Edward Thomas Watson was born September 5, 1856 two miles from Thomson, Georgia, oldest son of John Smith Watson and Ann Eliza Maddox. His family -- land and slave owners – descended from Georgia’s early Quaker residents who had settled in 1768 in Columbia County. The Civil War and Reconstruction profoundly disturbed Watson’s boyhood. His father was twice wounded; two of his uncles returned from the war incurably injured or sick. Watson’s beloved grandfather suffered a debilitating stroke in 1863 and soon died. The chaos of Reconstruction and the general economic collapse of the postwar South eventually left the Watsons destitute. In 1873, after losing the family plantation and a succession of smaller farms, they moved to nearby Augusta where John S. Watson found work operating a boarding house and saloon. The contrast between antebellum agrarian life and degrading urban existence forever marked Tom Watson’s worldview.
Despite desperate finances Watson’s mother, ever his champion, secured a modest college loan for her son. In 1872 Watson entered Mercer College, where his hero and former Thomson schoolmaster Epenetus Alexis Steed had recently accepted a professorship in Latin. Watson’s already ravenous appetite for poetry, literature, biography and history was further cultivated in the classrooms and employed in debating societies. After his freshman year, Tom Watson had earned a reputation as an eloquent, impassioned speaker. His ability to stir college audiences hinted at the fiery oratorical powers that would distinguish his future legal and political careers.
Lack of funds forced Watson to withdraw from Mercer after his sophomore year. Following a fruitless trip to Augusta in search of a store clerk position, Watson gained a seat in a wagon bound for Screven County. There he opened schools at both Little Horse Creek and Double Heads Creek, pecked out a meager living, and lived and dined among the common farming class he taught.
His poverty, frustration and obscurity notwithstanding, Watson was determined to become “one of the first men of the state,” and he turned his interests to law. At night he studied Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England. In 1875, Watson’s mother gained him permission to read law in the Augusta office of Judge W. R. McLaws. Watson passed the bar that fall and after a brief attempt to teach and to practice law simultaneously in Screven County, he returned permanently to Thomson to begin in earnest his legal career.
At the Bar
As a young lawyer, Watson eagerly accepted virtually every law case that came his way. His gifts of eloquence and intellect and his willingness to spar with lawyers twice his age and experience soon positioned him among the foremost trial lawyers in Georgia. A protégé of boyhood heroes Robert Toombs and Alexander Stephens, Watson displayed in court a balance between fiery oration and logical argument. Watson’s mastery of rural idiom, country metaphor and his appreciation of folk humor, all gained honestly by living among Georgia’s farmers, completed his formidable courtroom arsenal and jury appeal.
After his first year at the bar, Watson repurchased the Sweetwater Place, a 700 acre plantation once owned by his father. In 1877, he moved his family from their Augusta shanty to the Thomson farm, no doubt satisfying Watson with a social, economic, and moral victory over post war defeat and denigrating city life. In the meantime, Watson’s growing trial practice began to focus more closely on criminal defense. By 1890, Watson’s income was reportedly larger than any other famous Georgia lawyer except for Robert Toombs or Benjamin H. Hill. By 1897, lawyers throughout Georgia bitterly complained they could not earn convictions when Watson appeared for the defense.
Watson made his political debut as a delegate to the Georgia convention of 1880. His impertinent opposition to the nomination of Bourbon Governor Alfred H. Colquitt, demonstrated in an extemporaneous but brilliant speech, immediately earned statewide recognition and branded Watson a political rebel. His opposition cast the convention into an impasse from which it did not recover and marked the first time Watson crossed swords with Patrick Walsh, skilled manipulator of the formidable Richmond County Catholic vote and Democratic editor of the Augusta Chronicle.
Stirred by the convention of 1880, Watson ran for the Georgia House in 1882. He was elected with notable support from black voters. At 26, Watson’s shrill voice and slight appearance in the Atlanta statehouse did not differ greatly from his mentor and newly elected Georgia governor, Alexander H. Stephens.v Watson’s early attempts at state lawmaking could only be described as frustrated opposition to the political rein of the Bourbon Triumvirate. To no avail, he opposed Colquitt’s seating in the U.S. Senate. Watson attacked the state convict lease system, which abused prisoners and profited corporations (and lined the pockets of Democratic Senator Joseph E. Brown), and sought relief for the conditions of tenant farmers. Watson’s attempts to increase the taxation on railroads were defeated, as were similar corporate reform efforts. Stymied, Watson resigned after his first session of the legislature downcast, presumably unmoved by glowing newspaper reports of his “brilliance” on the floor.
