‘Family Tree’ unpacks mystery of a 1912 Georgia lynching

While Southerners cherish concealment just for the hell of it, journalist Karen Branan, who grew up in Hamilton, finds little to esteem in the feudal code of silence. With resolve, she fires an explosive charge into her complex genealogy, reforming the blasted shards into a smoldering bush of ghosts.

“The Family Tree: a Lynching in Georgia, a Legacy of Secrets, and My Search for the Truth” is her historical inquiry into the 1912 lynch mob executions of four African-Americans in her Harris County hometown north of Columbus, where the author’s relatives have been entrenched for 200 years. It’s a righteously personal story about “how something shameful happens in a small village and disappears” only to find “new forms in the future.”

Back in the 1990s, when Branan first started poking around in the family past, her grandmother issued a stern advisory: “Those woods … referring to the unknown, are full of things you do not want to know about.” But, without a doubt, Branan did want to know more about it, and so she began her quest to locate the truth about “the woman my father killed,” a strange delusion caused by his acute alcoholism.

Rummaging around the Library of Congress one day, she stumbled on an article about the 1912 lynching in her hometown. Decades of research later, she has concluded that her great-grandfather, Sheriff Marion Madison “Buddie” Hadley, allowed the vigilante action to take place to protect his career. The extremely violent event would have consequences spanning generations.

It’s easy to become lost in Branan’s tangled bi-racial lineage; the chart she provides is essential to grasping her crossing kinship system. Fantastically, the five paternal and maternal lines include both Johnie Moore, the sheriff’s cousin who was one of the black lynching victims, and Norman Hadley, the sheriff’s nephew who was a white “near penniless plowboy-playboy,” whose killing the crazed Hamilton mob avenged.

In the post-Appomattox era, lynching was a complicated phenomenon that was often used by Southern communities to “control the legal process.” Death squad leaders went unpunished for their crimes, their responsibility diffused by the crowd. In this atmosphere, black scapegoats could be used to cover-up the crimes of white folk; according to Branan, something like this would appear to have been the case in Hamilton in 1912.

The Jim Crow project coincided with the 1890s “Lost Cause” campaign to celebrate the old Confederate regime, providing “poor and middle class whites with a sense of aristocratic belonging.” In contradistinction, the powerful, interrelated black and white “moonshine families” of Harris County, scattered along the Chattahoochee River west of Hamilton, don’t appear to have had much sense of noble inclusion.

Branan’s section on the corn-liquor kingdom is one of the best in “The Family Tree.” It was a lawless frontier, or, rather, a frontier with its own law based on extra-legal vendettas and “affronts to honor.” The outback chieftains were always lawyered-up, Mafia-style, so part of the job description for a sheriff like Buddie Hadley was to “maintain a buffer between their whiskey-making kin and the U.S. Marshals.” In the bootleg zone, the races generally “stuck together, [blacks] remaining close to their white cousins and working with them in the moonshine business.”

But the Chattahoochee area became a stomping ground for ne’er-do-wells and fun-seekers like Norman Hadley. When he was fatally shot, Norman was pursuing the daughter of a church trustee who was one of the four seized from the poorly defended Hamilton jail. (The targeted group also included the first woman lynched in Georgia; her final words by the “Hanging Tree” are the most electrifying in the book.)

In one scenario, described by Branan, Norman was murdered by Johnie Moore “to protect a black woman from a white man’s sexual advances.” In another, Northern papers suggested the shooting was the outcome of an unrelated “rent dispute,” which may have been closer to reality: Branan alludes to a cryptic deathbed confession by a white man in the 1930s.

Or, maybe, she speculates, “the races had come too close and their separation called for something loud and violent.” One eyewitness to the Hamilton lynching, which the author recreates vividly as an atrocity exhibition, recalled to his grown children that the “four bodies…were so full of bullets and buckshot that they rattled like wind chimes in the breeze.”

For perpetrators and bystanders, the Hamilton affair was like an airborne madness that unleashed evil spirits from the tomb of Tut. Branan reports that, in 1914, “several men from prominent families fell dead.” A mysterious “crime wave” continued in Harris County until 1922, by which time “fifteen [of the ‘Hamilton Avengers’] were dead, six had been tried for murder, and two imprisoned.”

As for those “new forms in the future,” one of Branan’s grandmothers witnessed the lynching when she was a teenager; the author wonders if the memory contributed to her adulthood drug addiction. A great-aunt, Miss Lula Mobley, became a committed member of the white Methodist Women’s Missionary Society, which formed bonds with black women’s church groups to oppose lynching.

It might be said that, when the crucible came for her as a University of Georgia sophomore in 1961, Branan found herself extending the Mobley continuum as one of several white students accompanying Charlayne Hunter-Gault during her great struggle, along with Hamilton Holmes, to integrate the college.

Karen Branan believes that, for her generation, “a conscious decision was made at some point to protect us from this seamy history, so we could live free of its weight.” It is, in part, a “murderous heritage,” not to be denied, for which she feels a great shame. “The Family Tree” is Branan’s arboreal process, a writer’s pursuit of justice in the blooms of un-forgetting.