The Head River Baptist Church was and is a beautiful, isolated place of worship on Lookout Mountain that seems to radiate peace and tranquility. But there was at least one day in its history when it descended into tragedy and chaos that resulted not only in the loss of one life but in grave harm to many others.
No one seems to know exactly when the Head River Church was organized, but it appears to have come about when the community also started a school, in the late 1800s. A post office was established nearby in 1913 in a store owned and operated by Mr. J.M. Forester. The Foresters were among the first to settle at Head River along with Rosses, Johnsons, Everetts, Flaritys and other folks with very familiar Lookout Mountain names.
On Sunday, 20 April 1946, by all accounts a beautiful spring day, members of many of these families gathered at the Head River Church for morning services. Among those in attendance was Clarence Newton Johnson, a father and grandfather, 50 years old, who lived at nearby Mentone, Alabama. With him were his daughters Pearline, about 20, and, Ruby Mae, 25, and her young son. Ruby and her husband, Ernest “Bill” Buffington, and the boy lived in Cobb County and had come to Mentone to visit her family for the weekend. Apparently, she decided to attend church services at Head River as part of the visit. The church had no regular minister at the time and the speaker for the day, a family friend of the Johnsons, seems to have been “trying out” for that role, so perhaps it would have been considered an interesting day to attend church.
According to witnesses who would later testify at the resulting trial, a short time before services let out, a car was heard pulling up outside the church and remaining there, idling loudly enough to disturb services for a while. In the car were Ernest “Bill” Buffington, Edgar Johnson, his wife’s teenage brother, and perhaps another man although this is disputed in the trial testimony.
Bill Buffington was, by all accounts, a very troubled soul. He had only recently returned from service with the Marines in the Pacific and seems to have had a significant case of PTSD, as we call it today. In his day, it was called “battle fatigue” and soldiers who exhibited symptoms were not likely to be looked upon with understanding or compassion but rather with contempt for their supposed cowardice.
Evidently, Mr. Buffington was not coping well. He had been in some terrible fighting in the South Pacific and had seen things that he was unable to handle. Testimony at trial indicated that he was sleeping very little and using alcohol to cope with this stress. The result was strife at home. Mr. Johnson, his wife’s father, seemed to be very upset about his daughter’s situation. All these factors, and maybe more, led to the day’s tragedy.
It’s a mystery how Bill Buffington and his wife met, as they seemed to live in totally different parts of the world in their youths. Bill was born at Gillsville, Georgia, in Hall County near Gainesville. He had one sibling named Ford. Their father must have died or otherwise departed when they were very young. In 1930, when Bill and Ford were only twelve and ten, respectively, they lived with their mother, her parents and their mother’s new husband, a Mr. Hamilton, at Gillsville. By 1940, they had all moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and, somewhere along the way. Bill met Ruby Mae Johnson of Mentone. No testimony was elicited at the trial as to how the marriage worked before the war, but after Bill returned, things appear to have gone sour very quickly due to the problems he brought home with him.
After initially driving up to the front of the church, Bill moved his car back out onto the roadway and waited until the service was over. When he saw the congregation begin to leave the church, he drove back to the front of the church, went up the steps to the door and, according to witnesses, got his little boy and settled the child in his car. The congregation was exiting the church, standing and visiting there and in the church yard as church congregations everywhere seem to do. Mr. Buffington moved his car closer again, got out, and approached his wife.
He asked her if she was going with him. She answered “yes” and indicated that her father would be riding with them, as well. Some witnesses, who were standing closer than others, thought they heard him tell her to “Get to hell in the car.” He took his wife by the arm, asked his father-in-law, who had just approached the couple, if he was ready to leave and began to move toward the car. At that moment, his father-in-law, Clarence Newton Johnson, pulled a knife from his pocket and, without a word, stabbed Buffington in the abdomen. The latter grabbed his stomach and said, “He stabbed me!” He then began moving toward his car with his wife following in great distress.
Next time: The trial and the aftermath