Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

FUGITIVES FROM A GEORGIA CHAIN GANG


The Wyatts Return to Justice

If you were a convict in the first half of the Twentieth Century, you would not want to be sentenced to hard labor in a chain gang.  They were designed that way.  The sometimes atrocious, often brutal and to many deserved punishment tactics were intended as a deterrent to men behaving badly.   But when passion and greed swell in the minds of men, thoughts of punishment for their acts is all but forgotten.  This is the story of two men, convicted of a heinous crime in lower Laurens County, who were  sent to a chain gang, only to escape, and as they began to grow old, surrendered themselves to face the punishment they so richly deserved.

It was around the end of June 1918, when Frank Wyatt, Mitch Wyatt and Jim Fulford, with killing on their minds, set out to find their victim .  The three Wheeler County men, forcefully enlisted the aid of three Negro accomplices as they sought out one Howard  Snell, a man of limited mental ability,  had just moved to Wheeler County and lived below Glenwood.  From time to time, he did some work for the twenty-four year old Fulford.   The Wyatts and Fulford drove their car to Snell’s house, where they duped him out of his house and then forcibly kidnaped him.  The culprits drove under the cover of darkness to the sparsely populated lower edge of Laurens County before performing their despicable deed.

The assailants drove off the main road and made their way to a small swamp near Ed Evans’ store.  Snell’s hands were bound, probably by the unwilling members of the party.  Snell, knowing that his mortal fate was eminent, begged for permission to pray.  As he knelt down, Snell placed his head on a fallen log and committed his soul to his Savior.  Suddenly, the base of his skull was smashed and Snell rolled over.  Not satisfied with such a vicious blow, another of the assailants placed a gun to the dead, or dying, man’s head and pulled the trigger sending the bullet clean through the victim’s skull.  The corpse was dragged into a creek and left to the scavengers of the swamp.

Several days later a trusty convict working with a road crew found the grossly decomposed remains.   Investigators could not determine the identity of the victim, but were able to find a lodge card on his body.  They traced the card to a fraternal lodge in Waycross.  Lodge officials told the lawmen that Snell had recently moved to Glenwood.  Snell’s wife was contacted and confirmed that her husband had been missing for some time.  Eventually one of the accomplices was arrested.   Upon an intense interrogation, the man revealed that it was Frank and Mitch Wyatt along with Fulford who were the main participants in the murder.

Laurens County coroner J.C. Donaldson held an inquest to the determine the circumstances of death of Howard Snell.    The jury found that Snell had met death at the hands of Frank Wyatt, Mitch Wyatt and Jim Fulford.  The trio was brought before Judge Jule B. Greene for a commitment trial.  Judge Greene bound them over for trial along with two of their Negro accessories George Royal and George Wyatt.    When a turmoil began to arise a week before the trial, the men were taken to the jail in Macon for safekeeping.  

A the trial on August 31, 1918, the Negroes confessed and became the state’s prime witnesses against the three white defendants.   In what was described as “one of the most sensational cases in Laurens County history,” the defendants were convicted by the all white male jury.  Their life in prison convictions were upheld by the Supreme Court without a formal opinion on their attorney’s  enumerations of error on the part of the trial court.  The Wyatts and Fulford were sent back to their home county and placed in the hands of the Wheeler County convict camp.

Nearly two years after the murder on June 17, 1920, the convicted felons managed to procure some files and filed off their chains.  Once they were free to move about normally, they stole the convict boss’s clothes, grabbed some rifles and ammunition and vanished into the night.    A large posse was formed, but no trace of the fugitives was ever found, that is until seventeen years later.

Jim Fulford, aka Jim Tompkins,  met his mortal fate in 1923, when he was killed, allegedly by Frank Wyatt, aka Frank Jackson,  in Louisiana. After three bitterly contested trials, Wyatt was found not guilty of killing one of his coconspirators.   Prosecutors in Louisiana had no knowledge that Wyatt and the victim were fugitives from Georgia. Wyatt was released to resume a normal life as a carpenter.  

By 1937 Frank Wyatt was seventy three years old.   With his conscience tormenting his mind, the elder Wyatt surrendered to the Monroe sheriff.  The younger Wyatt, resisting a voluntary confession, had to be forcibly arrested.  Eventually both men expressed their willingness to return to Georgia to prove their innocence.  The men maintained they were framed by “a Negro moonshiner and a white man” for the crime and that it was actually Fulford who did the killing. 

Laurens County sheriff I.F. Coleman was in his office when a long distance phone call came in on July 18, 1937.  It was the sheriff in Monroe, Louisiana telling the startled lawman that he had two of his  fugitives in his jail.  Sheriff Coleman contacted the governor’s office to initiate extradition proceedings.  The Wyatts assented to the request and hired an attorney to prove their innocence.   

But too much time had elapsed and the fugitives were never able to prove their innocence.  The duo spent the rest of their lives in the penal system, paying the price for their crimes.

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