Mitch Huling and John Clements: The shooting in Columbus

It wasn’t quite like an Old West showdown, but it was close.

Police chief Mitch Huling and bailiff John Clements both were known around Columbus, Ga. as men of strong opinions and obstinate natures. Huling, physically small, but unyielding, had displayed a dogged commitment to stopping illegal liquor; Clements, tough, considered an expert pistol shot, was reputed to make his living dealing booze.

Animosity had been building between them for nearly a year. It reached its peak about 2 o’clock in the afternoon on September 9, 1922.

Clements was standing in front of White’s Book Store, on 12th Street between First and Broad, talking to a county police officer. Suddenly, Huling appeared on the sidewalk in front of him. The two men exchanged words, and then the shooting started.

Six, maybe seven shots, fired in rapid succession.

The exact sequence of events – how it happened, who drew first – never was made completely clear. But when it was over, one man lay dying, and the other was charged with murder.

The shooting, and the trial that followed, would become part of Columbus history.

A city changes....

Looking back now, it seems inevitable that someone would get killed before that year was out.

Columbus was going through what you might call growing pains in 1922.

The city had turned into one of the largest in the state by then, its economy driven by profitable textile mills and ironworks, left over from an explosion of industry during the Civil War, and by new businesses like Tom’s Toasted Peanuts and Chero-Cola, the predecessor of RC Cola. The mayor had even convinced the U.S. Army to open an infantry training center, Ft. Benning, on the outskirts of town.

Columbus was making progress in local politics, too.

The Women’s Christian Temperance Union had formed to push the idea of Prohibition nationally, and Georgia became one of the group’s earliest successes when it banned liquor in 1908. That done, the WCTU and similar organizations had moved on to women’s suffrage, winning the right for women to vote in 1920 with the passage of the 19th Amendment.

The WCTU was active and powerful in Columbus, and when a movement started in the city to shift to a commission-city manager form of government, the group gave its support.

At the time, Columbus had 16 aldermen, plus a mayor, each supported by a committee scrapping for a share of the city budget. The new system would consolidate leadership into a much smaller and ideally more cohesive commission, while the city manager would take charge of the funds, giving the city better control of its spending.

The measure had broad support among city residents and was approved by state lawmakers. In 1922, a newly elected city commission of five people moved into City Hall. Among them was Anna Griffin, a long-time champion of suffrage and the sister of Theresa Griffin, who headed the local chapter of the WCTU.

Commissioner J. Homer Dimon was selected as mayor, and the city hired Gordon Hinkle, of Altoona, Penn., to become the city manager. Hinkle had extensive experience in business matters, and was expected to quickly set the city’s finances right.

...and the tensions grow

But all the growth and changes in Columbus, part of Muscogee County, also brought trouble.

While the textile mill owners were doing well, the mill workers felt they were not. They had started trying to organize into union shops in Columbus. Just three years earlier, a battle had broken out between organizers and anti-union factions during a rally. One person was shot and killed, and several others were wounded.

The Ku Klux Klan was also seeing a resurgence in membership, perhaps in response to growing numbers of blacks moving into communities they considered their own domains. By the mid-20s, Klan membership in Georgia would be at its peak, and Julian Harris, editor of the Columbus Enquirer-Sun would win a Pulitzer Prize for exposing their activities.

Prohibition also presented a constant conflict between the teetotalers and the imbibers. Blind tigers – liquor joints that charged an entrance fee to look at a stuffed tiger, and then served “free” drinks – were flourishing in Muscogee County, often with the help of local law enforcement.

And the political changes implemented in Columbus city government had uprooted the old establishment and cut off the flow of easy money. Those who no longer were in power, or who had lost their city jobs, were bitter and resentful.

Hinkle, especially, was not well-received because he was an outsider, and from the North, while many felt a local man should have been chosen for the job. And while he had the necessary business acumen to run the city, he was abrasive in dealing with city employees. Plus, he drew the biggest salary on the city payroll.

A loose group of the men who’d lost office in the shake-up, local hoods and the KKK began to lob threats against City Hall and Hinkle, in particular.

Get out of town

While walking on 12th Street one night in May, Hinkle was attacked by several men who warned him to leave Columbus. He managed to escape without serious injuries.

A few weeks later, someone tossed a bomb onto the porch of Mayor Dimon’s home on Third Avenue. The porch was destroyed, and the house damaged, but again, no one was badly hurt.

Rewards totaling several thousand dollars were offered for information leading to the arrest of the bombers. They yielded little information. Aside from a couple of soldiers who apparently furnished the dynamite for the bomb, no one was ever arrested.

Sometime that spring, the shadowy attackers held a midnight meeting in a city cemetery lot, apparently to discuss blowing up other buildings around town, including some owned by Dimon. He heard about the meeting and made it public, which helped to quiet down the opposition for a while.

But Hinkle had enough. He quit his job and left town without notice at the end of May. He also sent a letter to the local newspaper alleging that the city commission repeatedly ignored his requests to “clean house.” The commission responded by passing a resolution denying his claim and declaring his office vacant.

Meanwhile, Huling was still in his first year as chief of the county police. He had been hired after failing to win re-election for a fourth term as sheriff of neighboring Harris County, and was the head of Muscogee’s prohibition enforcement squad. His son, Hadley, worked for him.

Huling was well-known for smashing stills, shutting down blind tigers and arresting bootleggers. The New York Times reported in May 1922 that he had "Waged relentless warfare on botleggers and blind tigers" as sheriff.  A history of Columbus published in the late ’20s described him as “almost a hero” to the local Women’s Christian Temperance Union. But his popularity apparently didn’t extend to everyone.

In late May, about a week after Hinkle left, the chairman of the county commission received an anonymous letter. It ordered Huling to leave town, and threatened that his home would be bombed if he did not. A sheriff’s deputy received a similar letter, warning that he should stop busting illegal stills.

Huling ignored the order. When asked by the local press, he acknowledged the threat and announced his home address to be printed in the paper telling the reporters “ I'm not hard to find”.

Bad blood with Clements

Clements had a reputation for ignoring the state and national liquor laws.

At one time, he had been a county police officer, but he was fired by the county commission, apparently over his involvement with illegal booze. The word was that he went on to set up a blind tiger of his own, using his new position as a bailiff for cover.

Huling already had arrested him on liquor violations the year before. About the end of August 1922, the chief got him again.

Anna Griffin sent Huling to check out a report of alcohol at Clements’ home. Clements refused to let Huling and his county officers in, saying his wife and two-year-old adopted son were in bed. If they tried to enter, it would be at their own risk, he told them.

He held them at bay from 10 p.m. to 3 a.m., then let them in to search. Officers found no liquor, just empty bottles smelling of booze. However, one officer said he had looked into a window and watched Clements emptying bottles into the sink.

Clements was arrested and ordered held by a city court on $350 bond. His wife admitted in court the day after the raid that most of the bottles had contained wine, except for one that held whiskey for her. The admission made it into the local paper. Clements was furious. He felt his wife had been humiliated and insulted.

He reportedly threatened to kill Huling.

Gunfire on 12th Street

It was a Saturday afternoon.

Clements stood on the sidewalk, talking to county police officer Owen Johnson. They were joined by Mitch and Hadley Huling.

Eyewitnesses told different stories about what happened next, but they were consistent on at least one point. The shooting started, and Clements ran from the Hulings toward the nearby Bonita Theater, while both chased after him with guns in hand.

Some witnesses said Hadley was firing, others said it was just his father. Herbert Bynum, who worked the door at the theater, said he saw both men shooting at Clements.

The bailiff, wounded multiple times, collapsed to the sidewalk in front of the theater doors. Dr. R.B. McCann, a visitor from Alabama, and other bystanders helped pick him up and place him in a Kinnett Ice Cream Company truck for the drive to the hospital.

When they lifted him, his cocked pistol fell to the sidewalk and went off. The bullet struck a military policeman from Ft. Benning in the leg as he passed by the scene.

Clements died at the hospital three hours later. He had at least six .38 caliber gunshot wounds, including one that broke his right wrist and grazed his head; one that entered his stomach; one that entered his back; and possibly three that entered his chest.

