Mary Jane Smith and the Poison Pork

In the fall of 1916 Mrs. Mary Jane Smith, of Nashville, GA came to visit her daughter, Rachel Smith Sirmans, at Ray City, GA.  Rachel was recently widowed, her husband, Jay Sirmans, having died suddenly on September 20, 1916.  Rachel was left alone with two teen age boys to do the work of running a farm.

It was late October and with the first frosts of the season, people’s thoughts naturally turned toward the harvest of fresh meat from hogs fattened over the summer. Hog slaughter was generally reserved for the coldest days of the year. But after a diet of cured meats over the long heat of the Wiregrass summer and perhaps with the  smokehouse stock nearly depleted, for many farms the first cool day would do for a hog killing.  This was perhaps the occasion of Mrs. Smith’s visit.

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Hog-Killing

In the  Ray City of 100 years ago, winter was the season for hog killing as mechanical refrigeration was not available and there were no real facilities for cold storage.

In the 1920s, the Clements Lumber Company operated a cold storage facility and Ray City built a municipal electric plant in 1922, but dependable home electric service and electric refrigerators would not be available in the town until the 1930s.    Before that, most kitchens were equipped with  an “icebox” – a wood or metal cabinet insulated with straw or sawdust. A compartment near the top could be loaded with a block of ice to cool perishable food stored on lower shelves. Water from the melting ice was collected in a pan below the cabinet.  The ice kept the interior of the box far cooler than room temperature, but certainly no where near freezing.  As the ice block melted, it had to be continually replaced. Even small towns like Ray City had ice delivery men, such as Wilbur and Walter Aultman, or Ferris Moore, who regularly supplied ice to local homes and businesses (see Ferris Moore ~ Ray City Iceman).

In The Art of Managing Longleaf, Leon Neel describes  the practical and social significance of hog killing time in Wiregrass Georgia:

Hogs were a staple and we always had hog killings.  The families would get together to kill a hog or two when the weather was right, and then we would smoke our own meat.  Hog killing was a great time. Hogs were killed in cool weather, because pork spoils so easily.  The colder it was, the better it was for hog killing. But lots of times, the stored food would run out early, and we would have to kill hogs before it got to be the dead of winter.  Hog killing was a full-day’s process, and everybody had a job – the men folk, the women folk, everybody.  The process got started early in the morning.  Daddy had a little .22 rifle, and he usually shot the hog between the eyes.  Then we processed it right then and there. We had a big syrup kettle, and for hog killing time we would fill it with water and build a fire under it to get it boiling.  Then we put the hog in the kettle, which scalded it and made it possible to get the hair off with any trouble. Then we butchered the hog.  It is true what they say: Every part of the hog was utilized, everything but the squeal.  Hog killing was hard work, but it was also a great social occasion. 

For Mary Jane Smith  the visit with her daughter in Ray City was a homecoming of sorts.  She and her husband, John Woods Smith, had formerly been residents of Ray City.

Mrs. Mary Jane Smith was born Mary Jane Whitehurst, a daughter of James Whitehurst (1818-1914) and Sarah Ann Findley (1822-1914). She was born on July 7, 1848 in that part of Lowndes County which in 1850 was cut into Clinch County, GA . Her father’s place was on Land Lot 516 in the 11th Land District,  just east of the Alapaha River near Cow Creek.  Her father later moved to Berrien County and settled on the east side of the Little River where he established a grist mill and operated a ferry across the river.  For several years he had the contract to carry mail on the Star Route from Nashville, GA to Alapaha.

About 1866, Mary Jane married John Woods Smith  in Clinch County, GA.  He was a veteran of the Confederate army, having enlisted March 4, 1862 in Company G, 50th Georgia Regiment.   His time in active duty had been marked with sickness. Within months of his enlistment he had become so sick he was sent to the hospital at Macon,  GA. In June of 1862 he was given leave to “escort the dead body of a comrade home. ”   He returned to his unit but by the end of the year he was again on sick furlough.  He was sick yet again in June of 1863,  with typhoid fever.  This time he was sent to Chimborazo Hospital No. 2 at Richmond, VA then transferred to Jackson Hospital where he was diagnosed with pneumonia.  By the fall he had recovered sufficiently  to return to his unit, but on November 29, 1863 he was captured near Knoxville,  TN.  He was sent to the military prison at Louisville, KY as a prisoner of war,  then on to the notorious Camp Chase, Ohio where he was imprisoned for two years.   In March of 1865, he was transferred to Rock Island Barracks, IL  and from there he was released in a prisoner exchange.  He was  admitted to the Confederate General Hospital No. 9 at Richmond, VA where he recuperated before returning home to Berrien County, GA.

For a short while Mary Jane and John Woods Smith made their home in Clinch County, but by 1880 the couple had moved to Berrien County, GA.  In 1890, their home was in the Rays Mill district, GMD 1144, where they were neighbors of Isabelle Sirmans and Andrew W. Turner and others of the Sirmans family connection.

