Stars Fell on Alabama, Part 3

Part 3: “What did he mean taking it away?”

Part 1: Our Little Drama

Part 2: “We had a little excitement around here today.”

Hewlett Hodges raged. The tree surgeon saw his injured wife and sagging roof. He heard the reports of the Air Force carting off the perpetrator like it was some kind of celebrity. Oh lord, Hewlett Hodges raged.

He hadn’t even seen the rock yet and it was already reorganizing his whole world.

For instance, instead of eating dinner or heading to the Comet Drive-In across the street for a late night film, Hewlett Hodges found himself berating the chief of police. W.D. Ashcraft lamely presented a receipt signed by Air Force personnel stating that they would return the meteorite when they finished their examination. Hodges pointed out that Ashcraft never possessed the authority to turn it over.

Hodges didn’t even want to start with the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Ed J. Howard, the once and future mayor of Sylacauga, contacted the state geologist, Dr. Walter B. Jones, the moment that George Swindel realized a meteorite hit Ann. Mayor Howard promised the stone to Dr. Jones and his salivating Tuscaloosa cronies; Hodges may have paused during his tirade against Ashcraft to ponder whether the geologists were already picking out display cases.

Hewlett Hodges understood trees. He knew them well. In the first day this had moved far beyond trees. The Hodges’ found themselves embroiled in the things that trees made: newspapers, courthouses, receipts, and laws.

They needed a lawyer. They got a Talladega man named Huel Love.

Headstrong, confident, and local – Love promised to bring suit against whatever entity currently possessed their meteorite. Be that the Air Force or the police chief or the University of Alabama.

If someone wanted the damn thing they’d have to buy it. And preferably soon, while the nation still gawked at Ann’s misfortune. Newspapers as far afield as Reading, Pennsylvania gladly reported on the insomnia caused by her injuries. The Smithsonian offered to appraise it. The University of New Mexico desperately wanted it. The California Institute of Technology sent Ann Hodges a telegram just to ask if the meteorite was badly damaged. A museum in Evansville, Indiana offered them five thousand dollars, up front, for the rock.

The entire English speaking world knew about Ann Hodges and her meteorite.

So when the Air Force returned it to her on December 2, 1954, they triggered a bidding war. One that the Hodges intended to win.

Yet nobody accounted for Birdie Guy. For although the meteorite hit Ann Hodges, it did so on Guy’s property. They rented their house from an elderly widow and now she intended to make that stone hers.

Birdie Guy filed suit during the second week of December, 1954.


“Meteor Hits Alabama Woman.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 1, 1954.

“Meteorite Is Studied By Air Force.” Daytona Beach Morning Journal (Daytona Beach, FL), December 2, 1954.

“Alabama Woman to Receive Meteorite Which Bruised Her.” Reading Eagle (Reading, PA), December 2, 1954.

“Offers Received For Meteorite.” Spokane Daily Chronicle (Spokane, WA), December, 4, 1954.

“Battle For Meteorite.” The Sydney Morning Herald (Sydney, NSW), December 13, 1954.

“Alabama Woman Who Was Struck By Meteorite Now Has to Cope With Suit for Possession of It.” Lewiston Evening Journal (Lewiston, ME), December 22, 1954.

“Who Owns The Star That Fell On Alabama?” Sarasota Journal (Sarasota, FL), December 22, 1954.

“Suit is Filed on Tail of Meteorite.” Prescott Evening Courier (Prescott, AZ), December 22, 1954.

Stars Fell on Alabama, Part 2

Part 2: “We had a little excitement around here today.”

Part 1: Our Little Drama

Hewlett Hodges, the tree surgeon, arrived home from work around six p.m. He walked into his house and immediately noticed the hole in the roof. Ann Hodges greeted him. She smiled at her husband and with practiced understatement said “We had a little excitement around here today.” 

As Alonzo Arnold watched the heavens explode a cadre of ROTC cadets marched across the University of Alabama campus. Cadet Donald Loveless gazed at his watch. It read 12:45pm. November 30, 1954, was a dull day. Then something like “a Roman Candle falling to Earth” barreled across the sky above Tuscaloosa.

By this time people from Atlanta to Mississippi knew something was on fire and the Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama, deployed search and rescue helicopters to identify what they assumed to be a “missing plane reported to have exploded.” Their search quickly drew them towards Sylacauga.

A man stood at the bottom of a marble quarry, 125 feet down. He surveyed groundwater and right now he engaged himself in measuring the cleanliness of Sylacauga’s water supply. The man stared at the ground for a living, he’d noticed neither the fire roaming the skies above Alabama nor the great noise that accompanied it. A head appeared over the rim of the quarry and a voice echoed down.

“George Swindel?”

The man looked up at the distant figure that called his name.

“Yeah?” his reply echoed up from the quarry floor.

“It’s me, Chief Ashcraft, the mayor needs to see you.”

George Swindel rode with W.D. Ashcraft towards town. Ashcroft said something about a stone that nobody could identify and Swindel sighed, someone found “just another “unusual” piece of rock,” he thought to himself. Of course they immediately needed him to identify it. Such is the life of the geologist.

The pulled into the B.B. Comer Memorial School. A helicopter rested nearby with “US Air Force” emblazoned upon it in white. This was no normal “unusual” rock.

Two Air Force personnel waited inside. They pulled George Swindel into a classroom and asked him to identify the stone. He gazed at the thing; seven inches long and five inches wide, 8.5 pounds, and coated in “a satiny, black” substance about a millimeter thick. George Swindel chipped off a piece and doused it with some hydrochloric acid he kept in his satchel. There was no effervescence. Desperate for an answer he whipped out his copy of Kemp’s A Handbook of Rocks. After several minutes he looked up.

“Gentlemen, this is a..”


Meteor Hits Alabama Woman
“Meteor Hits Alabama Woman.” The Tuscaloosa News. December 1, 1954.


“Meteor Hits Alabama Woman.” The Tuscaloosa News (Tuscaloosa, AL), December 1, 1954.

Swindel, George W. and Walter B. Jones “The Sylacauga, Talladega County, Alabama, Aerolite: A Recent Meteoritic Fall that Injured a Human Being,” Meteoritics: The Journal of the Meteoritical Society and the Institute of Meteoritics of the University of New Mexico 1, no. 2 (1954): 125-132.

Stars Fell on Alabama, Part 1

Part 1: Our Little Drama

Alonzo Arnold blew things up for a living.

He worked at an explosive ordnance plant in Childersburg, Talladega county, Alabama. The plant, like most parts of the state, had answered the call during the great charnel of the second war and it pumped out such death and smoke for America. Asbestos lined the walls of the plant and arsenic sank into the ground. At its peak the great plant produced forty million pounds of trinitrotoluene, and other explosives that made man into many, every thirty days.

The great plant dredged up the depths of the Coosa River to find deuterium, that heaviest of water, and sent their meager bits to a place called White Sands for a project called Manhattan. All this tearing and rending of Earth took its toll on Childersburg, Talladega county, Alabama, and in 1985; an unimaginable year to Alonzo Arnold, it would be declared a thing called Superfund. Which sounds charming until you learn the definition.

Alonzo Arnold blew things up for a living and right now some leftover stocks of trinitrotoluene needed to be destroyed. He set the TNT very gently on the ground and readied the timer. A long whip of burning rope lay ready. It sizzled and cracked as Alonzo Arnold retreated to a safe distance. His mind wandered and he looked away from the impending and familiar boom of something as mundane as TNT.

The greatest crack he ever heard shattered the heavens. An unforgiving cacophony of rock and ice screeched through the atmosphere and exploded as it hit the sky. Alonzo Arnold stared at his stockpile of munitions. They rested sweetly upon the ground as the flaming coil snaked slowly forward. Unexploded. Inert. Mostly stable. Then he looked towards the horizon.

A great black cloud traveled towards the northeast.

Alonzo Arnold recognized a mushroom cloud. For a moment, squatting in that field, he must have thought it was the end of the world.


The Beam in John’s Hand

On March 19, 1820, John Wood lay in wait.

Camouflaged and patient he concealed himself behind the trees or a barn, the court documents are not specific, and most of all, he waited.

Up the road walked a man named Major. Listed in the court record as an enslaved person, the property of one John Simmons, we have no real record of Major. We know he was a full grown man but not his true age. We know he was enslaved but not his duties nor how many other people shared that status with him on John Simmons’ property. We know little but we do know this.

On March 19, John Wood waited for him “with malice aforethought.”

Unlike previous assaults on enslaved people this was premeditated. John Wood did not simply attack Major in a fit of rage nor did he see the man alone and decide to take advantage of the situation. From his willingness to wait we can infer some things. John and Major either possessed some prior grievance with each other or John Wood wished to lash out at John Simmons, Major often took this particular path, and John Wood knew the man well enough to time his movements accordingly.

