"The master treated the slave unmercifully."
Negotiations over Pace's plea to the charges against him continued for days. His attorneys initially believed that Judge Jones—like any other white southern judge—would feel compelled by tradition and public pressure to acknowledge the untested status of the peonage statute and offer a symbolic punishment to Pace in exchange for a guilty plea. But Judge Jones showed no sign of doing so. Reese, the prosecutor, was insistent that Pace be meaningfully punished. Pace's lawyers were certain, regardless of the public brouhaha in the preceding weeks, that no Alabama jury would actually convict a white man on such charges. They urged him to wait for trial.
Meanwhile, the city was ablaze with anxiety. In the early evening of the day following Pace's arraignment, a former U.S. marshal named Charles E. Taylor confronted Deputy U.S. Marshal Byron Trammel on the sidewalk beneath the white-columned portico of the elegant Exchange Hotel, where many of the attorneys and others involved with the peonage cases were staying. Trammel was assisting Reese in the investigation.
The two men had long disliked each other, according to mutual acquaintances, and there was no record of the words exchanged when they faced off outside the front doors of the hotel. But within minutes, Taylor drew a pistol. Trammel responded in kind. Shots were fired. Taylor was soon dead.
Stanley W. Finch, another Department of Justice investigator in Montgomery , was certain the shoot-out was brought on by the peonage cases. He wrote to his Washington bosses that federal agents in Alabama—feeling increasingly more like the interloping Freedmen's Bureau agents who scattered across the South thirty years earlier—were encountering unprecedented hostility wherever they went.
"The country throughout this district wherever [peonage] exists is pretty thoroughly aroused," Finch wrote. "The fact that a Secret Service agent is engaged on these cases is well known and many have the impression that a number of secret service agents are scouring the country…. Any one traveling through the country engaged in an investigation on behalf of the government is liable to be mistaken for one of these detectives. In some localities the sentiment has reached such a pitch that it is considered unsafe for anyone known as or suspected as being a government detective to travel."
Nonetheless, Finch reported that involuntary servitude was indeed widespread across the state. He succinctly summed up the economics of the new slavery. "It is by no means confined to a few isolated communities. I have also been again and again informed by these persons that this peonage system is more cruel and inhuman than the slavery of antebellum days, since then the master conserved the life and health of the slave for business reasons just as he did that of his horse or mule, but now the master treated the slave unmercifully and with the sole object of getting the greatest possible amount of labor out of him. Moreover a peon costs but a few dollars while a slave used to cost several hundred."1
Pace, agitated at the attention his case drew, appeared alone early in the morning two days later at the offices of U.S. Attorney Reese. He said he wished to plead guilty to all eleven counts of peonage and obviate the need for trial. Pace's supporters spread word that he had approached Reese against the advice of his own lawyers. In reality, the gesture was a calculated gambit to shift the focus of the prosecution to other defendants—while preserving Pace's challenges to the constitutionality of the indictment.
Reese refused to accept the plea unless Pace was represented by his attorney. At noon, after rounding up one of Pace's lawyers—the others had already departed for Dadeville—court was called into session, and the peonage counts read aloud. Pace pleaded guilty to each one, though only after his attorney filed "demurrers" to the indictments—objections in modern legal parlance—arguing that the federal peonage statute didn't apply to the acts alleged in the indictments.
The federal government had no jurisdiction over the use of forced labor in Tallapoosa County, the lawyers argued, regardless of whether individuals had been held in slavery. Judge Jones, acknowledging Pace's right to challenge the applicability of the peonage law to a higher federal court, overruled the objections and ordered Pace to stand for sentencing.
Asked if he had anything to say, Pace—in stark contradiction to his initial claims to the press—said he was guilty of the seizure of eleven African Americans, including John Davis, Rita Scott, Jim Caldwell, and another laborer named Owen Green. Yet Pace denied that his capture and enslavement of workers violated any United States laws.
Green had also raised his shirt to show the grand jury his injuries during earlier testimony. "They whipped scars on me," Green said as he revealed the marks on his skin. "They laid me up for a week and a half one time. One of the scars on me is where Mr. Tom Blassingale struck me on the head. He struck me with a stick …and knocked me senseless…. Mr. Jim Kennedy choked me and jumped on my head. After I was stamped, the blood came up from my lungs…. I bled a good deal from my lungs."2
In the case of Green, Pace lured the farmhand by approaching him in a saloon in Dadeville, offering to hire him for $4 per month, help his father pay off the mortgage on a $16 horse, and allow him to come and go freely from the farm. But once a contract had been signed, Green was placed in the lockup on Pace's farm for nearly two years. "I was made to do farming, locked up at nights and whipped," Green testified. "Mr. Jim Kennedy whipped me five times in one day. Mr. Bob Smith also whipped me. He whipped me four times. Mr. Bill Brown whipped me." Later, Pace sold Green to George Cosby.
In the courtroom, Reese stood and, playing out a carefully choreographed arrangement with Judge Jones and Pace's lawyer, made one act of deference to the defendant—who appeared in court looking far older than his forty-nine years.3 Reese pointed out Pace's "diseased" condition and asked that the defendant be allowed to sit for the rest of the proceeding.
Judge Jones agreed and then sentenced Pace to five years in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta on each charge. Taking into account Pace's infirmity, the judge ruled that the sentences would be served concurrently The charges that Pace had conspired with others in the seizure and enslavement of blacks were postponed until after the court of appeals ruled on Pace's challenge. Accepting assertions that Pace was in dire health, Jones also allowed him to post a $5,000 bond and remain free pending the outcome of those legal machinations. William Gray, the Dadeville banker, reappeared at the bar, along with co-defendant Fletch Turner, to sign the bond for Pace. He was released from custody.
Pace appeared visibly relieved, though the stiff sentence sent a wave of anxiety through the other defendants—who realized Pace was now likely to be called to testify against them and that Judge Jones would hand down similar penalties to others convicted.
The Advertiser, like most local whites, remained certain that Pace would never actually be imprisoned, regardless of whether the guilty pleas were affirmed by the court of appeals. "He is in an almost helpless physical condition. He suffers from a bone disease which has affected his feet, and he walks with great effort. It is said that he will be able to produce a surgeon's certificate showing he is in a terrible physical condition."
Reese was elated with the guilty plea. But a growing chorus of politicians, journalists, and southern commentators—the same voices that originally applauded the investigation as proof that southerners could be relied on to clean up slavery—hailed Pace's admission that the continuing slavery was limited to a pocket of miscreants in one county. They loudly proclaimed there was no need to pursue any further charges or allegations.
Reese knew better. The publicity around Pace's arraignment and plea triggered a wave of new allegations, some even more grim than any yet heard by the grand jury. Moreover, Attorney General Knox's earlier order of investigations into peonage and involuntary servitude across Alabama, Georgia, and northern Florida was detecting dozens of other cases. U.S. District Court judge Emory Speer in Macon, Georgia, was presiding over his own proceedings stemming from a multilayered slave trading conspiracy in the southern half of that state.
Three white men—William Shy, Arthur Clawson, and Robert Turner— pleaded guilty there to capturing a black man they claimed owed them money whipping him, and forcing him into labor. Judge Speer—behaving more like Alabama had initially expected of Judge Jones—fined the men $1,000 each but then immediately suspended the punishments.
Apparently unaware of the earlier peonage allegations in his state, Speer made the extraordinary assumption that the three men before him were the only whites to reenslave a black man since the Civil War. "In view of the fact that this is the first crime of the kind which ever has occurred in Georgia," Speer told the defendants, "and because of the frank confession of the young men, sentence is imposed, in order to convince the public that the purpose of the court is to warn and deter others from like crime. During good behavior, fine is suspended upon payment of $100 each." Given the "problems of the times," Speer maintained harsh measures would be counterproductive. "I deemed it for every reason best to deal very leniently with the prisoners," Speer wrote to the attorney general.4
Reese was concerned that too many in the South viewed the new slavery cases just as Judge Speer appeared to, as an anomaly. To prove the broad scope of involuntary servitude in his jurisdiction, Reese planned to aggressively broaden his investigation. Just two days after Pace's guilty plea, the prosecutor sent federal marshals back to Coosa County to arrest Laray Grogan, one of the Goodwater watchguards who had been so busy in the town's trade in black labor.
Grogan was accused of arresting an African American woman named Emma Pearson on a bogus charge of vagrancy and then selling her to Eliza Turner, the brother of Fletch Turner, who managed the family's limestone quarry in Calcis. After arriving in Montgomery, Grogan told a local reporter that he had done nothing wrong and further that the peonage cases had made the blacks of Coosa and Tallapoosa counties "unbearably impertinent." His bond was immediately posted by two wealthy Goodwater businessmen, and Grogan was released.
