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. 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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Smith and Jones Open Bank at Ray’s Mill

In 1911, B. P. Jones, President of the Valdosta Bank and Trust, and Clarence L. Smith, Vice President, came to Rays Mill, GA on business. Jones’ wife was a daughter of Jonathan Knight, and a granddaughter of Reverend William A. Knight.

Valdosta Times, May 23, 1911 news item,

Valdosta Times, May 23, 1911 news item, “Organized bank at Rays Mill”

The Valdosta Times
May 23, 1911

Organized Bank at Rays Mill

Messrs B. P. Jones and C. L. Smith went up to Rays Mill this morning for the purpose of organizing a Bank at that place to be known as the Bank of Rays Mill.  It will have a capital stock of $25,000.

The Ray City investors received a State Bank Charter and opened for business on August 14, 1911.  The other investors were: J.S. Swindle, J.H. Swindle, M.T. Bradford, W.H.E. Terry, Riley M. Green, and J. F. Sutton, all of Berrien county; and Charles Lee Jones and  J.B. Griffin, of Lowndes county. The Bank of Ray’s Mill  would later be known as the Citizens Bank of Ray City.

The principal banker, Benjamin Perry Jones, was a former resident of Berrien County, and had operated mercantile at Milltown where he also had a liquor dealer’s license.  In 1868, during Reconstruction, Benjamin Jones, along with H. T. Peeples and James E. Williams, represented Berrien County at the organization of the Democratic Convention of the First Congressional District, convened at Blackshear, Pierce County, Georgia on September 16, 1868.

In 1913, a biographical sketch of Benjamin P. Jones was included in A history of Savannah and south Georgia:

Harden, William,. A history of Savannah and south Georgia. Chicago: Lewis Pub. Co., 1913.

p. 747-749

   BENJAMIN P. JONES, the president of the Valdosta Bank and Trust Company has had a long career in business, has won prosperity and influence much above that of the average man, and yet began with little or nothing and for a number of years had a hard struggle with the obstacles of business life. Mr. Jones is one of the prominent citizens of south Georgia, and has been identified with Valdosta from the time it was a small village.

   Mr. Benjamin P. Jones was born, June 25, 1837, in that part of Camden now Charlton county, Georgia. His grandfather was James Jones, thought to have been a native of Georgia, who was a Camden county planter, having a number of slaves, and died there at the age of seventy-five, his remains now reposing in the Buffalo churchyard. He married a Miss Davis, who was upwards of eighty when she died, and they reared a large family of children. They were Primitive Baptists in religion.

   Burrell Jones, father of the Valdosta banker, was born in Wayne county, Georgia, April 29, 1803. About the time of his marriage he bought land near Folkston, living there a few years, and about 1840 returned to Wayne county and located on a farm near the present site of Lulaton, where he made his home until his death in 1877. He married Mary Margaret (known as Peggy) Mizell, who was born in Bulloch county, August 9, 1809. Her father, Jesse Mizell, of English stock and a native of North Carolina, was a soldier of the Revolution under Jasper at Savannah and with Marion during that leader’s valorous excursions against the British. He was with the command when it crossed the Peedee river, first lay blankets on the bridge to deaden the sound of the horses’ hoofs, and in this way surprised the enemy. Some years after the Revolution Jesse Mizell came to Georgia, living two years in Camden county, and then moved into the interior, settling near the present site of Folkston in Charlton county, where he bought land and was engaged in farming and stock raising until his death at the age of about sixty. He married a Miss Stallings, a native of North Carolina and of Dutch ancestry. Mary M. Mizell, the mother of Mr. Jones, spent her early life on the Georgia frontier, and for the lack of educational advantages she compensated by her great natural ability and force of character. Her husband was for many years an invalid, and the care of the children devolved entirely upon her. She reared them to habits of industry and honor, and they paid her all filial reverence. Her death occurred in 1885. Her nine children were named as follows: Harley, Joseph, Benjamin P., Margaret, James B., Nancy C., Harriet, Jasper N. and Newton J.   Harley and Joseph were Confederate soldiers and died during their service for the southern cause.

