Monday, July 23, 2012

The Italian Peddler

When I realized I would be diving into Douglas County history and publishing my research I had to make myself a couple of promises.   I never wanted accuracy to be an issue.  I’ve had a couple of situations here and there….one biography piece that I know I need to go back and properly label the sections that are backed up by historical sources and the sections that are admitted family embellishments, but overall I work hard to use more than one source wherever possible, and I constantly wring my hands over the facts.

The other promise had to do with sugarcoating history.  I’ve been researching and writing about history since 2006, and I print the good with the bad.  If you only want the “pretty” side of the Douglas County story then you might not want to stay tuned.

I know this is fairly obvious, but history ISN’T pretty.  History is the human story, and humans are rather flawed, right? They make poor choices, they often react without thinking, and group thinking often trumps individual thought leading to all sorts of ugly history.

Take the time period known as the Progressive Era – those years between the 1890s and the 1920s.   It was a time of social activism and political reform.   Corruption was exposed especially in government.   The time period also had some ugly aspects such as efforts to restrict immigration.

Now you might be saying to yourself what in the world does immigration have to do with Douglas County…..especially in the early days of this place we call home, but one hundred years ago sentiment towards immigration impacted a group of men right here in Douglasville. The men made poor choices, reacted without thinking, and let their group mentality get the better of them.

In the book Race and the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition of 1895 Theda Perdue  examines Atlanta and race relations as the Exposition was being planned and held.  The Exposition was a world’s fair held in Atlanta to stimulate foreign and domestic trade.   The event was very important to the region since and economic depression had a firm grip on the area. 

Perdue advises….Nativism, the intense opposition to immigration, is a hallmark of late nineteenth-century America.  In the 1890s four million people emigrated to the United States.  Many were from eastern or southern Europe, and native-born Americans viewed them as poor, unskilled peasants who clustered in urban neighborhoods and resisted assimilation.…[Most people felt immigrants] were linked to immorality, crime, political corruption and labor unrest and moved to stem the tide of immigration. 

Southerners took pride that few immigrants had found their way to this region.    The Atlanta Constitution concluded that it was “a blessing in disguise that the tide of immigration went west and not south” and reported with relief that “fifty more Italian laborers employed on the sewage work [in Atlanta] were shipped back to New York today by the contractors.

In his keynote address at the opening of the exposition, Judge Emory Speer contended that “multitudes of those who seek our shores to better their condition have no conception of the character of our government, and therefore, no devotion to the institutions of free men, and this is one of our greatest dangers.”

….and lest you think it the white population who had that attitude against immigrants consider Booker T. Washington’s remarks at the exposition.   He urged the audience to look to African Americans for achieving “the prosperity of the South” and not to “those of foreign birth and strange tongues and habits.”

Since these attitudes towards immigrants at the turn of the century were so prevalent in Atlanta it should not be surprising that the same attitudes existed here in Douglasville.

Buried within a section regarding Fairburn news titled “Fairburn Facts” in the June 13, 1882 issue of the Atlanta Constitution I found this:

Fairburn, Georgia…June 11….It is reported here upon good authority that a poor Italian peddling his wares in Douglasville, was set upon by some of the county officials and the authorities of the town and beaten almost to death.

By June 16, 1882 the matter was more prominently displayed with a headline that read “A Douglasville Outrage”, but the outrage wasn’t so much against the beating, but that another official had been linked to the beating….an official by the name of S.N. Dorsett who I’ve mentioned before here.

The article reads:
Douglasville, Georgia…June 15….In the post appeal of the 13th instant we find that the name of S.N. Dorsett, clerk of the Superior Court of this county, is charged with being in the party who outraged the young Italian.  We desire to state in behalf of Mr. Dorsett that he is not charged with nor did he have anything to do with, the unfortunate affair, and no such rumors have ever prevailed in this community.
Mr. Dorsett is a most perfect gentleman in every sense of the word and the assault upon his character is very unjust and positively false.

He is a faithful officer and performs his duty as such.  We think that when the facts of this whole affair are known will show that there has been a great deal more important attached to it than the means by this to say there has been one and a thousand rumors circulated about this unfortunate affair that are untrue.

Signed……John I. Freely, J.P. and M.B. Watson, J.A. Pittman, J.S. James, W.J. Abercrombie, J.W. Westmoreland, M.D. and W.G. Hanson, J.L. Selman, M.D. and W.H. Malary, H.L. Baggett, A.W. McLarty

Ten months later the case was being heard in the United States Circuit Court.  The Atlanta Constitution dated April 18, 1883 carried a headline advising “The Italian Peddler” with a smaller heading…..”The man who was mashed up asking for ten thousand dollars damages….”

The article advised….Yesterday an interesting case came up for trial in the United States Circuit Court.  It was a suit for ten thousand dollars damages instituted by an Italian named Michael Burney against W.T. Lindley, John V. Edge, C.P. Vandergriff and C.P. Camp of Douglas County.  The Plainitiff alleges that the Defendants have damaged his pocket and he will doubtless recover something on his claim as he was considerably used up. 

I'd like to interject here that W.T. Lindley had served as sheriff from 1881 to 1882 and besides being a prominent attorney John V. Edge was the Ordinary.

The newspaper article continues:

One day last year, the young Italian while peddling plaster of Paris images passed through Douglasville.  He could not speak English and was only able to name the prices of his wares
At Douglasville he “fell into the hands of the Philistines” who took him into the courthouse and after smashing his toys proceeded to smash the Italian.  They threw him down and sat on him and so roughly used him up that he stayed in the bed 16 days and at the end of that time was able to get to the train to come home only by being transported in a chair borne by two stout Negroes. 

The Italian employed counsel to bring suit against the persons named and the case came up in the United States Court yesterday.

….The Defendants set up their defense that if they did as charged they were too drunk to know what they were doing. 

Pending the argument court adjourned.

Well….I told you history was ugly sometimes.

The men named in this lawsuit were all important leaders in our community at the turn of the century.  They all did great things and did their part to build the county, but based on prevailing thoughts at the time it would appear they made some terrible choices and then had the temerity to use being drunk as an excuse.

Did you notice the Italian’s name?  Michael Burney.    It doesn’t seem very Italian, does it?   However, foreign sounding names were often Americanized at Ellis Island and other entry points into the United States.   

At this point I’m sure you are asking yourself what type of remedy the young Italian received through the verdict of the court.

A Library of Congress search finally revealed The Austin Weekly Statement in Texas ran a follow-up story on May 10, 1883:

"In Douglasville, Georgia, about a year ago, the sheriff of the county, an ex-member of the legislature and several other prominent and enlightened citizens attacked a poor Italian image vendor, spat upon him, rolled him on the floor and then sat upon him, singing ribald songs and [telling] rude jokes. A jury recently gave the Italian $1,250 damages."

Goodness! Well, at least the poor man received something for his troubles.

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