There's nothing new about gangs, they have been around as long as man has been on the Earth. The trouble is that in today's world, they are multiplying beyond our control. A century ago, most gangs were merely bands of thieves. One of the most famous gangs in our area was captured one hundred years ago last week when they tried to steal too much too often.
The stealing spree began just before Christmas 1909. First the thieves burglarized the hardware store of H.E. Barwick in Adrian. After a merry Christmas and a happy new year, the thieves decided to try again, this time hoping to pick up a few fresh pieces of Barwick's new stock. A month later, the trio broke into the office of the Central of Georgia Railroad, where they picked up a cool $250.00 in cash and a booty of goods from J.D. Hussey's store.
Emboldened by their smooth and successful stealing capers, the crooks moved down to Soperton where they cleaned out two stores, before moving up the Macon, Dublin and Savannah Railroad to Rockledge, where they snatched the cash and valuables from the express office.
Fearing that the stores in the larger towns of Adrian and Soperton were too much of a risk, the larcenists moved west up the Brewton and Pineora Railroad to the hamlet of Scott, Georgia. There they found stealing places easy to enter. After grabbing a large stash of loot in John W. Cheek's store, the bandits decided to take what cash they could find in the Bank of Scott. Much to their disappointment, they were only able to retrieve a few dozen pennies - copper cents were worth more then than now, but still relatively useless to unsatisfiable thieves.
Lovett, another small town on the northeastern margin of Laurens County, was next. The thieves robbed all they could from the store of Dick Hardaway. Inexplicably, the looters adopted a new modus operandi by torching the buildings they had just burglarized. Sadly, when Hardaway's store was reduced to ashes, the flames also destroyed the town's Masonic Lodge.
The bandit's binge began to climax in the early morning of April 13, 1910. About half past two in the morning, insomniac residents of Brewton saw flames raging from the store operated by Charles Keen and owned by Mrs. John L. Keen. Nothing could be done by bystanders but to watch the conflagration as it unfolded. Keen's Store, valued at $2600.00, was insufficiently covered by a thousand-dollar policy. Additionally, Dr. W.C. Sessoms, who rented a place in the back of the store, suffered a total uninsured loss of his books, instruments and medicines.
Warren Carter, a leading citizen of Scott, Georgia, decided to take matters into his own hands by beginning his own investigation of the gang's crime spree. Carter, believing that the burning of Keen's store was a coverup to yet another burglary, went out to look after his stock. He found that one of his horses was covered with sweat along with other signs of over exertion in the past few hours, although it was later reported that Carter's stolen horse was found wandering in the woods.
Carter followed the trail of the horse's tracks toward the home of one Berry Bartley. Confident that they had found the villain, Carter confronted Bartley as he was working in his field. The captor refused Bartley's repeated requests to allow him to return to his home to change out of his work clothes. Carter took his captive to the nearest constable for surveillance.
It wasn't long before suspicions were directed toward Will Burton and Tom Cannon as accomplices of Bartley. Both of the suspects were immediately arrested.
A thorough search of Bartley's home revealed a virtual "box car load of goods." Investigators identified goods from the stores of Barwick, Carter, and Keen. A missing gun from the Bank of Scott was found hidden among the booty. Stacked neatly in the cache was an arsenal of pistols, Winchester rifles and assorted firearms.
With a mountain of incontrovertible evidence before them, Burton and Cannon quickly confessed to five burglaries. The duo admitted that Keen's store burned but maintained that the fire resulted from an accidental overturning of a kerosene lamp. Bartley remained staunchly defiant and refused to speak. The ring leader pleaded innocent stating that he was merely storing the goods for friends. Officers questioned Burton and Cannon about additional accomplices, a fact which they admitted to, but refused to disclose their identities.
Marshal George Granger charged all three men with arson and robbery. The marshal escorted the prisoners to Wrightsville, where they were immediately thrown into jail.
A hasty commitment hearing was held by Justice of the Peace Thomas L. Harris. Bartley, despite his earlier claims of innocence, joined his associates and plead guilty to the charges before them. Justice Harris confounded prosecutors and lawmen by sentencing all three defendants on the spot to twelve months of hard labor on the chain gang. Harris' sentence was surprisingly light in view of the fact of the number of burglaries which the prisoners admitted to.
A dispute arose between officials in Johnson County and Laurens County. Sheriff Flanders thought it was improper for Justice Harris to sentence the men on a lesser charge when a more grave offense had been committed upon the property of Laurens County residents. Flanders traveled to Wrightsville to retrieve his prisoners, but was told that they would remain in the care of Johnson County until their sentences were served.
Justice of the Peace Harris did allow Laurens County's court system the right to deal with the men after their other kind of gang experience, the chain gang, was over. The prisoners were sent to the Court of Ordinary where Judge Wiggins put them under the direction of Captain Kemp in his camp in the eastern part of the county.
The convicts did not spend the rest of their lives in jail like the majority of the people in the area thought they should. Within ten years, Berry Bartley was back on his farm in Emanuel County. Sound familiar? In case you didn't get it, that was an editorial comment.