Although Tom Watson was formally out of the political limelight for almost the next decade, he was not detached from politics. He rallied local opposition against John B. Gordon’s gubernatorial bid, and in 1888 campaigned statewide for Grover Cleveland with fellow presidential elector John Temple Graves. During these years Watson increasingly bristled at Henry Grady’s promotion of an industrialized New South, and in frequent speeches debunked his vision as fundamentally at odds with the realities and interests of Georgia’s majority: the long-suffering farming class.
In 1890, Watson was elected to Congress from Georgia’s “Bloody 10th” District. Although elected as a Democrat, Watson had campaigned on the principles of the Farmer’s Alliance that were soon incorporated into the Ocala Platform. His refusal to be cowed by his Bourbon counterparts attracted high praise from fellow Alliance supporters. “[He is] the most striking personality of the group,” wrote Hamlin Garland in the Populist Arena. “He speaks with a touch of the dialect of the South, and wears a soft hat in the Southern way. He is small and active. His face is perfectly beardless and quite thin. His eyes are his most remarkable feature, except possibly the abundance of dark red hair, pushed back from his face.”?
If newspapers and Democratic leaders demurred to his Alliance loyalties, they soon recoiled when Watson failed to support Charles F. Crisp–a Georgian—for Speaker of the House. Watson’s opposition to Crisp, who refused to stand on the Ocala demands, served as a rallying point for the Farmer’s Alliance and tempered permanently Watson’s position as a radical. Most Democrats, now threatened by the emerging People’s Party, branded Watson a demagogue and traitor to his party and the solid South.
If anything, Watson’s break with the Democratic Party galvanized his determination for reform. Except when ill, Watson attended every session of Congress and introduced legislation on most of the Ocala demands. In 1892, Watson introduced a bill to levy an income tax and one to abolish the customs duties on jute, jute bagging, iron ties, binding twine, and other materials used in cotton baling. Watson introduced a bill to abolish the National Bank, urged the free coinage of silver, pushed for a subtreasury system and advocated an eight-hour workday. Watson demanded the direct election of U.S. Senators. Also during his single session in the U.S. House, Watson proposed and secured funding for an amendment to the Post Office Appropriation Bill that would become the rural free delivery system of the U.S. Postal Service, earning Watson the sobriquet “Father of Rural Free Delivery.”
Watson’s titular claim that the populist movement was “Not a Revolt; It is a Revolution” was graphically supported throughout his failed 1892 reelection campaign against Augusta lawyer and Democrat J.C.C. Black. Watson’s successful challenge to Democratic rule and his advocacy for the political equality of the black farmer prompted violent confrontations between Democrats and Populists in towns across Georgia. Watson sparred with a supporter of Black in Thomson and was howled down in Augusta and Atlanta. In Augusta, several Populist supporters were killed; in Elbert County two black populists were shot on their way to the polls. Similar violence occurred in Dalton, Louisville and elsewhere. While visiting Macon, Populist presidential candidate James B. Weaver and his wife were egged. A black Populist campaigner for Watson was nearly lynched in Thomson, prompting the armed protection of him and Watson by thousands of loyal local farmers. Tom Watson’s life was threatened repeatedly, and fisticuffs throughout the campaign were commonplace. In retrospect, Watson privately pondered it was “almost a miracle I was not killed in the campaign of 1892.”
While violence marred Georgia’s political process, it was manipulation and vote fraud that ultimately counted Watson out of Congress. Democrats gerrymandered Watson’s district prior to his reelection campaign. Bribery, ballot box stuffing, intimidation, voting by nonresidents and mass voting of blacks hired by the Democratic machine were tactics used throughout Watson’s district. In Augusta alone, where Federal agents proved helpless in their attempts to ensure proper polling, the vote against Watson totaled twice the total number of registered voters. Watson lost the election, despite carrying all the counties in his pre-gerrymandered district with the exception of Richmond.
Watson ran again two years later. The congressional election of 1894 was a repeat of the 1892 charade, but on a larger, more egregious scale. The economic plight of the farming class by 1894 was desperate; Watson’s venerated popularity in rural Georgia bordered on religious. Alarmed, the Democratic leadership bought votes with alcohol, intimidation, and cash. Populist ballots were destroyed. Watson again lost his election bid, though he carried nine counties in the district to his opponent’s two. Admitting the election fraud was notorious, some dismayed Augusta Democrats even complained publicly at seeing “worthless negroes vote dozens of times at ten cents each….”
