October 1934: Davis, Jasper resident and former lieutenant governor, dies


William C. Davis, the 11th lieutenant governor of Alabama and "a friend of the common masses," died in October 1934 at his family home in Birmingham. Davis had been a resident of Jasper since 1899.

Davis, 67, had been ill for three years and his death was not unexpected, according to an article that ran on the front page of The Mountain Eagle on Oct. 10, 1934.

Funeral services were held at First Baptist Church in Jasper, and burial took place at Oak Hill Cemetery.

"As a legislator and as a private citizen, Davis rendered the state of Alabama invaluable services in inaugurating a prison reform movement in this state, which after many weary years finally succeeded under his leadership, in abolishing the notorious convict lease system," the Eagle wrote in memoriam.

Davis served as lieutenant governor under. Gov. Bibb Graves from 1927 to 1931. He was an unsuccessful candidate for governor in 1930. 

Davis was a native of Iuka, Mississippi. At age 21, he began practicing law in Hamilton.

He served in the Alabama Legislature as a representative of Marion County before making the move to Jasper. 

"In 1915, as a member of the lower house from Walker County, Mr. Davis began his fight on the convict lease system. He introduced a bill to abolish the system, but it was killed in the Senate. But Mr. Davis continued the fight and in 1927, with the aid of the Alabama Prison Reform Association, he brought the campaign to a successful conclusion," the Eagle reported. 

According to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, the system forced prisoners to work in hard-labor jobs such as coal mining. Companies and individuals paid state and local governments in exchange for the labor. 

"Neither the state nor the counties profited from leasing prisoners until a fiscal crisis in 1875 compelled Alabama to look for new sources of revenue. The state's warden, John G. Bass, implemented a new policy by which the state leased individual state prisoners to various coal mines, farms, and lumberyards in exchange for monthly payments. Bass ranked prisoners into three classes according to their physical abilities and levels of skill and set fees accordingly. Revenue immediately jumped, and the state made a profit of between $11,000 and $12,000 in the first year," author Mary Ellen Curtin wrote. 

An overwhelming number of the prisoners were African American and unsafe working conditions were the norm. Between 4 and 5 percent of the prisoners died each year.

The system was abandoned in 1928. Alabama was the last state in the nation to abolish convict leasing, according to the article.

In other news from October 1934, the Eagle reported that some lucky residents would be able to purchase a locally-raised turkey for Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Karl Hare was raising between 70 and 75 turkeys at his home on North Highlands.

"Manhattan Melodrama," the picture that the famed John Dillinger watched moments before his death, was coming to The Colonial Theatre. 

The film, starring Clark Gable, Myrna Loy and William Powell, was said to be about gangster life and romance in New York.

"Anxious to see the gangster picture, Dillinger disguised himself and attended a little theatre in Chicago where it was being presented. He wa killed by officers just as he left the theatre," the Eagle reported.

Dillinger had been killed on July 22, 1934, outside the Biograph Theatre.

Jennifer Cohron is the Daily Mountain Eagle's features editor.