   Though in his youth he had little opportunity to obtain an education, Benjamin P. Jones managed to obtain an education largely through his own efforts at self-improvement and an ingrained habit of close observation. When he was seventeen he became a teacher, and while he did good service while in this occupation it may be remembered that qualifications for teaching were not very high at that period. Anyone could teach who could find others who knew less than himself, and there was no formality of examination. Intellectual curiosity was a passion with him from an early age, and the time most children give to play with their comrades he devoted to association in company with his elders, thus learning by listening. When he was twelve years old he once attended a court session, listening attentively to the evidence and the charge to the jury. At recess the judge asked why he was so absorbed in the proceedings. The boy replied that it was because he wanted to learn, and then asked the judge why he charged the jury as he did. That was equity, responded the judge, and after explaining the meaning of that word told the boy that if he ever had occasion to make out papers to make them out in accordance with equity and justice and he would sanction them if brought before his court. Chopping cotton at twenty-five cents a day and board was the means by which Mr. Jones earned his first money. A little later he became clerk in a general store at Lulaton, and after a time engaged in business for himself at Stockton, Georgia. Hardly had his trade started when a panic paralyzed all business, and he found himself in debt fifteen hundred dollars, which took him some time to pay off.

   Early in 1861 Mr. Jones enlisted in Company D of the Twenty-sixth Georgia Infantry, and was with that command in the coast defense until the regiment was ordered to Virginia, when he secured a substitute. Confederate money was then plentiful but away below par, and he bought a farm for three thousand dollars, at war-time prices, going in debt for the greater part of this amount. He was busily engaged in farming until 1864, when he enlisted with the Georgia Reserves, being commissioned first lieutenant and being in actual command of his company. The Reserves went to the defense of Atlanta, but from Griffin his company was sent back to recruit and apprehend deserters, and he was on detached duty until the close of the war. After making three crops on his farm he sold the land for four hundred dollars, and with that money and what he had realized from his crops engaged in the mercantile business at Milltown in Berrien county. Nine days after opening his store an epidemic of smallpox broke out, he was quarantined fifty-two days, and at the end of that time offered to sell his entire stock for three hundred dollars but could not find a buyer. Owing to this circumstance he went on with his business, at the same time buying cotton and dealing in live stock, and in four years had so reversed the current of his previous fortunes that he had cleared up fourteen thousand dollars. Then selling out at Milltown he went to southern Florida, where he opened two stores and established a grist and saw mill, and was engaged in business there until 1874, when ill health compelled him to make a change. He sacrificed eight thousand dollars by the move, and then came to Valdosta, which was then a village. Here he bought an established general store and a home for three thousand dollars, and was prosperously identified with the mercantile enterprise of this city for twenty years. In 1894 Mr. Jones organized the Valdosta Guano Company, and in 1906 the Valdosta Bank & Trust Company, of which he has since been president, with his son C. L. as cashier.

   On June 25, 1862, Mr. Jones married Miss Elizabeth Knight, who was born in Clinch county, October 18, 1843, representing an old family of southern Georgia. Her grandfather, Rev. William Knight, was a pioneer preacher in this part of the state. He married a Miss Cone. Jonathan Knight, the father of Mrs. Jones, was born in that part of Lowndes now Berrien county, and spent his life as a farmer in Clinch and Berrien counties. Mr. and Mrs. Jones reared thirteen children, named as follows: Jonathan H., Charles Lee, Frances M. McKenzie; Lillie Roberts, Samuel W., Elizabeth Fry, Benjamin U., Jimmie Staten Green, Eulah Norris, Pearl Mashburn, Lloyd E., Lotta and Audrey Terry.

   Mr. Jones has been identified with the Masonic order since he was twenty-seven years old. He is a member of the Economic League of Boston, Massachusetts, a society for the betterment of mankind. He has been one of the influential men in political life for many years. His first presidential vote was cast for John C. Breckenridge in 1860. He was opposed to secession, in a speech in which he said that if the sixteen southern states would all go out in a body, taking the constitution in one hand and the flag in the other, he would favor the movement with his vote, but not otherwise. In subsequent years he has served as delegate to many county and state conventions, was a delegate to the national conventions that nominated General Hancock and Grover Cleveland, and was also one of the sound-money Democratic delegates of 1896 who nominated Palmer and Buckner. Since 1898 he has not been allied with any party, and as a free lance has supported the individual who best represents his ideas of government.