The same day, J. Wilburn Haralson was arrested in Columbus, Georgia, where he worked in a cotton mill, and brought by a Saturday morning train to Montgomery. Known as the Cosby family's "affidavit man," Haralson routinely wrote out and swore to any fictitious charge George Cosby told him to lodge as a ruse for seizing blacks. He was placed in the county jail to await trial on five counts of peonage.5
Despite the continuing stream of new charges and the opening of the Cosby trial a few days away, Reese worried that public support for his campaign was wavering. Newspapers across the South were growing more belligerent in tone as Reese and a few other prosecutors continued investigations. Alabama's most popular political figure, Secretary of State J. Thomas Heflin, was also growing louder in his denunciations of the cases.
Three days before the Cosby trial was set to begin, Reese conducted a formal interview with the Montgomery Advertiser. He said that while the charges against the Cosby men were technically termed peonage, the case was in fact about slavery—the overt buying and selling of humans, and holding them in a condition of coerced forced labor. "These indictments are for …kidnapping and taking and carrying away any person with intent to place him in a condition of slavery, and holding and returning him to a condition of peonage," Reese said.
He also made it clear that the cases were aimed not just at cleaning up an isolated nest of slavery hanging on in one area of Alabama. The prosecution was an attack on widespread practices of involuntary servitude across the state. The Tallapoosa cases were the high-profile criminal thrust of the effort, but just as important was Judge Jones ruling that the Alabama contract labor law was invalid. "The contract labor law which has just been declared unconstitutional …was passed for the protection of landlords in the cotton growing belt.
"It is a matter of common knowledge that under this statute, the laborer or renter has not been guilty of any criminal act in thus leaving or abandoning the premises," Reese said. "He has simply breached a contract which creates the relation of debtor and creditor. Under this statute the creditor commands the debtor on peril of hard labor not to work at his accustomed vocation for any one else during the term of that contract." Reese blamed the nearly unchecked and unaccountable power wielded by justices of the peace in rural areas.6
The following morning, the Cosbys appeared on the second floor of the federal building accompanied by Dadeville lawyer Thomas L. Bulger, son of the Confederate hero at Gettysburg. But the first train from Tallapoosa County, packed with spectators and key witnesses, had been delayed. Finally, at 1 P.M., the court convened with a crowded gallery of white spectators. White witnesses milled in the corridor. For their safety, the African Americans who would testify, explained Reese, would be produced only as they were called to the stand.
Reese announced to the gallery that the government would first prosecute case No. 4218, in which the Cosbys, Pace, J. W. Haralson, and James Kennedy were charged with conspiring to sell Pike Swanson into labor on the Cosby farm. Swanson had testified previously to the grand jury that he was held on the Cosby plantation until just before the peonage investigation began. A farmhand from Macon County, he said he went to the Cosby farm the previous July and freely signed a contract to work for $2 a month. But once Swanson began work, the Cosbys refused to pay him. Instead, he was arrested, then arrested a second time, on bogus affidavits by Haralson accusing him of disorderly conduct and fighting. Swanson was put through a sham trial by Kennedy, the justice of the peace. Then Cosby pretended to pay Swanson's fines in return for holding the worker at least fourteen more months.
Swanson testified he was never paid for any work on the Cosby plantation and was held under guard seven days a week, and locked in at night. Two weeks before the Cosbys were indicted, the white men freed Swanson, who then fled to his home county. A week before the trial, Burancas Cosby claimed never to have seen Pike Swanson.
After Reese announced that Swanson's capture would be the first case, Judge Jones granted a one-day delay to give the defense lawyers time to prepare. But early that afternoon, George Cosby sent word that he and the other members of his family wished to avoid the trial, as Pace had done. G. R. Shaffer, of Dadeville, one of the men who made bond for the Cosbys, urged them to plead guilty and had gathered scores of signatures in Tal-lapoosa County on a petition asking for clemency.
At 5 P.M., Shaffer called the judge from his Adams Street home back to court chambers, where they met with Cosby's lawyers. Judge Jones refused to promise clemency. But in return for guilty pleas from two of the men, Jones and Reese agreed to accept the attorneys’ arguments that the statute of limitations had passed on the crimes alleged against W. D. Cosby—the man who had been ready to take morphine a few weeks earlier. His case was dismissed.
