This week’s column must begin with a few corrections of errors from last week’s column. Judge Twiggs and his young second wife did not move to Wilkes County after their marriage, but to Americus, from whence they moved to Swainsboro and then to Savannah. More importantly to our story, Twiggs publicly denied both having issued a duel challenge to George Brinson and having offered to shoot him on sight for his supposed affair with the judge’s wife.
Cornelia Twiggs left her husband on Christmas Day 1898 and filed for divorce a month later on grounds of severe mental and physical abuse beginning about a year after the discovery of her supposed letter to George Brinson. Judge Twiggs filed his response on April 7, denying all charges.
Two nights later a Jim Robinson, a white man, came to the door of a black church in Waynesboro where Sunday night services were in progress. He told someone near the back of the church to find Rev. Gilbert Ellison in the congregation and send him out. Ellison, an elderly and widely respected man who had recently been called to testify before the Burke County grand jury concerning an assault made by Robinson’s father and uncle, came outside and was shot dead.
Robinson was arrested and charged with murder amidst considerable outrage from the white as well as the black community. The local newspaper called for swift justice and a special term of court was called for June. Robinson retained Tom Watson as his attorney. The district attorney, concerned that he would prove no match for the fearsome Watson, sought outside assistance to help him prosecute the case. Thus was H.D.D. Twiggs once more pitted against his arch-rival in the courtroom.
Many white jurors (the entire jury pool being white) disqualified themselves, not wishing to habe to convict a white man of murdering a black man, no matter what the merits of the case. A jury was finally impaneled after two days, and the case was tried before a courtroom described as “packed to suffocation.” Watson and Twiggs lived up to their reputations as masters of argument and oratory. Watson stressed the lack of witnesses and the impossibility of establishing premeditation. Twiggs managed to secure a conviction of manslaughter and a 15-year prison term, hardly full justice, but, as the Waynesboro True Citizen noted, “the state could hardly hope for anything more.”
The trial concluded in mid-June and Twiggs returned to his own troubles, but only for a little while.
McIntosh County on the coast below Savannah has always been a black majority county. The African-American population was so numerous and well-organized that the white minority was unable to take complete control of the county until statewide black disfranchisement in 1907. After an attempt at establishing white domination at the end of the Reconstruction a grudging racial truce had prevailed in McIntosh, but it was shattered in the last weeks of August 1899.
Henry Delegal, a well-known middle-aged black man who had served as the valet of Georgia’s secretary of state, was arrested and jailed for raping a white woman. The alleged rape had taken place 10 months earlier and the woman had married in the meantime. White officials, including the sheriff, fearing attempts to free Delegal from jail or lynch him announced their plans to take him to the Savannah jail. The black citizenry assumed this to be an attempt to lynch the prisoner under guise of attempted escape. Hundreds of black men and women armed themselves and occupied Darien, the county seat, vowing to resist any attempt to remove Delegal. The governor summoned state troops from Savannah and scores of blacks were arrested for riot and treason. On the night of August 24, Octavius Hopkins and Joseph Townsend, two prominent white men, went to Delegal’s home, supposedly to arrest his son John for his role in the “riot.” They summoned John Delegal out of the house. He responded with a pistol, wounding both men. Townsend died soon afterward.
John Delegal, his brother Edward, and their mother Miranda were arrested and charged with murder. The black citizens returned to the streets and full-scale race war was predicted in the state press. The Delegal family, every member facing capital charges, needed the best legal counsel they could get and they sent for Judge H.D.D. Twiggs.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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