Up came Major and John Wood leapt up to meet him. He brandished “a certain wooden stick which he the said John Wood in his right hand then and there held,” and with this stick he stabbed forward. It caught Major in his right eye, which John Wood “did strike and put out,” maiming the man and injuring him greatly.

The court found him guilty of assault and fined him twenty five dollars.


The State of Alabama v. John Wood, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 63-64 (1821).




Long distance travel used to be a grueling and expensive process. Prior to our modern highways and various conveniences people made the trek into the southeast on foot, in carriages, and by boat. Although this seems like an understood fact, the modern reader may not truly grasp the misery of travel through Alabama prior to the advent of pavement.

From the many travelogues written by people passing through the state it is generally understood that few southerners, much less other Americans, found much pleasure in the early infrastructure. Travel proved so difficult that the first recorded bars in Alabama history described conditions along the Federal Road in Baldwin county:

This road is not passable

Not even jackassable.

So when you travel

Take your own gravel.

While the Virginia lawyer James D. Davidson complained of mud, cold, and danger; summarizing his entire 1836 trip through the state with “Home! Sweet home! Alabama! O how I would bless thee, were I once clear of thy domains.”

So imagine for a brief moment that you are one of these people. The entirety of your possessions strapped to a mule or towed behind you in a hogshead barrel that until a month ago stored tobacco. There has been sickness, misery, and corn cooked on the cold, cold ground. Your only company – panthers screaming in the distance.

Yet a light hovers in the distance. Ahead of you is rough food, a bed, and a fire shielded from the whipping wind. Now ask yourself, how much would you pay for these small comforts?

Prices for basic goods soared with the influx of travelers. Anyone with a cabin and a bit of business sense started taking in boarders. Madison county officials saw the potential for disaster, or profit, and in an attempt to control this unregulated market forced anyone operating a tavern or inn to acquire a license.* Many complied with these new laws but some people found it strange that they might own a cabin and provide the necessities and now be forced to pay the county for the privilege of performing their previous jobs.

So they to themselves, “come on, nobody is going to enforce that law,” and it’s true. Nobody enforced that law, until they did.

In June of 1822, the county cracked down on unlicensed inns. Two men eventually stood accused of the crime. Although an inane and harmless act the prosecution pursued it with the language and vigor of larger crimes. Earnest Benoit and Robert French apparently supplied many travelers with “corn fodder meat and bread and other victuals,” which prompted the county to shut down their operations.

It appears that Robert French might have operated a larger and more successful inn than Benoit, because prosecutor Joseph Eastland characterized his actions as occurring “for his own filthy lucre and gain,” whereas Benoit simply “failed to obtain a license.” Had French been selling liquor or running a casino then he would have been tried for those offenses. So we can reasonably say that he was just really good at operating a proto-hotel.

Benoit received a one cent fine while the county demanded a dollar from French. No other prosecution of unlicensed inns occurred during 1823.

*It’s not like there was a regulatory board. They just wanted that sweet, sweet tavern money.


Harvey H. Jackson, Rivers of History: Life on the Coosa, Tallapoosa, Cahaba, and Alabama (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1995), 46.

Henry deLeon Southerland Jr and Jerry Elijah Brown, The Federal Road through Georgia, the Creek Nation, and Alabama, 1806-1836 (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1990), 66.

The State of Alabama v. Earnest Benoit, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 212-213 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Robert French, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 229 (1823).



Valentine a Real G

The early 1820’s were a difficult time to be Valentine G. Pruit. He lived as a yeoman farmer during the consolidation of plantation style agriculture in Madison county, so he saw mansions being built and a local aristocracy rising, yet felt no part of that surplus. Instead, like so many poor and middling white men of his time, Valentine Pruit knew mostly violence.

However, unlike some other settlers, Valentine knew violence not as a victim but as a participant.

The man liked to fight. As such, Pruit entered the local record in spectacular pugilistic fashion.

December 12, 1822, saw Pruit run afoul of a man named Wiley Lewis. Now, Wiley Lewis served as a constable for Madison county and was thus a man you did not wish to anger. Unless you’re Valentine G. Pruit, then you do what you want. It appears that Lewis came to Pruit with the purpose of arresting or otherwise chastising him. The argument quickly grew into a rumble and the rumble settled into the natural rhythms of Valentine beating Wiley Lewis with “his hands and feet.” Eventually Valentine grew tired of this mundane assault and spied a nearby club. He whacked Lewis about the face and head until the man bled profusely and then left him there in the dirt.

