‘Murder in Coweta’ has continual silver lining
The killing of farmhand William Turner in 1948 was a tragedy.
Turner, who was using the name Wilson Turner, was a young husband and father. He was suddenly dead – his body never found, his family left without a breadwinner. John Wallace, the powerful Meriwether County landowner accused of killing him, was ultimately found guilty and sentenced to the electric chair. His death left a void in another family, for Wallace was a man of many layers and sides. His good deeds were as legendary as his volcanic temper.
Sixty-six years later, the story continues to reverberate – to bring interest to Coweta County. The story even brings visitors who come seeking to see or touch part of that story. The proposal by the Newnan Theatre Company to stage a play about the murder has much potential. The example of the regular performances of “To Kill a Mockingbird” in the courthouse in Monroeville, Ala., hometown of author Harper Lee, is often cited as a template.
Visitors bring money to spend, and a play based on the Wallace-Turner murder could create its own small burst of economic development. Local tourism types are already taking notice and looking at aspects of the story that can be marketed in Newnan, Moreland and other parts of Coweta County.
The murder trial was a sensation in 1948. The Atlanta newspapers covered it. Powerful Wallace was convicted of murdering his tenant, Turner. The witnesses included eccentric Mayhayley Lancaster, a fortuneteller from rural Heard County, and – perhaps more astoundingly in those Jim Crow days – two black farm workers who testified they helped Wallace burn Turner’s body.
Margaret Anne Barnes’ best-seller and the television movie it inspired created a heroic image of Coweta Sheriff Lamar Potts, who is depicted as having a dogged determination to see that Turner gets a fair day in court. More recent books – “From the Farm to the Electric Chair: The John Wallace Story” by Ivey Nance and “No Remorse: The Rise and Fall of the Killer John Wallace” by Dot Moore – take a more nuanced view of the personalities and events.
Dick Atkins, who produced the 1983 film version of “Murder in Coweta County,” visited Coweta County last year where the courtroom – where the actual trial took place – filled to capacity with people wanting to hear from him and from a panel. Now he is back in town, speaking tonight at the Carnegie.
Coweta has even had a residual benefit. Atkins’ talented wife, Joanna Pang Atkins, presented enjoyable, informative, colorful presentations on multi-cultural dance at the Carnegie on Wednesday. While the programs were aimed at youngsters, adults who attended also found them enjoyable, as well as educational.
Though Turner, Wallace, Potts and Lancaster are no longer around, their story continues to create new chapters – and new opportunities – in Coweta County.