RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Of murder, mayhem and mantel clocks in Alabama

By Rheta Grimsley Johnson

When words are your business, and you’ve written something nearly every day of your adult life, I suppose it’s natural you’d notice certain lovely turns of phrases, certain masterful sentences. Read them over and over again, trying to unlock secrets.
Whenever I write about rain, for instance, I recall Bailey White’s description of wet leaves as “greasy.” Perfect. If she weren’t such a lovely person, I could hate her for seeing and writing that well.
Jerry Elijah Brown’s book is like that. The story is dramatic, for certain. The language in which it’s told is more startling yet. When you can describe a mantel clock as “gaudy and grotesque with its ornamented glass face and topknot facade and Roman numerals” and hear it “clear its throat at five minutes before the short hand gets to VII …,” you have joined a league with few players.
Jerry Brown is my friend, and we have Auburn connections. He was on the right side of a never-ending political war on that campus. That said, a lot of folks I know and like write books. I read them and try to be charitable, but I don’t always study them. “Alabama’s Mitcham Wars: Essaying Mortal Wounds” requires study.
Jerry Brown found out that his beloved Papa, his paternal grandfather Lee Brown, had, in 1894, been arrested, jailed and tried for murder. Lee Brown had been dead for 40 years when the author made this discovery. “This was one story my grandfather, a noted story teller, never told.”
Lee Brown was not convicted and died in 1960 at age 88. The incident was part of Clarke County’s infamous quarrel, a war, really, pitting farmers against merchant-lenders, outlaws against vigilantes, neighbor against neighbor.
The story from the 1880s has been told before, fictionalized to a fare-thee-well, mostly because, as Brown describes it, “a local gang of hotheads, who called themselves Hell-at-the-Breech” organized in the community of Mitcham Beat. If gangs had mission statements, Hell-at-the-Breech was out to confront money lenders who exploited the small farmers. The mission got distorted.
“… first the gang quarreled with and terrorized, even killed, their own neighbors,” Brown writes.
The story is for certain a complicated one, and author Brown claims to be “the first to describe and defend a community that was terrorized from within and without.”
There’s nothing black and white about the war or its ragged end.
It is, however, the lovely language of this book that I’ll remember longest, not the bloody particulars of a gang run amok and careless vigilantes who fought back and brushed wide. It is at its heart a family story.
“It was almost better when he was delirious,” Brown writes of his grandfather’s last days. “When he was in his right mind, he’d look at the flaccid flesh of his biceps and tears would well up in the corners of his eyes and he’d say in a whispery voice, ‘I was a man once.’ That was as close as he came to self-pity.”
When the old man died and they stopped the mantel clock that Jerry Brown had described so beautifully, it was over. “Papa had disclosed no secrets, expressed no regrets, claimed no credit, uttered no deathbed confession.”
If you’re going to be the one to divulge family secrets, write beautifully, tell them well.
Syndicated columnist Rheta Grimsley Johnson lives near Iuka. Contact her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.