And there was murder. Before , there were at least four, and possibly as many as 10, killings for such offenses as trying to escape from the plantation and not rolling wire up a hill the way the family liked. For years, stories circulated in Jasper County about conditions at the Williams place, but nothing was done to discourage or stop John or his sons.
The Williams family was rich, powerful, respected, and intimidating. They were not alone in using peons and no one wanted to be seen as being on the side of the blacks. Besides, the occasional killing of a peon was considered nothing more by the southern white society than as a minor business expense you could always get another peon cheap and no white southerner had been convicted of murdering a black for over 40 years.
But all of that changed in early In November , a peon named Gus Chapman successfully escaped from the Williams' farm and, a few weeks later, made his way to the Atlanta offices of the Bureau of Investigation as the FBI was then called. Peonage was not high on the Bureau's list of priorities, but at least it might take the complaints seriously and investigate. While looking into other federal matters in the area, two federal agents visited the Williams plantation on February 18, They interviewed the black farmhands and Williams.
Most of the blacks said nothing, but the agents caught one, Clyde Manning, in a lie about an earlier escape attempt by Chapman. Still, they left only vaguely suspicious and not very eager to pursue the matter further. Williams, however, heard rumors that some local farmers might soon be charged with peonage and he concluded that the agents' visit meant that he was a target. Therefore, Williams decided to get rid of the evidence.
The year-old Manning was the Williams's farm boss. Uneducated and illiterate, he came to the Williams farm with his family at about age 13 or 14 when his father was ambushed and murdered by unknown assailants. Also working and living on the Williams' farm were Manning's mother, siblings, wife, and children and Manning knew that to protest even the smallest of Williams's orders would put his family's lives at stake. Furthermore, he had no idea of where he could escape to or where to turn for help; Manning knew the local police would be of no assistance, and he had virtually no knowledge of anything beyond Jasper County.
Indeed, when two peons escaped the Williams place and had gone beyond Jasper County before they were captured and returned, Manning referred to them as having "been out of the United States. On the morning of February 19, Williams walked out to Manning's shanty and told him of his plans to kill the peons who worked on the farm: "Clyde, it won't do for those boys to get up yonder and swear against us.
They will ruin us.
You have got to get rid of all the stockade niggers. Williams and Manning were both indicted in Newton County for three counts of murder. They were to be tried separately. They would also go to trial for one murder at a time; that way, if found innocent on one charge, they could then be tried on another. Williams went to trial first. In the meantime, the "death farm" killings drew national attention.
The extent of Williams's crimes shocked even southern society and forced southerners to openly admit that peonage existed. Editorials tried to set Georgia apart from the rest of the former Confederacy, and southern political and religious leaders declared that the trials should mark the beginning of an improvement of how blacks were treated.
Described by the Atlanta Constitution as "Georgia's greatest murder trial," Williams's trial began on April 5, Williams's attorneys protested that they didn't have enough time to prepare an adequate defense, but their objections were overruled. Because of the unusual circumstances of the case, the state provided two lawyers to assist the local prosecutor.
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Local landowners would then show up in prisons offering bail money. When two federal agents arrive at his farm to investigating the charge of peonage, Williams panicked. Together with his African-American foreman, Clyde Manning, he plots the murder of the workers who he had seen talking to the officials. When the killing is over, 11 men have been bludgeoned, drowned or shot. Even by the racist standards of the time and the location rural Georgia this revealed a stunning disregard for the strides which the United States was supposed to have made concerning the issue of slavery since Manning and Williams were tried separately, no surprise.
But what was surprising was that while both were found guilty, Manning did not receive the death penalty and Williams was sentenced to life he would eventually die in an accident in prison. Freeman relies heavily on newspaper reporting and court records and convincingly recreates the tensions, fears, and uncertainties which surrounded this sordid business.
Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of Eleven Plantation Slaves
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