The Life & Times of Grandison Harris:

Episode V: My Life in Augusta


by Terence L. Johnson

Former Professor, African and African American History

Former Field Archivist

United States


Link for Citation Purposes:


Author's Note: The following story is based on accounts of real events from various newspaper and journal articles. Many scenes in this story have been dramatized with fictional accounts.  Whenever possible, every attempt has been made to maintain the integrity of the events as they have been reported.


A report was current in the city yesterday morning that William Boyce, a negro, had died at Mr. Dennis Hallahan’s brickyard, and that his death had been caused by bad treatment and whippings. It created considerable talk and especially got up a stir among us coloreds.


Said John B. Chew, the brother of Boyce, to Coroner Kunze, “I have the honor respectfully to request that an examination be had of the body of my brother, who, it is alleged, died this morning from a congestive chill, but whose external appearance seems to indicate that he died by violence at the hands of Dennis Hallahan, by whom the deceased, William Boyce, was detained.”


Yielding to this request, a jury was summoned, and Coroner Kunze held an inquest over the body of the convict, Boyce, yesterday afternoon. The corpse having been brought in from the brickyard and laid out in a house on Pig Tail Alley, between Cumming and Kollock Streets. The testimony elicited at the investigation was as follows:


At the inquest, Bradford T. Olive, a white man, sworn in said, “I am a guard at Hallahan's.  When sober l am not excitable or of a violent temper. My previous troubles were always caused by liquor. I drank some while at Mr. Hallahan’s. Only got drunk once and then by Mr. Hallahan’s orders I quit duty. I have been in prison twice. The first time I was convicted of an assault with intent to commit murder. The second time I was charged with stabbing and pled guilty to a minor offense. When I have liquor, I get excited. Sometimes I don’t take a drink for 2 or 3 weeks or more. When drinking I am violent. I am Mr. Hallahan’s oldest guard. I am paid $37 per month.


Regarding the work that type of paid work from white labor along with Negro conflicts provide under Mr. Hallahan, Olive went on to add,


“The task for a moulder is 7,000 a day. For the first day or two they do what they can, then they are given 900 to mould, then 1,200, then 1,500, gradually rising to 7,000. In the course of about a month, the full task is required. Some do the task and some do not according to competency. The longest time allowed to molders to get to full task completed is about a month. Sometimes when they have no capacity they are put at something else. Task for moulders is 6,000. We give them a week to work up to the full task. The task for bearing off is for three to bear off seven hundred after they get broken in. We generally put one new hand with two old ones. They learn easier. In the short days we dropped off the moulder’s work. In Winter the convicts worked in the clay hole and in delivering brick, and on the county roads.”


Then Bradford T. Olive went on to confess to the court:


“I have whipped convicts with the strap and with switches. Whipped them for not doing work right. They are often idle and careless. Sometimes they are whipped for breaking the rules. There are no regular rules announced. Mr. Hallahan sometimes gives a new order. The prisoners are not notified of changes in the rules or orders that I know of. I have whipped with two or three switches. Never with more. Never with canes. I have whipped when Mr. Hallahan was not there. My instructions were to whip when necessary.”


Mr. Olive looked down and then turned and looked directly at the Jury.   Then he explained the system of corporal punishment in which a man would have to walk or run between men who would try and beat them with sticks or other weapons.


           “Very often I have overlooked non-performance of tasks. I sheltered them all I could. When prisoners were working county roads I never struck a lick. When they were digging in clay pits I would give them a chance to catch up with their work. If they didn’t, I would report them to Mr. Hallahan, and he would whip them. Almost every day someone was whipped with switches. Sometimes there would be a week in which none would run the gauntlet. Then two or three would be punished in one night. Ten or fifteen, sometimes twenty, boys were engaged in punishing convicts by running the gauntlet. When one of them would keep missing the prisoner, he himself would be run through once or twice.”


Mr. Olive told the Jury about the case of John Bowe. 


I remember John Bowe. I whipped him once with a strap. I bucked him and made him drop his pants. I gave him 25 or 30 blows, not more I think. I didn’t consider it a severe whipping; it appeared afterward to have been severe. It blistered the skin afterwards. He had more favors shown him than any of the other prisoners. He was fed from Mr. Hallahan’s table. A day or so before I whipped him I saw he was dodging his work. He was told to put wood in the furnace. He didn’t do it well—dodged around, and didn’t attend to his work.”


Mr. Olive gave a smirk.  His hands started to tremble. He looked at the judge and then to the jury with his small red colored eyes.


