Month: February 2020

Politicking As a Blood Sport: The Legacy of William Patrick “Binks” Henry

The town square of Elberton, Georgia, circa 1898. Except for the statue in the center ground it would have looked similarly in November 1894 when a crowd estimated at about 2,000 hanged William Patrick “Binks” Henry in effigy.

The talk from many idle chatterers these days is that politics is more vicious and cutthroat than it’s ever been.

I always chuckle on hearing this, because anyone having anything more than a passing acquaintance with the history of this revered republic knows it isn’t true. Nor does one have to delve into the intriguing and slandering that went on in the 1800 presidential election between once and future friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the first real down and dirty presidential election, or into any of the of the national elections since, to find exculpatory evidence for our age. It lies closer to home.

Not in my own memory, nor in any recollection of any older relative or anyone else that I recall, has an election day in Elbert County seen any rioting, beatings or shootings related to politics and the voting, but such used to be commonplace. In fact, rare was the election day in Elbert County between the end of the Civil War and 1900 that didn’t see someone shot or beaten or, in at least one case, hanged in effigy by a mob. I was reminded of this recently while researching material for an article that will appear some months hence in Georgia Backroads magazine. It all also reminded me how often in times past members of my extended family have played their parts in the little drama of our local history, in this case both as givers and recipients of beatings and in other acts of unconventional politicking. I have often said the actual history of the Heard-Allen-Mattox-McIntosh-Harris family tree from which the Chandlers are a main branch stomps into the dust William Faulkner’s best efforts to invent a back story for his fictional characters. Most of the people mentioned in the tale I’m about to tell are relatives of mine at some distance, either by blood or marriage, and I offer them as further evidence to back my claim.

On Tuesday November 6, 1888, William Patrick “Binks” Henry walked into the Elbert County courthouse and cast his ballot for Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate for president. It was the first time the 22-year-old Henry had ever voted and his was the sole Republican vote cast in the county that day (black voters who in those days often wanted to vote Republican were discouraged from voting at all, and what would happen to Binks Henry is a study in how). There was no secret balloting in those days; everyone knew how everyone else voted.

Henry was scarcely a block away from the courthouse when he was accosted by three men whom he had theretofore had no reason to consider enemies, William Parks Clark, Joseph Mattox and P.H. Ham. Hot words followed over Henry’s heresy of voting Republican. The altercation ended with Henry lying in the street, felled under repeated blows of Clark’s buggy whip.

What possessed Binks Henry to cast his first vote ever for Benjamin Harrison, we don’t know. He recorded no reason in his surviving papers and if he ever confided his thinking on the matter to anyone, no record they made has ever been found. He was an eccentric man among a family of eccentrics. From his story it’s not hard to infer that he enjoyed sticking his thumb in the eye of convention, and absent hard evidence that offers as good an explanation as any for his vote. Family accounts hold that he was a medical doctor by education, but there is no evidence that he ever practiced medicine. He and his sister Mary Ellen “Ella,” older by three years, lived in what had been the Allen plantation house overlooking Beaverdam Creek, near where the Pearl Mill textile manufactory would rise in a few years. (In 1888, William H. Mattox, a Henry relative by marriage, and his partners were already building a mill on the site.) The Henrys had inherited the Allen home and lands through their great aunt being the wife of Beverly Allen (my own great-great-great uncle, as it happens), son of original settler William Allen and nephew of the notorious Beverly Allen, the defrocked Methodist minister who had killed a U.S. marshal in Augusta in 1794 and fled to the wilds of Kentucky. By all indications the Henrys were satisfied to live on inherited money and the landowner’s share of the fruits of their sharecroppers’ toil. Binks Henry’s refuge, not to say delight, was evidently in his books, of which he had a large collection.

The Allen plantation house, near Beaverdam Creek in the Middleton?Longstreet community. The oldest part of the house dated from the early 1800s and for years was a stronghold of the Allen family and extended family, which included the Heard, McIntosh, Mattox and Henry families. The house burned in 2000.

After his beating, Henry swore out warrants for Clark, Mattox and Ham, and all were later indicted for assault and battery by an Elbert County grand jury that, oddly enough, included Clark as a member. The incident was to some degree a family affair [and, as it happens, my family affair as well]. Clark, then 40 years old, was distantly connected by marriage to the Heard, Allen, Mattox and Henry families, his mother’s first husband being Gerrard Allen, a son of Singleton Allen, the brother of Binks’s and Ella’s great uncle Beverly (making Gerrard Beverly’s nephew, of course), and a grandson of local Revolutionary War hero Stephen Heard [my great-great-great-great grandfather who, as I wrote in an earlier column, almost certainly was not saved from a British hangman’s noose by his slave woman “Mammy Kate,” as local legend holds]. Joseph Mattox was a nephew of local planter, mill owner, entrepreneur and Democratic political boss the aforementioned William H. Mattox (my great-great grandfather), whose wife was the daughter of Singleton Allen, thus Gerrard Allen’s sister and granddaughter of Stephen Heard. (I never promised you the family tree would be simple to follow.) When the case came to trial, Clark was found guilty of the charge and fined. His compatriots were acquitted.