Between 1894 and 1896, the Populist ranks swelled by the thousands across the South, largely because of defections from the national Democratic Party. Faced with eroding membership on the eve of a national election, the Democratic leadership desperately urged fusion between the two parties. Tom Watson, champion of the southern Populists and the intellectual leader of the national party, refused to equivocate and preached against any policy that sacrificed the fundamentals illustrated in the Ocala platform.
Western Populists were more conciliatory. At their Chicago convention in 1896, the Democrats nominated William Jennings Bryan for president, Arthur Sewall for vice president and adopted a platform that included a demand for free silver. Tempted by populist planks and powerfully attracted to a Nebraskan they believed loyal to their cause, western Populists leaned towards fusing their own ticket with the Democrats. Watson balked at any such gesture and urged party independence. He reportedly refused Bryan’s offer of a cabinet post if Watson bowed out of the race. Tom Watson did not attend the Populist convention at St. Louis–an unfortunate and inexplicable mistake for the future of the party.
The chairman of the Democratic National Committee, James K. Jones, did attend the Populist convention. By working with western fusionists and against the southern radicals, he kept the former organized and the latter chaotic. At length, Bryan was nominated for president. When it appeared the southern Populists would bolt the convention in protest, Tom Watson was nominated as vice president with an assurance from the Democrats that his name would replace Arthur Sewall on their ticket. From Thomson, fearing the extinction of his own party, Watson reluctantly agreed to the compromise and accepted the nomination. The fused ticket appeared complete.
The deal proved a sham. In the Democratic circles the following morning, Chairman Jones denied having sacrificed Sewall for Watson. Jones was even more caustic days later, when he criticized the southern populist delegates as “not a credible class” and predicted their political demise: “They will go with the negroes, where they belong….” As Watson bitterly recalled, the moment proved “ …one of the most complete and deliberate deceptions that ever was practiced by one lot of politicians upon another.”
Despite the treachery that all but wrecked the aspirations of the People’s Party and a disingenuous running mate who refused to mount a stage with him, Watson campaigned admirably (if hopelessly) across the West in 1896. His efforts were futile. In the end, the Republican ticket of McKinley and Hobart headed to Washington. The Democrats retired to fight another day. The scattered Populists melted into the rural landscape, never again to organize as a viable third party. Watson, despondent over the Appomattox of his political life, returned home to ring the death knell for his party.
Watson ran for president on the People’s Party in 1904 and in 1908 as a protest candidate. Although hailed as “a beacon of light to those in doubt” by Clarence Darrow and other national figures, Watson did not seriously challenge his Republican or Democratic opposition. The passion and momentum of 1896 had largely subsided. In 1904 Watson earned barely 117,000 votes.
In 1910 Watson returned to the Democratic Party. Except for 1912, when he bolted the party to vote for Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, Watson remained within the Democratic Party for the rest of his life, albeit as a firebrand Jeffersonian Democrat and unwavering advocate of populist principles. Watson refused numerous entreaties for a gubernatorial bid, but his enormous statewide political influence ensured that no Georgia governor between 1906 and 1922 was elected without his express support.
In 1918 Watson was again urged by supporters to run for Congress. Despondent over the recent deaths of his two oldest children and frustrated by the effective silencing of his newspaper, Watson surprised many when he agreed to oppose Representative Carl Vinson. Watson’s platform, consistent with Jeffersonian philosophy, opposed the overseas war, involvement in the League of Nations, and virtually all policies of the Wilson administration. Vinson, on the other hand, was a popular patriot and war hawk. Although Watson entered the contest late and was in poor health, he ran a surprisingly close race. Vinson defeated Watson by two county unit votes. Watson’s protests of election fraud were ignored.
Watson came back in 1920, stunning his political opposition by beating U.S. Senate incumbent Hoke Smith and former Georgia Governor Hugh Dorsey. Watson took 110 counties and won the U.S. Senate seat without a runoff. After three decades of formal absence from national politics, Watson returned to Washington as Georgia’s freshman senator.
In 1921, Watson gave his final speech in Thomson, Georgia, and left Hickory Hill for Capitol Hill. As a U.S. Senator, Watson attended every assembly session in the 67th Congress. His battles, consistent with his Jeffersonian convictions, ranged from fighting America’s land purchases in support of oil exploration to advocating the diplomatic recognition of soviet Russia to crusading against America’s participation in the League of Nations. Watson urged the restoration of civil liberties for the political prisoners of Woodrow Wilson. Watson opposed militarism and denounced the imperial designs of the administration and its request for an increased standing army. Watson also forcefully opposed the attempted seating of millionaire Henry Ford in the Senate because of Ford’s notorious anti-Semitism.
Despite having fallen seriously ill several weeks before, Watson insisted on attending and speaking on the final day of session, September 22, 1922. His precarious health continued to decline and on the night of September 25, suffering from chronic asthma, he was unable to rise from bed. Watson died of a cerebral hemorrhage on September 26, 1922 at his rented home in Chevy Chase, Maryland. Watson’s fiery assistant, Alice Lytle, remained in Maryland to handle the arrangements. Upon learning of the railway’s intention to place the Senator’s casket into a baggage car, Lytle protested: “The Senator did not arrive in Washington in a baggage car; he will not go home that way.” Watson’s body was returned to Thomson via a Pullman car.
It is estimated that 10,000 people attended Watson’s funeral at Hickory Hill. Georgia Watson died on May 14 the following year. The Watsons were buried with their children in the Thomson City Cemetery.
Watson died without realizing his lifelong dreams of sweeping Jeffersonian economic and political reforms and a political alliance between the South and the West. Many of his reform initiatives came to life posthumously, including:
• Graduated income tax
• Inheritance tax
• Government regulation of public communications and transportation
• Government ownership of public utilities
• Agriculture subsidies
• Recognition of the right of labor to organize for protection
• Abolition of child labor
• Eight hour work day
• Abolition of the convict lease system
• Initiative, referendum and recall
• Secret ballot system
• Direct elections of U.S. Senators
Journalist and Author
In 1891, while in Congress, Tom Watson launched the People’s Party Paper with novelist C.C. Post. A national weekly newspaper devoted to the principles of the Farmer’s Alliance and Jeffersonian popular government, the People’s Party Paper was intended to compete with the Southern Alliance Farmer, the weekly run by L.F. Livingston, president of the Georgia Farmer’s Alliance whose questionable political loyalties attracted Watson’s increasing mistrust.
Despite its early struggle for circulation, its financial strain (Watson personally absorbed all costs) and the heaping ridicule it received from the Democratic press, the People’s Party Paper ran unabated for eight years with Watson at the helm. By 1893, two years after he launched it and a year after he had been counted out of Congress, Watson claimed the paper went to every state in the union and its circulation was second in Georgia only to the Atlanta Constitution. Three years later, riding the high water mark of the People’s Party, Watson’s paper was nationally known and quoted routinely. Watson also was a frequent contributor to the Populist journal, Arena, and to other national periodicals.
Watson scuttled the People’s Party Paper after the disastrous Populist defeat of 1896. While demanding that the principles of Populism were as vital as ever, Watson conceded his party was wrecked. For all practical purposes Watson exited the political stage to recuperate in his personal library and to begin a serious writing career.
In 1898 The Macmillan Company offered Watson a publishing contract to write a two-volume history of France. The subject matter was both pragmatic and philosophical. Watson had periodically written essays on France for the People’s Party Paper and in 1896 had published a small, three volume French history that amounted to an expansion of historical essays. As an apostle of Thomas Jefferson, and therefore an ardent Francophile, Watson recognized the populist allegory in France’s epic drama and rarely failed to compare the lessons of the past to contemporary domestic struggles.
In 1899 Macmillan published The Story Of France in two volumes. Totaling more than 1,700 pages, Watson’s work was a literary and commercial success. Reviews were supportive and the work was received well stateside and abroad. It sold more than 50,000 copies while published by Macmillan.
Watson’s history of France was followed immediately by a passionate and apologetic 700 page biography of Napoleon, which was published by Macmillan in 1902. Napoleon also enjoyed considerable success. A biography of Thomas Jefferson, published by D. Appleton and Company, followed in 1903. In 1904 Watson completed Bethany: A Story of the Old South, his first and only published novel.
In 1904, Watson refused a lucrative offer to edit William Randolph Hearst’s Morning American. The following year he launched Tom Watson’s Magazine, a literary and reform magazine published from New York. The first number sold more than 100,000 copies. With articles from contributing authors such as Clarence Darrow and Theodore Dreiser and Watson’s sensational editorials that abused class rule and runaway capitalism, the magazine was identified with other well-read muckraking and reform journals of its day.
