Rock Hill, SC Officer Digs up Department History for New Book Project

Truth be told, Hazel Means only managed to fire one bullet into Rhodes’ stomach before the police chief, “a great big man with big ole’ hands,” pinned him to the floor while backup and paramedics arrived.

The city’s second-ever police chief resigned in 1894 via newspaper editorial when he wrote that he could no longer “block or control the evil” in Rock Hill.

And, in 1906, R.G. Johnson – an unsung policeman never memorialized in a ceremony or on a wall – died “in the line of duty” while shoveling coal into a stove at 3:30 a.m. so city council members would be warm when they met for meetings.

Johnson’s revolver fell from his holster and fired a bullet that went into his neck, severed his spine and lodged in his shoulder.

“At 9 o’clock that morning, he passed away and we’ve never honored this man,” said Rock Hill Police Officer John Aiton. “He was first assistant to the chief and he never received any honor. We don’t know why…because it wasn’t battling a bad guy or something? Here’s a man who was on duty, doing a job and it was an accident, but still it was sad that we forgot him.”

Aiton’s aim is that no one who ever served with the city police department is ever forgotten again.

Since May, he’s spent his lunch break and time after work digging up binders-full of history – good, bad, comical and unexpected – on the Rock Hill Police Department since its inception in 1891.

His goal is to create a comprehensive history book of the police department that, he hopes, will feature details about moments that changed the city and glossaries spotlighting all who have served with the police department, and give descendants and family members a chance to honor relatives who wore the badge.

Aiton first started the project just to see if it could be done. Now, it’s taken on a life of its own.

“We have such a rich history when you start reading it,” said Aiton, a police officer in Rock Hill for 25 years currently serving as South Pointe High School’s resource officer. “You want to leave a legacy when you leave. I hope this is mine.”

Old copies of The Herald newspaper and Rock Hill City Council minutes are his primary sources, and they often “confirm each other,” he said.

The minutes, the earliest of which are handwritten, give him an “outline” of what happened on a given day at a given time. They span from the early 1900s to 2000.

The newspaper, he said, “fills in the gaps.” Using microfilm, Aiton has collected Herald newspapers up to the year 1927.

Aiton already has started writing some of the historical facts onto an electronic tablet. So far, he has typed more than 16,600 words.

He’s no historian by hobby, he said, although he does hold bachelor and master’s degrees in biblical studies and research.

Those skills have helped him stockpile what is likely more than 1,000 pages of printed-out newspaper articles and City Council minutes in two large binders.

When newsprint and city documents won’t do, he turns to the hundres of photos, artifacts and heirlooms family members of retired or dead police officers have donated to his project.

Some of those pictures come from Chief William Rhodes’ relatives, who allowed Aiton to snap photos of personal effects the chief packed up back in the 1950s when he left office. He’s seen the evidence folder from Hazel Mean’s assassination attempt, and took a picture of the gun.

It’s led him to quashing a theory that Rhodes was shot six times.

“(Rhodes) was only shot once,” Aiton said, adding that the evidence folder showed that of six bullets found in the gun, only one was spent. “Hazel had the intention of shooting everybody in the department…the chief was the first one who saw him and grabbed him. When he grabs him, the gun goes off and through the webbing in his hand and into his gut. He just pushes Hazel to the floor and holds him there.”

He returned to work two months later.

Within the plethora of archives he pores over are lessons Aiton thinks all new policemen should take time to review.

Officers in the past, he said, have made grave mistakes.

Such was the case of Robert Morris McFadden, a motorcycle police officer in his early 20s who was imprisoned in the 1920s after he accidentally killed a 17-year-old man while chasing drunk drivers on their way to Chester.

He tried to shoot out the tires of their cars, Aiton said. Instead, he shot a backseat passenger.

He broke off the chase, Aiton said, without realizing he’d hit anyone. Later, he and the police chief learned the boy died, and McFadden, a husband and father, turned himself in at the York County Sheriff’s Office.

He was charged with murder and sentenced to at least three years in jail. In 1925, the American Legion presented the governor with a petition of 2,000 signatures requesting McFadden’s pardon. Though he initially denied it, the governor pardoned McFadden about a year later.

