Trial and Incarceration of James Thomas Beagles

Jame Thomas Beagles (1861-1911)

James Thomas Beagles (1861-1911)

In October of 1899, James Thomas Beagles, aka J. T. Biggles, of Rays Mill, GA sat in the Berrien County jail in Nashville.  At that time the jailhouse was a log building that had been constructed some 25 years earlier.  Beagles was being held for trial for  the 1887 killing of his brother-in-law on the steps of Henry H. Knight’s store at Rays Mill.

At that 1899 term of the Superior Court of Berrien County,   the jail where Beagles  and 11 other prisoners awaited trial was found by the Grand Jury to be in deplorable condition.

Berrien County Grand Jury, October 1899.

Berrien County Grand Jury, October 1899.

Tifton Gazette
Oct. 13, 1899 — page 1

GENERAL PRESENTMENTS

Returned by the Grand Jury, October Term, Berrien Superior Court.

     We, the Grand Jury, chosen and sworn to serve at this term of the court beg leave to submit the following General Presentments:
     We have examined the jail of our county and find it in bad sanitary condition, owing to the size and arrangement of said building, the same being entirely too small and badly arranged, prisoners having to be crowded together, male and female. We attach no fault whatever to the sheriff and jailer in charge, believing that he is doing all in his power to keep the same in order under existing circumstances. And we recommend that our Board of County Commissioners, at as early date as is expedient, build a new jail house and procure sufficient jail cells and arrange said building and cells so as to keep sexes separate and apart, as well as white and colored persons incarcerated therein, considering as we do the present jail a disgrace to the county…

Despite the findings of the Grand Jury, it would be another four years before the now historic building now known as the “old jail” was constructed.

The Berrien Superior Court convened that fall on Monday, October 9, 1899 with Judge Augustin H. Hansell presiding, and Jonathan Perry Knight acting as Clerk of the Superior Court. The docket was full that session and the judge postponed the civil cases, dismissing the witnesses, in order to get on with the trial of the criminal cases. Among the Grand Jury members were Warren L. Kennon, Henry Griffin, and Jonathan L Herring, editor of the Tifton Gazette. Silas Tygart served as clerk, and the jury members selected for their foreman, Malcolm J. McMillian.

 Ex-Senator M. J. McMillian, of Alapaha, is not an office-seeker, but the people know him to be an honorable and upright man, and insist on having his services.  He is foreman of the grand jury this week, though he hid, in an effort to escape the honor when the jury was about to make the selection.
– Ocilla Dispatch.

In addition to the charge of murder against James Thomas Beagles, the criminal docket included: Emma Reese charged with assault and attempted murder; Jim Oscar Stearns charge with the murder of Amos White; Warren G. Moss on the charge of burglary at Lenox; Allen Cooper charged with the killing of Philip Johnson at Kissemmee, FL; Rachel Thomas on counts of assault and battery; John Davis for burglary of the store of Mr. I.D. Ford; Robert Bell for simple larceny from Mr. W.M. Thurman; North Cochran for highway robbery.

The session of the superior court drew a significant crowd, and so was also prone to interruptions of every sort.

The woman “with the hoe” turned up at the last session of Berrien superior court.  She was colored, lived near Cecil, and laid open the cheek of another woman during a rucus, with that useful plantation instrument.

The attorneys arguing before the court were colorful and well-known characters of the Wiregrass judicial circuits.  Colonel Hammond, for example, was one of the prosecuting attorneys but was himself facing prosecution for shooting and wounding Colonel A. L. Hawes at Thomasville the week before.

But it was the Beagles case that generated the most interest.  The case had dragged over a decade because of the flight and subsequent return of Beagles. Beagles was defended  by Col. William Hamilton Griffin,  who was judge of the Valdosta City Court and a former mayor of Valdosta. Col. Griffin was a native of Berrien County and had served previously as clerk of the Berrien County court and as Ordinary of Berrien County.

SUPERIOR COURT IN SESSION.

Berrien’s Mills of Justice at their Semi Annual Grind.

