We family history buffs spend most of our travel time and money trying to walk the paths our ancestors took. We want to see where they were born, where they lived, where they fought and where they are buried.
But would we want to stand in the spot where the jury foreman rendered the “guilty” verdict and recommendation for life in prison? Yep, that’s exactly what my husband and I had in mind when we boldly said we wanted to walk where John Whiddon had walked and stand where he had stood.
We made one of those long-planned “let’s see where it all happened” trips back to Fort Gaines, Ga. His Grandpa Whiddon was tried in 1891 and found guilty of murder. It was a strange story with a happy ending — Grandpa John’s attorney filed for a new trial, at which point the district attorney agreed with the defense: “The verdict was strongly and decidedly against the weight of evidence and that the verdict of the jury was contrary to law.” That’s legalese for John’s verdict was wrong, and he was set free.
We arrived in Clay County expecting to find a modern courthouse but hoping we’d at least be able to see where the old courthouse was back in the 19th century. Well, little has changed in Clay County since 1891— and that includes the courthouse.
We marched boldly through the front door and back into time. Of course, we drew lots of attention without even saying a word. Everyone in the building knew we “weren’t from there.” But the clerk of the court was a very friendly sort and wasn’t even aghast when we told her we were there to see where Grandpa Whiddon had been found guilty of murder.
She marched us right up the creaky old wooden stairs and into the pristine courtroom, complete with multiple fireplaces that had heated the place and the same white wooden benches on which Grandpa John, and probably the entire population of Fort Gaines, sat in 1891.
Was she sure this was the exact room, the exact bench, the exact “everything” from 1891? Yep, they only had one courtroom in this one courthouse — it had to be the place.
It was just one of those times when you had to stand still, close your eyes, take a deep breath and use your best imagination — as if any of us ever could — about one of those really important things in an ancestor’s life.
By the way, Grandpa Whiddon really was a good man who had been wrongly convicted. He actually had lived across the river from Clay County, Ga., in Henry County, Ala. So on that early November 1891 day when he was freed, he probably rode very quickly across the river bridge to his home. There, over the next 54 years, he lived as a much-respected farmer, county commissioner, and co-founder and trustee of a local bank.
The summer isn’t over; you still have time to hit the road and explore the paths your ancestors walked. It’s a much more fun and rich experience than trying to do family history in front of a computer.
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Any chance your ancestors stopped in Tennessee long enough to leave a family Bible? The Tennessee State Library and Archives has digitized more than 1,500 family Bibles, accessible at http://tnsos.net/TSLA/Bibleproject. Those conducting slave research should check this site, as the archives make special note that some records include the names of family slaves.
Sharon Tate Moody is a board-certified genealogist. Send your genealogical methodology questions and event announcements to her at firstname.lastname@example.org. She regrets she is unable to assist with personal research and cannot respond to requests for locating or researching individuals. Past Heritage Hunting columns are available online at tbo.com, search words “Sharon Tate Moody.”