William H. Griffin, Wiregrass Jurist

William Hamilton Griffin (1853-1917)

William Hamilton Griffin was born in that part of Lowndes County, GA which was cut into Berrien County in 1856. He became a prominent public administrator and jurist of Wiregrass Georgia, and was involved in some of the most dramatic legal contests in Ray City history.

William H. Griffin

William H. Griffin

William Hamilton Griffin  was born July 18, 1853, on his father’s plantation, located in that portion of Lowndes county which is now included in Berrien county, GA. His honored parents, William D.and Nancy (Belote) Griffin, were also natives of Lowndes county.”

He was a cousin of Bessie Griffin, and Lester Griffin of the Connells Mill district (Georgia Militia District 1329), just west of  the Rays Mill community  (now Ray City, GA),

“The father, William D. Griffin, aided in effecting the organization of Berrien county and was its second treasurer, which office he held continuously until his death, in 1892, except one term, during the so-called -“Reconstruction” period, immediately succeeding the Civil War, when nearly all white voters were, under Federal statutes, practically disfranchised. The father was a soldier in the Confederate service during the latter part of the war and was with Johnston’s forces in the operations of the Atlanta Campaign.”

The paternal grandfather represented Brooks county in the state legislature, though his residence was on land now in Lowndes county. The great-grandfather, James Griffin, was a private soldier in the Revolutionary War.  James Griffin and Sarah Lodge Griffin were early settlers of Irwin County, GA.

William H. Griffin, the subject of this sketch, was afforded only the advantages of the common schools of his native county, the family fortunes, in common with those of most southern families, having been seriously affected by the war. He was educated in the public schools and academies at Nashville, GA. He soon developed traits of leadership and at twenty was elected clerk of the court for Berrien County, an office he held in 1874-5. From 1882 to 1885 he held of the office of Ordinary of Berrien County. While in this office he studied law, and in 1884 he was admitted to the Georgia bar. He at once began the practice of his profession at Nashville, but in 1885 he removed to Valdosta, GA.  There he formed a law partnership with Judge Benjamin F. Whittington, as Whittington & Griffin, this relation continuing for several years.

He was elected mayor of Valdosta in 1892, and served three consecutive terms. Governor William Yates Atkinson appointed him judge of the city court of Valdosta in 1897, for a term of four years, at the expiration of which he was reappointed for a like term, by Governor Allen D. Candler, and continued on the bench until 1905. During his eight years of service he tried 1,358 civil cases and 2008  criminal cases, a total of 3,866. His decisions were carried to the supreme court but 18 times and were reversed in only two cases.

In politics Judge Griffin was a Democrat, having always given that party his unqualified support. He served as mayor of Valdosta, judge of the city court, representative in the state legislature from Lowndes County, Chair of the Democratic Executive Committee of Lowndes County, and as referee in bankruptcy. His elevations to public office were a tribute to his worth and to the respect with which he was held by the community.

He was a member of the local lodge of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, and held membership in various bar associations. His chief recreations were fishing and hunting.

William H. Griffin was twice married — first, on May 18, 1879, to Margaret “Maggie” MacDonald, daughter of Dougal P. and Anna (Peeples) MacDonald, of Nashville, Berrien county. Maggie McDonald was born in 1864. Her father was listed on the 1860 roster of Levi J. Knight’s Berrien Minute Men, but he was also enumerated in Berrien County on the 1864  Census for Re-Organizing the Georgia Militia. Maggie was apparently raised by Dr. Hamilton M. Talley, as she appears in his household in Berrien County in the census of 1870. She died in 1890.

William H. Griffin was second married to Miss Carrie Abbott, of Randolph, VT, September 28, 1892. He had two children of the latter marriage—William Abbott Griffin, born in 1896, and Margaret Griffin, born in 1902. William and Carrie Griffin were members of the Methodist Episcopal church South.

William H. Griffin served as attorney for the estate of prominent Rays Mill turpentine man Robert S. Thigpen, engineering some of the largest property deals in Ray City history in the disposal of the Thigpen estate.  Thigpen’s holdings at the time of his death in 1898 included his turpentine plants and naval stores stock at Rays Mill, Naylor and Lenox, GA.

In 1899, William H. Griffin represented James Thomas Beagles, defending him for the Killing of Madison G. Pearson at Henry Harrison Knight’s store at Rays Mill (now Ray City),GA some 12 years earlier. The Beagles case was tried before Judge Augustin H. Hansell. Attorney Griffin made a most eloquent and affecting appeal in behalf of his client, Beagles, for a light sentence, and every one in the court room was moved by his strong and well-chosen words. Beagles was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to only two years incarceration.

