Thursday, June 8, 2017

Ghosts of Aycock: Was 1905 fire the largest mass murder in Jackson County history?

An Aycock Brothers locomotive on the tracks at Aycock,
Florida. This may have been the locomotive that brought the
bodies from the logging camp back to the sawmill town.
Aycock was a prosperous lumber mill town that once stood along the L&N railroad between Cottondale and Chipley.

The town took its name from the Aycock, timber and naval stores barons from Georgia. They secured a massive timber tract in western Jackson and eastern Washington Counties in 1904 and expanded existing sawmills on the railroad near today's intersection of Aycock Road and Historic U.S. 90. A mill town soon grew around this operation.

Little remains of Aycock today, but an incident associated with the town gives it special significance in U.S. history.

The following is excerpted from my book, The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge: 10 Ghosts & Monsters from Jackson County, Florida.

-Excerpt-

 
A stand of longleaf pines in the Florida
Panhandle. Aycock was in the business
of turning hundreds of thousands of
such trees into lumber.
   I
N OCTOBER OF 1905, NEWSPAPER READERS ACROSS THE NATION learned with horror that one of the largest mass murders in Florida history had been enacted at a logging camp just west of the Jackson County community of Steele City
. The incident claimed the lives of eight county inmates and a man employed to stand watch over them. 
On visiting the site of the camp today, it is difficult to imagine the horror once enacted there. The surrounding scene is one of farms and woods, with no visible trace remaining of the camp where the crime took place. Few people in the vicinity know the horrible history associated with the site or of the ghostly figures long said to haunt the woods there. Truth be told, however, if there is any place in Jackson County with the tragic potential for a real mass haunting, this is it.

The story of the Aycock Ghosts begins with the purchase of a vast tract of timberland in the area by the Aycock Brothers of Georgia. Already well-known lumber barons, the Aycocks lived in the city of Moultrie but chartered their Florida operation in nearby Cordele in 1904:

…Application for a charter for the Aycock Bros. Lumber Co., composed of W.E. and T.J. Aycock and Evans Reynolds, has been filed with the county clerk. The capital stock of the proposed corporation is to be $50,000. The main office will be in Cordele, but the principal operations of the company’s manufacturing department will be in Florida.[i]

Aycock Road crosses today's CSX Railroad west of
Cottondale in Jackson County, Florida. The town of Aycock
once stood in this vicinity. The 18-wheeler visible in the
background is on U.S. 90.
Construction began almost immediately on an industrial complex at the small railroad siding of Allie, located four miles due west of Cottondale on the L&N Railroad between that town and Chipley. It was the railroad, in fact, that had drawn the attention of the Aycock Brothers to the site. The trains provided a way for them to get their lumber and rosin out of the woods and to market. By the spring of 1905, construction of the massive plant at Allie was almost finished:

The Aycock Bros. Lumber Co. have now nearly completed their large saw mill at Allie, six miles east of town (i.e. Chipley). This will be one of the largest and most modern saw mills in West Florida with a cutting capacity of one hundred thousand feet per day. With three large brick dry kilns and a big planning mill they will work about 150 hands.[ii]

Even today, an operation of the size and scope of the Aycock mill would be considered impressive. The initial hiring of 150 hands to run the mill and harvest the timber also created the need to house them, preferably on-site. The firm handled this by building one of the largest “company towns” ever constructed in Jackson County. In addition to homes for perhaps 500 people (workers and their families), the community also included stores, a railroad station and a post office as well as the various mills and other facilities associated with the company’s operations.
With the completion of its houses, stores, sawmill, drying kilns, railroad station and planning mill, it was logical that the company owners would stamp their name on the community itself. Allie ceased to exist and on May 31, 1905, the Pensacola Journal reported that, “The Aycock Bros. Lumber Co. have changed the name of the post office and telegraph office and railroad station to Aycock, Fla.”[iii]
Another early 20th century photo of one of the two
locomotives that operated on Aycock's logging railroad.
To support the industrial facilities at Aycock, the company built or acquired a system of logging roads, a naval stores camp and a small railroad that ran south from the L&N tracks for about ten miles through the edge of Washington County and then back into Jackson County again. It carried rosin and timber from the outlying naval stores camp west of Steele City and just north of Alford to the main complex at Aycock.[iv]
Although they hired more than 150 people to run their operation, the Aycock brothers were as interested in securing cheap labor as other timber barons of their day. An opportunity presented itself to them in the form of the convict labor leasing practice then in operation across much of Florida.
The convict leasing system had been initiated in 1877 and allowed counties to lease convicts from their jails to private businesses. The money gained from the practice went into the county Road & Bridge Fund and was a vital source of revenue for local government. The practice also eliminated the need for counties to maintain large jail facilities, since the employers leasing the inmates were responsible for housing and feeding them.
Florida convicts leased as laborers to a timber company. The
victims of the Aycock fire were attired much like these men.
State Archives of Florida
The Aycock brothers entered almost immediately into leasing contracts with the Board of County Commissioners for Jackson County. The use of convict labor may even have been part of their business plan before they ever started building their company town west of Cottondale. To house the inmates turned over to them, they established two convict stockades: one on the grounds of the main operation at Aycock and the other 10 miles south down the logging railroad at the remote naval stores camp. These locations allowed the company to house convicts at both ends of their massive 25,000 acre timber tract. Both stockades, generally described as wood-frame buildings, were finished and in use by the end of the summer of 1905.
The convict leasing system was not without its critics. The early 1900s were a time of great social reform in the nation and newspaper editors and private citizens alike railed against the system, which they equated with slavery. Counties were literally leasing human beings to private companies and these individuals were then worked, often in substandard conditions, with no choice in the matter and receiving no compensation for their labors.
The conditions at the Aycock stockades were far from ideal. Not only were the convicts worked long hours under harsh and dangerous conditions, they were chained inside the stockades at night to eliminate any possibility of escape. It was a recipe for disaster and that is exactly what happened in the early fall of 1905:

