Tombstones Sometimes Lie
by Patrick Malcolm © 1977
Reprinted by permission of the author I know of no fiction writer whose inventiveness can match the twists and turns of history. Truth frequently contains elements that are so startling that it approaches fantasy, and a capricious, unjust fate seems to take charge. Most persons with even a mild religious upbringing feel that the good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished, if not on earth, then in heaven. Most of the success stories of American life are structured to fit the doctrine that the good will prosper and the bad will suffer, but life is not always good, and the following story is based on fact. Once, this story was a very famous one, frequently told and repeated; then it lay dormant for a hundred years until the bits and pieces were once again reassembled from dusty courthouse records and faded, worn family Bible pages. The subject matter is certain to be surprising to those persons who sometime trust their fellow man or close relatives too much, or for those who have an undue admiration for the power of wealth.
I know of no fiction writer whose inventiveness can match the twists and turns of history. Truth frequently contains elements that are so startling that it approaches fantasy, and a capricious, unjust fate seems to take charge. Most persons with even a mild religious upbringing feel that the good will be rewarded and the evil will be punished, if not on earth, then in heaven. Most of the success stories of American life are structured to fit the doctrine that the good will prosper and the bad will suffer, but life is not always good, and the following story is based on fact.
Once, this story was a very famous one, frequently told and repeated; then it lay dormant for a hundred years until the bits and pieces were once again reassembled from dusty courthouse records and faded, worn family Bible pages. The subject matter is certain to be surprising to those persons who sometime trust their fellow man or close relatives too much, or for those who have an undue admiration for the power of wealth.
Alexander Malcom moved to Meriwether County, Georgia, in 1839 to manage a large plantation, "Malcom Meriwether Plantation," that his father, John Malcom, had purchased. Previously Alexander had successfully managed John Malcomís huge plantation at Sandy Creek, near Monroe, Georgia. John Malcomís property at Sandy Creek consisted of approximately 19,000 acres of very fertile land and 125 slaves. Alexander instructed and supervised several land overseers who in turn kept the vast operation going.
John Malcomís Monroe Plantation was making enormous profits with its cotton crop and the slaves were reproducing their numbers at such a rapid rate that Malcom wanted to invest his profits 100 miles southwest in Meriwether County on additional land. Alexander had proven his ability of running the home plantation and John felt the choice of sending him to establish a new plantation in Meriwether County would solve the in-law jealousy between his (Johnís) new wife [Nancy J. Hawk, born 1810] and Alexanderís wife [Mahala Nelson, born 1808]. This situation was further intensified by the fact that Johnís new wife was younger than Alexanderís wife.
In 1838 when the Georgia Railroad was successfully completed all the way from East Georgia to West Georgia, Alexander and his father John rode the train one hundred miles from Monroe to Greenville, in Meriwether County, where John purchased all the available property he could, which turned out to be 10,000 acres of excellent cotton land. This new acquisition brought John Malcomís total holdings to 29,000 acres and immensely increased his wealth.
Alexander liked his newly appointed job and felt that his oldest son, Barnett, who had recently married, showed the maturity to help manage the fifty slaves that had been sent along to Meriwether County to clear the new land for planting. In no time, the profits from Johnís new investment more than tripled his already huge fortune. However, a few years later, fate dealt an unfair blow when Barnett suddenly contracted a fever in April of 1860 and died. The strain of his sonís untimely death, coupled with added responsibilities of organizing the enormous task of planting and reaping, presumably caused Alexander to suffer a heart attack in November of 1860. In a few weeks following this attack, he too died.
In 1860, John Malcom was 75 years old and not only burdened with the deaths of his son and grandson, but faced with the dilemma of running his two vast enterprises which were located 100 miles apart. Johnís personality soon changed from his jovial friendliness to a hardened grimness. He made the decision to send his youngest son, 28-year-old William David Malcom, to Meriwether, rather than his other, older son, James R. Malcom, whom he felt was irresponsible and lacked the maturity to take on such a responsibility.
Adding to the difficulties, Alexanderís widow refused to allow young William David to assume her deceased husbandís role of running the Meriwether Plantation. Legal problems arose and John arrived at Meriwether with his lawyers, but he unsuccessfully attempted to evict his daughter-in-law when she rejected John and his lawyersí proposal. Local officials also rejected Johnís proposition to his daughter-in-law, and John was finally forced to make a settlement which was favorable to his sonís widow. Alexanderís widow received the house and a small portion of land, and the rest was awarded to John.
