Brutally Murdered. Those are powerful words. They are even more powerful when you find them where I found them….on a tombstone.
It is not normally my habit to hang out in graveyards. In fact, I’m one of those who can vividly remember my loved ones. Their words, their gestures, their tone of voice, even sometimes the scents and smells that were associated with them. I remember my Grandmother Bernat’s perfume, and the smell of my Grandpa Lockaby’s cotton t-shirts. So to remember someone in their death doesn’t do it for me. I like to remember their life.
A few weeks ago, however, I was in Cleveland, Georgia at Truett-McConnell College for a soccer match. Sheesh, I can hear you saying…can’t you ever start a blog post without a soccer match?
After the match my plan was to take a circuitous route back home and look for some photo opportunities. Cleveland Georgia is about an hour north of my home in Alpharetta, and is another in a series of small towns that are spread out over the North Georgia forests and mountains. Just down the road from the school was this small cemetery, and it looked like some of the grave markers were pretty old, so I thought I’d go take a look.
The tombstones in the above photo were clearly the cornerstones of the graveyard. This family had to be well off, and highly placed in the community. Their stones were bigger, more ornate and prominently placed. As I approached them, I couldn’t help but notice the “brutally murdered” carving in the one pictured above. Somehow, the starkness of those words, carved over 100 years ago, in a time we now think of as simpler, and more innocent, struck me.
I did some research and found that the story behind this grave marker is as dramatic as any old western movie.
It appears that W.B. Bell, who at one point was a pharmacy salesman in Atlanta, was a prominent citizen. He is listed as the president of a company that had been formed in 1889 to build a railway from Cleveland to Lulu.
In 1899 W.B. Bell was killed in a beating in Habersham County. Si Smith was accused of his murder and Smith’s friends spirited him away to a hideout in Rabun County, with a posse in pursuit.
At some point the trail grew cold but W.B’s son, Tom, gathered some friends and pursued Smith in Rabun County. They found him there and took him back to Habersham County to face justice. Smith admitted killing Bell, but claimed it “was justified”. A judge there ruled that it would not be safe for Smith to remain there so he was sent to the jail in Hall County for safekeeping.
Late one night in July 1899, a mob of 40 people woke the Sheriff of Hall County at the jail. One of the men claimed to be a sheriff of a nearby county and they purported to have a prisoner that needed to be put in the jail. The unsuspecting jailkeeper let them in, and when he did so the mob rushed the cell where Smith was held, pulled out weapons and began firing into his sleeping form. They then quickly dispersed.
The coroner held an inquest hearing with no result. It was said that the body of Smith was “riddled with bullets.” One of Tom Bells friends, who went with him to capture Smith, was charged with the killing, but a jury aquitted him.
Tom Bell, who became a local hero and gained much fame for capturing his father’s killer, went on to become one of the most powerful congressmen in the history of the state of Georgia.