With shafts of summer sun cutting sharp diagonals through the courtroom windows, George Cosby and his nephew Burancas stood before the bench, heads bowed, eyes downcast. They quietly pleaded guilty to forty-five counts of peonage and conspiracy to hold blacks in slavery.
The two insisted they had no idea that their actions were against the law. They vigorously protested allegations by the U.S. attorney that they treated the forced laborers cruelly. They implored the court to recognize the hardship on their families that would come from imprisonment.
"The excuse that you did not know that you were violating the laws of the United States can have no legal weight, since every man is conclusively presumed to know the law," Judge Jones responded. "It is not entitled to a particle of moral weight in these cases, because you are bound to know that what you did was a violation of the laws of God and of the State regardless of any law of the United States. Helpless and defenseless people who are guilty of no crime have been brought into court and by collusion with justices of the peace, who prostituted the authority of God and of this State in the administration of justice have been deprived of their liberty, fined and forced to work and in some instances cruelly beaten.
"You have violated not only the laws of your country but that great law of honor and justice, which bids the powerful and strong not to oppress the down-trodden."7
Judge Jones sentenced each of the men to one year and a day in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta.
Reese was jubilant. The swift guilty pleas seemed to prove both the extent of involuntary servitude and the power of the federal sword to stop it. The clear implication was that he was at the beginning of a massive campaign to root out slavery once and for all. The trial of Fletch Turner was next on the docket, and would be followed by many more. Agents continued to probe Lowndes County and other areas where evidence of even more widespread slavery was rampant. Reese began advocating to the Department of Justice that his assistant, Julius Sternfeld, be named a special prosecutor solely to oversee the expanding investigation. "These cases justify the contention of the government that peonage and involuntary servitude has been practiced in Alabama in no small degree," he quickly wrote the attorney general. "These practices are indulged in many other counties in the district and our effort shall be made in the direction of putting an end to them."8
But more practical men than Reese could better see what the future held. White leaders were rallying across the South, emboldened by men such as Secretary of State Heflin, who was crisscrossing Alabama denouncing Reese's investigation and castigating any white man who did not agree. At the same time, black preachers and African Americans who had established some sliver of financial security grew fearful of the rising temperature around them. They had learned through bloody experience the dangers of challenging the status quo of white domination, and also that in the inflexible rituals of southern racial interaction men such as themselves were expected to prostrate themselves before whites as proof that they too gave no credence to the inquiries demanded by President Roosevelt and Judge Jones.
Shortly after the Cosby sentencing, Edward M. Adams, a Secret Service agent stationed in Montgomery, wrote to Washington headquarters in hopes of softening any disappointment that might come if no jury convictions were won in any of the slavery cases. He was particularly concerned that another agent assigned to the cases not be tainted by any such failure. "He has secured evidence in a number of cases that ought to bring convictions, yet, knowing public sentiment as I do, I fear, unless compromise verdicts can be secured, that no convictions will result," Adams wrote. "The iniquity of peonage will always remain in this country in practice, to eradicate it is an interminable work. The sentiment against the infliction of punishment to offenders finds its strongest exponent in Secretary of State Heflin, an orator of no mean ability, and he is going about the state like a roaring lion. I merely write this, to say, that whatever the result in the trial of the cases in this court, the failure to convict and punish offenders, cannot be charged to our service."
Adams included with his letter a newspaper clipping reporting that petitions signed by hundreds of blacks in Tallapoosa and Coosa counties had been presented to Judge Jones asking for clemency for the Cosbys. "These cases have caused a bitter feeling between the two races," the article said with profound understatement, "and that the petitioners believe that the peonage system is broken up, and further says that the Cosbys are good citizens of the community."9
Indeed, whatever initial contrition white southerners expressed at the first revelations of slavery was evaporating as it became clear that Judge Jones and Reese had no plans to stop after a few symbolic guilty pleas. Facing the dock of the courtroom, Fletch Turner and his son, Allen, were ready to embrace the most brazen defense of the new slavery yet offered.
On July 4, attorneys for the father and son filed demurrers, challenging the peonage charges against them. Their fundamental objection was constructed upon a startling argument. The Turners’ lawyers conceded that their clients indeed had engaged in a form of slavery, but that involuntary servitude wasn't peonage and therefore wasn't illegal.
