Tragic episode yields hope as fallen officer honored, 101 years later

dlauderdale@islandpacket.comMay 17, 2014 

J. Rollin Cooler of Okatie will be inducted into the S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Hall of Fame Wednesday, 101 years after a shotgun blast to the face killed him while enforcing liquor laws on St. Helena Island.

He was ambushed on a dark road near the Corners community. He had raided five places that day, a Saturday, March 29, 1913. He was probably headed home when he was shot down from the shadows.

The 37-year-old constable died early the next morning, leaving a wife and two children. He was buried in the St. Luke's United Methodist Church Cemetery, near his family home and today's Sun City Hilton Head.

Cooler was new to the job, and it had to be one of the nation's toughest assignments.

In those days, the sale of alcohol was government monopoly. The state-run monopoly had been shut down amid corruption in 1907, but Beaufort County opted to keep it on the local level. Constables made cases against private sellers, called "blind tigers."

Liquor constables were generally disliked by the people whose lives they disrupted. But reaction to the Cooler case was instant.

The day Cooler died, a coroner's inquest was held and Beaufort County Sheriff Matthew O'Driscoll White began making arrests. The owner of the last store Cooler raided was arrested. David Reynolds had repeatedly protested his business was searched without a warrant. He said he was being subjected to "homemade laws," and he was going to get satisfaction.

Four months later, Reynolds and Jasper Green stood trial for murder. Reynolds was accused of pulling the trigger and Green of being an accessory. The jury mulled the case through the night on Friday, July 25, but could not reach a verdict. The judge ordered a second trial for the coming Tuesday. This time they were found guilty and sentenced to death.

On Sept. 4, the men were led one after the other to the state's wooden electric chair. Their last words were claims of innocence.

LIGHTS IN DARKNESS

It was an especially violent and racist era in South Carolina. This case was made more sensational because the victim was white and the accused African Americans.

But into the dark tale shine many lights showing the best of mankind.

The first to treat the wounded officer was an African-American doctor and trained nurse from the nearby Penn School. The physician was not named in the newspaper accounts. But it had to be Dr. York W. Bailey, a native of St. Helena and graduate of Penn School. Decades after this death, he remains one of the island's brightest lights.

In a letter to The Beaufort Gazette, A.C. Reynolds said he spoke for the island's African American community in denouncing violence. Resolutions to that effect would be aired the next Sunday in the island's churches.

Sheriff White acted swiftly to blunt two lynch mobs coming to town from Okatie and Ridgeland to seek revenge.

Newspaper stories say that as a crowd gathered at the county jail, Sheriff White snuck the accused out and took them by boat to safety in Charleston.

And Cooler's father, J.A. Cooler, and brother William, a deputy sheriff, helped quell another mob. They joined others in "an automobile and met the armed men on the highway," according to a story in The State newspaper of Columbia. "They were persuaded to come in to town in small parties and deliver their arms to William Cooler."

"Let it be hoped that this example will be a new precedent for South Carolina," wrote the Charleston Evening Post.

THE HUMAN HEART

The most unlikely character to be walking the sands of St. Helena leaves the warmest light in this tale.

Maybe it was because William Keyserling grew up amid violence in Lithuania and had to escape hidden in a wagon. Maybe it was because he knew everyone in the community as a leading businessman, store keeper and farmer.

But showing a trait that followed him throughout a long life, William Keyserling intervened on behalf of the down and out. He went to bat for accused accomplice Jasper Green. He thought the death sentence was too much for his role in the crime.

The story is told by Rollin Cooler's nephew, 92-year-old Harold L. Cooler of Charlotte. It's in "Chicora Chronicle," his 2006 book about life in Okatie when he was a boy.

Keyserling took time off to go to Columbia and ask Gov. Coleman Blease face to face to commute the sentence to life in prison. Instead, he had to write a note on hotel stationery.

"I'm only voicing the sentiment of the better thinking people and following dictates of my own conscience," wrote the man who would become father of Dr. Herbert Keyserling and grandfather of today's Beaufort mayor, Billy Keyserling.

"You must have a slumbering doubt in your own heart as to the depth of Jasper's guilt or else you would not have feared to give me a courteous hearing when I might have awakened your better humane self."

The governor witnessed the executions the next day.

Rollin Cooler's widow and two young children would eventually move to Georgia, where she became a teacher.

Today, many Coolers remain a part of this community. They will be in Columbia in force this week for their kinsman's honor.

After the ceremony, 341 officers who have died in the line of duty -- stretching from 1797 to 2013 -- will be enshrined in the S.C. Law Enforcement Hall of Fame.

Harold L. Cooler plans to be there, even though he never met the uncle who was killed before he was born.

"Manifest in this tragic episode," he wrote in his book, "are all the emotions of which the human heart is capable: love, hate and compassion, vengeance, fear and defiance -- and hope."

Follow columnist David Lauderdale at twitter.com/ThatsLauderdale.

Related content S.C. Law Enforcement Officers Hall of Fame

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