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John S. Williams and Clyde Manning Trials: 1921

Murdering The "evidence" Of Peonage

In November 1920, a peon named Gus Chapman successfully escaped from the Williams' farm and, a few weeks later, made his way to the Atlanta offices of the Bureau of Investigation (as the FBI was then called). Peonage was not high on the Bureau's list of priorities, but at least it might take the complaints seriously and investigate. While looking into other federal matters in the area, two federal agents visited the Williams plantation on February 18, 1921. They interviewed the black farmhands and Williams. Most of the blacks said nothing, but the agents caught one, Clyde Manning, in a lie about an earlier escape attempt by Chapman. Still, they left only vaguely suspicious and not very eager to pursue the matter further. Williams, however, heard rumors that some local farmers might soon be charged with peonage and he concluded that the agents' visit meant that he was a target. Therefore, Williams decided to get rid of the evidence.

The 26-year-old Manning was the Williams's farm boss. Uneducated and illiterate, he came to the Williams farm with his family at about age 13 or 14 when his father was ambushed and murdered by unknown assailants. Also working and living on the Williams' farm were Manning's mother, siblings, wife, and children and Manning knew that to protest even the smallest of Williams's orders would put his family's lives at stake. Furthermore, he had no idea of where he could escape to or where to turn for help; Manning knew the local police would be of no assistance, and he had virtually no knowledge of anything beyond Jasper County. Indeed, when two peons escaped the Williams place and had gone beyond Jasper County before they were captured and returned, Manning referred to them as having "been out of the United States."

On the morning of February 19, Williams walked out to Manning's shanty and told him of his plans to kill the peons who worked on the farm: "Clyde, it won't do for those boys to get up yonder and swear against us. They will ruin us. You have got to get rid of all the stockade niggers."

After a long pause, Manning responded: "Mr. Johnny, you telling me you want me to do away with them boys?"

"Yes, we'll have to do away with them."

After another long pause, Manning quietly said: "I don't want to do it. I hate to do it."

"Well, by God, if you don't want to do it, that's all right. But it's your neck or theirs. If you think more of their necks than you do of your own neck, it's your neck then."

Over the next week, nine of the Williams farmhands were killed. Sometimes, Manning committed the murders; other times, he was assisted by Charlie Chisolm, another of the Williams peons, or the crime was done by Chisolm in Manning's presence. Every time, Williams was there, selecting the victims and telling Manning and Chisolm what to do. Some of the men were killed with axes or pickaxes; others were thrown off bridges into the Yellow River while chained and weighted down with rocks. The murders then stopped, but a week later, Williams decided that Chisolm had to go and he and Manning threw him over a bridge as well. A few days later, Williams shot an eleventh man with a shotgun and had Manning help him dispose of the body.

Manning himself might have become the twelfth victim if the bodies of three men who were tossed into the Yellow River had not been found on March 16. At about the same time, Eberhardt Crawford, one of Williams's black neighbors, went to the Bureau of Investigation's Atlanta office and told of how Williams recently accused him of talking to the authorities and later returned with a carload of white men and shot up Crawford's house.

The bureau suspected that the killings were connected with its earlier investigation of Williams, but murder is a local matter. Federal agents took Crawford with them and went to Georgia's Governor Hugh Dorsey. (Dorsey was then actively denouncing lynching and other forms of persecution against the blacks and was considered to have a possibly sympathetic ear.) The governor listened. He then persuaded the judge and prosecuting attorney in Newton County (on whose side of the Yellow River the bodies were found) to issue warrants for the arrest of a number of witnesses and suspects, including Williams and Manning. At first, Manning said nothing, but after hours of constant questioning he began to talk.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1918 to 1940John S. Williams and Clyde Manning Trials: 1921 - Peonage Outlawed, But Flourishes For 50 Years, Murdering The "evidence" Of Peonage, Southern Peonage Draws National Attention