John S. Williams and Clyde Manning
Defendants: John S. Williams and
Crime Charged: Murder
Defense Attorneys: Williams: Greene F. Johnson, W. H.
Key, and C. C. King; Manning: E. Marvin Underwood, A. D.
Prosecuting Attorneys: A. M. Brand, William M. Howard,
Judge: John B. Hutcheson
Place: Covington, Georgia
Dates of Trials: April 5-9, 1921 (Williams); May
30-1, 1921 (Manning)
Verdicts: Williams: guilty; Manning: guilty
Sentences: Williams: life imprisonment; Manning: life
SIGNIFICANCE: Technically, the
Emancipation Proclamation and the Thirteenth Amendment to
the Constitution freed over four million black slaves. In a
sense, slavery in the United States did not end in 1865, but
merely took other forms. For example, there was the system
of "peonage" whereby blacks were held in servitude until
they worked off their debts. This use of "peons" thrived
throughout the South for over five decades and it did not
start to decline until the brutal murder of 11 men in 1921.
After the Civil War, southern states
adopted a series of laws known as the "Black Codes." These
statutes required the former slaves to have jobs;
unemployment meant arrest and imprisonment for vagrancy or
loitering. A local farmer, who would be entitled to his
labor until the sum was worked off, paid the black's fine
after he as jailed. The peons lived on their employer's farm
and worked long hours at hard labor while receiving
extremely low or nonexistent wages. Few ever earned enough
to pay off what they owed; for most, peonage equaled a
lifetime of hardship and toil.
Harsh punishment, including
severe beatings, whippings, and even death, were common if
the workers did not perform up to their employers'
expectations or if they committed some real or imagined act
of disobedience. Often, the workers were so scared of the
farmers that they assisted in, or actually carried out, the
tortures and murders lest the same fate befall them. If a
black ran away, he was hunted down and returned to whatever
punishment awaited him.
Peonage Outlawed, But Flourishes For 50 Years
In 1867, Congress outlawed peonage in an
effort to curb the problem; violators were subject to a
$10,000 fine and 10 years imprisonment. Some states also
prohibited the practice. However, the police and courts
usually turned a blind eye to what was going on. Many local
law enforcement officials even arrested blacks on false
charges to maintain a supply of manpower for the local
farmers and actively helped to keep the workers on the farm.
One of those who took advantage of the
situation was John S. Williams. In 1921, the 54-year-old
father of 12 was the owner of a 2,000-acre plantation in
Jasper County, Georgia, approximately 40 miles southeast of
Atlanta. With three of his adult sons, he ran his spread by
Williams managed his farm like a brutal
dictator. One man made only 35 cents during an entire year
and there is no record of any peon paying off his debt to
Williams. At night, the hands were crowded into bunkhouses
whose windows were nailed shut, shutters boarded from the
outside, and doors locked and secured with a chain. But
worst of all was the physical treatment the men received.
Beatings and whippings were handed out
daily for such offenses as picking less cotton than the
other field hands and being unable to do physical tasks
because of on-the-job injuries. On Sundays, the Williams
family took their tracking dogs out for practice by forcing
a black to run through the woods for the hounds to chase.
And there was murder. Before 1921, there were at least four,
and possibly as many as 10, killings for such offenses as
trying to escape from the plantation and not rolling wire up
a hill the way the family liked.
For years, stories circulated in Jasper
County about conditions at the Williams place, but nothing
was done to discourage or stop John or his sons. The
Williams family was rich, powerful, respected, and
intimidating. They were not alone in using peons and no one
wanted to be seen as being on the side of the blacks.
Besides, the occasional killing of a peon was considered
nothing more by the southern white society than as a minor
business expense (you could always get another peon cheap)
and no white southerner had been convicted of murdering a
black for over 40 years. But all of that changed in early
Murdering The "evidence" Of
In November 1920,
a peon named Gus Chapman
successfully escaped from the
Williams' farm and, a few weeks
later, made his way to the Atlanta
offices of the Bureau of
Investigation (as the FBI was then
Peonage was not high on the
Bureau's list of priorities, but at
least it might take the complaints
seriously and investigate. While
looking into other federal matters
in the area, two federal agents
visited the Williams plantation on
February 18, 1921.
the black farmhands and Williams.
Most of the blacks said nothing, but
the agents caught one, Clyde Manning,
in a lie about an earlier escape
attempt by Chapman. Still, they left
only vaguely suspicious and not very
eager to pursue the matter further.
