An Altering Altercation
For thousands of years men have fought and died for real estate, the right to live on it, the right to own it and the right to control it. A century ago one such battle took place. It was all over the right to own six hundred acres of land valued at a mere three dollars an acre. This is a story of one such fight, which resulted in two deaths and the alteration of a county line.
J. Letcher Tyre was a prominent Laurens County timberman and saw mill operator. Herschel Tarbutton, Gus Tarbutton and Joe Fluker were all prominent young men in Washington County and were well known in Johnson County, which upon his creation divided Laurens and Washington counties.
During the early decades of the 20th Century, prime timberlands were much in demand, especially tracts with a mixture of hardwoods and pines. Letcher Tyre had contracted with a Mr. Young to purchase a six hundred acre tract at the far limits of the northern end of Laurens County on the eastern side of the Oconee River. Tyre executed what was once called a "bond for title," whereby he would pay Young on an installment basis and take fee simple title only upon the completion of all payments due. According to Young, Tyre defaulted in the payment schedule. Owing to his desire to remove to South Georgia, Young sought out another buyer, one Herschel Tarbutton of Washington County.
That's when the trouble began.
Tyre maintained that he had a superior right to ownership and possession of the land and proceeded to conduct logging operations. He hired a crew of hands to erect a saw mill on the site. Gus Tarbutton had three of Tyre's men arrested for trespassing. The trial was continued until the November term of court. Tyre set out to do a little squirrel hunting on a fair skied cool November Saturday morning.
A Mr. Waters' son rode to Joe Fluker's house and told Fluker that Tyre and his men were building shacks on the land and were going to move in a boiler later in the day. Tarbutton called for his brother Gus and brother-in-law Fluker to ride out to investigate the goings on. When the trio arrived on the scene, Lee Woodum, one of Tyre's saw mill hands, was sent to find Tyre. Tyre rushed back to the saw mill site and promptly asked the horsemen, "What can I do for you?" According to some witnesses, Herschel Tarbutton began to move around Tyre in a counterclockwise direction, while Gus and Joe moved clockwise to Tyre's right. "I would not do that on my own premises," Tyre warned. "That's a damned lie! You are not on your own place," Herschel Tarbutton retorted. Tarbutton pulled his .44 caliber pistol and fired it directly into Tyre's abdomen. Gus Tarbutton got down off his horse. Some of those present testified that both Gus and Joe fired. But, it was Herschel's shot that hit the mark, entering his stomach and traveling completely through Tyre's body. Tyre managed to grab his squirrel gun and get off one shot, a direct hit in Herschel Tarbutton's right eye. Gus Tarbutton ran off into the woods.
Letcher Tyre, with the aid of his crew, struggled and made it to the neighboring Waters' house, while Gus and Joe begged Tyre's men to take their wounded comrade to a doctor. Tyre's brother, J.B. Tyre, was summoned to his brother's side. He found his dying brother in a conscious condition. Letcher began to speak to those around. Realizing that his death was eminent, Tyre issued a dying declaration that the Tarbuttons and Fluker refused his demands for mercy and instead showed absolute determination to kill him. Tyre died later in the evening. His body lies buried in the old section of the cemetery at Bethlehem Baptist Church.
Herschel Tarbutton was carried to the sanitarium of Dr. Rawlings in Sandersville, where he died the next day. Tarbutton also told his doctors and interrogators that he was the first to be shot. In the midst of the excitement following the incident, many Laurens Countians believed that Tarbutton had not actually died. Rumor had it that a dummy was inserted into his coffin and that Tarbutton was secreted to a hiding place. To contradict the rampant rumors, Sandersville police chief L.J. Blount issued a sworn statement in the presence of Laurens County Judge of the Court of Ordinary W.A. Wood declaring that he had observed Tarbutton's death, helped to dress his body and watched as it was buried in the Sandersville cemetery. Other reputable Sandersville citizens came forward to sustain Blount's statement, including two physicians, the chief nurse of the hospital, both the Baptist and Methodist ministers, the clerk of court and the postmaster.
