William B. Dunn, A Vintage Vignette
William B. Dunn, A Vintage Vignette
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
April 29, 2007
Doctor Dunn lived one of the most interesting lives of the pioneers of Madison. He was born in North Carolina about 1807 and appeared in the 1850 Madison County (Alabama) census with his sister Jackey G. Dunn Wiggins, in the household of her husband Richard. Jackey was three years younger than William Dunn, and next door lived John H. Dunn, their brother who was born in 1822 in North Carolina. The 1840 census of Madison County appears to show William Dunn with a wife living in the household of Richard Wiggins, but only the names of the head of household (Richard) were shown in that year. Richard Wiggins and his family are buried in a cemetery behind the Siemens (Chrysler) plant just east of the airport and south of Martin Road.
While William Dunn’s occupation was shown in the census of 1850 as a doctor, he either abandoned his practice or incorporated it into his next known occupation – that of Depot Agent for the Memphis & Charleston Railroad at Madison Station. He was the first depot agent here, and it may be that he offered medical services to travelers who became ill on the train. It is known that he served as railroad agent at the depot for the rest of his life, but he also retained the title of doctor and apparently treated patients in his home until his demise. Today we would probably call him “overqualified” for the position of Depot Agent, but the railroad may have considered his medical background as a bonus for their passengers.
Probably the most exciting event in Dr. Dunn’s life came during the Civil War, when Union troops first came to the area in March of 1862. The federal forces were sure that Dr. Dunn had information that they needed and that he was not sharing. Accordingly, when the Union soldiers started toward Decatur, they tied Dr. Dunn to the front of a flatcar filled with federals and placed it in front of the locomotive. The theory was that Dr. Dunn was so well liked in the area that surely the Confederates would not open fire on the car along the way. Furthermore, if the track had been sabotaged, then Dr. Dunn would be the first to be in jeopardy in a derailment and subsequent attack.
According to old newspaper accounts and the story related by Judge Robert E. Wiggins (son of Richard and a nephew of the doctor), the tracks were indeed torn up near the crossing at Beaver Dam Creek between Madison and Decatur. The train derailed, and the Confederates attacked. However, Dr. Dunn was thrown free of the bindings and fell into dense undergrowth along the tracks. He hid in the brush during the short skirmish, but the Union troops found him afterward and returned him to Madison. He was held for a time, but eventually he was returned to duty at the depot as a civilian non-combatant.
His “movie plot” life continued after the war to involve a black female servant or assistant, Bettie Turner, to whom he deeded “for her lifetime” two lots and a house along Front Street, adjacent to his own house. Dr. Dunn built the oldest house still standing in the historic district, at 19 Front Street, but his was the single-story wing that was later incorporated into the back of the two-story mansion constructed by Jim Williams in the early 1900s.
Since Bettie had “no next of kin in this state”, her last will and testament left all of her property to Ann E. Wiggins Sanders, a niece of Dr. Dunn, her employer. The original will was witnessed by Dr. Dunn and Dr. Algernon Sydney Harris of Madison. It was left in the possession of Dr. Isaac F. Deloney, who moved from Madison to Lawrence County after Dr. Dunn died in 1871. When Bettie Turner died in 1901, Ann W. Sanders filed for probate of a copy of the will. Because the original had been lost by Dr. Deloney, he gave sworn deposition of his recollections of the terms of the will, and the copy was accepted and implemented. During her lifetime, Bettie Turner lived on Madison’s premier residential street, among the most influential citizens of the town. She must have been a very highly regarded person by Dr. Dunn, who stated in the deeds that she had provided services for which he was indebted to her. Likewise, Bettie must have had a very high degree of loyalty to the family of Dr. Dunn for her to leave all that she had to his niece. Race relations in Madison seem to have been quite different from the common stereotypes of Southern life of the period.