09 December 2010

A Good Christmas Indeed

A Christmas Novella by Marshall McCart

~My column (and my first published work of fiction) from the Christmas issue of About Covington to Madison Magazine including an online-only epilogue~


Walter was a helluva guy. An old-timer, no doubt, he was pushing eighty and looked and got around about as one would expect. He lived in a little shotgun house just down the way. From about late September until April or so, he would have a fire going in his fireplace just about everyday. And every time you would see him out and about, he'd have a cigarette dangling from his mouth. He'd been smoking a good sixty years and he'd always say with pride - “No breathin' or ticker troubles at all...Ha!!! Shows what them quacks know!”

For years you wouldn't see Walter out in the neighborhood unless you also saw Trigger, his little mutt-of-a-dog that he would walk at least twice a day pretty much year round. Trigger was a darn, good dog--loyal, attentive, and eager to please. He was a fine watchdog as well and was solely responsible for foiling a robbery attempt once a few years back. My God, I tell you, it was a sad day in the neighborhood when good ole Trigger broke his earthly chains and took his reward up in doggie Heaven. Walter was devastated. He told more than once that he “was definitely ready to die now.”

That's just crazy talk”, I'd tell him. “What about your son...your grand kids? I know you don't mean that Walter.”

Hell...you know how many times I've seen 'em in the last couple years?”

It started to dawn on me that I hadn't seen their minivan come down the road in quite a while.

Once! One time dammit! Seems like the prodigal son thinks I ruined his life, that I didn't do a good job raisin' him. Well, I could say the same thing about him and the job he's doin' with his kids, but I don't, you know...I don't do it! It's so easy to judge...”

I really felt for him during that time. I was fond of the old man, you see. I never got a chance to know either of my grandfathers and I kinda adopted him so to speak. We had some great, great times. A few years back, when things we're still good, me and Walter had a few too many one night out by my tool shed...we were basically just getting silly and out of control! When it was all said and done, the cops had gotten called! As my wife said at the time—it wasn't one of my finer moments...but yeah, we had some good times.

After Trigger died, I really kept a keen eye on the old man...I was worried about him, you know? At that age and with that type of loss...you just don't know. So I usually talked to him almost daily there for awhile. But then, and you know how this is, days turn to into weeks and then into months and then you just don't stay in steady touch like you'd originally planned. Things start to revert back to how they were.

I'd like to have Walter over for Christmas dinner,” I told my wife one night in early December of last year. “I feel like I haven't spent enough time with him lately.” My wife totally understood and thought it to be a fine idea. In fact, she insisted that we do it even though we were having most of her family over and even though Walter, in her words, was “rough around the edges.” She was really great about it. You might say that my wife is a darn, good woman!

At first, Walter absolutely refused, then he came around, then refused again, and this went on for about a week or so. Finally, I threatened to send some volunteers from one of the local churches to “elderly-sit” for him and he broke.

Nah...I can't handle that.”, he said. “I'll come to your [expletive deleted] dinner.”

So it was my wife, her folks, a couple of her cousins, my sister, a few friends...and Walter. You know, it's funny how a group of folks can come together and you just know that on that particular day, with those particular people, there just isn't another place on Earth that would be better. Football on the T.V., board games, playing old vinyl records, drinking, great conversation, great food, and more drinking! We all had such a fine time! In particular, everybody would get so entranced every time we could get Walter talking about his many interesting life stories especially his service in the Korean conflict.

Towards the end of the evening, my wife and I gave Walter his present. It was a framed picture of him and Trigger that I had taken a few years back. Walter thanked us profusely and I could see his eyes tearing up a bit as he took a sip of his scotch. You could have called it a “moment.”

Around eleven that night, Walter decided it was time to go home. Despite his objections, I insisted on walking him home. When we got to his front door he turned around and before I knew it, the old fella had given me a big hug. I was honestly taken aback. After the embrace, I realized that he had tears streaming down his his face.