On the night of October 7, Aycock Brothers Lumber Co. convict camp burned in Jackson County. In this fire, James Longino, the guard on duty, and eight convicts, were burned to death. Four or five of the bodies were cremated. The only two remaining victims…barely escaped with their lives and are now lying in Aycock’s stockade at Aycock, Florida, in a badly burned condition.[v]

Aycock can be seen on the railroad just west of Cottondale on
this 1909 map of Jackson County, Florida.
One of the two survivors, identified as William McCoy, was so severely injured that there seemed but little chance that he would recover. His escape, and that of his fellow survivor, was gruesome almost beyond imagination:

I remember hearing how some of them climbed as far as their leg chains would let them through the windows and begged witnesses to cut off a foot to free them from their chains and from being burned alive.[vi]

News of the fire stunned people in Jackson and Washington Counties and as the story spread, the nation was equally appalled. The cause was first thought to be accidental, with speculation focusing on the explosion of a faulty oil lamp. The theory was so convincing, in fact, that a coroner’s inquest was considered unnecessary.
Information came to light over the coming days, however, that quickly changed opinions about the fire. Alarmed by the horrible tragedy and undoubtedly concerned over their own liability in the matter, the Aycock brothers hired a private detective from Chipley named Tom Watts to look into the fire.  Watts had established a reputation investigating cases of fraud against the L&N Railroad and quickly became convinced that the fire was not accidental at all, but was “one of the most horrible crimes ever committed in the state.”[vii]
Two railroad spikes from the site of Aycock are among the
artifacts from the town on display at the Washington County
Historical Society Museum in Chipley, Florida.
Watts discovered something that the failure to empanel a coroner’s inquest had prevented from emerging already: the heads of James Longino, the guard over the stockade, and an unidentified convict had been smashed with a blunt object. Sam Jones, a misdemeanor convict who served as the trusty of the camp, told the detective that he had seen a man named Jim Glassco enter the guardroom at the entrance of the stockade. A few seconds later he heard two heavy blows, saw fire suddenly rise up from the building and then watched Glassco come out and run away.[viii]
Convinced that Glassco was involved in starting the fire, Watts arrested him and took him first to the Washington County Jail in Chipley. From there the suspect was carried by rail to the Jackson County Jail in Marianna:

I find the motive for the crime to have been robbery. Longino had on his person $48.10 and the convict had $5. Longino had drawn a gun (for cause) on Glassco the same night of the fire. The weapon used by Glassco was a spike maul, such as commonly used by railroad trackmen.[ix]

A first appearance was held for Glassco at the courthouse in Marianna and the county grand jury was ordered to convene. Although Detective Watts believed that a “strong case was made out” against the suspect, the grand jury did not agree. No indictment was returned against Glassco and the grand jurors instead recommended that the county commission cancel the Aycock Brothers’ contract and do everything possible to bring those responsible to justice..
A sawdust chain from the site of Aycock is now on display at
the Washington County Historical Society Museum in Chipley.
One of the Jackson County Commissioners, J.M. Barnes, went out to the naval stores camp to view the scene of the fire firsthand. After conducting a brief investigation of his own, he determined that “whiskey was very much in evidence.” It was his conclusion that the “guard being drunk probably caused the fire.” Strangely, there is no indication in county records that the Sheriff of Jackson County was ever asked to investigate the matter.[x]
Detective Watts, as might have been expected, vehemently disagreed with Commissioner Barnes. He wrote to Governor N.B. Broward in Tallahassee, calling for a state investigation. Expressing his belief that eyewitness Sam Jones was somehow involved in the crime, the company detective warned that time was of the essence:

The scene of this terrible crime is some ten miles from the railroad in the logging woods of the lumber company. There is much yet to be learned in this case by careful investigation, and I am sure you will appreciate the importance of looking into the matter fully.
The witnesses, some of them, have already scattered off – one of the most important ones now being in Atlanta, Georgia.[xi]

The company detective expressed his view of the incident plainly to Governor Broward, “I regard this as being one of the most horrible crimes ever committed in the state.”

