Maybe He Just Needed Killin’

A couple of days ago, I heard about a website called Archive Grid on a podcast. As usual when I find a new archive, I ran a quick search for “Bembry,” because I can be pretty sure whatever comes up will relate to my family in some way. To my surprise, a letter from personal collection popped up that not only straightened out a small branch of the Bembry family tree, but offered a new perspective on the colorful John Bembry, brother to my ancestor, Thomas Bembry.

To recap: John Bembry killed a probable cousin named Littleton Bryan in 1831. Littleton’s father, Moses Bryan, pushed hard for John’s arrest, issuing a substantial reward for his capture, and placing wanted notices in several southern newspapers until as late as 1835. The Bembry family, however, appear to have closed ranks around John, who either assumed another identity and lived with his family for another two decades, or ran off to New Orleans (or both).

Since I last wrote about John Bembry, I had concluded that, aside from the Bryan connection through his mother, Nancy Bryan, John was likely related to Littleton Bryan by marriage. John’s oldest daughter, Martha Frances “Fanny” Bembry was married to Littleton’s younger brother, William Bryan.

A letter in the University of Alabama special collections archive written in 1975 by a great-granddaughter of William Bryan not only helped me straighten out details of Fanny’s life and family, but included a good story. Apparently, William Bryan also killed a man and had to go on the run. From the letter (read it in full here):

Family stories have it that William Thaddeus Bryan committed murder about the time that my grandfather John Alexander Bryan was an infant (b. 8 May 1839) and that Wm T. “ran” to Alabama and/or Texas, returning 6 years later. Grandpa Bryan didn’t know his father until he was six years old. Then they moved to Alabama, later to Texas—to Marshall (Harrison County) about 1852. Great-grandma was said to have died in Georgia and John had a full sister Sarah (Sally) and a half-sister, Mary.”

“I don’t know where the murder took place (my uncle said Ga. or Ala.) and I have tried to find information however in 1830 [this must mean the 1830s] in those parts, I don’t suppose records were kept. Apparently, the gory tale is that he was in a fight, the other man was on top and he slit the man’s abdomen with a knife (“disembowelment”). The sheriff was called, and the hot-tempered Bryan that he was, Wm. T. was not going to be taken. He gouged the lawman’s eyes out and left the county with the help of his brothers. Of course the story has been retold and whispered about etc. [and] it may not have been like that at all!”

Census records back up this story. There is a seven or eight year gap between the births of John Alexander Bryan, William’s oldest child, in 1839, and the next, Sarah “Sally” Bryan, also in Georgia in about 1847. That would be accounted for by William’s six-year absence. Other details also check out: for example, John’s 1909 Civil War pension application states that he moved to Texas in 1852.

On the 1860 census, there is a second daughter, “G.A,” born in Alabama in 1849 who I have not been able to trace. However, if “great-grandma” Fanny died in her early thirties, shortly after Sally’s birth in Georgia, that could have precipitated William’s move back to Alabama, perhaps to marry a woman he had met during his previous stay there. In which case “G.A.” would be the half-sister mentioned in the letter above. Unfortunately, I have not been able to locate the Bryan family on the 1850 census, but it would not surprise me if that second wife was named Mary, and that her name was later confused with that of her daughter. Whatever her name, this mystery wife apparently died after having just one child–which makes me wonder a bit about the “hot-tempered” William Bryan’s luck with wives.

How does this relate to John Bembry? Well, this is what I am thinking:

Even on the southern frontier, murders like this were not an everyday occurence. Yes, fights happened, but gouging out eyes? That is Quentin Tarantino-worthy. (And who would make that up?) Add to this the fact that Littleton Bryan also died in a knife fight, and you start to wonder about this particular Bryan family. They sound like pretty rough characters.

Fanny Bembry married William Bryan in 1830, when she was no more than fourteen or fifteen years old. In 1831, when Littleton was killed, she was no more than seventeen. Littleton’s murder occurred “while protecting the rights and property of his father,” so apparently while on Moses Bryan’s property. As William and Fanny were both young, they may have been living with Moses at that time. (The 1830 census for Moses Bryan does show a female aged 10-14 and a male aged 15-19 who could be the couple.) In any case, the two families lived very near each other: they are two pages apart on the census in the same enumeration district. So, Littleton certainly lived very near William and Fanny, and possibly in the same house.

Given all that, I ask myself, what would cause John Bembry, a man of some property, whose family was clearly striving for respectability, to kill a man?

One answer could be: in an attempt to protect his teenage daughter from assault–either by her husband or by her older brother in law.

This could also explain why, despite Moses Bryan’s considerable efforts and substantial reward money, and the fact that, as Samuel Andrew, a descendant pointed out, it would not have been difficult to locate John Bembry, he was apparently never arrested for the crime. From Andrew’s unpublished family history:

“…it seems incredible that that the Sheriff would have had trouble locating John Bembry anytime in 1831. He would have moved to south Georgia accompanied by a considerable entourage, including a wife and five children, several slaves, wagons loaded with plantation equipment and two millstones. Such a caravan could not easily have “stolen away in the night” as was represented in a Territorial Governor’s Proclamation published in a Florida newspaper of the day. Many Leon County people must have known where John Bembry went with his family….”

It certainly seems that few people in either Florida or Georgia had any interest in bringing John Bembry to justice.

Maybe, Littleton Bryan just “needed killin.”

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