Horace Cox and the Burning of Bank’s Mill

Horace Cox was born April 2, 1849, a son of Samuel D. Cox.  He married Sarah Ann Green on Dec 3, 1868.

In 1870 Horace Cox was enumerated in Georgia Militia District 1144, the Ray’s Mill district, in Berrien County, Georgia. Living in his household and keeping house was his wife Sarah Cox, age 16, and the 8 month old baby boy Lorenzo A. Cox.   The census taker noted Horace Cox “works in carriage shop”.  His real estate was valued at $200, and personal estate at $78.  His neighbors were the wheelwright, William J. Wilkinson, and  James H. Carroll, who before the war had been one of the wealthiest men in Berrien County.[1]

In later life, Horace Cox became a notorious man.

He was living in the Milltown, GA area in 1896 when the historic Bank’s Mill burned to the ground.

It was on Leap Day,  February 29, 1896 that the burning of Bank’s Mill was reported. The brief story ran the following day in the Atlanta Constitution.

 News was received here [Valdosta, GA] this morning of the destruction of Bank mill [sic] on Bank pond [sic], several miles above this city. The mill and ginnery caught fire from forest fires and the whole business was consumed, causing a loss of about $4,000.  Banks mill was the oldest establishment of the kind in this part of the country, having been in operation before the war and being very valuable at the time. It could not be learned whether the building was insured or not.

Banks Mill, Milltown (nka Lakeland), Georgia

Horace Cox was accused of setting the fire that burned Banks Mill. He stood trial for the crime and was acquitted.

In later litigation, S.L. Lewis would testify under oath about the character of Horace Cox: ” From the talk of the people in that neighborhood, I do not think that his character was very good; he was alleged to have burned two or three houses over there, and accusations were brought against him.” In the same legal action J.T. Asbury testified: “Have known Cox for 12 or 14 years; his general character in the neighborhood where I live is a little sort of bad; he was accused of burning houses in Milltown; he was accused of burning Bank’s gin, about a mile and a quarter from Milltown, and there was some talk that he was accused of burning the building of DeLoaches.”

Studstill added: “I have known Horace Cox since he was quite small. I do not know that I ever knew his general character there when I lived in that neighborhood, but I have heard a great deal of talk about him; he was accused of burning Bank’s mill there; he was tried for it and came clear; he was tried for burning Bank’s mill-house. I went on his bond in that case. I do not know of my own knowledge of anything against his character; it is just hearsay.”  Also testifying was J. B. Strickland: ” I have known Horace Cox a good many years. Cox’s general character in the neighborhood where he lived before he moved to his present place was pretty bad.”

Accusations of arson would continue to follow Horace Cox in Clinch County.

In April of 1896, Horace Cox brought a suit of libel against 110 citizens of Clinch and Berrien counties, and the Valdosta Times, “alleging that he has been damaged in the sum of $50,000, by reason of certain alleged false and defamatory publications of and concerning him, contained in certain resolutions published in the Valdosta Times…”

The Atlanta Constitution reported it with a Brunswick, Ga., April 6, 1896. dateline:

 SUIT FOR $50,000 DAMAGES

Brought Against  110 Citizens of Church [sic] County.

     Brunswick, Ga., April 6.-(Special.)-A damage suit for $50,000 brought by Horace Cox, of Clinch county, against J. B. Strickland, one hundred and ten citizens of Clinch county and the Valdosta Times Publishing Company, for alleged libel committed June 19, 1894, to be tried at Clinch county court this term, is set for a hearing on April 13th.  By reason of the prominence and number of the persons involved, the peculiar nature of the libel charged, being committed, the liability of a newspaper for publishing a damaging card under the head of “advertisement,” and other minor acts connected therewith, the case is attracting unusual interest and will attract the attention of hundreds of relatives and friends of the defendants as well as publishers and the public generally.

    In brief the petitioner, Horace Cox, claims that the following named persons J.W. Powell, C. C. Bridges, W. JJ. Tomberling, H. N. McWhite, James Browning,  J. J. Grooms, John King, John B.  Tomilson, E. D. Williams, J. Browning, L. Johnson, J. Wilcox, M. Eddy, C.C. Hannah, J. Rodgers, J. Jerold, March Brown,  F. M. Bradford, C. M. Sharp, Bea Sirmans, Lewis Browning, R. L. Bradford, M. Love, J. B. Bradford, R. Brogdan, J. M. Moore, H. J. Bridges, H. R. Bridges, F. S. Thornton, C.S. Vining,  J. B. Strickland, B. McEddy, Robert Jackson, J. S. Sirmans, M. T. Tomilson, L. H. Howell, Moses Smith, J. S. Moore, M. D. Fiveash, H. H. Smith, V. Tomilson, W. E. Smith, J. M. Williams, L.F. Siler, A. M. Tomilson, E. M. Williams, S. Harris, B. Fender, Alfred Brogdon, C. W. Cameron, Isaac Sirmans, Joe Browning, S. Wilcox, J. P. Fiveash, R. L. Reeves, B. S. Hannah, P. McKnight, V. Cooper, E. Long, M. Sirmans,  H. H. Gruss, M. T. Tullis, E. L. Roberts, William Browning, L. T Pafford, J. M. Wilson, C. M. D. Howell, W. Fanner, Ben Smith, W. J. Knight, A. H. Mathews, J. D. Corbett, W. M. Bridges. G. B. Conine, J. F. Pafford, M. Phillips, W. T. Howell, B. L. Thornton, D. J. Connie, B. J. Giddings, J. E. Sirmans, P. J. Giddings, P. Williams, J. L. Anderson, M. Tomilson, J. F. Simans,  H. L. Langford, G. J. Smith, J.W. Hall, Abner Sirmans, B. B. Johnson, H. H. Jackson, F. B. Simmons, R. R> Howell, and S. C. Townsend, of Clinch county; C. S. Strickland, of Berrien, and The Valdosta Times Publishing Company, of Lowndes county, signed a false and malicious set of resolutions which were published in The Valdosta Times under the head of “Advertisement,”  which damaged him some $50,000 worth. The resolutions referred to were offered, adopted and signed at a mass meeting of indignant people under the direction of State Senator F. B. Sirmans, who assembled in Clinch county on June 19, 1894, to take action in regard to an incendiary fire which destroyed the ginhouse of Citizen Strickland.

