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Column: A search for murderers in the North Georgia mountains
Johnny_Vardeman
Johnny Vardeman

This story will require more than one part because it involves the murder of a federal marshal who was hunting down World War I military deserters and slackers, one of the most intensive manhunts in the history of the North Georgia mountains, the suspects’ capture, conviction and escape.

Finally, it is the story of a child whose parents left her to grow up among the family of murderers and didn’t realize it until many years into adulthood.

Julius Hulsey, a retired Gainesville lawyer, had heard the story of U.S. Marshal Ben Dixon’s murder by army deserters whom he had been tracking down in January 1919. Hulsey’s mother Irene Hulsey was close friends with Nina Dixon Woody, daughter of Marshal Dixon. The Hulseys would visit the Woodys most summers at Woody Lake, home of the famous forester and wildlife expert Arthur Woody.

The dense North Georgia mountains were a favorite hiding place for draft dodgers and deserters during World War I. U.S. Deputy Marshal Howard Thompson of Gainesville appealed to those trying to avoid military service to report for duty or be hunted down.

That’s where Marshal Dixon came in. He formed a posse and found deserter George Crawley and four others hiding in a mountain cabin deep in the woods near Blairsville. George’s sister Rose answered the door and told Dixon she didn’t know where her brother was.

Suspicious, Dixon was drawing his pistol when Rose, a strong mountain woman, pinned his arms against his sides. An inside door opened, shots were fired, and Dixon was wounded. A shootout ensued between the suspects and posse members before the desperadoes got away through the woods. Law officers took Dixon by horseback to the home of U.S. Commissioner W.T. Candler near Blairsville, where he died.

Dixon’s death prompted Georgia Gov. Hugh Dorsey to call on more federal help to search for the killers and deserters. Military troops joined the marshals in an all-out search specifically for George Crawley, his brother Decatur Crawley and their cousin Blaine Stewart, as well as others hiding in the mountains to avoid military service.

It turned out to be a massive military mission, guided by some experienced backwoodsmen pursuing suspects equally familiar with the wild mountain country. They braved cold weather, ice and deep snow in the steep terrain. 

They didn’t find George or Decatur Crawley, nor their cousin, when they reached the Crawley cabin, but four women — the ailing elderly Crawley mother and her daughters Rose, Candaisy and Margaret — and brothers Frank and Felix Crawley Jr. The brothers were charged with conspiracy in connection to the disappearance of the murder suspects.

The troops waited the night around the cabin, expecting the other Crawley men to come, but they didn’t show. Gordon Bowers, a member of the family, did arrive in the wee morning hours and was arrested for evading the draft.

After tracking the fugitive Crawley brothers and their cousin across Georgia, North Carolina and Tennessee for weeks in bitter winter cold, the troops gave up temporarily.

The search by authorities all over the mountains of the three states later resumed with no success. Finally, however, a single searcher, U.S. Deputy Marshal S. Glenn Young, found the suspects and brought them in. The daring young special agent had a reputation for running down fugitives.

The three men had evaded capture for almost a month. Young had been tracking them for six days, traveling only at night, getting little sleep and was near exhaustion. 

He was aware of the Crawley brothers’ mother having a cabin at the foot of Bald Mountain, Tennessee. With a .45 pistol in each hand and a Springfield rifle slung over his shoulder, Young burst through its door, getting the drop on them. The Crawleys gave up without a fight.

Sister Rose was cooking breakfast for the fugitives at 4:30 that morning, and their mother was ill lying in bed.

Scores of U.S. marshals, sheriff’s deputies and army troops had scoured the mountains for weeks, but in the end, it took only one man, S. Glenn Young, to bring the Crawley clan in.

Handcuffed together, George and Decatur Crawley and cousin Blaine Stewart were taken to Atlanta, where they were jailed with Felix and Frank Crawley and George Bowers. When word spread of the capture, thousands gathered at the Atlanta train depot to see the fugitives taken to jail.

Next week: A trial in Blairsville, and the Crawleys’ escape from their captors.

Johnny Vardeman is retired editor of The Times. He can be reached at 2183 Pine Tree Circle NE, Gainesville, GA 30501; 770-532-2326; or johnnyvardeman@gmail.com. His column publishes weekly.