He plead not guilty to all charges against him. The jurors seemed poised to throw every book at him but it quickly emerged that Wiley Lewis did not come to harass Valentine G. Pruit in his official duties as a constable. Lewis instead attempted to use his position as a constable to bully the man, which did not go well for Lewis. The court still fined Pruit fifty dollars and ordered that he “be in the custody of the Sheriff” until he paid but Pruit avoided a harsher penalty thanks to Lewis’s miscalculation.

Of course, a man like Pruit does not appear briefly and then fade away. No – he just keeps fighting.

For some unknown reason he wound up entangled with Robert Woody. April 12, 1823, began with two yeomen disagreeing and ended with “a great terror to all the good citizens” as Pruit and Woody squared up and boxed. The record indicates that they fought “in a public place” so either the middle of town or inside of a business of some sort.* It seems likely that Pruit instigated, and subsequently won, the fight as the court never indicted Robert Woody for his part in the affray and fined Pruit a further twenty dollars.

This Valentine’s Day try to remember the man who had no love for anybody.


The State of Alabama v. Valentine G. Pruit, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 199-200 (1823).

The State of Alabama v. Valentine G. Pruit, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 230-231 (1823).

*Personally hope it was a business just so they might have smashed a table.


Royalists, Republicans, and Moore

The Royalist Faction ruled Madison county, and much of Alabama, with near impunity from the time of the first federal land sales in 1809 until the election of Israel Pickens as governor in 1821.* They hailed from the Broad River in Georgia by way of the rough and tumble sections of Virginia. Their original leader, George Mathews, signed the infamous Yazoo Act during his tenure as governor. Their avarice shaped the 19th century southeast and their names served as bywords for the frontier aristocracy that developed in Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and Texas prior to the civil war.

Not rich enough to join the planter elite of South Carolina or Tidewater Virginia, they still proved far too blue of blood for the average yeoman from North Carolina and Tennessee. As Anglos in between classes they searched for a land to make their own. They almost found it, and just as quickly lost it, in the Mississippi Territory.

One man led the charge against their overreach – a controversial figure who formed a counterbalance to the Georgia boys – Gabriel Moore. Originally a lawyer and small planter, Moore eventually headed the ‘North Carolina faction’ a group that came to dominate Alabama politics following the fallout from Royalist actions. However, this is not the story of schemes and laws and machinations in back rooms. This is simply the tale of Moore’s fight for life.

People attacked him, like a lot. Prior to his taking the governorship Moore suffered multiple violent encounters with men who disagreed with him politically or simply disliked his argumentative nature. From Moore’s arrival in 1811 to early statehood in 1820, he came close to death at least three times.**

In early April of 1811, no exact date being recorded, Robert Farish found Gabriel Moore by himself. Listed as a laborer of the county it seems strange that Farish might find fault with the attorney Gabriel Moore. However, Moore recently entered the political scene, leading the charge to restore Twickenham’s original name to Huntsville – in direct defiance of Leroy Pope, the local leader of the Royalist faction. Also, Robert Farish made no appearance in the 1809 “squatter census” of Madison county. Although this is inconclusive it appears possible that Farish possessed some attachment to the Royalist faction and attacked Moore out of frustration.***

Either way, Farish received a fifteen dollar fine for his actions.

Things calmed down for Moore until October 11, 1815, when Nicholas Spring, a landowner and yeoman, attacked him. Spring’s assault seemed more likely as result of politics, as he proved not only able to own land but also afford a lawyer to contest the case and avoid arrest for a lengthy period of time. Spring felt cocky enough to send “Williams & Minor” to represent him before Obadiah Jones, stating that since he had yet to be arrested he could not be prosecuted and that a hundred dollar fine levied upon him for the “trespass, assault, and battery” of Gabriel Moore meant nothing.^

Unfortunately for Nicholas Spring the fine stuck.

The most obviously political assaults came in 1820. The Royalists seemed poised to cement their control over Alabama after the ascension of Thomas Bibb as governor following the death of his older brother, William Wyatt Bibb.^^ Tensions were high in Madison county and debates quickly morphed into fist fights. In fact a future US senator and Supreme Court justice from Huntsville, John McKinley, got attacked in 1820, when a man named Stokely D. Hutchings beat him on the head with “one Hickory stick.”^^^

Suffice to say that 1820 was a passionate year.

As such, Gabriel Moore got into an argument with a man named William H. Winter on October 7, 1820. Their differences soon boiled over into a brawl and Winter felt the need to draw a pistol. So there stood Winter, with the loaded pistol “in his right hand… maliciously leveled” against Gabriel Moore. The pistol either misfired or Winter suddenly changed his mind, because instead of just straight up murdering Moore he turned the gun around and began to viciously pistol whip the future governor until he was almost dead.

The jury did not equivocate. By this time Moore had risen from local rabble rouser to the President of the State Senate and candidate for the national congress. Moore was now respected and admired from the southern border of Tennessee to the Gulf of Mexico. The jurors quickly doomed William H. Winter to six months incarceration and a rash of fines.

Moore continued to make enemies – later in life accidentally being seated on the same stagecoach as his nemesis, Clement Comer Clay, which resulted in both men staring at each other in enraged silence for the entirety of the 170 mile journey – but he never again faced as many physical dangers as those early years spent in opposition to the Broad River faction.

Ironically, Moore fell from national favor when he turned from his rough-and-tumble Jackson-loving beginnings and allied himself with John C. Calhoun, the consummate South Carolina planter and politician, during the early 1830’s. Public outcry shot through the state at this abrupt about face and the people of Madison county clamored for his resignation until he left the Senate in 1836. Effectively unelectable in Alabama after questioning the directives of Jackson, Moore fled from the state, ultimately settling in the Republic of Texas, where he finally died in 1844.


The Territory v. Robert Farish, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 5/3-6/4 (1811).

The Territory v. Nicholas Spring, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 176/142-178/144 (1816).

The State of Alabama v. William H. Winter, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 45-46 (1820).

The State of Alabama v. Stokely D. Hutchings, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 47-48 (1820).

*I’m referencing the Broad River Faction, for those that can’t pick up on context clues. Also, Israel Pickens was a political ally of Gabriel Moore and started the 19th century trend of important Alabama politicians dying in Cuba. He perished at Matanzas in 1827, followed 26 years later by the death of Vice President of the United States, William Rufus King, in Havana in 1853. Also, seeing as we’re talking about early Alabama governor trivia – let’s not forget that John Murphy, the fourth governor of the state and later member of the House of Representatives, carried on an affair with the wife of South Carolina politician James Blair. Blair’s discovery of their affections resulted in his suicide on April 1, 1834.

**Of course, this being a frontier, other north Alabama politicians also felt the near brush of the eternal, so we’ll probably get to examine those as well, provided my coffee remains strong and my cigarettes don’t run out.

***Complete conjecture on my part. It might be just as likely that Farish was from Tennessee and just hated Moore’s face. A position supported by the fact that Littleberry Adams served on the deciding jury.

^The Minor part of Williams & Minor is a big deal. Henry Minor served as the Madison county prosecutor for about four years previous to this case. Spring found the meanest lawyer in the country to represent him.

^^You can see why people called them the Royalists.

^^^Even more fun fact – McKinley and Moore later faced off in a Senate race which centered around how much either man loved Andrew Jackson. Moore squeaked by, claiming that McKinley only loved Andrew Jackson because it was cool, and both men died hating each other.

One Cent Spinster

We previously encountered Rodah Barnett in cahoots with several other spinsters; who all lived and worked in early Madison county. Although most of the women quickly faded from history, a few later reappeared “pasing and repasing along the public streets and common highways,” in a desperate bid to ply their wares. As Rodah Barnett eschewed this form of business, it was erroneously assumed by the staff of Huntsvillain that she found a new calling in life.

However, in early September of 1821, a little over a year after being acquitted on all previous charges of “whoredom” and “keeping a bawdy house” Rodah Barnett again stood before a jury. The charges against her seemed familiar. Joseph Eastland, the same state prosecutor that previously indicted Rodah, Mary King, Mary Baker, the Wilson sisters, Barbary, Elizabeth, and Ann, now once again placed Rodah Barnett in his sights.

The state of Alabama claimed that on April 1, 1821, “and on divers others days and times,” Rodah Barnett reopened and operated her brothel. It seemed that Rodah’s reopening attracted the same caliber of customer as her previous exploits.

Joseph Eastland painted her as a sinners’ magnet, entertaining “divers evil disposed person as well as men as women and whores… in the knight as in the day.” As usual the presence of an active brothel caused all sorts of calamity as the various prositutes procured by Barnett engaged in “dreadful filthy and lewd ofenses.” The “good citizens” of Madison county found the most distressing aspects of the brothel to be the sex workers lack of “manners, conversation, state, and obedience,” to various social norms.

Taken all together it seemed a pretty normal condemnation of local prostitution. Yet a single line stood out above all others. We’ve already acknowledged that women came to the brothel, although it seems uncertain as to whether or not they engaged the sex workers. Even then the possible rumors of sapphic acts failed to perplex Joseph Eastland and his contemporaries as much as people assembling “at unlawful times.” One of the only groups of people subject to an actual enforced curfew, and thus the only ones capable of congregating at unlawful times, were free blacks and enslaved people.

Due to later specific bans on enslaved people selling produce, hiring out their own time, or renting land for their own homes – we have an idea that they possessed some small levels of economic autonomy in early Madison county. Seeing as that autonomy occasionally consisted of them purchasing moonshine or attending Fourth of July celebrations; it should come as no surprise that they might be found at a brothel or that officials chose to couch their presence in terms of euphemisms instead of direct mention of a practice that undermined the racial caste system of 19th century Alabama.

Due to this possible flagrant breech of the contemporary social contract – Rodah Barnett had to be stopped. She survived the first indictment but a second jury found her guilty of keeping a brothel, though not of prostitution, before the state shut down her franchise and fined her one cent.


The State of Alabama v. Rodah Barnett, Madison County Alabama Circuit Court State Cases, 1819-1823. p. 93-94 (1821).

Yazoo! Or creating Alabama for one and a half cents an acre.

On January 7, 1795, George Mathews – then the governor of Georgia – signed into law a “great cancerous abomination.” With the stroke of a pen, Mathews not only doomed his own political career, but touched off a contentious spark that ultimately resolved itself in the creation of two states, a Supreme Court case, and the cession of all of Georgia’s western domains.

I speak of course of the Yazoo Land Fraud. This update lies a little bit outside the blog’s usual domains – humorous accounts from north Alabama history – and instead ventures into something more macro in scope, the creation of the Mississippi Territory from Georgia’s western claims.

After the end of the Revolutionary War in 1783, it soon became apparent that many states claimed large portions of their neighbors; or that overlapping claims to various frontiers threatened to tear apart the tentative cooperation and coherence of the young republic.

Courtesy of US History Maps

Most of the land in the United States during the Revolutionary War and afterwards in 1783 consisted of these aforementioned overlapping claims. For instance, both New Hampshire and New York claimed the modern state of Vermont, and both willingly ceded this land to the federal government – allowing Vermont to enter the union as a state in 1791. However, one state refused to give up its trans-Appalachian territories. A single state saw the sweeping tide of land reform and simply shrugged. *

That state was Georgia.

Georgia complicated matters not just with its mulish insistence that the original colonial charter, a document from 1732 granting Georgia lands all the way to the Pacific Ocean, be honored by the new nation. No, that would be too simple for the 18th century; instead Georgia’s western claims overlapped not just with South Carolina but also the Spanish Empire.

Courtesy of GeorgiaInfo 

Thus any settlement of these claims prior to the 1796 Treaty of San Lorenzo, which solved the territorial and trade issues between the United States and Spanish America, carried with it no less than the prospect of provocation and potential war with a foreign nation.

Now Georgia, as the spiritual antecedent of the Deep South, acted with the according amounts of diplomacy and restraint on this issue by immediately establishing a short-lived county on the banks of the Mississippi River.

Bourbon county, Georgia, existed from 1785-1788, and served little purpose other than to upset the local Spanish governors and prove a drain on resources. Although the Georgia legislature rescinded Bourbon county’s charter after only three years of settlement; the site eventually became Natchez, the capital of the Mississippi Territory, in 1798. After the failed Bourbon county business other Americans soon took an interest in speculating about Georgia’s western lands.***

In 1789, the Georgia legislature attempted to sell its western territory to various land speculation companies for around $200,000. Unfortunately these companies only possessed the nearly worthless Continental currency circulated by various states during the American Revolution and Georgia only wanted to see that cold hard gold.**

Not until 1795, did Georgian legislators make their third attempt to sell massive amounts of land in exchange for bribes whilst simultaneously setting the stage to spark a border war with Spain. The 1795 sale effectively surrendered most of modern Alabama and Mississippi for about $500,000.00, or about a cent and a half an acre. Although a treaty of friendship between the United States and Spain soon emerged, and the disputed territories ceded to the United States, news of the treachery in Augusta soon trickled down to the rest of the state.