A dying declaration

J.E. Brooks, his partner in the real estate business, said later that Clements made a statement to him before dying. The bailiff was reported to have repeated that statement to Solicitor Frank McLaughlin, who apparently was the local prosecutor.

According to Brooks, Clements said he had just left his wife at the Third National Bank at the corner of 12th Street and Broad Avenue and was walking to the drugstore on 12th, where he planned to have a cold drink with Judge H.K. Gammon.

He stopped to talk to Owen Johnson, a county police officer, while the judge went on to the drugstore. Clements asked Johnson why he wasn’t with the other officers who had raided his home a few nights before, and Johnson said he had been sick. Clements told him that all the officers had been nice except Huling and another officer named Mahoney.

About that time, Mitch and Hadley Huling approached him, and the chief ordered him to put up his hands. Mitch Huling immediately fired the first shot, the bullet that entered his wrist. He turned to avoid the bullets and draw his own gun. As he began to run, Hadley Huling shot him in the back, according to Clements’ second-hand statement.

Officer Owens grabbed the chiefs gun as soon as the shooting stopped. Through a combination of strong will and gentle persuasion he convinced the Hulings to acompany him to the courthouse, where both Mitch and Hadley eventually were taken into custody. They were transported to the county jail, disarmed and locked into cells. Municipal court Judge J.H. Lewis issued warrants charging both with intent to commit murder. The warrants were amended to murder after Clements died.

The Hulings were placed under a heavy guard that included about a dozen city officers because of the emotion building over the shooting.

A crowd of about 1,500 people had gathered at the scene, blocking the street and threatening county police officers. Rumors circulated in the crowd that Clements actually had been ambushed by four county officers. Apparently, there was disbelief that Huling could have done it alone because of Clements’ fearsome pistol skills and reputation for having a “cold nerve.”

City police had to hold the crowd back to keep the streets open and violence from erupting.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Clements, who had been “nervous” for several months prior to the shooting, was reported to be at the point of a breakdown.

The defense takes shape

The night of the shooting, Huling hired attorney T. Hicks Fort to defend him. The chief spoke briefly with reporters, telling them that he thought he fired about five times, that his son did not fire at all, and that Clements, “was facing me when I shot.”

Fort followed up with a statement of his own that he would limit what he said publicly about the shooting because it was not good policy to “try our cases in the newspapers.” But then, he immediately began to set the stage for self-defense.

Fort said he was aware of the intense prejudice against Huling in the community for his enforcement of Prohibition.

“It is but natural that he should have engendered the ill-will of some who in his hour of trouble will seek to work his undoing,” the attorney said.

He told reporters that it was a matter of public record that Clements was a “flagrant violator of the Prohibition laws,” and that Huling had twice arrested him. On both occasions, Clements had threatened Huling’s life, either by telephone or by sending messages through others.

He described Clements as a man of courage, daring and determination, and a very dangerous and deadly shot with a pistol. Because of this, the Hulings had avoided confrontation with him. The meeting on 12th Street was purely accidental, Fort said.

According to him, Huling was mailing a letter at the post office and ran into Clements, who moved forward, asking whether the chief had gotten his “message,” an apparent reference to a telephone death threat. Then, Clements started to draw his pistol, and the chief just managed to get his out quicker, Fort claimed.

Indicted on murder charges

The prosecution subpoenaed 35 witnesses to testify in front of the grand jury. It only took about a dozen to convince the grand jury to issue indictments against both Mitch and Hadley Huling.

Owen Johnson also was arrested and held as an accessory to the shooting, but the charges were withdrawn within days.

Meanwhile, Clements’ friends and family were reported to be taking an active role in helping the prosecution develop evidence in the case.

Judge George P. Munro decided the two defendants could not get a fair trial in Muscogee County, where passions were running high over the shooting, so he ordered a change of venue. The trial would be held in Buena Vista, located to the southeast in Marion County.

When Julian Harris, editor and general manager of the Columbus Enquirer-Sun, wrote an editorial criticizing the judge for moving the trial, Munro had him arrested on contempt of court charges. The judge eventually ordered him released after a lengthy court hearing that veered into a philosophical discussion.

Huling and his son were transferred to Buena Vista and held in the Parkman Hotel, awaiting trial.