The pressing problems of Johnís enormous business establishments were thought to have caused him to have a stroke less than a year after the deaths of his son and grandson. His doctor advised him to prepare a will for the disposition of his estate. John met with his attorneys and carefully planned the division of his vast fortune, which included 29,000 prime acres, stocks and cash. His will generously provided for his wife and thirteen surviving children, and the families of three deceased children. In his will, John stipulated that enough of his slaves be sold immediately to provide $24,000 to be placed in a trust for the education of his three minor children and the support of his wife.
John Malcom had been a very successful man in the eyes of his family and friends. He was a diligent, hard worker and he possessed a sharp business mind. Through careful planning, he had skillfully amassed a fortune in property and slaves Ė the largest accumulation in Walton County, the third largest in the State of Georgia, and in 1860 he was listed as one of the ten richest men in the Confederates states. As his will shows, his earnest desire was to equally divide his property and other assets among his descendants. John would have been disgusted had he lived to see the inter-family feuding and greed that developed over the division of his fortune. Even more so, he would have been outraged could he have known who would finally end up with his entire estate.
As previously stated, young William David Malcom took charge of the Meriwether plantation after the death of his brother, Alexander. It was clear that John favored William over his older brother, James R. Malcom. William David had the same keen mind and resourcefulness of his father, and at an early age, he had married and took over the responsibility of running part of the Monroe Plantation when his older brother Alexander left to take over the Meriwether Plantation. William Davidís capabilities pleased John very much, and he continuously placed more and more responsibilities upon William David, who continued to prove successful in everything he attempted.
James R., as he was known (since there were five other James Malcomís), had never been given any responsibility by his father. Principally because his father felt he was incapable of responsibility. Much to James R.ís dismay, John appointed his son-in-law, Hillsman Hawk, to supervise the Monroe Plantation after William David left to manage the Meriwether Plantation. Hillsman had married one of Johnís daughters and owned the adjoining plantation, much of the land having been given to him and his new bride by his father-in-law, John Malcom. Hillsman, like his father-in-law, was very successful, but since his health was failing in later life, he relied on his son-in-law, Jasper N. Smith, to help him direct the numerous and various affairs of running a large plantation. Jasper was a short man and was well liked by everyone. Also, his gift for dealing with figures made him an excellent administrator. Jasper had married into the Malcom family and was well liked by all of Johnís children. This friendship however would prove to change the lives of all John Malcomís descendants.
John Malcom died on Christmas Day, 1862, and his body was put on display in a mahogany casket in his magnificent home. When Johnís funeral was held, hundreds from Walton, Morgan and Meriwether counties filed by his coffin to get a last glimpse of his body. Many of the mourners were Confederate uniformed soldiers, on leave during the first Christmas season of the Civil War.
John had been among the official founders of the cities of Madison and Monroe. In 1807 he led a group of settlers who wished to establish a town and used his own ox-cart to haul timber to build the first meeting house, and the town was named Madison. Official delegates from Madison and Monroe, headed by the Mayors, were on hand to pay their last respects.
As maudlin as it may sound, the funeral was conducted by Johnís only surviving brother, George W. Malcom, who was a Baptist minister. John, being much more perceptive than he appeared, had foreseen some of the greed which would follow his death, and made every effort to ensure that his wealth would be fairly divided. He thought that the wisdom of appointing his brother, George W. Malcom; his son-in-law Hillsman Hawk; and his favorite son, William David Malcom, would add balance and integrity to insure that the will would be administered justly. George Malcom died, however, one year after his brother, and by this time, Sherman had invaded Georgia, overrunning the Malcom plantations along with those of all the neighbors. The Monroe Plantation was devastated by Shermanís men. All the hogs and chickens were rounded up and carried off, the smoke houses raided, and all available food was taken. The negro slaves were freed and the area was left in so much chaos that the administrative proceedings of John Malcomís estate were halted.
The war ended in 1865 and the land had become so non-productive that many citizens lost their property because the could not pay the taxes. Hillsman Hawk had worked hard to rebuild the Monroe Plantation, but the price of Cotton had dropped below the cost of marketing it, and when the slaves were emancipated by Lincoln, over half the value of John Malcomís estate was instantly lost. Hillsman Hawk died in 1867, apparently from all the stress of his health problems, the war and dealing with post-war hardships. His son-in-law, Jasper N. Smith took over the management of the Hillsman Hawk Plantation as well as the Malcomís Monroe Plantation. Jasper did not have any legal authority, however, to control the affairs of John Malcomís estates. That power remained with the only surviving legal administrator designated by John, his son William David.