In 1906, after his retirement from the bench Judge Griffin entered into a partnership with Hon. Elisha Peck Smith Denmark, and formed the law firm, Denmark & Griffin. E.P.S. Denmark was the husband of Mary Lane, daughter of Remer Young Lane, a Valdosta banker and one of the largest land owners in all of Lowndes County.  Of Judge Griffin, it was said that “He enjoyed the confidence, esteem and patronage of the most prominent and important people and business interests of Lowndes and adjoining counties.”

In the matter of Green Bullard’s estate, William H. Griffin was retained by William B. Shaw to represent the interests of his wife, Fannie Bullard ShawGreen Bullard was a long time resident of the Rays Mill (now Ray City) area, and  owned land out Possum Creek Road and on toward the community of Cat Creek. The Shaws wanted the estate to be administered by Fannies’ brother, Henry Needham Bullard, rather than her half-brother, William Malachi Jones.   The other side of the family was represented  by Buie & Knight in the dispute. Mallie Jones was the son of Mary Ann Knight Bullard by her first husband, William A. Jones.

Judge Griffin’s name was synonymous with integrity. He “walked uprightly, worked righteousness, and spoke the truth in his heart.” He exemplified the best ideals of the profession. He was generous-spirited, and gave liberally of praise and commendation where he thought it due.  When the first train to roll through Ray City on the Georgia & Florida Railroad arrived at Valdosta, it was Judge W. H. Griffin that gave the welcome address at the celebration.

His death occurred at his home in Valdosta, April 15, 1917, and the throng of people, including many lawyers from other counties, who attended his funeral attested strongly the esteem and love there was for him in the hearts
of those who knew him.

Obituary of William Hamilton Griffin

Obituary of William Hamilton Griffin

Post-Search Light
Apr. 19, 1917

Judge Griffin Died Sunday

Prominent Valdosta Jurist Passed Suddenly Away From Heart Trouble – Well Known Here.

    The following account appearing under a Valdosta date line in the daily press Monday will be interest to Bainbridge friends of the deceased.
     Judge Griffin was well known here, and was related to Representative E. H. Griffin, of this city.
    “Judge William H. Griffin, one of Valdosta’s prominent men and a leading south Georgia lawyer, succumbed to attack of heart failure this afternoon at 1:45 o’clock after less than an hour’s illness.  He was alone at his home when the attack came on him, members of his family being at church.  Mrs. Griffin returned home soon after he was stricken and a physician reached his side in a few minutes but was powerless to relieve his patient.
    “Judge Griffin was sixty-four years of age, an active south Georgian, and for forty years a citizen of Valdosta. He was a member of the law firm of Denmark & Griffin, and controlled a large and lucrative practice.  He was a member of the two last general assemblies of Georgia and exerted a strong but conservative influence in that body.  He had been judge of the city court of Valdosta, mayor of the city, member of the school board and active in the public life of this city and section, which loses one of its best citizens in his death.
     “Judge Griffin is survived by his wife and two children, a son, Mr. Abbot Griffin, and daughter, Miss Margaret.
   “His son was in Macon, where an announcement of his father’s death reached him.
    “Judge Griffin’s funeral and interment will take place here probably on Monday.”

Grave of William Hamilton Griffin, Sunset Hill Cemetery

Grave of William Hamilton Griffin, Sunset Hill Cemetery. Image source: Robert Strickland.

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Jonathan David Knight, Signer of the Georgia Constitution of 1877

Preamble to the Georgia Constitution of 1877

Preamble to the Georgia Constitution of 1877

In 1877, Georgia was emerging from the federally directed period of Reconstruction that followed the end of the Civil War.  Under the terms of Reconstruction, Georgia had adopted a new state constitution in 1868 that was distasteful to many Georgians.  Although the delegates to the 1868 State Constitutional Convention had included some antebellum Georgia political leaders, such as General Levi J. Knight, of Berrien County (subject of previous posts), many Georgia natives felt that the drafting of the Constitution of 1868 had been dominated by northern Republicans and northern sympathizers. When the Constitution of 1868 had been completed and the vote came up on the question of its adoption, General Knight was absent and did not vote.

As Reconstruction came to a close southern Democrats regained control of the state government and called for a new constitutional convention in 1877.  On July 11, 1877, 193 delegates met  in Atlanta to draft a new constitution.  Among them was Jonathan David Knight, a son of General Levi J. Knight, Confederate veteran, and the convention delegate representing Berrien, Lowndes and Clinch counties.  He was six feet tall, with fair complexion, light hair and blue eyes.

Jonathan D. Knight made his home in the Rays Mill district of Berrien County, GA, the 1144 Georgia Militia District.  When the Constitutional Convention adjourned on August 25, his signature was on the new constitution. Georgia voters ratified the new constitution in December of 1877.