Williams, however, heard rumors that
some local farmers might soon be
charged with peonage and he
concluded that the agents' visit
meant that he was a target.
Therefore, Williams decided to get
rid of the evidence.
Manning was the Williams's farm boss.
Uneducated and illiterate, he came
to the Williams farm with his family
at about age 13 or 14 when his
father was ambushed and murdered by
unknown assailants. Also working and
living on the Williams' farm were
Manning's mother, siblings, wife,
and children and Manning knew that
to protest even the smallest of
Williams's orders would put his
family's lives at stake.
he had no idea of where he could
escape to or where to turn for help;
Manning knew the local police would
be of no assistance, and he had
virtually no knowledge of anything
beyond Jasper County. Indeed, when
two peons escaped the Williams place
and had gone beyond Jasper County
before they were captured and
returned, Manning referred to them
as having "been out of the United
On the morning of
February 19, Williams walked out to
Manning's shanty and told him of his
plans to kill the peons who worked
on the farm: "Clyde, it won't do for
those boys to get up yonder and
swear against us. They will ruin us.
You have got to get rid of all the
Southern Peonage Draws
Manning were both indicted in Newton County for
three counts of murder. They were to be tried
separately. They would also go to trial for one
murder at a time; that way, if found innocent on
one charge, they could then be tried on another.
Williams went to trial first.
In the meantime, the "death farm" killings drew
national attention. The extent of Williams's
crimes shocked even southern society and forced
southerners to openly admit that peonage existed.
Editorials tried to set Georgia apart from the
rest of the former Confederacy, and southern
political and religious leaders declared that
the trials should mark the beginning of an
improvement of how blacks were treated.
Described by the Atlanta
Constitution as "Georgia's greatest murder
trial," Williams's trial began on April 5, 1921.
Williams's attorneys protested that they didn't
have enough time to prepare an adequate defense,
but their objections were overruled. Because of
the unusual circumstances of the case, the state
provided two lawyers to assist the local
prosecutor. Manning was the main witness against
In his own defense, Williams claimed
that he knew nothing about the killings and that
Manning was a dangerous character. The defense
also tried to imply that the charges were a
conspiracy by Governor Dorsey, the Bureau of
Investigation, and wealthy urban liberals from
Atlanta to stir up the blacks in Jasper County.
Williams wasn't too concerned
about his fate. After all, the 12 members of his
jury were all white, and Williams did not
believe that they would convict a white man of
anything on the word of a black. Therefore, his
"temporary" confinement and trial were a small
price to pay for disposing of the evidence that
would have led to a peonage conviction. However,
after several hours of deliberation, the jury
returned with a verdict of "guilty." Indeed, it
later became known that the jurors were quick to
agree on Williams's guilt and that they spent
most of their time trying to decide whether he
should hang. On the jury's recommendation,
Williams was sent to prison for life.
trial began on May 30. The proceeding was
unusual for a southern trial of a black in the
1920s in that a serious attempt was made by
Manning's lawyers to prove he was innocent. The
state, which relied upon Manning's testimony in
Williams' trial, now called him a "mean Negro"
who committed the murders to avoid prosecution
for peonage. The defense countered that Manning
feared for his and his family's lives and was
forced to commit the murders by Williams. As in
the Williams trial, the jury was all white.
entire proceeding lasted only two days, and it
took the jury a mere 40 minutes to find Manning
guilty. Still, in light of the attitudes at the
time in the South, the defense was successful
because this jury, too, recommended life
imprisonment instead of death.
Manning died in prison of
tuberculosis in 1927. Williams was killed four
years later in an accident at the state
penitentiary in Milledgeville, Georgia. During
the 1920s, encouraged by Williams' conviction, a
number of state and federal prosecutors
successfully tried peonage cases in Georgia and
the rest of the South.
Daniel, Pete. The
Shadow of Slavery: Peonage in the South,
1901-1969. UJrbana, Ill.: University of
Illinois Press, 1972.
Freeman, Gregory. A.
Lay This Body Down: The 1921 Murders of
Eleven Plantation Slaves. Chicago:
Chicago Review Press and Lawrence Hill Books,
Grant, Donald L. The
Way It Was in the South: The Black
Experience in Georgia. Secaucus, N.J.:
Carol Publishing Group, 1993.
SEX: M RACE: W TYPE: T MOTIVE:
MO: Enslaved blacks, killing
those who fled or "caused trouble".
DISPOSITION: Life term on one
count, 1921; life term on second count, 1922; killed in prison, Jan. 26,