Organized mob violence began to foment in Madison county around 1821. Surprisingly, counterfeiters proved the first victims of these impromptu posses because men who made fake money pissed everyone off. Once caught, the counterfeiters suffered the wrath of the group. More than other contemporary assault victims – the early counterfeiters received a systematic and vengeful form of violence that often devolved into torture.
Torturers use what they have available, so random farm items often worked their way into the collective punishment. The violence is interesting because it incorporated not only vigilantes but often included lawmen. John Cottrell proved an active and willing participant in almost every early persecution. His exuberance and presence may have provided a level of legitimacy to the proceedings as he served as a constable for Madison county. Eventually his ineptitude caught up with him and the courts fined him $35 for letting a prisoner escape.
That prisoner was Thomas Watson. On July 20, 1821, he fled from Cottrell and the Madison county jail.
Originally imprisoned for the aforementioned crime of counterfeiting, Watson spent three days fleeing through Madison county on foot before Cottrell caught up with him. He brought backup. Although the court tried two separate cases for this offense, the brutality of it combined with the fact that many of the perpetrators were related leads me to believe that the county produced multiple suits from a single instance. John Cottrell brought Thomas McGaha and John Richardson to torture the captured Watson. The second case stated that Anthony Metcalfe, Edward Morgan, Francis Morgan, Robert Jones, and John McGaha assaulted Thomas Watson in the same manner on the same day. The presence of John McGaha points not to a separate assault but to Madison county dragging the case out so as to net the largest number of convictions.
Once assembled, the eight men beat Thomas Watson until their hands grew tired. Then they beat him with “ropes and a cow hide skin.” Now, there are a few options here. Some people have used cowhide as a sort of proto-whip to inflict punishment upon their enemies, while there are rumors of people being tied up in a cowhide and left outside. As the sun hits the cowhide it starts to dehydrate and mercilessly squeezes the life from the victim until the bones break and the will shatters.
Now, the court documents say that Thomas Watson’s life “was greatly despaired of,” so either method might have happened.
Of course, this sophisticated group level of barbarism most likely developed over time. However, we have only one previous example of Cottrell and the other assailants working together, and that is a series of assaults on a man named Benjamin Camp. On July 19, 1821, a day before Thomas Watson escaped from Cottrell; John Morgan, John Ingram, Robert Jones, Thomas McGaha, Arthur Jones, and John Cottrell all assaulted Camp in the same manner as Watson. They beat him hands, ropes, and cowhides until he was nearly dead. The similarity of the attack and the overlapping of assailants indicates that Benjamin Camp may have been an accused counterfeiter or a known associate of Thomas Watson.
Either way, they beat that boy bad.
The State of Alabama v. Thomas McGaha, John Cottrell, & John Richardson, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 77 (1821).
The State of Alabama v. Anthony Metcalfe, Edward Morgan, Francis Morgan, Robert Jones & John McGaha, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 79-80 (1821).
The State of Alabama v. John Morgan, John Ingram, & Robert Jones, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 81 (1821).
The State of Alabama v. Thomas McGaha, Arthur Jones, & John Cottrell, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 81-82 (1821).
The State of Alabama v. John A. Cottrell, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 94-95 (1822).