You know Lev, I sure as hell don't know if I'd made it the last few years without you and that wonderful woman of yours.” He was really starting to bawl now.

Walter...hey man, it was truly our pleasure, you're like family to us.”

I know, I know...I feel the same way about y'all.”

We just stood there awhile until Walter, in pure Walter fashion, finally blurted out - “Well Alright! Get the hell outta here! You're startin' to wear on my nerves kid!”

I just laughed and started strolling on back to the house, but then I yelled back at him - “Oh yeah! At least I'm not old!”

Walter just kind of chuckled and said, “Hey, you're getting' older every day, buddy boy!”

Yeah...I'll give you that. So, hey! It was a pretty good Christmas , huh?”

For the first time in the almost ten years I'd known him, Walter looked completely content.
“Yessir”, he said, “it was a good Christmas indeed.”


Yes...it was a good Christmas indeed. It was a very special time and it's a Christmas that I'll never forget.

It was about 3 months later, in March of this year, that we learned that Walter had advanced colon cancer and was terminal. He had known for almost a year and while the doctors had only given him 6 months back in June of last year, he actually made it to August of this year. I'm happy to report that Walter and his son reconciled. He and his family were with Walter for the last several months. Of course, my wife and I were there as were several of the other neighbors. And while things got pretty bad the last couple of weeks, Walter was well cared for with Hospice and didn't really have to deal with any pain. In the end, it was really a blessing for him to pass on. I'd like to believe in Heaven...I really would. And if that is so the case, I'd like to believe that the first thing Walter experienced when he got there was Trigger running up to him and jumping in his arms. That thought always puts a smile on my face. I tell you—I really loved that old man. I think of him often and miss him terribly, but I'll always have the memories of that Christmas evening.

You can email Marshall at marshmanslim@yahoo.com

11 November 2010

The History of Thanksgiving

*My recent column in "About Covington to Madison" Magazine

Hello everyone! Good to be back with you once again. November already! Hard to believe, isn't it? Fall is in full force; college football is hitting the homestretch (and as a UGA man, I'll be “giving thanks” once this season is finally behind us); and Thanksgiving is just around the corner.

Many people consider Thanksgiving their favorite holiday—myself included. It's all about the gratitude we feel for the things we have and the people we love. Also, the traditional feast of turkey, dressing, and the rest of the fixins is pretty darned good. Some would also argue that while Thanksgiving has the food, family, and fellowship of Christmas, it doesn't have the stress and hustle and bustle that sometimes leads up to the December holiday. Of course, I think the people who say that usually aren't the ones doing the cooking! But what about the history of this wonderful holiday?

We all remember the story we learned in elementary school about the Pilgrims and Indians coming together for the first Thanksgiving at Plymouth Rock. And while it wasn't quite so simple (and maybe not quite completely accurate either), that basic story is pretty much true. In 1621, the Pilgrims, led by William Bradford, had a three day feast to give thanks for their first successful harvest and invited several of the local Wampanoag Indians including their leader Massasoit. Also in attendance was Squanto--the Indian who translated for the Pilgrims and who also taught them how to fish the local rivers and to grow and harvest the corn and other crops that they were celebrating. It was quite a feast and included turkey, deer, lobster, fish, fowl, corn, squash, and cranberries. This type of celebration as well as its Autumnal timing was similar to the harvest festivals that many parts of Europe had been celebrating for centuries.

Going back to the line about the first Thanksgiving not being completely accurate, I say that because most historians agree that it wasn't truly the first one in the new continent. In 1619, English settlers in Berkley Hundred, near Jamestown in the Virginia colony, had a “day of thanksgiving” which was actually more or less a religious ceremony but did not include a feast. However, that still might not truly be the first one either as it has been documented that the Spanish had a thanksgiving celebration starting in the mid 1500's in modern day Florida. Also, in modern day Canada, settlers there started celebrating a “thanksgiving” in the late 16th century. So while the basic story behind the Pilgrims is true, it would be inaccurate to label it as the very first Thanksgiving in what is now America. As an aside, Canada also celebrates Thanksgiving but does so in September.