Berrien’s superior court convened Monday morning at ten o’clock, that grey-haired veteran of the bench, Judge Aug. H. Hansell, presiding.  Besides the county bar, those of Worth, Lowndes, Thomas, Colquitt and Albany were well represented.
   The grand jury organized by electing Hon M. J. McMillan foreman and Silas Tygart clerk, and after an able and comprehensive charge from his honor, settled down to work, with a volume of business before it.

*****

Nashville, Oct. 10. – The entire day (Tuesday) in superior court has been consumed in the trial of Thos. J. Beagles for the killing of Madison G. Pearson, at the justice court grounds at Ray’s Mill, Nov. 4th, 1891.  [Note: actual date was 1887]
   Beagles had married Pearson’s sister, and to this marriage Pearson was violently opposed.  Growing out of this opposition, there was bad blood between the two for a year or more, and Pearson had threatened Beagles’ life, and gone to his home and cursed him in the presence of his wife.
    Beagles then swore out a peace warrant against his brother-in-law, on which he was arrested and gave bond for his appearance at justice court the next day.
    In the court house the row was again raised, and Pearson invited Beagles out to fight him, starting out at the door and pulling off his coat as he did so.   As Pearson was on the steps, going down, Beagles, who was standing near, drew a pistol and shot him in the side of his head, killing him instantly.
    Beagles then went to Florida, where he staid [sic] several years, and on his return was arrested and finally admitted to bail.
    Sometime ago, Beagles’ bondsmen gave him up, and he has been in jail for two months.
At the trial to-day, the state was represented by Solicitor-Gen. Thomas and Col. W. M. Hammond, while Cols. Jos. A. Alexander and W. H. Griffin represented the defendant.
    The battle has been a hard-fought one throughout the day, and every point of the evidence thoroughly sifted.  At adjournment to-night, the fight is not concluded, Cols. Thomas and Alexander having addressed the jury, while Cols. Griffin and Hammond will address them tomorrow.

*****

Oct. 11.  –  The morning session of superior court was occupied with the speeches of Cols. Griffin and Hammond on the Beagles case.  That of Col. Griffin, for the defendant, was a masterly arrangement of law and evidence in behalf of his client, and delivered in the clear, concise manner for which Col. Griffin is so well known.
    The argument of Col. Hammond was eloquent and strong, well supported by law, and his arrangement of the prisoner was scathing and masterly.  The arguments were concluded before one o’clock, and Judge Hansell delivered his charge to the jury before adjourning for dinner.

Oct. 13 … Judge 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.
   Sentences were then pronounced as follows…

J. A. Beagles, white, convicted of manslaughter, with recommendation, two years in penitentiary.

But James Thomas Beagles did not spend his two year sentence in the penitentiary.  The very same issue of the Tifton Gazette that carried the outcome of the October 1899 term of the  Superior Court of Berrien County also carried an interesting note on the convict lease system:

October 13, 1899 Tifton Gazette on the Convict Lease System

October 13, 1899 Tifton Gazette on the Convict Lease System

“There is a big boom in the value of state convicts.  Recently there has been a strong demand for the convicts, and lessees under the new system are anxious to get all the men that they can even at advanced prices”

Under the convict lease system, J. T. Beagles was sent to the convict camp at Fargo, GA.   G.S. Baxter & Company operated the convict camp at Fargo to provide labor for the firm’s large sawmill operation. The sawmill at Fargo was the largest in Clinch County, and by 1903 the State Prison System of Georgia was leasing more than 1,000 convicts to the firm. (see Connie Moore and the Fargo Convict Camp)

After serving his sentence, J. T. Beagles returned to Ray City to make his home and work.

Related Posts:

Connie Moore and the Fargo Convict Camp

Convict labor and guards in South Georgia

Convict labor and guards in South Georgia

Connie J. Moore was born about 1881 in North Carolina. It appears that his father died while he was a young child, and his mother was remarried in 1885 to Charlie Fawcett, also of North Carolina.