Owing to its political overtones, the case had gained national notoriety, attracting the attention even of the new administration. President Harrison rewarded Binks Henry for all his troubles and suffering by giving him the privilege of naming the new postmaster for Elberton. Binks selected the person apparently closest to him in the world, his sister Ella. In late 1889 she replaced John. M. Heard, another distant cousin, and became the first postmistress in Elberton’s history (and is believed to be the first postmistress in Georgia).

Binks Henry wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of his case. He took the then novel step of bringing federal charges against his assailants for violating his civil rights. A federal grand jury in Atlanta, however, dismissed the charges in October 1889. Henry again brought federal charges and that time a second federal grand jury indicted the men. The case again gained Binks Henry national acclaim in Republican circles, and Elbert County national notoriety, but it was ultimately dismissed on a legal fine point. Federal law in those days protected a person attacked or threatened before voting, or if they were attacked or threatened by anyone wearing masks. An attack made after a person had cast their vote, though, and by assailants not wearing masks, did not fall under federal purview.

The Republican Party in Georgia largely sat out the election of 1892. That year saw the first significant rise of the Populist Party, a coming that threw the already turbulent world of state politics into even more disarray. The Populist Party sprang out the Farmers’ Alliance that had swept across the South in the late 1880s and early 1890s, gaining more than 100,000 members. In those years cotton prices had plummeted at the same time that farmers saw their debts and a number of other problems of rural folk increase, notably stiff increases in railroad freight rates. Mirroring similar movements by farmers in the West, the southern Populists urged the nationalization of railroads, more government control of banking, and a bimetallist monetary system, specifically the free coinage of silver at a rate 16:1 with gold. “Free silver” is an historical footnote now, but in these times it was an issue that excited passions. The basic idea of its supporters, among whom farmers were heavily represented, was simply to put more money into circulation, creating a form of inflation that would drive up the prices of farm commodities. And also, allow them to pay down or pay off their debts with inflated dollars. This latter is exactly why free silver was opposed by the industrial and financial interests. Like other coeval organizations such as the Knights of Labor that would now be considered left-leaning (the right-left description then not being in general use), the Populists also supported a graduated income tax and the direct election of U.S. senators. The rise of the Populists in Georgia pitted the interests of the largely rural folk against those of more urban areas and posed a serious challenge for the Democrats.

That wasn’t just because the Populists co-opted some of the Democrats’ positions that appealed to farmers (nationally, such prominent Democrats as William Jennings Bryan championed free silver and more regulation of the railroads). The Democrats had never been especially popular in large swaths of middle Georgia west of Augusta that had voted mostly Whig before the Civil War, but postwar the Democrats had captured the votes in those areas by default, being the only choice other than voting Republican. Now the voters had a choice. Even more infuriating to the Democrats, the Populists under the leadership of the brilliant orator and political maverick Tom Watson set out to cross racial lines and appeal to both rural and urban blacks who, when they managed to vote at all, were inclined to vote for any Republican running. Black delegates were invited to the Populist’s state convention in 1892, the first of several such acts nearly unheard of at the time. (That would change in the years near the end of the Georgia Populist Party’s relevance, as Watson took stances virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.) Even though their aims and platforms were almost diametrically opposed, Georgia Republicans saw a chance to make a devil’s bargain with the Populists. Given the futility (usually) of running a Republican candidate, many Republicans threw in with the Populists in an attempt to thumb-gouge the Democrats in the eye. That led Binks Henry back into the political game.

The Republican Party sent out sample ballots for Elbert County with the name of the Populist candidate for Congress, J.R. Robins, along with the names of the Republican presidential electors. Henry had other thoughts and surmised that instead of bringing Populists to vote for the Republicans this stratagem-cum-trick would actually push them toward the Democrats. He had other local sample ballots printed with the Republican electors listed along with the Democratic candidate for Congress. The Democratic Party bosses in Elbert County were incensed, and threatened Henry and the local Republican chairman with prosecution for fraud. Nothing came of the threats but when, as expected, the Democrats won easily in Elbert County, and nationally the Democrat Grover Cleveland reclaimed the White House he had lost four years before to Benjamin Harrison, the celebratory crowd in Elberton’s town square, estimated by the local newspaper at a couple of thousand, hanged Binks Henry in effigy − and then the effigy was burned. For Ella Henry the election has more concrete consequences. Early in the new administration she lost her position as postmistress − to the former postmaster, her cousin John. M. Heard.

