A conspiracy, an armed posse, a convoy of horse-drawn carriages traveling under the cover of darkness, a diversion of law enforcement, a prisoner used as a decoy and a getaway plan. It sounds like the basis for a great heist story, if indeed it was a heist.
But more than a century later, that’s still up for debate. At Bay Minette’s fifth annual Removal Day Celebration on Oct. 10, there will be one.
The 1901 relocation of Baldwin County’s seat of government is wrought with misconceptions. Until recently, Felicia Anderson believed some of them herself. A native of Stockton who became the director of the Baldwin County Archives & History Department in 2014, Anderson, like many long-time citizens, was already familiar with some version of the story.
“My whole life I always heard that [Bay Minette] stole it from Daphne and that was it,” Anderson said last week. “But I never heard the true story or what really happened. So it’s really interesting to have run across the facts and really read it, while also hearing from others. Each year I’m still piecing it together and finding more and more about it.”
What’s known is this: In 1900, local legislators introduced a bill to move the county seat from Daphne to Bay Minette. Their reasoning, allegedly, was two-fold.
First, the primary property owners in Daphne were either against the expansion of government facilities there, or were asking too high a price for the land necessary to expand. Second, a recently developed railroad connected Bay Minette to larger urban centers east and west. It included a spur through central Baldwin County and their argument was the entire county could benefit economically if the spur terminated near the courthouse.
Meanwhile, Daphne wasn’t having it. The existing courthouse and jail there was more than adequate, they argued, while the city was also larger by population and closer to the geographic center of the county. Further, the primary wagon trail between the Eastern Shore and Bay Minette was unsuitable for regular travel, pocked throughout by roots, sand or mud.
In January 1901, a contingent from the Jubilee City descended upon Montgomery to encourage a Senate committee to scrap the bill, presenting a petition signed by more than 500 people. But, allegedly, the fix was in. Bay Minette had its own petition, with three times as many signatures, and Daphne’s plea fell on deaf ears. The committee gave a favorable recommendation of the bill.
Still, after the act was passed, officials in Daphne refused to surrender the power of government. Different versions of the story claim there was both a lawsuit and a last-minute injunction to stop the move, but the wheels were already in motion. Construction began on Bay Minette’s new courthouse on July 4, 1901, but as it neared completion in October, the county’s court records, property deeds, incorporation documents and more were still maintained at the existing courthouse nearly 25 miles south in Daphne.
Plus, there was a sheriff in the way.
A difference of opinion
Even today, the city of Daphne’s official website recognizes what happened next thusly:
“Originally, Daphne was the Baldwin County seat of government. However, Daphne’s courthouse records were stolen one night by the rival community of Bay Minette, where the Baldwin County seat of government remains today.”
But Anderson contends it was not a theft, but rather a legally authorized removal. She admits the story is much more nuanced than was captured at the time by any newspaper account or single oral history, but the narrative she has compiled is this:
“On Oct. 10, 1901, a group of men including J.D. Hand, J.B. Blackburn, J.M. Armstrong, A.M. Thompson, D.C. Byrne, O.C. Hall, Wm. Waters, B.F. McMillan, Jr., W.B. Thomley, B.F. Feist, T.M. McMillan, J.T. Bradley, Frank Earle, J.J. McGill, Leslie Hall, R.D. McConnell, Leon Jones and others departed Irwin’s Livery Stable in Bay Minette in horse-drawn wagons, bound for the outskirts of Daphne. Once there, they broke into two companies (Companies “C” and “D”) and camped for the night.
“At 9 a.m. on Oct. 11, the companies descended upon the Baldwin County Jail and Courthouse, which shared the same roof, and removed and loaded into the wagons every conceivable item that could be of use to the new county seat in Bay Minette. Company C was in charge of the jail, while Company D was focused on the courthouse.
“There was only one remaining obstacle to the removal: Sheriff George Bryant of Daphne. Joe Blackburn was the spokesman, and he had a plan to deal with Sheriff Bryant. Blackburn cited Act 267 and stated that his group’s work was authorized by the Alabama Legislature, but Bryant was resolute in his objection.