Gov. Napoleon B. Broward of Florida, for whom
Broward County is named, ignored a request for
a state investigation of the Aycock fire.
State Archives of Florida
The determined detective’s efforts aside, no justice was ever obtained for the nine men who died as a result of the terrible fire at the Aycock Brothers naval stores camp. Their bodies were taken up the logging railroad to the main community of Aycock where they were buried in a now forgotten plot by the L&N (today’s CSX) Railroad. The most any of the fatally injured men ever got from the county or the Aycock company was the money paid to the doctor who amputated their legs in an unsuccessful effort to save their lives after axes had been used to cut off their feet so they could be pulled away from the chains that attached them to the burning building. Dr. J.S. McGeachy of Chipley was paid $624 for “amputating Six Legs, Visits, Dressing.”[xii]
The survivors of the tragedy, along with the family members of some of the dead, brought suit in federal court against Aycock Brothers Lumber Company for their losses. John Bryant, who had lost his feet when they were cut off to free him from his chains, sued the company for $25,000, as did the families of several of the others. After two years, the Aycock Brothers settled with Bryant for $5,000. Of that amount, $1,500 went to the lawyers who represented him. The unfortunate former convict received $3,500, the apparent value that the parties agreed to place on the legs and feet he left behind at the naval stores camp:

Upon a consultation of the counsel for the plantiffs and defendants to these suits a compromise was effected by the company paying to Bryant and the other plaintiffs a sum of $3,500 and bearing the costs of the litigation. The suits were based upon injuries received by Brant and the deaths of a number of convicts in a stockade, which was destroyed by fire a year ago. Relatives of some of the men burned to death in the stockade, brought actions for damages, but settled for very small amounts.[xiii]

At the time the Aycock Brothers paid John Bryant $3,500 for the loss of his feet, their company was worth roughly $500,000. In fact, their mill town four miles west of Cottondale continued to thrive for a number of years, at one point even boasting a jewelry store. The old growth longleaf pines were finally all harvested, though, and Aycock faded into history like so many of the Florida Panhandle’s other sawmill towns. Not a single building stands today.

Aycock may have faded away, but the terrible tragedy enacted 10 miles south of the town lingers. The publicity over the fire helped end the practice of convict leasing in Florida and elsewhere, but no formal law enforcement investigation of the incident ever took place. Was it mass murder, as Detective Watts believed? Or was it a case of drunkenness gone bad, as a Jackson County Commissioner concluded? No one can really say. 
Perhaps it is this lack of concern as to their fate that keeps those unfortunate men lingering close to the place they died. Local legend holds that both the old naval stores camp site, where the tragedy took place, and the cemetery where the unfortunate men lay buried are haunted by their spirits. At the secluded stockade site, it is said that the ghosts of the dead still walk in the night. Shadowy figures have been seen moving through the trees and on certain nights it is said that the moans of dying men can be distinctly heard echoing through the bays and swamps.
At Aycock itself, legend holds that blue lights can be seen in the night at the spot where most of the unfortunate victims were buried. The graves themselves are unmarked, even though the men were the prisoners of Jackson County and under its protection at the time they died. The simple wooden markers placed on the graves by coworkers rotted away long ago.
Some believe that the ghosts appear in two different places because their legs and feet rest in the dirt at the site of the naval stores camp, while the rest of their bodies lay forgotten under the dirt of Aycock itself. Perhaps they continue to appear because justice for them has never been done?

Artifacts from the site of Aycock are on display today at the Washington County Historical Society Museum in Chipley, Florida. The museum is open on Fridays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

If you are interested in reading the true stories behind this and other ghost stories from Jackson County, Florida, please consider my book: 

The Ghost of Bellamy Bridge: 10 Ghosts & Monsters from Jackson County, Florida.  




[i] Augusta Chronicle, September 20, 1904, p. 4.
[ii] Pensacola Journal, April 19, 1905, p. 1.
[iii] Pensacola Journal, May 31, 1905.
[iv] E.W. Carswell, Washington: Florida’s Twelfth County, 1991, p. 313.
[v] Tom Watts to Governor Napoleon B. Broward, October 1905, Carswell Collection.
[vi] Gilbert Keener, Washington County Commissioner, 1978, quoted by E.W. Carswell, Washington: Florida’s Twelfth County, p. 313.
[vii] Watts to Broward, October 1905.
[viii] Ibid.
[ix] Ibid.
[x] J.M. Barnes, quoted by E.W. Carswell, Washington: Florida’s Twelfth County, p. 315.
[xi] Tom Watts to Gov. Napoleon B. Broward, Octonber 1905, Carswell Collection.
[xii] Bill of Dr. J.S. McGeachy, November 6, 1905, Jackson County Archives.
[xiii] Montgomery Advertiser, March 14, 1907, p. 5.

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