Federal Writers' Project - Life Histories/2017/Fall/Section 26/Hezekiah Spruill

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Hezekiah Spruill
Gum Neck, North Carolina
DiedUnknown (after 1938)
Resting placeUnknown
ResidenceElizabeth City, North Carolina
NationalityUnited States
Home townGum Neck, North Carolina
SpouseMartha Ann Phyllis

Hezekiah Spruill (born 1859) was an American carpenter that spent his life in Tyrell County, North Carolina. He married Martha Ann Phyllis in 1882 and had four children. Spruill died on an unknown date of unknown causes.[1]


Early Life[edit]

Hezekiah Spruill was born in Gum Neck, North Carolina in 1859. He spent his childhood in the nearby woods with his brother hunting to support their struggling family. Spruill was also trained in carpentry during his early years. At a young age, the brothers ran their own coffin business until their father was permanently crippled by a falling tree. His inability to provide for the family forced Spruill and his brother to abandon their business in favor of more profitable pursuits. In the fall of 1876, Spruill worked on the family farm. The following spring, he was employed by a fisherman in nearby Cedar Point. After this, Spruill worked odd jobs until he married his wife, Martha Ann Phyllis, in 1882 and bought a small farm in Tyrell County, North Carolina.[2]

Adult Life[edit]

After running the cotton farm for seven years, Spruill sold the house in 1899 and moved to Elizabeth City, North Carolina. Here, Spruill worked as a carpenter in a shipyard until he made $9 a day. In 1907, he bought a house to repair and lived there for the rest of his known life. During this time, his carpentry work was inconsistent.[3]

Spruill had four children with his wife: three girls and one boy. All three daughters lived normal lives unlike their brother, who spent a much of his life in prison for unclear reasons, though Spruill referenced corruption in the justice system as the reason for his son’s sentence. Martha maintained the household and waited to see her son again.[4]

Near the end of his life, Spruill struggled with supporting himself and his wife. Despite their advanced ages and declining health, neither Spruill nor his wife met pension requirements and thus had very little money. Another issue Spruill faced was feeding his family. The introduction of a new crop changed the habits of the animals that Spruill had hunted and relied on as a food source. This meant that he was less successful in this endeavor.[5] The cause and date of Spruill’s death are unknown.

Sociopolitical Issues that Impacted His Life[edit]

Jury System[edit]

The judiciary of the 19th century was flawed due to the jury system. The arduous nature of the legal process itself was thought to be enough to protect the defendant from incorrect execution of the law. The jury system was meant as a backup measure to ensure correct application of the law. This group of individuals, when serving correctly, is knowledgeable about both the case and their own legal powers. The reality, however, was that the jury was often comprised of people who were largely ignorant of both the case and their own responsibilities. Another issue with the system was the struggle to be truly impartial. Oftentimes judges would share their interpretations of the facts with the jury, diminishing their ability to objectively interpret the evidence presented before them. Furthermore, members of a given community could befriend judges and thus manipulate the execution of justice in their favor.[6]

Despite these serious issues, the process of change was difficult during the early 20th century. The primary issue was that the states and their people were not unified; there was "no cohesion, no associated thought, no common public opinion, and, apparently, no possibility of any." This meant that the people were unable to properly organize enough to reach out to the Supreme Court, which is uniquely able to make changes to the system. Another obstacle to change at the time was the ability of the people to pursue it. Young lawyers with the knowledge to effectively amend the system were hesitant to do so as they preferred to focus on beginning their careers. More experienced lawyers preferred to leave the system was it was.[7]

Pension System[edit]

The North Carolina Pension System was established in 1885 to provide monetary relief to “disabled veterans and certain widows.” Although the amounts of money given depended on degree of disability, they “were extremely low in all cases.”[8] Eventually, the system was expanded to include the partially disabled and elderly.[9] Relief to these groups took the form of public almshouses that were unable to support the masses they attracted.[10] In 1928-30, the system reach its peak and then nearly collapsed during the Great Depression,[11] reflected in an 83% decrease in the number of people it supported.[12]

The responsibility of distributing the funds to those in the system officially belonged to the state governments. In practice, this task was left to the county governments, who were not required to provide aid to the people but rather had the option to distribute the money, which they were required to produce themselves. These structural issues of the system led to its near-collapse after World War I and the Great Depression.[13]

Strains on the system led to a reevaluation of who qualifies for pension. During the 1930-40’s, North Carolina’s system favored disabled veterans, though they too had to fit very specific parameters.[14] Few laws of the time provided aid to the elderly and unemployed beyond the public almshouses and those that did were not enforced.[15] The Social Security Act of 1935 fixed some of these problems.[16] This law required that the federal government match state pension payments for up to $15 per individual, provided that the state government met certain provisions.[17]

Agricultural Growth[edit]

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, the two dominant cover crops were alfalfa and red clover.The rise of mass produced agriculture following World War I led to the search for new cover crops that better suited the growing needs of the consumers. The solution was found in soy beans due to their dual purpose as a cover and cash crop.[18]

The annual yield of soy beans doubled due to their agricultural and industrial benefits.[19] For one, the ability of soy to endure both low and high temperature extremes makes them superior to the traditional cover crops. The high protein content of the bean that it is the ideal feed for livestock on farms. This was especially beneficial as soy meal was a natural result of pressing the beans for their oil,[20] which has an “amazing diversity of industrial uses.”[21] The oil emulsifies asphalt and tar, which was especially useful due to the growth of road networks and the automobile industry after WWI that used soybean oil in resin. Other derivatives of the soy bean were in bases for water paint, whitewash materials, and enamels.[22]


  1. Hezekiah Spruill, interview by W.O. Saunders, Elizabeth City, November 25, 1938.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. F.W. Thomas, “Statutory Assaults on the Jury System,” American Bar Association Journal, 1921, http://www.jstor.org/stable/25710720 (accessed 8 October, 2017).
  7. H.M. Doak, “The Jury System,” The Nashville American, Mar 10, 1904, http://libproxy.lib.unc.edu/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/929187506?accountid=14244 (accessed 26 September 2017).
  8. B.U. Ratchford and K.C. Heise, “Confederate Pensions,” Southern Economic Journal 5 (1938): 208.
  9. Ibid., 207.
  10. Frank T. De Vyver, “Social Security in the South,” Southern Economic Journal 3 (1937): 309.
  11. Ratchford and Heise, “Confederate Pensions,” 207.
  12. Ibid., 211.
  13. Vyver, “Social Security in the South,” 304.
  14. Ratchford and Heise, “Confederate Pensions,” 212.
  15. Vyver, “Social Security in the South,” 310.
  16. Ratchford and Heise, “Confederate Pensions,” 216.
  17. Ratchford and Heise, “Confederate Pensions,” 216.
  18. “Soy Bean Meets Several Needs: Enriches the Soil and Makes Valuable Feed for Stock,” The Nashville Tennessean (1920), B1.
  19. A.A.Horvath, “The Soybean Points the Way to Agricultural Recovery,” The Scientific Monthly 43 (1936): 64, http://www.jstor.org/stable/16221.
  20. “Soy Bean Meets Several Needs: Enriches the Soil and Makes Valuable Feed for Stock,” B1.
  21. Horvath, “The Soybean Points the Way to Agricultural Recovery,” 63.
  22. Ibid. 65.