The intriguing tale of Capt. Lafayette Marion Stiff

August 31, 2012 chris
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 “Bury me standing up, facing the Coosa River, so I can see the damned steam boats go by”

  The Vagabond has known of a character from the past that once lived in Etowah County.

Capt. Lafayette Marion Stiff led a colorful life. Born in Baltimore in 1826, he was educated in the city’s public schools, then joined his father, Col. Edward David Stiff, in the newspaper business. The Stiffs moved to Alabama in 1844. Lafayette later married Jane Hale and the couple had six children.

The Stiffs eventually moved to Gadsden and established the Radical Reformation newspaper. The family then moved back up to Cherokee County. In 1854, The Messenger was purchased by Edward Stiff, who later with his son LaFayette edited The Sentinel.

Perhaps no town in the nation could boast of having as many newspapers as Cedar Bluff, Ala. The Stiffs were associated with several newspapers in Cherokee County, including The Palladium, The Messenger and The Olive Branch.

No editor was more fearless or wielded a more virile pen than the elder Stiff. Having edited papers in New York and Cincinnati, he was a man of wide and varied experience. He also wrote a book on his travels, called Texan Immigrant.

Stiff’s editorial frankness and vigorous denunciation of the habits and morals of some citizens made his very existence a gamble. A man named Hinton, a lawyer and former newspaper editor, killed the Cherokee County Sheriff and had skipped out to Texas. Stiff accused a group of leading citizens of blocking the extradition of Hinton, a group including the town’s leading lawyer, Judge M. J. Turnely, who later became a leading member of the Gadsden bar.

Out of the charges and counter charges grew a bitter factional feud. Edward Stiff was attacked and beaten almost to death. He survived that attack, only to be viciously attacked again. This time, however, Stiff killed his assailant.

As a result of the killing, Stiff was placed in jail at Ashville in St. Clair County, as no jail had yet been erected in Cherokee County. He was soon released, and in a short time Stiff was on his way to Cuba, where he remained for some time. Stiff returned to Centre to live with his son, LaFayette, and became the editor of that town’s first newspaper, The Coosa River Argus.

It was in Centre in 1845 that the younger Stiff saw his first steamboat on the Coosa River. He developed a love for the river and its boats that he carried to his death.

After a controversial incident in Centre, the Stiffs in 1852 moved to Gadsden, where they established The Radical Reformer. From that outset, the newspaper cried out for development of the raw riverfront town that was then Gadsden. Editorials urged construction of railroads, increased postal service and called for the town to “put on city clothes.”

The Stiffs continued to advocate the opening of the Coosa River to make a navigable waterway to the Gulf of Mexico Their first newspaper in Cedar Bluff had carried on its masthead the slogan, “Advocates of an Open Coosa.” It was a crusade the Stiff family continued throughout their lifetime.

After the demise of The Radical Reformer, Lafayette Marion Stiff served in the Alabama Legislature.

When the Civil War began, he became a member of the Sixth Georgia Calvary with the rank of captain. It was shortly after the war in 1866 that Stiff died in Centre at the age of 40 and is buried overlooking the Coo-sa River. After his death, steamboats flourished on the river and his ghost rested.

That era ended in 1923, when the Cherokee III docked for the final time. Stiff’s ghost became uneasy. His river was taken away in the 1960s with the construction of Weiss Dam. A canal diverted the channel of the Coosa.

There had been talk of making the Coosa River navigable by the year 1988, but the talk has been going on for well over 100 years. Even if boats and barges were appear again on the river, it is unlikely the ghost of Capt. Stiff will be able to see them.

The stories say that when the moon is full and the damp fog rolls in from the old river, you might see a figure silhouetted against the pale light of the night sky, hands clasped behind his back, pacing back and forth.

Looking from the grave of the old Cherokee’s Indian Principal Chief Pathkiller who died in 1827, one can glimpse from the corner of his/her eye a solitary headstone protruding from the brush, reading, “Captain Lafayette M. Stiff, Company C of the 6th Georgia Calvary.” 

Now one could understand why Pathkiller was not buried in the family Garrett cemetery plot – he wasn’t family and he was Cherokee. The Vagabond couldn’t figure out why Capt. Stiff wasn’t buried in the family plot. He wasn’t Cherokee, and if he wasn’t a family member, why he was buried there at all?

Well, it turns out that Captain Stiff did not receive a burial in a Christian-like manner. He was a great proponent of navigation and transportation on the Coosa River, and shortly before his death he requested that he be buried on the Coosa with his head facing the river, so that he could watch “the damned steam boats go by.” So in order that Stiff got a good view of the river, he was buried vertically, facing the Coosa River and close to the bluff. 

The Vagabond would guess the good captain rarely sees more than the occasional crappie fisherman now-a-days!