Tuesday, February 28, 2017

147 years ago: The murder of Jackson County Clerk of Court John L. Finlayson

Dr. John L. Finlayson, Clerk of Court for Jackson
County, was murdered on February 26, 1869.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
This week marks the 147th anniversary of the murder of John L. Finlayson, Jackson County's Clerk of Court. State Senator W.J. Purman was wounded in the attack.

The Reconstruction era was at its height in 1869 and Florida was still patrolled by troops of the U.S. Army. Citizens were deprived of their rights under the First and Second Amendments of the Constitution and could even be jailed for such things as carrying a firearm or peacefully assembling.

The people of Jackson County had faced a shocking litany of wrongs in the four years since the war. Rape was legally excused as an "act of war." Kidnapping and false imprisonment were countenanced by Federal officials who then openly defied the local courts after being indicted for their crimes. Teenage girls were dragged before military tribunals.

It has long been assumed that the shootings of John L. Finlayson and W.J. Purman were carried out by assassins attempting to break the power of the Reconstruction government. This is certainly possible but remains unproved. No one was ever arrested for the crime. Purman said at the time that he believed the motive was personal.

The shooting took place on a Friday night:

W.J. Purman, Reconstruction era state senator
from Jackson County, said that the shooting
was not politically motivated.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
SHOCKING MURDER AND ASSASSINATION – Intelligence reached us last night of a shocking assassination and murder which took place at Marianna, Jackson County, on Friday night last, about 8 o’clock. – The victim was Dr. John L. Finlayson, Clerk of the Circuit Court. It seems that Dr. F. and Maj. W.J. Purman were on their way to some place in the village. Maj. P. walking a little behind, and while crossing a vacant lot were fired on by some person behind a tree at a distance of forty yards, one shot striking Dr. Finlayson in the head and penetrating to the brain and another striking Maj. Purman in the neck. Dr. F. survived about two hours, and Maj. Purman was regarded in a critical condition. The perpetrator of this cowardly and shocking murder is unknown, but if there is justice in Florida it is to be hoped that he will not long escape discovery and punishment. (Tallahassee Floridian, March 2, 1869)

Local tradition holds that the fatal shots were fired from behind an ancient tree that still stands in the yard of the historic Davis-West House in Marianna. The home was then rented to Finlayson and Purman.

The two men were an odd pairing. Purman had served in the Union army and had arrived in Jackson County following the war to assist Charles Hamilton in the operation of the local office of the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen and Abandoned Lands. Commonly called the Freedman's Bureau, the agency ostensibly worked to help former slaves as they adapted to life as free citizens. 

In Jackson County, however, the bureau was accused of corruption by both local residents and Federal officials. Purman was at the center of many of the allegations.

Confederate Service Record
Card from the file of John
L. Finlayson.
Finlayson, on the other hand, had been born and raised on his parents' farm just west of Marianna. He served in Capt. Richard Smith's Marianna Dragoons (later Company B, 15th Confederate Cavalry) and had returned home from the war to find that Union raiders had looted the farm. His mother, despite her Unionist sympathies, later said that the destruction was done "by the Yankees, at the instigation of the Devil."

His recent history was not enough to deter the young physician from associating himself with Carpetbaggers like Hamilton and Purman. He was described by a newspaper of the time as "one of the leading radicals" of Jackson County. 

...Dr. Finlayson was born in Jackson county, but a liberal education, a generous nature, and a patriotic spirit, made him a Republican. He was, therefore, a “Scalawag.” Senator Purman was born in the North, but had the audacity to settle in Florida. He was therefore, a “Carpet-Bagger.” And who can doubt that if what politicians and writers allow themselves to say of these classes is believed, some will be found bad enough or fanatical enough to endeavor to exterminate them? And who can avoid the fear that others equally fanatical, equally bad, less accustomed to political affairs, should take up the creed of retaliation, and create other innocent victims? (Pensacola Observer, March 19, 1869).

The author of the above commentary was the editor of the pro-Northern Pensacola Observer. He was correct in fearing that "others equally fanatical, equally bad" might try to retaliate. 

Charles Hamilton, onetime Bureau official in Jackson County and now Florida's sole representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, wrote a private letter to friends still in the county to advocate attacks on local whites by former slaves. Purman, to his credit, intervened and stopped such violence before it could be started.

Local citizens gathered in Marianna in the days following the murder to express their general concern. A committee was appointed and the following resolution was unanimously adopted:

The historic Davis-West House from the murder scene. The
fatal shots were traditionally fired from the oak tree on the
left side of the photograph.
WHEREAS, on the night of the 26th of February, 1869, Dr. JOHN L. FINLAYSON was assassinated, and the same act nearly resulted in the assassination of Major W.J. PURMAN, who was badly wounded, and thinking as we do, and as all men of correct views think, that assassination is a most despicable act, which should be discountenanced and frowned down by all honest men, and deeming that it is very meet and proper that our community should express its abhorrence of the act, we do.

