A Review of William Rawlings, A Killing on Ring Jaw Bluff: The Great Recession and the Death of Small-town Georgia. Macon, Ga.: Mercer University Press, 2013.
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[At his website, William Rawlings bills himself as an “Author of Southern Stories,” and this volume certainly supports that description. Mr. Rawlings tells two “Sothern stories” here: One is a “true-crime” tale involving his great-uncle, Charles G. Rawlings, who was tried and convicted of orchestrating the killing of his first cousin, Gus Tarbutton, in 1925; the other, and arguably more important, story tells how the “Great Recession” of 1919-1921, along with the boll weevil, brought an end to the reign of “King Cotton” in Georgia (and, by extension, in the rest of the South).
There’s not enough information about the “killing on Ring Jaw Bluff” to make a satisfactory book; the economic history of the post World War I recession and its consequences, while important, would, if presented by itself, probably not appeal to the “general reader,” Rawlings’ target audience. So, the author decided to weave the two stories together.]
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The main characters, Charlie Rawlings and Gus Tarbutton, were deeply involved in the cotton economy that had dominated middle Georgia since before the Civil War. The small town of Sandersville, in Washington County, where Charlie and Gus had grown up together (Gus was a sort of foster brother to Charlie), serviced the needs of cotton planters, like numerous other crossroads settlements in the region.
Charlie Rawlings, born in 1858, had begun his business career selling horses and mules. By dint of hard work, “flexible” ethics, and a willingness to use the court system to advance his fortunes at the expense of rivals and relations, Charlie became one of Sandersville’s leading citizens. He expanded into cotton planting, farm supply, banking, and railroads, all dependent upon the whims of Mother Nature and the price of “King Cotton.” Rawlings’ cousin Gus, born in 1875, was a cotton planter, set up in business by Charlie and indebted to him for loans.
Author William Rawlings characterizes the generation following the end of the Civil War as the “Long Depression,” even though it was ballyhooed by influential Southerners as the “New South,” the future of which rested upon continuing belief in the mythical “Old South” of courtly white planters and happy, contented slaves. This era, usually referred to as the “Age of Jim Crow,” spread more oppression and pain than happiness or contentment, especially for African Americans.
Although the damage dealt Georgia’s cotton economy by the boll weevil was devastating, the critter arrived on the scene relatively late. Rural Georgia’s small towns had already been set up for a fall by a number of weaknesses, including “the system of tenant farming, the dependence on African American labor, the expansion and subsequent contraction of credit during and following the war years, the lax regulation of the banking system, the phenomenal period of inflation from 1916 through 1920, and the unsustainable bubble of cotton prices that crashed during the Great Recession in 1920.” (68)
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It is a textbook truism that, in the South, the Great Depression actually began at the end of World War I, a decade before the 1929 Stock Market crash, and William Rawlings’ treatment of the tangled lives of Charlie Rawlings, Gus Tarbutton, and other residents of Sandersville and vicinity fleshes out what that meant for one rural Georgia community.
Charlie Rawlings had played fast and loose with ethics on his way to prosperity, and, once the “Great Recession” of 1920-1921 struck, everything came crashing down. The price of cotton tumbled, and, for Rawlings and his neighbors, the future looked grim. Charlie’s luck also failed him when, a month after he’d purchased it, a cottonseed oil mill mysteriously burned to the ground, and arson was immediately suspected.
Even a delay in the arson trial brought little relief, because Charlie was also accused of peonage on his farm in Johnson County; his brother Ben sued him for failing to distribute their late father’s estate among the heirs as the law required; and, when Charlie’s wife Lula died unexpectedly late in 1921, rumors suggested that she might have taken her own life. Moreover, according to the author, it was perhaps in 1921 that the newly resurgent Ku Klux Klan paid Charlie back for his philandering by ambushing him on a back road and castrating him.
Eventually, a local jury found Charlie not guilty of arson. Of that verdict, William Rawlings dryly notes, “Justice had been served. Or, more likely, purchased.” (156) Charlie’s innocence might have been debatable, but his financial condition was not—he was ruined.
What little good repute Charlie Rawlings had left vanished in 1925. He and his overseer, Jim Tanner, were walking with Gus Tarbutton over some property Gus owned on Ring Jaw Bluff, investigating whether the area might yield valuable deposits of bauxite ore, and thus, contribute to diversifying the area’s economy now that “King Cotton” had vacated his throne.
According to the story told by Charlie Rawlings and Jim Tanner, Tanner had tripped while holding a shotgun, “accidentally” killing Gus Tarbutton. Charlie claimed he was devastated by Gus’ death, but on the day Tarbutton died, Charlie remembered to ask about Gus’ insurance. A grand jury indicted Charlie and Tanner for murder. Rawlings’ attorney moved for a change of venue. While that motion made its way through the state’s court system (it was eventually denied), Charlie lost control of his remaining business affairs and Gus’ son filed a $250,000 civil suit against him and Tanner over his father’s death.
Both Rawlings and Tanner were found guilty of murder and sentenced to life in prison. Charlie was released from prison for health reasons in December 1932, after serving almost eight years. He spent the next six years living in straitened circumstance and, weakened by poor health, died on November 15, 1938.
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How successfully did author William Rawlings combine his seamy “true crime” tale and the larger story of the factors that led to the death of small-town Georgia?
In establishing the historical context within which the Charlie and Gus tragedy played out, Rawlings is concise, but thorough. His chapter on the “Long Depression” (1865-1900) is broad enough to work in the rise of the “New South” idea, along with the continuing importance of the “Old South” myth. He also treats the development of tenant farming, sharecropping, the crop lien system, and the monetization of cotton in Georgia.
Once he arrives at the post-World War I era, Rawlings covers the beginnings of the “Great Migration,” the movement out of the South by black (and some white) sharecroppers to the supposed “promised land” of the industrial Midwest and Northeast, in search of better jobs and more civil and political freedom. He also carefully notes the efforts of local planters, using the area’s weekly newspapers, to try to dash the hopes of sharecroppers that nirvana awaited them in Chicago, Detroit, or Harlem. To substantiate his interpretation of those important topics, Rawlings includes seven graphs in an appendix.
I found it interesting that, to Rawlings, the stereotypical emphasis during the “Roaring ‘20s” on “ballyhoo,” what we now call hype, reached even to small-town Georgia. Once it became clear that cotton was no longer king, and that the region’s economy badly needed to be diversified, various promoters, some of them rank charlatans, stepped in to fill the void. For example, there was a (probably spurious) “oil boom(let)” in Middle Georgia, which, though unsuccessful, distracted rural residents from the ravages of the boll weevil. Some entrepreneurs, including Charlie Rawlings and Gus Tarbutton, also turned to the prospects of locating valuable clay deposits in the area (it was on just such an expedition that Gus Tarbutton was shot by Charlie’s employee Jim Tanner). Sandersville’s “Babbits” also had praised ambitious local bankers, including Charlie Rawlings, as the area’s potential saviors, but the post-war “Great Recession” brought their sandcastles crashing to earth.
In short, William Rawlings’ A Killing on Ring Jaw Bluff is a useful, sometimes fascinating volume on a little-studied aspect of modern Georgia history. Written for a general audience, it should inform and entertain them in equal measure.
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For those interested in reading more of my reflections on history, here are links to my books on the subject: