It was a real-life event that took place 70 years ago, and it definitely wasn’t the sort of thing that happened in the idyllic television depiction of Mayberry, even if Sheriff Andy is involved — sort of.
In the spring of 1948, a man named John Wallace was the “boss” of Meriwether County, located in rural Georgia not far from the Alabama state line. Wallace had all of the powers that be in the county in his back pocket, and took advantage of this to engage in nefarious activities, including running illegal whiskey. One of the sharecroppers on Wallace’s vast estate had the idea to get into the bootlegging business himself. When Wallace found out, he fired him.
Thus began a feud that ultimately claimed the lives of both men.
Wilson Turner, who felt he had done nothing against Wallace, couldn’t find work after being fired. He responded by retaliating against the man who fired him, stealing two of Wallace’s cows. He was caught and arrested, but Wallace couldn’t prove his case against Turner, and the ex-employee was released.
As soon as he left the county jail to drive home, a vengeful Wallace and at least two accomplices engaged him in a high-speed chase that ended just over the border of the next county, where Turner’s truck ran out of fuel and forced him to attempt an escape on foot. Wallace and his men caught and murdered Turner, loaded him into a truck, and then Wallace forced two of his African-American sharecroppers to bury him on Wallace’s own property.
In 1948, people had gotten away with doing far worse to their sharecroppers, especially when they were powerful landowners and the only witnesses willing to speak were African-Americans in the pre-Civil Rights era American South.
But Wallace had made one serious mistake: he had committed his crime outside of Meriwether County, where Sheriff Hardy Collier was his friend. Instead, he’d taken Turner’s life at the Sunset Tourist Camp in neighboring Coweta County, where Sheriff Lamar Potts was dedicated to law and justice — and didn’t take bribes.
Since the crime had taken place in Potts’ jurisdiction, he launched an investigation, eventually convinced the two sharecroppers to tell him what had happened, and arrested Wallace.
Two years later, John Wallace became the first White man in Georgia ever given the death penalty based on the testimony of minority witnesses.
In 1976, the story was the basis of a historical novel by Margaret Anne Barnes, who lived in the area, titled Murder in Coweta County. Country music star Johnny Cash read the book and became interested in making a film.
Cash eventually got in touch with Dick Atkins, then the vice president for production at Telecom Entertainment, and director Gary Nelson. And so it was, 35 years after the murder of Wilson Turner, the story was made into a movie of the same name. Andy Griffith, who had been doing made-for-TV movies since 1972, ended up being cast in the film.
There was, however, a unique twist to the TV adaptation of Murder in Coweta County. Based on their careers, one would have expected Griffith, aka Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, to play Potts, the protagonist of the tale, and Cash, who built an image as a bad-guy turned musician who called himself the “Man In Black,” to play Wallace. Instead, Cash and Griffith decided to turn the typecasting on its ear, and Griffith played the killer and Cash the man who brought him to justice against long odds.
Atkins quoted Griffith, who died in 2012, as saying, “I’m drawn to the opportunity to be in a film where I play the bad guy, co-starring to Johnny Cash, and I can play the banjo.”
Griffith not only relished going outside his usual acting fare to play the role of John Wallace, he also met his third wife, Cindi, during the film’s production. They were married less than two months after the movie debuted on Feb. 15, 1983, and stayed together until his death 29 years later.
Atkins produced Murder in Coweta County for CBS, in one of his final projects before starting his own production company in 1984. During 1983, Atkins produced both Coweta and The Gift of Love: A Christmas Story, both of which have been re-screened many times over the past 35 years. In addition to producing Coweta, he also says he was involved in the development of the movie’s script, and that people find it especially interesting because it was based on a true story.
As part of Mayberry Days, the film was shown at The Historic Earle Theatre downtown on Tuesday and will be shown again Wednesday at 2 p.m. Atkins is present at both re-screenings to speak about the movie and sign photos and DVDs, and will also be in town all week for signing sessions. Admission to see the movie is $7.