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Wilkes County, Georgia Newspaper Accounts

Record of a Trial in Wilkes County,
Georgia, in 1779.
Nine Men Who Took Sides With the
British Against Their Country
Summarily Put to Death

From the Memphis Commercial.
   The stress of war and pillage has its effect on courts of justice, and the records of a trial in Wilkes county, Georgia, in 1779, is a curious reminiscence of the crude justice of those days. At that time was in the hands of the British, and raiding parties of tories and Indians distressed the interior counties as far up as Augusta. Smarting under the depredations of the raiders and incensed by the murderous onslaught of the Creek Indians, the people have a short shift to the murderers when caught.

But even in those pioneer settlements the dignity of law was respected and offenders were tried with due formality and ceremony. But however dignified and solemn the proceedings, they were simple, direct and speedy. Nine persons who were sentenced the last week of August were hanged on the 3d and 6th of September. The charge against most of them was treason, and against some murder, while against others it was horse stealing, "hog stealing" and murder.

C. E. SMITH of Washington, Wilkes county, Georgia, sends The Commercial a manuscript of the records of the trial, with some interesting explanatory remarks. He writes: "The minute book is in a fair state of preservation. The paper is about such as was used in the south during the late war, and the book is bound in untanned hogskin."

The proceedings of this court, which in those days tried, convicted and sentenced to death nine tories, began on the 25th day of August, 1779, at the house of Jacob McLENDON, in Wilkes county, about thirteen miles from Heard's Fort, now Washington. Mr. SMITH says that the council had fled from Augusta and established the state government for a short time in Wilkes county, about six miles north of the site of Washington, and that Stephen HEARD, mentioned as foreman of the grand jury, was president of the executive council of the state.

The court was held by the Hon. Williams DOWNS, Benjamin CATCHINGS and Absalem BEDELL, assistant judges of the county aforesaid.

After appointing Henry MANAANE clerk, Joseph Scott RIDEN sheriff, and John DOOLY state's attorney, the court adjourned till the next day. Thursday, when on reconvening at an early hour it ordered eight esquires and eight gentlemen, besides the foreman, to be sworn in as grand jurors. The list includes George WALTON, a signer of the declaration of independence, and Stephen HEARD, the chief executive of the state. Here it is in full:

Grand Jurors
Stephen HEARD,
Barnard HEARD,
George WALTON,
Thomas CARTER,
Richard AYCOCK,
Robert DAY,
Dyonistus OLIVE.
Holman FREEMAN, Sr

Thomas STRAND,
William BAILEY,

After this William HARPER was appointed deputy sheriff, and the court adjourned until 4 o'clock.

In the afternoon the grand jury came in, heard the charge of the court and retired. Then began the swearing of witnesses, and Charles JORDAN, Drury ROGERS and William HENDERSON were put under oath and sent before the grand jury as witnesses against Joshua Rials. John O'NEAL, George DOOLY and Robert MORGAN were also sworn and directed to attend the grand jury as witnesses for the state against James MOBLEY. The witnesses when referred to are called "evidences."

The grand jury did its work with dispatch, and though the witnesses were not sworn until after 4 o'clock, two indictments were brought in the same afternoon. The indictments were against Joshua RIALS and James MOBLEY, and the following copies show the character of the predatory warfare practiced by the British and Indians. The indictment against Joshua RIALS was as follows:

"State of Georgia vs. Joshua RIALS, for high treason against the state aforesaid, on our oaths, do present that Joshua RIALS is guilty of high treason against this state, and that he did act in conjunction with TATE and the Creek Indians, was doing murder on the frontier of this county last March, it being contrary to all laws and good government of said state, and to the evil example of others.
        JOHN DOOLY, Attorney General.

"Evidences in behalf of the state: Charles JORDAN, Drury ROGERS, William HENDERSON, Charles JORDIN, Jr., and Abraham TILL.

"The grand jury says the above is a true bill.
        STEPHEN HEARD, Foreman."

