When Death Came Knocking At The Door
It all started long before that fateful Friday, one hundred Aprils ago. Steve Thompkins and Ella Doston, it was said by those who knew them well, enjoyed the company of each other. Ella's sons, the Dean boys, increasingly grew tired of Thompkins and his bothersome ways, or so they said. It all ended with four people shot, one dead, one dying, and two hurting. All those who survived the fracas agreed on one thing, that there had been an argument. But, that's when the stories of what transpired began to differ.
Thompkins and his family lived very close to the widow Doston and her sons along the Laurens and Montgomery county line. It appeared the families got along well, especially John Dean and Sallie Thompkins, who were engaged to be married later in the year. There was this one time when Thompkins and his daughter's suitor got into a scrap, but all enmity between the two men appeared to have died out.
The Dean boys, Edgar, John, and Arthur, had entered into an arrangement with Thompkins to raise beef cows and equally split the profits. Thompkins showed up at the Dean house on a room-temperature, fair Friday afternoon just before sundown to discuss the division of the revenues.
Edgar Dean testified that his brother John got into a fuss about a different matter. Dean stated that Thompkins stomped off to the smokehouse, took the key, and proclaimed that he would sell the meat inside to satisfy the debt owed to him. Thompkins left the premises. All appeared to be settled, at least for the time being.
Mrs. Doston began the preparations for supper, while the boys discussed the matter most upmost at hand. After supper, the sons of the late James Dean sat around the fireplace discussing their next course of action. John Dean made a remark that he would not allow himself to be "run over that way all the time." It was at that very moment, just about 9:oo o'clock on that moonless evening, when Thompkins, standing by a window, was said to have stated, "You are liable to be run over worse than that right now."
Edgar Dean stated that Thompkins first went to the back door, but was refused admittance to the house. Edgar later stated, "I was lying down at the time that Thompkins spoke." Dean said, "I got up and put my pistol in my pocket and invited Steve Thompkins to come inside." The eldest of the Dean boys, in justifying his actions, maintained that he told John's future father-in-law to put up his gun as he did not want any trouble.
Edgar Dean swore that Thompkins came up the steps, his cocked pistol in his hand, and stated, "I come to play Woolfolk with the family." Thompkin's alleged remarks were a reference to the murder of nine members of the Woolfolk family in Bibb County a quarter of a century before in 1887. Those murders still rank today as the largest mass murder of a Georgia family.
Purportedly, Thompkins took aim at his antagonist, John T. Dean. Ella stood between the two combatants. Thompkins was frustrated at his attempts to shoot around his good friend Ella. After making some insulting remarks toward Ella, Thompkins was stated to have renewed the attack on John Dean.
Edgar Dean pulled out his pistol and fired at Thompkins, striking him in his shoulder. Thompkins, hardly disabled, returned two effective shots, hitting Edward in the chest, breaking his breast bone and a collar bone. Edgar fired back. Thompkins spun around and blasted John Dean and Ella Doston, both of whom were unarmed. John Dean was dead when he hit the floor. Mrs. Doston, struck with a mortal wound in her left lung, lay on the floor, paralyzed from the neck down.
After regaining his strength, Edgar Dean knocked Thompkins down onto the wooden floor. The two men wrestled until Edgar, with the aid of sixteen-year-old Arthur Dean, threw Thompkins onto a bed. Edgar and Arthur took Thompkins' .45 pistol and escorted him to the front porch, where they threw him over the banisters onto the ground. Shot, bruised and in no mood to continue the fight, Thompkins retreated back through the darkness to his home.
Laurens County Sheriff J.J. Flanders and Dublin City Court Sheriff, B.M. Grier were summoned to arrest Thompkins on charges of murder and attempted murder. The suspect told his captors that Edgar Dean shot him during the argument and that he went for his gun in self defense. He maintained that the Deans attempted to wrestle his pistol away from him and it was during that struggle that Edgar Dean, John Dean and Mrs. Doston were hit by unintended gunshots.
Two Fridays elapsed while Ella Doston lingered near death. On Friday, April 20, 1912, Ella Doston became the second victim of the highly regrettable incident. Edgar Dean, however, made a quick and remarkable recovery.
In those days, trials were amazingly swift. Within three weeks of the incident, Steve Thompkins stood trial before a jury on April 25. On the night before the trial, Sheriff Flanders narrowly averted an attempt to lynch Thompkins.
When street rumors of a lynching reached the courthouse, Sheriff Flanders personally took Thompkins out of the city under the cover of darkness. Flanders then announced that Thompkins was no longer in jail. Sure enough, and just as the sheriff expected, two of the suspected ringleaders of the lynchers showed up on the front porch of the jail just after it was good and dark outside. After satisfying themselves that Thompkins was not inside, the men left and made their way back to the river bridge were as many as one hundred accomplices were congregating.
Observers reported that the seventeen-year-old courthouse had never been more crowded. The highly sensational, all day trial lasted until ten o'clock in the evening, when the case was sent to the jury for deliberation. The jurors considered the evidence until midnight before being sequestrated to their hotel rooms. Within a hour of reconvening their deliberations the next morning, the jury sent word to the court that they had reached a unanimous verdict.
Thompkins was found guilty of two murders. As he heard the verdict against him, Thompkins stood motionless. The emotionless felon was sentenced by Judge Hawkins to be hanged by the neck until dead on Friday, May 24, 1912. Thompkins' attorneys immediately moved for an appeal to the Georgia Supreme Court. Had he been hung, Thompkins would have been only the second white man ever hung in Laurens County, the only other being Jackson Terry, who was convicted of murder in 1840.
After three successful challenges to his grand jury indictments, Thompkins stood trial for the fourth and final time on November 19. Fifty one defense witnesses would not alter the jury's decision as to his guilt, but the jury did find that Thompkins did not kill John Dean and Ella Doston with malice aforethought and that he should be guilty of manslaughter.
Judge Kendrick J. Hawkins excoriated the jury's decision calling the verdict as contrary to the facts of the case and one which was handed down because of sympathy for Thompkins family. Judge Hawkins cited sympathetic verdicts as the reason that Georgia had more murders and homicides in one year than any other state and more than the entire United Kingdom.
A second attempt to lynch Thompkins was thwarted just before Christmas while Thompkins was serving on the chain gang in a camp at Garetta, Georgia, near the geographic center of Laurens County.
When word came to the guards at the local prisoner of work camp that another lynching was going to be attempted, Thompkins was put aboard a train and transported to Eastman for safekeeping. The threat was real for shortly after Thompkins was put aboard the evening train, several buggies filled with revenge-seeking men descended upon the camp. The prisoner returned to the camp the following day and no further attempts to exact revenge were ever reported.
Eventually, Thompkins was moved to Telfair County to serve the remainder of his twenty year sentence.
Thus ended one of the bloodiest chapters in the history of Laurens County when death came knocking at the door.