Officer Down: The Untimely Death of Dr. James Russell Brock

July 2, 2019

 

The Atlanta Federal Penitentiary is a massive and imposing structure located on the southeast side of the city of Atlanta. It was built in 1902 to house the most dangerous and depraved criminals our nation has produced. Many with familiar names have been housed there at one time including Carlo Ponzi, inventor of the financial scheme named after him which is designed to defraud investors, and gangster Al Capone.

 

In a place of honor near the entrance to the prison is a large granite monument which was raised to honor employees of the U.S. prison system who were killed in the line of duty. I suspect that it would be a surprise to most Dade Countians to know that the first name on the memorial is that of Dr. James Russell Brock, who was born and raised here, the son of one of Dade’s most prominent families.

 

Dr. Brock was the grandson of Benjamin Brock, the first of that family who moved to Dade County almost as soon as the Cherokees were driven from this area in the late 1830s. It was Benjamin Brock who built the house on Creek Road which is now known to most locals as the Vice house for its more recent owners, and who established the Brock Cemetery where so many of that family have since been buried.

 

Dr. Brock was the eldest son of Dr. William Eaton Brock, who practiced medicine for years in this county and was able to give his son a fine medical education. In the 1880s James Russell Brock attended both the Atlanta Medical College, which no longer exists, as well as Emory University Medical School, which is still considered one of the finest medical training schools in the country.

 

The Dade newspapers of the early 1900s are filled with stories of Dr. Brock and his treatment of local patients. There were outbreaks of typhoid and measles among the locals, and his opinions as to the seriousness of the crises and the prospects for the patients’ recoveries were often mentioned. This is no doubt due partly to the fact that Dr. Brock was one of only two doctors in town at that time and partly to the fact that his brother, Benjamin T. Brock, was publisher of the newspaper in which Brock affairs were regularly covered.

 

(Photo of Dr. Brock from the Federal Bureau of Prisons website)

 

There are a couple of stories about Dr. Brock that I’d like to know more about but, so far, have had no luck in finding the desired information. Sometime around the turn of the century, according to the Chattanooga newspaper of the day, he donated an alligator to the zoo in that city. No information is provided as to how he came by the alligator and, since they are not exactly common in this vicinity, I think there must be a story there, but, so far, I haven’t found it.

 

Dr. Brock was also in the middle of a Dade County mystery of long ago that is still unsolved as far as I can determine. In July of 1904, a 17 year-old young lady named Sarah “Sallie” Cameron, daughter of Dan Cameron, was left alone at her home on Sand Mountain while her family attended church nearby. When they returned home, they found her dead of a gunshot wound. Despite a great deal of talk, the death was ruled a suicide and she was buried in Brown’s Gap Cemetery.

 

When the next session of the Grand Jury met that September, the jury ordered that her body be exhumed and the designation of her death be re-examined as a potential case of murder. Their reasons for this demand were not stated, but Dr. Brock and Dr. Middleton, the two local physicians in town at that time, were ordered to carry out this task and then make a full report of their findings to the “proper authorities.” I am sure they did so, but I have been unable to find the outcome of this undertaking in any county newspapers or records. S, poor Miss Cameron’s death remains a matter of question.

 

After some years of practicing community medicine, Dr. Brock became the physician for the Rising Fawn prison camp and it appears that this widened his interests from the strict pursuit of medicine. He ran for and served one term in the Georgia State Senate as representative for this area and made his mark as to the proposed legislation of that day.

 

Dr. Brock was very much a man of his time and of his place. His service occurred during the period when Southern states were making determined and mostly successful moves to roll back the rights that had been conferred on black people following the Civil War. He was strongly in favor of removing their right to vote and supported other restrictions on their lives during these beginnings of the Jim Crow era.

 

He was also an avid supporter of the convict leasing system then in place in many Southern states and a contributing factor in the then-booming economy of Dade County. Through this system, created and supported by some of the most prominent state officials of the day, convicts were leased to local companies or corporations to work in their establishments. The only requirements were that the prisoners be fed and clothed and receive some medical attention. Outside these regulations, which were often ignored with impunity, the state pretty much turned a blind eye to how the prisoners were treated. Many sickened and died in the camps or were horribly injured.

 

Although it is amazing to think about this in our times, no less prominent people than Joseph E. Brown, the Civil War governor of Georgia and a powerful force in the state for long afterwards, as well as John B. Gordon, who had won so much admiration as one of Robert E. Lee’s most able officers during the war and who came to live in Dade afterward and operate mines on Sand Mountain, were associated with the convict leasing system which Dr. Brock supported. According to newspapers of the day, there were some 867 convicts at work in Dade County at the time of Dr. Brock’s service in the state legislature.

 

Following his one term as a lawmaker, Dr. Brock returned to Dade but increasingly changed his focus from medicine to law enforcement. Around 1910, he was named Chief Deputy U.S. Marshal for the Northern District of Georgia and served in that role, still practicing medicine on a smaller scale, until May 1, 1917, when he was named by the Federal Bureau of Prisons as Deputy Warden at the still-new Atlanta Federal Penitentiary and his medical career ended once and for all. He became a full-time prison administrator.

 

His time at the prison was short. It appeared that he had difficulties with at least one prisoner as he wrote to his son in general terms about the situation. On 27 December 1917, at about 7:45 a.m., Dr. Brock was standing on duty during the prisoners’ breakfast period when a Bulgarian national, a counterfeiter named Dmitri Popoff, approached him from behind and hit him with a heavy lead pipe which he had hidden within his clothing, crushing Dr. Brock’s skull. The doctor collapsed without making a sound and never recovered consciousness although he lived for a few hours after the attack.

 

Herein lies the last mystery surrounding Dr. Brock’s life: Popoff refused to give a reason for the attack, saying only that it was “a personal matter.” A rumor which circulated in Atlanta indicated that he had once asked Dr. Brock to post a letter for him and Dr. Brock refused. I am sure that Popoff was probably tried and executed for this murder, but have been unable to confirm this.

 

Dr. Brock’s body was shipped home by train, first arriving at Chattanooga and then on to Trenton. A large funeral service was held with a host of locals as well as a number of dignitaries from the capitol in attendance. Dr. Brock was buried in the family cemetery on the side of Lookout Mountain soon after the onset of the new year of 1918.

 

 

And so ends the story of a Dade Countian whose name is engraved at the top of the memorial to members of federal law enforcement killed in the line of duty in U.S. federal prisons.

 

--Joy Odom

hujodom149@gmail.com

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