William David had returned from the war to the Meriwether Plantation and the reversals of business caused him to drink large quantities of grain alcohol, a habit he was introduced to while serving in the Confederate Army. William David was forced to let large fields lie fallow on the Meriwether plantation because most of his negro labor had left him. Financial setbacks left his unable to purchase new machinery to cultivate the cotton fields. William David began his power to sell off parcels of land to cover his own losses on the Meriwether Plantation. He returned to Monroe for the familyís annual Fourth-of-July picnic gathering in 1869. After the barbecue, he assembled his sisters and brother, James R., and explained his desire to sell all the remaining land and distribute the proceeds of the sales. Some differences of opinion followed and William Davidís heavy drinking and his loud, domineering behavior broke up the gathering earlier than usual.
The only other male heir (of legal age) of John Malcom was James R., and he was induced by his six older sisters to file a petition in court at Monroe for William to be fired from his responsibility as administrator. The petition was filed and states, in part: "William David Malcolm [sic] has been wasting and mismanaging the John Malcom estate and prejudicing the interests of the petitioners. He has failed to make any returns in three years; yet he had sold willed land and the proceeds are believed to have been misused. He is unfit for management and the petitioners believe him to be insolvent." William David protested the charges, but resigned as administrator.
Jasper Smith had successfully managed the Malcom Monroe Plantation, and he had very skillfully administered the estate of his late father-in-law, Hillsman Hawk. Seizing the opportunity, Jasper played out an insidious plan of turning James R. and the Malcom sisters against William David. When his mission was accomplished, he was overwhelmingly elected to administer the remaining estate of John Malcom. In order to be appointed as legal administrator, however, it was necessary to find someone who would sign a cash bond guaranteeing his honesty. A local attorney, G.A. Nunnally, signed the cash bond for Jasper Smith.
Jasper Smith immediately began to sell all of the land. When prospective buyers were found, he collected the money and deposited it in his own personal account in Monroe. Land values had increased enormously by 1870 and Jasper accrued thousands and thousands of dollars. The lawyer who had bonded Smith, G.A. Nunnally, filed the following lawsuit in the Monroe Courthouse on October 2, 1871: "G.A. Nunnally, security, v. Jasper N. Smith. Nunnally is greatly alarmed, in danger of suffering personal loss, because Jasper N. Smith has failed to make distribution of the John Malcom estate, yet has the entire proceeds from sales of land. He had left his home in Walton County and is now doing business in Atlanta, Georgia, in a very hazardous speculative business. The estate has been mismanaged."
Having left Monroe with all of the funds from the estate, Jasper Smith left the expectant Malcom heirs penniless. Several of John Malcomís heirs collectively filed lawsuits against him, but he had moved to Atlanta and his newly accumulated financial resources eventually exhausted their financially limited efforts. He had been in Atlanta during his service with the Confederacy, and hoped someday to return. Jasper opened a brick manufacturing plant with some of the money that he had squandered from the Malcom estate. Atlanta was raising herself from the ashes of the Civil War and this boom made Jasper Smith the richest man in Atlanta - ironically, just as John Malcom had been the richest man in the towns of Madison and Monroe. Smithís fame as a rich eccentric was widely publicized in the Atlanta newspapers in his later days, and when he felt death approaching, he ordered a sculptor to carve a marble slate of himself to adorn his grave. This statue still stands today at the head of his mausoleum in the Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta, with the epitaph:
Jasper N. Smith, Born in Walton County
December 29, 1833
A Noble Atlantan Who Built an Empire with His Own Hands
It appears that Jasper Smith did profit from his sins with success and wealth that followed him to the grave, and these sins did not taint his honor, at least on earth.
On the other hand, records show that misfortune overtook at least one of the minor children of John Malcom, George W. Malcom. A simple document was filed in the Monroe Courthouse in September of 1933, after the death of George W. Malcom:
It is hereby ordered by this court that George W. Malcom, who died penniless yesterday at the age of 87, the last surviving son of the late John Malcom and Nancy Hawk Malcom, be buried in a pauperís grave, and the county will bear the burial expenses, and a pine coffin at the cost of $2.17. Witnessed by J.E. Malcom and John M. Peters.