Which is when the entire state of Georgia lost its collective shit.

Upon hearing of the Yazoo Fraud, James Jackson, then serving as a Senator from Georgia – immediately resigned his position in the United States Congress, left Philadelphia, traveled back to Georgia, and got elected a member of the Georgia state legislature running entirely on an anti-Yazoo land sales campaign.

The Yazoo conspirators failed to take into account that 1796 was an election year and after the ink dried on the ballots almost none of them remained in office. The Georgia state legislature, and newly elected governor Jared Irwin, set about righting these tremendous wrongs. They cancelled all the original land sales, and accepted some cash help from the government in paying off the incurred debts.

These efforts culminated in a symbolic burning of every copy of the original act enabling Yazoo land sales. The Yazoo Fraud entered the popular imagination of Georgians young and old, and the heroics of the anti-Yazoo crusaders and associated duplicity of the Yazoo speculators began to grow in scale with every retelling.

Absalom Chappell, in his 1874 text about the history of Georgia, recounts a story about James Jackson, the aforementioned former Senator, burning the first copy of the Yazoo Act “with fire drawn from heaven… by a sun-glass.” Although Chappell’s history tends to rely heavily on dramatic wording, for example his insistence on referring to the Mississippi River as the Father of Floods, there’s a level of ingrained cultural hatred that must be obtained before a popular myth recounts how a man literally used the fires of heaven to destroy a document. This is not mere hyperbole and grandstanding, this is a great example of how much everyone in Georgia hated the Yazoo sales.

yazoo burning
Burning the Yazoo Act. Courtesy of Georgia Encyclopedia

Unfortunately, many of the speculators already sold their claims to other buyers. This compounded the problem and resulted in several layers of claimants, many of whom refused to accept a buyback scheme and insisted on Georgia giving up the loot. In an effort to resolve the claims, Georgia ceded much of the land originally contested in the Yazoo fraud to the federal government, which organized the most southern portions of it into the Mississippi Territory.

Of course, not all of the land originally sold to speculators resided inside the newly minted territory, and people sued the state until Georgia completely washed its hands of the affair with the Compact of 1802, an agreement finally delineating the Georgia border and adding the remainder of the former western lands to the Mississippi Territory.

Eventually the Supreme Court handled the matter with the decision of Fletcher v. Peck in 1810, which ruled the 1796 cancellation of Yazoo land sales unconstitutional; thereby setting the precedent that federal courts might strike down state laws.

Had Georgia simply waited another year, or been more open in its speculation process, then the Yazoo Fraud would not have occurred and this blog might have a much dumber name – something like “Wacky West Georgian Tales” springs to mind. Instead, the shortsighted greed of a few not only reshaped Georgia state politics, but effectively birthed both Alabama and Mississippi and laid the conceptual framework for greater federal involvement in local legal processes.

Yazoo y’all.

*Although I’ve always been curious how Connecticut intended to enforce its territorial claims to parts of modern day Ohio.

**Fun fact, the Virginia Yazoo Company was headed by Patrick Henry, the “give me liberty or give me death,” guy. Which is kind of nice.

***Funner fact, one of these speculators was James Wilson. Who, to my knowledge, is the only Supreme Court justice to be imprisoned. He failed to pay his debts after getting involved in another land speculation scheme and spent a few years chilling in debtors’ prison, while remaining a justice of the highest court in the land, because the Early Republic was a crazy place.

Oh Henry! The Long Divorce of Emiline Coleman, Part Five

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Part 5: “…we should seize Riley”

Judge Smith owned land all around Huntsville’s downtown. He rented his shed on Randolph Street to the stonemason William Edwards and both John Lewis and Preston Yeatman used the judge’s “large brick stable [on Green Street]… as a salthouse.” Both locations provided perfect vantage points for surveillance of the Coleman property.

coleman edits
Emiline and Henry are terrible at subterfuge.

Normally such surveillance might include mundanities like: John Coleman on a horse, Emiline Coleman drinking tea, or someone reading a book.