His magazine’s early success notwithstanding, Watson was soon at odds with the management practices and unsavory reputation of his New York business partner, W. D. Mann. In late 1906 Watson moved the magazine’s publication to Atlanta, where it joined its sister weekly, the Weekly Jeffersonian, begun months earlier. Aided by the mailing lists of Hoke Smith’s Atlanta Journal, Watson’s weekly and monthly enjoyed continued popularity with loyal constituents and former Populists he affectionately dubbed “Old Man Peepul” and “Aunt Sarah Jane.” Focusing on national issues, the Weekly Jeffersonian rivaled the Journal and Clark Howell’s Atlanta Constitution for circulation and statewide influence.
In 1910, Watson purchased the copyrights to his books, constructed a modern printing plant within sight of his Thomson home, Hickory Hill, and moved his publications one last time. He named friend, political ally and future Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture, J.J. Brown, vice president of The Jeffersonian Publishing Company and moved to Thomson managing editor Alice Lytle. The 9000 square foot plant employed 30 people and was equipped to print, stitch and bind Watson’s periodicals and books.
1910 was also the year Watson began a deliberate serial crusade against the Catholic hierarchy. While his mistrust of foreign missions and the historic political activities of the Catholic Church had manifested itself earlier in both his periodicals and histories, Watson’s campaign of 1910 took on a more vitriolic complexion. His bitter attacks in “the Jeffs” against the abuses of the Church and a wealth of purported sexual crimes ran unabated for seven years, attracted an effective Catholic boycott and, eventually, a federal indictment. Watson was arrested June 3, 1912, for sending through the U.S. mails a Latin quotation considered obscene for the day—a quotation Watson reprinted to illustrate the vile nature of questions asked of female parishioners by their confessors. Watson led his own defense and in 1916, after a quashed indictment and a mistrial, won his own acquittal.
Watson’s contentious publications again found the national spotlight in 1914, after Watson bristled at an Atlanta Journal editorial urging a retrial for Leo Frank. A wealthy, northern, Jewish manager of the National Pencil Company in Atlanta, Frank had been convicted a year earlier of raping and murdering Mary Phagan, a working class 13-year-old company employee. Frank’s conviction was subsequently upheld on five appeals to the Georgia Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court. Watson, who had refused offers to assist in the defense and in the prosecution, remained publicly silent on the case until Hoke Smith’s newspaper printed the editorial.
Watson assailed the Journal for judicial tampering (the case was under appeal), took on northern publishers who clamored for a new trial, and began a two-year defense of Georgia’s judicial system and demonstration of the guilt of the “libertine Jew.” Editorials in his weekly exploded into expansive evidentiary and trial reviews in Watson’s Magazine. Georgia Governor John M. Slaton commuted Frank’s death sentence during his final day of office, outraging many Georgians and prompting Watson to ask his readers “whether Lynch law is not better than no law at all.” Two months later Leo Frank was taken from the jail in Milledgeville by a group of prominent Marietta citizens, driven back to Marietta and hanged. Watson responded to the news through the Jeffersonian: “Now let outsiders attend to their own business, AND LEAVE OURS ALONE.” For many, the episode branded Watson as an anti-Semite for the only time in his life.
Through it all, Watson’s paper and magazine continued to attack Wilsonism, American involvement in World War I, the Conscription Act, and any U.S. involvement in the League of Nations. As it did with Socialist Eugene Debs, the Wilson administration ultimately silenced Watson’s printed protests in 1917 by denying his paper and magazine the use of the U.S. Mail under the Espionage Act. Unlike other progressive reformers and Debs, Watson narrowly escaped federal prosecution.
Watson would continue his fight against Wilsonism in 1918 in the pages of his newly purchased weekly Columbia Sentinel, but in fact the Jeffersonian Publishing Company was silenced forever.
On October 9, 1878, Tom Watson married his “Sister Spirit on earth” Georgia Durham, the adopted daughter of prominent Thomson physician George Washington Durham. Patient, calm and dainty, Georgia Watson was a beloved local schoolteacher and perhaps an unlikely match for a man whose tempestuous nature was already legendary. Nevertheless, Watson’s devotion to her was sincere and time honored. Her name graces dedication pages of his books, and more than a few essays and poems were devoted to their lifelong love affair. Watson would later recall, “Did ever the bright stars look down upon a happier man than I the night she said she loved me – me the moneyless village lawyer who had barely a good coat to his back?”
