traumas he suffered from family deaths after he moved to Georgia. Like the bishop, I feel sympathy for the “poor fellow” who was so desperately pushed beyond reason and compassion. I cannot condone his crime, but I am convinced he was not “unhinged by rage” over civil rights when he committed it.
Anyone interested in more details about Bishop Guerry can find them in Bishop Albert Thomas’ book, “An Historical Account of the Protestant Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” Chapter VI, as well as in the more recent “The Spiritual Journey of St. Philip’s Church” by William McIntosh, III, pages 29-33.
Dorothy M. Anderson