Legends of Old Greensboro

By Susie James

Written early 2002

TOMNOLEN -- Several miles north of this Webster County town lies the haunted landscape of Old Greensboro.

Take one fork of the road, and you pass a long embankment tipped off by a small Methodist church and what folks refer to as the new cemetery, though burials there are of Civil War vintage, according to Jody McCain Bailey, whose roots in this area go back several generations.

Go up that embankment toward the scrub and the woods, and you see a deepening in the ground marked by a scraggly bois d'arc tree. That's what's left of an old well, Bailey says. Union soldiers were killed during skirmishes at Greensboro during the Civil War and thrown into this well. At least that's what's been passed down.

Bailey would like to be able to plumb the old well - to fully explore Old Greensboro as an archaeological site. "If we could find remnants of the uniforms - buckles, buttons - that might be proof enough," Bailey said.

Oh, there have been numerous finds reported over the years, if not inside the well, around the site of the town, and the environs of the older cemetery, which is reached by taking a fork to the east off the road from Tomnolen before reaching the site of the town.

Neighbors plowing a field years ago found a leather pouch with coins in it, Bailey said.

His own father, Joe Bailey, who was born in 1931, found a brass door knob, a pistol, the double barrel of a flintlock long gun, for example. In a dried up watering hole near the Old Greensboro Cemetery, the elder Bailey found an odd metal implement obviously made by a frontier blacksmith, but for what use he can only wonder.

Greensboro was a violent, but thriving, frontier town that some would say drowned in blood finally around 1876. At the time of the Civil War it was the county seat of Choctaw County. After the legislature changed county boundaries in the 1870s, however, it wound up in Webster County.

Down Bailey Road to the Old Greensboro Cemetery, Bailey plunges through sagebrush, briars, scrub timber to locate the deep slash that was the old Greensboro to Bellefontaine Road, running southwest to northeast, connecting somewhere up there in the old days to the Natchez Trace.

About 20 years ago, Jody Bailey says, youths on horseback rode into the cemetery and roped some of the tall stones, pulling them over. There were stories of cult meetings in a clearing at one side of the overgrown tangle of the burying ground, rituals involving animal sacrifices.

Mingling with the DNA of the slaughtered animals is that of the human beings whose lives have been spilled into the soil around here over the centuries. Mingling it is also with the bodies of long ago settlers whose monuments still exist in the overgrown, neglected cemetery - such as old John Yates. Yates was born March 23, 1767 and died February 2, 1869.

Yates' epitaph is still readable: "There is rest for the weary."

At the far rim of that road, Bailey's father said, was the "hanging tree, an old oak with a limb extending over the road toward the cemetery. That's where they hanged Dr. Gray. There was a grass fire when I was a boy, and it burned then. It wasn't in good shape."

At least 23 people were killed within the city limits of Old Greensboro, historians have written.

That's probably in addition to three of the most famous killings in the town, which took place the night of November 24, 1861. That's when a mob broke into the jail over at the town and shot William Powell Gray and his brother, Robert Kennon Gray as their mother, pled for mercy. The mob took Dr. James Hervey Gray, another of her sons, and hanged him.

The Grays, whose parents Alexander and Martha Gray were early territorial pioneers who settled in the Old Greenville area of Carroll County, were being held in connection with feud-related killings. A couple of days earlier a powerful landowner and frontier judge, Edward Dewitt Edwards, Sr., and Luther Edwards, one of his sons were killed during a confrontation with the Grays.

Mary "Mollie" Gray, a sister of the murdered Gray men, had asked the help of her family in settling the estate of her husband, E. D. Edwards, Jr., who'd died of natural causes about a year earlier. That's what a pamphlet written by L. T. Howard of the Smith's Mills community of Carroll County shortly after the lynchings occurred maintains triggered the fatal encounter outside the house Mollie Gray had shared with her husband.

Lily Edwards Hardin, 71, a descendant of Judge Edwards and his wife, Lavicey Knight Edwards, says that her father, George Edward Edwards, did not like to talk about the feud.

"I wasn't told that much," Hardin said. "Daddy called it 'greed, greed, and overbearing people - the Grays - who needed more and were going to get more'."

She referred to an old time Webster County historian who is among several who have written of the Gray-Edwards feud.

"Oh, Nat McGarr and some others have written stories about it, trying to make out like it was the Edwardses' fault," Hardin said.

The judge, whose lands once included where the entire town of Eupora sits, Hardin recounts, sent his youngest daughter, Mary Ellen, to college in Grenada, where she met the Grays. She married Dr. James Hervey Gray - the Gray who was lynched from the tree near the Old Greensboro Cemetery.

"As he did all his children, as they were growing up, the judge settled some land with Mary Ellen," Hardin said. "He didn't settle as much on her as on some of the others because her husband's primary income wasn't going to be the land; it was going to be doctoring."

Hardin said the discord began simmering.

While the family has kept very good records from that time, Hardin said, she could not comment on the matter the Grays say created the bloody encounter as the Gray brothers tried to help their sister to remove her belongings from the home she had shared with her late husband.

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She does not know, Hardin said, about that - but the judge, she said, had almost lost his judgeship because he was teaching his slaves to read and write. He kept records of the slaves, their births, deaths, and marriages. "Four legal pages' worth," Hardin said. Slaves interceded in the attack at the home of Mollie Gray that day in 1861.

Gray descendants, such as Morris Poole IV of Hattiesburg suggest that Dewitt, Jr., was to be the primary inheritor of the plantation, as he had agreed to run the plantation. The judge had built this son and his Gray wife their own home. Yet well after Dewitt Jr.'s death the judge allegedly had not acted to properly settle the estate.

"Greed" - this was what Lily Hardin recalls her father saying was the cause of the killings.

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"The Grays," she said.

Martha Gray took away the bodies of her three murdered sons, blood dripping from the bottom of the wagon onto the road. They were buried at Mars Hill (Methodist) Cemetery, which lies in the Sweatman community of what is now Montgomery County.

In Carroll County a weathered, fine old country house still stands on a hill west of Gray's Creek, out from Old Greenville in Little Texas. It's used as a base for a hunting club these days, but there are old timers who know it as the Marmaduke Gray House and as such, linked to the people who were lynched at Old Greensboro that night. This Marmaduke Gray was a son of William Powell Gray.

On in the wilds past Old Greensboro lies Edwards Springs, where Judge Edwards and his slain son, Luther Edwards, are buried.

Not far away to the north are marshlands known as the Malachi Slash. The 30ish Jody Bailey says the slash is haunted. So are other sites in and around Old Greensboro.

Bailey was in high school, and he and a cousin, Albert McCain, were turkey hunting in the slash. It's called the "Malachi Slash" for an old man who used to live in a cabin out there, a fellow named Jim Malachi. It was off the Walthall to Winona Road.

"I heard a sound, 'hey!' like a loud whisper. Later, I heard it again, 'Hey, I'll kill you.' I heard it seven or eight times. Albert never heard it. The sound came from off to my right. Then the sound came from toward where the turkey was. It was early morning when we were hunting. There were boot prints in the leaves, I saw later, but nobody has ever admitted it was them."

Other stories exist from this era - stories recounting unexplained sounds and screams in the night from the vicinity of Old Greensboro.

Lily Hardin tells of bloodstains on the floors of withering plantation houses that co-existed with succeeding generations until at last the houses were no more.

As many Edwards descendants as there undoubtedly are, attendance at the annual family reunions, which are held at the VFW near Eupora each third Sunday in August, has dwindled in recent years, also, Hardin says.

Stories of the 1800s manage to survive. The truths of them likely will continue to be debated by generations to come.

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