A Mysterious Death and Burial

June 17, 2019

In mid-December of 1869, a well-dressed gentleman boarded a train somewhere in Lookout Valley and headed toward Lynchburg, Virginia. He probably received VIP treatment as he was, himself, the president of a railroad--the Wills Valley line--which at that time ran 12 miles from Trenton to a junction with the Nashville and Chattanooga Railroad at Wauhatchie. The original plan for this line when it was established in 1860 was that it would eventually run from Chattanooga to north central Alabama, but the financial catastrophes of the Civil War and its aftermath had kept the railroad from expanding in 1869, although it eventually would.


The VIP train rider would have been well-dressed and, as was the custom of Southern gentlemen of his day, was carrying a large amount of cash on his person. The purpose of his trip was to see a publisher about the potential publication of a new book of stories he had written. The meeting probably went well, as the gentleman was not an unknown. As a matter of fact, he was already the author of many articles and several books of stories which had enjoyed a fair amount of success across the country. He was well-known enough that the newly successful author Samuel L. Clemens, aka Mark Twain, had cited the gentleman’s writings as one source of inspiration for his immortal characters Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn.


But, although the gentleman was in good health, was newly remarried after losing his first wife two years before, was financially comfortable for the first time in his life, and was evidently destined only for more success, he was headed for disaster. This would be his last trip alive.


On his way back home, his train made a stopover in Knoxville, where the gentleman had once lived for some years. Some men who had known him there passed his seat and noticed that the gentleman was very ill, seemingly in agony, and unable to speak. He was removed from the train, taken to a hotel and provided medical treatment. He was diagnosed with apoplexy, a favorite concept of physicians of that day when they really didn’t know what was happening.


(Photo of George Washington Harris courtesy Virginia Tech from the Mark Twain Library.)


After a few hours, he briefly regained consciousness only long enough to utter the word “poison,” then died. The money he had been known to have with him was gone and the manuscript which he was known to have with him was never found, so it seems that his final utterance may have been true, although it was never proven.


After contacting the family, his friends sent his body back to Dade County, where he was well-known, and he was buried beside his first wife in the Brock Cemetery. For reasons unknown, the grave either was never marked, although his wife has an impressive marker, or the marker was taken. Either way, the grave of the gentleman was lost for far more than 100 years as he lay at rest on a beautiful hillside in our county.


Fast forward to the year 2008, when an energetic college professor in Alabama and a group of his students researched the gentleman for some time and eventually located his gravesite. A ceremony was held and a suitable marker was placed there on 20 April of that year.


This is the story of the demise of one George Washington Harris (1814-1869) and the rest of his life was just as turbulent as the end of it. He was born in Pennsylvania but came south as a young child. He tried his hand at many professions over his life including jeweler, riverboat pilot, and farmer but was not overly successful at anything until he took up writing.


Although a Northerner by birth, he became a passionate supporter of the Southern cause prior to the Civil War. He began by writing letters to the editor and short articles laying out his opinions. He was living in Knoxville at the time, which was a very divided area with much Union sentiment among the population, so he was considered a firebrand in those days and gained a name for himself locally.


While he was farming in the Knoxville area, however, he made an acquaintance that would change his writing, his life and his fortunes. Somehow, he got to know a man named William “Sut” Miller, a local farmer and the embodiment of a certain kind of Southerner of his day: poor, uneducated, crude, combative, suspicious of anything or anyone new or different, but a strong personality and a wonderful storyteller.


Harris became fascinated with this man and based a new character on him about whom he wrote many stories and gained considerable success. He called the character Sut Lovingood and titled his only book-length set of stories and his best-known work, Sut Lovingood: Yarns Told by a Nat’ral Born Durn’d Fool.


The stories are in the heavy Appalachian dialect of that day and so are hard for us to read now, but they tell tales of a man who loved to play tricks on his neighbors and had a strong philosophy of life--even if if flew in the face of knowledge and reason. In reading the stories, it is easy to see how traces of Sut Lovingood can be found in Huckleberry Finn and other Mark Twain characters.


So, through several strange events and twists of fate, the man who created this character and lived such an interesting and varied life lies buried in our county under an impressive marker surrounded by beautiful old trees. I think he would appreciate the peace and quiet after such a turbulent life.


A brief excerpt from one of the Lovingood stories in which Harris satirizes and denigrates Abraham Lincoln, who was, of course, hated by many Southerners of the day:


“ I kotch a ole bull frog once and druv a nail through his lips inter a post, tied two rocks to his hind toes, an stuck a durnin’ needil inter his tail tu let out the misture, and left him there tu dry. I seed him two weeks arterwurds. And when I seed Ole Abe I thot

that hit were an arful retribution cun outa me and that it were the same frog, only struched a little longer.”


--Joy Odom



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