James Henry "Jim" Smith and Rosa Alice "Rosie" Davis pose with their eldest child, Flonnie Bell, about 1915.


The troubled legacy of Jim Smith

Each of us leaves a legacy behind when we die. A legacy can be material, such as wealth or property, or even such a thing as this family history, which is part of mine. But a legacy also includes the impact our lives had on others, the traces of ourselves we leave behind. Our treatment of others can resonate in their lives and the lives of their children. In these terms, Thiddo Smith's father James Henry "Jim" Smith left behind a farm and a lot of misery and grief, both of which were divided among his children and passed on to his grandchildren.

Just as genetic tendencies to certain diseases can be passed down from one generation to another, so too can psychological problems. In the Smith family, at least as far back as Jim's grandfather Albert there has been a psychological condition we call "the Smith temper." It consists of a volcanic, and violent rage in the men of the family that is inflicted on their wives and children, and sometimes others. It erupts in a flash, and is usually all out of proportion to whatever triggered it, including murder.

Jim beat his 15-year-old son Thiddo Smith with a plow strap or trace chain until his back was bloody. His crime? Changing his mind about buying a shotgun from his brother. His mother convinced him to use the money he earned farming an field of cotton one summer to buy clothes. He beat his daughter Flonnie with a switch when she was 12 until her knees buckled and blood ran down her legs. Flonnie's crime? Stopping to get a drink from a spring while taking some fresh corn from the field to the house.

I have heard several versions of the story of Thiddo's beating, including his own account, and they vary only in incidentals. The basic facts are that Thiddo was 15 in the summer of 1940. He and his older brother, Joseph Dallas “J. D.” Smith, had both been allotted an acre of cotton land by Jim and got to keep whatever they made. As said, Thiddo initially agreed to use his money to buy a shotgun from J. D., but his mother Rosie convinced him he needed clothes and shoes more than he needed a shotgun, so he changed his mind.

After they had collected their earnings off the cotton, he told J.D. that he wasn’t going to buy the gun. J.D. got upset and went to Jim  and complained. Jim’s response was to brutally beat Thiddo with a plow strap or trace chain until Rosie stepped between them and Jim hit her. A plow or trace strap is a heavy and wide leather strap and, like the trace chain, connects an animal to whatever it is pulling. She began to pray and said, "Lord, let him hit me again!" Jim stopped the beating, but he did take Thiddo's money and give it to J. D., then kick him out of the house, permanently.

Thiddo was so physically and emotionally traumatized that he could only make it to the edge of the property, where he sat under a tree. Later that night, his mother Rosie came out with a pan of warm water and soaked the shirt off his back (it had stuck to his skin because of the crusted blood). Thiddo's sister said she still is haunted by the memory of the event.

Her sister, still living, remembers that when Flonnie was whipped for stopping at the spring,  a neighbor was so concerned she begged Rosie to let her take Flonnie to the sheriff's office. Flonnie also received a violent whipping at least one other time. At one point her uncle George, Jim's brother, was a regular for Sunday dinner at Jim and Rosie's (Rosie was known for her Sunday dinners), and each time he came he brought chewing gum. For Flonnie, it was a real treat and she reacted to his arrival with girlish enthusiasm. But one Sunday, George forgot to give out the gum, so while the adults went into another room, Flonnie looked in George's coat pocket and found it. She took one piece and gayly skipped into the kitchen. George saw her chewing it and said, perhaps in jest, "You stole it." That was enough for Jim to whip her severely.

Jim is also known to have caused his wife, Rosa Alice "Rosie" Davis, to abort a pregnancy in the 1920s, between the birth of Thiddo and his sister still living. One account says he beat her, another than he kicked her in the stomach (for more on Rosie, see this page).

Jim was called “The Old Man” by some of his children, a term that included a small measure of respect based on fear, and a lot of anger and bitterness. He is described by his daughter, still living, as spiteful and "mean." His son J. D. was his favorite, and when J. D. lived next door to his sister, Jim would take cantaloupes and watermelon and other produce to J. D.'s family, driving right by his daughter's house in the process. Jim had never forgiven her for getting pregnant by her husband, now deceased, before they married.

Once, Jim's father William Thomas "Willie" Smith spent a week with Jim and Rosie, and his daughter remembers that Jim "walked about like an angel." When Rosie told Willie that Jim "had the devil in him," Willie did not believe her. "He did not even know his own son," Jim's daughter said.

About 30 years ago, I heard a story from a relative of the time "Uncle Willie was struck down by the Lord." I forgot the relative's name and only in the last few years have I tried to determine just who "Uncle Willie" was. Initially, I assumed that the relative was one of Willie's decendents, and that "Uncle Willie" must be a cousin. But after compiling the family tree, I have come to the conclusion that William Thomas Smith was Uncle Willie. 

According to the relative, Uncle Willie was a terrible man who beat his wife and children. But one day he fell into a coma, probably from a stroke. The family put him on his bed and he remained there seven days, not moving, speaking or showing any other signs of awareness. After seven days, he woke up and said that while he was paralyzed, Jesus appeared before him. "Now move your little finger," Christ said. Willie could not, of course, and from that time on was a changed man. He became very religious, testifying in Rome area churches about what happened to him, and never laid a hand on his wife or children again. When he died, it was said, "If anyone gets into heaven, Uncle Willie will."