"Unlawfully and knowingly holding a person forcibly and against his will and requiring such person to labor for the holder to work out a debt claimed by the holder to be due him …does not constitute holding such person to a condition of peonage under the laws of the United States," they wrote.10
Moreover, the Turners’ lawyers argued that no system of peonage existed in Alabama at all, making the statute forbidding it irrelevant, and charges based on the law impossible. They added that since peonage was defined as forced labor in repayment of a debt, the Turners couldn't be convicted of peonage if, as the government contended, the debts owed to them by black workers were bogus.
Ignoring the claims of extreme abuse and homicide committed on the Turner farm, the attorneys argued that the men's behavior might constitute a form of slavery but that no federal statute made slavery a crime. Cases of slavery would have to be brought in a state court by local officials under Alabama's law against false imprisonment, the lawyers argued. No acknowledgment was made that in a local court, the prosecutor would be a white man elected in all-white elections, the jury guaranteed to be all-white, the judges likely involved in the slaving conspiracy, the buyers of men almost certainly prominent local figures, black attorneys barred from appearing, and black witnesses treated as unreliable by nature. In the four decades since emancipation, no one could recall any such criminal charges ever being brought in a southern court. No one imagined that ever changing.
Astonishingly, the lawyers were on some level correct. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, passed in the wake of the war to formalize the ending of slavery, simply declared all persons born in the United States to be full-fledged citizens with the right to vote regardless of race or previous "condition of slavery or involuntary servitude." But it did not clearly state that the holding of slaves was a crime, and the disparate treatment of former slaves was made only a misdemeanor, carrying a maximum penalty of one year in jail. Later statutes in the 1870s made segregated accommodations, schools, and anti-black-voting measures illegal, but actually weakened the minimum penalty for violations. In 1883, the U.S. Supreme Court declared even those laws unconstitutional, ruling that the Thirteenth and Fourteenth amendments—approved in 1868 to abolish slavery and establish black citizenship—didn't authorize Congress to pass such enforcement laws. Following the growing national sentiment that race matters be left alone, Congress did nothing to fill the vacuum—leaving a constitutional limbo in which slavery as a legal concept was prohibited by the Constitution, but no statute made an act of enslavement explicitly illegal.
It didn't matter to the Turners’ lawyers that little of their defense claims matched their earlier sworn statements when first questioned by a federal agent and a special U.S. commissioner two months earlier. Turner had scoffed at the suggestion that his past handling of black laborers was legally or morally suspect. He offered elaborate explanations for why he imprisoned a series of blacks the federal officer identified. In the case of Joe Strickland, the white farmer conceded that the laborer didn't appear anywhere in the records of the local courts but was nonetheless a criminal prisoner. He claimed Strickland's records were in a different jurisdiction, and that the Goodwater deputy sheriff, Grogan, brought two black men to the Tallapoosa County jail in July 1901 and asked Turner if he wished to "buy" one of them out of jail. Turner claimed he entered into a formal labor contract with the worker, who had been tried for "riding a train," and that the local probate judge said it was unnecessary for the court to authorize the arrangement.11
"If you behave yourself," Turner claimed to have told Strickland, "I will let you off in five months." Turner demurred that he "had just commenced in the convict business" and didn't understand the ins and outs of the rules. In kindness, he had paid a doctor, Turner claimed, to treat Strickland's syphilis—and then kept him at work an extra six months simply to cover the costs. By the time of the trial, Strickland was working in the coal mines near Birmingham, he added.
On July 7, Glennie Helms became the first victim of the Tallapoosa cases to testify publicly. Moving to the witness chair just after 5 P.M., Helms sat calmly and confidently before the courtroom filled with white spectators. Neatly dressed and his head cleanly shaven, Helms said he was eighteen at the time of his capture and was attempting to travel from Calcis—where he had worked for a week in the lime quarry owned by Turner's family— back to his home in Columbus, Georgia. As Helms and two companions passed on foot through Goodwater on April 15, 1902, they were seized by the town marshal, charged with vagrancy, immediately convicted by the mayor, and then sold at the Dadeville depot to Fletcher Turner.12 Turner was apparently unaware that the three had been working for his family's quarry and put them to work digging ditches on his farm.
