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Bulloch History with Roger Allen

Sam Johnson’s brief crime ‘spree’ in Bulloch County

    According to Savannah Morning News accounts in July of 1903, some character named Johnson decided to steal Sam Harville’s mule in Bulloch County. Not a smart thing to do anywhere, especially in an area where farmers needed their mules more than did their wives. He couldn’t have been too bright, because he soon got lost and was captured near the Harville home. The men who captured him took him to the Statesboro jail; a new facility constructed with sheet iron and considered escape proof.
    Well, old Johnson must have had something going for himself after all, because believe it or not, he actually managed to break his chains and set himself free. Not one to consider the other options, he did what (apparently) came natural. He promptly stole something else: this time, it was a small boat at the rivers edge. He floated down the Ogeechee River to Jencks Bridge, where he abandoned the boat and took off across dry land. At the W.F. Shuman house, he once again exercised his talents and stole something for the third time.
    This time it was a horse, which he proceeded to ride all the way to Johnson County. Unfortunately for Johnson, here he was recaptured and returned to Statesboro to stand trial for what were now multiple crimes against man and beast. In court, he claimed to have been helping an old lady. This didn’t go very far in restoring everybody’s opinion of him, because one the woman in question told her tale a different story came out.
    In fact, she told the court that he had threatened her within an inch of her life, and stole $500 she had on her person which she was taking to an orphanage. Johnson got quite upset at this point, insisting that he had actually given $300 of the old lady’s money back. He was deemed by those in attendance to be amongst other things,“a constitutional rogue”, and was said to have been incapable “of resisting the temptation to steal.”
    “Uncle” Jake Nevils told the crowd that “if stealing $200 from a widow and her orphan children is the best deed of his life, then he deserves to be burned. He was then taken to “Uncle Jakes” Boarding House, where he was given “a hearty last meal and all the whiskey he could drink”. Following this repast, Johnson was taken to the “Sweetgum Flats” area (at the modern day corner of Savannah Avenue and Zetterower Avenue) where there was a Persimmon tree.
    Here he was strung up and left to swing until dead. His body was taken down the next day and buried at the old cemetery behind the First Baptist Church. After the body was taken down, his boots and tobacco pouch were tied to a limb of the tree and left to sway in the wind for one full year, a reminder of the justice which had taken place. Bulloch Countians were somewhat divided over this act, as some felt the punishment was too severe for the crime. It was the first legal hanging in BC ever recorded.
    When asked to investigate the matter by some anonymous tipster, the State Attorney Generals office replied quite succinctly that they had more important and better things to spend their time doing than to investigate a matter of local law enforcement. By the way, it is said that no one ever ate the fruit from that Persimmon Tree again, as locals claimed it bore the bitterest of fruits.

Roger Allen is a local lover of history. Allen provides a brief look at Bulloch County's historical past. E-mail Roger at roger dodger53@hotmail.com

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