By MB McCart, Ed.
As has been documented in this space as well as the TPC print editions in both About Covington to Madison magazine & The Covington News, by the 1880s, Covington - now at around 60 yrs old - had developed into a "Boomtown" of sorts.
Lots of activity, lots going on, and much to the chagrin of the Temperance Movement, lots of drinking & gambling.
As previously written by your humble, semi-esteemed Editor:
An interesting and little-known aspect of Covington's history was mentioned in my very first column. By the 1880s, 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.
So after that you're probably assuming that I'll be writing about the Will Smith affair (Wild, Wild West, indeed!) but you'd be incorrect in that assumption. I'll be saving that for a later piece.
No, for this one we're going six years into the future - to 1888 - and the story of CH "Charles" Echols and the attempted murder Samps Cohen & the murder of Tom Thomas.
|The Home City in the early 20th Century
On Sunday November 18th of 1888 two "sporting men" (professional gamblers) came to Covington in order to make some money playing cards as the city had a strong reputation as a major gambling hub. These gentlemen were Samps Cohen of Madison, GA & Tom Thomas of Gainesville.
The two were planning on staying for a few days so they took a room at The Pitts House Hotel on the southeastern corner of the Square (the current site of The Lula Building & American Real Estate University).
Two days later, on the evening of November 20th, a high-stakes, big-money poker game was commenced at Brown's Livery a block north of The Square on Usher St. This game was attended by the aformentioned Messrs Cohen & Thomas, as well as locals Ike Brown, Evan Lunsford, Hamp McDonald - and most notably, - CH "Charles" Echols.
This poker game would last well into the overnight hours ending approx around 3:30am. Previously, Echols had left due most likely to being out of money & went to McDonald's Clothing Store, where he & Hamp McDonald (his family owned it) were employed, purportedly to go to sleep.
However, McDonald later testified that he ran into Echols right around 3:30am as he was heading to the store to sleep & assumed that Echols was going walk home to go to sleep.
According to eyewitness accounts, Echols walked east across the Square & met Cohen & Thomas, and asked if they could play another poker game or two, and to possibly spend the night in their room (apparently Echols had gotten some additional funds to be able to play).
The out-of-town Sporting Men agreed & the three were seen by witnesses going to the upstairs room.
Cohen had instructed the hotel staff to wake them at 6:30am.
When an employee went to their room at that time, a gruesome scene was seen. Thomas was leaned up against a wall completely covered in blood from his head to his waist "breathing in guttural, sobbing gasps." Samps Cohen, the Madisonian, was on the bed also covered in blood w/ his "eyes rolled backward until only the whites were visible, and he was tossing & moaning in delirious agony."
Medical help & assistance from the authorities was quickly sent for. Eventually two local doctors were on the scene to try to save the lives of both men, which seemed likely would be a tough task. Also, a basic investigation was begun.
Tom Thomas, the North Georgia man, was too far gone. He expired very shortly after the doctors had arrived. But, beyond expectations, Samps Cohen would fight & pull through.
Almost immediately the murder (and attempted murder) weapon was found in the room - a 3 ft long Wagon Standard made of dogwood (commonly known at the time as a Buggy Stick).
What, or who, wasn't found was one CH "Charles" Echols...
After interviews & eyewitness accounts, the authorities put out a warrant for Echols before noontime. And according to one of the hotel porters, he had seen Echols holding a Wagon Standard when he first got to the hotel.
Echols was quickly arrested & put in jail.
Naturally, this was already scandalous, but what made it especially scurrilous was that Charles Echols was part of The Echols Family. At the time considered to be one of the most prestigious & wealthy families in the home city (some of you reading may be familiar w/ The Echols House in North Covington, a block north of the RR tracks on Hwy 81).
One would think based on the previous reading that this would be a slam dunk and Echols would be tried & found guilty of murder.
Well, you'd be wrong on that...
From the beginning, Echols swore that he ended up changing his mind & decided to leave shortly after getting to the room in order to walk home and that both Cohen & Thomas were perfectly fine when he left. While there were multiple accounts of him having arrived there, no one could swear to whether or not they heard anything or saw Echols leave. At the time, Cohen was in no state to make a declarative statement (and that would continue indefinitely as his injuries would be life-lasting).
What it came down to really was this - while there was a ton of circumstantial evidence, there seemingly was no direct, "beyond a shadow of a doubt" evidence.
Later in the trial, an apparently ineffective & incompetent prosecution, along w/ conflicting statements by local Hamp McDonald as well as attempted murder victim Samps Cohen ultimately led to a "Not Guilty" verdict.
Eventually another charge for assault was filed & Echols was found guilty on that one, but by then he had moved to New York City & for years would actually be considered to be on the lam.
It wasn't until 1900 - 12 years later - that the legal issues facing Echols was resolved. When it was all said & done his sentence was suspended & he owed a $1000 fine.
Just my thoughts, and kind of reading between the lines here, but it seems to me that CH "Charles" Echols most likely got away w/ murder through a combination of incompetency of the authorities as well as perhaps just a general sense of unimportance. After all, the murder victim was from Gainesville. And again, this was a wealthy & well connected family. Perhaps that played a role? Again, just the ole $.02 & all.
Well, alright, hope you enjoyed that. A little slice of murder is always good for a good read. And look for a dedicated write-up on that other 1880s card game that resulted in murder on The Covington Square down the road here at TPC.
As always, thanks for reading.
*Ed. note: most of the research for this piece came the book, "Main Street Covington," w/ additional support from "History of Newton County" & old newspaper articles.