The Court Lesters

Edmond Lester had two brothers; Andrew and Winbush. He married a woman named Anne and they resided in Madison county during the early 1820’s. The three Lester brothers worked as laborers. It appears that Andrew and Winbush lived together while Edmond and Anne owned their own house. The Lesters were more boring than a pile of wood.

Until August 4, 1823, when neighbors found Anne Lester’s badly beaten corpse.

Naturally, the sheriff came to speak to Edmond Lester. He pleaded his innocence in the matter and his brothers said that they spent the whole day with him and had seen nothing. The sheriff hauled all three of the boys in and their trial began on the last Monday in October.

The jury heard testimony from the state that between one and two o’clock in the afternoon, Edmond “did strike beat and kick the said Anne Lester… upon the head breast back belly side and other parts of the body,” before throwing her down to the ground repeatedly. Court documents stated that whoever examined her corpse found an inch deep wound on the left side of her head and a six inch long gash near the base of her skull. Taken together these wounds meant that she probably “instantly died” upon receiving them.

After killing her, Edmond Lester dragged her corpse for several miles and “did put and cast to conceal and hide the said Anne Lester,” by dumping his wife’s body in the Flint River. Witnesses stepped forward to say that they’d seen Edmond commit his horrendous crimes.

Yet, none of these witnesses saw Andrew or Winbush. It emerged during the trial that neither of the men participated in the murder or concealment of Anne Lester, but instead spent the entire day at “a place of election to wit Griffins,” to witness the outcome and spectacle of raucous local democracy. Although both men testified that they’d gone to the house of Edmond Lester during one or two in the afternoon and saw nothing amiss there, multiple witnesses managed to put them at “Griffins,” until the “going down of the sun.”

The simply lied to protect their vile brother. Fortunately, the jurors found the truth and Edmond Lester swung from the gallows on the first Friday in January of 1824. Andrew Lester went to prison for perjury and Winbush Lester went home.


The State of Alabama v. Edmond Lester, Andrew Lester, & Winbush Lester, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 218-219 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Andrew Lester, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 244-245 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Winbush Lester, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 246-247 (1823).

Land in an Upheaval

Stephen and Dempsey had a bad day. Both men lived in Madison county and were enslaved persons, so they honestly probably had a lot of bad days, but those were quotidian. Maybe they developed coping mechanisms to deal with the daily oppression of specific men, but this day tore through their lives with all the mercy of winter.

Stephen belonged to a man named Richard Holden and Dempsey to a man named Davis Battles, there’s no clear record of the relationship between Stephen and Dempsey, or even if Holden or Battles owned farms near each other. At worst any of these people might only rarely encounter each other about town – until July 19, 1823.

Williamson Land felt something that day. It was some other kind of fury. There’s a theory about white southern violence, that it grew from the brutal nature of slavery in our ancestors’ day to day life. It’s true. After all, “you can’t hold a man down without staying down with him,” and you certainly can’t hold half your population down without dragging something wrong out of the other half.* So, something wrong came out.

He saw two black men and he did “beat wound and ill treat,” them until they were almost dead. Had the men stolen from Land or attacked him then the court would not have gotten involved. Williamson Land woke up that day with something broken inside him. That’s all.

Fortunately the jurors found him at fault.** Unfortunately they only fined him, which meant that Richard Holden and Davis Battles received $50 and $20 respectively as a way to compensate them for the loss of profits caused by the suffering of Stephen and Dempsey.


The State of Alabama v. Williamson Land, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 234-235 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Williamson Land, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 235 (1823).

*Booker T. Washington quotes are pretty good quotes.

**literally the only bright spot in all of this is that a man named Nashville Malone served on the first jury, that’s the best bootlegger name that ever existed

Philip Hoffman said Trappin’ Ain’t Dead

Philip Hoffman possessed an entrepreneurial spirit that frightened almost everyone around him. Liquor always aroused the part of the human soul given over to mischief and chicanery, but these properties proved more frightening during the nineteenth century, a time and place when people did things like nearly kill a man with an ear of corn or periodically burn down the home of their enemies. What’s worse is that those activities probably occurred while sober, so just imagine what old-timey Alabamians got into while drunk.