“Knowing that he needed only for the sheriff to open the jailhouse door, Blackburn produced a young prisoner named Frederick Richardson, who was wanted for robbery in Hurricane, telling Bryant to lock him up. As soon as Bryant opened the door to the jail, men armed with various tools of destruction ranging from wire cutters to pick axes rushed through the opening. Allowing themselves to be locked inside, they began dissembling the jail from the inside out.
“Most of the physical removal was completed by the evening of Oct. 11, 1901. Subsequent rulings of the Alabama Supreme Court have confirmed its propriety.”
In his 2002 book, “The Sleeping Juror & Other Baldwin County Courtroom Tales and History,” Daphne attorney Sam Crosby relates two different stories about the courthouse relocation. One was recounted 45 years later to the Mobile Press-Register by a self-described participant.
E.J. Norris was 19 years old in 1901 and remembered the Bay Minette party arming itself with shotguns and pistols, arriving in Daphne at twilight and camping on the outskirts of town “until it was dark enough to cover our activities.”
But that was the extent of the drama, according to Norris, who said Sheriff Bryant was cordial with the conspirators and the hand-off was seamless. The prisoner was not a ruse, Norris told the newspaper, but rather voluntary, free labor who helped pack the records before being transported back to Bay Minette to become “the first prisoner in the new jail.”
The second story in Crosby’s book was gleaned from the Oct. 13, 1901 edition of the Mobile News-Item. There the removal was tinged with deceit and confrontation; it claimed that despite Sheriff Bryant’s injunction, which he had obtained the same day, the party used Richardson as a “ruse” to get inside the jail building.
“The sheriff took the prisoner and brought him into the jail and … several of the group followed,” Crosby wrote. “Once inside, they refused to leave. After pleading, the sheriff said he was going to lock them all inside.”
The reported ring-leader in both recollections — the “instigator,” according to Norris — was North Baldwin businessman John D. Hand. Faced with the sheriff’s threat, Hand requested to be released. It was then the second part of the conspiracy unfolded.
“And when the door was opened wide enough for [Hand] to leave, two men with concealed wire cutters squeezed in. The sheriff locked the door and departed. The men with the wire cutters went to work and it was only a matter of hours before the front door was opened and the cages containing the records were safely packed in a wagon and en route to Bay Minette.”
Throughout the decades since, the city of Bay Minette has sporadically commemorated the event. But it became an annual celebration in 2015, largely with the efforts of Anderson and attorney Grant Blackburn, who wrote a thesis paper about his great-grandfather’s involvement.
It coincides with American Archives Month.
“When I learned about American Archives Month I was thinking about ways we could make our archives more visible to the public and I was going through our collections to see what we had and just came across information about the removal,” Anderson said. “[Grant Blackburn] wanted to help so we just kind of put it together and it was very small that year, but it’s grown every year since. Now, it’s turned out to be a very big event because it’s a large part of our history.”
Scheduled Thursday, Oct. 10, 5 to 8 p.m. in the courthouse square, there will be a dessert-eating contest, square dancing, a period-attire contest, children’s activities, beverages by Perdido Vineyards, food and drinks served by the young professionals of North Baldwin Chamber of Commerce, face painting, demonstrations by the Alabama CattleWomen’s Association, blacksmiths, spinners and opportunities to interact with first responders.
But the main attraction is the reenactment, which will feature a mock debate between Bay Minette Mayor Bob Wills, representing his city, and Cliff McCollum, director of the Baldwin County Legislative Delegation Constituent Services Office, representing Daphne.
There is no entry fee and parking is available throughout downtown Bay Minette.
Anderson may be Baldwin County’s official historian, but she’s not the only one. Aside from Crosby’s book, the story has also been briefly recounted by writer Harriet Brill Outlaw in her hyperlocal “Images of America” books, pictorial histories about several area municipalities.
And Al Guarisco, a volunteer at the Daphne Old Methodist Church Museum, has compiled his own archive about the episode, which is available for inspection there. While it differs slightly from the stories above — Guarisco believes Sheriff Bryant was lured from Daphne to the Barnwell area intentionally by a false crime report as a diversionary tactic — he also points to John D. Hand as chief conspirator.
Looking at it from a different perspective, Guarisco is one of several people convinced Hand’s motive was less about the so-called greater good, and more about the profitability of his own moderate business empire.
