Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Aunt Jenny Johnson

When the War Between the States came to her door in late 1863, Louisa Elizabeth Jane Bates Brooks was 37 years old. A beautiful, blue-eyed half-Cherokee from Walker County, Alabama, she had married Willis Brooks, a saddler and boot maker from Kentucky when she was 14 and he was 35. Willis called her “Jenny.” Together they raised a large family – eight kids—and ran a roadhouse – sort of a combination tavern and inn – on the Byler Road in southwest Lawrence County.The mountain folk of Alabama had never been keen on secession, looking on it as “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” and most tried at first to just stay out of the way and remain neutral. But the Confederacy enacted a draft law and a “tax-in-kind” law. The first made it mandatory for young white southerners to serve in the Confederate army and the second demanded that any poor folks who could not afford to pay their taxes in hard cash had to give up part of their crops or their farm animals to support the war. To enforce these laws, the Confederate “Home Guard” was mobilized to seek out draft dodgers (called “outliers” or “mossbacks”) and to seize the war levy from the poor farmers who lived in the hills. The farmers viewed this as theft of food from their children's mouths. They hardly had enough to eat in the best of times to get through the winter and now the “Secesh” wanted them to starve their children to feed Jeff Davis’ army. These laws ensured that the war would come to the mountains of Alabama.Now John Brooks was about 17 when the Home Guard road up to the Byler Road inn. The Home Guard was made up of men who were too old, too young, or had medical conditions that prevented them from joining the army. There also were men who were exempted by virtue of the fact that they had 20 or more slaves. This loophole was for rich planters and was deeply resented by the poor white farmers who made up the bulk of the Confederate army and led to many desertions. The hills around the Brooks’ tavern were in fact full of deserters and draft dodgers by late 1863. Even more men had run off to join the 1st Alabama Union Cavalry Regiment, or to become scouts and spies for the Union Army. So many stories have grown up around the legend of Aunt Jenny that we don't know for sure what the Home Guard patrol of 8 men had in mind when they stopped at the Brooks' place. Even the date is a bit hazy. It was probably late 1863 but could have been early 1864. They might have been looking to draft young John Brooks or they might have wanted to punish Willis Brooks for aiding Union men and Confederate deserters who were hiding all through the hills of north Alabama. What is certain is that, at gunpoint, 57 year old Willis Brooks was seized, bound and tortured. The Home Guard put a noose around Willis' neck and started to hang him from the limb of a tree in his own front yard. Jenny and the children, including Angeline (15), Mack (13), Amanda (11), Willis Jr. (9), Donner, a 7-year-old girl and Gainum (3) could only watch in horror lest they too be killed. Her youngest son Henry was an infant, still nursing at her breast. When John burst from the house to save his father, he was shot dead by the Home Guard. Then they shot Willis Brooks, Sr. as he hung there and rode away.Now of all the versions of the legend of Aunt Jenny Brooks that are told, this much is certain. Jenny Brooks lowered her husband’s body out of the tree, laid him next to their oldest son and gathered all the children around. Placing the boys’ hands in the sticky blood on their father’s chest --even tiny Henry’s, Jenny made them swear a “blood oath” that they would never rest until all eight of those killers were dead.Later, Jenny would proudly say that she “wasted many a keg of powder teachin’ my boys how to shoot!” The feud that started with the killing of Jenny’s husband and oldest son in 1863 lasted forty years. Jenny and her second son Mack got the first Home Guard, the leader, in early 1864 when they shot him from his horse shortly after he left his house. Jenny made Mack help her drag the body into the woods, where she cut off his head, but it in a burlap sack and carried it home. There, she threw it in a large boiling pot used to make lye soap and scooped and scrubbed the viscera away until she had a nice clean skull, minus the jawbone. This she used as a soap dish for the rest of her life.Her boys, brought up with the sole purpose in life of being their father and brother’s avenging angels became deadly expert shooters and fairly competent killers. The war, like all wars, eventually ended. The feud did not. While Jenny kept track by making notches on a hickory stick, her boys sought out and killed seven of the eight Confederate Home Guards and another twelve or thirteen friends or relatives of the “Secesh” who got in the way of the Brooks’ bullets. The eighth literally disappeared off the face of the earth when he realized he was being stalked by the Brooks and their brother-in-law Sam Baker (who soon was well known as a stone-cold killer). Rumor said that he too was actually killed, but in her old age (by then known by the honorific title of “Aunt’) Jenny never claimed him, saying as she waved the hickory stick, “Seven ov’um have been got!”Of her sons and sons-in-law who joined the feud, only Henry survived the bloodletting and he was himself shot dead in early 1920 by a large posse from nearby Winston County while pursuing an age-old mountain tradition of making moonshine. Heavily outnumbered, he managed to get off six or seven shots before he was hit twelve times. It still took Henry Brooks fifteen minutes to die. The “revenooers” also managed to kill his horse.Aunt Jenny was always proud of her sons, saying to whoever came visiting (and many people did come visiting in her last years -- they say no one was elected on the Republican ticket in Winston County unless Aunt Jenny approved of him): “They all died like men, with their boots on!” She outlived them all, passing away in her bed at the age of 98 on March 29, 1924. She was known as a “good Christian woman” who did many good deeds for her fellow mountain folk, often handing out much needed cash to the poor. A shopkeeper once asked her why she kept so much money on her, and she replied rather pointedly, “I pay myself $20 a week just to tend to my own business.” As she lay dying, surrounded by her many friends and kinfolk, her pastor asked if there was anything else they could do for her before she crossed over. Aunt Jenny paused, and then said weakly, “I’d like to wash my hands.” And so they brought a pan of water and Aunt Jenny’s soap dish that she had made back in 1864. One last time, she washed her hands in that murderer’s skull. When her hands were dry, she closed her eyes, and went to meet her Maker.

And legend has it that if you go to the cemetery next to hear house at night and sit there with no lights you can see a green glowing light coming closer to you and if you listen real close you can hear her and and her kids screaming at you to get out or you'll be next.