The Fascinating Facts, Fiction, and Frustrations of Family History and My Obsessive Desire to Possess Them All.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

John Franklin Slaughter and the Bell Tree

I need to preface this story by saying I do not know my exact relationship to John Franklin Slaughter.  DNA evidence suggests a familial tie to my Grandfather Slaughter.  My working theory is John is the product of my 2x Great Grandfather William Taylor Slaughter and his first wife Jane Clay.  So far, all evidence points to this but until a reasonably exhaustive search is completed this relationship needs to be still in the “Maybe” column.

But his story is too interesting to not be told.

John F Slaughter (1869-1946)
Faithia Smith Slaughter (1873-1929)
Via Anonymous on FindaGrave

John was born in 1869 in Cherokee County, Alabama.  He married Faithia Smith in 1888 in Polk County, Georgia.  They had 8 children and he died in 1946 while living in Easom Hill, Georgia.  His descendants still live in the area.  He was a coal miner by profession but was also involved on the side in the Smith family business – moonshine.

John’s brother-in-law was Will ‘Belltree’ Smith, one of the most notorious bootleggers in the area of northwest Georgia/northeast Alabama.  Smith’s claim to fame was his procedure for his customers to acquire the liquor.  He had a bell attached to a tree along the road.  The customer placed their order and money in the tree and rang the bell.  The customer would leave for a period of time, returning later to retrieve their purchase, never seeing the seller of the whiskey, thereby giving deniability to all parties in the illegal activity.  As the tree was very close to the Georgia-Alabama border it was easy to evade authorities by crossing over the state line whenever trouble was spotted.

Moonshiners in Early 1900's
Courtesy of Georgia State Archives

Moonshine was a way of life in the southern Appalachian Mountains.  John’s profession of coal mining was low-wage and dangerous.  Miners of the time did not have government safety regulations and union worker protections of today.  John’s nephew died in a mine accident at age 14.  Families were large, hill ground was not highly productive, and a bushel of corn was worth much more as a gallon of moonshine than for sale as livestock feed.  While Prohibition was in effect from 1920-1933, production and sale of corn alcohol without paying taxes was common many years before that.  The purveyors of such were said to be operating a “Blind Tiger”.   

Anniston (AL) Star
Aug 7, 1901

In 1901 John was arrested in connection with the sale of liquor at the Bell Tree.  Likely his $100 fine was paid by his brother-in-law who made a small fortune selling moonshine.  Will Smith was, by all accounts, a violent man who died a violent death in 1908 at the age of 39.  Reports of his death were published in newspapers across the east.  After his death his sister and her husband continued to operate the Bell Tree.  Newspaper accounts report the Bell Tree still was finally broken up by government ‘revenuers’ in 1917.

Pittsburgh (PA) Post
Aug 18, 1908

Because Smith had accumulated so much wealth in his short life naturally there was a fight over his sizable estate.  Smith’s mother claimed Will’s wife, Alice, never legally married Will and therefore was not entitled to inherit anything.  Depositions of the family members give insight into the lives of the Smith family.  Alice’s mother testified that Alice was married (previous to Will) at the age of 12 but that her husband had died.  John himself testified Will had never married Alice and also kept several other women on his farm and had several children with them.  He said Will beat Alice (and the other women, too) and that she had run off more than once.  He also testified about the operation of the Bell Tree.

The lawsuit was unsuccessful and John’s wife did not inherit any of her brother’s wealth.  She died in 1929.  John continued on as a miner until his death in 1946.  They are buried in the Salem Baptist Church Cemetery in Bluffton, Alabama.

No comments:

Post a Comment