Another inaccuracy with this holiday is the popular misconception that it disappeared for over two centuries and was brought back to life by Lincoln during the Civil War. While Lincoln did issue a proclamation to make the final Thursday in November as a national day of Thanksgiving in 1863, several earlier presidents had done the exact same thing including George Washington and John Adams. Also, many states, particularly in the North, had officially been celebrating the holiday decades before Lincoln.

Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until FDR and Congress did so in 1941. They specifically made the fourth Thursday in November (rather than the last) as the date for the holiday. A couple of years earlier, FDR had tried to move the holiday up a week to help spur Christmas sales during the lean times of the Depression. His idea flopped and many people, especially in the South, still celebrated on the last Thursday and jokingly referred to the earlier celebration as “Franksgiving” while some parts of the country simply celebrated both holidays. So after two years and “four” Thanksgivings, FDR and Congress made the change and it has been that way ever since.

There have been some recent trends with Thanksgiving particularly relating to the preparation of the turkey. The big thing lately has been deep frying the bird in peanut oil. Unfortunately, this has also led to Thanksgiving day becoming the number one day of the year for home cooking fires in our country. The experts stress three things. Make sure you're outside. Make sure the turkey is completely thawed out. And make sure you slowly submerse it—don't just drop it in there.

And finally, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one other thing...just in case there is anyone out there who hasn't heard about it yet. In Louisiana, they eat what they call a “turducken”, in which a chicken is stuffed into a duck which is then stuffed into a turkey and then cooked. That's just crazy! Although, I must admit, I really want to try it sometime. There is also a variation called a “gooducken” in which a goose is substituted for the turkey. Strange but true...

Well folks...that's all I got for this one. Hope everyone has a wonderful Thanksgiving and maybe some of us will be dining on turducken this year!

07 October 2010

John Newton--Fact or Fiction, Part III

My latest column from "About Covington to Madison" Magazine (click on article to get full-size view).

08 September 2010

John Newton--Fact or Fiction. Part II

Greetings all! Hope everybody is well. Here's the 2nd installment of the John Newton series in About Covington to Madison Magazine September issue (click on the article to get a full size version) :

03 August 2010

Welcome to The Piedmont Chronicles

Hello! Thanks for stopping by. I've been busy trying to get all of my previously published material up and ready for the readers of About Covington to Madison since this web address will be published in my next column. I'm planning on putting up new columns from the magazine a day or two before the magazine is actually released so remember to check back for an early peek at new articles. Also, I'm planning on adding a good bit of online-only material which will include articles similar to what I've been doing but also some more "blog" oriented stuff. And last but not least, I'm going to try to start putting up a little bit of fiction in the next few months. So...lots of exciting stuff coming down the pike. Thanks for reading!

***Update 8/4/2010. New Column can be found below. Click on the image to see full-scale version (to be able to actually read it). Thanks!-MM

The City of Madison, Georgia

Hello Everybody. Glad to be with you once again. Last month’s journey through Walton Co. was a fun one and I’m grateful for all of the comments and feedback. This month, we’re turning our gaze east—to Morgan County and the beautiful city of Madison .

Morgan County was formed in 1807 and was named in honor of Daniel Morgan who served as a General in the Revolutionary War. Similar to other counties in the area, Morgan found itself at the edge of the Indian frontier early in its history and that led to some problems. In 1813, Creek Indians massacred several residents of the county. The state of Georgia would send in infantry to help the frontiersmen and there would be no more attacks by the “hostiles.” The city of Madison would be incorporated as the county seat in 1809 and named in honor of America ’s fourth president, James Madison. The town would grow quickly and had upwards of 13,000 residents within a decade or so. The city was also a stop on the Seven Islands Stage Road—the same road we discussed in our earlier Jasper County column. As I mentioned then, this was known as one of the oldest roads in America and was the main route that linked Charleston all the way to New Orleans . The town also had the good fortune of being located in a very fertile section of the Georgia Piedmont, making it ideal for growing cotton. All of these factors combined to make Madison a successful city that would see growth and prosperity throughout most of its history.

