By Lena Mitchell/NEMS Daily Journal Corinth Bureau
RIPLEY – Tippah County and Ripley have produced or been home to many extraordinary figures, including author Allen Wildmon and his brother, American Family Radio founder Don Wildmon.
One of Ripley’s most notable historical residents, Col. William Clark Falkner, is the subject of Allen Wildmon’s latest book, “Colonel William C. Falkner: Death on the Courthouse Square.”
Many people can relate to the colonel as renowned and award-winning author William Faulkner’s great-grandfather. (Faulkner changed the spelling of his name from Falkner to Faulkner.)
But the elder Falkner, who was born in either 1825 or 1826 and died in 1889, was a colorful, larger-than-life character in his own right, who courted adventure and danger and was ultimately shot to death on Ripley’s public square by his former business partner.
The book Allen Wildmon has written is “part-fiction based on the author’s imagination and part-fact based on the author’s research,” he wrote in the book’s preface.
Wildmon wrote his first book four years ago, “The Wildmons of Mississippi: A Story of Christian Dissent.” His first career, which lasted 35 years, was selling insurance. After that he joined American Family Association as public relations director, where he worked for 16 years until retiring in 2002.
“I’ve written this book as a narrative story of Falkner’s life,” Wildmon, 77, said in a recent interview.
One of the most significant influences that shaped Falkner’s life was being born the son of a dirt farmer, which left him wanting money, prestige and life in high society, Wildmon said.
That desire led Falkner to run away from his home in Missouri at age 17 to make his way to live with his uncle in Ripley, John Thompson.
“In my research I found he had walked from Middleton, Tenn., to Pontotoc, 58 miles,” Wildmon said. “When he got there his uncle was in jail on a charge of murder.”
Falkner went to Pontotoc because that’s where his uncle worked as a teacher. He arrived in Pontotoc late in the evening, broke and with nowhere to stay. As he sank down outside a hotel and cried about his predicament, along came a young girl who, learning of his situation, took him home to her family to spend the night.
Falkner’s uncle eventually defended himself and was freed from the murder charge. The young girl who rescued the young Falkner, Elizabeth “Lizzie” Vance, many years later became his second wife after he was widowed.
Wildmon’s story takes readers through Falkner’s life as a young lawyer married to his first wife, Holland Pierce, the birth of first son John W.T. Falkner, and the birth and death of two infant daughters.
Though Falkner had fought in the Mexican-American War, he wanted the title of general and joined the military again during the Civil War. He was elected colonel in the Confederate army by his Ripley troops and led them successfully in the Battle of Manassas. However, he never achieved the rank of general and resigned from military service after the Civil War.
Throughout the book, Wildmon brings new excitement to the telling of Falkner’s story: Falkner helping capture and prevent the hanging of an ax murderer; his killing of two men and acquittal for both deaths; helping rebuild north Mississippi railroads; an affair with his slave that produced a known and continuing line of descendants; his second marriage to Lizzie Vance and trip to Europe with their two daughters; election to the Mississippi Legislature, followed the next day by being shot to death by former partner Richard “Dick” Thurmond and Thurmond’s trial for manslaughter.
Wildmon’s cousin is retired Ripley librarian Tommy Covington, and Covington shared many photos he has collected through the years for inclusion in Wildmon’s volume.
“He was egotistical, a braggart, an alcoholic and a woman-chaser,” Wildmon said in assessing Falkner’s character, “but he did a lot of good for Ripley, and a lot of times that part gets lost.”