Politicking As a Blood Sport: The Legacy of William Patrick “Binks” Henry

The town square of Elberton, Georgia, circa 1898. Except for the statue in the center ground it would have looked similarly in November 1894 when a crowd estimated at about 2,000 hanged William Patrick “Binks” Henry in effigy.

The talk from many idle chatterers these days is that politics is more vicious and cutthroat than it’s ever been.

I always chuckle on hearing this, because anyone having anything more than a passing acquaintance with the history of this revered republic knows it isn’t true. Nor does one have to delve into the intriguing and slandering that went on in the 1800 presidential election between once and future friends John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the first real down and dirty presidential election, or into any of the of the national elections since, to find exculpatory evidence for our age. It lies closer to home.

Not in my own memory, nor in any recollection of any older relative or anyone else that I recall, has an election day in Elbert County seen any rioting, beatings or shootings related to politics and the voting, but such used to be commonplace. In fact, rare was the election day in Elbert County between the end of the Civil War and 1900 that didn’t see someone shot or beaten or, in at least one case, hanged in effigy by a mob. I was reminded of this recently while researching material for an article that will appear some months hence in Georgia Backroads magazine. It all also reminded me how often in times past members of my extended family have played their parts in the little drama of our local history, in this case both as givers and recipients of beatings and in other acts of unconventional politicking. I have often said the actual history of the Heard-Allen-Mattox-McIntosh-Harris family tree from which the Chandlers are a main branch stomps into the dust William Faulkner’s best efforts to invent a back story for his fictional characters. Most of the people mentioned in the tale I’m about to tell are relatives of mine at some distance, either by blood or marriage, and I offer them as further evidence to back my claim.

On Tuesday November 6, 1888, William Patrick “Binks” Henry walked into the Elbert County courthouse and cast his ballot for Benjamin Harrison, the Republican candidate for president. It was the first time the 22-year-old Henry had ever voted and his was the sole Republican vote cast in the county that day (black voters who in those days often wanted to vote Republican were discouraged from voting at all, and what would happen to Binks Henry is a study in how). There was no secret balloting in those days; everyone knew how everyone else voted.

Henry was scarcely a block away from the courthouse when he was accosted by three men whom he had theretofore had no reason to consider enemies, William Parks Clark, Joseph Mattox and P.H. Ham. Hot words followed over Henry’s heresy of voting Republican. The altercation ended with Henry lying in the street, felled under repeated blows of Clark’s buggy whip.

What possessed Binks Henry to cast his first vote ever for Benjamin Harrison, we don’t know. He recorded no reason in his surviving papers and if he ever confided his thinking on the matter to anyone, no record they made has ever been found. He was an eccentric man among a family of eccentrics. From his story it’s not hard to infer that he enjoyed sticking his thumb in the eye of convention, and absent hard evidence that offers as good an explanation as any for his vote. Family accounts hold that he was a medical doctor by education, but there is no evidence that he ever practiced medicine. He and his sister Mary Ellen “Ella,” older by three years, lived in what had been the Allen plantation house overlooking Beaverdam Creek, near where the Pearl Mill textile manufactory would rise in a few years. (In 1888, William H. Mattox, a Henry relative by marriage, and his partners were already building a mill on the site.) The Henrys had inherited the Allen home and lands through their great aunt being the wife of Beverly Allen (my own great-great-great uncle, as it happens), son of original settler William Allen and nephew of the notorious Beverly Allen, the defrocked Methodist minister who had killed a U.S. marshal in Augusta in 1794 and fled to the wilds of Kentucky. By all indications the Henrys were satisfied to live on inherited money and the landowner’s share of the fruits of their sharecroppers’ toil. Binks Henry’s refuge, not to say delight, was evidently in his books, of which he had a large collection.

The Allen plantation house, near Beaverdam Creek in the Middleton?Longstreet community. The oldest part of the house dated from the early 1800s and for years was a stronghold of the Allen family and extended family, which included the Heard, McIntosh, Mattox and Henry families. The house burned in 2000.

