The Vagabond: A pair of unhinged strangers in early Gadsden

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By Danny Crownover

Former City of Gadsden police captain Will W. Thornton had a very vivid recollection of one of his most exciting assignments, which was that of subduing an armed and apparently crazy man who created no end of excitement in December of 1898 while holding up the Rome & Decatur passenger train from Rome, Ga., just as it was leaving the Gadsden station for Attalla.

It seemed that a passenger with a double-barreled shotgun in one hand and a pistol in the other stood up in the smoking car of the train. He announced that the train was being robbed and would go no farther. In a few seconds, the poor fellow had the car to himself.

Thinking the passenger was afflicted with a good case of “the monkey,” train conductor Joe Williams attempted to disarm him. The stranger resisted, and the train was stopped at Ninth Street. The stranger flaunted his guns so threateningly and raved so much that it was decided that he really was crazy. Williams held the train for 30 minutes but found that it was impossible to overpower and disarm the man.

A call for assistance finally reached police headquarters. Thornton, who was at the time a patrolman, and patrolman James Austin responded. By the time they reached the train, however, the crazed passenger had grown tired of being quarantined in the coach and had started back to town. The officers learned that he had traveled east on Forrest Ave-nue, flourishing his guns menacingly and declaring that he wanted protection.

One passenger in an interview with local newspaper said, “I was sitting a few seats from the door, smoking a cigar and discussing the price of putty. When I saw that fellow’s eyes and his guns pointing at everybody, I thought of the Spaniards who were warring with this country and knew there was blood on the moon. He was looking straight at me and was only a few steps from the door. I got out in a second, but it seemed like two hours. I could feel the bullets thumping me in the back and thought of everything I had ever done to deserve such a fate. When he didn’t shoot, I knew he was just taking good aim. When I got through that door, I was so sure that he had shot me that I took off my overcoat to see if it didn’t look like a sifter.”

Residents along the route were badly frightened and barred their doors. The stranger stopped everybody he met, and everybody agreed with him on everything he said. There was no doubt that he was determined to convince everybody to his way of thinking.

The stranger finally reached the Herzberg corner at Fourth and Broad streets, and it was there that officer Thornton caught up with him and subdued him after a terrific struggle. It took three men to haul the stranger off to the jail. During all this time he was calling for help.

That night the stranger took a notion that that he was to be hanged, and his cries disturbed the whole town. His condition remained unchanged the next day, but on the following day the stranger’s mind began to clear and he soon was released.

The stranger appeared to be from Kings Mountain, North Carolina. A letter found in his pocket indicated that he had a brother living in Rainsville. The stranger’s relatives finally came and took him away. Nothing was ever heard of him again, and as far as local authorities were concerned, they were certainly glad to be rid of him. Thornton said that it was one of the most exciting experiences he ever had, and he had plenty of them.

On May 3, 1910, a demented stranger was found wandering aimlessly on Lookout Mountain. He was unable to tell his place of residence or give any definite information that would lead to the whereabouts of any relatives. He was found wandering along the public road one day and an effort was made to bring him to town. This effort failed, but the next day he was forcibly brought to the county jail. He was hopelessly demented and unable to give any information concerning himself, his relatives or his home.

The stranger spoke of Cave Springs. Ga., and of Oklahoma and said that he had been making a crop with Ed Anderson and that he had worked at Butler’s sawmill.

The stranger died at 2 p.m. that day at the county jail and was buried the following day at the county farm.

Local authorities were never able to find anybody that knew this stranger. It was thought that he was in the last stages of Bright’s disease and was given the best of medical attention.

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