John Wright Withers, A Vintage Vignette

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John Wright Withers
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin


As I research the pioneer families of the Madison area, I find that there’s always more to the story, especially relative to what can be contained in a Vintage Vignette. A recent case in point is the story of Carl Mandel, as published in the July 15 issue of the Madison Spirit. Carl’s step-grandson, Mark Krome, called me after the article appeared in print and provided additional information. Mark told me that Carl had a wife in Germany before Gertrude. She and Carl’s daughters drowned near the end of World War 2, and when Carl got to America, he wrote back to Gertrude from Fort Bliss to propose marriage. Also, Carl and Gertrude in 1950 bought a lot in Huntsville, then purchased 25 acres in Monrovia from Bertha Wall. In the 1974 settlement of Gertrude’s estate, only one acre was probated, indicating that the rest of the property had already been passed along to her children. Mark grew up on the family lands along Nance Road and later moved into Madison, now working at Marshall Space Flight Center.

Carl’s accomplishments here were largely forgotten due to overshadowing by Von Braun. That is not unusual. The story of pioneer John Withers’ family was equally lost in a sense, even though his daughter Susannah married Clement Comer Clay, 8th governor of Alabama, and John’s family was connected to some of the most historically important families of Virginia as well as Alabama. My short story about John Withers was published in the Madison Spirit issue of December 26, 2007, and it remained focused upon John himself rather than his family.

A poignant aspect of the Withers family story was brought to light in 1999 when I, with Percy Keel, explored an old Withers family cemetery in southeastern Limestone County. Only five massive tombstones remained, but more burials were apparent. There were remnants of two old houses and several brick slave cabins in the heavily forested and overgrown area. This was obviously an impressive little community in its day, as even the drainage ditches were lined with glazed slave-made brick. Research into the names on the tombstones showed that all were connected to John Withers by birth or marriage, but John’s own cemetery was in Madison County’s Research Park, along the southeastern corner of Quality Circle.

Pauline Jones Gandrud’s records stored at the Hoole Special Collections of the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa show that someone named “Howard” inventoried the cemetery for her in April 1940. Howard’s notations had a few errors, possibly due to rushing through inspection of the tombstones. This could be from inability to clean the growth from the stones and perhaps from fearing “critters”. Howard wrote that he visited the site in the failing light of evening, so he surely wanted to get out of the area quickly. Howard noted that there was a grave marker for “John Wright Withers, born 1776, died March 1836”. The marker was not found in my 1999 visit to the cemetery. If these dates are correct, then the John Withers who was father of Susannah must have had a close relative by that name, because these dates do not fit for John or his son of the same name. However, such a brother is not found in any known listings of the family.

Several authoritative sources give Susannah’s father as having been born in 1770 and died in 1826. He did have a son that he named John Wright Withers (“Junior”). This son was born in Virginia in 1796, married Palmyra S. Jordan, and became a noted physician of this area. He died in Clinton, Mississippi, in 1836. After Dr. Withers' death, his wife Palmyra moved with her children back to the Madison area, and she is buried in the little cemetery, according to family information and one of the massive markers. It is my theory that the notation made by Howard in 1940 should have shown a birthdate of 1796 for the John Wright Withers buried there. Then everything would match for “Junior”. On old tombstones, it is often difficult to differentiate between a “7” and a “9”. Again, there is probably more to the story.

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