The Watsons had three children: John Durham (1880), Agnes Pearce (1882) and Louise (1885). Louise, frail and sickly, died at age four. Her death moved Watson deeply, and his expressions of melancholy dot his numerous essays written throughout his life:
The tracks that were all about the yard, on the dreadful day when sickness seized her, were still there when you came back from the funeral,--the tracks of a child at play: and while the merciful wind and rain and the passing of other feet, soon hid these tiny footprints, the tracks that she would now make if she could leave the borders of Dreamland, would still fir the little shoes that are laid away.
You sometimes hear her voice, some time when the day is done, and the Spirit of Silence has locked a slumbering world; and the voice is that which you head when she climbed upon your knee, and laid one hand to one cheek, saying, “This side Mama’s,” lending the other to your kiss.
No, they do not grow up, along with the surviving children,--no indeed! Carved upon memory by the stern hand of Grief, their little figures are immortally young, as the marble children following the motionless procession upon a Grecian frieze.
In 1900, Watson purchased a nearby home and its surrounding acreage from Captain James Wilson and began an expansive renovation. In 1904, Watson and his family moved to Hickory Hill, a relatively modest southern home he transformed into a substantial Greek revival mansion.
Hickory Hill presented a fabulous combination of aesthetics both antebellum and modern. Amid the ionic capitals, marble mantels, parquet floors, heavy drapes and bold wallpapers, Watson installed telephones and indoor plumbing. A power plant provided electric lighting for the house and also pumped water to the indoor plumbing. In time, corncrib, pigeon cote, smokehouse, schoolhouse, and peacock run would support life in the big house in a harmony that made Hickory Hill almost completely self-sufficient. Fanciful luxuries such as bicycles and automobiles would run errands from Hickory Hill in tandem with horse and carriage, presumably without disrupting the bucolic backdrop of cotton and southern magnolia.
When Watson threw open his doors to guests, few visitors came away without commenting on the graciousness of manner and hospitality abundant in the house. Food was elegant, talk civilized, and music and dancing were enjoyed by every member of the family. In the spring, Hickory Hill was the preferred venue for young Easter egg hunters. The Watsons occasionally hosted parties for their two young grandchildren under the lanterned canopy of trees.
These neighborly expressions were not without expectation of etiquette and social grace. If anything, life at Hickory Hill was orderly, dignified and disciplined. Uncorsetted secretaries were scolded, rambunctious grandchildren bribed for their silence, roaming dogs encouraged on their way with an occasional blast from Watson’s shotgun. Children sat silent at the dinner table while the head lectured on history and world affairs. Only the young itinerate servants were sympathetically allowed to roam the house barefooted.
Paradoxically, Watson showed a careless affinity for things natural, and he allowed wildlife to have the run of the place. Woodpeckers were allowed to punch holes in eave and column, and squirrels were encouraged to take refuge—and their meals--on Watson’s office windowsill. Servants constructed brush piles and concrete birdbaths for songbird habitat. Watson ordered trees and shrubs by the hundreds from nearby Fruitland Nursery, planted them with precision and nursed them through the extreme seasons with maternal tenderness. Hickory Hill provided Watson with quiet solitude he found elusive in the political arena. Watson’s daily walks and horseback rides through its fields and woods inspired quiet reflection that ultimately gelled in a published collection of essays, Prose Miscellanies.
Its idyllic setting notwithstanding, life at Hickory Hill was not without tragedy. In 1917, Watson’s daughter Agnes died, barely one week after his periodicals were banned from distribution. Her death hit Watson like “the crash of an avalanche.” In declining health himself, Watson repaired to his Hobe Sound, Florida, vacation home to recover and mourn. While visiting months later, Watson’s son John Durham underwent an operation for a hernia. Following the procedure, he died in his father’s arms. “This ends it all!” wrote Watson in despair.
Already active grandparents, the Watsons now were saddled with even more responsibilities for the two grandchildren, Georgia Watson Lee and Georgia Doremus Watson. Behind Hickory Hill Watson built a one room schoolhouse where the girls were taught. He also built a small swimming pool for his granddaughters. The girls frequently joined their grandfather during his peaceful, often fun loving romps and horseback rides through the grounds of Hickory Hill. These moments of companionship reflected a warmth and calmness seldom seen in Watson’s public life. Georgia Doremus Watson recalled, “Whenever I sensed peace and harmony in him… it was when he was nearest the earth.”
