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.

Medicine and Marion, Part 5

J. Marion Sims is a controversial figure in both the history of Alabama and early modern medicine. His experiments on enslaved women in Alabama and poor women in New York occurred without their ability to consent, dispute treatment options, or seek a different doctor. 

In writing about him I have also committed a deep mistake in relying too heavily on his accounting of his life without consulting additional monographs on the topic or making mention of his intense ambition and desire for fame and fortune. Below are some links for further reading on the central issues of his medical ethics.

The Surgeon Who Experimented on Slaves by Sarah Zhang

The medical ethics of Dr. J. Marion Sims: a fresh look at the historical record by LL Wall

The medical ethics of the ‘Father of Gynaecology’ Dr J. Marion Sims by Durrenda Ojanuga

Towards an Understanding of the ‘Medical Plantation’ as a Cultural Location of Disability by Rachel Dudley


Part 5: “…with great heroism and bravery.”

Part 1: It, however, has its redeeming qualities.

Part 2: …so sickly a season as that.

Part 3: …all sort of beautiful and brilliant operations.

Part 4: If there was anything I hated…

J. Marion Sims left Mrs. Merrill’s home with a very basic understanding of how to dilate the human vagina. One could examine the inner workings of the vaginal canal by having a patient get onto her elbows and knees and letting the pressure of air naturally inflate it.

This changed everything.

Sims operated a small eight-bed hospital “in the corner of my yard.” The purpose of this separate hospital was to attend to the medical needs and surgeries of Montgomery’s free blacks and enslaved peoples. Recently several enslaved women were sent there from around Montgomery county with the same ailment.

Vesico-vaginal fistulas occurred during childbirth. The stresses involved severely damage the tissues of the pelvis and a hole, or fistula, opens between the bladder, AKA the vesico, and vagina proper. This leads to a constant stream of urine leaking directly into the vagina; causing further tissue damage, a highly unpleasant smell, and complications for the emotional health of the suffering woman.

Although several women were sent to receive treatment all previous medical knowledge indicated that no method might treat them. So Sims turned away each one in kind. However, a woman named Betsey still resided at the hospital, having only arrived a few days prior with her heavily pronounced fistula.

Armed with his new knowledge of the dilated vagina Sims rushed home. He stopped at a store called Hall, Mores & Roberts, where he “bought a pewter spoon,” to use in the examination. He summoned two medical students interning under him and finally arrived at the tiny hospital in the corner of his yard. The students ran behind him. One said, “[y]ou have got through your work early this morning.”

“I have done none of it!” shouted Sims.

Finally he appeared before Betsey and asked to examine her one more time before she left.

Imagine for a moment that you are her. You live under a brutal slave system, gave birth not even a few months ago, are separated from your child and meager support system, and after all this – you’ve traveled, under your own power, with a horribly uncomfortable condition to see a man who just yesterday said he could not help you. Suddenly, three white men burst through the door and the doctor is waving a spoon.

It’s a small miracle that she consented to the inspection.

Betsey turned over and rested her head on her hands. Sims positioned the medical students so that one might grab a buttock each. They pulled them apart and Sims inserted the spoon handle. He stared in awe as, “I saw everything, as no man had ever seen before.” This is either hyperbole or an indication of the undue influence of Victorian sexual mores upon medical knowledge. (226-234)

Either way, Sims immediately overestimated his skills as a surgeon. He exclaimed “there is nothing to do but pare the edges of the fistula and bring it together nicely.”

Let us once again imagine life as Betsey. You are beyond naked,  two men that you do not know at all are holding your cheeks apart, and a madman is using a spoon to stare at your innards and mutter to himself. It would be hilarious if it weren’t so horrifying. After this gross violation of her person Betsey returned to the home of her enslaver, a man named Dr. Harris.

Sims felt that he was close to a surgical cure for the condition. He “ransacked the country for cases,” and eventually found about a half dozen enslaved women with vesico-vaginal fistulas who previously languished in obscure agony across the Black Belt.

After adding an entire extra story to his corner-hospital the doctor now had twelve beds for patients and four beds for servants to tend to their needs. At this point Sims named three of the women – Betsey, Lucy, and Anarcha – who served as patients, assistants, and surgical guinea pigs. As the women were enslaved, J. Marion Sims found himself forced to make contracts with each of their enslavers. In exchange for Sims boarding, feeding, and operating on the women; their owners agreed to clothe them and pay their associated taxes.*

In December 1845, Lucy suffered through the first operation. A dozen local doctors attended.

Sims “never dreamed of failure,” but quickly learned of his own foolishness. He found the base of Lucy’s bladder destroyed “and a piece had fallen out,” a gash, about two inches long, joined the bladder and the vagina and as a result she urinated constantly. The “tedious and difficult,” operation took place before anesthesia became common during surgery and Lucy soldiered through the pain “with great heroism and bravery.”

The fistula closed after about an hour of surgery. Sims used a combination of sponge and silk string to form a tube through which the urine might flow from the bladder into the urethra. The assembled doctors congratulated him and left.

