Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Swift Justice—Moonshiners in Court

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Tuscaloosa Court House used for U.S. District Court1

The jury needed only twenty minutes to deliberate on the charges facing Marion W. Gurganus, William Isaac Gurganus, John T. Morgan and Johnnie Gurganus.  In my mind, I can envision the judge reading the verdict and all straining to hear every word.  What did they hope to hear?   Did they consider it even a possibility that the men might go free or was their only hope for leniency?  

According to the newspapers, both Marion and young Johnnie had confessed that there had been a conspiracy and that they had indeed shot at the revenuer and the Marshall.  Newspaper accounts also indicated that Marion had not hired legal counsel and that he had been totally open in court about his role in the shooting and the part others had played. How would his confession impact their sentence? 

Justice was swift in this case.  The initial incident had taken place on April 13, 1910 and court convened on the evening of Thursday, June 10, 1910 and finished the following morning.  The entire process had taken a relatively short amount of time by today’s standards. 

As the verdict was read, both John T.Morgan’s wife and mother began to weep.    Marion and John broke down as they were removed from the courtroom.

According to several newspaper reports, Marion Gurganus, Isaac Gurganus and John T. Morgan were given ten years each on the charge of “conspiring to interfere with an officer in the discharge of his duties,”  and, in addition, on the second charge, which was “conspiracy to interfere with or injure an officer of the government in the discharge of his duties,”  Marion and Isaac were given twenty years and John T. was given ten years.  The three would serve their time in the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta.   Johnnie, however, being only 14 years old was sentenced to ten years in the Federal Reform School in Washington D.C. 

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Federal Penitentiary Atlanta 1920 postcard2


I tried to find a written opinion from court records regarding the case in various legal subscription databases (with a little help from friends in the legal profession), but was not successful.  I  had hoped to find microfilmed court records at the Family History Library in Salt Lake, but could not.   Consequently, I have instead relied on newspaper articles  from The Atlanta Constitution3 and Montgomery Advertiser4.

If I had left things at that, I would have gone on assuming that  Marion and his boys went to prison for the charges listed in the newspaper.  But while  searching on Ancestry, I found Marion listed on  the U.S. Penitentiary, Prisoner Index5.   His index entry indicated that Marion was incarcerated on 13 June 1910 and was released on 23 Oct 1925, which meant he actually served a total of about 15 years. In addition, according to that record,  his crime was “conspiracy to murder.”   While this charge made sense to me, the newspaper articles had not suggested that they were ever charged or tried on murder.  A search on the National Archives site, Southeast Region, Atlanta,  brought up the index “Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Inmate Case Files, 1902-1921.  The information recorded there confirmed what I had found on Ancestry.  Marion, William Ike, and John Morgan were all listed, along with their crime of  “Conspiracy to Murder.” 

Without definitive court records, it is difficult to determine exactly what the charges actually were. It is strange to me that all of the newspaper articles indicated that they were charged and found guilty of conspiracy to interfere with an officer in the discharge of his duties, without any mention of them being charged with conspiracy to murder, although certainly the murder of the revenuer was at the center of everything that happened.  Oh how I wish I had a copy of those court records in order to know exactly what occurred.

I wonder what happened to each of the men once they were released? How had the event and their imprisonment changed them?  Did young Johnnie spend the entire ten years in the reform school as originally dictated?  I wonder if Marion and the others replayed the events of April 13th, thinking how they could have made different choices and achieved a better outcome.  It always amazes me how quickly things can escalate and how rapidly things can evolve into something so different from what was originally planned.

According to  the 1930 census, Marion returned to Tuscaloosa, Alabama. He was listed as a widower and living with him were several daughters, a son-in-law and a grand daughter.  His occupation was listed as farmer and he was living within a few homes of other family members.  By all appearances, he resumed his life, but I wonder if it ever was really the same.  I also wonder if he ever again was tempted to make an extra dollar making moonshine. 