When Watson was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1919, he brought his granddaughters to Washington and enrolled them in the National Cathedral School. The girls’ education in Washington was highlighted by occasional visits with their grandfather at the Senate cafeteria and routine pilgrimages to historical sites throughout Washington. Their experience was short lived. Watson’s death in 1922 forced the girls and their grandmother to return to Thomson.
Cody–McGregor Case, Warrenton, Georgia, 1890
On October 12, 1889, Watson received a telegram from his closest friend, Major Charles McGregor, which read dramatically: “I have killed Jim Cody. Come instantly.”
Charles McGregor, former officer in the Confederate army, was a prominent citizen of Warrenton who had served in the state legislature with Watson. His close friendship with Watson was supported by mutual populist political sentiment.
The feud between McGregor and Cody stemmed from their mutual interest in Mrs. DuBose, a wealthy Warrenton widow. Cody was her cousin; McGregor was married. Town gossip ultimately unnerved Cody and on the night of December 17, 1887, he shot McGregor from ambush in his own front yard. McGregor survived the chest wound. At length Cody admitted he had been the assailant. McGregor did not press for criminal prosecution, but routinely armed himself as he went around town. Cody in the meantime moved to Gainesville, Georgia. He was not indicted for attempted murder until spring 1889. Cody was absent from the first term of Superior Court, and bailiffs failed to locate him.
On Saturday, October 12, 1889, Jim Cody rode into Warrenton, stepped out of his buggy and spoke with a citizen on the street. Charles McGregor approached Cody, drew his pistol and deliberately shot Cody three times: in the chest, the head and the neck. Cody died in the street--any of the three shots would have been fatal. McGregor then wired Watson and walked home. The Warren County sheriff promptly arrested McGregor for murder. Cody had been unarmed.
The McGregor trial began April 10, 1890 and received significant press attention, including the Atlanta papers. Solicitor General William M. Howard represented the state, and was assisted by five special prosecutors hired by the Cody family. The team included Hal Lewis, a preeminent litigator, and Judge H.D.D. Twiggs, a distinguished Savannah jurist known for his sarcasm and great oratorical ability. McGregor was represented by 33 year old Tom Watson.
In less than two days, the prosecution presented its case. The facts were undisputed. In defense, Watson offered no testimony and presented only McGregor’s unsworn statement. Watson’s summation rested the entire case his theory of anticipated self-defense: that to anticipate an assassination by killing the intended assassin first was the logical extension of the law of self-defense.
After presenting his argument to the jury, Watson had McGregor’s wife and children, each wearing mourning attire, ushered into the courtroom and seated next to the defendant. Watson appealed:
This, gentlemen, is the picture you make if you bring in a verdict of guilty. Let me present another picture of the glad sunshine of tomorrow. The holy Sabbath smiles in holy joy through the evergreen trees and falls upon a happy family reunited in yonder household. Charley McGregor, the gold of his soul purified by a fire through which it has gone, stands once more within his own home a free man…That picture you can make by bringing in a verdict of not guilty.
The jury acquitted McGregor after 106 hours of deliberation.
Zeigler Case, Sylvania, Georgia, 1896
George Zeigler, prominent Screven County farmer, boarded a train bound for Sylvania in September 1894 and was seated next to Screven County Sheriff L. B. Brooker. Enraged by a series of disparaging remarks about Populists by George Bellinger, a black Democrat, Zeigler drew his pistol. Brooker responded by attempting to disarm Zeigler, and in the ensuing scuffle was pistol–whipped. Zeigler was disarmed. He disembarked at the next station, where his son, Solomon Zeigler, was waiting.
After father and son were united on the train platform, a verbal altercation began anew with the sheriff. Brooker, still on the train, drew his revolver and shot through the window, striking the unarmed Zeigler in the chest. Sol Zeigler produced his own pistol and rushed into the train. In the resulting shootout, Brooker was shot in the head and side and Zeigler was wounded in the arm. Although seriously wounded himself, George Zeigler attempted to reboard the train but was apprehended by the county coroner, who cut his throat. Ultimately troops were called out to curb the violence. George Zeigler died three days later. Sol Zeigler and Sheriff Brooker recovered from their wounds.
Sol Zeigler swore out a murder warrant against Sheriff Brooker. The grand jury refused to indict Brooker for murder, but did hand down a true bill for assault and battery. Both Brooker and Zeigler vowed revenge and the sheriff harried the Zeigler family for months. Meanwhile, Sol Zeigler and William Walter shot George Bellinger to death. Watson defended Sol and ultimately both he and Walter were acquitted of that murder.
