(This is how family history gets passed down…)
I found out about the murderer in our family, Grady Reynolds, 75 years after it happened.
I recall that it was one of those lazy Sunday afternoons in the 1970s that I spent in Great-grandmother Chesty Reynolds’ front room where her bed was. My grandfather Bonnell Reynolds and I were on the naugahyde sofa, my great-uncle Kermit was straddling a canebacked chair backward and “Grandmother” was in her bed just inside the front door. A farmer’s wife accustomed to small quarters, she had always used the front room for her bedroom. She would live to a robust 96 years of age, but at the time that she and these two sons of hers told me this story she was still in her eighties, a picture of health, propped up against several pillows, chenille spread pulled tight beneath her, a pretty quilt neatly folded over her legs.
That was 43 years ago, and the events I learned about that day happened in 1897, so this story has been in the family for 118 years. My dad Gene Reynolds, who is 84, had never heard it despite spending countless hours with his grandpa Allen Reynolds on the front porch out at the farm in late-night talks about family history. Even though Allen was the murderer’s first cousin, Gene didn’t remember him ever mentioning Grady going to the gallows.
“I never even heard the name,” said Gene.
“And you didn’t know you had a third cousin that killed a storekeeper and pretended he bought the store?” I asked.
“How do you know all this?” he asked.
“Papa Bonnell and Kermit and Grandmother told me about it back in the ‘70s,” I said.
“Are you sure?”
“Sure I’m sure. I got the name wrong. I remembered it as
, but I found out today it was Grady—Reuben Grady Reynolds, and I just thought you could give me some details.” Gary
“Well, I never heard of any Reuben Grady Reynolds,” said Gene.
After finishing Sunday “dinner” at my Papa Bonnell’s house that day in the early 1970s, I moved over to the couch to watch a football game on TV with Uncle Bob, who didn’t much enjoy the games, but always watched the halftime scores to see if the teams he had bet on were covering the point spread.
Uncle Strick was sitting in the armchair nearest the TV but had no interest whatsoever in the game. He was holding my infant daughter Kristi, rubbing the top of her head, saying, “Ain’t the top of their heads soft?”
My young wife Sherry was helping Mama Maude and Aunt Willeen clear the table while my radical Aunt Katrina sat there at the table, pretty as you please, as if she had the same rights as a man to sit there and not do dishes, but nobody begrudged her the usurpation because she kept a conversation going from the table to the couch to the kitchen. She also kept a cigarette going, as did her husband Bob, from his end of the couch, and Strick near the TV. The room was a haze of after-dinner smoke that bothered no one because it was always like that when the family got together.
Papa finished his meal by sopping the remainder of the brown gravy from his plate with a piece of chocolate cake (his favorite flavor combination) and then put a big dip of CC Snuff beneath his bottom lip before settling into his plush green swivel chair.
When the halftime recap was over Uncle Bob rounded up Katrina and Kim, and they said their goodbyes and headed home to the
Once everything was spic and span in the kitchen, Willeen told Strick to give the baby back to Sherry, and they collected their kids Sharon and Phil, and took off for their little home on a hill near River Bend.
Sherry took our two little girls into Papa's back yard where we lived in the “Little House” which was sort like a shotgun house in the slums, only smaller. But we loved it because it was close to Mama Maude and Papa’s and put us in the orbit of all those uncles and aunts.
At this time, maybe an hour after “dinner,” Papa made his move. He spit into the can beside his chair and rearranged the snuff beneath his bottom lip and said, “You know, I wouldn’t mind riding out to Mom’s this afternoon. If I put a little juice in your car, do you think you could ride me out there? That is, if you don't have anything else to do which I don't mind if you do. I don’t want to put you out any.”
“Sure,” I said. “But keep your money.”
“No, no, I insist,” he said.
There was many a day back then when my pockets were as empty as the tank of my powder blue 1968 Mustang, so after an appropriate amount of back and forth, I took his dollar.
Visiting the Great-Grandmother that I had always known as simply “Grandmother,” was not my favorite way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It was nice to see her and Kermit, the son who lived with her the last 30 years of her life, but I really didn’t care all that much about the back and forth between them and my Papa Bonnell over Who married Whom and in what year; Who died when; did you hear about Cousin Whomever or Aunt Whoozitz; or where is So-and-So buried? It was all I could do to keep my eyes open.
Somehow Uncle Baylous Reynolds’ name came up and they started talking about how great it was that his son, our cousin Grady, got religion before he went to the gallows and I perked up.
Grandmother was just a young girl and not a Reynolds yet when Grady was hanged over in
Jefferson, Georgia, just a few miles from The Glade, but she remembered it well. “We knew all about it. People came from far and near.”
Papa Bonnell, who wasn’t even born till 1907, obviously knew the story. “It was a double hanging. Him and Bud Brooks.”
Kermit, born in 1924, seemed to know as much as either of them. “They built a 16 foot fence around the gallows so that nobody could see the actual hanging.”
“Just Grady and Bud’s families and the sheriff and a few others,” said Grandmother. “Everybody else was there just to watch them walk from the courthouse to the fence.”
“What always got me,” said Papa Bonnell, “Was how come they bought each of them a new suit to be hanged in? Why waste all that money?”
“Well, but I bet they looked nice at their funeral,” said Grandmother.
Kermit said gently, “Mama, do you know what happens to the human body when a person is hanged?”
Papa frowned. “Uh, let’s not get into that.”
Grandmother showed her displeasure by uttering her strongest epithet: “Well, I never!”
Kermit said, “They buried ‘em side by side over at the
in Lula.” Reynolds-Barton Cemetery
“I ain’t been to that cemetery in years,” said Papa. “I need to ride over there and have a look one of these days.”
“Ain’t got no name or date on their headstone,” said Kermit. “All it says is something like “Hanged, buried side by side…They robbed a grocery store and…a man was killed.”
“They was cousins,” said Grandmother. “Grady’s mother was a Brooks and it was her nephew Bud Brooks that helped Grady with the murder.”
“Now, let’s get the story straight,” said Bonnell. “Bud didn’t help with the murder. He just helped split open the body after Grady shot the man.”
“I think it was Grady that split him open with the ax,” said Kermit. “Right down the center of his back. All Bud did was help take out some of his insides and fill up the corpse with rocks and bind it up so he’d sink when they threw him in the
.” Oconee River
“That was after Grady shot him in the back of the head,” said Bonnell.
“Well, I don’t know if we need to talk about all that,” said Grandmother, briefly focusing her watery blue eyes on me.
My newsman’s instinct felt the story ending too soon, so I piped up: “Why’d they kill him?”
“He was a wealthy store owner, just a young man, really, without any family hereabouts,” said Grandmother. “And they heard he kept a lot of money hid in his store. Didn’t trust the banks.”
“Grady was dirt poor,” said Kermit. “Cuttin’ railroad ties for a living, bootlegging on the side, him and Bud both.”
Papa liked to keep a story on track. “They had a contract to make railroad ties in the woods over near Bellton, when they come up with this scheme to kill the storekeeper.”
Kermit said, “Grady’s the one that made him an offer on the store and lured him out of town by saying they needed to go get the money at Harmony Grove Bank. And, oh yeah, they could do some bird-hunting the next morning. The storekeep was an avid bird hunter.”
Papa added, “Bud wadn’t even there, I don’t think, when Grady shot the man in the back of the head.”
Kermit continued, “After they threw the corpse in the river, they went back to the store and tried to find the hidden money, but didn’t find any. So they kept the store open, told folks that they had bought it.”
“Made a little money selling merchandise,” said Papa.
“Now, what I heard,” said Grandmother, “Was that Grady also let his family come in there and take foodstuff off the shelves. Gave ‘em everything they could eat or carry off. He was done divorced at that time, left his wife when he became a drunk, but he fed ‘em well for a few days there.”
“He got arrested because he didn’t know about the horse,” said Papa. “Seems like the storekeep, I think his name was Hunt, had a stud horse that he kept in his stable on some property he owned about a mile away from the store. This horse was his pride and joy and he talked about it a lot. Then somebody went in there one day and saw the horse hadn’t been fed or cared for in days, no provisions had been made for it, and that’s when everybody got suspicious that there must have been foul play.”
“Grady got arrested first and they made him talk,” said Kermit. “He told them where to look to find the body weighted down in the river and it was still there, right where he said. He blamed the killing on Bud and said he only helped move the body.”
“My, my, my,” said Grandmother, as if thinking about it for the first time.
“They caught Bud a few days later up in
somewhere and brought him back on the train,” said Papa. South Carolina
“A lynch mob gathered at the train station when they come back, but the leader said they was gonna let Bud and Grady go to trial. Wadn’t go’n do nothing that night,” said Grandmother.
“Grady got religion while he was in jail and he confessed everything and they was both sentenced to hang,” said Kermit. “Then Bud demanded a new trial because he said liquor made him do it, and he wasn’t accountable. That was in March. They hanged ‘em that December.”
“It was in all the papers,
Jackson County and both,” said Grandmother. “Grady grew up here in The Glade, you know.” Hall County
“What they did was pure evil,” said Papa. “But they got prayed through there at the end.”
Grandmother said, “Grady’s wife, her name was Martha—they called her Mattie—didn’t go see him in jail till the very last day.”
Kermit added, “But his mama and sisters kept a vigil with him at the jailhouse for over a week before the big day. Wore their selves out praying, singing and reading the Bible with him.”
“He got religion,” Grandmother said. “He was ready to meet his maker and made a right nice little speech for his last words. The paper said he urged people not to drink and told them they should read the Bible and pray and go to church and they wouldn’t end up where he was, but now he was content to pay for his crime because he knew for sure he was saved.”
Papa Bonnell, who believed most of the Bible and some of the Book of Mormon, added the type of thought that he seemed to constantly be toying with: “The killers had a chance to get right with God and confess Jesus Christ as their savior, so I believe they went to heaven. But what about the victim, Mr. Hunt? Nobody gave him no time to pray. He was shot in the back of the head and then split open with an ax. What if he wadn’t already in good shape with the Lord? Are we supposed to think the killers went to heaven and the victim went to Hell?”
The fire in the space heater hissed. The clock on the wall ticked. And we avoided each other’s gaze for a while, each of us lost in our own thoughts.