Children of Mary Jane and John Woods Smith were:

  1. Osborn Levi Smith  (1867 – 1896), buried at Old City Cemetery, Nashville, GA
  2. Rachel Allifair Smith (1869 – 1940),  married Jay Mitchell Sirmans, son of Hardeman Sirmans
  3. Susan Earlie Smith (1871 – 1960)
  4. Cassie Jane Smith (1874 – 1948),  married Lucius John Knight, son of Rhoda Futch  and George Washington Knight, buried at Beaver Dam Cemetery, Ray City, GA
  5. William David Smith (1876 – 1887)
  6. Barzilla Newton Smith (1878 – )
  7. Sarah Levinia Smith (1880 – 1964), buried at Pinecrest Cemetery, Vidalia, GA
  8. Mary Ann Smith (1882 – 1965), married Henry J. Parrish
  9. John Dixon Smith (1884 – 1943)
  10. Martha Missouri Belle Smith (1887 – )
  11. Kissiah Amanda Smith (1889 – )

Mary Jane’s eldest daughter, Rachel Allifar Smith,  was married  to Jay Sirmans on March 22, 1893. He was son of Hardeman Sirmans and Elizabeth Knight. Rachel and Jay made their home and farm near Rays Mill (now known as Ray City), GA next door to Jay’s father. By 1910, Mary Jane and John Woods Smith had moved from Ray City to Nashville, GA where they owned a home on Washington Street where they operated a boarding house.

Mary Jane’s husband, John Woods Smith,  died April 24, 1915 and was buried at the Old City Cemetery, Nashville, GA. Mary Jane Smith died a year and a half later while visiting with her daughter, Rachel, at Ray City, GA.  The cause of death was “pork poisoning.”

Without refrigeration the home preservation of meats, especially pork,  presented challenges.  In The prevention of disease; a popular treatise (1916), Kenelm Winslow reported:

Pork causes poisoning because it is imperfectly preserved by salt or smoking, and is often eaten insufficiently cooked in sausage and other forms.  Four-fifths of all cases of meat poisoning are due to eating the flesh of animals suffering from one of the germ diseases…unfortunately the meat is not altered in appearance in such cases, nor is cooking by any means a sure preventative against poisoning. Even poisoning by meat which has decomposed from too long keeping is much more frequent in the case of animals diseased before slaughter.  Expert veterinary inspection of the various organs of slaughtered animals will detect disease and prevent the killing of sick animals for food, which is most apt to occur in small towns where meat for local use is not properly inspected. Poisoning from meat which has putrefied from long keeping is more common in warm months and in the case of chopped meat or sausage. Putrid meat is usually recognizable, if not chopped, by softness and bad odor, especially about the bones and fat.  Boiling, roasting, or frying lessens the danger from putrefying meat, but does not absolutely prevent it.  Proper refrigeration in the household, both before and after cooking meat, is essential in order to preserve it, otherwise it should be eaten fresh. It is also advisable to clean refrigerators frequently with a hot solution of washing soda.  The poisoning is due to toxins in poisons produced by germs which originate in diseased animals, or contaminate the meat after slaughter and grow luxuriantly when refrigeration is imperfect.

 

1916-mary-jane-smith

Tifton Gazette

Friday, October 27, 1916

MRS. MARY JANE SMITH

Mrs. Mary Jane Smith died at the home of her daughter, Mrs. J. Sirmans, near Ray City, Saturday night after an illness of only a few days, says the Adel News. Mrs. Smith died of poison, some pork which she and Mrs. Sirmans had eaten, violently affecting them. Mrs. Sirmans was very ill for a time.

Mrs. Smith was the mother of eleven children, nine of whom survive her. Among her children are Mrs. Sirmans, Mrs. H. J. Parrish and Rev. John D. Smith, of Morven. The deceased was reared in this county and was sixty-nine years of age. She was a devoted member of the Methodist church. The funeral services and burial took place at Nashville Monday, the services being conducted by Rev. J. Harwell House, of Ocilla.

 

Grave of Mary Jane Whitehurst Smith, Old City Cemetery, Nashville, GA

Grave of Mary Jane Whitehurst Smith, Old City Cemetery, Nashville, GA

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Portrait of Hardeman Sirmans and Elizabeth Knight

Hardeman Sirmans and Elizabeth Knight

Hardeman Sirmans and Elizabeth Knight , Berrien County, GA

Hardeman Sirmans and Elizabeth Knight , Berrien County, GA

Ray City History
Hardeman Sirmans (1821 – 1896)  Elizabeth Knight (1830 – 1912)

Hardeman Sirmans was born October 25, 1821 in Appling County, Georgia, the son of Jonathan Sirmans and Martha “Patsy” Rouse.

During the Indian War in 1838-39 Hardeman Sirmans and his father served as privates under Captain Levi J. Knight (later General Knight) in the Lowndes County militia. They both appear on the 1838 Muster Roll of Captain Knight’s Independent Company.

