Friday, November 2, 2012

Murder in Macon--Final Chapter-- The Trial


The murder created incredible excitement in the community. Ellen had been murdered in her front yard with her father, David Gurganus and her step-mother, Rebecca, as eye witnesses. David was MY fourth great grandfather and so this was MY family and I was stunned as I uncovered the story. While I may not know all of the whys of the events, given the nature of the crime, the court records and newspapers provided rich detail about both the crime and the trial.

Tuesday May 29, 1849 Baldwin County, Georgia "Union Recorder" carried the following:
             COMMITTED FOR TRIAL
Elisha Reese, charged with the murder of Mrs. Pratt, in this county, on Wednesday last, was arrested the same evening by Messrs. Cumming Stephens, Ellis and others, some three miles from the scene of his crime, and lodged in prison.  On Thursday he was brought up before the Magistrates, Messrs. Grannis, Reid and Artope, and formally committed for trial.. . . . During the examination the accused showed but little concern.
The trial date was set to be held during the July Term 1849.  Minutes for the Bibb Superior Court provide many details, many of which I have already provided in the previous post.  A variety of individuals gave testimony, including Ellen's step-mother, Rebecca and neighbor James W. Armstrong. I couldn't help but notice the absence of  Ellen's father, David, who also was an eye witness.  I can only assume that the injuries he sustained, combined with the emotional trauma, prevented him from attending.

The defense's witnesses were primary individuals that testified to Reese's character.  Their testimonies helped me to anchor Reese to particular communities where he had previously lived, such as Habersham and Cass Counties.  The most interesting witness for the defense was his son, Frederick Reese.  Did his son provide true insight to his father's character or was he simply being a dutiful son?  Frederick indicated that his father was a man of "good character, a peaceable law abiding citizen."   He also said that he had "never known him to violate the laws of his country."  It is through Frederick's testimony that we learn that Reese was 50 years old. Frederick also indicated that he last saw his father January last in Cass County, but had not "known him since"  and that Reese had a family in Floyd County.

The evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of the prosecution, with the defense only able to present individuals who knew him in his previous communities to testify of Reese's character.  Ultimately, Judge Floyd issued the verdict of guilty, and indicated that Reese was to be returned to the Common Jail of the County of Bibb.   The judge then said,
. . . . where you are to be kept in safe and close custody until Friday the Seventh day of September, Eighteen hundred and forty nine, when you are to be conducted to a gallows to be executed for that purpose in the County of Bibb outside of the corporate limits of the city of Macon, and within one mile of said Corporate limits, upon which said Gallows between the time of ten o'clock in the morning and four o'clock in the afternoon of said day, you are by the sheriff of said county of Bibb, or his lawful deputy to be publicly hung by the neck until you are dead! dead ! dead! And may God Almightly have mercy upon your soul.  

In "Reports of Cases of Law & Equity Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia", is found the case of  Reese vs. The State of Georgia, in which the defendant moved for a continuance on several grounds.  The first was because two witnesses to Reese's character had not shown up, and secondly, because
"he could not safely go to trial, on account of the public excitement against him, from the transaction being recent, and of an unusual character, giving rise to exaggerated reports, tending to inflame the public mind, and insufficient time not having elapsed to allay such excitement, and to correct the strong prejudices produced by it."  

The court refused continuance.  The hanging was scheduled for the 7th of September, 1849.

The final newspaper article for this tragic story appeared in the Macon, Georgia newspaper, The Messenger on Wednesday, September 12, 1849.

EXECUTION OF REESE
Elisha Reese, convicted of the murder of Mrs. Ellen Pratt, was executed near this city on Friday, in the presence of some five thousand persons.  Before leaving the prison, he gave an imperfect sketch of his life and of the circumstances connected with the murder.  It is sufficient to say that his confession in every particular, corroborated the statement of the affair made through the columns of this paper at the time of the killing, and which was subsequently sustained by the testimony before the jury.
Reese deported himself with the most stoical firmness and composure.  He shed no tear, and heaved no sigh during the solemn ceremonies under the gallows.  He ascended the platform with a firm and steady step, and declined when requested by the Sheriff, to address any words to the assembled multitude.  The result of this exhibition,  has been to excite no little feeling among our people in favor of private executions, and the matter will, no doubt, be brought up before the next Legislature.  

