Murder in Madision - 1914, A Vintage Vignette

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Murder in Madision - 1914
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
March 10, 2008

On page 6, column 4, of the Wednesday, June 3, 1914 issue of the Huntsville WEEKLY MERCURY newspaper, was the article headline “SHOOTING IN MADISON”, with subheading of “Foreign Farmer Killed by Jake Camper. They Quarreled Over Crop Cultivation. Widow and 9 Children Bereft.” Today one might think such an article to be not so unusual. However, as I began to interview the older lifetime residents of Madison about 10 years ago, I asked each of them if any serious crimes had ever occurred in the town. Not one had ever known or heard of anything serious happening here. However, continued research turned up three murders in the town or immediate area that took place before the “oldest living memories” began to collect information. Apparently, their parents did not talk about the murders, or at least these were things that they did not contemplate as children if stories were told when they were young.

This particular event in 1914 was not the earliest murder, but it may well have been the most bizarre. The first report said that the foreigner was named Finnicetti. Later reports had other spellings, until finally the records stabilized upon the name Vanatta. According to Camper’s statements, during the quarrel “the foreigner cursed him so fiercely that he could not stand it. He went to his home and got a shotgun and returning opened fire on the man.” The newspaper story further stated that “Camper is a one-armed man; his only arm is almost disabled.” The Mercury’s article about Camper’s trial and conviction on October 28 stated “the two men had quarreled over whether or not Vanatta’s boy should be allowed to plow a crop in which Vanatta and Camper were interested.” Court records show that the boy was about 15 years old, and Vanatta was a sharecropper on Jordan (“Jake”) Howard Camper’s land. The incident occurred where Camper owned land, along Indian Creek where today we find the Creekwood and Heatherwood housing developments.

Camper was 56 years old at the time of the quarrel. How he understood Vanatta’s Italian curses is one of the questions that not addressed in the public records. Likewise, what Vanatta was doing while a man with only one disabled and useless arm loaded, aimed, and fired a shotgun at him is a mystery that was not mentioned. Adding to the unusual aspects of the case is the fact that Camper no longer lived here. He had moved to Texas some years earlier and came back to visit relatives and check on his crops being produced by Vanatta. It is not clear that he still had a home here from which to get a gun. Perhaps a relative gave him the weapon.

Jake was convicted in Huntsville in the October hearing and sentenced to 20 years in the penitentiary. However, his attorneys immediately filed an appeal on the grounds of several items of evidence and testimony not being allowed in court, along with an improper charge to the jury by the judge. For example, it was claimed that the jury should have been reminded that “a man’s home is his castle” and that every man has a right to defend himself. (The Camper defense had claimed that Vanatta had a hoe and was about to attack Jake.) The records of the disposition of the appeal have not been reviewed, but it is known that Jake Camper and his family continued to live in Texas until his death from pneumonia a few years later.

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