The indictment against James MOBLEY alleges treason, but is not specific as to the nature of the offense. Instead it specifies horse and hog stealing and charges him with stealing a black horse, the property of John GARNETT in Richmond county, and with stealing "fifty-seven head of hogs," the property of Robert Morgan.

In that case the "evidences" for the state were John O'NEAL, George DOOLEY, Robert MORGAN, John LEGGETT, and Samuel LAMAR.

The prisoners were brought in, pleaded not guilty on the general issue, and were "sent to the guard from whence they came, to be brought to bar tomorrow morning as soon as court sets."

The court met the next morning at 7 o'clock and the following petit jurors were sworn:

Holman BURMAN, William BUTLER, John BURNESS, William BONIER, Henry DUKES, James WHITE, Matthew MOOR, William DANIEL, Joseph COLLINS, Jacob McLENDON, Jr., Mordica MOOR, and Robert HANNAH.

James Mobley was tried an acquitted, but he was held by the court and on Saturday Attorney General John DOOLY moved to try him again upon the ground that new evidence had been found against the prisoner. On the second trial he was found guilty and hanged six days later.

Joshua RIALS was convicted on the first trial and so were seven others. In several cases the jury which found them guilty recommended them to mercy, but the court sentenced them all to be hanged. MOBLEY on the following Friday, September 3d, and the other eight on the 6th.

John ANDERSON, charged with murder, was admitted to bail in the sum of £10,000.

The nine prisoners sentenced to death and hanged within ten days were John BENNEFIELD, James MOBLEY, Dread WILDER, Joshua RIALS, Clement YARBROUGH, Edmund DORMEY, John WATKINS, William CRUTCHFIELD, and John YOUNG.

Mr. SMITH writes of the trial:

"Jacob McLENDON's house, where the trial took place, was about thirteen miles from Washington, which was then known as Heard's Fort. The McLENDON house was in the southeastern part of the county, near Fishing creek, and about six miles east of Danburg. Washington had not then been settled or laid off, and the populous parts of the county were near the Broad and Savannah rivers. The county had neither courthouse nor jail at the time of this trial, and the prisoners had to be guarded. It was for this reason, probably, that the prisoners were allowed such a short time in which to make their preparations for death. Every able-bodied man was needed for the common defense, and the judge did not feel that they could waste the time of men who were willing to serve their country in guarding those who had sided with the British, tories and Indians, in murder, pillage and arson.

"It is noticeable that not one of the large number of persons who figured in this four days' trial had a middle name, and that witnesses were always called 'evidences'. Poor James MOBLEY was acquitted by the petit jury, but the attorney general moved for a new trial, which was granted, and MOBLEY was convicted and sentenced to hang with the rest.

"Witnesses who were to testify before the grand jury were sworn ni open court, and not by the foreman of the jury, as it is done at this time.

"It will be noticed that half of the grand jurors are written by the clerk as 'esquires' and the other half as 'gentlemen.'

Heavy bonds were required of prisoners who were not ready for trial. John ANDERSON was not ready for trial on a charge of murder, and was required to give a bond of £10,000—equal to about $50,000

"John CRUTCHFIELD, it seems, lodged a complaint before the grand jury against Colonels DOOLY and PICKENS for leading him into the British camp as a spy, but John failed to make out his case. On the 14th of February of that year CLARK, DOOLY and PICKENS had fought and won the battle of Kettle Creek, and had become so popular by reason of this important victory that no jury could be found who would question any of their official actions.

It would be interesting to know why John BENNEFIELD was executed three days before the other eight, but the judges gave no reason for it in passing the sentences. The extreme simplicity of the proceedings is striking, and to a reader at this distance, the court seems to have been organized to convict. At the same time, August 1779, the outlook for the patriots was not very hopeful, and it is not to be wondered at that this court was ready to visit speedy punishment on all who aided the British. Altogether the record of this noted trial is something unique in the history of Georgia courts."

A curious feature of the proceedings was that the grand jury found as a grievance "the running at large" of certain persons whom they suspected of giving aid and comfort to the British.

Atlanta, Georgia, The Atlanta Constitution, 22 June 1894, p. 8.

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