The Legend Of Bell Tree Smith
Taken From: The Gadsden Times, Gadsden, AL 1920
Written By: The Gadsden Times, by Will I. Martin.
While the writer was driving through Rock Run the other day he recalled the story of Bell Tree Smith, a fantastic character who flourished in Cherokee county back in the nineties and who met the fate of almost all bullies, who respected no law and the rights of no man.
He got his nickname from the fact that he operated a blind tiger under a tree near his place of business. His illicit liquor sales were out in the open air to be seen by any officer or citizen who dared to take the risk of peeping or spying, for it was generally understood or believed that monkeying with what Bell Tree Smith considered his inalienable rights spelled sudden death or, at least a good pistol whipping and such like punishment as would call for silence on the part of any person who happened to be unduly nosey.
The man’s real name was William (Bill) Smith. His background was all right, but in early manhood he thought he saw a way to get rich and that was by selling moonshine whiskey in a prohibition county; and in an area that supported several iron furnaces, particularly around Bluffton which once had a population of 8,000 and which today is nothing but a weed patch.
Smith, according to stories published about him and also according to legends that still linger around his old stamping ground, had a novel idea about conducting a blind tiger out in the open air. He chained a bell to a large tree. The customers came up to the tree, deposited the exact sum of money for the amount of whiskey wanted on a projecting shelf or in the hollow of the tree, rang the bell and walked off to a point where he could not see the tree or the bell or the person who delivered the liquor. In fact, he knew that it was fatal not to get out of sight. Petty soon the bell would ring and he went back to find the amount of white lightning he had paid for. He quickly got out of the neighborhood without knowing who sold him the whiskey. In fact, he never saw a single person during the transaction, consequently, he could not truthfully swear in court that he had bought his liquor from any person.
That was the modus operandi and it was the reason that William (Bill) Smith got the nickname of Bell Tree Smith. Lots of people believed that he was really named Bell Tree from the start. It was almost a foolproof system especially since Smith had the reputation of being a very dangerous man. It was generally known that it would not be healthy for any person to swear against him. When the grand jury met and then the circuit court began its annual grind Bell Tree was around to see who might be inclined to betray him or swear against him. He had killed his man according to reports, and it was not safe to report him to the law.
He was reputed to be an overbearing man and, in fact, almost everybody in that section of the county and just across the state line in Georgia, was afraid of him. Bell Tree was a bully in his own bailiwick which was chiefly in the environs of Bluffton, the boomtown. It is said that he never raised any rows outside of his own community where he was looked upon as a sort of hero by his customers and was almost worshipped by his customers who were called his “witnesses” by many because he could prove almost anything in court by them. Like all bullies Bell Tree came to an ignominious end.
One day he drifted into the Borden-Wheeler Springs community where a large crowd gathered. Always a showoff, Smith decided to give the crowd a sample of his dare deviltry. He pulled out his pistol and ordered a 17 year old boy named Chandler to get down on his hands and knees and eat grass like a cow.
Terrified of Smith’s reputation the boy obeyed. As he ate grass, the crowd, or most of it was convulsed with merriment. Suddenly the 19 year old brother of young Chandler, pushed forward and as soon as he realized what was going on he stooped down, seized a rock and threw it with all his might. The rock struck Smith in the head, knocking him to the ground unconscious. As he fell, his gun fell out of his hand. The 19 year old Chandler boy picked up the pistol and fired a bullet through Smith’s head. That was the last of Bell Tree Smith for he was killed instantly.
Young Chandler was not bothered by an law agency because he was considered to have acted in self-defense as well as in the defense of his kid brother.
News papers of the time printed many stories about Bell Tree Smith. The late Tol Shropshire, editor of the Coosa River News, told the writer that the Old New York World once had quite a story about the fantastic character who operated a blind tiger by means of a bell and a tree-—all out in the open for everybody to see.
A native of the vicinity of Rock Run told the writer the other day that there was one man Bell Tree never bothered or monkeyed with and that was John Pryor. Those who knew John Pryor and those who knew his history can well believe that the Bluffton Bully never so much as looked like he wanted to cross the path of John Pryor, but that’s another story. Pryor was a much more fantastic figure and as well as a more heroic one, but as said, that’s another story for this column. (Actual date of this article is unknown, I received it through the mail.
Additional Bell Tree Smith Sources: