Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Controversy, Conscience, and Circumstantial Evidence: The Implications of the Bustin Murder in Early Georgia

Academic journal article The Journal of Southern Legal History

Controversy, Conscience, and Circumstantial Evidence: The Implications of the Bustin Murder in Early Georgia

Article excerpt

Murder occurred relatively rarely in early America and few of those crimes merited more than even local notice; far fewer became legends, legal precedents, or mysteries. Most Americans of those times seldom left their small and isolated communities, making any attempt at killing someone without immediate detection and arrest almost impossible.1 One of the exceptions to all of the above occurred near Milledgeville, Georgia on November 13, 1832. Aside from being a classic irresolvable "who done it," the murder of Eleanor Bustin also became a part of the history of Georgia's long and dark struggle with capital punishment and the accompanying need for an appellate process that was immune from politics. Although it received little public notice at the time, this murder would assume some importance in the years and decades that followed as a weight upon Georgia's social conscience.

These events began on Sunday, November 11, 1832 in rural Baldwin County, several miles from the village of Milledgeville, which served as both the county seat and as the capitol of the State of Georgia. Mrs. Mary Moore would swear to being in the home of her neighbors, the Reverend John A. and Nancy Johnson on that Sunday. Eleanor Bustin, the twelve or thirteenyear-old sister of Nancy, also lived in the Johnson home and worked for the couple as a domestic when not attending school. Eleanor accompanied Mary for the quarter mile back to Mary's home and told her of a severe whipping that she had received from her brother-in-law, John Johnson, earlier that day. She lifted her frock and showed Mary the deep cuts. Mary then returned to the Johnson home to confront John. He did not admit to the violence, but did promise that he would not beat Eleanor again. John returned with Mary and angrily ordered Eleanor to come back with him. Mary insisted that her own daughter go along to guarantee Eleanor's safety. Mary's daughter returned safely on Tuesday morning.

That evening, after supper, Eleanor could not be found by her sister, Nancy Johnson. The next day at noon, while her husband was away on business, Nancy asked her neighbor, Benjamin Askew, to look for the missing girl. He and a neighbor, Bolen Moore, formed an ad hoc search party. Askew knew Eleanor, whom he later described as "quite a pert lively girl; had if probably a bad temper," and there "was something ungovernable in her character."2

While searching for Eleanor the next day, Askew and Moore found small tracks, which they presumed belonged to Eleanor, at a spring branch that was 300 or 400 yards from the Johnson home. The footprints indicated that she had met a man at the branch. The next day, the search party went down the branch in search of more tracks. Askew found small shoe prints in a field near the mouth of the branch at the Oconee River. At that point, he and Moore were joined by two men of the Miller family who had come to assist in the search.

At that same time, William Dunn had been urged by the local magistrate to join in the neighborhood search. Dunn encountered John Johnson, who told Dunn to check at the cabins of the neighbors because the woods and field by the mouth of the branch had already been thoroughly searched. In that very wood, however, and at almost that very moment, at 150 to 200 yards from the branch, Askew saw Eleanor's body some twenty to twenty-five yards off from him. Dead, she hung by a copperas cotton "hank," which was tied to the fork of a blackberry bush. The cotton cloth was identical to some that Mary Moore had seen in the Johnson cabin. The girl dangled at such an angle that her hands, and almost her knees, touched the ground. Askew found that he could have slipped his hand within the noose and that, although Eleanor was four feet tall, the cotton was tied only three feet above the ground. The odd circumstances made suicide seem impossible. The corpse had bruises on her arm and shoulder, as well as signs of a whipping.

The group took Eleanor's body to the Johnson home for an inquest. …

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