“One Sunday I cut a white woman’s hair. There were vermin. I didn’t examine her hair. Mr. Hallahan ordered me to cut the hair of all who had long hair. Her hair was tolerably long, not heavy, but dirty and hanging in strings. She was then working at the house. The order was issued the day I cut her hair. Her hair was straight, not kinky. The prisoners were not notified of changes in the rules that I know of. She was a washerwoman in Mr. Hallahan’s family. I don’t know that she had vermin on her. I never saw her whipped with the strap. I heard she was. I suppose Mr. Hallahan did it. I was not prejudiced against her because she had negro children. 1 didn’t cut her fingers intentionally. When I was cutting her hair she resisted and threw up her hands. I made two hold her and I cut it, she put her hand up and in that way her fingers got cut. I believe her name was Sarah Williams.”


Concerning the Negro that died, Mr. Olive confessed:


“Last Friday Boyce came to my side of the yard and said he was broken down; he asked to go in the ditch and wash off; did so and went back under the shed; I was on duty at the barracks Sunday; his brother came in the afternoon and sent some refreshments to him. Rutledge Wilson, who waits on the sick, asked Mr. Hallahan if it would hurt Lowe (alias Boyce) to eat watermelon; Hallahan said he didn’t think it would; when I locked up the convicts (that night), they had to tote Lowe into the house ; I saw him no more till this morning; William Johnson, the night watchman, hollowed to me and said he believed Lowe was dead. I and two men went in; he was dying; Mr. Hallahan has physicians to attend bad cases; didn’t consider this a bad case; saw Mr. Bettsell whip Boyce with some little switches last Tuesday or Wednesday; can’t account for the bruises on his person; never knew him to receive but the one whipping; didn’t consider that severe; it was Thursday or Friday that he complained about giving way in his knees.”


Dr. Edw. Geddings was then sworn in.  He testified by saying: “I have just examined the body carefully; I find no signs of violence whatever about the head or neck; on the upper portion of the chest there are several small marks made by a sharp instrument not penetrating the skin and already partially healed; I should deem them about a week old; on the back there are parallel marks inflicted by a small lash or switch; these lashes are apparently four or five days old; about the knees and legs are several recent bruises; in my opinion the marks about the body do not warrant the assumption that he died from violence; I therefore do not deem it necessary to open the body.”


Then came the testimony of John L. Chew who stated, “I am the brother of the deceased; I heard he was sick; he sent me word to carry him a watermelon and some ice; I carried them yesterday; 1 didn’t see him; I saw him bruised up so, I wanted to know the cause of it before I buried him; he had been over two months at the brickyard.”


Frank Smyth, a foreman reported: “Boyce had been sick with chills, and by this disease had become reduced in physical strength. On Sunday his brother brought him a watermelon and some ice, both of which he used, and in his state of health both were vastly injurious. The inevitable result of eating watermelon and drinking copiously of ice water, under the circumstances, was inflammation of the bowels and consequent congestion, and it was undoubtedly the latter which was the immediate cause of Boyce’s death.”


The jury found that the deceased came to his death from providential causes, and not from violence.


The negroes in Augusta were not satisfied with the inquisition and the verdict, insisting against all the facts and evidence in the matter that Boyce had been whipped to death. The negroes believed that the whites considered them as near kinship to monkeys.


The colored men and women had not been idle.  I saw in the morning papers that some of the colored people had threatened to attack Mr. Hallahan and liberate the convicts under his charge. The white people told the colored citizens: “Any action of the kind alleged would be in direct violation of the law, and would result in injury to you without accomplishing any good. Obey and respect the laws of your State, and show yourselves to be good and law abiding citizens. In the meantime, let all keep cool, and refrain from the slightest infraction of the law.”


All heads did not keep cool.  In a short time, groups of Negroes gathered about the outskirts of the city and in the new territory, and threats were openly uttered that they intended to liberate the county convicts and attack Mr. Hallahan in his residence. As a consequence of these threats, it was deemed best to provide against any violence. A detachment of the Richmond Hussars, about twenty-five men, fully armed, proceeded to Mr. Hallahan’s, last evening and remained on duty during the night. The Irish Volunteers held themselves in readiness to move at a moment’s notice. A number of Mr. Hallahan’s friends offered their services to him in the evening. Ample preparations were made to repel the force.


In the coming decades, Augusta and the surrounding towns and cities would later see a great many more disturbances on matters concerning race.



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