Every time I drive out to Madison , I am truly amazed at how beautiful of a town it really is. One of my favorite drives is to take Hwy 278 from Covington all the way to Madison . As you enter the historic part of Madison , you’ll run into the main drag—Hwy 441. Swing a left and you will feel as if you’ve stepped back in time with all of the antebellum houses on either side of the road. Turn off on any of the side streets, and you’ll see many more beautiful homes. As you near the square, you’ll notice something a little different. In the middle of the square, there isn’t a courthouse or a park like most southern cites—there’s a U.S. Post Office. Madison sold that land to the Federal Government in 1914 for $5,000. On the southeast corner of the square is where you will find the Morgan County Courthouse. As many of you know who’ve read some of my previous columns—I’m a sucker for Georgia courthouses. And folks, I must say (and with apologies to my hometown of Covington , GA ), I believe that Madison has the best one in Georgia . Built in 1905 with a neoclassic architectural style, it is absolutely wonderful.

One of the most interesting aspects of Madison ’s history occurred during the Civil War. The fact that Madison was smack dab in the middle of Sherman ’s March to the Sea would make someone wonder about all of the antebellum structures that survived. The key to that would be one man—Joshua Hill. Prior to the War Between the States, Mr. Hill was a lawyer and served as a U.S. Senator. He opposed secession but when the war started up, he resigned and moved back to Madison . While in Washington , Hill had struck up a friendship with William Tecumseh Sherman’s brother, John. As the years went by and the war started to take its final direction, Hill’s son was killed in action in north Georgia in 1864. Hill got in touch with William Sherman so his son’s body could be sent back to Madison for burial. During this time, the two met and discussed many things including a desire to see the war end. It is believed that it was at this meeting where Hill asked Sherman to spare his beautiful hometown. In November of 1864, as Sherman and his forces reached Madison , they proceeded to tear up the railroad tracks and burn the train depot, cotton gins, and a few commercial properties but spared the houses of the town. However, as fate would ironically have it, the plantation house and buildings of Mr. Hill’s estate were burned to the ground. It was thought that this was done as revenge by the Yankee soldiers because they weren’t able to pillage and plunder the city itself. Not too surprising considering how ruthless they were in Georgia . But thanks to Mr. Hill, most of the beautiful city of Madison was spared.

These days, Madison is a thriving place where you can shop for antiques, eat at any number of great restaurants, and see several beautiful, antebellum homes. In 2001, Travel Holiday magazine named Madison the number-one small town in America . After you see this town, you’ll understand why it has been called “the town too pretty to burn.”

Next month, my hometown of Covington , GA. Until then,


01 August 2010

The City of Covington

As I mentioned in a previous column, many folks refer to Covington as “C-town.” A friend of mine from Conyers once tried to tell me that Conyers is the original “C-town.” Well...for one thing, Covington is older, and with apologies to anybody who feels otherwise—Covington is the original C-town. Growing up in Covington during the 1980's was pretty cool. Buying G.I. Joe figures at Harper's, getting baseball cards at Leo's, and enjoying vanilla malts at City Pharmacy...it was a good time. The world seemed pretty small and Atlanta seemed like a million miles away. I imagine there are more than a few locals over the age of 40 or 50 who are probably getting a kick out me romantically reminiscing about Covington in the 80's. I'm sure they could tell you how it was in the 50's or 60's or earlier. And I'm sure it was great.
The city of Covington is the county seat of Newton County. For centuries, the Creek Indian nation had ownership of this area. Newton Co. would be made up of land ceded from the Creeks in 1805, 1818 and the treaty of Indian Springs in 1821. On December 24th, 1821—Newton Co. was formed through an act of the Georgia Legislature. The county was named for Revolutionary “war hero” John Newton.
Questions actually exist as to whether or not Mr. Newton was real...his legend seems to come from the writings of M.L. Weems who was responsible for a lot of the romantic and fabricated tales of the early times of American history including the story of George Washington and the Cherry Tree. If Newton did indeed exist, it seems likely that he was not responsible for the act of heroism that he is credited with and there seems to be evidence that he was considered by some at the the time to be of questionable character and may have actually been referred to as a “thief and a villain.” So, the namesake of Newton Co. may have never existed at all or, if he did, was possibly considered a bit of a no-account.
On April 15th, 1822, the Inferior court designated an area on a hill south of a swampy area by the Dried Indian Creek as the county seat and named it Newtonsborough. The story behind Dried Indian Creek goes like this—a corpse of an Indian was found on the bank of the creek and it was all dried up...it seems doubtful there was any truth to that story. Lots were laid out and sold in May of that year, and the town started to slowly grow. In December of 1822, the state legislature changed the name of the town in honor of Brig. General Leonard Covington who was killed in the War of 1812 and remembered as a hero. Unlike Newton, his legend seems to be legitimate.

The War Between the States
Covington's first direct contact with Union forces occurred in the Summer of 1864 when a cavalry division led by Kenner Garrard was instructed by William Sherman to destroy several of the railroads and bridges in and around Covington. He actually instructed Garrard to avoid any unnecessary molestation of private properties. On July 22nd, war broke out in Covington when an older resident named Presley Jones decided to take on the Yankees by himself. He did manage to kill two of them before he himself was shot and killed. Unfortunately, in order to placate their revenge, the Union forces court-martialed and executed a local man named George Daniel even though he was innocent of any crime.

Despite numerous accounts to the contrary, there seems to be no evidence that Sherman knew anyone in Covington other than the sister of a man he went to West Point with. Actually, there is evidence that Sherman had given strict orders that personal homes were supposed to be off-limits. That only commercial, agricultural, and transportation-related properties were to be destroyed in addition to bridges, trains, and train tracks. Sherman and his troops would live off the land with the actual order being to “forage liberally on the country.” In fact, when Sherman had finally reached Covington himself in November of 1864, he told the Mayor that everything inside of people's houses was off-limits but everything outside was not. While the whole goal of the Georgia campaign was to make the South sick of war, it seems that more times than not, excesses seemed to occur on the flanks or well ahead or behind the main force. At times, the Union forces formed a swath 60-75 miles wide and were picking up stragglers and hangers-on all the while. The most egregious wrongs committed against locals seemed to happen more frequently on the periphery.

After the Civil War, Covington had to deal with Reconstruction. Like the rest of the South, she struggled during that period, but would eventually come through it and grow and prosper. An interesting and little-known aspect of Covington's history was mentioned in my very first column. By the 1880's, Covington had become somewhat of a “wild west town” and had upwards of a dozen saloons and drinking establishments. Some of these included hotels and general stores, but several were just straight-up whiskey joints where cards could be played and various types of “entertainment” could be found. Liquor could also be bought by the bottle at general stores and druggist shops. The increasing influence of alcohol did start to cause some problems and by 1882, when a man named Will Smith killed two men after drinking and playing cards, the prohibition movement started to pick up some serious steam in Covington and Newton County.
Covington would continue to thrive with the growth of the railroads and would enjoy prosperity for many years. Like every other town we've covered in these columns, the one-two punch of the boll weevil and the Depression were tough. But the town would survive and continue on a path of prosperity. During the 70's, the city would start to attract major industry and with the close proximity of I-20, the town has thrived for the last several decades. Covington is home and I love it. It's a wonderful place.

28 June 2010

From Salem to Buckhead...and Some Points in Between

*This was my first column for "About Covington to Madison" that came out in early 2009.

Hey there. My name is Marshall and I hope this column finds you well. Keeping in line with this magazine being a publication for Newton, Walton, Morgan, and the surrounding counties, this column will cover many things about the east metro Atlanta area including history, trivia, interesting places (and people), and just about anything else really. So, let’s start the journey…

Based on the title of this column, I can hear some people saying, “Salem? Isn’t that a road”. Yes it is, but for over hundred years it has been a community. Never an incorporated town, but like so many other little hamlets in Newton county, it has been a vital part of people’s lives. Salem originated from the Salem Campgrounds which has hosted the Salem Camp Meeting every year since 1828 (with the exception of the Civil War years) making it one of the South’s oldest camp meetings.

As you wind your way east from the western part of Newton towards the center you will hit Covington, the county seat. Referred to as “C-town” by a lot of the younger residents of the city (myself included), Covington’s town square has been considered one of the prettiest in the state. The historic courthouse has been immortalized by many movies and television shows over the years, particularly the long-running show—“In the Heat of the Night.” Covington was originally called Newtonsboro but was later changed in favor of the last name of General Leonard Covington, a war hero of the War of 1812. Covington’s history is rich and varied. There was a time in the 1880's when several saloons were on the Covington square and the city was considered somewhat of a “boomtown”. If you ride east from the Square on Floyd Street, you will ride by some of the prettiest Antebellum homes you’ll ever likely see.

If you took Floyd Street to Hwy 278 and went east you would eventually find yourself in Rutledge, Ga. A beautiful little city, it is one of Morgan County’s four incorporated towns. And at around 700 people, it is actually Morgan’s 2nd biggest city! Rutledge is right next door to Hard Labor Creek State Park. One of the prettiest places in all of Georgia, this state park features great fishing at Lake Rutledge and is also home to one of the most beautiful golf courses I’ve ever played.

If you head north from the state park on Fairplay Rd you will pass through the community of Fairplay. After the third 4-way stop, be prepared for a glorious and serene sight as you pass through a valley just south of Bostwick, GA. Bostwick, one of the coolest little towns in Georgia in my estimation, is home to the Susie Agnes Hotel which is on the National Historic Register. They also have a yearly Cotton Gin Festival every Fall. Bostwick was founded in 1902 as a cotton town with a John Bostwick as mayor. In 2009, Bostwick is a cotton town with a John Bostwick as mayor. Pretty neat!

If you jump on GA 83 and head south you will eventually arrive in Madison, GA. Named for America’s third president, Madison is known as “The town Sherman refused to Burn.” It has also been named “The Prettiest Small Town in America.” It is truly that, and will have its own write up in a later column.

If you jump on I-20 and head east for a bit you will arrive in Buckhead, GA. Known as the “real” Buckhead, it is the smallest incorporated town in Morgan Co. with approx. 200 residents. Surrounded by beauty, this little town just gives you a special feeling. Originally settled in 1805 but not fully incorporated until 1908, it predates all other cities in Morgan Co. Recently, it has become home to a major musical festival.

Well, that’s it for this month. Hope you enjoyed it. Next time we will backtrack a bit and cover the towns of Newborn and Mansfield in Newton County, Social Circle, and will get a little more in the history of famous people in this area

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.)

The Dark Tale of John S. Williams, Part II

Williams Decides to Get Rid of the Evidence

So Gus Chapman, the escaped peon, met with Agents Brown and Wismer of the Bureau of Investigation in early 1921. The agents believed Chapman and were persuaded by his horrible tale. Other complaints had come into their office about the Williams plantation over the years and with this new information, they decided the time had come to drive out to Jasper County and pay John Williams a visit.

