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This article is from the Dictionary of North Carolina Biography, 6 volumes, edited by William S. Powell. Copyright ©1979-1996 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher. For personal use and not for further distribution. Please submit permission requests for other use directly to the publisher.

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Spelman, John

by William S. Powell, 1994; Revised by SLNC Government Heritage Library, June 2023

1821–4 Apr. 1889

John Spelman, printer and newspaper editor, was born in England. Nothing appears to be recorded concerning his origin or education, but a number of Spelman men, all from the county of Norfolk, attended Cambridge University in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. He moved to North Carolina to become foreman of the printing office at the state school for the visually and hearing impaired people living in Raleigh by August 1854, when he applied to the Wake County Court for U.S. citizenship. His earliest known employment was as a reporter for William W. Holden, publisher of the North Carolina Standard. The Raleigh Board of Commissioners in 1857 for the first time extended the town's limits following the taking of a special local census. Spelman was engaged to analyze the census, and his summary appeared in the Standard. In 1858 he became captain of one of the capital city's two volunteer fire companies. In that position he took steps to ensure an adequate source of water for fighting fires and was a member of a committee that conferred with a local engineer about repairing the fire engine.

In November 1859 it was reported that the Salisbury Banner, a weekly that he soon converted to a semiweekly, had been "transferred" to Spelman, who was described as "an accomplished writer and superior printer." By then he was well known in journalistic circles, as the Wilmington Journal of 18 Nov. 1859 confirmed this appraisal of him. It anticipated the success of his undertaking, since Spelman had been a "faithful and talented reporter of the Raleigh Standard for years past." As editor of the Banner he strongly opposed ad valorem taxation, which he associated with antislavery and pro-Union sentiment. On 1 June 1860 he also began publication of a Democratic campaign weekly in Salisbury, The Little Adder. It attacked the Know-Nothings and ad valorem taxation while supporting John W. Ellis for governor and John C. Breckinridge and Joseph Lane for president and vice-president, respectively. This paper appeared only during the period 1 June–27 July.

On 15 Mar. 1860 in Petersburg, Va., Spelman married Mollie Lea. The census of that year for Rowan County recorded them as residents of a hotel in Salisbury. A daughter, born on 21 Mar. 1861, died the same day and was buried in the Old English Cemetery, Salisbury. They may have intended to remain in Salisbury only briefly, because in March 1860 Spelman founded the Weekly State Journal in Raleigh as a continuation of the Democratic Press ; his connection with the Journal lasted at least until 1882, but for some of the time others were associated with him in its operation. During the Civil War his paper served as the voice of the Confederate administration, and he printed some state currency on his press. In the later Prohibition campaign, Spelman's paper was a strong anti-Prohibition voice. For a few weeks in 1872 he also published The Blasting Powder, described as being "for Democrats and Conservatives, a weekly campaign paper for the people." At times during the Civil War the Journal appeared in weekly, semiweekly, and daily editions, and for a while it was published in Goldsboro. In March 1865, with the approach of the Federal army, a few people fled Goldsboro; among them was Spelman, editor of the Goldsboro State Journal. A Northern writer described him as a "little, dirty, nasty, howling, snarling, hypocritical, demagogical secesh" who had contributed to the war. By fleeing, a later historian wrote, he probably "saved his skin."

Soon after becoming governor in 1859, John W. Ellis of Salisbury named Spelman the state printer. In 1860 Spelman bought the Adams Power Press, which had formerly belonged to the North Carolina Institution for the Education of the Deaf and Dumb and Blind. Richard H. Whitaker was involved with him in this undertaking. With the aid of the governor, $3,500 was secured to acquire the press, but the total amount had not been repaid in March 1865, when the press was destroyed. After W. W. Holden's newspaper and printing office were demolished by Confederate soldiers from Georgia, Holden supporters—unhappy over Holden's support of Reconstruction—destroyed Spelman's press and his newspaper, the State Journal, in retaliation.

On 3 Apr. 1866 Spelman began publishing the Daily Newbern Commercial as a general newspaper but with emphasis on business. In time a weekly edition also appeared. As editor, Spelman followed a very close line between supporting the Reconstruction government and undertaking to justify the actions of North Carolinians during the years 1861–65. He endorsed the program of President Andrew Johnson for presidential Reconstruction, publicized actions taken by Congress of which he disapproved, and reported news of the late leaders of the Confederacy. A poem by an unidentified Englishman, "A Reply to the Conquered Banner," published in the issue of 16 Apr. 1866, surely brought comfort to many of its readers.

While continuing his State Journal, Spelman once more undertook to publish a new campaign paper. In June and July 1872 he produced Blasting-Powder for Democrats and Conservatives. Subtitled A Weekly Campaign Paper for the People, it supported Augustus S. Merrimon in his contest for governor against Republican Tod R. Caldwell.

The 1870 census recorded Spelman and his wife, Mary, who must have been called Mollie, as living in the home of one Francis Miller in Raleigh—apparently a boarding-house. No children were listed. Following a period of declining health, Spelman died at age sixty-eight; after funeral services at the Church of the Good Shepherd, Raleigh, he was buried in Oakwood Cemetery. For a number of years after his death Mary Spelman, a native of North Carolina, was a matron at the St. Luke's Home for women in Raleigh.


Branson and Farrar's North Carolina Business Directory of 1866–67.

Beth G. Crabtree and James W. Patton, eds., Journal of a Secesh Lady (1979).

Criswell's Currency Series, vol. 1 (1964).

Daily Newbern Commercial, 3 Apr. 1866.

Elizabeth Reid Murray to William S. Powell, 22 Apr. 1983.

Raleigh, N.C., City Directory, 1889–1900.

Raleigh News and Observer, 5 Apr. 1889.

Raleigh Register, 7 Mar. 1860.

Raleigh State Chronicle, 12 Apr. 1889.

Mary Wescott and Allene Ramage, comps., A Checklist of United States Newspapers  . . . , pt. 4 (1936).

R. H. Whitaker, Whitaker's Reminiscences: Incidents and Anecdotes (1905).

Wilmington Journal, 18 Nov. 1859.

Additional Resources:

North Carolina. 1861. Executive and legislative documents [series]. Raleigh: John Spelman. (accessed July 30, 2014). 

North Carolina, and John Spelman. 1818. Journals of the Senate and House of Commons of the General Assembly of North-Carolina at its session in ... [serial]. Raleigh, N.C.: Lawrence & Lemay. (accessed July 30, 2014).

UNC Library. "Craven County Census of 1790. No Author. Volume 26, Pages 407-436." Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. (accessed July 30, 2014). 

UNC Library. "Minutes of the General Court of North Carolina, including Chancery Court minutes and related depositions. North Carolina. General Court. Feburary 25, 1695-March 01, 1695. Volume 01, Pages 442-457." Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. (accessed July 30, 2014).

UNC Library. "Minutes of the General Court of North Carolina, including Chancery Court minutes. North Carolina. General Court. November 26, 1694-November 30, 1694. Volume 01, Pages 423-438." Documenting the American South: Colonial and State Records of North Carolina. (accessed July 30, 2014).