The murder created incredible excitement in the community. Ellen had been murdered in her front yard with her father, David Gurganus and her step-mother, Rebecca, as eye witnesses. David was MY fourth great grandfather and so this was MY family and I was stunned as I uncovered the story. While I may not know all of the whys of the events, given the nature of the crime, the court records and newspapers provided rich detail about both the crime and the trial.
Tuesday May 29, 1849 Baldwin County, Georgia “Union Recorder” carried the following:
COMMITTED FOR TRIAL
Elisha Reese, charged with the murder of Mrs. Pratt, in this county, on Wednesday last, was arrested the same evening by Messrs. Cumming Stephens, Ellis and others, some three miles from the scene of his crime, and lodged in prison. On Thursday he was brought up before the Magistrates, Messrs. Grannis, Reid and Artope, and formally committed for trial.. . . . During the examination the accused showed but little concern.
The trial date was set to be held during the July Term 1849. Minutes for the Bibb Superior Court provide many details, many of which I have already provided in the previous post. A variety of individuals gave testimony, including Ellen’s step-mother, Rebecca and neighbor James W. Armstrong. I couldn’t help but notice the absence of Ellen’s father, David, who also was an eye witness. I can only assume that the injuries he sustained, combined with the emotional trauma, prevented him from attending.
The defense’s witnesses were primary individuals that testified to Reese’s character. Their testimonies helped me to anchor Reese to particular communities where he had previously lived, such as Habersham and Cass Counties. The most interesting witness for the defense was his son, Frederick Reese. Did his son provide true insight to his father’s character or was he simply being a dutiful son? Frederick indicated that his father was a man of “good character, a peaceable law abiding citizen.” He also said that he had “never known him to violate the laws of his country.” It is through Frederick’s testimony that we learn that Reese was 50 years old. Frederick also indicated that he last saw his father January last in Cass County, but had not “known him since” and that Reese had a family in Floyd County.
The evidence was overwhelmingly in favor of the prosecution, with the defense only able to present individuals who knew him in his previous communities to testify of Reese’s character. Ultimately, Judge Floyd issued the verdict of guilty, and indicated that Reese was to be returned to the Common Jail of the County of Bibb. The judge then said,
. . . . where you are to be kept in safe and close custody until Friday the Seventh day of September, Eighteen hundred and forty nine, when you are to be conducted to a gallows to be executed for that purpose in the County of Bibb outside of the corporate limits of the city of Macon, and within one mile of said Corporate limits, upon which said Gallows between the time of ten o’clock in the morning and four o’clock in the afternoon of said day, you are by the sheriff of said county of Bibb, or his lawful deputy to be publicly hung by the neck until you are dead! dead ! dead! And may God Almightly have mercy upon your soul.
In “Reports of Cases of Law & Equity Argued and Determined in the Supreme Court of the State of Georgia”, is found the case of Reese vs. The State of Georgia, in which the defendant moved for a continuance on several grounds. The first was because two witnesses to Reese’s character had not shown up, and secondly, because
“he could not safely go to trial, on account of the public excitement against him, from the transaction being recent, and of an unusual character, giving rise to exaggerated reports, tending to inflame the public mind, and insufficient time not having elapsed to allay such excitement, and to correct the strong prejudices produced by it.”
The court refused continuance. The hanging was scheduled for the 7th of September, 1849.
The final newspaper article for this tragic story appeared in the Macon, Georgia newspaper, The Messenger on Wednesday, September 12, 1849.
Elisha Reese, convicted of the murder of Mrs. Ellen Pratt, was executed near this city on Friday, in the presence of some five thousand persons. Before leaving the prison, he gave an imperfect sketch of his life and of the circumstances connected with the murder. It is sufficient to say that his confession in every particular, corroborated the statement of the affair made through the columns of this paper at the time of the killing, and which was subsequently sustained by the testimony before the jury.
Reese deported himself with the most stoical firmness and composure. He shed no tear, and heaved no sigh during the solemn ceremonies under the gallows. He ascended the platform with a firm and steady step, and declined when requested by the Sheriff, to address any words to the assembled multitude. The result of this exhibition, has been to excite no little feeling among our people in favor of private executions, and the matter will, no doubt, be brought up before the next Legislature.
What I would give to have a copy of Reese’s life sketch along with his confession, however imperfect it was. I feel some disappointment in knowing not only that it was not recorded, but also in knowing that Reese showed no remorse and no regret for the crime. While justice ultimately was served, for both the Gurganus family and the Reese family, there were deep wounds that would never completely heal. Newspapers reported that it was doubtful that David would ever fully recover physically from his injuries given his age. While it is difficult to know to what extent David’s injuries contributed to his death just ten months later, I feel sure that the emotional wounds were even deeper and that the remainder of his days were filled with painful memories of that fateful day.
I never dreamed the day that I tediously searched the Bibb County Court records for anything about my family, that I would uncover a story of this nature. I suppose none of us ever envisions a tragedy of this scope occurring in our own families. As we research and uncover the details of our ancestor’s lives, we inevitably will find both the good and the bad, the joyous along with the tragic, with each piece of information ultimately helping us to gain compassion and understanding for those that went before.
Copyright © Michelle G. Taggart 2012