What I would give to have a copy of Reese's life sketch along with his confession, however imperfect it was. I feel some disappointment in knowing not only that it was not recorded, but also in knowing that Reese showed no remorse and no regret for the crime.  While justice ultimately was served,  for both the Gurganus family and the Reese family, there were deep wounds that would never completely heal.  Newspapers reported that it was doubtful that David would ever fully recover physically from his injuries given his age.  While it is difficult to know to what extent David's injuries contributed to his death just ten months later, I feel sure that the emotional wounds were even deeper and  that the remainder of his days were filled with painful memories of that fateful day.

I never dreamed the day that I tediously searched the Bibb County Court records for anything about my family, that I would uncover a story of this nature.  I suppose none of us ever envisions a tragedy of this scope occurring in our own families. As we research and uncover the details of our ancestor's lives, we inevitably will find both the good and the bad, the joyous along with the tragic, with each piece of information ultimately helping us to gain compassion and understanding for those that went before.

Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2012

10 comments:

  1. You are right, Michelle--that is something that no one would dream of uncovering in their own family history. I can understand your sense of sadness over this discovery. While it happened so long ago, it still touches you. It is like a part of you lived through it along with your ancestors.

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  2. Dead! Dead! Dead! How about that sentence!! Public executions were big entertainment. But I'm with you - I'd like to know what reason Reese gave for killing the woman he wanted to marry.

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    1. I am with you Wendy. To me that sentence really said it all. I was surprised too when the newspaper reported 5000 in attendance for the hanging--not my idea of something to do to fill an afternoon.

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  3. A story of unrequited love and vengeance, like the kind we often see in movies and TV. The rejected lover becomes a stalker and then a murderer. Dramatic and dark. I understand all too well the feeling of shock when such events are in your own family history! But one way or another, the murderers and the murdered of this world have to be in somebody's family history . . . why not one's own. These tragedies unfortunately could potentially happen to anyone. No one is immune -- the great tragedies (Shakespeare, Sophocles) have events like these happening to kings and those "high" in society. I wish it weren't all part of humanity, but it is.

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    1. It's a good point Mariann---"the murderers and the murdered of this world have to be in somebody's family history." It has taught me to expect the unexpected for sure! Thanks for your comments.

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  4. What does it mean that Reese had a family in Floyd County? Is that a reference to his parents and siblings, or did he have a previous wife and children there? Curious. And it's too bad we didn't find out his motive for the murder. In any case, thanks for sharing this tragic tale from your family history.

    Michelle, I wanted to let you know that your blog post is listed on my Fab Finds post today at http://janasgenealogyandfamilyhistory.blogspot.com/2012/11/follow-fridayfab-finds-for-november-9.html

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  5. Elisha married Susannah Chaffin on 2 June 1833 in Habersham County, Georgia. Her sister, Charlotte married Elisha Brown and I find Susan Reese living with the "Sharlot" and Elisha Brown in Floyd County in 1860. There are some other Reeses in there in 1850, but I haven't figured out the connection yet. I am not sure where his wife is in 1850---but finding her at all was quite a surprise. I had assumed he was a widower at that point.

    Thanks so much Jana for listing my blog on your Fab Finds. I love your blog.

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  6. WOW!!! I can think of no other words to describe this!! I just had a chance to finish this story. I am beginning to believe our families history would make an exciting and suspense filled book and knowing that she was my 4th great-aunt is mind blowing! (I think I counted that correctly) I like others wonder what his reasoning was to pursue her and what did he mean by "the lie she told"? It has been sometime since I have attempted any geneology but I have been bitten and I will be starting again!! If I am lucky enough to find anything on my line (Nathaniel Dunn and Sarah Gurganus Dunn) I will be sure to share. I work 2 jobs so it will take me some time!! :-)

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    1. I have thought the same thing. As I uncovered these stories I just felt I needed to share them and decided to do it by blog for now, but the stories would make a good book.

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