Poor Man Bound to Die

Bud Hillburn was bound to die.  We all are, but this troubled man had a destiny - to die with a hangman's noose around his neck, a knife in his belly or a volley of vigilante bullets in his chest and brain.  As he sat in his jail cell on New Year's Day a little over a century ago, there was no revelry, no joy, only a glimmer of hope that he wouldn't meet his maker before the winter ended.  The early years of the 20th Century were extremely violent.  In some ways they were more violent than they are today, a century later.  In the east-central Georgia area, and most of Georgia for that matter, not a week went by without a murder, aggravated assault, or a killing in self defense, whether justified or not.

It was a relatively tranquil Sunday evening in Rixville, Georgia on February 7, 1904.  Twenty-year-old Abe Durden, a son of a prominent Adrian, Georgia family, was dispatched to the small community on the Wadley Southern Railroad, south of Adrian at the intersection of the Old Savannah Road and the Adrian-Soperton Road. Durden asked Longus Durden and a young Moore boy to accompany him to serve a warrant for gambling on Bud Hillburn, known to be a notorious gambler.   The trio found their man at the home of John Ricks, about a half-mile from Rixville.

Durden approached Hillburn, first called Hillman in some newspaper accounts, and told the burly man that he had a warrant for his arrest and that he must submit to the law.  Suddenly and without any warning, Hillburn pulled his pistol, one he took from Norman Brown,  and fired it point blank into Durden's body.  Durden was able to draw his own revolver and fired three shots in self defense.  It appeared Durden's shots had little effect, though witnesses initially misstated that Hillburn's arm was broken.  Hillburn managed to get off four shots, two of them mortally striking the young bailiff in the breast and the thigh.

Emanuel County Sheriff George Frederick Flanders was summoned to the scene, but instead sent his deputy John Medlock to organize a posse to capture the fugitive assailant.  A reward of fifty dollars was issued the next day for information leading to the capture of Durden's alleged killer.  Within a day or so, Hillburn was captured in that portion of Montgomery County which is now Treutlen County.  He was found by Rance Phillips, Ebb Durden and Andrew Gillis, all members of the Rixville community. The trackers found the renegade in the loft of an old out building which was being used by some mill hands.   Hillburn discovered the approach of the trio and attempted to flee, firing shots to discourage his pursuers. Realizing that further flight was futile, an exhausted Hillburn forsook his weapon and succumbed to his captors.

On September 5, 1904, Hillburn was tried before a jury with Middle Circuit Superior Court Judge Alexander F. Daley presiding in and for the Superior Court of Emanuel County.  The outcome was never in doubt as solicitor B.T. Rawlings introduced one witness after another to seal the fate of the accused.  Hillburn's defense attorney A.F. Lee did all he could to zealously represent his client in the face of overwhelming evidence. The jury returned a verdict of guilty.  Judge Daley subsequently sentenced Hillburn to die by hanging.  Despite the fact that the defendant had just been convicted of murdering an Emanuel County law enforcement officer, there was no report of the trial in the Swainsboro Forest Blade nor any of the newspapers from the surrounding counties.

On November 21, 1904, Lee and Rawlings traveled to Atlanta to argue his appeal of Hillburn's conviction before the Supreme Court of Georgia.   The defense attorney argued that Judge Daley erred in not granting a continuance to the defense. Lee maintained that it was critical that the court compel a defense witness to testify.  It was contended that the witness would testify that it was Durden and not Hillburn who fired the first shot.   The State of Georgia countered and showed the appellate court that the witness knew nothing of the actual murder and therefore his testimony was not essential to a proper defense.  The defendant further contended that the warrant which Durden was serving on Hillburn was improper and therefore Hillburn had a right to defend himself from what he perceived as an assault against his person. The court dismissed the allegations on the grounds that there was nothing in the record of the case challenging the validity of the warrant and therefore the warrant was presumed to be valid.

Hillburn's most valid ground for a reversal was that his confession, or alleged confession, was obtained under duress.    Bud told a deputy that he had fired under his arm and not straight out, a fact contradicted by one of Hillburn's own witnesses. In writing the opinion of the court, Justice Beverly D. Evans, a former Washington County judge and attorney,  ruled that prisoner's statements were freely and voluntarily made.  Justice Evans found that despite the fact that  the accused was a Negro and at the time was a prisoner in the calaboose and surrounded by a crowd of white men,  those circumstances did not render the confession necessarily inadmissable.   The court further found that the confession should not be thrown out on the grounds that the jailer told Hillburn that he would protect him and make him comfortable if he told the truth.

Hillburn's last hope for his life depended on an appeal to the Georgia Prison Commission. In an unprecedented move, A.F. Lee omitted the normal request for a commutation of the death sentence to life in prison.  Lee asked the commission and the governor for a full pardon reiterating Hillburn's claim of self defense. Lee also asserted that it was impossible for his client to obtain a fair trial in light of the case of two Negroes, Reed and Cato, who were burned to death by a Bulloch County mob
after the two men were accused of murdering and  then burning a white family near Statesboro a month before the trial.

The commission denied Hillburn's request for liberty, and the preparations for the execution the following Friday were set in motion.  On February 3, 1905 and four days short of one year after the death of Abe Durden, A.F. Lee had one final meeting with his client.  Reverends W.H. Franklin, W.H. Miller, J.W. Young, H.H. Maze and Nelson Jones spent the morning attempting to console the condemned killer through prayer and song.
Thirty minutes before high noon, Bud Hillburn was escorted to the gallows. He was asked to sit on the steps and pose for photographers.   Hillburn weakly climbed the steps  and was asked to speak to his executioners.  He said, "I don't care to stand out in the cold wind," apparently oblivious as to his impending fate.    John W. Durden, father of young Abe, asked Hillburn if he had been persuaded to kill his son.    Without any equivocation, Hillburn said, "No sir, not a soul in the world."  He revealed that he was so drunk that he could hardly stand and that he thought it was Perry Scott who was trying to arrest him as he had tried to do so before.   Confessing to his crime in his last few moments of life, Hillburn stated that he shot but didn't know whom he was shooting.

Five ministers implored for Hillburn to pray for his soul. He refused though he did accept the offer of a last meal of beef, bread and hot coffee.   Hillburn gobbled down all he could eat in the last ten minutes of his life.  The crowd counted down the clock which soon struck twelve o'clock noon.   The hangman placed a black cap over the doomed man's head and adjusted a noose around his neck. Hillburn complained, "Don't choke me! Is my time out?  Let me go. Let me go!" Sheriff Fields sprang the trap and in a brief instant Hillburn was dead, his neck broken according to Dr. G.E. Youmans, the attending physician.

Abe Durden's death had been avenged.  Ironically had Hillburn's attorney been able to delay his execution for a few months, Durden's killer would have died not by the noose, but by the final stages of cancer, or consumption as it was called in those days.    The editors of the Forest Blade took note of the sorrowful affair and urged their readers not to let Abe Durden die in vain and stamp out the evil "blind tiger" whiskey establishments which ultimately and directly led to the young man's untimely, unfortunate and undeserved death.