On October 13, 1895, Sol Zeigler and his brother Corrie went to a large meeting at the Goloid Baptist church, where they found Sheriff Brooker in attendance. When Brooker headed for his buggy, the brothers shot him in the back of the head. They then stood over the body, shot it twice more, and drove away. Nearly 200 people saw the shooting. Despite the amount of witnesses, little effort was made to apprehend the assailants until a $1,000 reward was offered and private detectives were employed. On May 25, 1896, the Zeigler brothers quietly surrendered to Sheriff William Patrick and were jailed.
While the brothers were incarcerated, a private detective and a witness to sheriff Brooker’s murder attempted to arrest a Zeigler cousin for seducing a girl years earlier. The women of the house resisted the intrusion. When the cousins returned home, a gunfight ensued. Jake Zeigler was mortally wounded. Lonny Zeigler was wounded and later lost his arm.
The state separated its cases against the Zeigler brothers, and both Sol and Carrie hired Tom Watson to defend them. The trials began November 18, 1896. Attorneys G.M.W. Williams, W.L. Mathews, D.H. Clark, and H.S. White assisted Watson for the defense. Watson’s formidable courtroom adversary, H.D.D. Twiggs, assisted Solicitor–General E.K. Overstreet.
As in the McGregor case, Watson offered only the defendants’ statements as evidence. He again argued his point of anticipation; that a man did not have to wait until his adversary was immediately upon him before he took steps to save his life, and that those steps included killing the adversary. When Brooker headed for his buggy, Watson argued, the Zeiglers reasonably concluded he went there to procure a gun.
Both trials lasted two weeks. Both Zeiglers were acquitted.
Lichtenstein Case, Swainsboro, Georgia, 1900
Sigmund Lichtenstein was a shopkeeper in Adrian, Georgia, a small town in located 75 miles northwest of Savannah. On Saturday, November 10, 1900, local carpenter named John Welch burst into Lichtenstein’s store, demanding a refund on cloth and shoes for his children he had purchased earlier in the week with his poker winnings. Lichtenstein accepted the shoes, but upon examination refused to take back the wrinkled material, explaining that Welch’s wife apparently had begun to cut a dress pattern from it. Welch then asked Lichtenstein to return the money he had paid on his store account. When Lichtenstein refused, Welch flew into a rage and warned that no Jew would spend his poker earnings while his family went hungry. Welch stormed out of the store.
When Lichtenstein left his store later in the day, walking down the street cleaning his nails with a penknife, Welsh staggered from an alley and accosted him. Badly drunk, Welsh cussed and slapped Lichtenstein. The two grappled, Welsh threw Lichtenstein on the ground, drew a pistol and shot him in the leg. He then turned, ran a few yards and fell dead. During the initial fight Welch’s heart had been punctured by Lichtenstein’s pocketknife.
While Lichtenstein recovered from his bullet wound, Adrian Mayor Wilbur Curry, first cousin to Welsh, agitated the local citizenry with anti–Semitic rhetoric and innuendo. Lichtenstein was charged with murder.
Lichtenstein’s wife, Dora, contacted family friend Judge Roger Gamble of Louisville, who accepted the case for free and secured a series of minor legal successes. As the trial neared, and Mayor Curry continued to disrupt an otherwise sympathetic atmosphere, Gamble urged the family to hire Tom Watson, a “man of the people.” Lichtenstein was indicted for murder in the April term of Emanuel Commission Superior Court. At Watson’s instruction, Gamble managed to have the trial scheduled at the end of the court’s term, when the jury would be impatient for its term to end and uncomfortable from the summer heat. Watson also instructed the family on their courtroom appearance and behavior. The trial was scheduled for July 10, 1901.
Judge Gamble conducted the trial for the defense. Watson took no notes, but simply closed his eyes and listened to the testimony. His apparent and inactivity exasperated Lichtenstein’s family, who urged Gamble to make his co–counsel do something “lawyerly.” Watson overheard the comments and simply smiled.
When Watson began his summation, it was clear that he had listened to every detail of the testimony. His summation began: “You all know who I am and that I am one of you. I am not going to tell you anything that’s not true.”
The courtroom erupted from the thrilling performance because of his ability to marshall facts. The family realized he had listened to all testimony.
All but one juror quickly voted for acquittal, one held out arguing that if the county was going to waste his time trying a man Watson spoke for, then he would get a meal out of it. After noon supper, the Jury returned a verdict of not guilty.