Episode 70 The Bigham Family Murders

For five generations the Bigham family were known as a powerful and cruel family who took whatever they wanted in their community of Pamplico, South Carolina. Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century, the Bighams were associated with countless assaults and several murders. In 1921, they became victims of their own greed and desire to control one another when one of their own murdered five family members.

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The Bigham Patriarch, Leonard Smiley Bigham Sr, settled the family on the west side of the Pee Dee River in the early 19th century. He proved to be a successful farmer whose plantation along Old River Road thrived. Bigham was a cruel man who was accused of murdering at least nine people, including his own nephew.

Bigham House. Photo: New York Daily News

Bigham died under suspicious circumstances in January of 1879. There had allegedly been an accident with some lumber which caused his death but the undertaker noted the death resembled cyanide poisoning. 

It seems his lessons of how to treat people were taken seriously by his son Smiley Jr, who was suspected of murdering his father by poisoning him with cyanide in a glass of milk.

Leonard Smiley Bigham Jr then took over the Bigham plantation and mansion near Pamplico. Bigham and his wife Dora would have five children. Marjorie Ann, Letha, Cleveland, Edmund and Leonard Smiley III.

In 1887, he became the first state senator from Florence County. 

Leonard Smiley Bingham Jr died on January 4th 1906. It’s believed his death was the work of his wife Dora, who murdered him in a manner that seems only fitting for the story of the Bigham Family. Dora was said to have poisoned her husband in the same manner he murdered his own father, by putting cyanide in his milk. 

Leonard Smiley Bigham III

The violence in the Bigham Family continued in 1908 when Leonard Smiley Bigham III was accused of the violent murder of a young black farmhand. Smiley accused 16 year old Arthur Davis of making a mistake which led to the injury of a mule. Arthur’s mother witnessed a group of men drag her son from their home in the middle of the night. The group of men dragged Arthur into the woods, beat him and then killed him by driving a nail into his head.  

Smiley and two other men were arrested and released on bond while they awaited trial which was set for late 1909. Smiley asked the Bigham family to back his alibi that he was home the night of the attack.

It was a lie, but every member of the family agreed to back him, except Ruth Bigham. Ruth was married to Smiley’s brother Cleveland. She made it clear to Smiley that she could not lie if she was called to testify during the trial. We’ll never know what Ruth would have said on the stand because on September 9,1909, 23 year old Ruth Bigham was murdered at sundown, as she strolled on a beach

Ruth Bigham was murdered along the shoreline of this home in 1909. Photo: Brandon Coffey

Cleveland and Ruth had been staying with their friends, Mr. and Mrs. William Avant at a coastal home on Murrell’s Inlet. On the night Ruth died, she took a peaceful walk along the beach. As she awaited the sunset view, she was shot and killed. 

Ruth’s husband, Cleveland, and his friend William Avant. Cleveland claimed William shot Ruth but it had been a horrible accident. The men said William shot at a figure in white, believing it was a ghost. They were horrified when they realized it was Ruth. But newspapers called out the story as a lie, writing that Ruth was set to testify in Leonard Smiley III’s murder trial and had been silenced. There was no clear proof of that but both men were indicted in Ruth’s murder.

Grover Cleveland Bigham

When they stood trial in October 1909, they were convicted of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced to three years in prison. Pending appeal, Cleveland and William were released on bond. When the court upheld the verdict both men ran. Avant made it to Texas before he was captured and returned to South Carolina. Cleveland Bigham vanished and was never seen in the community again. 

Over the next decade things seemed to spiral even further out of control for the Bighams. They were on the hook for Cleveland Bigham’s $1500 bond when he disappeared. To save their plantation, they signed over a portion of the property to the two Bigham sisters who had not signed Cleveland’s bond…Letha and Marjorie. 

When Letha died of pneumonia in February 1920, the Bigham’s felt threatened and feared they would lose their land because Letha’s husband and her son, stood to inherit her portion of the estate. 

Leonard Smiley III tampered with the deed at the County Clerk’s office to remove Letha’s name. But Letha’s husband, a county sheriff, made it clear that he was not going to give up his son’s inheritance which set the stage for a family feud of epic proportions that would end with the death of five members of the family.

Edmund Bigham Photo: New York Daily News

Edmund Bigham had been away from Pamplico for years. In the years since he left South Carolina, he had married, had two children and had many run ins with the law. He returned to Pamplico in the fall of 1921 for two reasons:

  1. To secure his future inheritance that was at stake. 
  2. He needed a place to live. He had fallen on hard times and was struggling to provide for his wife and their two young daughters. 

Edmund had been so desperate for money, that he tried to pull off an insurance scam when he and his family were living in Georgia. He tried to secure a $5000 insurance payout from accidental loss of limb by intentionally putting his left arm on train tracks as a train came rolling through town. He lost his left hand and filed an insurance claim. But a witness testified it was intentional and Edmund was left with no money and no left hand. 

When Edmund and his family returned to Pamplico, he played the role of savior, saying he was going to help his family fight for the sole ownership of the estate. Edmund moved his wife and daughters into the Bigham home joining his mother Dora, brother Smiley, and sister Marjoire along with Marjorie’s two adopted sons, John and Leo McCracken. Marjorie was married but was estranged from her husband who was living and working in Greenville. 

Within weeks of Edmund Bigham returning home, five Bigham family members would be dead.

It would take two trials, and the threat of a third, before Edmund Bigham confessed to the murders. He would later claim the confession was only made to save his life.

Edmund was released from prison in 1960 and died two years later at the age of 83.

Edmund Bigham outside prison following his release in 1960. Photo: SC Newspaper Archives
Convicted murderer Edmund Bigham, center, eats his first meal in a Columbia-area restaurant after being paroled from the State Penitentiary. Bigham served 39 years in prison for the 1921 slaying of his family in Florence County. Bigham was released to the care of his lawyers, Ralph Gasque, right, and William Seals. Photo: SC Newspaper Archives

Episode Sources

Indicted for Lynching Boy. New York Age. January 1909.
Oldest S.C. Inmate Near Freedom? SC Newspaper Archives. March 1960
Bigham Guilty! Sentenced to Die. The County Record. March 1921
State V. Bigham. Supreme Court of South Carolina. January 1922.
The Trials of Edmund Bigham. Horry County Historical Society. 
State V. Bigham. Supreme Court of South Carolina. February 1926.


“Alone” from https://www.purple-planet.com; “Clean Soul” Kevin MacLeod, “Falling From Grace” by White Hex, “Autumn Sunset” by Jesse Gallager and “Whaling City” by Freedom Trail Studio. Licensed under Creative Commons. 

Theme Song “Dark & Troubled” by Pantherburn. Special thanks to Phillip St Ours for permission for use.