Arts & Culture

Five Minutes With: Alexia Jones Helsley, author of "Wicked Beaufort"

Beaufort doesn't seem all that wicked, with its charming downtown and peaceful water views. But it does have its dark side.

Alexia Jones Helsley chronicles the sinister early years of her hometown in "Wicked Beaufort," published by The History Press.

The history instructor at University of South Carolina Aiken has written two other volumes of Beaufort history, but this is the first to focus on the city's infamy.

Helsley discusses Beaufort's dastardly past.

Question. What is your connection to Beaufort?

Answer. I grew up in Beaufort. My father was the pastor of the Baptist church in Beaufort. I graduated from high school with (best-selling author) Pat Conroy and all sorts of folks who are still in the area.

I wrote the history of the town in 2005 with History Press. (Historian) Larry Rowland did the forward for me. I worked at the state archives for more than 30 years, and now I teach history. I write local history, mainly. I've always been fascinated with Beaufort. In the '50s, my family moved from Kentucky to Beaufort. I'm still in love.

Q. How did you get the idea for the book?

A. I was at a booksellers trade show, and I got into a discussion about titles that would work well in Beaufort. Someone mentioned the "Wicked" series that History Press does (on different cities). I thought, "Well, Beaufort doesn't sound wicked to me." I researched it a bit more and found some interesting material.

I focus on different aspects of over 300 years of history. The cannibalism of the Charlestown fort survivors, wars and their impact on the Spaniards and English settlers. Charles Purry, whose father founded Purrysburg, was murdered by his slaves.

After the (American) Revolution, we get into the difficulty of young people adjusting to times of peace. James Booth was a highwayman wanted by South Carolina and Georgia. He was tried in Beaufort. He had murdered two doctors. It's a little different take on life in the old Beaufort district. You could wake up on some mornings and maybe find a dead body in the streets.

Q. Quite different times.

A. Quite different. It used to be unsafe to be out in the highways even in the daytime and even if you were a doctor on some humanitarian mission.

I have stories going on until the 1920s with the Beaufort banking scandal. The guy (behind the scandal) said God told him as long as it could help the people of Beaufort, it was OK. He set up a bank to underwrite another bank, very much like what we've been reading about over the past few years. As they say, "The more things change, the more they stay the same."