Sheriff of the Dark Arts (Pt. II)
FROM PART 1: J. E. McTeer was one of Beaufort County’s most colorful characters, and was also the top lawman in the county. McTeer was better known as “Boy Sheriff,” gaining the position at the age 22 when he replaced his father James McTeer, who died after winning reelection in 1924. He was also a practitioner of The Dark Arts.
McTeer’s practice of Root and The Dark Arts granted him respect and access into the Sea Islands of Beaufort County, and in communities that few white predecessors had. The black communities were isolated and suspicious of outsiders, but McTeer was able to find a way in through his respect for (and practices of) their mysterious practices.
One talent the sheriff possessed was the natural ability to both speak and understand the local dialect in these communities, known as Gullah. In his book “High Sheriff of the Lowcountry,” McTeer wrote that his “aunt” Emmeline spoke only Gullah, and he grew up speaking the language equally as well. Writing about conversations with Emmeline (who was really his housekeeper) he would ask, “Aunt Emmeline, wot dis I year? I year yo gwine tek husbin.” She would answer, “Hunna buckra chillum sho’ debblish. How you tink I ga tek man wen I mos’ reddy fo’ de grabe yad?”
Along with those language skills, he also was inculcated in the art of witchcraft. McTeer always maintained that his sixth sense is what made him known as a witch doctor. In his book he wrote, “I know whether a threat is an idle one, or one that would be carried out. Years of dealing with criminals and people whose minds were possessed helped sharpen that insight.”
McTeer said that in his thirty-seven years as sheriff his office averaged a 90% confession rate out of all the criminal cases made. In questioning a suspect, the sheriff made it known that he was looking into the suspect’s mind…if the suspect told the truth, McTeer would know it; and if he lied, the sheriff would stop him. McTeer never took a confession for granted; after getting it, McTeer said that he would prove it.
Along with his sixth sense, McTeer was known for his unique way of settling potential violent scenes, and possessed an uncanny ability for diffusing volatile situations without the use of force or even brandishing a weapon. Whenever questioned about this practice, he would ask, “What good would a single pistol have done me in the midst of a crowd of two hundred people?”
Randolph Murdaugh, the Circuit Court Solicitor in Beaufort told a television crew: “First time I found out he didn’t use a gun when he was investigating cases, particularly bad cases like murder cases or some cases where they were apt to have violence if the person was arrested, I asked him why he didn’t carry a gun. He said he’d never run into anybody in his life he couldn’t talk into doing what he wanted them to do. He could talk you into doing anything.”
Sheriff McTeer was honored shortly before his death in 1979 by having a bridge across the Beaufort River named for him. This bridge stands as a symbol of his passion for the Sea Islands of his home. At the ceremony, McTeer quipped, “You had to be half-alligator, half duck to do the job” when he started as sheriff.
McTeer had a long and colorful career as High Sheriff of the Lowcountry, and also raised five children with his wife. He also found success in real estate, wrote four books, and continued his practice as a witch doctor for fifty years
“You must have the power to make yourself believed, but even more important, you must believe in yourself,” said McTeer. He demonstrated that he had succeeded in both.