Under questioning from Reese, Helms told the twelve white jurors how he was brutally beaten on his arrival at Turner's farm. Reese, regal in a high, stiffened collar and checkered cravat, asked whether either of the Turners or their employees whipped him again during the four months he was held on the farm. Helms testified he was beaten nearly every day by Turner's son, Allen, or another armed guard. After about a month of work, he escaped— only to be captured by the sheriff of another county and returned to the farm. As punishment for fleeing, he said Allen Turner whipped him severely with a thick stick.
The cross-examination that followed must have been one of the most extraordinary encounters ever in a southern courtroom. In the witness chair sat an eighteen-year-old black boy in the simple attire of an indigent farmhand, largely illiterate and almost certainly the child of parents born in antebellum slavery. Standing before him—challenging his account of re-enslavement—was the aristocratic form of U.S. representative Ariosto Appling Wiley, prominent congressman and one of the city's most notable attorneys.
Unfazed by the disjuncture of the scene, Helms hewed to his story—as unswervingly as a skilled plow hand cutting neat furrows across a field. Unable to budge the verisimilitude of the young man's descriptions of his capture and beatings, Representative Wiley obsessed on what he called contradictory details in the testimony. Was the buggy in which Helms and the others were transported to the farm owned by a livery stable or someone else? he hammered. Finally, the lawyer portrayed Helms as a "shiftless negro" enjoying his moment in the spotlight at the expense of the federal government.
"Who's been taking care of you since you came here?" Wiley asked sharply.
"Captain Dickey," replied Helms, referring to the Secret Service agent who had guarded the black witnesses housed in a boardinghouse since May.
Night was falling, and the court recessed for the evening. Outside the federal building, Fletcher Turner, soaked from the heat of the courtroom, fumed to local reporters about published allegations that his son had brutally killed a black woman named Cornelia Hammock.13 He insisted that the woman died of disease and offered to have her body exhumed to prove it.
The next day, a series of witnesses called by the government corroborated Helms's account. Dave Johnson, one of the other blacks captured with him in Goodwater, the night watchman John G. Dunbar, town mayor Dave White, and others confirmed how the three African Americans were seized and sold.
The Turner defense aggressively attacked each witness. After the testimony of the white attorney who bought Helms's freedom after finding him being worked naked at the Turner sawmill, Colonel Wiley launched a withering cross-examination—insinuating that the lawyer, L. E. White, was so friendly to Helms's family and other black workers that he couldn't be trusted. Wiley didn't use the specific words, but his message to the jury was that White was a "nigger lover"—a man operating outside the racial rituals of the South. The questions became so sharp that Judge Jones recessed the proceedings and reprimanded Wiley for the calumnies against White. "The witness must not be sneered at or insulted," Jones said.
The strategy was designed not to prove that Helms hadn't been captured and sold—since the Turners admitted those facts—but to mock the black witnesses and discredit any white men who corroborated them. It was a time-proven and honored southern lawyerly ruse. In the rare instance that a black man or woman received a day in court, attorneys simply ridiculed the very idea of a black man being treated respectfully and anyone who appeared willing to do so. Triggering an almost tribal form of group solidarity, the tactic usually triggered juries of white men to guffaw at the comedy of a black man under oath. If the jury concluded that the government's case was built on the testimony of worthless African Americans and unreliable whites, Colonel Wiley was confident of an acquittal. He knew Alabama was tired of the peonage cases. And he wanted to remind the jurors that to do otherwise would subject them to their own ridicule as "lovers" of blacks.
On the trial's third day, the defense presented a stream of witnesses testifying to the Turners’ excellent character and care of black convicts they leased from local governments. For weeks leading up to the trial, court observers and journalists speculated that Secretary of State J. Thomas Hef-lin, Alabama's most flamboyant white supremacist, might represent the Turners in court in a show of support for the men.
Just before noon, as the defense prepared to close its case, Heflin was called as a witness. In previous weeks, there had been no indication that the men knew each other. But taking the stand, Heflin swore that he had known Fletcher Turner for "several years" and that Turner had always been a man of good character. The message to the jury—that the white orthodoxy of the South was behind the defendants, not the opponents of slavery—was clear.
The next morning, the gallery was jammed with observers, including a large crowd of African Americans. As eight hours of closing arguments by four separate attorneys ground through the day, the stifling courtroom became a throng of perspiring men, aflutter with dozens of handheld fans.
