Quintessentially Lowcountry: Sheriff J.E. McTeer

Special to the Packet, Gazette
J.E. McTeer, Beaufort County Sheriff, was reelected for a total of thirty-eight years.
Special to the Packet, Gazette J.E. McTeer, Beaufort County Sheriff, was reelected for a total of thirty-eight years.

Hanging on a wall facing the elevator at the Beaufort County Sheriff's Office is a small, unassuming framed black and white photo of a Lowcountry icon. The same man is memorialized on a plaquenear the bridge that bears his name as a "legendary lawman, author, spellbinder and raconteur."

Decked out in what appears to be a crisp white suit, a white fedora with dark trim atop his head, the late Beaufort County Sheriff James Edwin McTeersmileswidely in the photo, an almost mischievous grin that seems to suggest he knows something you don't.

Known for years as the "Boy Sheriff," McTeer became the top lawman in the county at 23 when he replaced his father, James E. McTeer, who died after winning reelection in 1924. James E. McTeer was the sixth Beaufort County Sheriff to die in office between 1882 and 1924, according to county records.

For 37 years, McTeer tackled everything from Prohibition-era rumrunners to a nudist colony on Cat Island in the early 1930s. The Sheriff's Office claims McTeer's tenure is one of the longest in the U.S., a assertion that is hard to prove or disprove, given that the national sheriff's association doesn't keep such statistics.

Still, few aspects of McTeer's personal or professional life gained more notoriety than his study and practice of a form of predominantly black folk magic called hoodoo, also known as conjure.

McTeer's willingness to bend social norms and turn a few heads allowed him to gain access to communities of the Sea Islands that few of his predecessors had, said Larry Rowland, local historian.

"Whether or not Sheriff McTeer had any spiritual force as a conjurer is very debatable, but the fact that he respected that power and acknowledged it made him very influential," Rowland said. "He didn't blow it off. We had a very isolated black community with their own values, and religious practices and all of that was very mysterious to the rest of America at the time. He could have forced his way in, but he was much more clever than that."

McTeer's purported powers as a practitioner of "white magic" attracted believers from around the region seeking spiritual guidance, said his son, Ed McTeer, now 70 and living on St. Helena Island.

"The voodoo was a very private thing," McTeer said. "He thought of himself more as a poor man's psychiatrist. People would come to our house from four states over to talk to him. You looked at the faith that some of the people around there had, and still have, in that stuff and he knew it wasn't something you couldn't blow off."

Beaufort County Sheriff P.J. Tanner said he holds his predecessor in high regard but isn't sure he could get away with some of McTeer's practicestoday.

"The culture of Beaufort County was different back then," Tanner said. "The voodoo side of things and some of the other stuff he did was more related to the culture of Beaufort, but that was a law enforcement tactic. It was beneficial and wise of him to do whatever he could to serve the citizens of Beaufort County.

"If I did that, people would probably think I'd basically lost my mind. A lot of the stuff that worked 50 years ago wouldn't work now, and a lot of the things that work now wouldn't have worked back then."

McTeer was defeated in his 1963 reelection bidby former S.C. Highway Patrolman L.W. Wallace. He wenton to write four books about his time as Beaufort County sheriff. He died at age 76 in 1979.

Shortly after his death, the man who sought to reach out to the Sea Islands for much of his 37-year career was given an honor befitting that motive -- a new bridge connecting the islands to mainland Beaufort was named the J.E. McTeer Bridge in1981.

"How big was J.E. McTeer?" Ed McTeer asked rhetorically. "They named a bridge after him. It doesn't get too much bigger in that than Beaufort."