News of the affair spread rapidly throughout the home counties of the participants. Laurens County Sheriff John D. Prince rode over to Sandersville to arrest Gus Tarbutton and Joe Fluker. The two surrendered and were taken back to Laurens County to stand trial.
With the aid of C.G. Rawlings, Tarbutton and Fluker assembled perhaps the greatest league of defense attorneys ever to appear in a Laurens County courtroom. His leading attorneys were A.F. Daley and J.L. Kent of Wrightsville, both of whom would become judges of the Dublin Judicial Circuit. G.H. Howard and J.E. Hyman of Sandersville were also brought in on the case. T.L. Griner and J.S. Adams of Dublin joined the defense team to handle matters in the courts in Dublin. The heaviest hitter of all was Thomas W. Hardwick. Hardwick was serving in the United States Congress and was one of Georgia's most popular young politicians. Hardwick later went on to become a United States Senator and Governor of Georgia. He lived for a few short years in Dublin, where he owned and edited the Dublin Courier Herald. Representing the State of Georgia was a smaller, but equally impressive lineup of barristers. Led by solicitor-general Joseph Pottle, the prosecution team was led by Thomas E. Watson, former Populist congressman and future Democratic Senator from Georgia, along with Peyton Wade, future Chief Justice of the Georgia Court of Appeals and J.B. Hicks of Dublin. The chief assistant defense counsel in the early stages of the court proceedings was Kenrick J. Hawkins, of Dublin. Seven years later Hawkins became the first judge of the Dublin Judicial Circuit.
Tarbutton and Fluker's initial court appearance came before Dublin District Justice of the Peace, Judge John B. Wolfe. The defense attorneys objected to the case being heard by Judge Wolfe, who was deferred to a three-justice panel composed of Nathan Gilbert (Burgamy District), P.E. Grinstead (Reedy Springs District) and John S. Drew, Jr. (Oconee District). With an army of lawyers in place, the legal wrangling began.
Part 2 of 2
On November 26, a commitment trial was held in the Laurens County Courthouse. Dr. W.R. Brigham took the stand first and testified that the fatal shot was fired from an elevated position. The justices found there was sufficient evidence to bind Messers Tarbutton and Fluker over for a trial on murder charges. T.L. Griner attempted to discredit Lee Woodum's testimony concerning the Tarbutton's instigation of the violence by showing that B.B. Linder, the deceased brother-in-law, gave Woodum a script to testify from. The attorneys clashed in a bitter battle over the issue of whether or not Tyre's field hand's testimony had been rehearsed or even paid for.
From the very beginning, defense attorneys attempted to show that the venue of the trial should not be in Laurens County, but in Johnson County where the crime actually happened. W.D. Howell testified that he had lived in the Kittrell community for forty years and Tyre was indeed shot in Laurens County. J.B. Tyre took the stand next and testified that his brother told him that the defendants had killed him. Defense attorney Griner was able to get Tyre to admit that Dr. Brigham was not present and that he was alone at the time of his accusation. He concluded his testimony by relating what his brother told him about the events of that fateful afternoon. He told the justices that his brother told his antagonists that they could settle the matter without trouble. Tyre, under an intense cross-examination, finally admitted that his brother never told him that Gus or Joe shot him. C.S. Pope's testimony of a conspiracy was ruled inadmissable.
After the prosecution rested, Gus Tarbutton took the stand in his own defense. He testified that as he and Herschel rode up, Tyre, with his shotgun in his hand, declared, "Who do you want to see?" Gus told the justices that Tyre fired at him, striking his horse. He went on to say that Tyre then fired six or seven shots at his brother Herschel, eventually striking him. He said that Herschel moved back behind them and the gut shot Tyre asked him for a drink of water. Gus said that he told Tyre if he would put down his gun that he would get him something to drink. He then said that his uncle Joe told him that "your brother is shot all to pieces." Joe Fluker repeated, almost exactly, the testimony of his nephew Gus. After the Tarbutton's left the scene, Fluker told the court that he went back and retrieved Herschel's bloodstained hat, which he described as having twenty shot holes in it.