Either way, the state of Alabama eventually retaliated when they found out how much bootleg Philip Hoffman sold out of a shop in Huntsville. His largest buyers consisted of three men; Richard Clemens, Henry Webb, and John Cox – who all purchased illegal whiskey and brandy several times throughout September and October of 1823. He faced two different trials for selling to these men at different times. Which means he got busted on September 2, 1823, accepted the fact that he probably needed to pay a fine or serve some time and then turned right back around and continued slinging that Tennessee Gold until the sheriff showed up again.

However, all of this pails in comparison to the amount of gumption it took to keep selling illegal liquor after his first arrest. For you see, on September 1, 1823, the local law wandered over to Philip Hoffman’s shop and found it packed with “many slaves and negroes of sundry of the good citizens of the county.”*

This is where things get interesting. Although his later arrests explicitly mentioned whiskey and brandy being sold, his first arrest describes the beverages as “spirituous liquors of various kinds and fermented liquor and drinks,” which implies that Hoffman might have known someone with a moonshine still or produced his alcohol at home. All I can imagine is the sheriff and inquisitor showing up, opening a cask, and just staring in horror at the bubbly rotgut in front of them.** His means of production probably got confiscated, but that just meant he’d have to fall back on his higher priced stash of actual liquors with real human names.

Although white people sold illegal liquor to each other all the time, Philip Hoffman made the beautiful mistake of allowing enslaved people to “assemble tipple drink carouse and commit many unlawful tumults,” at his home. This massive breach of the social contract meant that officials paid a lot of attention to his business dealings in the days and weeks ahead. Which got him caught multiple times and ending up costing him about seven dollars in fines between his three separate liquor cases. One can only wonder how he raised the money.

The next time you’re carousing and committing some unlawful tumults with your various compatriots; pause for a moment to look up at the shining moon, gently whisper his name, and then pour out a dram for this archetypal American hero.


The State of Alabama v. Philip Hoffman, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 232-233 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Philip Hoffman, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 233 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Philip Hoffman, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 233-234 (1823).

*Philip Hoffman got busted and instead of packing it in he said “trappin’ ain’t dead” then got arrested for the same thing the next day.

**Literally says that the state sent an inquisitor to investigate this case. Nobody expected it.


Around March 1, 1842, Ann Devon left for Holmes county, Mississippi. For several decades she’d owned a home in Limestone county, Alabama and people around there knew her as an aging widow and the mother of several children. After the death of her first husband she took in boarders to make the ends meet.

Around 1832, one of those boarders happened to be a young man named Robert Brister. Based off the 1845 testimony of Henry Stanley, who claims to have known both of them for almost a decade by the time she left for Mississippi and that Ann Devon “partly raised the complainant,” it seems that young Brister may have been around fourteen or fifteen years old when he moved into her house.

On February 11, 1836, “taking advantage of her opportunities & of his frankness confidence & inexperience,” Ann Devon married her young boarder as soon as he turned eighteen. We don’t know how long their relationship lingered prior to the wedding but it would not be shocking to learn that the rechristened Ann Brister demanded various husbandly tasks from her former boarder when he was young.

Either way, it quickly fell apart. Ann Brister’s experience of running a boarding house, raising several children, and enjoying a previous level of subordinance from her new husband clashed with his youthful exuberance and expectations of married life. Several witnesses reported her using language “unbecoming of a wife towards her husband,” and Robert Brister himself complained that she exercised “tyrranous authority in every act of his life.”

She couldn’t convince the young Brister to leave and could no longer legally force him from their shared home; so she left for Mississippi. Apparently Robert attempted to communicate with her a few times through Henry Stanley. However, when presented with letters from him she apparently flew into a rage and claimed that she’d never live with him again, especially if it meant his death.

The court quickly issued a divorce.