In late 1893, Binks Henry left Elbert County and took an extensive tour of the north, but exactly where he went and what he did isn’t known. He played no part in the midterm elections of 1894, when Republicans in Georgia again discreetly supported the Populists as a dig at the Democrats. By 1896, however, Binks was back in Elbert County just in time to set out on his most ambitious political play yet. When the Republican organizers of Georgia’s Eighth Congressional District met in Athens in the later summer of 1896, they chose him as their candidate. Between then and November he crisscrossed the district campaigning to mostly black voters.

Tuesday, November 3, 1896 was a cold, rainy day in Elberton, according to the Elberton Star, but the newspaper’s editor found some sunny notes. “There was not near so much drinking and debauchery in this election as there was in the last,” went his editorial. “The town was quiet all day and there were only one or two election scraps.” It was something of a change from the primary election held in Elberton the month before. That day, a quarrel at the polls had led to two Democrats shooting two Populists (they survived). It seems, however, that the Star’s editor had a gift for understatement, and also chose to ignore quite a bit.

The editorial continued that “‘Cuffy’ [blacks] did not play near so prominent a role in this election as he did in the last. When left alone he voted the republican ticket, but by using a little ‘persuasion’ he could easily be induced to cast his vote for some other party.” The Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy begged to differ.

Kennedy, a black minister and former teacher, had been a thorn in the side of the local Democratic establishment for some time. In August 1895, the county school superintendent had fired him from a teaching post at one of the county’s black schools after Kennedy, speaking at a church, allegedly made political statements in favor of Republicans and deemed to be fomenting racial discord. Kennedy had then founded a black-oriented newspaper, the Progress, a more radical and confrontational paper than the county’s other black newspaper, the Golden Age, which reflected the fairly conservative stance toward black issues favored most notably by Booker T. Washington. Kennedy was also a key organizer of the black vote for the Republican Party and an associate of Binks Henry. In the pages of the Progress Kennedy painted a different portrait of the election day doings. Blacks who approached the polls in Elberton to cast Republican ballots, Kennedy wrote, had found their way blocked “by a standing army of democratic ruffians.” Had not the casting of Republican votes been blocked, Kennedy went on, he estimated that “fully 1,000 to 1,500 republican tickets would have been cast.” The man Kennedy tagged in print as the leader of the “democratic ruffians” was our old friend and Binks Henry’s tormentor William Parks Clark. (The Elberton Star responded in the next issue with an editorial defending Clark: “… there is not a more peacable [sic] and law abiding citizen than he. …”)

(The incident and Kennedy’s writings provoked a convoluted series of events that would result in Kennedy serving a very likely unjustified sentence for attempted murder. But he went on to have a life afterward of some significance. It’s quite a tale and I’ll probably take it up in a future column.)

As for Binks Henry, he lost his bid for Congress, not garnering a single vote in his own home district of Longstreet. Nationally, however, the Republican William McKinley won the presidency over William Jennings Bryan, who was nominated by both the Democrats and the Populists. Once again Binks Henry was rewarded by being given the choice of naming Elberton’s new postmaster. Once again his sister Ella replaced their cousin John. M. Heard.

In June 1897, President McKinley offered Binks Henry the U.S. consular post in Switzerland. He did not accept immediately but decided to mull it over. He waited too long. That October he fell ill with meningitis and died at the Henry home on November 1. He was 31 years old. (Ella would die four years later.) Thus ended one of the oddest and most turbulent careers in politics this area has ever seen.

Now then, the next time you hear anyone say that the theater, the strife and the fang-and-claw rhetorical blood sport of politics nowadays are the worst they’ve ever been, think of Binks Henry, and tell them that just ain’t so.

 

Thoughts on Country Stores

Artist’s rendering of Fortsonia community in Elbert County, with its country stores

A funeral eulogy, of all things, recently provoked thoughts on the country store and its legacy, and what the decline of the institution has cost us.

On reflection, I think it has cost us a great deal in what some mavens and bean counters of social culture lump together in the term “quality of life.” This yardstick includes a good many things supposedly contributing to the overall happiness and wellbeing of the average person of common sensibilities, often accompanied by a caveat that some of these are prone to becoming casualties of our faster paced modern age. The decline of the country store, such as it has, I believe, left a good number − namely those nebulous threads that can help hold a community together and give it strength − squarely among the injured.

