Saturday, February 14, 2009

1887 Voodoo Murders in Milledgeville, or Were They?

This story comes from Hugh Harrington's "Remembering Milledgeville" available from History Press ( and published in 2005.

In 1887, in Baldwin County near Milledgeville, a family of eleven were dead or deathly ill after they enjoyed a meal together. The father, John Harris, together with his wife and nine children all became sick after eating a meal together. Before dying, they became so sick that they were unconscious. A local physician, druggist, and college professor were called to the scene. They examined the bodies, and immediately posion was suspected.

According to Harrington, "The story gets even more interesting as it was said that John Harris had a dispute with his brother-in-law, Jim Bonner." It was said that Jim Bonner was a "practitioner of voodoo." It was reported that Jim Bonner said that since John Harris did not believe in voodoo and its power, that his whole family would meet the grim reaper within one month. After the death of four of his children and his wife, John Harris became quite ill, a maniac, according to Harrington. He was thrown in the State Lunatic Asylum.

Jim Bonner was arrested by local police upon suspicion for murder. Rumor had it that he was a practitioner of voodoo, using medicinal plants and roots that he gathered in nearby swamps and such. Although he was kept in jail for a time, he had to be released because there was no real evidence against him. He and his wife eventually left Milledgeville and went to Putnam County. After a few days at the asylum, John Harris died in convulsions. The stomach of Mrs. Harris had been sent to Athens to be examined for possible poisoning. However, there was no evidence of poison, and the results of the examination did nothing to solve the mystery. The possibility of spoiled food was mentioned, but no proof offered.

Noone knows for sure what killed John Harris, his wife, and four of his children. As Hugh Harrington writes in his book, "Bonner may have been entirely innocent or perhaps he had committted the perfect crime through the use of voodoo. Who can say for sure?"

This is a very interesting story. I find it very odd that so many of the family died around the same time after eating the same meal. Wouldn't their mother and father be smart enough to have spotted spoiled food before they ate it? Who knows? But this case is very weird. Was it the work of a voodoo doctor, or just pure coincidence?

I highly encourage buying a copy of "Remembering Milledgeville." There are quite a few stories in the book about murders and other local mysteries from Milledgeville and Baldwin County. You can also check out Hugh and his wife's work that they have done out at Memory Hill Cemetery in downtown Milledgeville. (or nearby, rather)


Caprice said...

Hey Prof!
This was also interesting.
I just cannot shake the belief that voodoo is only psychological-it relies on the victim believing in the specified curse and drugs. I read this and my "knee jerk" response is that Bonner put a poison in their food that was not detectable in 1887.
I find it hard to grasp that anyone could take out a WHOLE family - maybe Bonner was just wanting to make them very sick and accidentally killed them?

The Professor said...

That could very well be what happened. I think it might have been poison as well. But I am not as familiar with that story as Hugh Harrington. He is the author of the series of books on Milledgeville history.

He is going to be helping me conduct my tour of Milledgeville for my Georgia history class next quarter. We will be visiting the Governor's Mansion, the old state capital building, Memory Hill Cemetery, Fort Wilkinson and some other neat places. I will ask him if he can tell me a bit more when we conduct the tour.

Caprice said...

You do the coolest stuff!
Have you been to Memory Hill Cemetery before? I bet Milledgeville is a neat old town. What's it like?
Something else that struck me about the Voodoo story was that they would even suspect Voodoo was responsible for their deaths. Was that common? Was Voodoo blamed alot in the past?

The Professor said...

That struck me as odd too. Here in the South (Bible Belt), one would think that Voodoo would not be the immediate source thought of for such an event. Perhaps the devil or demons, but not voodoo. I have never really run in to a lot of cases here in the South where voodoo was said to be a possibility. I, like you, side with poisoning. But who knows?

Yes, I have been to Memory Hill several times. Hugh Harrington, the author of the series on Milledgeville history gave me a tour the last time I was down there. It is one of my favorite cemeteries in Georgia. There are quite a few interesting people buried there including Flannery Oconnor, Congressman Carl Vinson, and Dixie Haygood, also known as Annie Abbott. Hugh and his wife are writing a book on her. She is oftentimes accused of being a witch, which she was not. Hugh and his wife wrote a great article on her in the Georgia Historical Quarterly. I think it was back in 2002. I read it the other day at the Geneaological Society research center here in McDonough. They have back issues of the Quarterly. She was quite an interesting character. Perhaps I should put a blog up about her too.

Caprice said...

Hey Prof!
Yes, I think you should blog her...
I at least would be interested.

Signe said...

This is very fascinating! Thanks for sharing this with us.