Robert E. Brister v. Ann Brister, Book N, 370-375 (1845)

Still a Better Love Story than Twilight

Somebody whispered poison into Martha Valliant’s ears. After thirty eight years of marriage, she decided that her husband planned to leave her. This case stuck out because it is one of the few where a departed husband responded with anything other than accusations of adultery on the part of the wife that brought suit.

When Martha Valliant showed up in court on March 2, 1832 and claimed that Robert Valliant stole her dower, sold all their land, moved to Tennessee, and married a new woman; it seemed plausible enough. People did that sort of thing. They’d raised nine children together and worked their way up from the brink of poverty to something resembling a comfortable nineteenth century retirement, yet now she found herself without a dower nor widow’s third nor maintenance. So she sued because that proved the last option between herself and a slow starving death.

She knew that a man named George Horton prepared to pay her husband a reasonable amount of money for several tracts of land, some of it originally from her dower, and the court recognized this fact in securing her a maintenance. So, although she believed her husband forever gone, Martha Valliant managed to secure eighty dollars a year from George Horton, to be redacted from the original selling price for the land. Martha worked the hell out of the system.

Except she didn’t need to levy a fine against George Horton. Robert J. Valliant quickly responded to his wife’s claims. He affirmed that they’d been married for almost forty years, he did not pause to question that they’d raised nine children, that when he’d married Martha “he had nothing himself but a horse saddle & bundle.” He claimed that all of their children, except one, had grown up and left their house, and he found it difficult to cultivate the land and that “they were lonesome in that situation.”*

So, desperate to care for his ailing wife and their remaining child, Robert hatched a plan. He claimed to have gotten Martha’s consent to sell her dower to George Horton. After that they divided up all their property among their nearby children, “reserving to themselves one bed & furniture & one horse.” Accordingly, they went to the house of their son, James Valliant, in Lawrence county, Alabama. Robert left Martha there and traveled north to “the western district of Tennessee in search of a suitable place.” Something happened after he left that caused Martha Valliant to leave her own son’s home and instead travel to live with her daughter and son-in-law; a man named Richard J. Brooks.

Robert J. Valliant spent a long time in Tennessee. So long it seems that his own daughter and her husband began to whisper things to Martha Valliant about rumors of his new wife. Rumors he squashed with the simple line “[I am] now about sixty two years of age, & could derive but little enjoyment in such illicit intercourse.”**

No, instead of trying to establish a second family in Tennessee, he’d been buying up land in Memphis to build a house and apparently took the horrifying step of purchasing a forty year old enslaved woman and a nine year old girl to help care for them in their old age.

Robert J. Valliant then summoned one of his many son-in-laws, John Grant, gave him a horse and sent him back to Lawrence county to collect Martha Valliant and inform her that he’d found a good spot of land in Tennessee for them to die on. John Grant returned with her demands for a divorce. Robert seethed at the news and made the perilous journey, for someone of his advanced age, out to the homestead of Richard Brooks. He accosted his own daughter and demanded that she return her mother, but apparently his son-in-law had “consealed her” but nobody knew where. In a desperate attempt to right this wrong, Robert went before the Madison county court and delivered a romantic speech; stating that “he never can nor will consent to be separated [from Martha Valliant]… after raising a large family of children from many other considerations this idea of separation is heart rending.”

She heard his words. Martha Valliant dismissed the suit in April 1836. They retired to Memphis and presumably died shortly thereafter.


Martha Valliant by her next friend Richard J. Brooks v. Robert J. Valliant, Book H, 9-18 (1832).

*Can I point out that a married couple in their sixties was raising a young child in nineteenth century Alabama? The Valliants were friggin’ passionate about each other well after some of their contemporaries would have given up and become bitter old white people.

**Learning new strokes can be a difficult process.

James E. Smith was a piece of shit.

On June 3, 1821, James E. Smith sealed his fate. Remember him as a monster. It is a small solace to his victim but almost two centuries later we can look back and remember that he existed, that certain events transpired, and that his name should only cross our lips with poison and anger.

An eight year old girl named Luckey, described in the court documents as “a female slave of colour,” spent much of the day like all her other days. She lived in the household of her master, William Dell, and probably performed various chores, maybe even played a little bit. It seems likely that Smith lived near to Dell’s farm. Either that or he passed along the road and felt a sudden surge of avarice. We’re not entirely certain of the spacial relations between the two white men, but we know what happened next.

Somehow Luckey ended up alone with James E. Smith.

He approached the young girl and assaulted her violently. Luckey fought back because she knew what white men did when they thought they could do anything. James E. Smith bruised her badly and cut the girl with an unidentified object. He tore at her clothes and kicked her viciously. Then he removed his pants and looked at Luckey “with an intent, her the said Luckey, and against her will, then and there feloniously to ravish and casually know [her].”

Fortunately she fought harder and escaped. She presented her wounds to William Dell and he raised an alarm.

The people of Madison county found the crimes of James E. Smith so horrendous that his case quickly became one prosecuted by the state. Even though a jury originally assessed his fines to be a paltry twenty dollars he fought the suit and got a second trial. The next pool of jurors saw him for what he was, a bastard who should pay for his crimes, and they demanded a thousand dollars as compensation for his crimes and sentenced him to await the rest of his sentence in a prison. James E. Smith quickly asked for, and received, a third trial. This time the judge proved either lenient or stupid. By this time the people of the county had calmed down and moved on to some other outrage, so the court simply dismissed the case and set him free.

What the hell Madison county?


The State of Alabama v. James E. Smith, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 103-104 (1821).

Bring the Hammer Down

January 26, 1821, Samuel Hammer got his ass beat. Although the wounds proved vicious they did not kill him, nor did the assailant attack Hammer with any strange objects. No, fists and feet sufficed for this man. In fact, there’s nothing strange about this altercation except for its participants.

Samuel Hammer was beaten by Robert Fearn.

For those of you who did not gasp at this revelation; please allow me to explain. In north Alabama prior to the Civil War, the Fearns occupied a social space not dissimilar to minor nobles. Although they didn’t belong to the Broad River Faction* they certainly got invited to their parties.

Dr. Thomas Fearn opened one of the first medical practices in north Alabama specifically to fight the malaria so endemic to the region. Due to nineteenth century attitudes regarding the cooler temperatures and ‘healthier air’ at higher climates, he founded the first white settlement on Monte Sano mountain as a ‘healthy refuge’ from the horrendous diseases of the valley below. This American hill-station received the name Viduta, after the Spanish word ‘vida’ which means life. As it is widely rumored that the Fearn family named Monte Sano mountain, it appears that they were wild hispanophiles. This insinuation is only strengthened by the fact that Robert Fearn married a woman named Maria.

Although he lived much of his early life in his doctor brother’s shadow; Robert Fearn went on to help establish the first telegraph line in Alabama, one of its first railroads, and managed the Huntsville chapter of the American Colonization Society – an organization responsible for the present day nation of Liberia. In fact, by the time of his assault on Samuel Hammer, Robert already helped establish the Huntsville Library Company; the first library not only in the city but indeed the entire state.

So it’s somewhat surprising that the jury actually fined him fifty dollars.


The State of Alabama v. Robert Fearn, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 46-47 (1821).

*a group of super wealthy, and often related, plantation owners and Revolutionary War veterans who migrated to the Broad River area in Georgia from Albemarle County, Virginia. From that base of operations they eventually spread out and found a home/fiefdom in territorial Alabama. The Broad River Faction produced governors of both Georgia and Alabama; as well as Senators, state legislators, and mayors in almost every city they settled. When they arrived in Huntsville, their local leader – Leroy Pope – pretty much bought everything and renamed it Twickenham, after the estate of English poet Alexander Pope. Fortunately enough Anglos from Tennessee and North Carolina showed up and thought that name was stupid, so it reverted back to Huntsville.