We are still hampered by the absence of wartime North Carolina newspapers, diaries, and ordinary personal records and by flaws in stories that circulated word of mouth before North Carolinians tried to write their own histories, and even after histories were published. Misunderstandings and legends are still being repeated. I’m ready to believe the worst about Fanning, partly because my docket of Fanning’s previously unknown murders keeps getting longer, but in this air-clearing piece I cast doubt on his guilt or absolve him of three different murders or sets of murders.
In 1851 Fanning’s first victims (off the battlefield) were identified by Joseph Johnson: “His first marauding expedition is said to have been to Deep river; and the earliest sufferers from his rapacity and violence, were Charles Spearing, Captains Dreck and Dye.” Fanning “went to Spearing’s in the night, shot him as he ran from the house, took his gun, scoured the neighborhood, and returned to Rains’” (that is, he went back to John Rains’s house on Brush Creek near where it flows into Deep River below Fanning’s frequent base at Cox’s Mill in Randolph County). Former North Carolina Gov. D. L. Swain had provided the text Johnson published, and in 1853 he salvaged it to introduce a valuable paper left by Archibald D. Murphey, the great researcher who died in 1832 before finishing his history of North Carolina. Here Swain named the “earliest sufferers” as “Charles Shearing, Captains Duck and Dye.” That is, he corrected “Spearing” and “Dreck” but did not fix the problem with the syntax and the captains, whose fate was left ambiguous.
The next year Eli W. Caruthers, using some of the late former congressman Archibald McBryde’s notes (as Murphey had done), and assuming that the sufferer “Charles Sherring” must have been an “active and resolute Whig,” dated the attack on him to about the time of Fanning’s raid on Pittsboro (that is, on the Chatham Court House, July 17, 1781). “Sherring” had hidden in a corn crib, Caruthers said. Suspicious, searching in the dark, Fanning fired between the logs, hitting Sherring’s “wind-pipe and the neck bone.” Somehow Sherring kept silent despite his agony, then after Fanning left he rode eight miles to get his wounds dressed by his friend Cornelius Tyson. Fanning had not killed him, after all.
Three decades later John H. Wheeler revisited this story without using Caruthers and without thanking Swain: “One of the earliest sufferers was Charles Shearing, of Deep River, to whose house he [Fanning] went at night, and shot him dead as he fled.” On December 14, 1910 the Siler City Grit quoted Wheeler, without attribution. Ten days later the Greensboro Daily News challenged the quotation. The Daily News had learned the facts of Shearing’s death eight years earlier from the nonagenarian Methodist minister, Louis Phillips, whose family had lived near Shearing on Deep River, just over Chatham County into Cumberland (later Moore) County. Shearing had been “a notorious cattle thief” who slaughtered his stolen cattle on a large boulder which, in 1910, was still called “Shearing’s Rock.” Shearing had been outlawed, after the war, and Ben Elkins and Louis Phillips, the father of the minister, were sent to capture him. Shearing rushed toward Elkins “with upraised hoe, declaring he would kill him,” and Elkins fired, “killing Shearing almost instantly.” After reading the Daily News, the Grit on January 11, 1911 printed Caruthers’s long account of Fanning’s attack on “Sherring.”