When the Georgia Constitutional Convention convened on July 11, 1877 the Atlanta Constitution printed “Sketches of the Members:”

Jonathan D. Knight   

 Jonathan David Knight, of Berrien county, was born on the 2nd day of April, 1840, in what was then Lowndes county. He is the son of Hon. Levy J. Knight, who represented the county of Lowndes in the Legislature from 1835 to 1854.
   He entered the army with the second company from his county on July 28, 1861, in the Twenty-ninth Georgia Regiment. He was elected Second Lieutenant after two months service as a private, and was, on the reorganization of the regiment in 1862, elected First Lieutenant, and soon afterwards was made Captain. He served with this rank in all the severe campaigns in the West, and was among the few were not disabled when this gallant regiment returned home at the close of the war.
    He taught school before the war, but held no civil office. After the war he was elected to the Convention of 1865, and in 1872 was elected to the Senate from the Sixth District and served four years.

Jonathan D. Knight had been educated in the common schools of the county.  William Green Avera, great educator of early Berrien County, wrote:

“Eighty percent of the age eligibles for the Civil War service were illiterates. But among all this illiteracy, a number of boys received inspiration from these early teachers that made them colossal powers in our day — in legislative, judicial, and literary circles. A few of the names are; Hon Jonathan D. Knight, a noted teacher and who served more terms in the House and Senate of the legislature of Georgia than any other man in the County (he died while Senator); Hon. Lacy E. Lastinger, a noted teacher , lawyer, and judge of the Court; Hon, W.H. Griffin, a noted teacher, lawyer, and member of the legislature, and a judge; Hon Henry B. Peeples, a successful lawyer, Judge, and senator; Hon Henry H. Knight, a successful merchant and Senator.”  – W.G. Avera, 1937

Jonathan D. Knight joined the Berrien County Minute Men, Company C, 29th Georgia Infantry Regiment, as a private on August 1, 1861. He was elected Junior Second Lieutenant of Company D, November 7, 1861. On May 7, 1862 he was elected First Lieutenant while the Berrien Minute Men were stationed at Causton’s Bluff, near Savannah. On this same date, his brother-in-law, James Aaron Knight,  enlisted at Smith’s Island and joined Berrien Minute Men Company C.

The officers election of May 7 notwithstanding, Jonathan D. Knight was made Captain on May 13, 1862   This  appointment would be officially confirmed by officers’ examination conducted July 1862 at Causton’s Bluff.

In July 1862, regimental records note Captain J. D. Knight was sick.  In a letter from Causton’s Bluff, John W. Hagan reported “The company is very sickly & dose not seem to improve. The health of the troops at this post is very bad. We have had 3 deaths in 24 hours & others expecting to die evry day.”

From November 1862 to December 8, 1862, regimental records note Jonathan D. Knight was present with the Berrien Minute Men at Camp Young and that he was “in arrest.” The records of December 8, also note that he was sick. The charge must have been minor or was dismissed, for in December he was present with the unit at Camp Clingman.

Jonathan D. Knight suffered from serious illness in 1863 and was absent sick from the unit.  In a letter home dated March 19, 1863, John Hagan, a solider of the 29th wrote, ” Capt. J. D. Knight is yet absent from the company and we are all very anxious to see him with us again. He has had a hard spel of sickness I know or he would have returned before now.”

Knight did recover and return to his unit. He was captured near Decatur, GA on July 22,1864 and held as a prisoner of war until released at Fort Delaware, DE on June 17,1865.

In 1872, the CSA veteran was nominated for State Senator. Under the terms of Reconstruction, this was the first post-war free election of state officers in Georgia.

Atlanta Daily Sun, Sep. 8, 1872 — page 2
Sixth Senatorial District
A convention of the Democrats of the above district, was held in Valdosta on the 3d inst., and Capt. J. D. Knight, of Berrien county , was nominated for State Senator.

He was elected and served for four years before serving at the Constitutional Convention in 1877.  At the conclusion of the convention, he was the 99th representative to sign the new Georgia Constitution. The 115-page constitution written by this convention was approved by the voters and went into effect December 21, 1877.  The Georgia Archives provides links to the Preamble, the Bill of Rights (Section I), and nine pages of signatures.

Signature of Jonathan David Knight, of Rays Mill, GA, on the Georgia Constitution of 1877

Signature of Jonathan David Knight, of Rays Mill, GA, on the Georgia Constitution of 1877

Jonathan D. Knight born April 2, 1840, died March 9, 1884. He was buried in Old Town Cemetery, Milltown, Ga. (now Lakeland, Lanier County, GA.)

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The Grand Jury of 1868, Berrien County, Georgia