After his beating, Henry swore out warrants for Clark, Mattox and Ham, and all were later indicted for assault and battery by an Elbert County grand jury that, oddly enough, included Clark as a member. The incident was to some degree a family affair [and, as it happens, my family affair as well]. Clark, then 40 years old, was distantly connected by marriage to the Heard, Allen, Mattox and Henry families, his mother’s first husband being Gerrard Allen, a son of Singleton Allen, the brother of Binks’s and Ella’s great uncle Beverly (making Gerrard Beverly’s nephew, of course), and a grandson of local Revolutionary War hero Stephen Heard [my great-great-great-great grandfather who, as I wrote in an earlier column, almost certainly was not saved from a British hangman’s noose by his slave woman “Mammy Kate,” as local legend holds]. Joseph Mattox was a nephew of local planter, mill owner, entrepreneur and Democratic political boss the aforementioned William H. Mattox (my great-great grandfather), whose wife was the daughter of Singleton Allen, thus Gerrard Allen’s sister and granddaughter of Stephen Heard. (I never promised you the family tree would be simple to follow.) When the case came to trial, Clark was found guilty of the charge and fined. His compatriots were acquitted.

Owing to its political overtones, the case had gained national notoriety, attracting the attention even of the new administration. President Harrison rewarded Binks Henry for all his troubles and suffering by giving him the privilege of naming the new postmaster for Elberton. Binks selected the person apparently closest to him in the world, his sister Ella. In late 1889 she replaced John. M. Heard, another distant cousin, and became the first postmistress in Elberton’s history (and is believed to be the first postmistress in Georgia).

Binks Henry wasn’t satisfied with the outcome of his case. He took the then novel step of bringing federal charges against his assailants for violating his civil rights. A federal grand jury in Atlanta, however, dismissed the charges in October 1889. Henry again brought federal charges and that time a second federal grand jury indicted the men. The case again gained Binks Henry national acclaim in Republican circles, and Elbert County national notoriety, but it was ultimately dismissed on a legal fine point. Federal law in those days protected a person attacked or threatened before voting, or if they were attacked or threatened by anyone wearing masks. An attack made after a person had cast their vote, though, and by assailants not wearing masks, did not fall under federal purview.

The Republican Party in Georgia largely sat out the election of 1892. That year saw the first significant rise of the Populist Party, a coming that threw the already turbulent world of state politics into even more disarray. The Populist Party sprang out the Farmers’ Alliance that had swept across the South in the late 1880s and early 1890s, gaining more than 100,000 members. In those years cotton prices had plummeted at the same time that farmers saw their debts and a number of other problems of rural folk increase, notably stiff increases in railroad freight rates. Mirroring similar movements by farmers in the West, the southern Populists urged the nationalization of railroads, more government control of banking, and a bimetallist monetary system, specifically the free coinage of silver at a rate 16:1 with gold. “Free silver” is an historical footnote now, but in these times it was an issue that excited passions. The basic idea of its supporters, among whom farmers were heavily represented, was simply to put more money into circulation, creating a form of inflation that would drive up the prices of farm commodities. And also, allow them to pay down or pay off their debts with inflated dollars. This latter is exactly why free silver was opposed by the industrial and financial interests. Like other coeval organizations such as the Knights of Labor that would now be considered left-leaning (the right-left description then not being in general use), the Populists also supported a graduated income tax and the direct election of U.S. senators. The rise of the Populists in Georgia pitted the interests of the largely rural folk against those of more urban areas and posed a serious challenge for the Democrats.

That wasn’t just because the Populists co-opted some of the Democrats’ positions that appealed to farmers (nationally, such prominent Democrats as William Jennings Bryan championed free silver and more regulation of the railroads). The Democrats had never been especially popular in large swaths of middle Georgia west of Augusta that had voted mostly Whig before the Civil War, but postwar the Democrats had captured the votes in those areas by default, being the only choice other than voting Republican. Now the voters had a choice. Even more infuriating to the Democrats, the Populists under the leadership of the brilliant orator and political maverick Tom Watson set out to cross racial lines and appeal to both rural and urban blacks who, when they managed to vote at all, were inclined to vote for any Republican running. Black delegates were invited to the Populist’s state convention in 1892, the first of several such acts nearly unheard of at the time. (That would change in the years near the end of the Georgia Populist Party’s relevance, as Watson took stances virulently anti-black, anti-Catholic and anti-Semitic.) Even though their aims and platforms were almost diametrically opposed, Georgia Republicans saw a chance to make a devil’s bargain with the Populists. Given the futility (usually) of running a Republican candidate, many Republicans threw in with the Populists in an attempt to thumb-gouge the Democrats in the eye. That led Binks Henry back into the political game.