“I felt so sorry for this young man,” Aiton said. “In no way did he mean to kill that young man. Training and just a difference in time would have made the difference for him.”

McFadden’s error carries an important lesson, Aiton said.

“Here’s a case where we would have never done that…especially on a motorcycle,” he said about shooting out the tires. “We’ve got policy saying we’re not going to shoot from a moving car.”

The police department, he said, “has had some really tough guys” who made an impact. Some, were also “nitwits.”

One nitwit was an officer who slept inside the police station while thieves used a railroad hammer to break into a meat market only 150 feet away.

When the officer finally made it to the scene, he went down to the railroad tracks and found two hobos. He arrested them for breaking into the store. They had nothing to do with the crime, Aiton said, and were instead passing through on their way to Charleston to look for work.

“So, you had your knuckleheads…but that’s the character. We have our tough guys and we had our knuckleheads, but we still made it,” he said. “We kept this place safe.”

There’s no definite timetable for when Aiton will stop his research and start binding together a book. But, whenever he does finish, he plans to donate his binders filled with notes, newspapers and council meetings to the York County Public Library.

That research will give the library an unprecedented standardized record for the Rock Hill Police Department that’s stored in one place, said Mary Mallaney with the library’s reference desk.

Aiton, who Mallaney called “dedicated and truly an information retriever,” has spent hours doing his own independent research at the library because a bulk of the information and pictures he has at his disposal have never been collected in one place.

“Other than newspaper articles, we don’t collect things,” she said. “It’s not found in one place. There’s no standardized place for the records. At one point, we didn’t have a list of all the city’s mayors.”

Without having all that information available, Rock Hill risks losing chunks of its centuries-long history.

Patrons who want to dig up history on a particular topic often have to “sit down and read microfilm for hours,” she said.

The library is able to process quick, simple research inquiries, but doesn’t have any employees who can dedicate time for more detailed requests. Mallaney said that people from as far as Canada and Australia have asked the library to help them find obituaries abstracted out of the newspaper or genealogical information.

Aiton isn’t the first city employee to take on a massive history project.

An employee with the city’s water and utilities department spent hours at the library scouring newspapers for information about the city’s venture into the industry. He finished with a history booklet that he saved for his department. He also gave a copy to the library.

Aiton said he still has much more information to find.

Though he has City Council meeting minutes from another century, he said seven years – mainly the late 1800s to the early 1900s – are still missing.

Herald newspapers that aren’t stored on microfilm or stories not found on the website are hard to find. The earliest group shot of police officers, Aiton said, is from 1927. He’s collected more than 8,000 pictures – not all of which he will use – of police officers through the ages, but he’s looking for more.

“I want everybody in this police department, if they want to be in that book, if their family member wants them to be in there, then I want them in there either by name or by picture or both,” he said.

He doesn’t have a specific deadline for finishing the book or stopping his research. There isn’t a publishing company on standby, nor has a price been set for sales.

He’s worked with historians for help, and he has reached out to families on Facebook.

“There’s still stuff out there,” he said. “There are people who live in this community and were kin to those chiefs that I would like to find because they’ve got pictures…they’ve got pictures I don’t have and that’s what’s going to make this book unique.”

“It’s good to know your history, kind of where you come from,” said Rock Hill Police Chief Chris Watts, who has seen some of the pictures Aiton’s collected but is anxiously waiting for the finished product.

But if there is any profit accrued from book sales, Aiton said he wants it all to go to the department’s Worthy Boys & Girls camp, which started in 1949.

Police have been collecting donations to fund a bigger recreational facility for the camp to replace an aging building. The project, Watts said, is slated to cost $250,000 and also aims to give “children more activities to do and a space to do it out of the heat.”

Anyone with memorabilia or mementos they’re willing to donate to Officer John Aiton’s history project can call him at (803) 487-5351, or email/scan pictures to Pictures and documents can be mailed c/o Officer J. Aiton at P.O. Box 11706, Rock Hill, SC 29731

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