The eulogy was for a woman who had operated a convenience store in this community, but not your typical convenience store with slam-bam-thank you-ma’am service by a clerk whose name you likely don’t know and who probably won’t be the clerk if you stop in the next week. This store was different. It sits a crossroads on a main highway, attracted the normal passing trade, and when she ran it did a lot of business with the local community, being the only place around for several miles. It was this latter trade that gave the place its character.

Rarely did you stop there during the summer months when there wasn’t a collection of elderly men from this residential and farming community sitting outside on benches put there for that purpose. Community gossip and tales − fishing, farming or just tall − were the common fare for anyone who wanted to sit down for a sample. In colder months, the regulars took the bucolic banter inside. The woman being eulogized, the owner, not only allowed this but encouraged it, made provisions for it, and along the way the store become more than just a place for the odd soft drink, loaf of bread, gas or fishing tackle and bait. It became a community institution.

This was the remnant of a tradition stretching back at least to the second half of the 19th century in the South and representing what was first a commercial phenomenon and then a social one. In The Southern Country Store (Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1944) Thomas Clark traced the main growth spurt of country stores to the post-Civil War period when the small farmer in the South who couldn’t afford to take a lot of time away from his work and travel to the nearest town needed a source of supplies, farming equipment and seed, dry goods and even credit closer at hand. Some merchants who before the war might have hauled their small wares from farm to farm in wagons settled down, put down roots and became a mainstay of the community. The postwar development of more railroad mileage fed the creation of some stores, such as that of T.J. Hewell in the Dewy Rose community of Elbert County. Railroad officials urged Hewell to start a store and even helped with a small loan. Eventually Hewell’s store, opened at first in what had been a shotgun house, became not only a store but a railroad freight station. The slogan was “A store within reach of every cabin in the South,” and in time, one way or another, that idea was largely realized.

Virtually everything needed for rural or small town life could be supplied from the country store. It doubled as a community forum as well, with small gatherings around its pot-bellied stove in the winters and on its front porch in the summers. Out of the banter around the stoves and another often present fixture we get the term “cracker barrel philosophy” for homespun commonsense, often unsophisticated but always reflecting the life experience of the “philosophers.” Stump speakers on the hustings from the start found country stores a good and convenient place to draw a crowd. Beginning his political career running for Georgia agriculture commissioner, the legendary Eugene Talmadge campaigned around country stores. So did the notorious political huckster Huey Long of Louisiana, who started out as a traveling salesman selling fertilizer to country stores (seemingly a good apprenticeship for any politician). Country magistrates sometimes conducted court proceedings at stores and the store was sometimes a venue for community meetings of local importance. (In my own time I know of at least one community volunteer fire department that can trace its roots to discussions beginning in a country store.)

I grew up around a latter day country store, in the Pearl Mill community in the 1960s, and in some ways it was my first school. The store was operated by my grandfather and mother. In his last able years, my grandfather held court around the pot-bellied stove winter and summer (when the stove was cold but the open door still provided a convenient place for him and his cronies to dump their cigar ashes.) Half a century later, the scenes are as clear in memory as they were in life. The mainstays were my grandfather, in his favorite gray jacket and sweat-stained rumpled fedora. Along with Mr. Henry Prince, another local retired farmer, summer and winter dressed usually in a black suit coat with matching pants, neither no longer fit for church on Sunday but still giving him a dignified air. Perched atop his head and cocked to one side was his other trademark, his flat-topped felt hat that had probably been new the last time he voted for Eugene Talmadge. Mr. Henry also stands out in memory because he always punctuated his tales with guffaws accompanied by fierce taps of his walking stick on the concrete floor. More often than not there was Bill Shiflet, a local retired textile mill worker and jackleg carpenter who was forthright about several youthful misadventures on a South Carolina chain gang for bootlegging. A variety of less often regulars filled the extra chairs from time to time.

 Listening to their stories of times past − of the years of World War I and before, of the Depression and of World War II − was my first schooling in history (and about people), and the idea that in all times the big stories of history are made up of untold numbers of smaller, individual stories, like the fibers and strands that make up a rope. Looking back, I now see these were priceless lessons that could never have been gleaned from the pages of a book.

