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How a Ham tried to roast a terrapin bill

POSTED: January 29, 2012 1:00 a.m.

Georgia is moving to protect 19 species of turtles threatened by commercial pet trade or imports to Asian countries that use them for soup and folk medicine. Not to mention they rank right up there with armadillos and possums as road kill in some sections.

Fortunately this issue is being decided by the Board of Natural Resources, rather than the legislature.

Back in 1887, the legislature took up the matter of protecting the terrapin, which is a species of fresh-water turtle. Rep. Smith of Glynn County on the Georgia coast was the prime mover behind the terrapin bill because at the time terrapin soup was a delicacy. He would prohibit the capture of female terrapins less than 5½ inches long.

Terrapins had become so valuable people were catching them and selling them out of state, threatening their extinction. South Carolinians were taking them out of Georgia and selling them in Maryland.

The diamondback terrapin, common around Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, was highly prized as the prime ingredient for that state's famous soup. Learning they could get $36 to $40 a dozen for terrapins in Maryland, entrepreneurs began catching the Georgia terrapins, which drew only $12 to $24 a dozen in state, and selling them in Maryland.

Thus, Rep. Smith's bill to penalize those who would try to profit from Georgia's terrapins by exporting them to Maryland.

Smith's bill would have branded terrapins either male or female. He would have a commission of five eminent physicians appointed by the governor and paid $1,000 a year to determine the sex of terrapins. Sounds like some of the cumbersome legislation that still comes out of Atlanta sometimes.

Enter Rep. H.W.J. Ham of Hall County. An eloquent orator who became a nationally famous lecturer primarily because of his agile legislative speeches, he tore into the bill.

"The bill goes a leetle too far," he said on the House floor. "It interferes with the individual liberty of the citizen."

Ham wanted to amend it to exempt wells, springs and horse troughs.

"If I find a terrapin in my well, I have the right to draw it out," he intoned. "And if one crawls into my horse trough and bites my mule, I have the right to kill it."

He labeled the bill "class legislation" because it would build up a terrapin aristocracy. Ham argued that terrapins were legal tender in Georgia.

"You can take an ordinary-sized terrapin into a wineroom, get two drinks and a small terrapin in change," he claimed.

Ham also suggested an amendment to create a "department of terrapinology" in the schools, teaching students how to determine the sex of terrapins, how to muzzle them and antidotes for terrapin bites.

But he praised terrapin soup. Calling it a supreme delicacy, he said, "The epicurean of the North and East has lived in vain who has not tasted terrapin soup. If he dies without tasting it, he dies with a green streak in his heart as big as a poplar log."

The bill's sponsor, Rep. Smith, responded to Ham's speech, conceding that he was no match for the Hall Countian's oratory.

"I have seen a remarkable wonder from the gentleman from Hall," he said. "The people of Hall did not go the whole hog, but simply sent a Ham to represent them."

Whether Ham was serious or just using the occasion to polish his oratory, his objections to the terrapin bill failed miserably despite two other speakers who opposed it. Ham even penned a poem about the terrapins. But the bill passed the House 92-8 and the Senate 85-3 without discussion.

It was witty speeches like Ham's on the terrapin bill that catapulted him to national notoriety as a lecturer, mostly poking fun at politics. His clever writing as an editor of the Gainesville Eagle and the Georgia Cracker carried him into the legislature.

The strenuous lecture schedule apparently affected his health as he suffered a heart attack on the road and died of a second one at age 57 in 1907 after he had returned to Gainesville.

Yes, that's how the University of Maryland's sports teams got their nickname, the Terrapins. That didn't happen till 1932, years after the Georgia terrapin tiff.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com/johnny.



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