Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Murder in Macon--Part 2




The murder of Ellen Pratt created considerable emotion and excitement in the community. Newspapers throughout the states reported the story, including  The Liberator  in Boston, MA  who carried the story as "The Bloody and Oppressive South,"  Shocking Murder. We can't help but wonder what events  led  to the murder of Ellen Pratt.

It had started out as a typical spring day in Macon, Georgia.  The Gurganus family lived about four miles from the court house on the road to Forsyth.  At about 11:00 a.m.,  David, Rebecca and Ellen were all sitting together out on their "piazza,"  likely trying to cool off a bit.  Ellen, a widow of about 60 years of age, was living with her father and her step mother.  It may have begun like a typical day, but soon things would take a horrible turn.

Bibb county map with the road to from Macon to Forsyth
(From Georgia Galileo)
 Elisha Reese, who was called simply "Reese" by the townspeople, had recently proposed marriage to Ellen, but she had rejected his proposal. What else may have transpired between them, we do not know, but what we do know is that her father was concerned and  had sworn out a peace warrant against Reese. Newspapers later reported that there had in fact been threats of violence made by Reese towards Ellen. When Reese learned that a peace warrant had been sworn out against him, it did not sit well.

According to court records,on the morning of May 16th, 1849,  Reese went to visit with the sheriff about the peace warrant and there was considerable discussion which ended with Reese storming off, declaring "it would only cost him what little he had and his life and he would see her out or die."   The sheriff begged him to leave her alone, but determined, Elisha set out for the Gurganus property.

Rebecca Gurganus, who was Ellen's step-mother, testified that Reese had come to their property that morning and, while standing at the gate, asked Ellen why she had told the lie.  When Ellen insisted that she had not told a lie, Reese opened the gate to enter their yard.  Ellen then said, "Reese, don't come in here," but  he continued anyway and so David got up from the piazza and walked towards the gate saying "Reese, what are you coming here interrupting us for?  We interrupt no body."  Newspaper articles referred to David as a "very aged Revolutionary soldier," and indicated that he was "scarce able to walk" and had begged Reese to go away and to not create any disturbance there.

It was then that Reese gripped the barrel of the gun with both hands, swung it at David and struck him in the head, knocking him to the ground.  Ellen, who had been standing in the piazza, immediately ran to her father to help him, at which time, Reese took aim and shot her in the neck at such close range, the wadding set her clothes on fire.  Ellen fell dead within a few feet of her father, who was still on the ground and bleeding. Within minutes Ellen was dead and David had received injuries from which he would never fully recover.  Reese turned and calmly walked away, leaving Rebecca standing there, no doubt in shock over what had just transpired.

A neighbor testified that he had seen a man pass by his property through the corn field with a rifle resting on  his shoulder.  Minutes later he heard the gun go off and the man passed back by.  The neighbor had been unsure as to what had transpired, but then heard Rebecca calling to him for help.  When he approached the Gurganus property, he discovered that Ellen was dead and that ninety year old David, whom he described as  an "old and infirm man,"  was on his hands and knees, his head was bleeding and he was delirious. The neighbor carried David into the house, put him onto his bed and then set off for the doctor and the sheriff.

What occurs next sounds like a scene from an old movie.  The neighbor went into town and found the sheriff and others, who brought dogs and set out, determined to find "Reese." Starting at the Gurganus house where they surveyed the grim scene, the dogs then picked up Reese's scent, began to circle and then took off in chase through the woods. In my mind, I can see a frantic Reese, running for his life through the woods with the barking dogs at his heels, and the men on horses in determined pursuit.  The chase was intense enough that the sheriff would later need to receive compensation for the injuries his horse sustained during the chase. Within about 30 minutes, the dogs and men were able to overcome Reese.  The men then tied Reese up and took him into town.  

I have read over the court documents and the numerous corresponding newspaper articles dozens of times, each time feeling a deep sadness.  My heart breaks for Ellen, who rejected a suitor without realizing the price that she and her father would ultimately pay, for David, my fourth great grandfather, who witnessed the murder of his daughter, something no parent should ever experience, and for Rebecca, who stood helplessly by as she watched the terrible scene unfold.  As with any event buried in the past, there is more to this story than I will ever know. Why did Reese, a 50 year old man pursue with such determination, 60 year old widowed Ellen, and feel so strongly about her rejection that he made threats of violence and eventually murdered her?  While I don't have all of the answers, I still have more to share, including Reese's trial and what ultimately happened to him, all of which I will include in my next post.    

Continue onto Part Three, Final Chapter, The Trail 

Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2012

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Murder in Macon - Part 1

The woman was screaming and sobbing as her father laid bleeding on the ground, but the man coldly lowered his rifle and aimed it directly at her. The gun went off.  Our daughter jerked awake ---who had been screaming?  Was a neighbor in trouble, or had it been a dream?  With her heart pounding, our daughter laid there in the pitch dark, and listened intently for any noise or sound that might tell her that it was real, but all was silent.  And then she remembered.  Hours earlier, she had been helping me transcribe some newly found court documents. Having returned from college for a weekend visit, she had become intrigued when I told her that I had found our ancestors involved in a murder trial and I was anxious to sort it all out. She had then suggested that she help me transcribe the lengthy court minutes, but little did either of us realize how chilling the details of Mary Ellen's murder were or just how much they would haunt us.

I knew that a Mary Ellen Gurganus had married Thomas Pratt in Bibb County, Georgia on the 28th of October 1838.  Dozens of times over the years I had run across the marriage entry when searching Bibb County records , but I didn't know for sure who she was.  I had a pretty good idea that she would prove to be related to David Gurganus, my fourth great grandfather, as that surname was not common in Georgia at that time,  but I could not seem to find anything more about her that would help identify just what her relationship was to my Gurganus family.  She and her husband had married and then seemingly just disappeared.

One day in total exasperation at the lack of information that I had on my Gurganus family during their time in Macon, Bibb County,  Georgia,  I decided to go through a microfilm of Bibb County Court records, slowly, page by page, looking for something....anything.  A mere five hours later something caught my eye. The sheriff  had applied for compensation for the injuries that his horse had sustained in the pursuit of Ellen Pratt's MURDERER!! I wondered- could this be Mary Ellen GURGANUS Pratt?  I quickly checked the dates and then turned to Bibb County Superior Court records and  there it was. The trial of Elisha Reese for the murder of Mary Ellen Pratt on 16 May 1849.  As I quickly scanned the court minutes, the name "Gurganus" popped off the page. The record indicated that Ellen Pratt was a widow and had been living with her aged father, David Gurganus!!!  Rebecca Gurganus, her step mother testified. This meant that she was a daughter to my fourth great grandfather David Gurganus and a sister to my third great grandfather, James Gurganus.  I could not believe my eyes.  As I had tried to imagine why I couldn't find anything further about Ellen Pratt, the possibility that she had been murdered had never entered my mind. What had happened?  Why would someone murder a sixty year old widow woman in her front yard in front of her father and stepmother?  It's a story I'm anxious to share in upcoming posts.

Continue onto Part Two of Murder in Macon

Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2012, All rights reserved

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Just a Little Piece of Paper

"John M. had a brother Jim that went to Alabama."  This simple sentence was scribbled on the corner of a small piece of  faded paper and barely legible. The paper was among a meager collection of a handful of papers and pedigree charts that had belonged to my Grandma and Grandpa Ganus. When I first received the little floral fabric suitcase,  I had had such high hopes that it would be filled with the kind of information that every genealogist dreams of receiving- a family bible, letters rich in genealogical detail and pictures.  At first glance the suitcase appeared to hold just a few pedigrees with names, dates and information which I already had and void of any documentation.  Upon closer examination, however, I found that among the pedigrees sheets were a few choice pieces of papers with handwritten notes that would provide me with some much needed clues.