1.   Wikipedia Commons, in Public Domain

2.   Wikipedia Commons, in Public Domain

3.  Newspaper articles:
“Trio Given Sentences,” Montgomery (Alabama), Montgomery Advertiser,  11 June, 1910, p. 7, Digital images, Genealogy Bank, Genealogybank.com

“Found Guilty of Conspiring to Interfere With Rights of American Citizen,” Atlanta (Georgia), The Atlanta Constitution, 11 June, 1910, p. 9 col. 3, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://www.ancestry.com)

“Marion Comes to Prison,” Atlanta (Georgia), The Atlanta Constitution, 13 April, 1910, p. 2 col. 3, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com)

“Revenue Agent Surber is Back After Raid,” Atlanta (Georgia), The Atlanta Constitution,  17 April, 1910,  p. 15, col. 1, digital image, Ancestry.com (http://ancestry.com)


4.   “Trio Given Sentences,” Montgomery (Alabama), Montgomery  Advertiser,     11  June, 1910, p. 7, Digital images, Genealogy Bank, http://Genealogybank.com

5.  Atlanta, Georgia, U.S. Penitentiary, Prisoner Index, ca 1880-1922, Ancestry.com



Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2013 

10 comments:

  1. Michelle, the federal court in Tuscaloosa would be the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Alabama. Its records are in the National Archives in Atlanta, Record Group 21 (Records of the US District Courts), than you want the Records of the Western Division (Tuscaloosa), including minute books, 1905-68; dockets, 1905-63; case files, 1905-63; and final record books, 1912-31.

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    1. I appreciate your help Judy. I love your blog http://www.legalgenealogist.com/ and recommend it to everyone. I actually thought of you several times as I worked on this and wondered what you would recommend. I had pulled a map of the Districts and Divisions for the courts in Alabama, but had a difficult time determining how the boundaries may have changed over the years, so I appreciate your direction. My list of reasons for a trip to the National Archives in Atlanta is growing. Hopefully I will be able to go in the not too distant future.

      I did have a friend check LexisNexis and also Case Maker and they were unable to find anything. I wonder why?

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    2. Before you go to the Archives in Atlanta, be sure to check their website for days and times when they are open to the public. I have heard of folks having problems just going over there and then not being able to get in because they were closed to the public at that time.

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    3. Thanks Karen....good to be reminded.

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  2. Fascinating case! Were you able to track Johnnie down after he served his time?

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    1. Heather, initially I was searching for more information about Marion, so I didn't really follow through on Johnnie at the time. But as I finished writing the last post, I did think that I need to see what I can find on the others. The challenge will be that John is a favored name among the Gurganus/Ganus family. (Generations here and there among the various Gurganus lines of that family shortened their name to Ganus and then sometimes the very next generation would opt to change it back to Gurganus, which makes it very confusing.) The families had a tendency to be large and all name their kids the same. I was grateful for a Marion in the group, although there are several of those. With that in mind, I know I will eventually tackle finding Johnnie, but given the time period, I think it will be a bit of a challenge. It's interesting too because I have not found any mention of Marion and his group's antics among any of the family histories written on that family.

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  3. That's strange, the worded difference between the charge and the crime. Maybe the word "injure" is all-embracing in some legal sense, and includes "kill." Sometimes even today I hear people using the word "hurt" as a euphemism for "kill." Hm. "To interfere with or to injure." Words can be very slippery.

    When I began to read this post, I expected that all three men would be hanged, or in some other way executed. I was relieved to find out they were given prison sentences instead. And paroled for "good behavior," as they say these days. A very exciting case!

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    1. True Mariann.....I am surprised given what happened that the punishment wasn't worse. Fifteen years is not long in exchange for someone's life.

      You do have to wonder about the worded difference. It is really frustrating and will only be solved with the actual court records, which apparently will require a trip to the National Archives in Atlanta. I really want to go, but it will be awhile before I get there. In the meantime, I will wonder......I hate it when I can't tie things up all neat and tidy.

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  4. Michelle,

    Wow! Interesting conclusion to this case. I wonder why the charges in the newspaper weren't the same as in the court records. Strange.

    I also want to let you know that your blog post is listed in today's Fab Finds post at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2013/03/follow-fridayfab-finds-for-march-1-2013.html

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  5. Thanks so much Jana. That issue is driving me nuts and it really frustrated me. The only solution is to get the original records as Judy Russell said and that will have to wait until I take a trip to Georgia.....which isn't going to happen real soon. I'm just frustrated.

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