Some time before 1900, perhaps as early as 1885,  Charlie Fawcett moved his family to Georgia. In the census of 1900 Connie and his mother, his step-father, and half-brother, Elijah Fawcett, were enumerated in Mud Creek, Clinch County, GA. Charlie Fawcett rented a farm there, and Connie assisted his step-father with the farm labor. Shortly after that, Connie J. Moore relocated with his family from Clinch County to Rays Mill, GA.

By 1903, Moore had given up farm labor and was working as a convict guard for the the Baxter & Company’s convict camp at Fargo, GA. The G. S. Baxter & Company sawmill at Fargo was the largest in Clinch County, and the State Prison System of Georgia had leased more than 1,000 convicts to the firm under the convict lease system.  It was at the Fargo Convict Camp where James Thomas Biggles, of Rays Mill, served his sentence for the murder of Madison Pearson.

The G. S. Baxter & Company sawmill was located at Fargo on the route of the Georgia, Southern, and Florida Railroad. The GS&F opened about 1900 and ran from Macon via Valdosta to Jacksonville, FL.

According to Folks Huxford’s History of Clinch County, GA:

The building of this road opened up a new section of the county hitherto undeveloped. Almost simultaneously with the completion of the road to Jacksonville, a big saw-mill was built by Eastern capitalists on the new road where it crosses the Suwannee River. The town which grew up here was named “Fargo.” The partners in this enterprise were George S. Baxter, E. P. Long and Walton Ferguson.

The town of Fargo was laid out on the banks of the Suwannee River, and is to-day one of the most flourishing towns in the county. It has several stores, a large hotel and other establishments. The mills which are owned by G. S. Baxter & Company, are about the largest in the county.

Around Christmas of 1903, Connie Moore planned to return to his home at Rays Mill but failed to arrive in Valdosta as expected. No trace of his wherabouts could be found. In early January 1904, Francis Marion Shaw and his step-son John Levi Allen, both of Rays Mill, went searching for the missing man, travelling to Fargo, GA and retracing the route back to Valdosta. Connie’s half-brother, Elijah Fawcett worked for John L. Allen, according to later records.

CONVICT GUARD MISSING

Family and Friends of Connie Moore Fear Young Man Has Been Murdered or Accidentally Killed. He Had Money with Him.

Valdosta, Ga. January 8. -(Special.)- The family and friends of Connie J. Moore, a young man whose home is near Hay’s Mill [sic], in Berrien County are greatly distressed over his mysterious disappearance, and fear that he has either met with a fatal accident or been murdered.

The young man was employed as a convict guard at Baxter & Company’s camp at Fargo, Ga., for several months, and wrote to his parents about December 20 that he expected to return home to spend Christmas, and requesting that they have a conveyance meet him in this city. The conveyance was sent on the day appointed, but the young man failed to meet it, and a prolonged search since then has failed to find any trace of his whereabouts. Enquiry at Fargo disclosed the fact that he disappeared from there about the date on which he wrote his parents he would start for home, but no clue was obtained of the direction which he went.

Young Moore is about 22 years old and unmarried. He is a young man of exemplary habits and greatly attached to his mother, communicating with her regularly up to the date of his disappearance. He informed his employers that he would return to his duties after the holidays, and as evidence of the fact that he expected to go back to Fargo left nearly a month’s wages uncollected. It is understood that he had a considerable sum of money when he left there.

F.M. Shaw and J.L. Allen, of Berrien county, were in the city today on their return from Fargo, where they had been in an effort to secure a trace of the missing man.

What ever became of Connie J. Moore is not known.  His Fawcett family continued to live in Ray City, GA through the 1930s.

The Biggles Farm

In 1880, Needham W. Pearson deeded 80 acres of land to his daughter, Elizabeth Pearson Biggles. She was the wife of James Thomas Biggles, subject of the previous post.

James Thomas Beagles and Mary Elizabeth Pearson Beagles

James Thomas Biggles and Mary Elizabeth Pearson Biggles

About 1901, James Thomas Biggles  returned to the Rays Mill area after completing a prison term in the Fargo Convict Camp for the murder of his brother-in-law, Madison G. Pearson. Re-joining his wife, Biggles purchased an 100 acre tract, adjacent to her land,  from Eugene M. Giddens. This tract had been in the Giddens family since the early 1800s. Isbin Giddens brought his wife, Keziah, and their two young children, William and Moses Giddens from Wayne County to settle in what was then Irwin County, near the present day Ray City GA in the winter of 1824-25. Present day county lines place the land in Lanier County, about 6 miles east of Ray City and just north of Highway 129.

