In late 1899, Hansford Dade Duncan Twiggs was battling his young wife’s sensational divorce suit when he was retained as counsel in a case that was gaining nationwide attention. Henry Delegal, a black man from McIntosh County, had been arrested for the alleged rape of a white woman that had occurred 10 months earlier. When the authorities tried to take him out of the county, a large part of the black community rose up to prevent it. White state troops were sent from Savannah to occupy the county. The Atlanta Journal described the situation: “Every negro who cannot give a satisfactory account of himself will be arrested.” One of Delegal’s sons killed a white deputy sheriff who had come to his house in the middle of the night; he was arrested for murder, his brother and mother as accessories. Twiggs represented the entire family.
Henry Delegal’s rape case was scheduled for Sept. 4, and the murder and accessory cases against his wife and sons was to be tried immediately after that. Twiggs moved for a change of venue for the trials, arguing an impartial jury could not be impaneled in McIntosh County. The judge granted the motion and trial was rescheduled for Effingham County, 60 miles north.
Henry Delegal was tried in Darien, the county seat of McIntosh. The jurors, whose selection took the better part of the day, heard Matilda Ann Wallace Hope identify Henry Delegal as the man who had forced her to drink liquor, then raped her. Twiggs introduced no testimony on his client’s behalf. His argument was brief, invoking a recent Georgia Supreme Court ruling concerning promptness in making rape charges. The case went to jury Sept. 7, and by the next day they were deadlocked—seven for conviction, five for acquittal. The judge declared a mistrial, Twiggs asked for a change of venue, the change was granted, and Henry Delegal’s new trial was scheduled for Effingham County, immediately after that of his son John Sept. 14.
At 6:10 a.m. Sept. 11, Officer Williams of the Augusta police heard screaming and saw a man running down Bay Street enveloped in flames. He and two other men seized him and put out the fire. Horribly burned and cut, the man was conscious and recognizable as Joseph Wilkins Twiggs.
Joe Twiggs, sent home from Athens without a degree in 1886, worked as a court stenographer, lived with his mother, and had never married. He was a morphine addict. On the morning of Sept. 11, he had been doing something with a kerosene lamp, possibly cooking up his first shot of the day, when it exploded in his face. Besides getting cut and burned, he had inhaled flames from the explosion. He was brought to the city hospital where he died after six hours.
Judge Twiggs returned to Augusta for the funeral, then left for Springfield, where John Delegal’s murder trial was to begin the next day. There was no chance of a white jury acquitting a black man for killing a white deputy, but Twiggs managed to get a life sentence for his client. Henry Delegal’s rape case was called immediately. Twiggs now changed his defense strategy, calling witnesses to counter the state’s evidence. The case went to the jury late on the night of the 14th.
The next morning, they returned their verdict. Henry Delegal was declared innocent of the charge of rape. In a place and time where the very imputation of rape by a black man against a white woman was usually a death sentence, whether or not the case ever made it to trial, the acquittal of Henry Delegal was probably the greatest accomplishment in Twiggs’ legal career. On the following day Edward Delegal was sentenced to life as accessory to the murder of Joseph Townsend, but his mother was acquitted.
Cornelia Twiggs’ divorce suit was successful, but the judge did win the right to remarry, which he exercised in 1906 at age 69, again shocking the state, this time remarrying his first wife, from whom he had been estranged for nearly a quarter century. At some point in his late years, Judge Twiggs began a study of Hinduism and though never renouncing his membership in the Campbellite Christian Church, publicly extolled the teachings of Swami Vivekananda and the proto-New Age writings of Ralph Trine.
The reunited couple lived in Savannah with their oldest child, David, who worked for the city and, like his unfortunate brother, never married. Their youngest child, Harriet, appears in the 1900 census, age 20, an inmate of the state insane asylum. She does not appear in any later Georgia censuses.
Hansford Dade Duncan Twiggs died at his Savannah home March 25, 1917, his 80th birthday. His body was taken to Augusta and buried in Summerville cemetery. Few newspapers noted his death; he had outlived the world of honor, violence and lordly self-indulgence to which he had been born, and had outlived his own small fame.
Next Week: Glass Coffins, Real and Imaginary, at Home and Abroad.
© 1995, John Ryan Seawright
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