The Grapevine Art & Soul Salon

Jonathan Knott

Tracking History: Jonathan Knott, Host

Is the Past Really Past?

In Clarkesville, Georgia, where my history began (I was born there in the White County Hospital in 1973), David Price has been tracking some history.

He recently told us about the Old Clarkesville Cemetery, point of departure (pun intended) for his article “A Murder in Clarkesville” published in Georgia Backroads, Spring 2008 (39-43), where he describes the cemetery this way:

The Old Clarkesville Cemetery sits almost unnoticed just a few blocks from the quaint town square. On this one-acre postage stamp of land, giant white pines and poplar trees tower over staggered rows of tablet headstones that lean drunkenly in the lasting gloom. Scattered among the graves are box crypts, worn from almost two centuries of exposure to the elements. Many of them gape open, their lids gradually lifted by the ever-growing, implacable tree roots.

Price, who is director of public relations at Piedmont College in Demorest, participates in the Habersham County Historical Society’s night walks through the graveyard by donning period dress to stand beside one of the graves to represent the man whose remains are in it. According to Price, the oldest tombstone in the cemetery belongs to Calvin J. Hanks, a young attorney who was stabbed to death on August 15, 1834. Speaking in the first person, he tells the story of Hanks to the curious who take these walks and listen to volunteers give voice to the dead.

Hanks’ story is particularly interesting because it was a public murder (he was stabbed on a Clarkesville street) that went unpunished when the jurors set his accused killers free. A grand jury indictment (the only surviving courthouse record of the crime) names four suspects, all distinguished residents of the town. One of them, John Wesley Thompson, who fled to Ripley, Mississippi, “where he found work as a teacher and then as an attorney,” became, by adoption, the great-grandfather of novelist William Faulkner.

According to the indictment, three of the suspects “aided John W. Thompson when he ‘feloniously, willfully, and of malice aforethought’ stabbed Calvin Hanks, giving him ‘a mortal wound of the breadth of two inches and debth [sic] of six inches.’” No motive is given, nor is there any explanation for the acquittals.

With this vivid image from the cemetery and this single piece of information, Price has patiently tracked down a story that has grown into a book, not yet finished, that, according to Price, keeps getting longer and more interesting. The story poses a question whether John Wesley Thompson was in fact the murderer (Faulkner apparently thought he was). Part of the circumstantial evidence that there was animosity between them has to do with the Cherokee removal on the Trail of Tears (Thompson’s mother and Hanks’ sister-in-law were Cherokees; the two families differed in attitude toward the removal). However, Price lays out the case for naming another of the suspects who may have had a stronger motive and in all likelihood committed the murder.

Price makes good use of the Faulkner connection by framing his story in quotations from the Nobel Prize winner, one of the most famous being, “The past isn’t dead. It isn’t even past,” from Requiem for a Nun. He finds an example of Faulknerian prose in a letter written from jail by John Wesley Thompson to his l9-year-old wife, Justiania: “In the midst of darkness light springs up, the virulent edge of tyranny and oppression is fast becoming blunted and soon the muddy stream of publick opinion will regain its purity and the facts will place the present disastrous circumstances in a proper light.” In the same letter Thompson vows that his spirit will “burst its chains and fetters and pass the walls that would confine it and climb the battlements of Heaven where justice, truth and mercy hold their omnipotent sway.”

Readers of The Grapevine can go to the Georgia Backroads issue to see the complete article with excellent illustrations, or they can wait for the book, which we understand will be published soon. Stay tuned. We’ll let you know.

Old Clarkesville Cemetery with Ghosts
Photo by David Price
Copyright ©2008 Barbara Knott. All Rights Reserved.
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