After the death of James Thomas Biggles in 1911, the 100 acre tract that was in his name was sold at an administrator’s sale to J. V. Talley. The 80 acre tract was sold in 1924 by the heirs of Elizabeth Pearson Biggles, following her death in 1923. About that time Dr. Reubin Nathaniel Burch acquired both the 100 acre and the 80 acre tracts from different owners. Dr. Burch sold the property about 1930 and it was eventually accquired by the Roquemore family of Lakeland, GA for turfgrass production.

More on the 1887 Family Feud at Rays Mill, GA

James Thomas Beigles

James Thomas Biggles

In the winter of 1887, a family  feud at Rays Mill, Georgia turned deadly when J.T. Biggles gunned down Madison Pearson from the porch of Henry Harrison Knight’s store.

At that time Knight’s store was  one of the few commercial establishments at Rays Mill and was a community meeting place.  The store was situated on present day Pauline Street, approximately opposite from the Ray City School.  In front of the store was an area known as the “court ground”  and the building served as the court house when there was need.   Knight’s store was also occupied by Dr. Guy Selman, one of the first doctors in the area,  and after David Ridgell departed in 1905 it was the location of the Ray’s Mill Post Office.  Henry Knight’s son-in-law, Cauley Johnson was postmaster. The building was destroyed by fire, probably in the 1940’s.

James Thomas Biggles was born in Georgia in October, 1860, a son of John Jefferson Beagles and Catherine Wright Biggles. (There was obviously some confusion over the spelling of the family name.)

Mary Elizabeth Pearson

Mary Elizabeth Pearson

J.T. married Mary Elizabeth Pearson on July 26, 1879. The ceremony was performed by Jonathan D. Knight, Notary Public.  James Thomas Biggles  appeared in the census of 1880 in District 5 of GMD#1144 as Thomas Beagle, farm laborer, age 19, with wife, Elizabeth, age 21. In the cemetery of Union Church (aka Burnt Church), next to the grave of Mary E. Biggles, stands a small headstone with the inscription “Infant of Mr. & Mrs. J.T. Biggles, Born and Died Apr. 15, 1879.”

J.T Biggles had a running feud with his brother-in-law, Madison G. Pearson.  At first Biggles tried to work through the court, but he soon took the law into his own hands and murdered Pearson before a crowd of citizens.  Biggles became a fugitive for twelve years before returning to stand trial.

The state press reported on the Murder in Berrien:

The Columbus Enquirer-Sun
Nov. 11, 1887 — page 3


Terrible Result of an Old Feud.

     Nashville, Ga., Nov. 9. – At Ray’s mill in this county, on Tuesday evening last, a dreadful encounter occurred in which M. G. Pearson was shot and instantly killed by J. T. Beagly, the cause being a family feud. It appears the parties had met to amicably settle the trouble if possible, but soon engaged in some hot words, when Pearson said to Beagly:
“Come out in the sand and we will settle the trouble.”
     They started out. Beagly drew his pistol and fired upon him as he went out, and shot him dead the first fire, then took to the swamp and has not yet been captured.

The Valdosta Times provided additional details:

The Valdosta Times
November 12, 1887

MURDER IN BERRIEN

J. T. Beigles Kills Madison G. Pearson at Ray’s Mill – A Family Feud which ends in the murder of a Brother – in- law.

Madison G. Pearson was killed by his brother-in-law, J. T. Beigles, at Ray’s Mill, in Berrien County, last Friday, the 4th, inst. A Family feud was at the bottom of the difficulty.

