Mercy bears richer fruits than justice.
– Abraham Lincoln
I’ll be the first to tell you I am not a historian.
I just like old stories, and I’ve got a time machine – almost 230 years of Augusta Chronicle archives. That’s why last week I was visiting Lincoln County a century ago.
I found that our newspaper coverage of Lincoln County in 1914 sort of expanded with news about mischief and crime and sheriffs and commerce, mostly commerce. That’s because Lincoln County that year seemed to have a flourishing industry – private distilling, what some today refer to as moonshine. And while this enterprise thrived, it also provided some political entertainment, and August 1914 offers the best example.
That’s when a federal marshal took the train to Lincolnton to pick up J.B. Flannigan. This newspaper described Flannigan as “a prosperous farmer of Lincoln County.” It also described how he appeared before federal commissioner C.J. Skinner Jr. on the charge of operating an illicit distillery.
The witness against Mr. Flannigan was Lincoln County Sheriff G.T. Wright, who said a still had been found on Flannigan’s property.
That’s when Flannigan’s attorney stood up (as attorneys are paid to do) and asked the sheriff if he had ever seen his client make or sell any whiskey at the still that was raided.
Attorneys, back then as today, are sticklers for details.
The sheriff said no, he had not, although he had observed the defendant ride up to the still. He had seen the defendant unload two sacks of sugar into two vats. And he had seen the defendant begin to stir.
Mr. Flannigan was bound over to the next term of federal court under a bond of $300, which was arranged, and he was released.
That seems to be where things were headed until about two weeks later, when everyone was back in court.
The tables, however, had been turned. On Aug. 18, 1914, The Chronicle reported “Sheriff G.T. Wright, of Lincoln County, was arraigned before U.S. Commissioner C.J. Skinner Jr. yesterday morning on the charge of keeping an illicit distillery.”
Somehow, the Lincoln County sheriff, who brought a case against prosperous farmer J.B. Flannigan, was now being charged with the same crime.
Three witnesses suggested that the sheriff was deep into the moonshine business. Their case was not nearly so compelling however, and after making it, their attorney admitted as much, leading the federal commissioner to quash the warrant.
The honorable C.J. Skinner Jr. then suggested to anyone sitting in court that the entire proceeding was “a bit of politics.” The warrant for the arrest of Sheriff Wright was “instigated by several parties in Lincoln County” he said, and it was dismissed.
So, what was going on?
Well, I think we know.
In my cursory search of subsequent Chronicle news accounts, I find no record that Sheriff Wright ever again brought moonshine charges against prosperous farmer J.B. Flannigan.
For his part, Mr. Flannigan seemed to enjoy his prosperity, being mentioned in future stories for his role as a Democratic Party convention delegate.
I could not find a story about whether or not he was ever again prosecuted for running a still.
Maybe that was because the sheriff got the message.
Or maybe that’s because I’m not a historian.