The sponge, a bacteria ridden foreign object nestled between the urethra and the bladder, naturally filled with blood, urine, and pus. Over the course of five days it solidified and morphed into stone. Lucy fell ill and suffered intense fevers and blood poisoning. If Sims’s contraption remained inside of her much longer she would die.

Her dire condition forced an emergency operation. Sims pulled the sponge from her “by main force.” Lucy’s torment was “extreme” and her survival seemed uncertain. Fortunately she recovered and after an examination it appeared that much of her fistula healed from the application of sutures. Betsey received similar treatments with similar results. Although the actual size of the fistula closed it did not entirely heal, so that progress appeared while the solution remained elusive.

Of course, the worst fistula occurred in Anarcha. Let us pause for a moment and remember the 1836 malaria outbreak. When Sims leaned heavily against death’s door the only person who watched over him, from the sun’s first rays to the moon’s last glow, was a young enslaved girl named Anarcha. Suffice to say they’d met before. Hell, J. Marion Sims even helped to deliver her baby.

Nine years later they found their roles reversed. Now Sims tended to her maladies. Anarcha possessed a far more pronounced fistula than either Lucy or Betsey, the exterior wall of her vagina became greatly damaged during childbirth and the barrier between vagina and rectum torn asunder. Great streams of urine constantly soaked her legs and clothing, the flesh around her genitals burned and bubbled “almost like confluent small-pox,” and intestinal gases leaked from day and night. She suffered. Lord how she suffered.

After repeated surgeries neither Lucy, Betsey, Anarcha, nor the other women at the hospital experienced full relief. Sims managed to make small improvements here and there, but a small fistula is still a fistula. The years rolled on and the patience of other doctors soon waned. Eventually Sims stood alone “and at last I performed operations only with the assistance of the patients themselves.”

After four years of trial and error Sims stood closer to the goal, but felt farther away than ever. One night he stared at his ceiling until 3am contemplating sutures and ties and forceps and bladders. Forceps, yes, that was the solution. Enlivened by this revelation he woke his wife, Theresa, and told her of his plan.

By using a perforated suture – the contemporary medical practice of using a partially divided lead pellet, secured by strong compression, to tie off sutures inside the human body – with this combination of forceps and perforated shots he hoped to finally close the fistulas that haunted his patients and creeped in his mind.

In June 1849, Lucy suffered through the first perfected operation. Once again Sims used silk thread and once again she developed an infection. Not until he found “a little bit of brass wire” laying on the ground did it occur to him that a metal might suffice where a thread had failed. Sims went and spoke with the local jeweler, Mr. Swan, and requested silver wires be made that matched the little brass piece of trash in length and width.

When Sims chose silver for his new sutures, he knew that it worked, but did not understand the metal’s antibacterial properties.

That doesn’t matter right now. Right now it is 1849. Anarcha is prepped and ready for her thirtieth operation. J. Marion Sims examines his instruments one last time. Four silver wires are run through four perforated sutures and forceps are clamped together to form four perfect little knots.

In this moment there are two eras; childbirth before Anarcha’s surgery and childbirth after.

A week goes by and it is time to remove the sutures. She is lifted onto the operation table and a speculum inserted. “There was no inflammation, no tumefaction, nothing unnatural, and a very perfect union of the little fistula.”

Lucy and Betsey soon underwent the same operation. (236-246)

J. Marion Sims eventually left Alabama. He came to this state and made a name for himself and alighted away from this place to more haughty endeavors like the establishment of a women’s clinic in New York City and tours of Europe. His methodical approach evolved quickly and spread across the industrialized world. It soon attracted other physicians with other theories and became its own branch of medicine – gynecology.

Some semblance of Sims’s methods are still used today to fight the scourge of fistula across the developing world. Women who experienced traumatic childbirth might be healed by a single surgery and their lives greatly improved.

Accordingly, a statue of J. Marion Sims stands to this day in New York City’s Central Park.

Anarcha, Betsey, Lucy, and the other women at the little clinic “in the corner of [Sims’s] yard” did not get to leave Alabama. They did not receive plaudits nor commendations and unfortunately exist only in the memories of those who read Sims’s works. Indeed, once they received their cures they returned to life as an enslaved person. Yet they suffered, offered advice, assisted in surgeries, and were as much a part of the search for the cure as Sims himself.

Where’s their statue?

*I really hate using words like owner, master, or slave, because they tend to denote a categorical or occupational meaning in our language, and instead try to substitute words like enslaved and enslaver. This stems from my long-held belief that freedom is the innate condition of the human soul and that the slave system required persistent and pernicious action, on a daily basis, to sustain itself. Thus the use of the nominalized adjectives.

However, this raises a point about discussing my own history. Is it better to confront the uncomfortable language or to try and substitute a less bitter word that offers a better meaning? If you have any thoughts on this subject, make sure to comment on them below. Also, I know I’m being fairly irreverent about medical experimentation, but that’s more of a coping mechanism. I don’t think anyone would read this without a level of humor in it.


Sims, J. Marion. The Story of My Life. New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1884.