Beigles had married Pearson’s sister. The mother of the latter lived for sometime with her son, but a family quarrel, it seems, drove her to her daughter’s home. After she took up her abode with the Beigles family, some questions arose about the division of her small property. One report says that she willed all she had to Mrs. Beigles, and thus aroused her son’s indignation, and another rumor says that Beigles killed a beef which belonged to the Pearson estate, and that this was the cause of the trouble between the two men. At any rate there was trouble between them, and the old lady took the side of her son-in-law. Pearson, it seems, made some threats, and Beigles had him arrested under a peace warrant. Friday, the day of the tragedy, was set for a hearing before the Justice of the district, and Beigles and his wife and old Mrs. Pearson appeared at the Court ground at Ray’s Mill as witnesses. The bailiff had Madison Pearson under arrest, and the parties at interest, and about forty interested neighbors, all met at Mr. H. H. Knight’s store. Beigles’ father was among those present, and he approached Pearson about a compromise, but Pearson thought he had been greatly outraged, and freely expressed his indignation. He refused to accept the proposals made by the elder Beigles. A witness to the whole affair at the Court grounds informs us that the elder Beigles’ attitude and manner was not such as indicated any real desire for a fair compromise, and that his actions and his words were the immediate cause of the conflict, if it can be called a conflict. In reviewing the difficulty, the elder Beigles, who was standing between his son and Pearson, made some assertions which the latter vehemently denied or disputed, and the younger Beigles shouted to Pearson that he was a liar. At this Pearson, replied hotly that if Beigles would step with him to the ground from the porch upon which they stood, he would whip him, and as he spoke he sprang off at right angles from Beigles, but he struck the ground a dead man. Beigles fired at him on the spring, and the ball entered the side of the head near the left temple. Pearson doubled up as he lie fell and his head hit the ground first. He never spoke a word, and died in a few moments. Pearson had two brothers on the spot, and one ran to the dying man and the other started upon Beigles, but he met a cocked pistol in his face, and was warned to stand back, or else share the fate of his brother. Beigles kept his face to the awe-stricken crowd, pistol drawn, while his father pushed him backward some thirty feet, then he turned and they both fled. There was not a gun or pistol on the hill that could be found, and the two Beigles escaped. A pursuit was quickly organized, but they had gotten out of sight, and are yet at large. Pearson was not armed.

Pearson’s mother and sister witnessed the murder of their son and brother, so an eye witness informs us, without shedding a tear. After some little time Mrs. Pearson walked up to the dead man laying upon the ground, and stooped down and kissed him. She then rose calmly and walked away without any signs of emotion.

Thus a Justice’s court was sadly and suddenly transformed into an inquest court. The coroner lived forty miles away, and the bailiff, who held Pearson in custody as a prisoner when he was killed, summoned a jury, and the Justice, who was about to convene his court to try Pearson on a peace warrant, instead of proceeding with the trial, swore in an inquest jury to sit upon the dead body.

After swearing numerous eye witnesses the jury found that the killing was done as outlined above, that the same was willful murder; also that the elder Beigles was an accessory to the dead.

We are indebted to a neighbor of the parties, and an eyewitness to the tragedy, for the above statement of the circumstances connected directly and indirectly to the killing. All the parties were sober.

In 1899 the Valdosta reported the follow up on the trial of the Biggles case.

The Valdosta Times
October 17, 1899

BERRIEN SUPERIOR COURT. CONCLUSION OF THE BEAGLES-PEARSON CASE.

Berrien Superior Court after a four days’ session adjourned Thursday afternoon. The session was devoted entirely to criminal business, no civil cases being called. The principal case of importance was the trial of Madison G. Pearson, Nov. 4, 1887, twelve years ago as was stated in Friday’s Times.

Beagles was married to Pearson’s sister, and there had been considerable bad blood between them, culminating when Mrs. Pearson left the home of her son and went to live with her daughter, Beagles’ wife.

Pearson threatened to kill Beagles on several occasions and a few days before his death went to Beagles’ house and cursed his wife and children.

Beagles then swore out a peace warrant for Pearson, and he was arrested under it and carried to the Court House at Ray’s Mill for trial. A large crowd was on the court ground, among them Beagles, and Pearson challenged him for a fight, pulling off his coat and starting out the door as he did so. Beagles was standing on the porch of the house, within a few feet, and as Beagles stepped out fired at him, shooting him through the head, the ball entering just in front of the right ear and coming out behind the left ear, producing instant death.

