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Shoot Out in Sandersville

    At the end of the 19th century, my father's branch of the Roughton family was centered around Riddlesville in Washington County.  Descendants of George Washington Roughton, the brother of Albert Levin Roughton, my 2d great grandfather, remained close to Enoch Roughton's original homestead outside of Sandersville, as did the descendants of Enoch's other son, Zachariah. 

    In the years after the Civil War, Sandersville seems to have been a wide-open town, if credence is to be given the history of Miss Ella Mitchell, a high school teacher in Washington County from 1882 to 1924.  Shortly before she retired, a regional council of school superintendents asked each Georgia county to produce a history for use in the high schools.  Miss Mitchell undertook that task for Washington County.  Her tome, History of Washington County, Georgia (Cherokee Publishing Co. Atlanta 1973 ISBN 0-87797-026-2) is a prim digest of Washington County's history. 

    Miss Mitchell was squarely of the temperance school of public policy and does not fail to editorialize her view.  Writing in the midst of Prohibition, she appears serenely unaware of the massive lawbreaking and outright mayhem to which the Great Experiment has led.  She  writes in her history that "[t]here is much to say in contradiction of those who claim that our country is not improved by the Prohibition Law."  Confidence in this assertion, of course, depends upon one's distance from those places - like Chicago's Southside - that were not improved by the Prohibition Law.

    In any event, she recalls that "groggeries" had inhabited every cross-roads prior to the Civil War "and at each one occurred some of the most atrocious crimes listed in any catalogue, most frequent of which were cold blooded murders."  A temperance movement on the eve of the Civil War swept over Washington County and seemingly put an end to this depravity.

    While the grog-shops had disappeared, Miss Mitchell notes ruefully that the barrooms remained.  "It was a hindrance to everything uplifting.  Murders were frequent.  In the towns, street duels and sometimes free-for-all fights occurred."  These murders, which seemingly occurred with a depressing and sickening frequency in a county of but a few thousand souls - most of whom toiled from sunrise to sunset with but scant hours left over to pursue manslaughtering recreation - seem to have moved from the ante bellum cross-roads to the Reconstruction-era town centers.   Fortunately, before the county was entirely de-populated by drink-induced homicidal rage, a great crusade made Washington County dry, as Miss Mitchell notes glowingly in her concluding words on this dark chapter of Washington County's history. 

    There is reason to suspect that Miss Mitchell, who certainly intended well, nevertheless exaggerated the evils of drink before Washington County went dry.  For entirely absent from her history of Washington County is the one whisky-related event that must surely have impressed itself upon the memories of all those living in Sandersville at the time it transpired.  That event was exactly the stuff of Miss Mitchell's portrait of the "wet" Sandersville: a murderous gunfight in broad daylight in the center of town.  More striking, the fracas was between the scions of two of Sandersville's most respected families and resulted from the illegal sale of alcohol by one and the thin skin of the other.  Whether Miss Mitchell omits its mention out of discretion for the feelings of the families involved, which I think the likely reason, or because she believed it to work against her temperance brief I do not know; but, the event was nonetheless an extraordinary one because of its public display of violence by otherwise upright citizens whose acts were probably aggravated by family rivalries.

    One of the leaders in the post-war temperance movement was my distant cousin Bradford E. Roughton, the son of Zachariah Roughton.  B. E. Roughton, as he seems to have been known, was a business man.  He operated a drug store and produce business.  From 1889 to 1893, he was mayor of Sandersville.

    B.E. was married to Lavinia Rawlings.  The Rawlings family was also prominent in Washington County.  Her brother, Dr. William Rawlings, was a well known surgeon who established a sanitarium in Sandersville that became a sort of southern Mayo Clinic, a place which he had, in fact,  visited several times.  (To this day, the Rawlings family continues to produce physicians, one of whom also pursues a writing career.)  Another brother, Ben T. Rawlings, became a judge of the superior court and a mayor of Sandersville.  He plays a minor role in the drama to follow.  Lavinia had two other brothers, Fred Rawlings, a principal in this sad story, and C. G. Rawlings, with whom B. E. Roughton had had some business dealings that went bad.  Feelings ran high over these deals and contributed to the catastrophe of July 15, 1893.