“He wanted to build a railroad to Fort Morgan, which he intended to be the deep-sea port for Baldwin and Mobile counties,” Guarisco said. “They got as far as Foley and the economy collapsed … What did it have to do with courthouse? People traveling for courthouse business and to the port would have been a source of revenue for the railroad … and there was not a railroad to Daphne. Hand was instrumental and was trying to make himself very rich.”
Fairhope’s Donnie Barrett, who helped establish the Fairhope Museum of History in 2008 and was its director until 2018, is even more critical of Hand. At previous Removal Day Celebrations, Barrett represented Daphne in the debates. But according to him, “it got ugly.”
“I was on their home court and they didn’t want to hear what I had to say, and there were people in the audience yelling ‘liar!’ and ‘fake news!’ and all kinds of stuff,” Barrett said, suggesting the story remains unclear by design, to obscure political corruption.
“There was a lot of secrecy and people were paid off, as was very common in those days,” he said. “The intention was for Mr. Hand to get the courthouse up there so his investment would take off and it did. A very short time after, he sold his property around the courthouse for almost $1 million, which was an enormous amount of money then. It would not have taken place without the paid cooperation of the local sheriff, local legislators, judges and the business community.”
Barrett claims among other strategies, conspirators meddled with the petitions presented to the Legislature, paid off legislators themselves and after the bill was passed, resolved legal threats with backroom, handshake deals. The emphasis on the relatively “new technology” of the railroad was unproven and “coerced,” he said, undermining Daphne’s established economic operation on the waterfront, and its more logical location as a county seat.
Newspaper accounts from the time were curiously dissimilar and even preposterous when you think about it, Barrett said. He believes Hand bribed the newspaper publishers too.
Barrett said after the cold reception he received the last time he debated at Removal Day, he declined an invitation to return. Perhaps his opinion is partly to blame.
“I think in the final analysis the railroad is dead, the tracks are gone and Bay Minette is a hot, dry, desert place while Daphne is bigger, it’s beautiful, it’s booming, it’s more highly intellectual, it’s got a whole lot more nicer people, and now, Daphne would have been an even better place, in the end, if they would have kept [the courthouse] in Daphne,” Barrett said.
McCollum would not reveal his upcoming debate strategy but appears to lean toward a softer approach, referring to the episode as a “delightfully kooky, absurd story … that could only happen in Baldwin County.”
“I think there is some — I don’t want to say ‘bad blood’ — but maybe there are hurt feelings over something that happened so long ago,” McCollum said. “I don’t have a lot of bad things to say … there’s such a great sense of community up there and it really does have a wonderful, small-town feel that a lot of other places in Alabama have lost … but I will say it’s a bit of a schlep to go up to Bay Minette for some things.”
Although he can’t claim to be a native himself, Mayor Bob Wills moved to Bay Minette after law school in 1973 to be closer to his wife’s family, who has lived in Baldwin County “for generations.” But even still, he’s only recently become familiar with the details of Removal Day.
“Before, I just understood a group a citizens from Bay Minette went to Daphne one night and commandeered the records from the jail and brought them back, but there’s a much deeper story,” he said. “There had been legislation to move the county seat and the folks in Daphne just refused to comply with it. So … the citizens up here felt they had no alternative but to take matters into their own hands and go down there and get the records and move it.”
Wills said Bay Minette remains “proud to be the county seat.” He noted “the county has changed dramatically since that time,” acknowledging the more recent addition of two satellite courthouses capable of providing most government services in further reaches of the county.
Anderson said the Foley Satellite Courthouse was erected in 1984, the Fairhope Satellite Courthouse was erected in 1986 and the Baldwin County Central Annex in Robertsdale, which was once a Vanity Fair factory, began housing county offices and some public meetings in 2001.
But like those county offices, Anderson said the Removal Day Celebration is for all citizens, not just those of Bay Minette. Notably, the event is co-sponsored by the county, both cities and the North Baldwin Chamber of Commerce.
“It’s grown each year and really the main thing we’re wanting is the public to come out and hear the story of the removal of the county seat — the true story — not that it was stolen in the middle of the night, but we want people to know the courthouse was moved to Bay Minette legally, by legislative act,” she said. “There are still misconceptions and missing pieces, but the plan is to one day have the full story and have the full re-enactment told.”
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