History: Henry T. Benton withstood local newspapers’ allegations

History: Henry T. Benton withstood local newspapers’ allegations

Editor’s Note: Russell County has a long history that is important to the State of Alabama and its evolvement from an area described in the book “Russell County in Retrospect” by Anne Kendrick Walker as a “barbaric land” to what it is today. Many of the people who set their roots in the county in its early days including the state’s first Territorial Delegate to the United States Congress, important Native Americans who paid with their lives to cede land that created the county, a family that started a place of higher learning in south Russell County that later led to the establishment of one of the state’s most known institutions of education today and a former slave who placed a monument to honor his former owner, are very much important to the formation of Alabama. The story that follows is another of a series to inform you – our readers – about the history of Russell County. 

In the history of Russell County, there has never been a bigger feud between a public official and a newspaper editor than the one in the early 1900s between Russell County Probate Judge Henry Tillman Benton and The Phenix-Girard Journal Editor and Proprietor J.P. Marchant. Marchant dedicated nearly every edition of his newspaper to attack Benton, whom he saw as a corrupt politician. In fact, Marchant dedicated two newspapers to express his hatred of Benton – The Phenix-Girard Journal and The Girard Journal.

The first newspaper was put out of business after failing to get a Grand Jury to indict a Benton in a lawsuit over issues Marchant felt were corrupt acts. Benton attempted to counter Marchant’s lawsuit with one of his own for libel. The Grand Jury chose not to side with either man, and no true bill was issued. The second died because of a lack of support from the citizens of Russell County. Of course, another reason for the demise of the newspapers was Marchant’s failure to convert the people of Russell County to socialism. Marchant openly informed the people of his political leanings.

Another way Benton countered the stories Marchant’s newspaper told of corruption was to buy an interest in another newspaper in the county – The Russell Register in the county seat of Seale. That newspaper supported Benton in his race for Probate Judge in 1910.

Little is known of the background of Marchant. He is said to have been a native of Russell County who moved away and returned to begin his Socialist newspapers and strike up his feud with Benton.

Of Benton, much more is known. He was the only son of Hal and Martha Ann Benton. He completed his education at the Eastman School of Business in Poughkeepsie, New York. He moved to Seale in 1883 and was committed to helping build the New South. Benton undertook several enterprises in Seale – now the county seat and a railroad shipping center for local farms. He married the former Fannie Hazeline Henry in 1889. 

Benton was an energetic participant in local politics and the legal affairs of the county. He served as the county’s Probate Judge for many years, ran a farm, ran a cotton warehouse, was a publisher of The Russell Register, and built a large home that was wired for electricity that was generated by water from his lake. Benton was instrumental in bringing telephones to Seale, established a bank, served as a director of the 4th National Bank of Columbus, Ga. and was on the committee to secure Fort Benning for its present location. His most visionary endeavor was to establish a peanut oil mill in Seale. It was a project ahead of its time and doomed to failure. He did in fact do his best to help build the New South.

Henry Tillman Benton died in 1922 and Fannie in 1948. Both are buried in the Seale cemetery.

One of the first salvos launched by Marchant against Benton appeared in the September 11, 1909 edition of The Phenix-Girard Journal. In an editorial titled A Colossal Bluff, or A Grand Stand Play,” Marchant wrote:

“We hand you here a reproduction of Judge Benton’s letter to one of the grand jurors for next week’s session of the Circuit Court, and we suppose all of the grand jurors received one of these efforts to have himself whitewashed, and to have “my” administration endorsed by the Russell county grand jury. The letter is as follows:

August 20, 1909

Dear Sir: Your name appears as one of the grand jurors of the next Circuit Court, and as I shall request of that grand jury an investigation of the various statements contained in the recent issues of the Phenix-Girard Journal to the effort that the moneys of the county have been improperly spent, and that graft and dishonesty have been practiced and the juries packed or fixed by me, I request that between now and the convening of the grand jury you investigate the expenditure of county moneys in your community, with a view of ascertaining if there is any evidence of such practice, and that you secure the names of any and all parties who may be able to give evidence in the matter, in order that they may be had before the grand jury and the truth ascertained.

It has also been rumored that a number of parties in Girard have paid the county officers for protection against prosecution in violation of prohibition law. As a county officer I shall request a searching investigation into the facts involved and ask that you secure the names of all parties who can contribute any light on them, as the truth must come and be acted on.

I shall offer every facility at my command in turning on the light, and all I ask is that the grand jury without fear or favor.

(signed) H.T. Benton

. . . If Judge Benton gets a judgment in his ten thousand dollar suit against this paper, and the Sheriff takes charge of this plant, there is enough money here to buy some more type, and there are several presses in Columbus which can turn out a paper. We expect to continue to publish ABSOLUTE FACTS, as we have done in the past, and expect to publish nothing but the TRUTH, and are RESPONSIBLE for all we publish.

The unexpected is expected to happen in Seale next week. Anyway, the powers that are and some that were, are making strenuous efforts, to get some kind – of evidence before the grand jury that will authorize the returning of a true bill calculated to humiliate a man who dared oppose these same powers; and that’s the cause of the persecution.

This particular man is not worried the least bit over the situation, although he knows that might is stronger than right in Russell county, and expects to fight for right, even if it lands him in jail.

We warn our readers to not be surprised at anything that happens in Seale, be it persecution, blackmail or whitewash.”

As mentioned above, the grand jury did not hand down a true bill to either side in the law suit.”

The feud did not end with the lawsuit though it did end the first newspaper Marchant owned – The Phenix-Girard Journal. Marchant began a second newspaper immediately and twice in the span of eight months, Marchant had to apologize to his readers for the failure of the newspaper to achieve its goal of removing Henry Tillman Benton from office.

The Phenix-Girard Journal returned in 1911 under the guidance of Publisher I.I. Moses and Manager R.H. Mathis. It lasted from June 9, 1911 until it bowed out of publication on December 31, 1965. Isabel A. Moses, I.I. Moses’ daughter, took over as Publisher on January 1, 1932 and ran the paper until December 31, 1965.