Grandma had researched in a day without computers and the endless online databases, forums and mailing lists so readily available today.  She was limited by her inability to travel to a distant research facility and the long wait associated with snail mail.  I feel so fortunate to have ready access to so much online data in addition to being close to an excellent research library.  But Grandma had something I don't have---she had people around her that remembered,  people that knew the people who are now just names on a pedigree for me.  How I wish I would have been interested in family history when Grandma was alive and that I had tapped into her knowledge. But I was young and busy and my mind and interests were elsewhere. So I will just be grateful that she took the time to scribble a few notes that I would eventually find and treasure.

My father had no knowledge of Jim, who was John's brother and who had gone to Alabama.  In fact, my family knew very little about John, my own great great grandfather because my grandfather had been orphaned at 8 years of age. So we were left to piece together what we could and  to do our best to learn from what others had recorded, which brings me back to the faded paper and the scribbled note about Jim.  Just who was Jim?

Turning to the 1850 census, I could see that my third great grandparents, James and Betsy Ganus did have a son named James.  Their oldest son, my second great grandfather, John was 22 at the time, but James, a much younger brother was only 11.  In between John and James were brothers David, who was 16 and Jackson (William Jackson) who was 12, along with sisters Margaret and Rebecca, and then some additional younger siblings,  so I find it interesting that James, or "Jim" was the only sibling named on that paper.

Jim's formal name was James W. and he was born Nov 1841, likely in Fayetteville, Georgia. On the 31st of August in 1862, at the age of 21, James enlisted in the Confederate Army and served with the 44th Georgia Regiment. From James' Civil War discharge certificate we learn that he was six feet tall, had a fair complexion, blue eyes and light hair. I love knowing what he looked like.

Battle of Sharpsburg fought September 17, 1862
 near Sharpsburg, Maryland
Picture by Kurz & Allison
I wonder how James' parents felt when they learned that he had been shot in the right arm at The Battle of Sharpsburg, which was known as the bloodiest single-day battle of the Civil War. James was treated and remained with his regiment until he was discharged on July 3, 1863.  I also wonder if James realized how fortunate he was to have survived a gunshot wound during a time when the medicine practiced was relatively primitive and when so many died of infection. His record did indicate that at his release he was partially blind due to sickness contracted while in the service. It went on to state that at that time that James was
 "so blind he cannot see to read or distinguish one person from another at ten paces.  Is unfit for duty in any depart. of government."  
My heart goes out to him, knowing that he was so blind he was considered unfit for duty and yet he would return home and would need to provide for himself and his family for the rest of his life.

Tallapoosa, Haralson County 1890
From Vanishing Georgia used with permission

In about 1865 James married Frances Foster.  They lived in Haralson County and had two children, James C. and Minnie Elizabeth.   Early in my research, descendants of James C. shared with me a story that had been passed down.  According to the story, James' wife Frances had died in childbirth and so James had taken that child, a daughter named Minnie, to her maternal grandmother to raise and then he had taken his son James C. with him and headed to Alabama. While evidence suggests that Frances did die and that Minnie was raised by her grandmother and that James C. remained with his father, James W. actually did not go to Alabama until nearly 30 years later. (I will tell Minnie's story at a later time.)   In about 1875,  James W. married Nancy E. Ayers in Haralson County, Georgia.  No children were ever born to this union.  On January 5th, 1897, Nancy died and was buried in the Fairview West Missionary Baptist Church Cemetery in Cullman, Alabama.  In 1897, James once again married, this time to Martha Henriettta Watterson Basinger, a widow.

February 10, 1899, James applied for relief as a confederate soldier, indicating that he was incapable of making a living by manual labor because of partial blindness and Bright's Disease.  At that time he was 58 and living at Johnson's Crossing in Cullman County, Alabama. The County board indicated that they felt satisfied to the truth of his application and his pension was approved.

On March 18, 1911, James W.  or "Jim" as John called him,  passed from this life. According to his death certificate, he was buried in Fairview West Missionary Baptist Church cemetery although no headstone has been found.

My journey in learning about James all began with the simple words, "John M. had a brother Jim that went to Alabama."  Once again I am grateful for those that took the time to record what they knew, no matter how seemingly insignificant.  It makes me ask myself, what clues am I leaving for the next generation?


Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2012