T'was the morning before Christmas and throughout the town of Rockledge, Georgia, people were scurrying about making last minute preparations for Ole Saint Nick. The day was December 24, 1910. What follows is a story of a tragedy. No one there that day is alive to tell the truth about the story I am about to tell. Witnesses, hearsay hearers, and townsfolk differed as to what really happened and who was truthfully and legally to blame. Townsfolk still differ.
There was trouble in Rockledge, big trouble. One town marshal after another was tucking his tail between his legs and running away. Many blamed the three Thigpen brothers, Claude, Tella, and John, as incessant instigators who were known to have bullied and clubbed former marshal Autry, just the week before. It was alleged that the trio made life miserable for the town's lawmen and forced them to leave town in short order. Claude had been seriously wounded during a violent disagreement with a Mr. Grier only some three months earlier. Rockledge's city leaders hired one Thomas Lee Rastus "Ras" Raffield, known to have been a man with no fear, to stop the rowdiness and bring peace back to the town by cleaning out all of the troublemakers before Christmas. Raffield, also known as Erastus E. Raffield, rushed back from Savannah to accept the mission to restore peace in Rockledge.
It was a Saturday morning. Blustery north winds bowed the bare hardwood branches. Evergreen pines swayed as a cold weather front approached just in time for the much desired chilly Christmas. There is a story, still told by many in the Thigpen family, that Martha Thigpen begged her three sons not to go into town that day or to at least eat their lunch first before they went looking for trouble. One of her boys responded by stating that they may soon be eating their lunch in Hell.
Marshal Ras Raffield, on his first full day on the job, was making his rounds. The Thigpens approached the intrepid Raffield and told him in no uncertain terms to leave the town immediately. Tempers temporarily boiled. Tensions soon dissipated. The quarreling quartet parted ways, albeit momentarily.
As he was standing on the platform at the Macon, Dublin, and Savannah Railroad depot, Raffield noticed Claude Thigpen at the top of the steps. Thigpen was engaged in a loud confrontation with a Negro man, whom Thigpen claimed owed him a much disputed debt. Eyewitnesses stated that Thigpen was badgering the man. Raffield, a lifelong carpenter by trade, approached the men and asked Thigpen to leave and go home. He threatened to arrest Thigpen if he failed to comply with his orders.
Thigpen made a sudden move. Raffield attempted to arrest the twenty-four-year-old Claude by grabbing him by the arm. A melee ensued. Thigpen, according to witnesses at the scene, reached for his pistol. Raffield pushed Claude Thigpen from the platform, a flat fall of four to five feet. Thigpen came up from the ground firing his pistol. Raffield fired back simultaneously. Thigpen's first shot nicked Raffield's left pinkie finger. Raffield's first was more effective, striking Thigpen in his neck. Though the bullet lodged in his back and severed his spine, Claude managed to fire a second time.
As the commotion crescendoed, Claude's brothers, John and Tella "Tal" Thigpen, rushed to the scene, only to find their brother staring into the clearing noon day sky, bleeding, lying on the still wet ground, and writhing only from his chest up. Both brothers opened fire. Tal was ten feet from Claude, firing up at Raffield. John ran up the steps and straight toward Raffield. The 31-year-0ld marshal fired back. Raffield's first shot instantly and mortally wounded Tal, a fortnight shy of his 22nd birthday. Raffield, turning in one quick and smooth motion, stopped John dead in his tracks with his second shot. Witnesses reported that John, a thirty-four-year-old Free and Accepted Mason, cried out that he had been killed as he was falling to the ground. There were reports that during the fracas, Raffield suffered a second wound in his left arm.
When a fourth brother, James, heard of what was happening, he started looking for his gun. His wife Mattie, not wanting another funeral to attend, hid her husband's pistol in the loft of the house, recalled their grandson Jimmy Thigpen as he repeated the account of the tragedy.
Raffield, oblivious to his bleeding wounds, made his way into the depot office to reload his gun. After pulling himself together, Raffield left the depot and went to telegraph Laurens County sheriff James J. Flanders of what had just happened. Raffield told the sheriff to come to Rockledge and place him under arrest. Flanders came down in his automobile and took the shuddering marshal back to Dublin. Fearing for Raffield's safety in the jail, Sheriff Flanders decided to place the marshal under guard and not in a jail cell. On the day after Christmas, a member of the Thigpen family came before a Justice of the Peace and swore out a warrant against Raffield for the murder of his kinsmen.
Raffield issued a statement that he was sorry that the circumstances were such as to force him into the action he took. But, he maintained he shot in self defense while in the performance of his duty as a marshal. A commitment hearing was scheduled on Tuesday, December 27. Judge K.J. Hawkins granted a two-day continuance. On Thursday, the prosecution once again announced it was not ready to proceed. Claude Thigpen was still lingering near death. Dr. Williams, the physician attending Mr. Thigpen and also an eyewitness to the tragedy, was unable to come to court due his attendance to Thigpen's impending mortal wounds. Other witnesses could not be secured for the hearing. Judge Hawkins, after hearing arguments from the lawyers for the defendant and the state, ruled that there were enough witnesses present to present sufficient evidence that the defendant should or should not be bound over for trial for the murders of the John and Tal Thigpen. The state's attorney, fearing that he did not have enough evidence to meet the legal standards and in light of strong public sentiment in favor of Raffield, voluntarily dismissed the case. No new charges were filed against Raffield and no trial was ever had to determine exactly what happened that Christmas Eve morning in Rockledge. Raffield rejoined his wife Eugenia and their children in hopes of salvaging some semblance of Christmas.
