by Joy Odom
Based on court records, the trial of Clarence Newton Johnson for the murder of his son-in-law, Ernest “Bill” Buffington, lasted for five or six days at least. After all the state’s witnesses for the prosecution had concluded their testimonies, Mr. Johnson was allowed to make a statement prior to the beginning of his defense.
The charge against him was murder, of course, and I suspect it was first-degree murder although this isn’t stated. Remember that first-degree murder involves premeditation, which means that the accused conceived the murder ahead of time. This will explain a good deal of Mr. Johnson’s statement. I have condensed the statement somewhat to save space, but the key elements are all there.
JUDGE AND GENTLEMEN OF THE JURY:
I am not guilty. We went to the Head River Church that day to preaching; Brother Mc Cord and my three daughters. Services was just about over with... before it was over with there was a car drove up in front of the door, ... I didn’t see it, but I heard it roaring, making an awful racket; I didn’t know who it was ...
I went out and seen the car and I didn’t see nobody...never thought about no trouble. In a few minutes...there in the yard my daughter came to me, says, Daddy are you going back with me and Bill; I said no, I will just go back with Brother McCord. And she went on to the car, got almost there.
He said Get to hell in the car if you are going with me; she turned, come back. He drove on off. I thought he was gone home and we was standing there almost ready to leave and my daughter was standing right out there from me. Bill Buffington, first time I knew he come back, grabbed her by the arm and jerked her around. Not having time to think nothing, knowing his disposition while he was drinking, I stuck my knife in him, and knowing how he was nervous... how he talked, how he had been taught to break people’s necks while he was in service, and all liquored up and drinking and so much larger, stronger looking man than I am, I don’t know how it happened. It was done so quickly.
It is interesting to note that Mr. Johnson was, himself, a veteran of World War I.
The trial records do not indicate the verdict or the sentence Mr. Johnson received but he was known to have been found guilty and served a number of years in a state prison north of Atlanta. The prison to which he was assigned, like most such institutions of that day, had farms on the premises where inmates grew food for themselves and the staff. Family lore has it that Mr. Johnson exhibited a talent for teaching farming techniques to his fellow prisoners and he became a prison trusty as a result of those efforts.
Also, because of his status, he was allowed to come home to Mentone for a period of time each year to make a crop so that his family would be taken care of. There is a family story that he once arrived back at the prison after the gates were locked for the night. He called and they gave him instructions as to where he could spend the night and he returned to the prison the next day!
Mr. Johnson was about 50 years old at the time of the murder of Bill Buffington. According to his obituary, he died on May 26, 1967, at age 71 when a tractor turned over on him as he plowed one of his fields.
Ruby Mae Johnson Buffington remarried and continued to live in the Atlanta area. Her son was evidently adopted by his stepfather and took that man’s surname. Ruby Mae and her second husband are buried in one of the national cemeteries in North Georgia. Her grandson has placed some information about the case on the Ancestry website and it appears that what he knows he has learned through other means as his grandmother refused ever to talk about this incident.
Edgar Johnson, the brother of Mrs. Buffington who came to the church with her husband that morning, who tried to get Buffington to the hospital and who testified for the prosecution at the trial, died of accidental carbon monoxide poisoning in his own car when he was only 33.
In a story that features many tragedies and ironies, the final one is this: Both Mr. Johnson and his victim are buried at Little River Cemetery near Mentone, Alabama. Although they could not live together in life, they are spending eternity a few yards from each other. Also buried there is the little girl, daughter of Ruby Mae and Bill Buffington, who had been conceived at the time of the murder, was born soon after it, and died at the age of two.
In concluding this series, I want to say thank you to two people who have personal knowledge of this event and who were willing to share what they know with me. Mrs. Verenice Hawkins is a family connection of Mr. Johnson--her father was Clarence Johnson’s first cousin--and she remembers a great deal about the incident and its outcomes.
Also, Mr. Clyde D. “Bunk” Forester, my neighbor in New Salem, was a young man at the time who had grown up at Head River and had just, himself, returned from the Navy at the time of this incident. He was playing ball near the church when it happened and heard the commotion. He knew most of the folks involved and was very helpful in providing background information.
The best historical information comes from the people who lived it and there is a lot to be learned from people who have been here a while. I am truly grateful for the contributions of
these two living historians.