01 June 2010

The Dark Tale of John S. Williams, Part I


*author's note: much of my research for this series of articles was found in "Lay This Body Down", a book by Gregory Freeman that details this horrific story. I highly recommend it to anyone wanting to get more in-depth information on this tragic tale.

One of the most heinous crimes to occur in this area happened about 90 years ago. In April of 1921 at the courthouse in Covington, GA, John Williams was found guilty of the murder of Lindsey Peterson, a black peon who had worked on the Williams farm. That in and of itself was bad, but what made things so terrible is that he was also charged in the killings of 10 others--all black men, known as peons, who had worked on the Williams Plantation in Jasper Co., GA. It was a monumental shift in Southern justice as it is widely believed that Williams was the first white man convicted of murdering a black in the Deep South since Reconstruction. The trial was considered one of the biggest in Georgia up to that time and received national headlines as the “Murder Farm” trial.

The word peon is known today simply as a derogatory term; however, years ago it described someone, usually black, who was forced to work for someone, usually a white plantation owner, to pay off fines or debts. Usually, the fine was minor—maybe $5 and for something as simple as loitering. Unable to pay the fine, a farmer could come along and pay it off and the prisoner was released into his custody and the peon would “work it off.” Usually, fuzzy math was employed and the debt would never get repaid. It was a de facto form of slavery and while the Emancipation Proclamation and 13th Amendment had technically ended the “peculiar institution”, the peonage system would last well into the 20th century and all the way to the 1960's in some Southern states. But not in Georgia. After the John Williams case, the horrible practice quickly started to disappear.

This sordid tale started with the escape of Gus Chapman who had been held against his will at the Williams farm as a peon. On his first escape attempt in 1920, he was hunted down and given a terrible beating, but the second time he succeeded and made it to Atlanta. Once there, he was able to meet with two agents of the Bureau of Investigation (the precursor to the FBI) and tell a tale of indentured servitude that included beatings, whippings and improper living conditions. The Feds were looking to get tough on peonage since the awful practice was getting bigger and bigger in most of the cotton states despite being expressly outlawed in 1867.

(Next month: Williams Decides to “get rid of the evidence”...Murder and Mayhem in Jasper, Co.)

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