J.J. Lord rebutted Tarbutton and Fluker's testimony by stating that he heard two or three pistol shots and then the report of a shotgun, followed by ten to twelve more pistol shots from his position about a half mile away. He continued to state that he rode to the site of the shooting on Sunday morning and found multiple bullets all over the place and only two empty shot gun shells. On cross examination Lord admitted he found only one empty pistol shell and the two shot gun shells he found were loaded. Lord's brother, H.H. Lord, repeated his testimony. James Brown told the justices that he was a mile away and heard two pistol shots, then a shot gun blast and then seven or eight more shots.
Believing that the justices would grant them bail, they never introduced any evidence on their part. The justices denied a bond for bail. On the following Monday, Judge Lewis granted a bond of twenty thousand dollars, which was immediately posted by a group of their friends with a combined net worth of more than a million dollars. The freed men took the first train out of town to Wrightsville.
A trial was set for February 4, 1907. Defense attorneys moved for a continuance on multiple grounds. It was asserted that E.P. Woods could testify that it was only Herschel Tarbutton who fired the fatal shot. The defense lawyers maintained they could not locate a crucial prosecution witness, Lee Woodum. The state's attorneys maintained that he was available and had been in the presence of the parties just days before the trial. With such a large number of attorneys involved in the case, their entire presence was almost impossible. Congressman T.W. Hardwick was in attendance of a session of Congress. A.F. Daley maintained he had a severe cold and could not last a day, much less the length of an entire trial. The court granted the delay based on the continuance more on the fact that there was a reasonable ground to allow the defense to move forward with its contention that the killing actually occurred in Johnson County.
Governor Joseph M. Terrell appointed L.W. Roberts, an Atlanta Civil Engineer, who was hired to determine the true location of the line dividing Laurens and Johnson counties. With very scant evidence at hand, Roberts, considered one of the best surveyors in Georgia, set out to mark the line which had been established by the Georgia legislature in 1857, some fifty years earlier. The act creating Johnson County provided that the county line would begin on the eastern bank of the Oconee River, opposite the mouth of Big Sandy Creek and then in an easterly direction to the ford at Fort's Creek on the Buckeye Road. From that point the line was to turn in a southeasterly direction to a point a mile south of Snell's Bridge on the Little Ohoopee River. The initial map of Johnson County was of no value. The official map of Laurens County was not much better. Roberts did manage to locate seventy-year-old J.F. Mixon of Johnson County, who was one of the men who carried the surveyor's chains back in 1857. Mixon accompanied him to the area and pointed out the old lines.
In mid July, Georgia Secretary of State Phil Cook upheld Robert's report. Roberts calculated that the line in the Kittrell community was a little further south than where it was thought to have been and consequently, Tyre was shot in Johnson, and not Laurens County. But more changes were found. When all was said and done, Johnson County gained eight hundred acres and lost three hundred acres and ten families to Laurens County for a net gain of five hundred acres. Laurens County hired attorney M.H. Blackshear to protest the surveyor's findings, but to no avail. Ironically, questions over the true location of the county line continued for at least six more decades.
The case was removed to Johnson County for trial. But with a more sympathetic Solicitor General, no trial of Gus Tarbutton or Joe Fluker ever took place. Nearly two decades later, an interesting postscript took place in Johnson County. On February 17, 1925, Gus Tarbutton was walking through the woods along the Oconee River, not too far from the location where he, his brother and his uncle had confronted Letcher Tyre. In his company was one J.J. Tanner, the overseer of Mr. C.G. Rawlings. Tarbutton and Rawlings were business partners in a mineral rights venture in the area. Each took out life insurance policies on their partner's lives. Based primarily on the testimony of my great-great uncle Noah Covington, Jr., Tanner was convicted of killing Tarbutton. His conviction was upheld and Tanner was sentenced to life in prison. In a sense, Letcher Tyre reached out of his grave and got the revenge his brother so desperately sought. This time a man had to die over money, albeit the massive sum of two hundred thousand dollars. The Apostle Paul was right, "the love of money is the root of all evil."