Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Jackson County declares war on "fake news" 1872!

Jackson County's Courthouse as it appeared not long
after the end of Reconstruction.
"Fake News" is a favorite national obsession these days. Liberals accuse conservative media outlets of spreading untruthful stories while conservatives say the national media is left-wing and slants the news accordingly.

Inaccuracy in reporting is nothing new. The citizens of Jackson County, in fact, declared war on "fake news" all the way back in 1872.

The issue was the county's murder rate.

Republican members of the State Legislature were alarmed by growing resistance in Jackson County to Reconstruction era rule in Florida. They wanted the U.S. Army to march back into the county to enforce prohibitions against such things as public gatherings and private gun ownership. Florida was still under military rule a full seven years after the War Between the States (or Civil War) and many Constitutional rights had been suspended.

They also believed that the presence of the soldiers would suppress Democrat votes while encouraging the county's Republican voters to turn out in larger numbers. Most of the freedmen or freed slaves in Jackson County were then Republicans, but the party was fracturing and bitter division was developing between the factions.

Marianna during the 1870s.
Jackson County had been the scene of several violent outbreaks during Reconstruction, particularly in the fall of 1869. These had been bloody but relatively short in duration. Hostility was growing in 1872 as property owners felt the weight of increasing taxes. The Republicans in Tallahassee had doubled taxes during their seven years of control.

In addition, graft and fraud was widespread in the Jackson County Courthouse. A trio of public officials - all appointed by the state's governor - had devised a plan to enrich themselves by increasing the assessed values of key properties. Assessments were later found to have been fraudulently increased by as much as 400% on targeted properties. When the owners could not afford to pay these taxes, the land was sold on the courthouse steps and usually wound up in the hands of one of the crooked county officials.

Everyday citizens, white and black, were also being hurt by a dramatic increase in fees. John Q. Dickinson, the former Union officer now serving as appointed Clerk of the Circuit Court, had dramatically increased the amount that citizens had to pay for document stamps, marriage licenses, deed filings and for filing lawsuits. This put the legal system beyond the reach of many county residents because they simply did not have the money to pay the fees.

These tactics led to growing resistance and, as mentioned above, a fracturing of the previously solid Republican voting block of freedmen.

Florida Capitol as it appeared in the 1870s.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
Several individuals in the state legislature tried to clamp a lid on the situation by having occupation troops sent back to Marianna. They used wild claims of rampant killings and murders to add weight to their demands.

The campaign of "fake news" reached its peak in 1872 when members of the legislature alleged that 184 people had been assassinated or murdered in political violence in Jackson County in a three year time period.

Carpetbagger-allied newspapers like the Tallahassee Sentinel joined in and Jackson County found itself at the vortex of one of Florida's first recorded media frenzies. Lurid headlines spread across the nation and demands grew for the return of federal troops to the county.

There was just one problem. The claims were not true.

The outraged editor of the Marianna Courier went page by page through the county's records to determine the real truth of the matter. The result was a determination that 74 investigated deaths had occurred in Jackson County over a seven year time period, nearly half the number that state legislators claimed had taken place in just three years.

Lest anyone think that local officials suppressed the real numbers, it should be remembered that the Circuit Judge, Clerk of Courts and Sheriff were then all Republican officials appointed by the governor. If anything, they would have tried to inflate the numbers to support their friends in the legislature.

Of the the 74 deaths mentioned in the county records, the Courier dug deeper and found that many were not murders and that others were the result of police shootings and domestic disputes:

  • 14 - Killed by accident.
  •   9 - Justifiably killed by law enforcement.
  •   8 - Killed in the commission of a criminal act.
  • 17 - Killed in brawls or fights.
  •   3 - Killed by causes unknown.
  • 23 - Murdered (including political assassinations).
Another view of the State Capitol in the 1870s. The building
looked like this when legislators launched their "Fake News"
campaign against the people of Jackson County, Florida.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
The final number for murders was 23. This number did include some political assassinations, but also included a number of murders that had nothing to do with politics. Averaged out over a seven year time period, this came to about 3.3 First Degree Murders per year - including political assassinations.

The total was a bit high, but it is a long way from 3.3 to the 61.3 First Degree Murders per year claimed by the "fake news" reports coming from the state legislature and allied newspapers in 1872.

Put simply, politicians in Tallahassee had accused Jackson County of having a murder rate 18.6 times higher than it really did. The media jumped on board. It was a brutal assault on the reputation of the community and its people and they were quick to fight back:

The people of Jackson County, Florida, of which Marianna is the seat, offer a reward of $50,000 for a substantiation of the charges of Ku-Kluxism made against that county, and a true and correct list of the names of the “one hundred and eight-four “murders, fifteen of the number being “women and children,” which are averred to have been committed in the county. This reward is offered in view of the slanderous report of the legislative committee. - Charleston Daily News, March 21, 1872.

No one ever claimed the reward offered of $50,000 offered by the people of the county for proof that 184 people had been murdered there in 1869-1872. 

The unproved allegations still find their way into books today, fake news from another century that continues to hound a peaceful, rural county to this day.

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