The bodies of Tal and John were carried to the Thigpen home where they were washed and cleaned on a kitchen table. "That table remained in the family of their sister Shelly for many years," Jimmy Thigpen remembered. Shelly Thigpen Beacham always had a cloth over the table to cover the blood stains, but never the memories, of her dead brothers.
The event cast a pall over the Rockledge community. Claude Thigpen died on December 29th in an Augusta hospital, just three weeks before his 25th birthday. Ras Raffield never returned to his duties in Rockledge. The three Thigpen brothers, who ironically lost their lives in accomplishing their purported goal of running another marshal out of Rockledge, were buried a little over a mile south of town in the hallowed burying ground of Mt. Zion Methodist Church. Surrounded by the immortal remains of family, friends and loved ones, their granite obelisks, crowned with draped urns, stand high into the air in a sanctuary where they sleep free from pain, grief, and anxious fear.
L-R: Claude, Tal and John Thigpen
Mount Zion Methodist Church Cemetery
Lena Graham, of nearby Lollie, Georgia, composed a touching poem about her dear departed friend, John A. Thigpen, a married man and father of two sons, Laron and James. Mrs. Graham wrote:
He is gone but not forgotten,
Never will his memory fade;
Sweetest thoughts will ever linger
Around the grave where he was laid.
A precious one from us has gone,
A voice we loved is stilled;
A place is vacant in our heart
Which never can be filled.
All is said within our dwelling
Lonely are our hearts today;
For the one we loved so dearly
Has forever passed away
It is sad to part with loved ones,
And so hard to see them die;
But we hope some day to meet him
In that home beyond the sky.
‘Tis hard to break the tender chord,
When love has bound the heart;
‘Tis hard, so hard, to speak the word:
We must forever part.
Farewell, dear, but not forever,
There will be a glorious day;
We will meet to part, no never,
On the resurrection morn.
Asleep in Jesus, far from thee,
Thy kindred and thy grave, maybe
But thine is still a blessed sleep,
From which none ever wake to weep.
Dearest, one we must lay thee
In they peaceful grave’s embrace;
Thy memory will be cherished
Till we see thy heavenly face.
Far beyond this world of changes,
Far beyond this world of care;
We hope to find our mission one
in our Father’s mansion so fair.
We hope some day his lovely form
in a glorious robe to behold;
To sing with him in the angel’s songs,
With harps of gold.
Three sons of Melancton Joseph and Martha McLendon Thigpen were dead. Seven brothers and sisters; James, Ennis, William, Joanna, Martha, Jennie, and Shelly were grieving. Joe Thipgen, said to be one of the finest men in the community, had seen his share of killing before as a corporal in the 57th Georgia Infantry in the slaughter at Baker's Creek and in the opening salvos of the Battle of Atlanta. He had seen suffering before as a guard at Andersonville prison and in a Tennessee field hospital where he and his brothers James, Richard and William watched their brother George slowly die of pneumonia. None of these horrors compared to the nightmare of losing three sons in one senseless moment of madness.
There is another story, quite unsubstantiated, in the family that Ennis Thigpen, Claude's twin brother, sought to kill Raffield for the murder of his brothers. Another story comes from an unnamed source that one of the surviving brothers decades after incident was still looking to kill Ras. The source, who has followed the case for most of his life, said that the brother went by a country store on the northeastern outskirts of Adrian and asked the storekeeper for a gun to kill the former marshal. That man refused to give Mr. Thigpen a gun. That man was Henry Thompson. That man was my grandfather.
The tragedy lasted only a few moments. The anguish endured for decades. Newspaper accounts of the tragedy, upon which this story is based, were published in newspapers around the country, even as far away as Reno, Nevada. The story has been told and retold for a hundred years. If there is anyone alive three hundred years from now, the story will still be told.
Ras Raffield, a forty-year-old son of John Winston Raffield and his wife Susan Fordham, returned to his trade as a carpenter. In 1920, Ras and his family were living on Barnard Street off Telfair Square in Savannah. He may have lived in Jenkins County in the 1930s as well. Thomas L. "Ras" Raffield died on May 31, 1938. Those who knew Raffield in his later years, knew him to a broken man following the murder. "He never was the same after that day," said Javan Garner. His body is buried in Northview Cemetery in Dublin beside his son Cordie, a World War I veteran, who died two years earlier. His obituary writer ignored his instant of infamy and simply summarized his life by stating, "Mr. Raffield was a native of Dublin and spent his entire life here. He was a carpenter and a farmer and a member of the Methodist Church." Raffield's other children, Atys, Herschel and Thomas, Jr. , moved away from Dublin.
Christmas Eve wasn't the same a century ago in Rockledge. To all it was not a good night. All was not calm. All was not bright. As the cold clear midnight came, angels with their golden harps descended through the cloven skies, through the solemn stillness, down to the mournful and frozen plain. Man, at war with man, heard not the tidings they brought to hush the noise of the men of strife. Those who believed heard the angels sing. And once again, there was peace on the Earth and good will toward men.
Post script: At twenty minutes to noon on December 24, 2010, one hundred years to the hour after the tragedy in Rockledge unfolded, my son Scotty and I returned to the scene of the moment of madness. It was indeed ironic that instead of angels flying in the sky above where the old depot once was located, there was a venue of turkey vultures circling looking for their lunch. There was no ceremony to mark the anniversary. One man was working in his yard, oblivious to what transpired exactly one hundred years ago in front of his house. Upon a visit to the Mt. Zion Cemetery, there were no flowers. Of all of the 730 plus stories I have written, this is one of my favorites. I hope you enjoyed it. Merry Christmas to all!