Friday, January 11, 2013

The Miracle on the Gallows

William Isaac Purvis was born in 1872 in Jasper County, Mississippi. His family moved to the Marion County area in 1884 to Devil’s Bend near Columbia. At the age of nineteen, Purvis decided to join the White Caps, a secret organization similar to the Ku Klux Klan. Shortly after Purvis joined the White Caps, a local African American farm hand named Sam Waller was abducted and flogged. Waller had been in the employ of a local widow and was lured away by the promise of more money by William and Jim Buckley. The White Caps apparently took offense that Waller left the widow with no help on her farm. 

Following the incident, Will and Jim Buckley, both white men and also members of the White Caps, took Sam Waller to Columbia (seen here, in an undated photograph), where a grand jury was in session, to report the whipping, in essence accusing fellow "Whitecappers" of beating a black man. While on their way home, the three men were ambushed and Will Buckley was shot out of his saddle and died soon thereafter. Jim Buckley identified the shooter as young Will Purvis. Purvis was subsequently arrested and tried for the murder of Will Buckley. Based on the eyewitness testimony, Purvis was convicted for the crime, although he steadfastly claimed his innocence.

Purvis was sentenced to death by hanging and on February 7, 1894, the sentence was carried out. The day before the execution, according to a contemporary newspaper account, Purvis "passed a sleepless night praying and singing with the clergymen who came to visit him. But he steadfastly professed his innocence of the Buckley murder." The day of the hanging, Purvis was shaved, given a new suit, and led to the waiting gallows. After stepping onto the platform, his last words were ”You are going to take the life of an innocent man, but there are people here that know who did commit the crime and if they will come forward and confess, I will go free.”

It was 12:30 p.m. when the black bag was placed over his head and the noose tightened around his neck. Before hundreds of eager spectators (some accounts say as many as 3,000), the trap door was released. Much to the astonishment of all those who had assembled to see the execution, though, Purvis did not swing from the hangman's noose. Instead, he plunged straight through to the ground. Somehow, perhaps miraculously, the noose had come loose, sparing his life. Later on, Purvis recalled that he "heard the door creak, my body plunged down and all went black. When I regained consciousness I heard somebody say, 'Well, Bill, we’ve got to do it all over again.'” 

After witnessing this seemingly miraculous event, many in the crowd, especially the Rev. W.S. Sibley (one of the clergymen who had visited with him the night before), proclaimed that God had intervened on Purvis’s behalf and requested that Sheriff I.O. Magee return him to jail instead of retrying the hanging. Faced with overwhelming sentiment among the assembled throng not to go through with the hanging again, Purvis was indeed taken back to jail. The question of what to do with a man who had already been hung once had to be decided by the Mississippi Supreme Court. After considering his conviction, the court ruled that the death sentence still had to be carried out, and the hanging was rescheduled for July 31, 1895. The court's decision was met with scorn by many in the area, however, and the night before the rescheduled hanging a group of sympathizers helped Purvis break out of jail. For the next year, he was a man on the run, although the effort was capture him was apparently somewhat half-hearted. 

In 1896, Anselm J. McLaurin was elected governor and commuted Purvis’ sentence to life in prison, fulfilling a campaign promise. Two years later, on  December 19, 1898, McLaurin (right) granted Purvis a full pardon after Jim Buckley recanted some of his eyewitness testimony. Now a free man, Purvis married his childhood sweetheart in 1900, took up farming and fathered seven children. Although he was free, he continued to maintain that he had been wrongly convicted in the first. In 1917, Purvis' innocence was finally proven. On his deathbed, another man, Joe Beard, confessed that he had been involved in the ambush and identified the real triggerman as Louis Thornhill. Beard had been led to confess after attending a revival service. Because of his confession, Will Purvis was given $5000.00 in restitution by the Mississippi Legislature for having been wrongfully convicted and imprisoned. William Isaac Purvis (left) died in Purvis, Mississippi, on October 13, 1938, a truly free man. He was 66 years old. Louis Thornhill, identified as the real murderer, was never brought to trial. 

