Bramlett & O’ Bannon: One bullet, two dead men
by Eric Wayne Key
Special to The Star
Nov 06, 2013 | 1858 views |  0 comments | 46 46 recommendations | email to a friend | print
On the banks of an undisclosed pond in Cedar Bluff, there were two mills owned by Colonel Hendrix. The Gristmill, run by Larkin Bramlett, and a saw mill operated by Benjamin F. O’Bannon. 

Bramlett and O’Bannon were friends and frequently drank and conversed after the mills had closed down for the day. On one particularly drunken night they got into a heated argument. Before things got bad, O’Bannon left and Bramlett went home to his wife and kids. He seethed throughout the night, and upon waking the next morning, he visited his neighbor and asked to borrow a gun. The neighbor asked him if he was going squirrel hunting and Larkin replied, “yeah, and I’ll kill a d--- big one before I get back.”

He made his way to the mill and yelled for O’Bannon to show his face. He screamed out, “Say your prayers. O’Bannon!” Seeing the gun, O’Bannon seized the opportunity to lunge towards his aggressor. The gun went off, hitting O’Bannon’s leg, severing the femoral artery which killed him in a very short time.

After returning to the scene of the crime (which later proved habitual), Bramlett was arrested and jailed. At his trial, Bramlett called his children up and told them to look at him. He told them they were “looking at a dead man,” for them to take note and he wanted them to always remember this and to do the same thing if anyone ever crossed them.

Bramlett pled not guilty and the case was continued. Before the next turn of the court he managed to escape from the Cherokee County jail. He travelled to Murray County, Ga., then up to South Carolina, back to Chattooga County, Ga., and eventually went on to Louisville, Ky. From there he fled to Canada. After two years and 8 months he returned to Chattooga County, Georgia where he was recognized and subsequently arrested and extradited back to Cherokee County. But due to the popularity of the case in Cherokee County, Bramlett’s counsel requested a change of venue, and before the Fall term of 1857 he was transferred to the jailhouse on West Ladiga Street in Jacksonville, then the County Seat of Benton County.

“We the jury find the defendant guilty of the murder of Benjamin F. O’Bannon in the first degree and that he must suffer death.”

The Honorable W. M. Brooks sentenced Bramlett to hang for the murder of O’Bannon. Bramlett’s counsel, the Honorable Alexander White, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court in hopes of over-turning the verdict by Judge Brooks. The Supreme Court rejected his appeal stating, “The judgment of the circuit court is affirmed, and the sentence of the law must be executed.”

Sheriff J. B. Farmer proceeded to make the necessary arrangements for the execution by building a gallows and summoning the different officers and physicians as requested by law together with a sufficient guard.

In the two weeks preceding the hanging, Jacksonville was abuzz with activity.  Men and boys traveled to the southern edge of town to see the gallows. Soldier-like young men paraded the streets with muskets and bayonets. Here and there men would debate the likelihood of Bramlett’s eminent escape and what he would do next.

There were rumors of what Bramlett was saying to the ministers and to the sheriff and deputies. Had he made a confession? What would he do once the rope was around his neck? How many men had he murdered? Bramlett’s brothers were rumored to be here in town and would surely attempt a rescue. With each rumor the security doubled and tripled. Rumors of Jacksonville being burned to the ground by the Bramlett brothers ran rampant.

Thursday before the hanging, the wagons and carriages started rolling into town. Carroll County, Ga., was represented by at least 15 wagons each loaded with 8 or 10 people. People came from all corners of the map.

Barefooted boys and girls, old men and women, large slaves with little ones following behind them, small boys on mules - sometimes as many as three on one mule. Grown men on switch tail ponies with the women walking behind them. Ox carts, horse-drawn wagons, buggies, carryalls and carriages - every imaginable type of person and form of transportation were exhibited this week.

The day of the hanging, confusion filled the streets. The tavern on the Square ran dry. People were drunk and fighting. Every split-rail fence around the Square was broken down. The National Guard was summoned to control the chaos. Nothing like this had ever happened in Jacksonville before.

At 10:30 a.m., March 5th 1858, some 50 National Guardsmen with muskets and bayonets, commanded by Captain D. P. Forney, worked their way through the crowd. Upon their arrival, the noise rose to a deafening roar as the people exclaimed, “There he is! He’s coming out!”

Constable Fleming drove a four-horse drawn hearse with a coffin in the bed up to the front door of the jail. Every face of every man, woman and child up across the hill was now turned to the jail and every eye on the jail door.

