This New City, Part 3: Since Houses So Built

Alabama’s first dalliance with federal housing programs came in the form of relief – from the dying light of Birmingham’s steel industry, from the cities and urban poverty. It was 1933 and the National Industrial Recovery Act found a test bed in Alabama.

Of the 25 million appropriated for solving “the overbalance of population in industrial centers,” a little over six million, or about a quarter of the total, wound up in central Alabama. Five communities in poverty stricken Jefferson and Walker counties – Palmerdale, Gardendale, Trussville, Bessemer, and Jasper – split the money between them. Each blossomed from Birmingham’s lagging steel production: Palmerdale was actually founded by the Resettlement Administration, Gardendale only incorporated as a real city in 1955, and neighborhoods in Jasper and Trussville both date from the period.*

North Alabama, deemed sufficiently rural by the federal government, avoided the constraints of various resettlement schemes until the outset of World War II. At that time the Lanham War Housing Act allowed Huntsville to begin receiving funds. Defense housing initiatives differed greatly from previous rural resettlement plans. Whereas the communities in Jefferson and Walker counties were allowed farming plots and often assigned a local industry; usually textile mills. The housing situation in Huntsville reacted to preexisting needs.

It soon mutated into something else entirely.

Defense housing came to Huntsville in September 1941. Five local businessmen, the first board of director for the Housing Authority of the City of Huntsville, met with Colonel R.C. Ditto of Redstone Arsenal. They asked Colonel Ditto to declare Huntsville and the surrounding communities a “defense area” so that they might start requesting federal funding for housing projects. It only made sense, Huntsville had the one big arsenal and the Army planned to construct a new chemical warfare plant next to it.**

Discussions lasted for several months. The Local Authority reached out to Representative John Sparkman. He offered to help in the fight. Finally on November 3, 1941, the United States Housing Authority stepped forward and politely declined Huntsville’s offer to become a defense area.

Then the Japanese attacked.

The United States no longer needed to prepare for war, it was there.

In February 1942, the USHA decided to approve a 300-unit housing complex for the Redstone Arsenal and the Huntsville Chemical Warfare Plant. They’d be made of brick, “since houses so built would bring a better price at the end of the emergency.” Even as the bloodiest war began to rage the men of the HHA thought of ways to turn this new defense housing to the city’s advantage.

*Cursory googling shows that the names for the planned communities; Cahaba Village (Trussville) and Farmstead (Jasper), survived and thrived to the present day. So although the original industrial settlements were eventually swallowed by their more organic counterparts, they managed to splatter their legacy all over everything.

**A surprisingly short lived endeavor, the plant merged with Redstone Arsenal on April 1, 1950.

This New City, Part 2: Let These Laws Be the Foundation

Housing policy in the United States first rose to national prominence during the Great Depression and funding for it only accelerated during the lead up to World War Two. Although it resulted in the loss of four percent of the entire human population, the immediate aftermath of that wartime mobilization meant that many Americans now possessed a certain level of infrastructure that they, and their congressmen, thought right to maintain. As such, the transition from ‘war housing’ to ‘public housing’ proved surprisingly smooth in Huntsville.*

Throughout the rest of the series I’ll be referencing a variety of housing laws that stretch from the earliest investments in Alabama infrastructure to the most important housing law of the 1950’s. We’ll briefly review them below.

A Chronology of Early Housing Laws:

1933 – NIRA, Title II

The National Industrial Recovery Act proved to be the first widescale federal investment in southern housing. Previous to this there had been tepid attempts to provide more adequate public housing in New York, but Title II of the NIRA “provide[d] for aiding the redistribution of the overbalance of population in industrial centers.” Think of it as a government mandated exodus from the cities.

Now, the Supreme Court eventually declared the NIRA unconstitutional. Not because of its housing components but because other parts of the law interfered with interstate commerce. The actual case that ended everything was A.L.A. Schechter Poultry Corporation vs. United States, because sometimes government just does too much to regulate chickens.

1937 – Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act

A surprisingly large number of early housing regulations focused in on rural and farm poverty instead of the growing urban blights. The Bankhead- Jones Act not only provided low interest loans to farming families but also made provisions for the “retirement of submarginal land,” in effect creating new wilderness areas to help protect the “health, safety, and welfare” of the American public.

This focus on health and welfare belied a much deeper trend towards revitalization during the Great Depression. People understood that the world around them was changing, especially in the quickly industrializing south. Southerners no longer accepted the miasmas, fevers, and social conditions of old. They wanted a cleaner, more just, world. One that substituted tenants, sharecroppers, and hard scrabble land for small farmers and modern-day yeomen working decent soil.

