A Georgia Boy Kills Half a Dozen Men in as Many Months.
Truth is stranger than fiction.
The force of that trite quotation was borne in upon a Times news gatherer as he chatted with and heard the story of a man who in less than as many months had killed with his own hand six of his fellow-men.
The slayer was John T. Prior, of Prior’s Station, Georgia, a hamlet a score of miles below Rome, on the E. T., V. & G. R. R. He is medium in size, with brown hair and gray eyes, which look as if they might glare, but not a man to be singled out as a desperado or as one who had ever done anything especially out of the common dull routine of a farmer’s life. He is low-voiced and quiet like Byron’s pirate who –
“Was the mildest mannered man
That ever scuttled ship or cut a throat.”
As will be seen hereafter, Prior had much and deadly provocation, and his killings grew out of those troublous situations.
Between the Lines.
He had enlisted early in the war in the First Georgia Cavalry, served three months, provided a substitute and gone home. Shortly after the evacuation of Rome the section in which he lived was left between the lines, with no large force of troops of either army near him. As a consequence, small bands of camp followers – independents, as they called themselves –roamed over the countryside on predatory errands, bent on robbery, and not stopping at murder if revenge or body depended upon it. They were mostly stragglers or camp followers from the Confederate army, and, if anything, worse than Sherman’s bummers, as they were preying upon their friends.
In this delectable condition of affairs young Prior, a boy of twenty-two years, found himself. All the men left at home were organized by Gov. Joe Brown into the then somewhat noted Georgia militia. The subject of this very brief autobiography was made a first lieutenant therein and his father a captain.
A party headed by one Lucky Baldwin has been committing depredations of various sorts. With a small squad Prior started to arrest the first party. Four of them surrendered. Lucky threw himself on a horse with the hope of escape, but Prior drew a bead on him with a shotgun. The aim was deadly, the horse was wounded, the rider stuck to his animal until he was out of sight, then fell off dead. His comrades were jailed at Cedartown.
Soon after, one Colquitt, a Texan, whose brother had been killed in an “independent” party, came to Cedartown, declaring his purpose to kill somebody. Prior was riding through the little village, and was called to the store to help arrest the desperado, who had a pistol and was threatening one Capt. Tracy. Prior and his brother shot and killed him.
“That is the prologue,” Mr. Prior said to the scribe, who began to get interested in this tale of slaughter, thinking as Hamlet said,
“Thus bad begins
But worse remains behind.”
April 2, 1864, the senior Prior and a colored man were brutally murdered by a gang under one Phillips, who himself committed the murder on the high road, wantonly slaying a good old man, out of pure villainy, and took the horses the twain were riding. Young Prior followed the squad. He tracked them by their outrages, and to him one man said: “If the Lord will just hear my prayers, you’ll get them fellers by night.”
Three More –Two at One Shot.
Near Coloma, at the foot of Wisener Mountain, the pursuer came upon the victims. They had dismounted, arranged for dinner and were sitting under the trees. As they saw Prior, who at the head of four men had advanced towards the ruffians they rose, the movement bringing two of them in range. He fired one barrel of his shotgun, loaded with a bullet and buck shot at them. One dropped dead, the other ran around the corner of the house and fell lifeless. The third meanwhile was shooting with a pistol at Prior, who turned and chased him through the woods, and killed him with a pistol. The avenger had supposed that these were the men who had killed his father. They were not, but belonged to the same gang. Their names were Tucker, Slack and Poe.
Blood For Blood—Six.
The last and crowning tragedy involved blood for blood and a son’s revenge for his father’s cowardly murder shall be told in the language of the slayer: “I was offering a reward for Phillips and was shown the house he was in. I led four men to the house and laid around a day or two. A dog betrayed us. I killed the cur at 100 yards with a pistol and left. The second time we went we laid around the house in the night until we knew he was there. I didn’t want to kill him in the house where the women and children would see it. I saw him but was afraid of killing the wrong man, so let him go. We stayed around until 8 or 9 o’clock when we saw that he was gone. I took his horse’s track and followed it until it went into a field. Phillips was in there plowing. He did not discover me until he came to the end of the rows. I raised up and called to him. He said, ‘Is that you John?’ I told him it was and I had come after him. I allowed him to hitch his horse and made him wade a branch to come to me. I asked, ‘Phillips, do you know who killed my father?’ Of course the evidence I had against him was positive, or I would have never hunted him. He exacted a promise and then told me of two parties whom I knew were not in the country at the time. The scared darkies who had been in the field had run to the house, and I saw people coming out of it. I said: ‘Phillips, you are the fellow that killed him. If you have any prayers, any conscientious scruples, or think the devil is waiting for you, you have time to say a few words.’ I spoke as kindly as I am talking to you, but said “I am going to kill you.’ He started to run. I shot him with a pistol, then with a gun. He dropped dead, and I left him there.”
According to Prior that wound up the lawless incursions, raids and murders and in course of time civil law reasserted itself.
A Life Saver.
Years after Mr. Prior had married an estimable lady upon whom fell the pall of lunacy. While he was taking her to an asylum, he met a man who rendered him assistance and said: “You killed Tucker. If you hadn’t he would have killed me.”
A Passionless Story.
The man who told this story of killing, slaughter and revenge seemed absolutely passionless. His tone was even and moderate and he spoke in the most matter of fact way, the farthest possible removed from sanguinary gush or boasting. His tale is undoubtedly a true one, unexaggerated, and lifts for a moment the veil that hangs over the past in the debatable ground between two armies in North Georgia during the civil war.
Mr. Prior has lived near the old home since the war, gathering what he could from the wreck of the family fortunes and accumulating more. Prior’s Station is named after him; he is a solid man, a prominent citizen, and very evidently feels no remorse or compunction for the deadly work he did during the dark days of the late very unpleasantness.