Tom Watson Brown and the Cody-McGregor Case

By Tanner, W. Rhett | The Journal of Southern Legal History, January 1, 2008 | Go to article overview

Tom Watson Brown and the Cody-McGregor Case


Tanner, W. Rhett, The Journal of Southern Legal History


Our friend and colleague Tom Watson Brown, an original trustee and officer of the Georgia Legal History Foundation passed away in early 2007. We all miss him. He was a true professional, a dedicated historian, and the ultimate raconteur. His yarn spinning and toastmaster talents are legendary. Bob Prather recently sent me a copy of one of Tom's history vignettes. It is vintage Tom Watson Brown, humorous but true, and this particular story features his great grandfather, the colorful and controversial Thomas E. Watson. With the permission and assistance of Tad Brown of the Watson-Brown Foundation, we herewith present, with all the historically correct, though perhaps in one or two instances not what one would express today, language.

The Cody-McGregor Case

Warrenton, Georgia 1890

presented to the Symposium Club

March 18, 1996

by Tom Watson Brown

Hanging on my office wall in a place of honor above my desk, is a framed telegram, dated October 12, 1889, sent from Warrenton, Georgia to my great-grandfather, Thomas E. Watson, in Thomson, which in a laudable economy of words states simple:

"I have kiUedfim Cody. Come instantly. C. E. McGregor"

Upon receipt, Watson promptly drove his carriage to Warrenton, some fifteen miles distance, and held with his long-time friend Major Charles E. McGregor, die initial conference of what was to become the famous Cody-McGregor murder trial which catapulted Watson into die top ranks of Georgia criminal defense lawyers with the ensuing heavy newspaper coverage.

Charles E. McGregor was a native Virginian, rising to the rank of Major in die Confederate Army during the War between the States, and had become one of the most prominent citizens in Warrenton to which he had migrated after the War. For a time, he published die Warrenton newspaper and had been active in a number of commercial enterprises. He served in the Georgia Legislature, including one year with Watson, and had continued in local and state politics, becoming a close ally of Watson, who himself had become the intellectual leader and spokesman of the Farmers' Alliance, die forebear of die Populist Party. McGregor had married into the wealdiy local Roberts family and lived in one of the larger homes in the town, located a block from die Warren County Courthouse. McGregor, like his victim, was a member of die Warrenton Agricultural Society, the First Baptist Church and the Fraternal Order of the Knights of Honor. Among other civic achievements, he had led die successful movement for prohibition in Warren County. Tall and slim, he was a man of great dignity, and of unreconstructed sentiments.

The deceased, James Madison Wellborn Cody, was forty-six at the time of his death, some three years younger than Major McGregor. He was the grandson of Marion Cody, a Revolutionary War solider who setded in Warren County. His uncle and namesake was James Madison Wellborn, die largest landholder in the county and die fauier of Mrs. Lou Derrelle DuBose who will appear later in this narrative. Cody and his brother ran a successful mercantile business, die brother also owning the Warrenton Hotel. Cody was also, of course, a Confederate veteran, having served in die Warrenton Infantry.

Enmity between the two had developed into a feud, highlighted first when McGregor was shot from ambush in his own front yard by Cody on die night of December 17, 1887, as McGregor was returning from a Lodge oyster dinner. The bullet, from a muzzle-loading Russian derringer, passed through McGregor's stomach and chest but proved not to be fatal. During his recuperation, he was visited by Cody with appropriate commiserations until Cody finally admitted diat he had been die assailant. There may have been earlier disagreements between die men but the triggering event revolved around Mrs. DuBose, a vivacious, attractive widow of some wealth. Cody had been attentive to his cousin in handling her financial matters, leading to a certain amount of gossip.

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