    They stated, in substance, that the object of the meeting was to eradicate an evil existing in the community, said evil being the first clandestine burning of property that had occurred in the community; that the citizens felt thoroughly outraged and were firmly of the opinion that Horace Cox was either directly or indirectly connected with the fire, because Cox had been accused of numerous cases of like nature in Berrien county, from where he came, and because of strong circumstantial evidence in the Clinch county case. The signers pledged themselves to abstain from violence in the Cox case, and stated that they were acting free from malice or prejudice, but with a view to protecting the property of themselves and neighbors they asked that Cox’s employer remove him from his premises, as he was obnoxious and detrimental to them in the highest degree, also that they would hold their patronage from him until Cox was removed. A clause was also added to furnish Cox with a copy of the resolutions.

    After these resolutions were passed and published Cox did not leave the county but instead employed counsel and entered suit against the signers and participants for $50,000 damages. He alleges in this suit that the mass meeting was at the instigation of Strickland, a business rival, who lives in Berrien county near him, and that Strickland aided and abetted in passing the resolutions from business and personal enmity, but did not sign them alleging non-residence in Clinch county as his reasons, thus expecting to escape any possible damage suit, but that he was really the prime mover in it all and was acting through malice in his efforts to hold Cox up to public hatred, contempt and ridicule.

    Cox admits the “freedom of the press” but denies the right of any publisher to private person to insert or allow to be inserted into papers, statements which are libelous, even though they be under the head of “advertisement.” Cox’s petition concludes with a complete denial of the charges against him and also asks for a judgment in the sum named.

    In answer to this the defendants plead complete justification and the case is liable to draw a big crowd to the trial. Cox’s attorneys are Meyers & Hitch, of Waycross, while the defendants are represented by Attorneys Denmark of Valdosta, and Brantley of Brunswick.

    Judge Sweat being disqualified from presiding by reason of relation to some of the defendants, a visiting judge will preside.

One of the signers, Cawley Strickland, was a previous victim of an arsonist that struck in Milltown, Ga. in the spring of 1886:

 Fire in Berrien County.
Atlanta Constitution . Apr 14, 1886.

Nashville, Ga., April 13. -{Special}-On Saturday morning, a little after midnight the gin house of Cawley Strickland, of Milltown, in the eastern portion of the county, was discovered to be on fire, the work of an Incendiary, as the fire was in the upper story and roof when discovered. There was in the gin house a 12-horse power engine, three long cotton gins, and one short, 1 sixteen horse boiler,  one thousand bushels of cotton seed – all a total loss. Insurance $2,000, loss about $3,000. The flames reached the academy and Masonic hall, a large and commodious building, which was also entirely consumed, with contents, save the Masonic furniture.

The lawsuit Cox vs. Strickland, et al.  was a drawn-out and dramatic affair that went all the way to the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia and involved some of the most prestigious legal talent in the state.  Among the scandalous testimony was the statement of John King about  “a conversation between himself and one Burkhalter, in which conversation Burkhalter offered to procure for defendants a witness who would swear anything they desired him to swear.”

Because of several errors in the first trial the decision was reversed and the case went back to the lower courts.

The  lawsuit continued into Superior Court in 1903:

HE SUES FOR $50,000 DAMAGES

Horace Cox Brings Suit for Defamation of Character.

    Quitman, Ga., April 22. -(Special.)- One of the cases on docket for the May term of the superior court, which will convene in a few days is the suit of Horace Cox versus J.B. Strickland and others for damages in the sum of $50,000 for defamation of character. The prosecution claims that Strickland and about a hundred others, who are made parties to the suit, promulgated a set of resolutions reflection on his character and caused them to be published in The Valdosta Times, which is also made a party to the suit.  By these allegations, which he says are untrue, he claims to be damaged to the amount named. The resolutions are said to have been drawn in 1894 and were signed by some of the most prominent men in Clinch county, one of them being state senator at the time.  The attorneys for the plaintiff are Hon. C. M. Hitch, of  Atlanta; Hitch & Moyers,  S. F. Burkhalter and S. S. Bennet, and those for the defense are W. S. Humphreys, Denmark & Ashley and Congressman Brantley.

    With such legal talent on both sides the trial is looked forward to with much interest here as well as in Lowndes and Clinch counties.

By 1904 the case made its way to the Southern Circuit of the Supreme Court of Georgia.

Horace Cox died March 27, 1922.

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