Their Descendants...Their Stories...Their Achievements

Lifting the Mists of History on Their Way of Life

By: Ethelene Dyer Jones

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A Brutal Murder, A Son's Promise, and the Truth: A Book Review of Blood Mountain Covenant by Charles E. Hill

James "Jim Washington Lance (1/31/1961 - 9/2-1940)

Blood Mountain Covenant: A Son's Revenge by Charles L. Hill
explores a century-old murder in Union County.

Many mists have fallen over Blood and Slaughter Mountains and gathered like a shroud along Wolf Creek as it meanders through Lance Cove in Choestoe District, Union County, Georgia in the 113 years since a notorious murder rocked the peace-loving settlement and set in motion a quest that has extended to the present time.

Questions about the dastardly deed lingered for decades in the minds of those who knew the Reverend John H. Lance, brutally murdered on February 17, 1890, and his body with his head almost dismembered, left lying beside Wolf Creek, his life-blood flowing away and mixing with the cold waters of the swift mountain stream.

Bereft of a beloved husband, a caring father, and a minister known for his unapologetic proclamation of Biblical truth, his wife, children, extended family, neighbors and friends gathered to comfort one another, to prepare the desecrated body for burial, and to attend to the details of the funeral at Old Salem Methodist Church.

The eldest son of the murdered man, James Washington Lance, hurt beyond consolation, made a solemn covenant not to rest until the perpetrators of the crime were brought to justice. Truth has a way of hiding. Sometimes it is concealed by those who tell only half-truths, and thereby can justify their stand. At other times truth is evasive, overpowered by personal agendas and veiled, as mountains are with thick mists and fogs, until a slant of sunlight, like truth with the ability to set free, penetrates half-truths and outright lies, making a straight path to lucidity.

Blood Mountain Covenant: A Son’s Revenge written by Charles E. Hill, grandson-in-law of Jim Lance, took up the torch seeking revealed truth. He left no stones unturned in his relentless pursuit of the answers to the murder of his wife’s great grandfather, the Rev. John H. Lance. He credits those who gave him valuable information and encouragement in the meticulous research and tireless hours spent in producing the book, recently released by Ivy House Publishing Group. The biography reads like a novel, and any interested in a story that has become legend in the mountains of North Georgia will thrill that Jacquelyn Lance Hill and her husband, author and retired pharmacist Charles E. Hill, relentlessly pursued the covenant, as did Jacquelyn’s grandfather, Jim Lance, until revealed truth shone through the mists of time.

The book depicts a proud and independent people. Though mainly dealing with the Lance family of Lance Cove, Choestoe District, the characteristics Hill so aptly captures as he introduces those who play important roles in the biographical account of a mountain man and his son seeking revenge, the book paints a picture of a place and a people who are solid to the core, as local poet and cousin to the Lances, Byron Herbert Reece, stated in his poem, “Choestoe”: “Yes, Sprung from the hard earth, nurtured by hard labor.” That describes the people there, and Hill shows them to be just that, honest to the core, dependable to the end, hard-working, hard-hitting, the salt-of-the earth.

The murder was all about moonshine liquor and those who owned the still believing that the Rev. Lance reported them to the revenuers, resulting in the downfall of their income-producing business. Unable to accept that Rev. Lance and his family, although despising “the devil’s brew,” would not report their neighbors, the minister was ambushed, killed and his murdered body left beside Wolf Creek.

Jim Lance, eldest son of the murdered man, had the major responsibility of securing lawyers, Virgil Marion Waldroop and William E. “Buck” Candler, for the prosecution, and for contacting various witnesses who in some way could give testimony in the trial. Lawyers for the defense of Frank Swaim and his younger brother, Newt, were Carl J. Wellborn, Jr. and M. G. Boyd. Presiding judge over the trial was Carl J. Wellborn, Sr.

After a trial that drew crowds of people to the Union County court house in April of 1890, Frank Swaim was convicted of the murder of the Rev. John H. Lance and given life imprisonment at hard labor. However, he received a pardon after serving thirteen years, with the appeal based mainly upon conviction from only circumstantial evidence. Following Swaim’s release, he went west. In 1925, an article entitled “A True Story of the Georgia Mountains” written by Swaim’s defense lawyer, Carl J. Wellborn, Jr., was published in the Atlanta Constitution. That gave rise to the belief in the “death-bed confession” of Fed Cannup, accessory to the crime. How Hill unravels the fabrications and half-truths of the article published as truth shows his mastery at research. The book moves with both passion and compassion, until the reader can hardly wait until the mystery is unraveled.

Charles E. Hill has accomplished a masterful job in his book. The dialogue, though imagined by the author, is authentic to the mountain vernacular speech. His descriptions of places and depictions of people are true to the setting and the independent spirit of the mountain people. Revenge is not an easy theme to treat. Neither is a century-old murder committed long before the days of DNA and other forensic evidence led to easier solutions. But Hill has accomplished what Jim Lance stated in his 1890 covenant: “It is our job to separate the chaff from the wheat, the true from the untrue, and it will be done.” (p. 154)

I highly recommend this book. If you love the land and the people, as do I, you will eagerly read Hill’s account of the characters appearing in the pages of this true story. You will check historical documents and the resources he lists to see the relationships of those playing a role in the drama. The book is valuable for an authentic historical view of the turbulent times following the Civil War and of how people coped with the hardships of daily living as well as the trauma of a violent and inane murder. You may even want to find the location of Reece Fields and Lance Cove, and wander beside Wolf Creek as its waters still flow swiftly to the Gulf, their message over the rocks echoing the Biblical axiom, “‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay,’ saith the Lord.” (Heb. 12:19b; Deut 32:35a). And sometimes God chooses time, the right time, to see that vengeance is wrought, even if more than a century after the fact.

c2003 by Ethelene Dyer Jones; published Dec. 11, 2003 in The Union Sentinel, Blairsville, GA. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

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