By 1936, both Democrats and the GOP integrated farm tenancy issues into their platforms, vowing to find a solution to the poverty and exploitation that stalked all who worked another man’s fields. Which is why John Bankhead, a senator from Alabama, and Marvin Jones, a representative from Texas, introduced legislation that directly attacked the social and economic systems of their home states.

1937 – Wagner-Steagall Housing Act

At the same time that John Bankhead attempted to alleviate rural poverty through the ownership of land; a Democrat from south Alabama, Henry B. Steagall, partnered with New York Democrat and German immigrant turned senator, Robert Wagner, to tackle the issue of slums and urban renewal.

Suddenly an actual federal agency, the United States Housing Authority, possessed the ability to disperse funds to a variety of localities around the nation. Prior to this, subsections of the Public Works Administration undertook the construction of fifty-two various public housing units around the nation; including Atlanta’s Techwood Homes and New York City’s First Houses, which hilariously came second.** Although a previous effort existed, the PWA only possessed the resources to attack the most horrendous cases of urban neglect.

This short-term alliance between the rural south and the heavily urbanized north marked America’s opening salvo in the war on inadequate housing. Within two years, some fifty thousand new homes cropped up across the United States.

1940 – Lanham War Housing Act

It was clear that we would go to war. By June 1940, Continental Europe lay in the waste, Britain stood alone, and the Japanese cut away swathes of Asia daily. The reality dawned by Dunkirk. Americans knew that somehow, some way, they’d be dragged into this global war.

Factories must be constructed, arsenals incorporated, and emergency housing built. Into this gap emerged the 1940 Lanham War Housing Act. Fritz G. Lanham, a House member from Texas, worried about the accessibility of affordable housing for defense workers along the Gulf Coast and in his own Dallas-Fort Worth area. Although Lanham might be remembered for his strong stance on trademark laws, he introduced “the most significant piece of public housing legislation for the 1940s.”

Although some previous war housing existed under the authority of the USHA and the American military the Lanham Act centralized all the activities under the Federal Works Agency, a suddenly revitalized New Deal program, and kept in place the previous defense housing coordinator – an Atlanta real estate man named Charles Palmer.

Charles Palmer spent most of his adult life advocating for public housing and slum clearance programs throughout the southeast and the nation. He toured pre-war Europe, Mexico, and South Africa to investigate their housing programs. Much of his expertise came to bear when he led the fight for Techwood Homes in his native Atlanta, famously joking in his autobiography Adventures of a Slum Fighter that by 1940, “after 76 years Uncle Sam helped rebuild more than Sherman burned.” 

With Palmer at the forefront defense housing boomed. Although it initially differed from traditional notions of public housing – defense housing, for example, often popped up on the edges of industrial sectors and outside of major cities. These early experiences with housing industrial and defense workers prompted a variety of smaller cities, like Huntsville, to invest more heavily in their slum clearance and housing initiatives during the post war period.

1949 – Housing Act of 1949

On January 5, 1949, President Truman issued his fourth State of the Union. He spoke of rising medical costs, drilling for undersea oil, and the absurdities of “trickledown” economics. Topics that modern readers might difficult to identify with or understand. However, one of his greatest rallying cries (and the one most apropos for this update) occurred about halfway through his speech:

“Five million families are still living in slums and firetraps. Three million families share their homes with others… The housing shortage continues to be acute. As an immediate step, the Congress should enact the provisions for low-rent public housing, slum clearance, farm housing, and housing research which I have repeatedly recommended. The number of low-rent public housing units provided for in the legislation should be increased to one million units in the next seven years. Even this number of units will not begin to meet our needs for new housing.”

What emerged from Truman’s call, and a bipartisan push propelled by innate feelings of national shame over substandard housing, was “a shotgun wedding between enemy lobbying groups.” The Housing Act of 1949 took literal years to pass. It began life in 1945 as the Wagner-Ellender-Taft Bill, usually abbreviated as either WET or TEW, and gradually grew in the national consciousness. Whatever you called it, the original bill passed the Senate multiple times.

All that stood in its way was a bastard from Michigan.

Jesse Wolcott built his legislative career around a few things; hating the New Deal, fighting socialism, and obstructing basic housing reform. As the chairman of the Banking and Currency Committee he possessed the ability to consistently bury the TEW in various subcommittees. Aided by reactionary anti-housing Democrats and hardline Republicans, along with McCarthy’s early coalition partners, Wolcott effectively stalled a good housing law for almost an entire presidential term.