The trial was set to start in mid-November 1922, but Judge Munro delayed it, saying the trial would not commence until he was certain jurors would not be influenced by “propaganda” surrounding the case.

This came apparently in response to a prayer service the Women’s Christian Temperance Union held for Huling. The WCTU had issued a statement that its members regretted a life had been taken, but that it had been done in defense of self and the Prohibition law.

The WCTU also said Huling fought the “lawless element of Columbus and Muscogee County fearlessly and without favoritism.” Anna Griffin herself looked after Huling while he was in custody, an action which is supposed to have cost her re-election.

Mitch Huling on trial

The trial finally began the last week of November. The prosecution had moved to sever the defendants, meaning Mitch Huling would be tried separately from his son. His case was first.

McLaughlin headed the prosecution, while Fort led the defense.

They began with a jury pool of 144 and quickly winnowed narrowed it to the panel that would hear the state’s evidence. All male, 11 farmers and one city merchant.

McLaughlin suffered a setback almost immediately. When he called his witness list, he discovered that 20 of those he had scheduled to testify did not show up. He asked the judge for a recess to determine whether he could continue.

Apparently, the prosecutor was confident. The trial proceeded.

Hundreds of spectators attended, filling the courtroom and spilling out into crowded hallways. Family members from both sides were present, as well as Mayor Dimon and Anna Griffin, both of whom were witnesses.

McLauglin’s opening statement was brief and offered little by way of detail. He said Huling walked up to Clements, ordered him to put his hands up, and started shooting – the same basic story Clements reportedly told on his deathbed. The prosecutor offered nothing in the way of motive, and said witnesses would address that issue, if necessary.

Fort, meanwhile, had already given a preview of his opening statement in his earlier press interviews. He described Clements’ history of bootlegging, his run-ins with Huling, and the threats he had made against the chief.

He said that, on the day of the shooting, Huling had been riding in a car with his son and Officer Johnson. They stopped on 12th Street, where they saw Clements and his wife near the bank. Clements made several gestures in their direction, then went into the bank with his wife, apparently at her urging.

Huling went into the post office to mail his letter. While he was inside, Hadley and Johnson saw Clements coming from the direction of the bank, looking angry. They got out of the car and were going to warn the chief when Clements called out to Johnson, stopping him.

According to Fort, an angry Clements again repeated that he intended to kill Huling, and when Huling came out of the post office, Clements started toward him. Fort repeated the assertion he’d made earlier, that Clements asked whether the chief had received his threat, then reached in his pocket for a gun.

The hammer of the pistol apparently caught on Clements’ pocket, giving Huling time to draw his open weapon, Fort told jurors.

Who saw what?

When testimony began, witnesses still could not agree on what had happened.

One testified that he saw Huling “appear” in front of Clements, and that Huling fired at least two shots before Clements turned to run toward the Bonita.

Another said that Clements was an expert shot, weighed about 200 pounds and had an athletic build, while Huling was a slight 125 pounds. This witness said he could not see Clements’ right hand during the shooting, but was adamant that no words passed between the men before Huling fired two shots.

And yet another witness claimed that he saw Huling accost Clements, tell him to throw up his hands, then start shooting, and that he did not see Clements with a pistol.

The prosecution rested without ever presenting a possible motive for the shooting.

The defense countered with 36 witnesses, nearly two dozen of them testifying to Huling’s good character, and at least three who had seen the shooting itself. The testimony of those three witnesses is not recounted in detail in media reports of the trial.

After four days, the case went to the jury. The panel deliberated for one hour, twenty minutes before acquitting Huling. Hadley was never tried.

Mitch Huling returned to Columbus a free man and resumed his job as county police chief.

Epilogue:

In August 1923, five officers of the county police, including Owen Johnson, tried to persuade the county commission to fire Huling. Only Officer Douglas Hadley, who was related to the chief by marriage, and another officer abstained.

The officers claimed Huling had been brooding over Clements’ shooting so much that it had affected his mind. They also said he had become extremely paranoid, even ordering them to shoot certain men on sight and to follow a local judge.

The county commission refused to fire the chief. The five officers resigned.

                                                                               - Scott Huling  May 2008