Note: Much of the material in this week’s column is taken from C. Vann Woodward’s Tom Watson, Agrarian Rebel, published 57 years ago and still the standard biography of Georgia’s most important and enigmatic political figure.
Hansford Dade Duncan Twiggs had won honors early in life as a soldier and a judge, but his personal and political stars dimmed as he entered his forties. Defeated for Congress, bitterly disappointed in at least one of his children, and deserted, though not divorced, by his wife, in the mid-1880s Twiggs turned his energies to his law practice.
Twiggs was generally conceded to be the best trial lawyer in Georgia’s Middle Judicial Circuit. He had, in fact, only one real rival before the bar, young Thomas Edward Watson of Thomson. Licensed to practice law at age 19 in 1875, Tom Watson was a prodigy of learning, argument and oratory. Though Watson respected Twiggs’ ability, his attitude toward his older colleague was far from reverent. In one trial when the two attorneys were pitted against each other, Watson told the jury “Judge Twiggs would have you think he could tell the sex of a hog by smelling of the gravy.” The phrase became current throughout east Georgia, and doubtless irritated the dignified and eminently irritable Twiggs.
Both Watson and Twiggs took a keen interest in politics. Twiggs had restored himself to political favor sufficiently to be chosen a delegate to the 1888 national Democratic convention in St. Louis where he gave the speech seconding Grover Cleveland’s presidential nomination. In the same year Watson was chosen state elector at large for the Cleveland ticket. But while Twiggs was returning to the regular Democratic fold after a fling as an Independent, Watson was on his way out. Watson was a spokesman for the Farmers Alliance, a fairly radical national organization which was still working within the Democratic party, but which would soon give birth to the Populist Party, wherein Watson would figure very largely. In 1890 Watson announced for Congress from the 10th District against three-term incumbent George Barnes of Augusta, a friend of Twiggs’.
As the hotly-contested election loomed in the spring of 1890, Twiggs and Watson found themselves head to head in the courtroom once more.
Major Charles McGregor, a leading citizen of Warrenton, was Tom Watson’s closest friend and confidant, probably the only real friend that that bitter and suspicious man ever had. On the night of Dec. 17, 1887, someone had shot and grievously wounded McGregor in his front yard. A few months later James Cody, another prominent citizen of the town, admitted that he had shot McGregor in revenge for what he considered slanderous statements made about one of his female relatives. Cody evaded arrest and McGregor felt his life still in danger. On Oct. 12, 1889, the two men met on the street in Warrenton and McGregor shot Cody dead.
The Cody family hired Twiggs and four other lawyers to prosecute the case. Watson stood alone against them in McGregor’s defense. The trial was one of the most spectacular of its day. Watson had McGregor strip to the waist to show his bullet-scarred torso; he called on each juror to justify a vote of “guilty” before the Throne of God on the Day of Judgment. The jury was out for five days before returning a verdict of “not guilty.”
Twiggs had opposed Watson’s candidacy against his friend Barnes, but after losing the McGregor case, his opposition took a stronger and more personal hue. On June 13, 1890, he made a speech at Waynesboro against Watson. Watson responded with a letter to the Constitution which called Twiggs “a soured outlaw who is so accustomed to abusing everything and everybody that the restraints of truth have no power over him.” Twiggs responded with a call for “an explanation,” the first step toward a formal duel.
Dueling had been illegal in Georgia for 13 years, but challenges were regularly issued with “mutually agreeable adjustments” usually made by intermediaries before any gunplay ensued. A man of aristocratic and warriorly background, Twiggs was a devotee of the code duello. Not so Watson. He responded to Twiggs: “I am no duelist. Whether this position be taken from principle or from want of courage you can form your own opinion and make such experiments to verify it as your judgment may dictate.”
Twiggs replied: “I will not descend to the level of a street brawler, but will leave you to the contempt which you deserve.” Watson got in the last word with the comment that he had never believed murder to be any less murder “because the duelist held a pistol in one hand and a book of etiquette in the other.”
Public opinion was with Watson, even among his political opponents. The day of formal ritual violence, as of so many things, was swiftly passing in Georgia. The man defending his honor was made a laughingstock, the red-headed upstart was elected to Congress. And Judge Twiggs was about to meet a pretty girl.
Continued Next Week
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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