There are more than a few stories that came out of these times that make me laugh even now, over 50 years on. Only a few miles from where I now sit there was for many years Hudson’s Store, a country store that was a mainstay of the Fortsonia community. It was also, of course, a local gathering place. One common visitor was my great uncle, Jeptha “Jep” Mattox, a local farmer. Short and stocky, like all my male Mattox kinsmen, he was gregarious and regarded as honest to a fault; he served for many years as a deacon of the nearby Bethel E Baptist Church. For all his saintly qualities, however, he was also an inveterate prankster. Had his forebears been Irish instead of Welsh, you might be tempted to say there was a leprechaun in the woodpile somewhere (he had more than a little of the blarney of the Irish about him nevertheless). One of his favorite targets was his brother-in-law, “Lily” Scarborough. “Mr. Lily,” as he was known, was a good fellow by all accounts and my own vague recollections, but unlike Jep he had a reputation as generally being serious-minded. He was of middling height, slim, with a clean-shaven face, usually a little flushed, and with a prominent nose. His most distinguishing trait, however, was his high-pitched voice, which came out in a slow, nasally drawl. When he and Jep weren’t like oil and water they were like gasoline and a spark.

On one occasion, Jep was in Hudson’s Store entertaining all and sundry with his impersonation of Mr. Lily’s voice and demeanor. His back was to the door, so he missed it when Mr. Lily, shuffling quietly as always, entered. The others saw Mr. Lily, of course, and quickly grew quiet themselves, stone-faced even, unsure what would happen next but pretty sure it wouldn’t be good, though probably amusing in the aftermath. When Jep noticed that he had apparently lost his audience and that their gazes were now fixed behind him, he turned around to see the object his jesting staring at him. It was probably a look akin to that of a wolf with a rabbit in its crosshairs. The rabbit will sometimes freeze rather than flee, hoping it won’t be noticed. But when the wolf is as tormented by hunger as Mr. Lily had been tormented for years by Jep’s shenanigans, the rabbit is seldom lucky enough to escape. Jep froze, but there wouldn’t be any escape.

Mr. Lily just regarded Jep for a long minute before finally saying, softly, his voice even and in earnest and at its twangy best, “Jep, you do that again I’m gon’ hafta kill ya.”

With a mumbled apology Jep beat a hasty retreat. That time. For the moment. But no way could he let it end there.

He and Mr. Lily didn’t really speak for several months after that. As the winter months came, though, Jep hit upon an idea he hoped would make Mr. Lily look ridiculous, allowing Jep to regain the upper hand in the one-upmanship.

Dynamite was easier to obtain in those days, the early 1950s; in fact, some farmers even kept a couple of sticks on hand for blowing up stumps from new-cleared land or for opening up the flow of a stream dammed by beavers. However he managed it, Jep obtained the heavy, waxed paper that formed the outside wrapping of two sticks of dynamite and carefully wrapped them around two lengths of an old hoe handle cut to the right size. Then one cold day when the potbellied stove in Hudson’s Store was bronze with heat and he knew Mr. Lily was there, Jep ambled in, the two wrapped lengths of hoe handle sticking out of his back pocket.

After general greetings all around, subdued somewhat as all present knew of the ongoing feud between them, Jep turned to Mr. Lily.

“Lily,” he said. “I been thinking about how to end this trouble of ours. I’ve thought over it and prayed over it and I cain’t come up with nuthin’ but ta let Saint Peter settle it ‘tween us.”

At that he opened the door of the stove and tossed in the two wrapped sticks.

Mr. Lily broke for the door yelling, “He’s crazy as hell! He’s crazy as hell!,” barely slowing enough to open the door on his way out. All of course leaving Jep doubled up with laughter and the others at hand gradually realizing they weren’t about to die then and there.

I remember my grandfather telling this story to the coterie around his own stove on an occasion after Mr. Lily had just departed their group. Just one example of the lore the country store culture gave rise to. Like the “cracker barrel” philosophy born of hard experience and passed down in plain talk, it was all part of what more tutored philosophers call the “ethos” of the community, its fundamental character or spirit. The decline and loss in most cases of the country store has cost communities. Athens wouldn’t have been quite the cultural wellspring it was without the agora, nor Rome the center of civilization it was without the forum. Small communities lost their nearest thing to these when the country store culture started to fade.

These days planners of developments often lay out elaborate plans for residential communities around what is supposed to be in improvised “town square” ambiance of small retail shops and eateries. The idea is to try to recreate a small town atmosphere whose loss is generally lamented by those of a certain age and experience with a mystic chord of nostalgia. This is laudable, in a way, though somewhat plastic and phony in essence.

They might do better without so much thought and paraphernalia. Maybe all that’s needed is just a simple general store with a good heater in an open space with chairs around for winter and a few benches on a porch outside for summer. Human nature might take care of the rest.