Over the last years of the 1800s and the early 1900s, a number of public hangings were carried out by law enforcement agencies in Dade County. These were the result of a number of different crimes and surrounding circumstances, but I believe it would be accurate to say that none was more memorable than the execution of John Retherford, which took place on the courthouse square on 17 November 1893. In fact, I doubt that many communities ever staged a more unusual and memorable hanging.
John Retherford was a black man who was born in Twiggs County, Georgia, just southeast of Macon, on 15 February 1852. He lived in that area throughout the Civil War and would have been personally aware of some of the terrible events that took place nearby, including the Battle of Griswold where cadets from the state military academy tried to defend the area from Sherman’s marchers and were slaughtered in the attempt. His home county was one of those directly in Sherman’s path and so he would have seen some very tragic things as a teenager in that part of the state.
Probably because of the destruction and resulting poverty in Twiggs County, his father moved the family to Macon just after the war but soon thereafter he died, leaving a wife and 11 children. John was the only son. Possibly because it was hard for his mother to feed so many children in that time, he left home and began roaming around the state doing odd jobs as they became available.
In 1874, he married Ella Owens of Geneva, Ga., a hamlet just east of Columbus, but he left after only seven months due to disagreements with his in-laws. After his departure, his wife died in childbirth having delivered a girl who was brought up by those same in-laws. It is doubtful that Retherford ever saw her.
Soon after the death of his first wife, he married a recently divorced woman and settled in Jones County, again in the Macon area. It was during this time that his criminal activities began. In 1877, he and his wife apparently became involved in an interfamily row in which his wife was injured and Retherford whipped a 15-year-old male relative and broke the arm of the boy’s father with a stick. The matter went to court and was settled. Apparently, no one went to jail as a result.
After a few years, Retherford must have become restless again and he headed for Atlanta, which was already on the way back to prosperity after the war. He was lucky enough to get a job at the Kimball House Hotel, which was the hotel during that era in Atlanta. Anyone of note who came to Atlanta during this period, from opera singers to U.S. presidents, stayed at the Kimball House. According to Wikipedia, the Kimball was the public face of Reconstruction in Atlanta and one of the shining emblems of the “New South” concept which so many in Atlanta worked so hard to promote.
So for a few years, life went well for John Retherford. Then in 1883, the Kimball House burned and although it was eventually rebuilt, this took several years and Retherford had moved on in the meantime. Unfortunately, the move was downhill rather than up. In the mid-1880’s he fell in with a group of other down-and-outers and began robbing houses. While engaging in a robbery on 26 September 1886, he was apprehended by two policeman who had apparently been tipped off as to his target for the day. One of the policemen fired four shots into Retherford’s leg, but he still managed to escape and run some distance until he was caught by another policeman who was patrolling a nearby area. He was placed in the hospital and treated for his wounds but escaped again and was at large for 11 days until his recapture.
These were to be his last days of freedom. On 14 November 1886, Retherford pleaded guilty to the charge of burglary and received a sentence of 15 years. Unfortunately for him, he was sentenced at the height of a corrupt penal system in Georgia which allowed convicts to be rented out to private businesses provided some very nominal and not very well-enforced conditions were met as to their treatment and care. They were to be adequately fed, clothed and housed, and were to have medical care available on site. Some contractors met these obligations in good faith. Most didn’t.
Conditions in these contract work camps were often horrendous. Among the people who conceived and ran this system was, among other notables, the then-governor of Georgia, so there was very little appeal or recourse available to those who felt the system was wrong, and there were many.
On 31 October 1886, John Retherford was delivered to the work camp at the Rising Fawn Furnace to begin his life as a convict. All this we know from contemporary newspaper articles and from an account of Retherford’s life which he dictated to Charley Carter, son of the then-sheriff of Dade County, who guarded Retherford during the day in the county jail. Carter said the memoir consisted of 74 pages of “legal cap” paper, “a great deal of which is uninteresting.” Maybe so, but I would surely like to have had a look at it as the parts we know about are certainly not
In my next article: the hanging of John Retherford, an event which must have lived forever in the memory of anyone who experienced it.