Until Truman made it a leading issue of his 1948 campaign. Congressional inaction made for a grand strategy, people rallied behind their president. Senate members began to show signs of weariness, John Sparkman  (D – Alabama) headed the subcommittee attached to the TEW. Over a four year period of constant bickering and filibusters the housing bills produced “9,224 pages of testimony,” or something nine times as long as the collector’s edition of the Lord of the Rings. Sparkman, who later became a major figure in housing legislation, lamented this fact when he said “few pieces of legislation had been so exhaustingly studied.”

After a long fight, a good fight, the 1949 Housing Act became law. It represented the only win for Truman’s Fair Deal during his entire time in office. Sure Democrats managed to expand Social Security and other New Deal measures but that was all Roosevelt era legislation, practically sacred by the end of the war. No, this housing act represented all of Truman’s reforms.

On July 15, 1949, it passed.

1954 – Sparkman Act

John Sparkman, a Democratic Senator from north Alabama, introduced housing legislation that broadened several provisions from the 1949 housing act. However, the 1954 Act took a proactive stance. Now local housing authorities possessed the ability to stymie the supposed advance of slums, when coupled with new stipulations regarding urban renewal (new developments only had to be at least half housing), then one effectively found a license to redesign a city however one felt. All you had to do was fill out the correct paperwork.

The stage was set. A series of laws and regulations (inordinately influenced and designed by Bankhead, Sparkman, Hill, and other congressmen from Alabama) laid the framework for a reshaping of the modern American city. Huntsville proved an active testing ground.

*Although the growth of early public housing out of WW2 infrastructure, on like the national scale, is a pretty cool topic that someone with more time and inclination might pursue.

**It’s worth noting that ATL tore down Techwood Homes, while NYC still operates First Houses.

citations:

Alexander Hoffman, “A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949,” Harvard University, https://www.innovations.harvard.edu/sites/default/files/hpd_1102_hoffman.pdf

“A Chronolgy of Housing Legislation and Selected Executive Actions, 1892-2003,” U.S. Government Printing Office, https://www.gpo.gov/fdsys/pkg/CPRT-108HPRT92629/html/CPRT-108HPRT92629.htm

“Harry S. Truman,” University of California Santa Barbara, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=13293

“Housing Act of 1949 S 1070 – P.L. 171,” CQ Almanac, http://library.cqpress.com/cqalmanac/document.php?id=cqal49-1399761 

James G. Maddox, “The Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act,” Duke University, http://scholarship.law.duke.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1875&context=lcp

Sarah Jo Peterson, Planning the Home Front: Building Bombers and Communities at Willow Run (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2013), 83-90.

 

One Year Later.

On August 16, 2015, I wrote The Roof.

It clocked in at 265 words and told the story of a madman with a hatred for log cabins and local silversmith-cum-punching bag William Badger. “This is it,” I said as I hit the publish button, “people are gonna love this stuff.”

And they did, it’s still one of our most popular posts, but I soon realized that I needed more material. So I wrote an article about hog theft, more than a few about divorces, and one or two about syphilis and UFOs.

Then unexpected things started happening. I always assumed that I’d quit after five posts. That’d I’d grow despondent and go back to a life of wishing I had enough money for grad school. Yet you, all of you, refused to let that happen: people called me their favorite internet writer, one of Huntsvillain’s biggest boosters turned out to be the son of Ecuadorian immigrants, our first logo was designed by a dude from Dubai, and people from New York, Michigan, and Canada faithfully listen to our podcasts. Oh yeah, by the way we have a podcast.

All of these are beautiful individual moments and things. Though taken together they reveal something deeper. They show that my history, Alabama history, contains a universality – an accessible kernel that speaks to the triumphs and tragedies of the human experience. There’s something wonderful about this place and its people. I’ve always known it. Now you know it too.

So what was once mine is now ours and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Thank you for reading because I do this for y’all,

John O’Brien

This New City, Part 1: And what do rockets eat?

Kenneth Elkins took the boy’s photo.

As a courtesy they let him cover his face. He was weak, just twenty-two pounds and seven years old. James Strickland had what his mother described as a “brain injury.” The rest of him was bones, sinew, and terror.

Elkins gave James Strickland a comic book to cover his face. The boy proved so weak that he couldn’t hold it by strength of arm alone. They folded the little book in half and propped his spindly elbows on his hungry knees. Forever curious, James Strickland peered out at the photographer.