The Republican Party sent out sample ballots for Elbert County with the name of the Populist candidate for Congress, J.R. Robins, along with the names of the Republican presidential electors. Henry had other thoughts and surmised that instead of bringing Populists to vote for the Republicans this stratagem-cum-trick would actually push them toward the Democrats. He had other local sample ballots printed with the Republican electors listed along with the Democratic candidate for Congress. The Democratic Party bosses in Elbert County were incensed, and threatened Henry and the local Republican chairman with prosecution for fraud. Nothing came of the threats but when, as expected, the Democrats won easily in Elbert County, and nationally the Democrat Grover Cleveland reclaimed the White House he had lost four years before to Benjamin Harrison, the celebratory crowd in Elberton’s town square, estimated by the local newspaper at a couple of thousand, hanged Binks Henry in effigy − and then the effigy was burned. For Ella Henry the election has more concrete consequences. Early in the new administration she lost her position as postmistress − to the former postmaster, her cousin John. M. Heard.

In late 1893, Binks Henry left Elbert County and took an extensive tour of the north, but exactly where he went and what he did isn’t known. He played no part in the midterm elections of 1894, when Republicans in Georgia again discreetly supported the Populists as a dig at the Democrats. By 1896, however, Binks was back in Elbert County just in time to set out on his most ambitious political play yet. When the Republican organizers of Georgia’s Eighth Congressional District met in Athens in the later summer of 1896, they chose him as their candidate. Between then and November he crisscrossed the district campaigning to mostly black voters.

Tuesday, November 3, 1896 was a cold, rainy day in Elberton, according to the Elberton Star, but the newspaper’s editor found some sunny notes. “There was not near so much drinking and debauchery in this election as there was in the last,” went his editorial. “The town was quiet all day and there were only one or two election scraps.” It was something of a change from the primary election held in Elberton the month before. That day, a quarrel at the polls had led to two Democrats shooting two Populists (they survived). It seems, however, that the Star’s editor had a gift for understatement, and also chose to ignore quite a bit.

The editorial continued that “‘Cuffy’ [blacks] did not play near so prominent a role in this election as he did in the last. When left alone he voted the republican ticket, but by using a little ‘persuasion’ he could easily be induced to cast his vote for some other party.” The Reverend Thomas L. Kennedy begged to differ.

Kennedy, a black minister and former teacher, had been a thorn in the side of the local Democratic establishment for some time. In August 1895, the county school superintendent had fired him from a teaching post at one of the county’s black schools after Kennedy, speaking at a church, allegedly made political statements in favor of Republicans and deemed to be fomenting racial discord. Kennedy had then founded a black-oriented newspaper, the Progress, a more radical and confrontational paper than the county’s other black newspaper, the Golden Age, which reflected the fairly conservative stance toward black issues favored most notably by Booker T. Washington. Kennedy was also a key organizer of the black vote for the Republican Party and an associate of Binks Henry. In the pages of the Progress Kennedy painted a different portrait of the election day doings. Blacks who approached the polls in Elberton to cast Republican ballots, Kennedy wrote, had found their way blocked “by a standing army of democratic ruffians.” Had not the casting of Republican votes been blocked, Kennedy went on, he estimated that “fully 1,000 to 1,500 republican tickets would have been cast.” The man Kennedy tagged in print as the leader of the “democratic ruffians” was our old friend and Binks Henry’s tormentor William Parks Clark. (The Elberton Star responded in the next issue with an editorial defending Clark: “… there is not a more peacable [sic] and law abiding citizen than he. …”)

(The incident and Kennedy’s writings provoked a convoluted series of events that would result in Kennedy serving a very likely unjustified sentence for attempted murder. But he went on to have a life afterward of some significance. It’s quite a tale and I’ll probably take it up in a future column.)

As for Binks Henry, he lost his bid for Congress, not garnering a single vote in his own home district of Longstreet. Nationally, however, the Republican William McKinley won the presidency over William Jennings Bryan, who was nominated by both the Democrats and the Populists. Once again Binks Henry was rewarded by being given the choice of naming Elberton’s new postmaster. Once again his sister Ella replaced their cousin John. M. Heard.

In June 1897, President McKinley offered Binks Henry the U.S. consular post in Switzerland. He did not accept immediately but decided to mull it over. He waited too long. That October he fell ill with meningitis and died at the Henry home on November 1. He was 31 years old. (Ella would die four years later.) Thus ended one of the oddest and most turbulent careers in politics this area has ever seen.

Now then, the next time you hear anyone say that the theater, the strife and the fang-and-claw rhetorical blood sport of politics nowadays are the worst they’ve ever been, think of Binks Henry, and tell them that just ain’t so.