    The trouble between the Roughtons and the Rawlings seems to have arisen from (or been made worse by) a real estate deal.  The dispute between the two was fought all the way to the Georgia Supreme Court, which found in favor of B. E. Roughton.  The facts of the case, as set out by the court and which B. E. Roughton did not dispute, are revealing and hint at possible estrangement within the Rawlings family. 

    As described by the court, there was an oral agreement between Roughton and C. G. Rawlings to purchase and divide a city lot lying between their respective residences:

 The petition as amended alleged that one Jordan, as executor of Mrs. Pittman, sold at public outcry to the highest bidder for cash, in March, 1890, as the property of the testatrix, a certain described town lot of land, when the same was knocked off to Roughton for $395. The lot lies between the dwelling lot of petitioner [i.e. C. G. Rawlings] and the residence lot of Roughton, petitioner having bought the dwelling and lot where he now resides on the same day said lot was sold, and in consequence both petitioner and Roughton wanted the same. In view of this fact petitioner and Roughton came to an understanding and agreement whereby one or the other of them was to bid off said lot when it was sold, for them jointly, and then divide the same between themselves, Roughton taking the half of the lot next to his dwelling. In pursuance of this agreement, petitioner, relying thereon and relying on Roughton to buy the lot for petitioner and himself, did not bid on it, there being no agreement between [***2] them not to bid against each other, but to bid on the lot for the joint account of both. Roughton did bid off the lot and took the deed to the whole lot to himself individually, from the executor. When the lot was knocked off to Roughton, petitioner immediately approached the executor who sold it, in the presence and hearing of Roughton, and requested him to make a deed to petitioner to one half of the lot and to Roughton to the other half. The executor replied that he advertised and sold the lot as a whole, and would make a deed to the entire lot to Roughton, as he had bid it off, and then let him make a deed to petitioner to the half to which petitioner was entitled, if this would be agreeable to petitioner and Roughton. To this Roughton readily assented, and the deed to the whole lot was made to him with the distinct understanding that he was to convey to petitioner the half of the lot next to petitioner's residence. Petitioner tendered to Roughton, on the day after the sale, and at the very first opportunity, one half the price at which he bid off the lot at the sale, and requested him to convey to petitioner one half next to petitioner's lot, when he replied that he was not to [***3] make the deed to petitioner until petitioner was married and living there, which petitioner denies was the agreement.

    B. E. Roughton "demurred" to this recitation of the facts of the transaction, which means that he did not contest the facts as C. G. Rawlings recounted them, but simply claimed those facts did not provide Rawlings with legal reason for the court to divide the disputed property between them according to their oral agreement.  The Georgia Supreme Court agreed and gave judgment to B. E. Roughton on familiar principles of contract law (there had been no written contract and Rawlings had not given Roughton any money for a joint bid at the auction).

    While B. E. Roughton was correct in his legal position, the facts to which he demurred do not cast him in a flattering light, belying as they do a sharpness in his business dealings and suggesting a finger-wagging tendency in his personality. 

    Still, I wonder about the role in this affair of Lavinia Rawlings, Bradford's wife and C. G.'s sister.  Was it she who insisted for some reason upon her brother's marriage and domesticity as a condition of splitting the property?  After all, on the day of the auction, Bradford was willing to honor his word to his brother-in-law and he readily agreed to convey half of the lot the following day.  It was only after returning home for the evening that he announced a change of heart.  Had his wife prevailed upon him to renege on the oral agreement with C. G.?

    In passing, note that B. E. Roughton was a litigious person.  No fewer than three Georgia Supreme Court cases involve him as a litigant (aside from this case, see also, Brown v. Roughton, 118 S.E. 557 (GA. S. Ct 1923); Roughton v. Roughton, 173 S.E. 673 (GA S. Ct 1934))Three cases before the supreme court of one's state is an unusual circumstance in any time.  He did, however, pick his legal fights well: he prevailed in all cases.  Nevertheless, his sharp dealing with his brother-in law helped to set the stage for the tragic confrontation that followed. 

    The events in question here were set in motion by a cousin of the Rawlings.  J. F. Rawlings, the cousin, ran a grocery store in Sandersville and was operating a "blind tiger" out of the store.  Fred Rawlings, the brother of C. G. Rawlings and cousin of J. F., reportedly had an interest in this clandestine and illegal whiskey business (although the extent of the interest is disputed).  (The term "blind tiger" came from the coded invitation to purchase illegal liquor, "Would you like to see a blind tiger?"  The blind tiger also arose from the custom of displaying stuffed tigers to alert patrons of dry counties to speakeasies or the availability of alcohol.)  The discovery of this business, coupled with the smoldering resentment between the families, and B. E. Roughton's role as a champion of temperance led to fatal consequences. 

    A local barber had bought some whiskey from a drayman at the Rawlings's grocery store.  The barber was prevailed upon, by means unknown but easily imagined, to testify against the laborer and J. F. Rawlings at a Mayor's court held on Friday, July 14, 1893.  Following the hearing, the drayman at the Rawlings's grocery store was then bound over to Superior Court for trial and a warrant issued for J. F. Rawlings's arrest.  Fred Rawlings, who was present during these proceedings, immediately took his cousin's side and left the court to tell J. F. Rawlings what was happening.

    It is not clear from the accounts if B. E. Roughton, as mayor, presided over the hearing that heard the barber's testimony.  However, according to contemporary reports, he did not preside over the hearing to bind J. F. Rawlings over to Superior Court, which seems to have been held on Saturday, July 15; that duty was left to the deputy mayor, one R. I. Harris.  At that hearing, J. F. Rawlings was represented by his cousin (and Fred Rawlings's brother), Ben T. Rawlings (the future judge of the superior court).  Ben T. Rawlings succeeded in getting his cousin a continuance until the following Tuesday.  During the proceedings, Fred Rawlings was heard to make disparaging remarks about Mayor Roughton, remarks that eventually reached the ears of Richard Palmer Roughton, younger brother of the mayor. 

    Richard Roughton was of the same age as Fred Rawlings, and the two often met socially.  Neither was known to drink or to behave irresponsibly.  Nevertheless, Richard went looking for Fred, found him and followed him to the town square where hot words were said, pistols drawn, shots exchanged at close range, and presently two young men lay dead of their wounds. 

    The town was shocked and grief-ridden.  Both men were buried soon after in sequential funerals on the same day.

    Bradford Roughton and his wife, both of whose brothers were the actors and victims of this horror, left Sandersville soon after.  Bradford opened a wholesale produce business in Macon under the name of the Roughton-Halliburton Company. 

    Around 1919, he and his wife moved to Lakeland, Florida where he continued in a produce business located on the southeast corner of Massachusetts and Pine Streets.  A new police station was constructed on this location in the 1990s.  His residence was at 822 E. Vistual Street, about two blocks from Lake Morton.  According to postings on the internet, the house is still standing.

    My cousin, the Rev. William W. Roughton (who is descended from the George Washington Roughton) tells me that an Albert King moved from Macon to be a partner in Bradford's business in Lakeland.  Some eighty years later, one of King's descendants,  Gray King, was business manager at First United Methodist Church, Ormond Beach, Florida where Philip Hugh Roughton (the son of William W. Roughton) was senior pastor.  Thus,  after many years, the King/Roughton partnership was reinstated in a different context.

Both Bradford Roughton and his wife, Lavinia, are buried in Sandersville.  Their graves are in the old cemetery across the street from the Methodist Church.  Zachariah Roughton, the father of Bradford and Richard, is also buried in that same cemetery.

Contemporary newspaper accounts of the bloodshed are here and here.  Although not overt, the newspapers' accounts of the gunfight seem to me to subtly favor one side over the other.  The Georgia Progress seems in the camp of the mayor and his family while the Sandersville Herald is noticeably more soliticitous of the Rawlings family's view of matters.

From a modern point of view, it is surprising that both men were armed within the precincts of a rural southern county seat.  However, nothing in either contemporary newspaper account suggests that the carrying of pistols by the men was in any way out of the ordinary.  In any event, their marksmanship appears poor - raising the question of whether carrying a pistol was to some extent a fashion accessory among young males.  If so, the two men, unhappily, were dressed to kill on this day, for it is unlikely that the interview would have ended fatally if the two had been at more than arm's length when the volleys were exchanged.  The weapons involved were not officially recovered; it seems that the local peace officers were not many and not so  convenient to the crime scene as to prevent the loss of evidence like the guns.  Undoubtedly, onlookers claimed the weapons and other artifacts of the gunfight as memorabilia.