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A Killing on Ring Jaw Bluff: The Great Recession and the Death of Small Town Georgia.

A Killing on Ring Jaw Bluff: The Great Recession and the Death of Small Town Georgia. By William Rawlings. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2013. Pp. vii, 276. $29.00.)

This book has much to offer. The author, a physician, tells the story of his great-uncle Charlie Rawlings, who was convicted of killing his cousin and business associate, Gus Tarbutton, in 1925. But this is not just a glorified family history or a whodunit. In some ways, the saga of Charlie's rise (before the inevitable fall) is the story of the resurgence of the South at the turn of the twentieth century.

Author William Rawlings discusses the growth of Charlie's financial empire, which began with a livery stable. By the 1890s, he had numerous business interests, including banking and cotton growing. The author places his uncle's rise within the larger historical context: The end of World War I and the ensuing Great Recession coincided with the arrival of the boll weevil in Washington County, Georgia. Together they wreaked havoc.

The Recession was disastrous. Between 1919 and 1921, cotton prices dropped from nearly thirty-six cents to slightly above nine cents per pound (117, 133). Compounding the problem of falling prices was the boll weevil, which devoured cotton crops. By the summer of 1921 Charlie Rawlings's bank's deposits were 20 percent of what they had been two years earlier (142).

By February 1925, when Tarbutton died, Rawlings's financial woes were mounting. He had also run afoul of the local Ku Klux Klan. Because of an alleged liaison with a minor, the KKK stopped his car, hauled him out, and castrated him. On the day of the Tarbutton death, Rawlings and Jim Tanner, Rawlings's overseer, were inspecting potential mining sites on Ring Jaw Bluff. As they wound their way down a rain-soaked trail, Tanner, who was carrying a shotgun, slipped. The gun hit the ground and discharged, killing Tarbutton. What seemed like an accident quickly escalated into a murder investigation.

Fluker Tarbutton, the victim's son, assumed he would inherit his father's business interests and farm. As the investigation unfolded, he learned that his father's life insurance policies were only payable to Rawlings or his bank. He also learned that Rawlings had taken ownership of Tarbutton's plantation, although nothing changed in its day-to-day operations. That Rawlings stood to gain from Tarbutton's death was, prosecutors argued, motive for murder. A jury eventually agreed.

Through the tragedy of his great-uncle's rise and fall, William Rawlings deftly tells the story of life in rural Georgia. Charlie Rawlings's ascendancy in the New South was an American success story until the Great War and boll weevil destroyed not only his personal fortune but also the fortunes of many other Southerners. Although William Rawlings is not a historian, he successfully integrates the events that shaped his ancestor's life into the larger historical context. Though not grounded in historiography as a traditional monograph, it nonetheless effectively analyzes important aspects of history in a manner eminently accessible to undergraduates.

Jon Huibregtse

Framingham State University

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Author:Huibregtse, Jon
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2015
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