There’s always been a curiosity about Gov. James Milton Smith, one of two Georgia governors buried in Alta Vista Cemetery in Gainesville.
There’s no mystery about the other governor, A.D. Candler, a native of Lumpkin County and Gainesville resident most of his life.
But Gov. Smith? “He weren’t from ’round here,” as some would say. He was born in Twiggs County and practiced law in Columbus before becoming a legislator and fell into the governorship after Gov. Rufus Bulloch quit before being impeached.
He might have practiced law in Hall County briefly, but that can’t be confirmed. The main reason his grave is in Alta Vista is because it lies beside his first wife, Hester Ann Brown Smith. And the reason she’s buried there is because she died at White Sulphur Springs Hotel after a long illness.
Gov. Smith served but one full term and failed in a bid for the U.S. Senate, his popularity having waned. There wasn’t even a monument placed at his gravesite until 1925. 35 years after his death.
One of the reasons his political career ended might be found in a book by Dr. Fay Stapleton Burnett, a retired Winder dentist and first-time author. “The Hanging of Susan Eberhart” is about a 19-year-old woman convicted in the May 1872 murder of an invalid woman she was supposed to be caring for.
Despite a huge outcry to commute Eberhart’s sentence from hanging to life in prison, Gov. Smith refused to budge, and Eberhart was hanged before hundreds of people outside the courthouse in Preston, Ga., May 2, 1873.
The story, as the book title plainly states, is about the hanging of Susan Eberhart. But the role Gov. Smith played in it is a large part of it.
Susan Eberhart had come to live with Sarah Spann to help Sarah’s husband Enoch care for her. Enoch supposedly tried to kill his wife a couple of times earlier; one of those times Susan rescued her from drowning.
But on the night of May 4, 1872, Enoch strangled Sarah, apparently with some help from Susan, or at least she didn’t interfere. After Mrs. Spann had succumbed, Enoch was said to have climbed into the bed with Susan, and after a while, both fled into the countryside. They were captured a few days later in Alabama, both charged with murder in Webster County, Ga.
Juries convicted both of them, and the judge sentenced them to die on the gallows. Enoch Spann was hanged April 11, 1873.
But there was considerable drama before the hanging of Eberhart, his convicted accomplice. A movement that spread throughout Georgia and even nationally sought to spare her life and let her spend the rest of her days in prison. At the time, it was generally thought she would be the first white woman to be hanged in Georgia, though at least one other white woman had died on the gallows previously.
Even the jury that convicted Eberhart signed petitions to Gov. Smith urging him to commute the sentence. Most officials and prominent citizens of Webster County supported the movement to spare her life. The governor received hundreds of letters and telegrams asking him to call off the hanging. Many newspapers appealed for Eberhart’s life, though others supported the governor, who refused to change his position.
Despite the seemingly overwhelming sentiment to call off the hanging, Susan Eberhart dangled at the end of a rope May 2, 1873, just three weeks after Enoch Spann’s death on the same gallows in tiny Preston, Ga.
Burnett’s book is thoroughly researched, detailing the lives of the main characters, using newspaper accounts of the day about the murder, the defendants’ time in the little Preston Jail and interviews with them, the hangings themselves and their aftermath. It even caused former President Jimmy Carter to comment favorably about the author’s efforts. Dr. Burnett spent hours in libraries, the state archives, museums, courthouses and wherever she could pick up the tiniest detail to flesh out her book.
It is available on Amazon.com for $27 and will be available soon in local outlets.
You might call “The Hanging of Susan Eberhart” an accidental book. It wasn’t one Dr. Burnett set out to write. She was researching the background of her great-grandfather, Col. Rev. James Stapleton, when she stumbled upon a reference to “the venerable George Stapleton of Jefferson County,” who prayed the final prayer with Susan Eberhart just before she was hanged.
That set the author on a different path, not only searching for answers about her Stapleton kin, but about Susan Eberhart and why she was hanged.
The wife of the Rev. Brock Burnett, a Presbyterian minister, Fay also learned some lessons in her journey about capital punishment, mercy, the effects of poverty, ignorance and mental illness and unintended consequences, among other things.
It is a monumental work that will be appreciated by those interested in history as well as justice, politics and other topics that are as relevant today, if not more so, as they were in the 1870s.
Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; e-mail.