Saturday, July 12, 2014


"The Prentiss of Georgia"

Considered a genius by everyone who heard him speak, Robert Augustus Beall, Jr.  a former Twiggs County lawyer, was enumerated among the most celebrated members of the Georgia bar during the first half of the 19th Century.  He was described by W.H. Sparks as "a genius of a higher nature," ambitious and partisan his beliefs.  

Robert Beall was born in Prince George County, Maryland on November 16, 1800. His parents removed to Georgia in 1808 and settled in Warren County during one of numerous migratory waves of which characterized the early decades of the 1800s.   When Robert was fifteen years old, his father sent him to North Carolina to attend a more challenging elementary school in Raleigh.  Upon reaching the end of his primary education, Beall returned to Georgia to study law under Judges Montgomery and Reid in Augusta.  Just after attaining the age of majority, Beall took the oath and was admitted to the bar of Superior Court and set out to practice law.

The enterprising Beall chose the burgeoning county of seat of Marion, Georgia to establish a meager law office.  Situated in the geographical center of the state in Twiggs County, Marion was an ideal location for the base of his practice in the surrounding courthouses in Central Georgia.  Beall formed a successful law partnership with Thaddeus Goode Holt.  When  Holt accepted an appointment as Judge of the Southern Circuit in 1824, Beall was appointed by Governor George M. Troup, of Laurens County, to the position Solicitor General of the circuit, which included the counties of Laurens, Montgomery, Pulaski, Telfair, Twiggs and Houston.  Beall served in that position for a short time, from December 23, 1824 until the first of the following summer.

A challenge, a common occurrence when political opinions clashed in those days, arose between Beall and Thomas D. Mitchell, who had succeeded Beall's successor James Bethune in November 1825 as Solicitor General.  The affair arose when disparaging comments were made at the dinner table of Martin Hardin, Esquire.  The combatants, through their duly appointed agents, arranged a duel on the Carolina side of the Savannah River, opposite the city of Augusta, where such duels were allowed.  Dr. Ambrose Baber, a former Laurens County physician and a resident of the new town of Macon, was standing by to tend to any wounds Beall might suffer.   Two shots were fired. Neither struck their intended targets.  Major Pace mediated the dispute and the men went home, much to the delight of their friends and family.  Thomas Mitchell's volatile temper led to another duel. A year after his abruptly ended gunfight with Beall, Mitchell lay dying on the dueling ground, the result of a well-placed pistol ball in his abdomen. 

Though dueling was frowned upon as a means of settling disputes, Beall enjoyed a renewed admiration for standing up for his beliefs.  Supporters of the Troup party encouraged the twenty five-year-old Beall to offer himself as a candidate for a seat in the Georgia House of Representatives.  The Clark party candidate managed to win the election over Beall, though only by a small margin of votes.    When Moses Fort resigned his seat in the House, Beall, a Major in the Georgia Militia, once again competed for the post.  He won the election, defeating Robert Glenn, the county's most ardent Clark party member.   Beall's eloquent orations drew the admiration of the members of the House and the audience of the gallery.  He was modest and self respecting, courteous in debate and extremely affable in his manner.  A larger majority of the voters of Twiggs County reelected him in the election of the fall of 1826 in his last House election contest.

Rep. Beall represented his friend Judge Moses Fort before a  committee hearing in the House of Representatives.  Col. Joseph Blackshear, of Laurens County, had charged the judge with irregularities in the handling of his case against Archibald Ridley and his wife byt the estate of his brother, Joseph Blackshear.  The Blackshear vs. Ridley case was one of Laurens County's most celebrated cases ever, drawing the most prominent and highly paid squads of attorneys as could be employed with the fruits of the Blackshear's fortunes.  Though a rebuke was passed by the house, it failed for the lack of a necessary majority in the Senate.

Beall developed a friendship and working relationship with Stephen F. Miller, another prominent attorney of the county.  He was the author of "Bench and Bar of Georgia," a landmark biographical work on the early lawyers of Georgia.  In 1828 Beall lost his  passionately sought after election for Brigadier General of the Georgia Militia, to Lott Warren, of Laurens County.   Beall married Caroline Smith, daughter of the wealthy Richard Smith of Twiggs County.  After the marriage, Beall entered into a partnership with Miller and returned to the private practice.

Governor George Gilmer appointed Beall to his staff of aides-de-camp in 1830 and continued his service as a Lt. Colonel in the Georgia Militia, which continued to train in defense of the state.  In the winter of 1832, Col. Beall moved to Macon, which had become the commercial center of the western regions of Georgia.  He purchased an interest in the local newspaper, The Georgia Messenger, and began proclaiming his staunch opinions of the national issues of the day as the paper's chief editor.    His beliefs were warmly accepted by members of the State Rights party, who encouraged him to run against Gen. Glascock for a vacancy in the national House of Representatives.  Beall lost by a slim margin in a bitterly contested vote.    Beall continued to represent the voters of his district in the Anti-Tariff Convention of 1832 and the State Rights Convention of 1833.  When Macon's Wesleyan College became the world's first chartered university for women in 1835, Beall was named one of its first trustees.   

Though hailed as a brilliant orator and a man without fear, Beall never enjoyed perfect health. Prone to debilitating and often severe attacks of colic, Beall frequently was prevented from his attendance in court and military functions.  Near the end of his all too short life, Beall joined the Methodist Episcopal Church in Macon.  He was dying.  By the spring of 1836, when his friends and fellow citizens of Bibb and Twiggs County were off to war with the Indians and southwestern Georgia and the pernicious Mexicans in the Republic of Texas, his will to life succumbed to his mortal illness.   

