In the sparsely settled South after the Civil War the James brothers were not the only desperados. Pairs or small bands probably preyed on nearly every rural county for a short period. The smarter ones would size up an area, make one or two raids, then disappear.
In time a pair came to Butler County, Alabama. A few highway robberies occurred on lonesome stretches of road. The victims reported two masked men, and recited their build. Said the two disappeared into the virgin forest after taking whatever valuables there were.
This was a short term proposition, because men quickly began to move only in pairs or groups and they armed themselves.
Then an old couple were found murdered in their house. It is not known whether they were robbed, but there was a general notion in the neighborhood, unconfirmed, that they had gold in their house.
Fear gripped the community, and weapons were readied at many a homestead.
The badmen lay low a few days, and Sheriff Porterfield began organizing a posse. They next robbed a payroll for a mill near Chapman, and killed the messenger. Word went to Greenville by telegraph, and the Sheriff and a few of the posse boarded the next train for Chapman.
By the time he arrived a lumberjack had brought word that he had seen the two at a lumber camp some five miles out in the forest. He had watched them steal food from the cook shack while everyone was away in the woods.
A logging railroad had been laid out to the camp for hauling in logs. Such roads were of light rail, laid on the ground without ballast. When the area served had been cut, the rails were extended, or taken up, to serve another area. Small locomotives and light trains traversed them at low speed.
A logging train was readied. Sheriff and the train crew mounted to the cab. The other men concealed themselves in a small utility car behind the engine. Empty log cars trailed behind.
For some forty minutes they steamed through the pine woods. A mile from the camp they rounded a curve and there were two men, one on each side of the track, armed with rifles. They flagged the train down; then, while one covered from his position to the right and in front, the second proceeded to board the engine.
It is not known what plan the two had for the commandeered train and its crew, because as soon as the man started to board he laid his rifle on the floor of the gangway to climb up. Once this man was temporarily disarmed, Porterfield shot the window out of the cab with his Winchester, and dropped the one covering. Before the man climbing aboard could recover he had a bullet through his head, as did his companion out front. They must have expected an unarmed train crew.
The wounded badmen were not dead, but the rest was easy. They were loaded into the utility car, and the log train backed to Chapman. They backed very carefully, as the unloaded log cars could easily jump the unballasted track.
The next train north carried them to Greenville in the baggage car. They were hung right there in Greenville, a few minutes after the train arrived. No one seemed to think any other formalities were necessary.
My grandfather saw the two lying on the station platform in Greenville, one with “his brains oozing out of his wound.” He did not see the hanging. He was waiting for a train to Georgiana, which he caught while somebody found ropes, and whatever else one needs for a hanging.
I place the date as 1900 plus or minus two, but the record could be cleared up, and maybe more details divulged. The event is in some archive in Alabama. I first heard the tale about 1932 or 1933 over a radio broadcast from a Birmingham station. When I heard “Chapman” and “log locomotive” I began to pay attention. Later I asked my father about it, and he remembered the events when he was a boy in Butler county, although he had never mentioned it to me before. Also, I remember the words of the recountings saying the man laid his gun on the pilot of the locomotive, and proceeded to climb onto the front of the engine. This seems so illogical that I retold it as above. He would not have been able to confront and control the crew from that position, nor accomplish anything else that I can see.
The next time we visited Grandpa, we brought up the subject and he told us he had been in Greenville when they were brought in.
The locomotive could very well have been Number 14, built in 1888, which was in Mr. McGowan’s front yard a few years ago. I seem to remember my father asserting that it was.
Number 14 is now at a museum in Pike County, Alabama, near Troy. A plaque there says it was made in 1881 for the Central Railroad and Banking Company of Georgia, later the C-of-G Railroad. It had a 5-foot wheel width, common for roads in the South at that time. Also common to that day, it had a name, as well as a number; “Madison” it was on the C-of-G. It was converted to 4 feet 8⅝ inches, probably for that Sunday in May, 1886, when all roads in the country adopted the standard of the Roman Empire. My grandfather recalled that day in Butler county.
At some unspecified time, Number 14 was sold to the Empire Lumber Co. of Andalusia. W. T. Smith Lumber acquired it when it bought Empire in 1912. My father’s recollection of riding a W. T. Smith locomotive must have been some other than Number 14. He left Butler county in 1906.
That conversation led to tales of other bad men. One was John Whitley, who for a short time worked at Rhodes’ Mill. He was known to be mean, but maybe he established a criminal record after that.
Grandpa’s homeplace was about a mile from the mill, on a road that ran along a ridge above Persimmon Creek Swamp. A quarter mile further along the road stood a log house where Great Grandfather had lived until recent years. The log house was where the Whitleys lived, John, his mother, a younger brother and maybe a younger sister. They may have been squatters, found the house vacant and moved in. In any event, John had to pass the homeplace to get to the mill, and Aunt Bessie remembers being afraid. (Aunt Bessie corrected the name for me after I first set this down. I had remembered, Wesley, rather than Whitley. She also remembered badman, Rube Burroughs. He, or Hipp or Kelley broke into Uncles Dan and Newt’s store.)
