In 1904, an affluent white farm family of five was brutally murdered in Bulloch County. In retaliation, two black men accused of the crime were burned at the stake in a horrific lynching by a crazed mob.
A factual historical account of the incident is recorded in Dr. Charleton Moseley’s book, “The Hodges Family Murders and the Lynchings of Paul Reed and Will Cato.” The book, now available, was the subject of a round table discussion Monday night during the 45th Annual Meeting of the Bulloch County Historical Society.
The book is a compilation of information the author has gathered since 1972, when he first began researching the ghastly event. Moseley is professor emeritus of history at Georgia Southern University.
The round table discussion was between Bulloch County Historical Society President Joe McGlamery, Vice President Dr. Brent Tharpe, Moseley and book editor Jenny Starling Foss. Tharpe and McGlamery asked questions of Moseley and Foss, who gave brief accounts of the tragic deaths of seven human beings 114 years ago.
The sold-out catered event was one of the largest crowds ever at the group’s annual meetings, McGlamery said.
The grisly taking of seven lives
Moseley’s research indicates the Hodges family lived in northwestern Bulloch County. Henry Hodges was a “three plow farmer,” Moseley said, meaning he was well-to-do and had a sizable farming operation.
He was married to Claudia, with a daughter, Kittie Corrine, 9; and two sons – Harmon 2, and Talmadge, six months.
Will Cato and Paul Reed were two black men who also lived in cabins in the area, where a number of itinerant blacks resided, working on the farms. The story is, Cato and Reed believed there was money to be found buried on Hodges’ farm, either from the sale of cotton or an inheritance by his wife.
The book describes how Henry Hodges went outside one night and surprised the two men as they dug around his chicken coop in search of the money. They killed Hodges, as well as his wife when she came outside to investigate the noise.
According to testimony by Reed’s wife during their trial, when Cato and Reed entered the home, little Kittie fearfully offered them a nickel for her life. The men “bashed her head in” anyway, Moseley said during the discussion. Then they set fire to the Hodges home, burning the toddler and infant alive, in an apparent attempt to cover up the murders.
Moseley and Foss spoke about how neighbors did more investigation than the local sheriff, and it was neighbors and friends who gathered the bodies of the Hodges family and took them to the nearby Isaac Akins home, where they prepared them for burial.
Neighbors found clues that led to the arrests of only Cato and Reed, although there were tracks of four men around the Hodges home – one barefoot.
The men were arrested within two days; tried and found guilty by a court of law, sentenced to death by hanging. However, an angry mob had different ideas.
Foss and Moseley discussed how the book includes accounts of the heinous acts as the frenzied mob overpowered soldiers ordered by the governor to guard the men. The sheriff reportedly did nothing to stop them, and curiously, there were no bullets in the soldiers’ guns.
With a lust for blood and vengeance, the crowd dragged the convicted murderers to a spot about two miles northwest of the Bulloch County Courthouse, with women along their path handing them quart jars of kerosene. By the time the crowd arrived at the site of a “fat lighter” stump, they had 20 gallons of fuel, Moseley said.
Chaining the men to the stump (photographs reproduced in the book show them chained by the neck), the crazed mob doused the two men with the kerosene and set them on fire. Men, women and children stood watching as the convicted murderers burned to death, and many stood by until there was nothing left but a few bone fragments, which some boys took as souvenirs, Moseley said. There was nothing left to bury.
In answering questions about the book, which was inspired by an article Moseley wrote in 1981, he and Foss agreed that the title “reflects both stories.” There is very little opinion in the book, Foss said, adding that the only opinion found would be in reprinted newspaper editorials included in the book.
Tharpe asked Moseley what prompted him to begin researching the murders and subsequent lynchings. Moseley said he is a Bulloch County native who has “heard the stories all my life” and is related to the Hodges family. He started researching in 1972 “because I wanted to find out the truth of the matter,” he said.
In editing the book, Foss, who also had a lifelong curiosity about the story, added factual documentation to the book, including court transcriptions and other records.
Information was gathered from many people, including descendants of the Hodges and of Will Cato. Members of the Reed family were not located, and Tharpe said he hopes the book and community discussion will bring some of Reed’s descendants forth
Several great grandchildren of Cato, as well as some Hodges relatives, attended the meeting.
In discussing the murders and lynchings, McGlamery said the Hodges, as well as Reed and Cato, lived somewhere “in northwest Bulloch County, south of Willow Hill but north of Colfax Station, west of Hopulikeit.”
While the angry mob was large, Foss pointed out that many citizens did not approve of the lynching. Several disagreed with the actions of the uncontrollable crowd, and one church even evicted members for taking part in the sordid acts.
The discussion revealed there were 73 lynchings in Georgia in 1904 – more than any other state. The lynching of Cato and Reed received national press attention, likely due to its shocking details.
“The pure grisliness of it … burning alive of two humans… it is unimaginable in my mind,” Moseley said.
As touchy as the subject may be, addressing the blatant racism involved, Moseley said it is still a part of the past. “Bad history is still history. We have to take into account that sometimes we do things that are bad.”
The round table discussion also addressed the aftermath, with fear of the other in both the white and black communities. There were night riders, attacks, raw nerves and mistrust. The area lost a major labor force when blacks began leaving the community, afraid for their lives. There were rumors of a “Before Day” club that included blacks targeting whites, but Moseley said he never found evidence that the group actually existed.
Whites continued to lynch blacks for infractions such as one man defending his daughter, who was whipped for pushing a white citizen off a sidewalk. Black men, upon learning of night riders approaching, hid in cotton fields with guns while their women and children boiled potash on the stove as a weapon in case their homes were attacked, Moseley said.
Foss said she and Moseley hope the book would help with “healing and closure, and will shed light” on the truth of the matter.
Now available as a paperback, copies of “The Hodges Family Murders and the Lynchings of Paul Reed and Will Cato” is available for $22, tax included, at the Statesboro Herald, Statesboro Magazine and Statesboro Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.
Hardbound copies, with dust covers, will be available for $30 each in about five weeks, McGlamery said.
Herald reporter Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 489-9414.