John Thomas Tanner, A Vintage Vignette
John Thomas Tanner
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
July 5, 2011
Due to news and sports reports, area residents are generally familiar with the name Tanner as a community with a high school along Highway 31 between Athens and Decatur. Few today know how the community got its name or that a candidate for Vice President of the United States was associated with the little town. A great reference source for such history is the book “The Lure and Lore of Limestone County” by Chris Edwards and Faye Axford. It was initially copyrighted in 1978 and my version was updated by Axford in 1990. Edwards had passed away in 1977. On pages 42-43, the book tells of the owners of the stately Tanner-Sherrill house at 111 North Madison Street in the heart of Athens. This was the home of John Thomas Tanner, 1888 Vice Presidential nominee of the Prohibition Party. He was also the national vice-president of the Prohibition Party, having served additionally as secretary and treasurer of the Alabama and Tennessee Central Railroad. He served for forty years on the board of trustees of Athens College, now Athens State University, while filling his spare time with writing articles for the Athens Post.
John was the sixth of nine known children of Samuel Tanner (1787-1874). Samuel was born in Virginia but lived in North Carolina before coming to Madison County in 1818. He then moved to Athens by 1825 and was the first mayor of the town, while operating a mercantile business on the town square. John's mother was Samuel's second wife, Margaret (1793-1875). John was born in Madison County on August 25, 1820. He lived until June 15, 1899, passing away in Athens just before reaching the 20th century. In February of 1884 the Alabama Courier quoted John T. Tanner as saying that he had served five consecutive terms, excepting one, without salary as mayor of Athens. He was at the time announcing that he would be happy to serve another term under the same conditions. He pointed out that he had served through illnesses and even stayed in place when others fled from the yellow fever epidemics of 1878 and 1879. It was in 1879 that he had played a role in stopping a lynching attempt against John Bailes by a mob for the murder of pregnant Alice Loveless Bailes. Due to his cruelty toward her and their unborn child, Alice was estranged from her husband, and she was killed in her mother's garden near Pettusville. In May of 1879 the mob formed in Pettusville to lynch John Bailes, who had been jailed in Athens for the murder. The mob was dispersed by several prominent Athens men, who promised justice by due process. Additional mob formations and lynching attempts resulted during lengthy court delays that delayed the promised justice. It reached the point where Mayor Tanner closed the saloons and bars in Athens on September 18, when a crowd estimated to number between 2,000 to 3,000 people gathered for the fourth time to execute Bailes themselves. The mob was again thwarted on that occasion, but during the night of August 7, 1880, they did it their way, hanging Bailes from a tree on the courthouse square.
John's own family began with his 1846 marriage to Susan Owen Wilson of Greenwood, Louisiana. They had children Margaret Elizabeth (1849), Jason (1851), Mary Ruth (1853), Susan Owen (1855), John Blackwood (1857), Mariah D. (1859), and Luke P. (1865). Census records show that the family lived in the Shoal Ford area in 1860 but in Athens in later years. John T.'s occupation was given as merchant, broker, banker, and cotton broker in the census records 1850-1880. In addition to his public service positions through the years, John Thomas Tanner was president of an unsuccessful land company that marketed lots for an anticipated Limestone County boom town initially called Rowland. Now that town is known as Tanner. While John Thomas Tanner's commitment to public service was indeed exemplary, apparently not quite all of John's commercial endeavors had outstanding results. Nonetheless, this land company project ended up commemorating his name. It has become a significant part of his legacy in the area.