Resolve. That the said act of assassination meets our entire detestation and disapproval. We condemn it as we condemn any action of assassination, and we do not think that any portion of our citizens approve said detestable act.

Resolved, That we concur in opinion with Major Purman that the act was not induced by political feeling, but was caused by personal animosity.

Resolved, that it is the duty of civil authorities to be untiring in their efforts to find out and arrest the perpetrators of this atrocious deed.

Resolved, That these resolutions be published in all the newspapers of Florida.

J.L.G. BAKER, President.

C.W. Davis, Secretary. (Tallahassee Floridian, March 9, 1869).

Gov. Harrison Reed of Florida.
State Archives of Florida/Memory Collection
The assassination of Finlayson and shooting of Purman also echoed loudly in the halls of the State Capitol Building in Tallahassee. Governor Harrison Reed announced on March 9 that the state would offer a $2,000 reward for the capture of the person or persons responsible. The amount was a substantial sum in the lean years that followed the War Between the States (or Civil War).

$2000 REWARD!
Harrison Reed, Governor of the State of Florida, to all to whom these Presents shall Come – Greeting:

WHEREAS, It has been made known to me that a foul and atrocious murder was committed upon the person of John L. Finlayson, in the town of Marianna, and county of Jackson, in this State, on the night of Friday, the twenty-sixth day of February, A.D. 1869; AND, WHEREAS, At the same time and place, the Hon. W.J. Purman was dangerously wounded by the same individual, to me unknown, and by the discharge of the same weapon which killed said Finlayson:

Now, therefore, I, HARRISON REED, Governor as aforesaid, by the power and authority vested in me, do hereby offer a reward of TWO THOUSAND DOLLARS to any person or persons who may apprehend or give such information as may lead to the apprehension and conviction of the party or parties who committed this foul and desperate murder.

And I hereby enjoy upon all good citizens the duty of aiding, by every means in their power, the exertions of the officers of the law to bring the guilty to punishment.

IN TESTIMONY WHEREOF, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Great Seal of the State to be affixed, at Tallahassee, this fourth day of March, A.D. 1869.
Attest: - JONATHAN C. GIBBS, Secretary of State.
March 9, ’69. (Tallahassee Floridian, March 9, 1869)

Such efforts failed. No one was ever brought to justice for the shootings. The mystery over the motive for the attack still exists today, especially because Purman said a short time later that he did not believe the purpose was politcal:

Mr. W.J. Purman has had, in this and the adjoining counties, many enemies, growing out of his conduct as Bureau agent, but it was generally believed that all active animosity on that account had by the time he was shot subsided. We are informed and believe that he had numerous enemies in this and adjoining counties on account of his connection with the collecting of U.S. dues to discharged United States soldiers, who believed that he had collected and defrauded them out of large amounts of the same. Whether their suspicions and charges are well based we are not to determine and do not ourselves charge, but may numerate as one of the numerous causes that has created to him enemies. This coupled with his declarations soon after his shooting, when in a critical situation, such as the law writers assign to establish the rule of evidence by dying declarations, and which declarations can be established by at least three very honorable, moderate and entire reliable gentlemen, that he did not believe the shooting was the result of “political animosity,” “but was done by personal enemies,” places the fact beyond a doubt that it did not partake of and was not prompted by political feeling. (Tallahassee Weekly Sentinel, April 27, 1869)

Unless some new information is discovered, the murder of Clerk of Court John L. Finlayson will remain one of the tragic mysteries of Jackson County's past.

Dale Cox
February 28, 2017


Anonymous said...

Mr. Cox, I find it interesting that you feel that like the rebels had it bad during this time period. They had revolted against the federal government because they wanted the right to enslave other human beings for free labor--committing treason, which we despise. Yet these are the individuals you describe as being oppressed during Reconstruction. Have considered what the freedmen went through during this time? Has it occurred to you that the federal troops had to be there to protect the freedmen? Has it occurred to you that some of these rebels had to be disarmed because they were terrorizing newly freed citizens? As far as rape as a weapon of war, the African American citizens during that time have been subjected to this cruel act before and after the war, with the children to prove it. I come across as crass, but it's because I am sick of white supremacy apologist attempting to revise history.

Dale Cox said...

Yes, you do come across as crass. On that we will agree. As to your other comments, you fail to take into account that the vast majority of the citizens of Jackson County never owned slaves and were simply small farmers trying to eke an existence from sandy soil. They lived in horrible conditions and were conscripted (i.e. drafted), often at the point of a bayonet, into the military. They were oppressed after the war and many of the poorest among us - white, black, Hispanic, Asian and Native American - remain oppressed today. As for me being a "white supremist apologist" I find it interesting that you assume to know my racial background. You know what they say about assuming.
Anyway, may God bless you with peace and happiness in life.