Was Justice Served?
By Reno Bailey
In February of 1914, Cliffside Mills was summoned to court in Shelby. It was being sued. Timmons Clifford Barnett, an 18-year-old Shelby mill worker and his father, Z.D. Barnett, were suing the Cliffside company for $10,000 in damages for an incident that occurred back in 1907 when the boy was 11 years old, “a child of tender years,” as the complaint put it.
The ensuing trial was a clash of legal titans: for the plaintiff (Timmons), the law firm of O. Max Gardner; for the defendant (Cliffside Mills), the firm of Clyde R. Hoey. They were brothers-in-law, a future N.C. governor and a future governor and U.S. senator, respectively.
On or about November 30, 1907, the boy claimed to have been sent to the Cliffside post office that morning by his mother. He wandered over to a well that was being dug at the house across the street being built for mill superintendent W.L. Packard. There he claims to have found two dynamite caps lying about. He pocketed the caps and went home, then struck one of them with a hammer, causing himself to be blinded in one eye, and his vision impaired in the other.
The suit contended that Cliffside Mills had negligently allowed its workers to leave dynamite and dynamite caps “scattered recklessly” around the well site, “in an open, public and unguarded place” where Timmons “was allured into taking up one of the caps with a piece of fuse attached about six inches in length and [after taking it home] bursting it with a hammer.”
This was not the first suit in this matter. In the spring of 1908, six months after the incident, the elder Barnett had filed suit against Cliffside Mills in Rutherford County court, with the same complaint. But in that suit, Barnett’s version was that the well where dynamite and dynamite caps were “spread recklessly around” was “about 40 steps distant” from where the Barnetts were staying.
(In fact, they were staying nowhere near the Packard house, but at the home of Esley Monroe Green, who lived at 26 N. Main St., “about as far from the post office,” young Timmons later testified at the Shelby trial, “as from here to the Southern depot.”)
After considerable testimony in the Rutherford trial, Barnett’s own lawyer said the facts did not match the charge and the matter was ruled a “nonsuit.” So, now, six years later, another suit is filed in Cleveland County in which the circumstances are presumably the same, except for the claimed distance to the well.
Testifying to the “Negligence”
The first witness was the defendant, Timmons Barnett, who described what happened that day four years earlier.
Barnett’s witnesses all agreed as to where the well was, but some seemed conflicted as to the time of year.
J. H. Liverette, who worked on the Packard well off and on, said “it was somewhere along about June or July” and “it was in the summer time.” Liverette offered another point critical to the case. “The house had not been finished,” he said.
G. F. Sisk, a Cliffside resident, thought they started the well “along about roasting-ear time” but didn’t know when it was finished. “I do not think there was any fence around the well then; [they] fixed up one later. They were building this Packard house and hauling lumber in and digging the well. No one [was] living in the house.”
Charley Gardner remembered the well at the Packard house being started. “I think they were working on this well in the fall of 1907. I saw some dynamite caps there in a box one day; had fuse in them, close to the well…There was no fence or anything around the well when I passed there.”
Another witness, Ed Wood, said that sometime that year, before the boy had been hurt, he had seen the well, and that dynamite had been present, in an uncovered box, three to four feet from the well.
Additional witnesses for the defense: Z. D. Barnett, Mrs. Z. D. Barnett.
On the Other Hand…
George R. Waters, Cliffside Railroad section boss said on the stand, “In October or November of 1907 I was blasting dirt to fill in the trestle one-half mile above the mill, on the railroad. The railroad had a toolbox there that I kept tools in…We had…tools of all kinds that it took to supply eight or ten men, shovels and picks, [and] a couple of dynamite caps ready primed with fuse in them about six inches long. I went to this box every day, night and morning. I remember going to this box next day after the boy was hurt. The hinges were pulled off and the lid turned around to one side and two dynamite caps were missing; they were the only two I had…I had left the tool box fastened.”
Twit Humphreys, a fireman for the railroad testified: “I remember hearing of [Timmons Barnett] getting hurt. I was passing down the railroad and he and John Noah Green were at the toolbox on the railroad where the tools were kept, and Barnett was beating on the lock with a rock, and when I got up to him he was beating on it light like he was playing…I think that was two days before he was hurt; might have been later or might have been sooner.”
An engineer on the railroad, J.L. Cooper, remembered: “After Timmons Barnett was able to get out he was standing back of the old store and I asked him how he got his eye hurt, and he said with a dynamite cap, and I asked where, and he said he found it on the railroad.” Cooper further stated that, “possibly a month or two after the boy was hurt” Twit Humphreys told him [Cooper] about the incident on the railroad, of Barnett beating on the box.
Another witness for the defense, Claud Atkinson, told of young Barnett, the day before he was hurt, confronting Atkins on the street saying “Look out or I will shoot you!” then brandishing a dynamite cap that he said he got from “the toolbox.”
Dr. B.M. Haynes, who treated the boy, says, “He had an injury which they told me was from a dynamite cap…The boy’s parents told me in his presence that he got it down on the railroad; [but] did not say exactly where.”
W.L Packard, Superintendent of Cliffside Mills, cast some chronological light on the matter: “I am familiar with the house spoken of. I went into it the last of July or 1st August, 1907…At the time I moved there the well had been dug; [although] the windless was not finished and the back porch was not finished. The blasting was finished…the well was enclosed by [a] plank fence five feet high all the way around back and connects with the house.”
Other witnesses for the defense: G. K. Moore, W. E. Hames, R. B. Watkins, W. L. Toms, Mr. Goode, Mr. Weathers
Read the full testimony of these and other witnesses.
After lengthy testimony from 21 witnesses; 10 exceptions lodged by the defense; and even a character witness for the plaintiff who said Timmons was “bad to throw rocks,” the jury found for the plaintiff, and fined Cliffside Mills $2,000 and court costs. The subsequent appeal was overturned.
This information is from an official court document containing all the testimony, but omits the lawyers’ questioning and thunderous orations.
With all the persuasive evidence presented by the defense clearly tending to absolve Cliffside Mills, one wonders why the jurors reached this conclusion. If you have read all the testimony, What do you think?
Original document supplied by Phillip White and Judson O. Crow.
A condensed version of this story appeared in the Summer 2008 edition of The Cliffside Chimes, newsletter of the Cliffside Historical Society.