John Bembry was the oldest son of Miles Bembry and Ann Bryan. Born about 1794 in Edgecombe County, he married a Marsha Wiggins. They first owned a small farm near his father, then moved to Leon County, Florida between 1825 and 1830. He is found there in 1830 living near his brother, Kenneth, on a small farm with 13 slaves.
In 1831, John Bembry allegedly murdered a distant cousin named Littleton Bryan. From the Florida Spectator, 22 July 1831:
The Governor of Florida offers $200 for one John Bembry, accused of stabbing to death Littleton Bryan; and the father offers $150, as a further reward, stating, at the same time, that the son was killed while protecting the rights and property of his father at Tallahassee.
Apparently, John went on the lam after this incident, because in 1835, Littleton’s father was still trying to bring him to justice. From the Tallahassee Floridian and Advocate 28 Aug 1835:
Five Hundred Dollars Reward
Whereas a most atrocious murder was committed upon the body of my son, LITTLETON BRYAN, on the 19th or 20th day of February, in the year 1831, by JOHN BEMBRY then a citizen of Florida. And, whereas, the Governor of the Territory of Florida did thereafter issue his Proclamation, offering a reward of $200 for the apprehension of said Bembry, in order that he might be brought to justice. And, whereas, the said John Bembry has not yet been apprehended, and is now lurking and concealing himself in the state of Georgia or Alabama. I hereby offer, besides the $200 offered by the Governor, the above reward of $500, to be paid to any person or persons who will apprehend the said Bembry and lodge him in the Leon County jail.
Said Bembry is about 5 feet 6 inches high, portly built, and rather chunky–dark skin and eyes, with a heavy down look, and a very dark and heavy beard. He will be drinking and frolicking wherever he can get liquor. He is about 40 years of age, and very unprincipled in his disposition. MOSES BRYAN
What happened to John Bembry after this point is a mystery. The 1841 court case over the division of Miles Bembry’s slaves mentions that John Bembry died before 1838. However, I can find no record of his death or imprisonment. Even if he had been hanged by a posse somewhere, it seems that it would have been noted in the newspapers. However, there are some clues.
A report called “Use of the Army in Certain Southern States” issued in 1876 mentions a John Bembry murdered on 11 April 1872 in in the third ward of New Orleans by persons unknown. I cannot place this John Bembry within our family tree, nor can I match him up with any other John Bembry that I can find on the census in 1870.
However, a search of New Orleans newspapers at that time results in a story about an unidentified 75 year old white man who was killed on April 10 and thrown into a canal at a location which appears to be at the northern end of the third ward. The remark that he was “apparently a foreigner” fits with the physical description in the wanted notice, above. And it is quite possible that the body was identified on the 11th, and so the murder was recorded on that date.
The 1835 wanted notice mentions that John Bembry was headed in the general direction of New Orleans, and that does seem a likely destination for a fugitive who liked to “frolick.” John may have gone to sea or worked on a riverboat out of New Orleans, or simply lived under an assumed name–old New Orleans was a good place to do that.
I think it is possible that John’s family claimed he was dead, but sent him west to keep him alive. After all, Miles did make special provisions for John’s children in the 1832 conveyance. The fact that John murdered a Bryan cousin may mean that there was some sort of family feud involved, and the Bembrys closed ranks to protect one of their own.
Of course, we will never know for sure!