Our history holds many tragic events, but perhaps one of the saddest is being put to death for a crime one did not commit. A story about one of these occurrences was recorded in the WPA book on Rhea County tombstones, published in 1938. According to WPA records, the Hughes Cemetery is located at the top of Dayton Mountain off a gravel road to the left of the highway. There are three graves with initials carved in rocks that are located under a lone pine tree on the Colvin farm. The rocks which serve as headstones, show initials of E. H.; A. H.; and one with a T.
(The WPA, or Works Progress Administration, was created in 1935 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and was a national program to provide one paid job for all families in which the breadwinner had been unemployed for a long term. It was designed to employ unskilled people in carrying out public works projects.)
From information given in both the WPA records and Volume 2 of the Rhea County Cemetery Records, two of the Hughes boys were hanged in Scottsboro, Alabama; they were accused of burning a barn. Nick Allen, a lawyer, made the trip to Alabama in order to defend the boys, but no one would listen to him. It seems that the sheriff had to guard Allen, and put him on the train bound for home. The two Hughes boys were then hanged, and their bodies sent back to Dayton. They were driven to the mountain in an ox wagon, while their father walked beside them. Mr. Hughes asked to see his sons; Mr. Marion Snow opened the casket, and then took the black caps off their faces. The funeral service was conducted by Reverend Howard. Their sister, Ettie, is also buried by their side. Sadly, the two Hughes boys were found innocent when another man confessed to the crime.
According to the 1870 census records, there was a John W. Hughes listed with a son, Asberry G., eight years old, and another son, George W. (that would be Tobe), six years old. Mr. Hughes also had other children named in this record. The WPA cemetery record was copied by Floyd Poole of Dayton, on October 14, 1937, and the narrative states that the event had happened approximately fifty years before. More information listed in the cemetery book was given by a descendent of the Hughes family, Maxine Blair, of Mesa, Arizona. The dates given by Ms. Blair were as follows: Tobe (George W.), 1864-August 1, 1884; Asberry Green, 1862-August 1, 1884; Ettie, born circa 1869. The death dates of the Hughes boys tell us that the tragic event occurred in 1884.
In the history of Jackson County, Alabama, written by John Robert Kennamer in 1935, it states that one of the great court trials of that area was August 1, 1884. Mr. Henry Porter (originally from New York) had built a home on one of the bluffs of the Tennessee River on Sand Mountain. This area became known as Porter’s Bluff. On a Sunday evening, March 25, 1883, the Porter family heard gunfire near their house, and saw three or four men under the trees. The men demanded money, which the Porters did not have; so the trespassers set fire to the house. George and Asbury Hughes and John Grayson were arrested a short time later for the crime; George Smith was arrested in Tennessee shortly before the trial began. Smith had killed a Mr. Street before this house-burning event occurred. The account stated that the Hughes boys were approximately eighteen and twenty years old, and that their father lived in Rhea County, Tennessee. This information checks with the census records of 1870.
During the trial, the counsel for the defense were General L. P. Walker of Huntsville, Mr. Allen of Rhea County, Tennessee, Judge Haralson of DeKalb, R. C. Hunt and Judge Colton of Scottsboro. Prosecution attorneys were Honorable J. E. Brown of Scottsboro, and Captain L. W. Day of Huntsville. Solicitor Jones H. C. Speake was the trial judge. The defendants pled innocent; however, the jury’s verdict was guilty, and the sentence for George Smith, George Hughes and Asberry Hughes was hanging. John Grayson was sentenced to spend life in the penitentiary. Appeals were made, but did no good. The three were hanged, even though they denied having anything to do with the burning of the Porter house. J. J. Beeson of the Baptist Church baptized the boys by immersion, as they had requested; the fifty-first Psalm was read, a prayer was prayed and a song was sung. Then the prisoners were led to the scaffold, with the Methodist minister, L. F. Whitten, and the judge named Tally, making speeches to the crowd. Afterward, John C. Johnson, deputy sheriff, cut the rope, and the prisoners were hanged. This historical narrative of Jackson County further states that this particular trial and hanging had such an influence in the next general election in the county, that the regular Democratic ticket was defeated by Independents! Also, the Montgomery Advertiser newspaper specified that this event was the first instance in which a white man was executed for arson in Alabama.
Our justice system has changed greatly since the 1800’s, but the emotions of people still run high when it comes to crime. Many want to try and convict those they think are guilty without a jury trial or judicial hearing. This story of George and Asberry Hughes is both tragic and unjust; however, it is part of the history of our county, and of the South during the late 1800’s. Even though we do not always agree with events which happen, we have to understand that these things are part of history, and we cannot and should not make them go away because they are part of our heritage and did happen. We should not try to change history, just learn from it. Also, we can learn a great deal from this historical event so that we will be influenced by the past in order to live in the present and be part of the future.
Pat Guffey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org