However, on Sunday, September 10, 1836, William Edwards noticed something different. His shed, “being on much higher ground than any part of said Coleman’s premises,” overlooked all of Randolph Street and allowed Edwards a view down into the Theatre on clear days. Around three or four in the afternoon, “during the continuance service of the Methodist Church,” he saw Emiline Coleman slip from the main house and down into the privy. Scarcely a moment later Henry Riley, “crossed the fence into the complainants garden and went into the same privy or necessary house.”

Apparently this happened often, as Edwards noted that “on divers occasions I had watched the maneuvers of Mrs Coleman and this man Riley,” which included the adulterous conspirators leaving notes for each other in fence posts and the aforementioned outhouse rendezvouses. William Edwards returned to his work but noted that not long after the two began their privy shenanigans; John Coleman rode up on a horse and, unable to find his wife or assuming that she went to church, began reading a book by the window.

Edwards ran into Henry Riley not long after this near “Mr Sydne’s Lot” (number 6 on the map) and spoke with him briefly about his time in the toilet. No reliable account exists of this encounter, but it appears that Edwards’ casual snooping entered the rumor mill and produced well hewn gossip about Emiline Coleman’s impropriety.

Such gossip died down, though never fully evaporated, following the departure of Riley’s acting troupe. However, his reappearance in early December ignited a flurry of activity, both among people who liked talking, and between himself and Emiline Coleman. More conspicuous than his reappearance was the fact that he was “unaccompanied by the residue of the Company and without any ostensible business.”

Henry came to see Emiline.

Preston Yeatman noticed his sudden reemergence and felt compelled to track the actor all over Huntsville. So when Yeatman, and his associate John Lewis, noticed Riley hovering beneath a window – they paid attention.

Around two p.m. on Saturday, December 17th, 1836, the two men quit unloading salt from a wagon as Henry Riley walked up the street and instead ran inside Judge Smith’s stable and watched intently through the grates. The solid brick structure hid them as “the window blinds of a window on the second story… cautiously opened and a small piece of paper drop[ped] down at the feet of said Riley.” The actor cast several furtive glances around the street to make sure nobody watched him as he “picked up the paper and thrust it into the pocket of his pantaloons,” before scurrying off towards to the town square.

Preston Yeatman and John Lewis turned to look at each other and they said ‘oh dang, we should tell somebody.’

That somebody happened to be James W. McClung, a close associate of John Coleman and a man of hasty action. He knew of the rumors circulating about Emiline Coleman, a woman whom he described as “volatile and girlish,” and it appears he was none too fond of Riley either. Upon being informed of the paper dropping, McClung immediately found John Coleman. McClung formed an impromptu posse of himself, Coleman, Lewis, and Yeatman; who at McClung’s suggestion that “we should seize Riley and thus get possession of the paper,” set off for the town square.

Henry resisted their initial demands but the four men assaulted him and afterwards “forcibly examined the said Riley’s person.” They indeed found a letter in Riley’s pantaloons.

I am so much pleased to see you here once more but it is impossible for me to speak to you. I am still the same and ever shall be return home Henry and forget me if you please if it is ever in my power to become the Bride of H with honor I will, and as soon as I can you shall know it keep my secret if you please, never betray me so long as you live, write a letter this evening and tonight after tea slip it through the window blinds of the porch I will be there playing on the piano. Adieu Henry

Yours – Yours

Distraught at this plain evidence of Emiline’s affair, John returned to his work at the Land Office; where he spoke with his close friend Samuel Cruse. John remembered his sister, Narcissa, warning him of Emiline’s infidelity, but had ignored her and instead listened to Emiline’s tales. While he contemplated his next move the three other men ran Riley out of Huntsville, apparently he left so quickly that his luggage remained in town.

Samuel Cruse had an idea. He remembered that Henry Riley stayed at the Bell Tavern inn. So he accompanied John to the place, and after some misgivings from the owner, they barged their way into Riley’s room. There they found a large trunk, which they forced open. Among Riley’s clothes and baubles they found fifteen letters written to him by Emiline Coleman, as well as “a miniature of Mrs Coleman, which I recognized as a likeness of her.”

Samuel Cruse paid for a stage coach to take Emiline to her father’s home in Marengo county. John Coleman paid for a lawyer. On November 1, 1837, the court granted him a full divorce.


John J. Coleman vs. Emiline R. Coleman, Book J, 91-114 (1837).