There was some dispute about Whitley’s pay at the mill, and he came to the homeplace to see Grandpa. His reputation was enough that Grandpa put a pistol in his pocket before going to the front yard. Of course Grandpa rejected his assertion that he had been cheated. Then he moved toward Grandpa with a knife, but the pistol kept him at bay. He walked out the gate with a threat that they would meet on the road to Georgiana sometime. Grandpa carried the pistol after that, until Whitley wound up in jail or dead.
I recall a woman in the company saying, “But you would not have killed him, would you?” Grandpa said in his slow drawl, no emotion, just responding, “I certainly would have killed him if he had come one step closer or if he ever came toward me again.” And he would have.
May 21, 1988: This past week I came onto a book, Butler County in the Nineteenth Century, by Marylin Davis Hahn of Birmingham. She devoted some four pages to an account of John Hipp and Charley Kelley. Her source included newspaper accounts at the time, and a photo of the two hung to the columns on the court house. Her details differ from mine in places, and she had additional information.
She dates the events 1891–92. Father (b. 1890) would not have remembered the events; he must have remembered hearing talk of the events when he was a child.
They first came to public attention connected with illegal sale of whisky. Then a Negro woman was murdered at the site of the present Methodist Church in Georgiana; the motive of this crime was not disclosed. Then a Georgiana merchant, Mr. Touart, was murdered in his store, and his store was robbed, early in the morning of September 9, 1891.
The old couple were Eliza L. and Thomas Shepherd. They had recently sold a crop or herd or something, and were thought to have the money at home. No mention of gold. They were murdered with an axe in the early part of the evening of November 1, a very bloody affair, and their house ransacked.
A Colored couple named Moore were suspected when bloody clothes were found in their woodpile. They were released when blood analysis at Auburn confirmed their claim that the blood was from a steer they had butchered. (What blood analysis would have been carried out in that day?)
Then one Tom Rhodes (a relative? I had not heard of him before) was suspected. He had disappeared after contracting to lease part of the Shepherd land.
No evidence was stated that linked Hipp and Kelley to this murder, but there may have been some.
The last murder was that of the Tax Collector, Charles Jacob (Jake) Armstrong. He was riding circuit collecting taxes. He had spent the night with Sellers, of Sellers’ Store, after collecting taxes for that part of the county, then started out for Rocky Creek. He was shot from ambush as he crossed Panther Creek. He may have shot and wounded Hipp.
Panther Creek rises a mile west of Georgiana, and flows southward into Persimmon Creek. There is a Sellers community some two miles south of Georgiana. Mohns Thornton’s daughter-in-law was a Sellers, or else her grandfather was one; grandfather was once minister at Wesley Chapel, she told me.
As was often the case in those days for Court House incumbents, Armstrong was a one-legged Confederate Veteran. Also, he had a wife and six children; the populace was justifiably incensed.
Only twelve dollars appeared to have been taken. Several hundred dollars in an inner pocket was overlooked, and much of the collection was in checks.
The sheriff was J. T. Birganier. A Captain Porterfield was a member of the thirty man posse. (Captain of what? The Confederate Army?) Others were Oliver Bryant, Clink Williams, Tom Owens, and Dave Kern.
Hipp was captured when he attempted to board a Dunham Lumber Co. train. He was wounded when he refused to surrender and fired on the posse. He may have already been wounded by Armstrong.
Dunham was south of Georgiana on the L&N to Mobile, while Chapman is a comparable distance north. I guess it was the location of Dunham Lumber Co., it could have taken its name from the firm. My grandmother’s father, Thomas Elmo Atkinson, may have lived at Dunham about this time.
Kelly was arrested Christmas Eve five miles south of Pineapple in Monroe County. He was hiding in a cotton house owned by H. L. Solomon; Soloman and some neighbors captured him. He was taken to jail in Greenville Christmas day.
It was the night of January 29, a month later, that a hundred men got a deputy sheriff, also named Birganier, up in the middle of the night and forced him to let them into the jail. The next morning the badmen were found hanging from the columns of the courthouse. A coroner’s jury found “death by unlawful hanging,” and that the two had been strung up and strangled; their necks were not broken. There was some speculation that Hipp may have already been dead from his wounds.
None of the hundred was recognized nor found out.
Maybe Grandpa did see Hipp lying on the station platform when he was brought in. There is nothing in Mrs. Hahn’s account to deny that Porterfield shot the window out of the locomotive, and who cares whether he was Sheriff or not.
Mrs. Hahn’s book contained a good deal of undigested data. Among such was a jury list for 1898 on which Grandpa served. Greatgrandfather N. M. Rhodes was on the tax roll for Precinct 2 in 1856, and a committee member for Beat 2 of the Democratic and Conservative Party in 1884.