Views from Sumter County, once home to “Alabama’s Outlaw Sheriff” Stephen S. Renfroe. Images 1-3 were made near the likely site of Renfroe’s hanging, executed via mob justice; images 6-9 were made at or near the Old Sides Cemetery, where Renfroe is buried.
It is said that sometime around 1868, a bright-eyed, handsome man rode into the town of Livingston on a white horse. Immediately charming the townspeople, Stephen Renfroe would rise to prominence as a leading figure among disgruntled whites against their “carpetbagging Yankee oppressors” and the many blacks who were elected to office during Reconstruction.
Despite his desertion from the 9th Alabama Infantry Regiment’s Company G (also known as the Jeff Davis Rangers) and having murdered his own brother-in-law, Renfroe quickly became Sheriff of Sumter County and took over leadership of the local Ku Klux Klan where he orchestrated the kidnapping of a Replublican judge and the murder of the judge’s bodyguard and secretly plotted the failed assassination of a local Republican politician. But, according to Alabama folklorist Carl Cramer, “secret methods seemed roundabout to a man who was never very good at deception. The next time a carpetbagger overstepped himself Steve Renfroe met up with him on Main Street and ordered him to get to hell out of town on the next train or take the consequences. The man went.” As a result, the Union soldiers, scalawags, and carpetbaggers had Renfroe arrested on the charge of being a Ku Klux raider. Renfroe was acquitted. He was, afterall, the most popular man in town.
“But like any other pretender to power,” Cramer writes, “Steve Renfroe proved a better champion of rights than an administrator of them.” According to The Livingston Journal newspaper, Renfroe "committed robbery, twice, of his own office – drinking, arson, blackmails, thieving and other almost inconceivable outrages." Addison G. Smith, a local lawyer and friend of Renfroe wrote, "It is well established that while he was sheriff he burned the clerk's office, robbed himself of money he had collected for other people, embezzled money, used trust funds, turned prisoners out of jail, committed an unprovoked assault with intent to murder, and was guilty of various thefts." Renfroe was arrested, but escaped from jail on June 19, 1880, by cutting a hole in the outside wall of his second story cell, jumping to the roof of a shed, and then to the ground.
After living on the lam and several more arrests and prison escapes over the following five years, Renfroe returned to Sumter County where he threatened to blackmail his former KKK affiliates by giving their names over to the federal government. But his former accomplices turned him away. He was arrested after fleeing and brought to the Livingston jail. There, a mob of 20 men seized the jailer’s keys, took Renfroe from his cell, and marched him to the banks of the Sucarnoochee River where they hung him from a chinaberry tree. No one was ever charged with Renfroe’s murder.
Today, Sumter County is the poorest county in Alabama, where the median household income is $19,501 and 38% live below the poverty line. The 1860 Census showed the following totals for Sumter County: Whites - 5,919; Enslaved Blacks - 18,091; and Freed Blacks - 25. The current total population of today's Sumter County is slightly less than the figure of 140 years ago, but the proportion of White/Black residents is almost exactly the same (25/75%). Hillary Clinton carried Sumter County in the 2016 election with 74% of the vote.