Beagles skipped the country, and spent several years in Florida, returning just before his arrest. He was admitted to the bail, and staid under bond until two months ago, when his bondsman gave him up, and since that time he has remained in jail.

At his trial he was represented by Col. Joseph A. Alexander of Nashville and W. H. Griffin of Valdosta, while the state was represented by Col. W. M. Hammond of Thomasville and Solicitor General Thomas. The trial lasted a day and a half, and every inch of ground was stubbornly fought. The principal evidence against the dead man was the ante-mortem statement of his own mother, made four years ago, which was exceedingly bitter in denunciation of her son.

Six hours were spent by Cols. Griffin and Hammond in their strong and eloquent arguments of the case, and he jury remained out on it seven hours before returning a verdict of manslaughter with recommendation to mercy. Col. Griffin made a touching appeal to the court for mercy, and Judge Hansell fixed the sentence at two years in the state penitentiary.

In the U.S Census of 1900 James T. Biggles was enumerated on June 23, 1900 as a convict in the Fargo Convict Camp in the Jones Creek District of Clinch County, GA.

In 1910, the Biggles were back together in Rays Mill, GA where they were enumerated with several boarders living in their household.

James Thomas Biggles died May 11, 1911 in Ray City, Berrien County, Georgia. He was buried at Union Primitive Baptist Church Cemetery, Lakeland, GA. On his tombstone his name appears as J.T. Biggles.

Grave Marker of James Thomas Biggles, Union Church Cemetery, Lanier County, GA

Grave Marker of James Thomas Biggles, Union Church Cemetery, Lanier County, GA

Reports on the disposition of his estate were reported in the Nashville Herald:

Nashville Herald
Aug 7, 1911

Administrators Sale

Pursuant to an order of the Court of Ordinary, will be sold before the court house door in Berrien County, all the real estate belonging to J.T. Biggles, deceased, to wit: one lot in the town of Milltown, on Howell Ave., known as the H.L. Kelly lot; also ten acres of lot No. 473 in the 10th district in the southeast corner of said lot; also, 36 acres in the ? district, the last two tracts known as the Margaret Horsby lands; also, 100 acres, bounded on the west by Milltown and Nashville public road, east by Dog Branch, and lands of Jas. Johnson and Banks lands, on the north by lands of Mary E. Biggles, said tract known as land sold by E.M. Giddens to J.T. Biggles; also, lot 6 in block 32, lot 8 in block 73, lot 1 in block 69, lot 6 in block 59, lot 10 in block 48, all in the new survey in Milltown, Ga., also, one-half acre in town of Milltown bounded east by lands of M.E. Patten, south and west by lands of R.L. Patten, north by old Brunswick & Western right-of-way; also lot No. 3 in block No. 29, Roberts survey of Milltown, Ga., Sold as the property of the estate of J.T. Biggles, deceased, to pay debts and for distribution. August 7, 1911

Nashville Herald
Sept 5, 1911

Administrator’s Sale

Georgia, Berrien County. Will be sold before the court house door on the first Tuesday in October the following land: 1/2 acre of land in the town of Milltown bounded east by lands of M.E. Patten, south and west by lands of R.L. Patten, north by old Brunswick & Western right-of-way on which is situated one gin house and one barn, five double Foss gins, one short cotton gin, one conveyor, one double Monger box press, one seed conveyor and all belts and pulleys now used in the gin house. Terms cash. Sept 5, 1911. M.W. Bargeron, W.A. Biggles, Administrators of Estate of J.T. Biggles.

Mary Elizabeth Biggles died May 7, 1923. She was also buried at Union Primitive Baptist Church. Her tombstone reads, ” Mary Elizabeth Biggles, May 7, 1923, Aged 70 Yrs., A loving mother and grandmother.”

Gravemarker of Mary Elizabeth Pearson Biggles, Union Church Cemetery, Lanier County, Georgia

Gravemarker of Mary Elizabeth Pearson Biggles, Union Church Cemetery, Lanier County, Georgia