Bill Kirby

Online news editor for The Augusta Chronicle.

Niece sheds light on man in '47 mystery

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History is nothing more than a tableau of crimes and misfortunes.

Clifton Spires (left) in police custody  AP file/ Augusta Chronicle July 1947
AP file/ Augusta Chronicle July 1947
Clifton Spires (left) in police custody
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-- Voltaire

Last year, I wrote a feature for our Web site about a curious incident in our nation's past.

In July 1947 when President Harry Truman was addressing the U.S. Senate, Capitol police were quietly arresting a man armed with a gun elsewhere in the building.

"Augusta Man With Pistol In His Pocket Is Arrested in Capitol at Washington Just After Truman Visits Senate Halls" read the July 24, 1947, Augusta Chronicle headline.

The newspaper reported that Clifton R.H. Spires had visited family at 1836 Greene St. days before and, before leaving, told his sister that he would be gone for awhile.

Two days later, he was in the nation's capital with a pistol, and two weeks after that he was sent away. According to an Aug. 8, 1947, account in The Chronicle , a municipal court jury decided Spires needed mental help. This newspaper didn't write about him again for 20 years. A brief obituary in 1968 noted his death in a Maryland VA center.

I thought that was the end of it, but then last week I heard from Sandra Perkins Jay.

She said she found the old story on the Internet and wanted me to know some more about Spires, her uncle.

"I remember going to his funeral when I was a teenager," she wrote. "Everything was very hush-hush. I had never met Uncle Clifton. He was institutionalized and never released after the incident.

"I know a little about the family, though. He had a very sad, tormented life, as so many did back then. His family lived in a shack on land that had been owned by his family, but was lost to the bank after a fire destroyed everything the family had. They were very poor.

"His mother died when Clifton was 6 weeks old. His father remarried and had six more children, most of whom ended up in the state orphanage in Columbia after his second wife died. Clifton joined the Army, came back home, but couldn't find work. There wasn't much help for the veterans back then.

"What a wasted, sad life. I am glad that even after what he did, he was given a military burial and laid to rest in the veterans' section at Westview Cemetery here in Augusta.

"Everyone has a story," she concluded, "I wish I knew the rest of his."

So did I.

That's why I drove out to Westview last week and found his grave. He is buried in the American Legion section with others who served our country. On Spires' left is the grave of Sgt. Joseph Miller, a World War II veteran who died in 1968. On his right is the grave of Pvt. Edward E. Floyd, who died in 1967.

I like to think he has comrades in eternity.

I also like to think it's still not clear that Spires was trying to shoot the president. But neither is it clear what the 39-year-old World War II Army veteran was doing in Washington that summer day in 1947.

History has kept that mystery.


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