On May 8, 1819, Aaron Green, Menan Priest, John Priest, Isaac Priest, Joel Sturman, Jandy Bell, David Draper, and Thomas Rowe patrolled the streets and highways of Madison county.
Prior to the institution of more modern police forces most southern states relied on relatively informal methods to safeguard the slave south’s version of law and order. In 1757, Georgia pioneered the use of one such method: the slave patrol. Based off of earlier laws in South Carolina, “An Act for Establishing and Regulating of Patrols,” not only formalized the slave patrol but elevated it into a masterclass on oppression. Operating around a grid system the patrols entered areas unannounced to inspect and intimidate the enslaved population.
Of course, Madison county eventually institutionalized its own version of the slave patrol with the 1831 establishment of the Night Watch. However, Alabama failed to adopt any statewide ‘patrol laws’ until the passage of the 1833 Slave Codes. Even then the codes only made passing references to slave patrols under the assumption that most municipalities operated their own.*
Although Huntsville and Madison county eventually instituted a slave patrol it appears that this early instance of mildly organized vigilantism existed outside the regional context. Instead these eight men roamed the county in pursuit of those most egregious sinners – gamblers. It should be noted that, somehow, a distaste for gaming pervaded Alabama more heavily than other southern states. So although Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida instituted their own lottery systems Alabama operated a special Bingo Task Force as recently as 2010.
This focus on gaming means that Aaron Green, the Priest brothers, Joel Sturman, Jandy Bell, David Draper, and Thomas Rowe might not have felt completely out of place during the 2009 raid on the VictoryLand Hotel in rural Macon county.
Yet they are not notable for their breaking up of games nor their burning of cards and dice. For on May 8, 1819, they patrolled and during that duty one might come across a desperate man.
They ran into two.
Nicholas Higgins and James Morris sat gambling in the forest. Other men gamed with them but those folks ran as soon as the patrol showed up, so their names are lost to history.
All that is known is that Higgins and Morris saw eight men charged with keeping the peace in Madison county and immediately attacked them with swords. Now it might seem improbable that two gamblers in the woods might have swords in the early nineteenth century, especially as swords began their decline as a common item close to a century earlier. Yet that happened.
Moreover James Morris, not content to chase men with sharpened blades, produced a pistol “loaded towit with gunpowder and a leaden bullet,” and indiscriminately fired at the patrollers. The men proved so fearsome that the patrol fled from their terrible visage. After the patrol departed witnesses claimed that men returned to the scene and the gamblers partied “and did and there remain and continue so assembled and armed for the space of an hour and more the next following” day. Finally departing, undisturbed, in the early hours of the morning.
The jury either found the evidence against them lacking or the lack of fortitude by the patrollers disgusting, because they dismissed the case.
One of the patrolmen, Aaron Green, returned to his normal life in Madison county. For two beautiful months nobody tried to stab or otherwise assault him. Yet on July 3, 1819, he and a man named John Jones got into a scuffle.
Jones drew out his chisel and delivered unto Green “one grievous and dangerous wound of the length of two inches and of the depth of four inches.” Once Jones finished carving into Aaron Green he left the man laying all bloody on the ground. The October term of the court of the Alabama Territory found Jones guilty and fined him $150.00.
Aaron Green spent the rest of his days avoiding men with sharp things.
The Territory v. John Jones, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 273/223-275/225 (1819).
*Although it is worth noting that Alabama finally mandated patrol duty for all slaveowners unto the age of 60 and all other “free white persons” 18-45, in the second set of slave codes passed in 1852. So maybe not all municipalities used them.