In 1847 Hardeman married Elizabeth Knight, daughter of General Levi J. Knight and Ann D. Herrin. She was born in 1830.

According to Folks Huxford,

“Mr. Sirmans served in the Indian War as a private in a volunteer company of Lowndes County militia commanded by his father-in-law, Capt. (afterwards General) Levi J. Knight, August 15th to Oct 15 1838. He was 1st Lieutenant of the 664th militia district, Lowndes County, 1845-46, then served as Captain in same district 1847-1851. For nearly twenty years Mr. Sirmans was a member of the Masonic order, receiving his degrees in Butler Lodge, No. 211, F. & A.M. at old Milltown (now Lakeland) in 1858. He withdrew and was granted a demit Dec. 8 1877, on account of his church’s attitude toward secret orders. He united in 1877 with Empire Primitive Baptist Church and was baptized. On Jan. 21, 1888 he withdrew from the church, but was restored Nov. 21, 1888. On Nov. 26, 1892, charges were preferred against him in his church for voting the Populist ticket in the preceding General Election; however, the church minutes state he ‘satisfied’ the church, Dec. 24, 1892, and the charges were dropped. He remained a member until his death Sept. 21, 1896. His children seemed to have disagreed over the division of his estate, and it was finally divided by arbitration in Berrien Superior Court, March 8, 1897. Mrs. Sirmans died Sept. 6, 1912, and was buried by her husband in the cemetery at Empire Church.”

Before the Civil War, Hardeman Sirmans was a slave owner. One of his slaves was Richard McGowan. For a time after the war, Richard McGowan continued to live on the Sirmans farm, working as a farm laborer.

Children of Elizabeth Knight and Hardeman Sirmans:

  1. Levi Winfield Sirmans 1848 –  married Nancy R. Clements
  2. Jonathan D Sirmans 1850 – 1926 married Nancy Elizabeth Clements
  3. Sarah Malissa Sirmans 1852 – 1898
  4. Lott W. Sirmans 1854 – 1898 married Josephine Knight
  5. Thomas Hardyman Sirmans 1860 – 1931
  6. Martha Elizabeth Sirmans 1862 – 1935 married Joe S. Clements
  7. Joseph O Sirmans 1862 – 1848 married Olive Pearl Matheny
  8. Jay Sirmans 1864 – 1916 married Rachel Allifar Smith
  9. Clara Sirmans 1868 – 1928 married Frank Gallagher
  10. Christiana Sirmans 1869 – 1943 married Joseph Bartow Gaskins
  11. Annie B. Sirmans 1872 – 1963 married John Chilton Matheny
  12.  Valeria Sirmans 1874 – 1961 married James Isaac Lee

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Jay Sirmans ~ Gator Man of Rays Mill, GA

Jay Sirmans of Rays Mill, GA circa 1899

Jay Sirmans of Rays Mill, GA circa 1899

Jay Sirmans (1864 – 1916)

Jay Sirmans was born during the Civil War, April 16, 1864 in the vicinity of present day Ray City, GA . His father was Hardiman Sirmans, well known Confederate veteran and planter of Berrien County.

On 22 March 1893 Jay Sirmans married Rachel Allifar Smith (born July 30, 1869) daughter of Mary Jane Whitehurst and John Woods Smith.

The couple made their home near Rays Mill (nka Ray City), GA next door to Jay’s father, and Jay engaged in farming.

In February 1899 a son arrived in the Sirmans household. Perhaps it was fatherhood that encouraged  Jay Sirmans to seek enterprising opportunities for supplemental income, or perhaps it was the renowned exploits of his father.

Homeplace of Rachel Smith and Jay Sirmans. Left to right: John Hardeman Sirmans, Jay Sirmans, Jay Mitchell Sirmans, and Rachel Smith Sirmans. The Jay Sirmans home was located about 3 miles out of Ray City on what is now Cherokee Rose Road. Image courtesy of http://berriencounty.smugmug.com/

Homeplace of Rachel Smith and Jay Sirmans. Left to right: John Hardeman Sirmans, Jay Sirmans, Jay Mitchell Sirmans, and Rachel Smith Sirmans. The Jay Sirmans home was located about 3 miles out of Ray City on what is now Cherokee Rose Road. Image courtesy of http://berriencounty.smugmug.com/

What ever the reason, in the summer of 1899, it might be said that Jay Sirmans was up to his armpits in alligators.  The Valdosta Times reported the story.

Valdosta Times
Tuesday, July 25, 1899
A Big ‘Gator

Nashville. – A monster Alligator nine feet and nine inches in length was brought to town the first of the week by Mr. Jay Sirmans who with others captured him in Ray’s Pond after a hard fight during which his gatorship was severely gigged in the side.  Mr. Carson, the cattle buyer, had offered a good round sum for a large one to ship West alive, and it was for this purpose the ‘gator was brought here, but the wound in his side was of such a serious nature that he died from its effect soon after reaching here. No doubt he would have been a genuine curiosity in the land of the Rancheros.  – Berrien County News.