The picture shook the city.

‘This was Huntsville!’ Had we not the Army Ballistic Missile Agency? Had we not the Redstone Arsenal? Had not our engineers designed the missiles and rockets that took monkeys and satellites into orbit? Had not our munitions factories helped win the big war? Had not our city grown?

This was Huntsville, children don’t starve here.

Except when they do.

Starving Child
July 21, 1959, The Huntsville Times

Between 1950 and 1959, Huntsville experienced a 340.3 percent population growth; it went from the second city of north Alabama with a sleepy watercress farming populace of 16,437 to an industrial powerhouse of 72,365. The city expanded in every direction, devouring smaller communities like Monte Sano, Whitesburg, and Viduta, while completely encircling the last gerrymandered bastions of rural suburbia. To anyone living in those heady days Huntsville would have seemed like a behemoth: a city that finally smelled itself and decided to annex the whole damn county.

Yet the housing crisis still came. Rents doubled. Then quadrupled. Suddenly the most wretched citizens became more so. Everyone turned their attention to the local slums. A series of shantytowns with colorful names like Honey Hole and Boogertown dotted Huntsville. City officials realized that their very presence clashed with the image of the manicured and modern ‘Rocket City’ that Huntsville wished to project.

So they started tearing them down. With the help of John Sparkman, an influential Senator from north Alabama who crafted much of the federal housing policy of the 1950’s and 60’s, city officials turned Huntsville into a test bed for new housing policies that were later replicated throughout the state and nation.

There are no slums in Huntsville now, but for a period of time their maintenance and removal became a driving force in local politics and an issue that reverberated across multiple states.

As such, consider this the beginning of a series.

Boogertown Is Evacuated

The Lyon and Yellow Mama

In 1923, Ed Mason made the thing. The guards came to him and said, “Ed, we know you’re a carpenter and you’re far away from home,” and they were right because Ed was British and this was Kilby, just four miles north of Montgomery. They worked the men at Kilby on cotton mills and dairy cows, so the building of a chair meant something; a new activity to refresh the soul.

“Ed,” they said, “we know you’re a carpenter and you’re far away from home. So just build this chair to pass the time.” So he did. When Mason asked for paint the warden said “all I’ve got is leftover road paint. It is the color of order and progress and it will look good on that chair.”

So Ed Mason painted one of America’s most voracious electric chairs. The condemned gave it a suitably horrifying name.

They called it Yellow Mama because all of their mothers were dead and this new demon made the gulf between Holman and Heaven a little bit smaller. Although Ed Mason finished crafting the beast in 1923, the state of Alabama refrained from using it until April 8, 1927, for the execution of Horace Devaughn, who earned his ride by way of murder in Birmingham. Horace only warmed the seat up because two weeks later, on a Friday night, Great War veteran Virgil Murphy fell before the current of Yellow Mama’s various nodes and nozzles; something so simple as wood and power did what all the bombs of the Kaiser could not.

The longer that Alabama used Yellow Mama the more efficient she became. Widespread electricity only came to the southern United States during the Great Depression; so state officials, possibly unsure of how long this federal bounty might last, approached executions with a kind of horrifying economy. This meant that throughout much of the early days of the TVA and into the nadir of the Second World War, Yellow Mama often swallowed multiple souls in a single day. The most egregious of these mass executions took place on the ninth day of February 1934, when the chair murdered five men in forty-seven minutes.

For 75 years Yellow Mama reigned over the Kilby Prison, and later the Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia county just north of Atmore. It grew in fame: as equal parts executioner, psychopomp, and cultural icon; the Yellow Mama became a byword for grisly state sanctioned murder and a symbol of the Bible Belt’s unbending moral rigidity and fondness for Old Testament justice. That chair was yellow, but its world was black and white.

How fitting then that its last victim might be someone so gray.

The death of Lynda Lyon Block excited the passions of the people because her life followed a circuitous route to Yellow Mama.* She was an educated white woman, a libertarian, and a former librarian. Lyon existed outside of the narrative of broken homes and burglaries. The confusion over her case and its bucking of well established tropes made her famous: journalists wrote about her loner tendencies, she appeared in a documentary about women on death row, some called her a martyr, and the – necessarily macabre – blog “Dead Man Eating” mocked her decision to forgo a last meal as an attempt to ‘keep her figure.’

Lynda Lyon killed a man.

On October 4, 1993, Lynda Lyon and George Sibley stopped at a payphone in a Wal-Mart parking lot. The two parked “near Big B Drug[s] in Pepperell Corners Shopping Center in Opelika, Alabama.” They had recently fled Orlando, Florida due to a domestic assault charge issued against Lynda after she knifed her elderly ex-husband Karl Block. The pair, often referred to as a common-law husband and wife, left The Sunshine State for Mobile, a city which Lyon described as “a large port where strangers come and go everyday.” They hoped to fade into obscurity along the Gulf Coast. Sibley and Lyon also brought her young son, Gordon, with them.

This proved to be a terrible mistake.

While they idled in that Wal-Mart parking lot and tried to plan for the future; a woman named Ramona Robertson saw a young boy signal her for help. She kept an eye on their Mustang as it moved from parking spot to parking spot. Eventually, overtaken with concern, she approached a uniformed police officer and told him about the child in the car.

Sergeant Roger Lamar Motley responded accordingly. Originally at the Wal-Mart to purchase supplies for the local jail, he took Robertson’s story seriously and began searching the lot for Sibley. Lyon still conversed on the pay phone near Big B Drugs. Eventually Sergeant Motley found Sibley and Gordon. He asked for some form of identification and Sibley, a radical libertarian and ‘Sovereign Citizen’ refused to supply it. This escalated quickly.

Witnesses reported Sibley reaching for a pistol, Lynda and George claimed that Sergeant Motley pulled out his service revolver first. Either way Sibley and Motley soon found themselves shooting at each other. Lynda Lyon remained on the payphone during the opening salvo. She saw her common-law husband and an officer ducking behind cars and firing off rounds and she put down that phone and pulled out her 9mm.

Lyon ran at Sergeant Motley and fired until he quit and “[s]he remembered later how surprised he looked.” As Motley faded from this world he reached inside his cruiser and put out a distress call.

Sibley and Lyon knew they had to get out of there. They left with haste and tore west, hoping against hope that they might make it out of the state before anyone noticed a dead officer. They only made it ten miles. Lee county law enforcement set up a massive roadblock on Wire Road in Auburn, Alabama. They pulled up alongside it, released Gordon to the authorities, and then Lyon attempted to negotiate with the police for close to four hours before finally surrendering.

During her trial she argued that Alabama never reentered the union after the Civil War, that there existed a conspiracy to silence her, and that Sergeant Motley’s character did not befit an officer of the law. Lynda Lyon failed to realize that Alabama measured justice in coffins. On May 10, 2002, Yellow Mama got Lyon ready for hers.

Lyon rests in the ground now and Yellow Mama is stored in the attic above the execution chamber at Holman Correctional Facility. They encountered each other for a brief dichotomous moment. One a symbol of the state’s power to enforce by violence and the other cocksure that they existed on a separate plane of freedom; yet they remain entwined, witnesses to each others’ last day.

citation:

Info on Lynda Lyon from Clark County, Indiana Prosecutor’s Office

History of the Alabama Department of Corrections

The Night Alabama Executed Five Men

*Although many media outlets referenced her surname as Block, she signed an April 29, 2002, petition to Governor Don Siegelman as Lynda Lyon, so I shall use her preferred surname for the rest of the piece.

Chopped Green

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.*

Subsection 35
“A Digest of the Laws of the State of Alabama”

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.

citation:

A Digest of the Laws of the State of Alabama: Containing All the Statutes of a Public and General Nature in Force at the Close of the Session of the General Assembly in January 1833. Philadelphia: Alexander Towar, 1833.
Hadden, Sally E. “Slave Patrols.” New Georgia Encyclopedia. 10 January 2014. Web. 20 May 2016.
The Territory v. James Morris & Nicholas Higgins, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 267/219-270/221 (1819).

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.

 

 

Three Days in March

For three days in March their little war raged across the county.

The McMahans and Gibsons arrived in north Alabama and started feuding with each other almost immediately. Neither family appeared on the 1812 Tax List; although John McMahan, as the head of his clan, showed up as a taxpayer in 1815.*

Additionally, the 1816 Mississippi Territory Census appears to have eschewed Madison county entirely. It focused instead on the wild  and silent places of what would become the state of Mississippi and upon Monroe county in Alabama. Which, to clarify, in 1816 is all of Alabama aside from the earlier counties of Madison, Washington, and Clarke and the recently conquered Mobile and Baldwin.**

1816_OrigMonrCoCensus__Map
via “Madison Memories Collection: Potpourri”

In addition, the transitory nature of the time period, combined with the fact that several of their members died in Madison county, means that either family is unlikely to appear on the 1820 census. So, unfortunately, the motives of either group remain unclear. We are forced to extrapolate.

All that is known is that it started with a simple assault.

On March 7, 1816, William Gibson and Philip Fields found William McMahan. McMahan was alone, possibly in his family’s fields, and they saw their chance. With quick wit and cruelty they both fell upon him.

Three days later the McMahans took revenge. They gathered their allies Henry Seeman and Barnet Hicklin, and together with them the brothers McMahan: John, the injured William, and Martin, all descended upon Robert Gibson while he was unawares. They did “riotously, beat, bruise and illtreat,” the Gibson man before moving on.

Both of these assaults took place in Madison county proper, although the court documents fail to mention where, but the action probably took place along the eastern edge of the county. We can infer this because the action soon moved across the border into the Cherokee Nation, on the northeastern edges of the Mississippi Territory.

Perhaps they heard of planned retribution by the Gibson family. Perhaps they simply had business among the Ani Yun Wiya.*** Lack of the appropriate census data combined with the early Scots-Irish predilection for marrying into prominent southeastern indigenous families means that the McMahans themselves could have been Cherokee people.^

Either way it appears that William McMahan took part in the assault on Robert Gibson and then immediately set out for the Cherokee lands to the east. We know this because later that day he was murdered.

Byrd Ashburne and John Pate waited for him inside the Nation. Their involvement complicates the tale. They either heard of the assault on Robert Gibson and made a unilateral decision to strike at William McMahan or they previously knew that William would go into the bounds of the Cherokee Nation at a specific time and had no qualms about laying in wait for him.

Which means that the original assault by William Gibson and Philip Fields was probably a bungled assassination. If this theory is correct then some spark united the Gibsons, Ashburne, and Pate in their hatred for William McMahan. It is a great shame that so few documents survive from this conflagration.

Either way they shot him from behind. John Pate recognized William McMahan and called out to Byrd Ashburne, who grabbed a musket which he “did shoot and discharge.” The bullet penetrated William McMahan “about an inch on the left side of the backbone.” The two men apparently fled after shooting him because William languished for three days, sliding slowly into death. He managed to communicate the details of his assault before demise.

Obadiah Jones barely knew what to do. They all crowded into his court room on the same Monday in May. Jurors for each case waited with all the patience of lawful busy men ready to make “true deliverance… between the Territory and the prizoners at the bar.” Justice had to be swift.

William Gibson received a twenty dollar fine for his assault on William McMahan and Philip Fields a five dollar fine for participating. A jury fined John McMahan nine dollars for beating Robert Gibson. Whereas they found Barnet Hicklin guilty of $50 worth of assault. Martin McMahan and Henry Seeman were acquitted on all charges. Byrd Ashburne earned a $25o fine, a manslaughter charge, and four months “in the prison of said county.” While John Pate walked away from the whole fiasco a free man.

Of course the Territory dropped the case against William McMahan.

citations:

The Territory v. William Gibson, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 189/153-191/154 (1816).

The Territory v. Philip Fields, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 192/155-193/156 (1816).

The Territory v. John McMahan, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 195/158-197/159 (1816).

The Territory v. Barnet Hicklin, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 198/160-198/161 (1816).

The Territory v. William McMahan, Martin McMahan & Henry Seeman, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 200/162 (1816).

The Territory v. Byrd Ashburne, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 201/163-204/166 (1816).

The Territory v. John Pate, Minute Book of Madison County Mississippi Territory of the Superior Court in Law and Equity, 1811-1819. p. 204/166-209/169 (1816).

*It is not at all unlikely that the McMahans or Gibsons were simply too poor to appear on a tax list, or simply got looked over during the process, for we know that John McMahan previously appeared as a pig thief.

**James Wilkinson literally just took it from Spain in 1813. Marched an American army into the city and said “this is Yazoo Land ceded to us by the Treaty of San Lorenzo.”

***One of several endonyms used by the Cherokee Nation. I threw it in here as a gentle reminder that we usually learned the names for an indigenous group from their enemies.

^The obviously Irish surname does not disqualify them. The famous Muskogee leader Hoboi Hili Miko was better known to white society as Alexander McGillivray; while his nephews William Weatherford and William McIntosh both led opposing forces during the Red Stick War, but their Muskogee troops knew them as Lamochattee and Taskanugi Hatke respectively. The early southeast witnessed far more race mixing than it was comfortable admitting.