There is no question that Reece murdered Mary Ellen (Gurganus) Pratt, nor that he seriously injured Ellen’s elderly Father David. The story is well documented and includes witnesses to not only the murder, but to the events leading up to the murder. In addition, Elisha Reece never denied either killing Ellen nor mortally wounding her elderly father, David Gurganus.
The story about Ellen, sister to my fourth great grandfather James (Gur)Ganus, intrigued me. Research had led me to not only the court records about the murder trial and subsequent hanging but also to many newspaper articles that were widely published throughout the US. The details of the story created a great deal of excitement and the hanging reportedly attracted close to five thousand people who came to witness Elisha’s death at the gallows.
Those who have followed my blog for a while may remember the sensational story I shared about the murder back in 2012, but for those who are new to my blog, I suggest that you read the full detailed story first, which can be found in three parts:
Despite a large amount of information I was able to originally find about the murder, I knew there was another side to the story. A line in the final newspaper article intrigued me and left me wanting to find more. Referring to Elisha, it read:
“Before leaving the prison, he gave an imperfect sketch of his life and of the circumstances connected with the murder.”
Although I know we never fully know all the whys and wherefores of any event that occurred over 100 years ago, I wondered what Elisha had shared about his life and the circumstances of the murder and so I had attempted to find a place where his final words were recorded.
Based on the testimony of witnesses, I wondered, was Elisha Reece really motivated to commit murder solely because Ellen rejected his proposal and swore out a peace warrant against him? Despite efforts to find more, what I shared in my blog eight years ago appeared to be all that was available about the story…..that is until recently.
A few weeks ago, while looking for any new additions to newspaper collections that might provide added insight about my ancestors, I stumbled onto Elisha Reece’s confession!!! –a testament to the fact that things are always being added online and it’s always worth the effort to check back.
While the article is a bit lengthy, if you are as curious as I was about Elisha Reece’s justification for killing Ellen and mortally wounding her father, you will find the following confession worth the read:
The following is the confession of Elisha REECE, who was convicted at the July Term of Bibb Superior Court, 1849, of the murder of Mrs. ELLEN PRATT, in this county on the 16th of May last; made at his own request in the presence of THOMAS BAGBY, Deputy Sheriff; WILLIS H. HUGHES, County Jailor; Dr. R. McGoldrick, the County Surgeon, and taken down by W. K. DeGraffenreid, Esq., at half past 9 o’clock, on the morning of the day of his execution, Friday, September 7th, 1849—
“I was born in York District, S. C., but left there and went to Mecklenburg County, N. C., where I married and remained some time. I finally left and came to Wilkinson county, in this State, where I remained for about twelve months, and then removed to the Cherokee country and remained there until the first of this year, when I came to Wilkinson County, in this State, where I remained for about twelve months and then removed to the Cherokee country and resided there until the first of this year, when I came to Bibb county, the place where I was living when the crime was committed, for which I am about to forfeit my life. I am the father of seven or eight children—have been twice married—my last wife is still living, and at her daughter’s in Floyd county. I came to this county on the 4th of January last and rented a house from JOHN H. DAVIS, near the residence of DAVID GURGANUS, the father of the unfortunate woman whom I murdered. This difficulty commenced by my having heard two mornings in succession, some person halloo at a camp near my house. The second morning I saw the woman, Mrs. ELLEN PRATT, leave her father’s house and walk up the road by the fence and go into the woods just above the camp and did not return until after sun-up. I went to Mr. GURGANUS’ well for water and whilst drawing the water she came out the woods to the house. I said to her, in jest, that I had seen a sight that morning.—She asked me what sight I had seen?—and I replied that it was useless to tell her, as she knew herself. Her father and her mother were present. This led to a quarrel and hard feelings between the family and myself. About a week afterwards, and on the day of the murder, I started to a blacksmith’s shop, to have some work done and to have it finished by the time I should call for it. On my return from the shop I stopped at Mr. GURGANUS’, to get some things I had left, and Mrs. PRATT saw me as I approached the gate. She told me not to come in, and abused me very much. After this I went home and commenced ploughing, and old Mrs. GURGANUS came, brought my things and threw them over the fence. I was drinking all this time, and when I quit ploughing, was quite overcome with liquor. I started to Mr. DAVIS’, to carry the plough home, and carried my flask to get it filled at the grocery, on my way to DAVIS’. I got the liquor, went to the workshop, and while there saw Mrs. PRATT pass, going towards home. It struck me that she had been to Esquire RILEY’S after a Warrant, as I had heard she had threatened to take me with one. I left the shop and went to Hop Davis, to see if she had the Warrant. DAVIS had told me that if she did take me, he would stand my security. DAVIS told me “she had got a Warrant for he went with her to get it.” I asked him what kind of a Warrant it was? –and he told me it was a Peace Warrant, I then asked DAVIS to take a dram—he refused—but I took one. I then told him that they (meaning old man GURGANUS and his family,) could but get what little I had and my life too.—After this I think I went home, got my gun, and on my way met Major ARMSTRONG. When I got near the gate, the old man came out and asked me what business I had there. I made some reply. The old man said something else—I jerked the gate open and struck him with the gun. Just at this time Mrs. PRATT ran out and I shot her. I went home—knew that I had done something wrong—thought I would escape, and started—but changed my mind, and was returning home when I was taken. If I had been sober it never would have occurred. I feel resigned to my fate, and hope it will be a warning to all who shall see me executed. Signed ELISHA REECE.” At bout half past 1 o’clock yesterday, REECE was executed, in the presence of several thousand persons, of all grades and both sexes. He met his fate, we learn, with the utmost fortitude. (1))
I had hoped that reading Elisha’s side of the story would help establish the facts of the event, but once again, it seems to have created as many or more questions than it resolved.
The article did provide some background, but it certainly didn’t show either Elisha or Ellen in a very favorable light. For instance, I found it interesting that Elisha didn’t know for sure how many children he had, stating that he had “seven or eight children.” I also took note that his wife was living in Floyd County with her daughter and he had moved quite a few miles away to Bibb county and wondered about the story behind that decision. Elisha’s revelations about Ellen’s activities certainly weren’t flattering to her and I wondered if there was truth to his claims about the fifty-year-old widow’s actions that night prior to her murder or was his story an effort to get revenge for the scathing reports about him in the newspapers? Had Ellen acted out of anger because he called her character into question in front of her parents? Or was his action the result of the bitterness of a rejected suitor as she and others had claimed? Others testified that he was angry because she rejected his proposal and sought to retaliate. Was there truth to that story or was that simply the story she told? Regardless, certainly, his drinking had helped to escalate the situation, a fact he acknowledged when he said, “If I had been sober it never would have occurred.”
Either way, in the end, Ellen was dead and justice was served when Elisha was executed. But the question remains, how much of Elisha’s confession was true? We will never know. But finding the article underscores that there’s always more to the story.