Robert Beall lingered for months and died in his sleep on July 16, 1836 at the age of thirty-five. His dedicated life of public service had come to an end.  Honors were bestowed upon the memory of this man, possessing gifts of extraordinary talent and marked character.  In summing up Beall's character, Sparks wrote, "he was man of rare genius, ardent in his temperament and fearlessly brave, and of course had positive friends and implacable enemies."


The Wizard of Air

It would do you no good at all to dare “Bugs” McGowan to do something dangerous, especially if it involved anything around an airplane.  The Dublin, Georgia born, Quitman, Georgia raised, daredevil spent the last four years of his life staring death in the face as he performed perilous stunts for hundreds of thousands of people.  In the years following World War I,  McGowan’s death defying deeds brought him national fame.  And, in the end, it was one of those death defying deeds, which killed him at the tender age of twenty-one.

Louie “Bugs” McGowan was born in Dublin, Georgia on January 15, 1902.  His parents, Samuel Edward McGowan and Mary Florence Dunham,  moved the family to Quitman, Georgia before 1910.

“I succeeded in getting in the Army and was shipped to San Antonio, said “Bugs,” who, at the age of 15,  joined the Army as a mechanic in December 1917.  Somewhat of a washout and misfit, “Bugs” was stationed in Long Island, where he witnessed an air tournament.  He tried to get permission to do a parachute drop. Undeterred by his commander’s refusal to allow him to jump, Bugs decided then and there that he would make a career of  jumping out of airplanes and  walking or hanging on their wings.

After his discharge from the Army after the end of World War I,  McGowan returned near to his South Georgia home, reenlisting in the Army at Souther Field in Americus.

“Soon after my arrival there, they were preparing for an aerial circus, but I, being in the guard house for taking a joy ride on a motorcycle without permission, was unable to obtain permission to do any thing,” McGowan lamented.

One day, a fellow soldier chickened out.  Desperate to find a willing replacement to do a near foolish stunt, an officer came to the guard house.  The officer was amenable to pardoning McGowan if he would perform a stunt.

“I agreed to it and this was the first parachute jump.  I was little frightened, but I got there safely,” McGowan told a reporter for the Augusta Chronicle in a 1922 interview.

McGowan joined A.B. McMullen, who had served with him during his Army days, to form Bug’s McGowan’s Flying Circus.  The duo demonstrated how to walk on the wings of biplanes, jump from one plane to another and all other sorts of deadly daring feats.

McGowan and “Flying Farmer” McMullen, of Americus,  joined forces with a young dynamic twenty-year-old female, Mabel Cody to form “Mabel Cody’s Flying Circus”   The niece of the famed western showman, Buffalo Bill Cody, Mabel, was an instant star.  The trio became fan favorites, playing to crowds along the east coast of Florida and in the bigger cities of Atlanta, Augusta, Macon and Charleston, often doing charitable performances to benefit sick children.

“I never feel the least fear when changing from one plane to the other, wing walking or doing the parachute stunt, said McGowan, who admitted, “While the parachute stunt is the simplest, at the same time, it is the most dangerous.”

One of the most popular stunts called for a stuntman to climb out of the back of a car as it was speeding down a sandy Florida beach up a ladder into an airplane traveling above at the same speed.  McGowan perfected the trick and taught Mabel how to do the maneuver, making her the first woman in the world to accomplish the daring feat.  The duo often worked together in an act they billed as “The Dance of Death.”

The intrepid McGowan was always thinking of new daredevil tricks, trying new parachutes which allowed him to leave the plane at a lower altitude.  McGowan thrilled the crowds by leaping from one plane to another, then doing a series of acrobatic stunts by hanging by his knees from the wings and sometimes by his toes.

Such was the case on an autumn Sunday afternoon at an air show near Augusta, when 50,000 people showed up to watch the “Daredevil of Daredevils” performing his trick of jumping out a plane, plummeting and somersaulting downward, pulling his parachute just in the nick of time to land on the wing of another plane.

“The youngster is absolutely devoid of any fear,” wrote an Augusta Chronicle writer, despite the fact that many of his fellow aerialists, including his mentor, Lt. Omer Locklear, died during their stunts.

“Never in history has a man reproduced the performance of McGowan, the protege of that once much-feted pilot,” wrote the Miami Herald.

In speaking of his new parachute, Bugs commented, “If it works satisfactorily it is designed to make flying more safe.  If it doesn’t work, then its hard luck for Bugs McGowan.”

In the spring of 1923, McGowan made a return trip to Macon.  He worked with Jimmy Calhoun, who also hailed from Dublin. Calhoun, who was born in 1904, was regarded as one of the top parachute jumpers in the country.  Calhoun, when he was only 22 years old,  plummeted to his death during a jump at Lakewood Park in Atlanta in August 1926.

“Bugs” McGowan woke up on the morning of July 4, 1923, kissed his wife goodbye and headed out to the State Fair in Isle of Palms, South Carolina.  It was four years to the day that he first jumped out of an airplane back in Souther Field.

When his teammate decided to opt out of the stunt that Independence Day, “Bugs” decided to go it alone.  The precarious exploit involved the pilot setting the plane on fire and jumping out at the last possible moment.  Smiles beamed from McGowan’s face as he took off in front of a waving, cheering crowd.

When they found “Bugs,” he was still smiling, sitting in the cockpit, his lifeless hands wrapped around the  broken lever controls after he vainly attempted to make yet another good landing.

“Bugs McGowan” was laid to rest in Oak Hill Cemetery near Quitman.  As his eyes scan the heavens, he still smiles and thinks of those grand days long ago,  when he was the “Wizard of Air*,” as he soared like an eagle in the boundless skies.

* McGowan was named the “Wizard of Air” by the Miami Herald long before another Souther Field pilot, Charles Lindbergh earned the name, “Wizard of the Air.”