In his old age, William Thomas Smith was known to be a very religious man, but his granddaughter still living said that he was known to be cruel and violent in his younger days. Since family violence acts like a genetic disease, and is passed down from one generation to the next, the most likely explanation for Jim Smith's horrible temper is that he himself was beaten as a child. His refusal to believe Rosie, who had no reason to lie, seems like a form of denial, based on his own guilt. The granddaughter said that she heard as a child that Willie's father Albert Smith had the same "Smith temper" too (for more on William Thomas Smith, see this page).

But there was another, benign, aspect to the “Smith temper.” Just as cruelly as the men of the family could treat their own wives and children, they were gracious, generous, and kind to their grandchildren, nieces, and nephews. As a result, one member of the family could describe his or her father in awful terms while a cousin or grandchild would have an entirely different impression of them.

I have a personal theory that the violent streak in the family has its roots in the Civil War, or at least was strengthened by it. I’ve had this idea for many years, but only recently discovered how terrible the experience of the war must have been for Willie's father Albert. He was a member of the 18th Georgia Infantry Battalion, which for a year or so, under the command of the fiery Gen. John Bell Hood, was part of "Hood's Brigade," which served as the “shock troops” of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. The 18th Georgia fought in 20 battles from 1861 to 1865, and Albert was among the 28 percent of the members of the unit still alive when the war ended.

Along the way Albert was seriously wounded in the left leg at Manassas, Virginia on 30 August 1862. His leg had to be amputated below the knee. Such amputations were done without anesthetic, and were horribly painful experiences. He is on a list of "maimed" Confederate veterans in Bartow County in 1894.  A person would have to be less than human to not be changed by what he had gone through, only to return to Cassville, Georgia in 1862 and watch two years later as everything his family owned was stolen or destroyed by Sherman’s army. One of the characteristics of people, including soldiers, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder is an increased tendency to be irritable, aggressive, and violent toward family members (See "Partners of Veterans with PTSD: Caregiver Burden and Related Problems). For more on Albert, see “Love Amid the Ruins.”

Another aspect of the Smith temper might be that Albert married into a violent family. His wife was Ursula Collins, and five of her first cousins died violently, including three as part of “The Scared Corn-Ryo Murders.” Another rode with the infamous Captain Benjamin F. Jordan’s Pickens County Home Guards in 1864-65, and was indicted for at least two murders. So, biologically speaking, the source of the Smith temper could have come down either family line, or both, but it is more likely Ursula was a victim. The reasons some women are drawn to violent men are many and complex, and in the 19th century, the concepts of spouse abuse and child abuse did not exist. For more on the Collins, see this page.

In any case, Jim Smith was born 3 February 1889 near Kingston, Bartow County, Georgia, and died in Rome, Floyd County, Georgia on 15 December 1971 at the age of 82 of intestinal cancer. He married Rosa Alice Davis of Wayne County, Kentucky, on 1 October 1911, and after her death in 1947, he married Maggie Lanham of Adairsville, Georgia.

Jim was the son of William Thomas Smith and Harriet Octavia Brownlow.

Jim Henry Smith, here said to have been born 3 October 1889, is listed in the World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, for Bartow County, but I don’t know if he served.

He is buried at Mt. Carmel Methodist Church Cemetery in Adairsville next to his second wife, Maggie G. Lanham, born 1901 and died 1990. His first wife, Rosie, is buried in the East View Cemetery in Adairsville. Family history says that Jim’s sons refused to bury him next to Rosie because of how he treated her in life and death. At some point, he had her grave dug up in the cemetery and moved across the road to its present location. She was buried in a pine casket, which had decomposed, so her remains were strewn from one grave to another. Thiddo hated his father for desecrating her grave.

When I knew Jim, he owned a large farm off Twin Bridges Road in Bartow County, Georgia. Going west, as Twin Bridges Road emerges from the hilly section just west of Adairsville, there is a subdivision on the left. A very short access road connects Twin Bridges Road to Highway 140 at the subdivision entrance. This subdivision was once his farm. He moved to the home the house that once belonged to Bright Aaron, father of one of his son's wives, in Adairsville before he died. His death was caused by a large tumor that was blocking his intestines. Gladys Hall, his daughter-in-law, once said he died because he simply quit eating; digestion was too painful.

There are two other things I remember about him, other than the fact that he was always kind to me and when I was a teenager I couldn’t figure out why my father didn’t like him. Before he died, he sold his nephew James, now deceased, an old Victrola he had, for $1. James loved it, and had asked Jim about it. Rather than give him the Victrola, Jim sold it to him to keep any dispute from ever arising over it once he was gone.

Also, Jim is also said to have had his second wife, Maggie, catch birds in a trap on the back porch. He would then twist their heads off. I don’t know how true this story is, but it’s plausible.

According to his daughter still living, Jim made ax handles and plow handles in the winter, or fished with homemade nets with hooks attached to them (which was illegal). He sold the ax handles for 25 cents. He would also sell the fish he caught in Shannon Village. Once he caught a 39-pound mudcat, as tall as his daughter when she was 7. The family was living on Bells Ferry Road, at what his daughter called “the Buttrum Place,” about halfway between Shannon and Rome. Bells Ferry Road is west of U. S. Highway 53 and runs roughly parallel to it. It is very close to the Oostanaula River for a good bit of its length.

Last updated 26 October 2011.

Jim Smith and his second wife, Maggie G. Lanham, taken April 1958. 

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