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.

40 comments:

  1. Bamagirl, I think you have the story correct about Aunt Jenny. Of course, there have been many different tales but that sounds right to me. Also, that eerie green glow you described in the cemetary really is true. I've seen it many times, I was even out there tonight and I seen it, I can't explain what causes it. I've never heard any voices whispering to me but I can imagine if a person stayed out there by themselves enough they would at least imagine it!

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    1. I have been to aunt Jenny's grave & her house several time nothing has ever happen while I was there. Her head stone was still there last I went many years ago. I have seen this green glowing light but I wasn't anywhere near her grave or home .... we could see the light coming closer but when we would shine a light on it it would disappear, this was near a well or something miles down another side road. I have live n NW Alabama for 34 years hearing these stories as well but I dont have the slightest idea how to get there myself lol .... I do know a lot of local kids do still go there & many have destroyed her head stone n cemetery but I dont know y. I have utmost respect for this lady & family. I have been told I was related but never any proof :(

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  2. i have be to aunt jenny's grave many of times also and i just went this past saturday night with some people that we know that have a holloween party every year and the woman that host the party at her house and her kids in which i go to school with know alot about aunt jenny. i seen her headstone on her grave before it got taken and her last name on there is not johnson its johnston. i also seen her house before it burnt. i have always found her as an interesting woman and would like to know more about her.

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    1. The house that burned was not the original house, but one that was built to replace it. Drayton Wear

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    2. I've lived in NW alabama all my life and have always wanted to go to her Grave...can anyone give me good directions coming from russellville? you can e-mail them to me jeff.hutcheson@adtran.com

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  3. it really is sad that her house was burnt down and her tombstone stolen.

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  4. Yes Anon, it is sad that people would do such things. I was at the cemetary the night her house got burned down. i wish I could have given inofrmation as to who did it but I had none, however I think they did eventually get caught. As for her tombstone, I hope someone will eventually return it. It has been stolen and replaced a couple of times. BTW, I went there, too, Sat. night. I seen several large groups come to visit that night.

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  5. My people were in the War, but on the right side. My Great-Great Grandmother in Mississippi had her house burned and was turned out in the dead of winter with two small children by guardians of the "Glorious Union". She was a good Christian woman and forgave her tormentors for what they did to her, but never for what they did to her children. She was never re-constructed, nor have her decendents.

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  6. Aunt Jennie married William Johnston who had to leave the area because of a dispute with some of his neighbors and went to live with kinfolk in Tennessee where he changed his name to Johnson. Since it was not a legal name change when the head stone was cut they put his real name on the stone. His son William is buried in Boldo Cementary in Walker Co. and he spelled his name Johnson. He was my grandmother's father. She is buried there beside my grandfather Frank Johnsey. Her name is Missy Jane Johnson Johnsey.

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  7. I visited with a group of friends a few months ago, but being the big chicken I am I never got out of the car! They walked around and came running back to the car saying that they had heard drums.. We left before finding out what was happening! We didn't see the green glow, but we didn't turn off the headlights!

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  8. it is said that her tombstone is in belgreen at least that is what i have heard when they took it they took it there to hide it hopes this helps because i am from the area and love going out there with new friends to scare them

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  9. how do you get to aunt jenny johnsons grave someone post directions

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  10. Aunt Jenny is my 4th great grandmother. I attended the marker dedication ceremony yesterday in the Bankhead National Forest. The Haleyville librarian took a picture of all of her descendants and it will be published in the local papers. She has a new full body concrete marker that would be pretty hard to steal. I wished people would leave her marker alone and let her rest in peace. Yes, she is a local legend but she was also a mother.

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    1. Her new marker is great. Hopefully this one will not be vandalized.

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  11. Where are the pictures of her house burning? They are very eerie!

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  12. I have been told by family members for years that we are also family to Aunt Jenny Johnson. I have just started trying to find out info. about her and plan on traveling to BankHead in the next few weeks... Is there a place I can go to learn more about her or do some investigating into the family tree? I have several pictures of Jenny Johnson and have several stories... I am very interested in gathering info. If anyone can help please email me candybrown1991@yahoo.com Thanks

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  13. I would love to know where the homeplace and cemetery are located? Can someone please post exact and accurate directions? Thanks.

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  14. What a fascinating woman and mesmerizing story.

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  15. My Dad always wanted to take me there but he never did. Is it really as scary as everyone says?

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  16. No, its not scary, just a old country cemetery, full of relatives! There are still many in the area. Jenny gave the land which comprises its site as a family cemetery after the death of her infant daughter in 1841.

    Some of the story told in this post is true, but much of it is inaccurate or exaggerated. The most notable information has been compiled in a series of articles by a relative in Mt Hope, AL.

    The "old home place", which burned a few years ago, was not Jenny's house, but her son Henry's widow Jesse's home. Jenny lived with them from 1914 til her death in 1924 in a older home close by. The burned house was built in the 1930's and sold in 1965.

    Jenny never lived in Tn. Son Gainam Brooks' widow and two children moved to TN after his death in a shoot out 1884. Jenny was married to Johnson only a short while before his own death. Both were up in age and never had any children together. After Johnson's death, Jenny distanced herself from the Johnson family all together due to a dispute with his grown children.

    As in Jenny's day...the hills of Byler Road are yet filled with "the eyes of many kin"..It would be best if intruders stayed out of the family cemetery and away from Jenny's grave!

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  17. The area where the house was is on CR-303 past owl creek horse camp (coming from mt.hope)near maceadonia church. (BFE) its hard to find but right off the roadway. Best to look for in the daytime. All that reamins is the frame and a bunch of junk someone has dumped. It Is private property and is sometimes checked by the forrest rangers.