The final defense argument was explicit—whatever the facts of the case, every white man must acquit Fletcher Turner as a message to the rest of the United States. "Forever put at rest the agitated minds of our Northern friends, and brand the newspaper criticisms and caricatures which have appeared in the northern journals as a falsification and a slander upon the fair name of Alabama," fumed attorney Bulger. "I have great faith in the sons and grandsons of the heroes of forty years ago, who followed Lee and Jackson for four long years through blood and fire, even from Sumter's battered walls to the famous apple tree, who went to the battlefields of Virginia and poured out their blood like water in defense of our Southern homes."14
Colonel Wiley followed with an unrepentant message that while "good negroes" deserved the care of the courts and the affection of white southerners, other blacks did not. "Shiftless vagabonds" take the money of farms and violate contracts, just as Glennie Helms had done, Wiley said. "If they were to be protected in this sort of thing the farmers of this country would be ruined," he concluded.
After a two-hour break to cool the courtroom, Reese returned with the government's final argument. Lacing his closing with references to the Bible and a passage in Exodus denouncing those who traffic in slaves, he scored members of the gallery who sneered when blacks were referred to in court as "American citizens." Reese argued that Turner deserved no mercy. "He bought the negroes just like one of you would buy a horse or a cow," Reese told the jury. "Can this man come here and ask you for mercy after that?"
After 5 P.M., Judge Jones began an emotional two-hour charge to the jury. Offering a detailed history of the peonage statute and the laws of labor in the United States, he reviewed the evidence presented and then explicitly urged the jurors to put aside the appeals to Civil War loyalties and white racial allegiance offered by Turner's lawyers. Jones, visibly aroused, left little doubt as to the verdict the jury should reach. "If you believe from all the evidence that Turner bought this darky, took him to his place, forced him to stay there, when he wanted to go away, and worked him as a convict under guard to liquidate the debt paid for him, then he is guilty," Jones said.15
Representative Wiley and Colonel Bulger shifted nervously as the judge all but instructed the jury to convict their clients. In truth there was also little doubt what would happen. Within hours of beginning deliberations that night, word spread through the courthouse that the jury was deadlocked—with eight men voting for acquittal and four to convict.
Notified of the split the following morning, an exasperated Judge Jones called the jury back into the courtroom. His confidence that southern white men could be counted on to police themselves was badly shaken. "If you do not return a verdict of guilty you will perjure yourselves in the sight of God and dishonor yourselves in the eyes of men," Jones told the jurors. Representative Wiley rose to object, but the judge ordered him silent and told the jurors they would not be excused until a verdict was reached. "The court does feel impelled under an earnest and solemn sense of duty as to the verdict you ought to render in this case, to appeal to your manhood, your sense of justice, and your oaths, not to declare that a jury in the Capital of Alabama would not enforce the law of the United States because it happened that a negro is the victim of the violated law and the defendant is a white man."16
When the jury resumed deliberations, the vote shifted to seven men for conviction and five for acquittal. But among those five, there was no possibility of change. On July 13, the jury reported that they were impossibly deadlocked. Judge Jones, barely concealing his scorn, declared a mistrial and set the Turners free.
"God forbid that the time will ever come in this country when you are helpless and distressed and have been the victim of oppression when you will be denied that protection of the law to which you appeal and to which every law-abiding human being is entitled among all civilized people," Jones told the jury. Reese vowed to bring the Turners back to trial before another jury17
That would not be needed. On the following Monday, Fletcher Turner surprised Montgomery when he returned to the federal building and took a seat with his attorney at the front of the gallery. When Judge Jones convened court to begin selection of jurors for the peonage trial of Robert Franklin, one of Turner's lawyers, N. M. Lackey, rose to speak. Turner was ready to plead guilty to a charge of peonage in order to avoid further prosecution on any other charges and in return for the dismissal of the counts against his son. "My client did not realize that he was violating the law. He did not know that he was doing anything that was not justified by law," Lackey explained. "If any cruelty was practiced it was done without the consent of my client. In this affair my client was mistaken."18
Judge Jones insisted that the facts proved Turner engaged in true slavery. "He purchased their liberty and services," the judge remonstrated, as Turner stood emotionless before the bench. But Judge Jones was no naive young Republican prosecutor. Even as he lectured the unrepentant farmer still driving slaves forty years after emancipation, Jones knew hardly any jury in America, most certainly not one in Alabama, could be relied on in 1903 to convict the man before him. A new trial would accomplish nothing. He accepted the plea of guilty, levied a fine of $1,000, and the case was closed.