After some delay Sheriff Farmer emerged with 33- year-old Larkin Bramlett in chains. He was pale and thin but seemed unusually calm. His hair was long, his face, sharp with features with thin lips and a narrow nose. He seemed quite surprised at the vast throng of spectators there to witness his execution. Walking and conversing quietly next to Bramlett was the Rev. A. E. Vandervere, who, on the journey to the gallows, would try to get a confession out of Bramlett, but would fail. Also walking with them was attending physician, Dr. M. W. Francis who was in charge of tending to Bramlett up to his final moments alive.  At times, Bramlett could be seen laughing and then abruptly losing his smile. The men helped Bramlett board the hearse. When Fleming cracked the whip and the horses set forth, Bramlett was positioned, seated and chained on top of the very coffin which would forever hold his body.

The hearse departed from the jail and drove up the hill, rounded the Square and headed south on what is now Church Street for about a mile and a half near Rabbit Town Road where the gallows had been constructed in a gorge of the mountain.

Some 10,000 spectators followed the hearse to the gallows. There assembled, the throng measured almost a mile deep.

When Bramlett reached his final destination he was assisted in putting on a shroud and a pair of white gloves. His shoes were removed and replaced by a pair of socks. He then walked up the scaffold stairs to the gallows, assisted by Sheriff Farmer and a deputy.

After a brief sermon by Rev. Vandervere the sheriff set about placing the noose around the prisoner’s neck. Up until this point, Larkin had remained rather stoic, but now he began to tremble all over; tears welling up in his eyes. Eyewitness accounts say it took several minutes to calm him down. The sheriff was exceptionally gentle and kind, but firm and deliberate in his handling of the ill-fated man.

Farmer tossed the rope over the scaffold’s cross-beam and then bound the prisoner’s arms and hands. The spectators became deathly quiet, spellbound in suspense. A hood was placed over Bramlett’s head and the officials said unheard goodbyes to Bramlett and solemnly stepped away. The prop was jerked from underneath the scaffold and at 25 minutes after 1 p.m., Larkin Bramlett, enveloped in his white shroud, wearing his white gloves, left this world and a story that would be lost for 150 years.

A shutter and a murmur ran through the crowd. The excitement was long gone. There was a deep sorrowfulness in the air. The crowd turned and slowly made their way back to town. The liquor was gone but no one cared, for it was the drink which had started this mess in the first place. Mothers would use this parable to scare their husbands and sons for years to come. Rev. Vandervere later revealed that Larkin Bramlett confessed that trouble started in 1845 when he “took up the habit of intoxication.”

Twenty minutes after the hanging, Dr. Frances pronounced Bramlett dead. Twenty minutes later, Sherriff Farmer cut down the corpse. The Sherriff himself, with the assistance of four or five slaves gently moved the body to the coffin. When the last nail was driven in, they loaded the coffin onto the back of the hearse and headed toward the gravesite.

Rev. Vandervere never got a confession of guilt from Bramlett. He commented six days after the hanging on the matter:

“…Were it not for so many hard sayings in his confession, censuring men of high respectability, I could, from what he said and seemed to feel, have indulged at least a hope that he was saved; but such gross inconsistency leaves me in wonder and astonishment. I visited the poor fellow often before his unhappy end; and from what I could learn, he appeared anxious to be saved, and in fact seemed to believe that God would save him; but Mr. Editor, those condemned justly, should not plead justification before God, as a ground of acceptation, but plead guilty and his mercy for Christ’s sake, if they expect to be saved. I wish and pray that all may take warning by the awful end of Bramlett.”

---

In 2011, then City Councilman, George Areno told me bits and pieces of this story. It fascinated me to the point that I began scouring issues of “The Jacksonville Republican” that the JSU Library had so graciously provided on their website. Though the scans revealed torn and missing pages, I managed to find and piece together a story that has long been lost in its detail to fact. I published notes to the web and since have been contacted by two of Bramlett’s great-great-great grandchildren – one in Texas and one in Connecticut. Kudzu & Cotton strives to keep local stories alive. Whether the characters are good or bad, man or woman, black or white, they’re not forgotten.

Sources: The Jacksonville Republican, March 11, 1858

Court Records: Bramlett v. The State of Alabama, 1858
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Bramlett & O’ Bannon: One bullet, two dead men by Eric Wayne Key
Special to The Star

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