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Whitecapper:
(2) Columbia:
(3) Hanging:
(4) Purvis:
(5) McLaurin:

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

The "Moving Appeal"

In 1841, a little more than ten years after the City of Memphis was founded, Henry Van Pelt printed the first issue of the Memphis Appeal, a weekly newspaper. Van Pelt printed the fledgling newspaper from his home located on the Wolf River. Printed on single sheets of paper, the Appeal was anything but appealing. However, it served a need in what was at the time a hard-bitten, backwater frontier town on the Mississippi. Van Pelt (right) was a Democrat, and the paper reflected his political views, which were generally in opposition with the majority of Memphis citizens, who were Whigs. They, of course, had their own papers to voice their concerns. As Memphis grew into a real city, however, so did the Memphis Appeal. By 1847, it went from a weekly publication to a daily paper and with it a new name: the Memphis Daily Appeal. On April 23, 1851 just two days after the paper celebrated its ten-year anniversary Van Pelt dropped dead, and the newspaper changed hands. 

As sectional conflicts over slavery and other issues exploded on the scene, Benjamin Dill took over as editor and John R. McClanahan became the papers printer. A native of Georgia, Dill had been a lawyer and worked as a bank cashier in Mississippi and Missouri before moving to Memphis and taking over the Appeal. Although neither were too outspoken on the issues of the day other than voicing support for states rights by the beginning of hostilities both men were thoroughly on board with secession and enthusiastically supported the Confederacy. As a result, the Memphis Daily Appeal became a very pro-Confederate newspaper. 

In the spring of 1862, Union forces, fresh from their victories at Shiloh and Corinth, threatened to capture Memphis, and on June 6 the city surrendered to a Federal river fleet. With their very public stance in support of the Confederacy, Dill and McClanahan didn't hang around to find out how the Yankees would treat them. Not only did they flee the day before the Federals arrived, they took the newspaper with them, loading all of the presses and other equipment on a boxcar (seen here in this artist's rendering). Thus began the strange saga of the "Moving Appeal."

Heading south, the newspapermen set up shop in Grenada, Mississippi. On June 9, just three days after leaving Memphis, the publishers of the Appeal explained that they moved to Grenada in order to continue their advocacy of the Southern cause. "So long as two or three States are gathered together in the name of the Confederate States," they wrote, "so long will we be found advocating, as zealously as ever, a continued resistance to the tyranny which a haughty foe are endeavoring to establish over us..." The Memphis Daily Appeal continued to publish from Grenada until until November 29, when Grant's approaching army during the Mississippi Central R.R. campaign forced Dill and McClanahan to relocate yet again, this time to Jackson. 

The Appeal remained in Mississippi capital for about five months, and established itself in the Bowman House Hotel (right), where above his room McClanahan hung a banner which read "Memphis Headquarters." During the paper's time in Jackson, there were shortages of ink and other necessities, but they improvised enough to continue publication. Then, in mid-May, Union troops once again got too close for comfort (it was Grant and Sherman this time) and the presses were loaded onto a flatboat and sent across the Pearl River, barely escaping capture by Sherman's men on May 14, 1863. Sherman, of course, despised all newspapers and reporters. No doubt, he would have been delighted to rid the world of the "Moving Appeal."

Heading east, the Appeal next stopped in Meridian, but kept moving into Georgia. From Atlanta, the Appeal published for the first time in Georgia one year after leaving Memphis, on June 6, 1863. The Appeal found a home in Atlanta for a whole year and had a healthy circulation of nearly  15,000.  As before, however, approaching Union armies threatened the paper's existence and the Appeal was on the move again in June 1864 as Sherman began bombarding Atlanta. Even though the presses were shipped to Montgomery, the Appeal valiantly continued to publish news for the men in the trenches until as late as September 2. A few weeks later, presses were running again in Montgomery, where they remained until April, 1865. 

On April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia to Grant at Appomattox. The same day, Confederate forces were overwhelmed at Fort Blakeley, Alabama, on the northeast side of Mobile Bay. Clearly, the war was winding to a close. In Montgomery, Union cavalry forces under Brig. Gen. James H. Wilson (left) went on an extended and destructive raid through Alabama and into Georgia (the same raid in which the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa was burned to the ground and during which Jefferson Davis was captured). To try and escape Wilson, the paper and it's presses fled to Columbus, Georgia. In Columbus, however, the Appeal staff was finally captured, including Benjamin Dill. When Dill was taken to General Wilson and introduced, Wilson is said to have exclaimed "Have we caught the old fox at last? Well I'll be damned!" While he might have finally captured the editor, the valuable press was nowhere to be found, as it had been spirited away to Macon and hidden to escape destruction. The "Moving Appeal" had at last been grounded.
With the end of the war, the remaining members of the newspaper staff made their way back to Memphis. Within six months the Memphis Daily Appeal was publishing again, using the old wartime press which had been rescued from its hiding place in Macon. The once-secessionist editors now accepted the verdict of the Union through the force of arms and tried to look toward a new day for the paper and the city. For Dill and McClanahan, however, the journey would end soon. John McClanahan died after falling out of a window of the Gayoso Hotel and Benjamin Dill (right) died six months later of illness. The Appeal, however, did live on and today is known as the Commercial Appeal. If not for the heroic efforts to keep the presses running throughout the war, the paper might never have survived. Along the way, as another Southern newspaper put it, "Nothing in newspaperography can compare with [the Appeal's] strange, eventful career."