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  18. Correction on that Thompson creek not owl creek

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  19. Aunt Jenny Brooks Johnson was my great great grandmother. This account is pretty close to what my father related to me. His dad (my grandfather) was raised by Aunt Jenny after his parents passed (Amanda and John "Doc" Simmons). He also told me that in her later life has was referred to as an crone. She healed the sick by laying on hands and prepared herbal medicines for the sick. She was also a mid-wife. There was a foot stone at her grave (I saw it in 2009) where people left coins. I asked my cousin why, and she said some people thought Aunt Jenny was a witch and it would bring them good luck to leave an offering.

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  20. i would really be thankful if i get directions to her gravesite as my wife is a direct decendant. we live in lynn al

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    1. My name is David Feltman,I lived with my grandmother Arizona Feltman in the 80's, her father married Aunt Jenny's Youngest daughter, Arizona was Aunt Jennys caretaker til she passed. I know all the stories, good and bad. My Grandmother was not fond of sharing the stories with people outside the family, as she was actually forced to take care of her, which was a big job as she couldn't get out of bed byherself. Arizona often commented that she "broke herself down" as a young woman taking care of someone who was not actually related to her by blood. I saw her run off many a bookwriter and historian off her front porch, as she did not like the idea of other people profitting off of her misfortune, as she put it.

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  21. to pay respects and for remembrance is not profitting off anyones misfortune

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  22. I agree, I like the stories, but my grandmother was forced into taking care of her, and she did not have any fond memories, a good part of her childhood was lost to back breaking labor of taking care of an invalid, her words, not mine, if it's anyone I respect, it's Arizona Feltman. Tough time, I can't even imagine the hardships that Aunt Jenny, or my grandmother endured.

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  23. I've lived in NW alabama all my life and have always wanted to go to her Grave...can anyone give me good directions coming from russellville? you can e-mail them to me jeff.hutcheson@adtran.com

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  24. jeff i feel your problem, for some strange reason people either dont care or refuse to post the location. i live in lynn al my wife being a direct decendant we still cant find any location of her grave wherabouts.its not like theres a mob of paparazzi lurking about waiting to attack.any body reading this thread can feel free to post general wherabouts

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  25. I may be related to one of the Home Guard members that the Brooks Boys killed.
    But "Jim" Smith is a common name. I know my James Smith died 24 March 1865. He was in the Home Guard Militia of Fayette County, Alabama.
    This would be about the same time frame of the events told about.

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  26. Directions to the cemetery: from Russellville, head east on hwy 24 toward Moulton. Turn right onto county road 83 and stay on it until it ends at county road 81. Turn right onto 81 and drive past the Oak Grove churches about 1/2 mile and bear to the left onto I think it's county road 93, where there is a convenience store. Drive several miles(4 or 5 maybe?) until you see a Macedonia Church sign, pointing left. Stay on that road. It will quickly become a gravel road. You will pass two GOOD gravel roads on your right one going to the church and the other is Thompson Creek trail. I can't remember which is the second one but about 1 1/2 miles past it there is a wide spot in the road where people park on the right and about 50 ft past that on the left is the very old dirt road leading to the cemetery.

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  27. Having lived at the edge of the forest for most of my 41 years, I have visited Popular Springs Cemetary many times over the years. Not being of the "family", I respect the resting places of the family. Sadly, this is not the case with alot of folks. Quiet a few times in the past, I have been there and seen the place littered up after a fright-night party or seen markers turned over. I personally don't think the vandalism was done by the local kids, but from those whom have been shown or told where it is. This place is a memorial of those who have gone before us. A place I use to collect my thoughts. A place to visit to reminesce about my own family, here and already gone. The solitude of listening to the forest sounds, the site of the unengraved markers, and the knowing that someone cares enough to not let this resting place become overgrown is comforting to the soul.

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  28. Jenny Johnson is my 4th great grandmother. My great grandmother told us about staying with her. It is crazy that I am a relative of this extraordinary woman.

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  29. My Grandfather was John Gainum Brooks (named after Gainum obviously). Jenny was his Grandmother. It seems I have some relatives here! Tim

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  30. Well Tim,nice to know you're from the TN branch of the family, around Jackson I assume! Stay tuned as there is more info regarding Gaines and the orgins of your branch! Take care

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  31. I also am a relative to Aunt Jennie, my dad was Mack Brooks and
    Jennie was his grandma, he was named after the "boys" as was
    his brothers John and Willis, they are all gone now. I have heard
    stories ab out aunt jennie all my life, did you ever hear how the
    men who hanged her husband grabbed her by the arm when she
    tried to help her husband? I always was told that one of her arms
    was longer than the other because of that incident also I remember the story and think when I was young visiting relative
    in tenn. about the stick with notches pretty sure someone showed
    my brother and I that stick, and my dad had a civil war pistol that had
    something to do with the killings that was passed to my brother. I
    wish I knew a lot more about her but you did a good job telling the
    story as we were told, in other stories you don't always hear about
    the soap dish but I have known about it forever. thanks

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  32. I went this past weekend with a group, the headstone is new, very hard to find but we had a blast

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  33. I am interested in going here and would like to know if anyone can give me directions to here coming from cullman,al? thanks

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  34. It has been a long while since I have written or done any research on my wife's gr-gr-gr-grandmother, Aunt Jenny (Brooks) Johnston. I still have a few books left about her son-in-law, Columbus Winfield "Sam" Baker. en_herring@hotmail.com

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  35. Interesting reading as she actually is my 4th great aunt. Her brother Thomas Jefferson Bates is my 4th great grandfather. Apparently Thomas had a large ranch in central Texas where the Brooks boys (his nephews) spent time away from those who might be "looking" for them.

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