Benjamin Franklin Harper, A Vintage Vignette

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Benjamin Franklin Harper
A Vintage Vignette by John P. Rankin
March 28, 2010

He was Mayor of Madison, 1900 – 1901, but nobody living today remembers him. In fact, he may well have died childless, therefore leaving no descendants to link into remembrances of him. My first encounter with him, perhaps 15 years ago, was to notice that a large and elaborate tombstone in the old section of the Madison City Cemetery south of Mill Road and east of Maple Street was about to topple. It would obviously break apart when it fell. A cedar tree that once adorned the head of his grave had been pushing the monument to one side, and the tree roots had expanded underneath one edge of the tombstone base. As I viewed it, it was similar to the Leaning Tower of Pisa, likely to fall at any time. Fortunately, some concerned citizen (and perhaps a wayward beaver) came to the rescue temporarily. The bark of the tree was girdled and the base of the tombstone was somewhat stabilized with bricks. Thus began my quest to learn who this “B. F. Harper” might have been in Madison.

The grave monument gave the name (with initials only) and the epithet “A True Man” plus the dates April 25, 1850 and January 13, 1912. “Old timers” of the town knew nothing of him, but it was later discovered that he was listed in the official records of the town as mayor for two years. A bit of incidental follow-up research has revealed a bit more about this man’s life. Indications are that he was possibly the Benjamin Franklin Harper born in Eufaula, Barbour County, Alabama in the family of William and Margaret (later censuses show Catherine or “Kate”) Harper. Per the 1850 census William was born in 1795 in North Carolina (1860 census says Georgia), and Catherine was born about 1806 in South Carolina (Georgia per the 1870 census). By 1880 Benjamin was found living in the household of Madison merchant W. T. Garner. Ben was an unmarried clerk in the Garner store at that time.

In the censuses of 1900 and 1910 it is shown that Ben had a wife named Nannie, 18 years his junior, with no children having been born to her. However, it was noted in the 1910 record that Nannie was Ben’s second wife. A check of Madison County marriage records confirmed what a nearby tombstone also revealed. Ben’s first wife was Lula Wingo, daughter of Madison merchant J. W. Wingo. Lula was born May 17, 1865; married February 20, 1884; and died June 7, 1885. It is not known whether Ben and Lula had any children, but he married Nannie Russell February 22, 1894, and there were no children in their household in 1900 or later. Nannie was from the nearby part of Limestone County. She was a daughter of farmer James Russell and his wife Minerva. James was born in Tennessee; Minerva was born in Virginia. It is not known were Nannie was buried or when she died.

The census records always showed that Benjamin Franklin Harper was a farmer, except for his youth and in 1880. However, Madison County Circuit Court archives “Loose Papers” file #1204 reveals that Ben was sued by the Memphis firm of Schoolfield, Hanauer, & Co. Their suit was filed in Madison County on January 1, 1885, to recover debts owed by Ben for a long list of goods that obviously represented merchandise for a store featuring primarily shoes. The suit claimed that Ben owed about $1400, but it was decreed by the court on July 30 of 1885 that Ben owed only $390 plus $8.90 court costs. A subsequent sheriff’s inventory of Ben’s property for seizure sale listed values totaling almost $1600. Obviously, 1885 was a bad year for Ben. He lost his first wife and possibly his business that summer. In fact, Lula may well have died in childbirth, compounding Ben’s loss. Complications of a pregnancy may even have been a factor in Ben’s arrears in payments to Schoolfield, Hanauer, & Co. There is much unknown about Benjamin Franklin Harper’s life, but at least a little research made him more memorable than simply another name on a grave marker.

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