05 January 2019

Past Piedmont Chronicles - The Dark Tale of John S. Williams, the Georgia Peon Murders & the "Murder Farm" Trial

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. Also, "The History of Newton County" covers this story fairly in depth. - MBM

*ed. note: these following four installments were originally published in "About Covington to Madison" magazine in 2010. 

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 was 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.