The agents went out to the Williams farm unannounced in mid February of 1921. Williams was away from the property at the time and the first person they spoke to was Clyde Manning, the black overseer of the Plantation and John Williams's right hand man. Manning spoke to the Feds as had been instructed by his boss if this situation were to ever arise. He spoke of Williams as a kind man and said that none of the workers were there against their will and that the conditions were very good. They spoke to several other black workers who all echoed Manning's sentiments. And naturally they would. They were all terrified of this man who had been known to kill peons in the past. And one must remember--this was rural Georgia in the 1920's. Federal agents or not, these men wouldn't be talking. Later, Williams would return and spoke with the agents at length and had seemingly convinced them that all was well. In fact, the facade put up by Williams would have likely worked had it not been for one simple thing: the Feds caught Manning and Williams in a lie over what had really happened to Gus Chapman on his first escape attempt. And that pretty much did it. And Williams knew it.

Williams probably felt like his entire universe would start to crumble if the Feds were able to put together a case against him. In his sick and twisted mind, he may have felt like his only option was to get rid of the evidence-- the ten or so black peons working and living on his farm. The next morning, he went by and visited Manning and told him, “Clyde, it won't do for those boys to get up yonder and swear against us. They will ruin us...we'll have to do away with them.” At first, Manning was hoping against hope that Williams meant they'd have to release them...but deep down inside he knew better and as the conversation went on that cold Saturday morning, the truth became apparent--John Williams wanted these men dead.

When it was all said and done, eleven men would be killed. The first victim was Johnnie Williams (no relation to John S. Williams). Unlike most of the peons, he wasn't drowned in one of the local rivers. Instead, he got an axe to the side of his head and was buried in a shallow grave on the Williams farm.
(Next month: Murder and Mayhem in Jasper Co....The Trial)

The Dark Tale of John S. Williams, Part III

Murder & Mayhem in Jasper Co.

The day after Johnnie Williams became the first victim of this killing spree in the winter of 1921, John S. Williams instructed Clyde Manning, his right-hand man, to get John Will Gaither, known as “Big John”, and another of the peons to start working on digging out a well on another part of the plantation. Manning knew that another killing was eminent. And sure enough, while Big John was almost head deep in a hole of Georgia clay, Williams instructed the other man, Charlie Chisolm, to hit him in the head with a pick axe. He did, and Big John died almost instantly and collapsed into his makeshift grave. Manning and Chisolm filled it in and another man had met his death on the Williams farm in as many days.

The saddest part of this whole story, to me, has got to be Clyde Manning. A peon himself, who knew that Williams had killed in the past and wouldn't hesitate to turn his murderous ways on him. In fact, he told him that very thing. “It's your neck or theirs, Clyde... [pick] whichever you think the most of.” Basically—it was help kill these men, fellow black peons that Manning had come to know and love almost like brothers, or end up dead himself. The only possible alternative? Kill Williams and face a certain death probably by lynching. It was truly a tragic situation.

A few days later on Friday February 25th, Williams decided it was time to dispose of a couple more men. He probably decided it wasn't a good idea to have too many more bodies on the property, so he decided that dumping them in the local rivers was his best bet. That evening he went to the peon quarters and told the men that he was going to start letting them go. He decided that he would only take two men that night—John “Red” Brown and Johnny “Little Bit” Benson. Those two along with Williams, Chisolm, and Manning piled into a car and were supposedly on the way to the train station. However, on the way, they stopped the car and Red and Little Bit were tied up with chains and irons. Once on Water's Bridge over the Alcovy River, Williams stopped the car and proceeded to have Manning and Chisolm dump the men over the bridge railing. The two victims cried and pleaded, promising that they wouldn't say anything to anyone. But it was too late. Williams wanted these men dead.

The next night, three more men would be disposed of in a similar manner. This time off of Allen's Bridge over the Yellow River. The three victims—Willie Preston, Harry Price, and Lindsey Peterson (as you'll remember from the first column, he was the first body found and would be the murder victim that Williams would be tried for). Preston and Peterson were the first to be thrown over. Price was actually able to shake loose and with tears streaming down his face told the men, “Don't throw me over.. I'll go over [myself].” So, on that cold February night, he whispered “Lord Have Mercy", and leaned back over the railing.

The next day two more peons would be killed--Johnny Green and Willie Givens. Both would be killed on the plantation with an axe and buried where they fell. A week later, Charlie Chisolm, who had helped with several of the earlier murders, was next. He was tied up with chains and rocks and dumped in the Alcovy. A few days after that, Fletcher Smith would be the last worker killed. He was shot and buried on the plantation.

Next month: The conclusion of this tale—Part IV: The Trial

The Dark Tale of John S. Williams, Part IV

The Trial

When it was all said and done, eleven black men who had been working against their will as peons would be murdered (Peonage, as we have discussed through all of these columns, was a de facto form of slavery that would exist in the Deep South well into the 20th century). A heinous killing spree indeed, it had lasted for a couple of weeks and events would unfold quickly soon thereafter. Several days later, two young boys discovered a human foot sticking out of the Yellow River near Allen’s bridge. The Newton Co. Sheriff was contacted and it was discovered there were actually two bodies that would later be identified as Willie Preston and Lindsey Peterson. Over the course of the next several days, more bodies would be found in the Alcovy and South rivers, and the people of Newton and Jasper counties started to realize that there was something very bad going on.

At this point, the story could have easily ended. Once again, we must remember that this was rural Georgia in the 1920’s. Finding the bodies of murdered blacks was not really out of the ordinary during the heyday of lynchings and mob rule justice. But one simple thing changed all that. A co-worker of the federal agents we discussed in the first couple parts of this article forwarded a newspaper article about the bodies being discovered, and Agents Brown and Wismer figured that this was no coincidence. They got involved and with the help of the Newton County authorities and a former peon, they were able to ascertain that these were indeed former workers of John S. Williams.

Knowing that this was would be under local jurisdiction, the Feds realized that they could not really get involved so they enlisted the aid of Hugh Dorsey, Georgia ’s governor at the time. Dorsey, some suspect, was looking to rehab his legacy after the Leo Frank debacle (Dorsey served as that trial’s chief prosecutor in what is widely believed to be one of the worst travesties of justice in Georgia’s history). With Dorsey and the State of Georgia involved and the Feds working in the background, a case seemed possible if the local authorities were on board. They were. The Newton Co. Sheriff and the local D.A. were up for the challenge. The final piece of the puzzle was getting Clyde Manning’s testimony. From there, it all came together and combined with the arrogance and lack of urgency on the part of Williams and his defense team, a very good case was made in court.

On April 9th, 1921, at the courthouse in Covington and with journalists from as far away as New York watching, the jury comprised of twelve white men returned a verdict—Guilty! It was a huge surprise for just about everybody as it is widely believed that John S. Williams was the first white man convicted of murdering a black in the Deep South since Reconstruction. He was sentenced to life in prison. About a month later, Manning received the same verdict and punishment for his role although it seemed he had no choice in his involvement if he had wanted to stay alive.

Manning would die in prison about six years later from Tuberculosis. Williams would die a few years after that after being crushed by a truck. It is believed that this awful event did have one silver lining—it started to bring an end to the awful practice of peonage and would pave the way for more reform down the road.

I know this has been a sad, tragic, and at times, gruesome tale. I made it a point to mention all eleven victims by name during these past few columns. They all lived very difficult lives only to be murdered because a man didn’t want to deal with the consequences of his actions.

Well…for those of you who stuck with us to the very end—Thank You. I’m glad you did. Next month we are going to revisit John Newton, the namesake of Newton County . In a previous column about the history of Covington , GA , I had mentioned that there were some possible questions regarding the validity of Newton ’s legend. We’ll get involved with that and see if we can figure out—“John Newton: Fact or Fiction?”

Until next time.