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Van Pelt:
(2) Daily Appeal masthead:
(3) The "Moving Appeal":
(4) Bowman House Hotel:
(5) James H. Wilson:
(6) Benjamin Dill:

Friday, January 4, 2013

Dee Barton: A Life in Music

Mississippi has long been associated with great musicians. The list of stars who hail from the magnolia state is lengthy, and includes those who have contributed to every form of music from country to rock and roll, from jazz to the blues, from big band to symphonies and opera. Of all Mississippi’s native musicians, though, few have contributed their talents in such a variety of musical forms as Dee Barton.

Born in Houston, Mississippi, in 1937, DeWells “Dee” Barton, Jr. moved with his family to Starkville at an early age. Barton attended school in Starkville, where his father was the high school band director. Following in his father’s footsteps, Barton joined the band, taking up the trombone at an early age. Practicing hours each day, Barton was an accomplished musician in high school and became the student band director. Significantly, he was a member of the Mississippi Lions Club band all four years during high school, an almost unrivaled accomplishment.

After graduating from high school in Starkville, Dee Barton was ready to get out on his own and joined Ralph Marterie’s big band in 1956. It wasn’t a good fit, however, and Barton returned in short order and enrolled at North Texas State University the next year, where he received a full scholarship. He graduated in 1960 with a degree in education and musical composition (as a student he had regularly substituted for his father at Starkville High School, so teaching music came naturally). After graduation, Barton joined another big band, this time led by Stan Kenton, who Barton had met when he was a teenager. Kenton was well aware of Barton’s talents and was eager to hire him. For the next decade, Barton was a key part of the jazz-oriented band. Interestingly, he switched from trombone to drums in 1962. It was as a drummer and a composer where Barton would make his biggest impact. During his time with Kenton, two of the band’s albums won Grammy Awards, the first of which (Adventures in Jazz, 1963, right) included two compositions by Barton.  

In time, Dee Barton moved to Los Angeles to pursue other opportunities, including film scores. While playing in a big band at a night club named Donte’s, Barton was introduced to Clint Eastwood.  Eastwood (left, seen here with Barton) soon commissioned him  to write the score for Play Misty For Me (1971), and he followed that with three more Eastwood films:  High Plains Drifter (1972), Thunderbolt and Lightfoot (1974) and Every Which Way But Loose (1978). He also participated in the music for Dirty Harry (1971) and Magnum Force (1973). Barton’s association with Clint Eastwood opened the door for lots of other jobs in Hollywood, both in the film industry and in television.  In addition to numerous film scores, Barton wrote for The Rockford Files, the Red Skelton Show, Ironside, Batman, The Odd Couple and Soul Train, among others, and collaborated with other well-known composers like John Williams. He also worked as a consultant for numerous artists, including Frank Sinatra, the Rolling Stones, Tony Bennett, John Lennon. Throughout his career in Hollywood, however, Barton always considered High Plains Drifter to be his best work and credited Clint Eastwood for first giving him an opportunity. 

In 1973, Barton left Hollywood for Memphis, where he became the musical director of the Media and Jingle Company.  For almost twenty years, he composed music for commercials. In 1988, he left the company to teach music seminars at various universities in the U.S.  Ten years later, Barton moved to Brandon, Mississippi, and became a composer in residence at Jackson State University, where he taught composition and advanced musical theory, finally returning to his home state and his roots in education. Two years earlier, in 1996, the Dallas Jazz Orchestra produced an album of Barton’s music. This work was later nominated for a Grammy.

After a life in music, including marching bands, big bands, jazz, movie scores, TV themes, advertising jingles, and music education, Dee Barton died in 2001 at age 64. He is buried in the Oddfellows Cemetery in Starkville. 

Photo and Image Sources:
(1) Barton (high school):
(2) Barton (college):
(3) Stan Kenton:
(4) Album:
(5) Barton and Eastwood:
(6) Movie poster:
(7) Barton: