Murder at the Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Co., Old Mill #1
Shots rang out on June 9, 1899 at Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company’s “Old Mill #1” in Gastonia as the first shift was coming to work. William Guilford Brown, the operations manager, was shot and killed by an employee, Drayton Medlin, who believed that his daughter had not been paid properly. The shootout ended Brown’s life and left Medlin in a legal fight to save his own.
According to newspaper and legal accounts, the situation that led to the gunfight between Brown and Medlin arose over a difference in opinion about how much money one of Medlin’s three daughters was entitled to for a day’s work. Medlin’s daughter believed she was supposed to be paid 50 cents per day and Brown believed she was supposed to be paid 48 cents per day. There was also a question about how many days Medlin’s daughter had worked. Medlin confronted Brown about the pay dispute on June 8, 1899..
The argument continued the next morning, June 9. Vulgar insults between the two were exchanged. Brown refused to allow the daughter to start work and evidently made offensive statements to Medlin and his daughter.
Medlin left the building but soon returned with a pistol. He entered the building and climbed the tower stairs leading to Brown’s office in defiance of instructions not to. Upon seeing Medlin, Brown apparently reached for his pistol, which was on him. Medlin pulled his revolver first and the two exchanged gunfire at close range. At least one of two shots hit Brown, but he was still on his feet.
As Medlin attempted to flee from the scene, Brown followed him down the stairs of the tower with the intent of shooting him through a window. It is not clear if Brown actually got off a shot or not, but Medlin claimed that several shots were taken at him. Medlin didn’t know who actually shot at him, but he heard someone say “Yonder he goes. Shoot him.” He said that he saw smoke coming from the barrel of Brown’s gun, which implies that Brown fired at least one shot.
At some point, while possibly “20 or 25 steps” from the building, Medlin claimed to have turned around and returned fire hitting Brown on the left side of his chest. Medlin argued that that shot was the second shot that hit Brown and that it was the shot that caused Brown’s death.
Medlin stated, “…I turned my head, and just as I turned my head somebody shot at me again. As I turned round I saw George Ballard leaning out of the window upstairs. While I was looking I dropped my eyes and saw Mr. Brown standing in the window downstairs with his pistol in both hands. The smoke was boiling out of the window as if he had just shot. I threw my pistol back and shot at Brown, and ran on. I looked back again but did not see Brown any more. As I shot the last shot I saw him throw his hand on his left breast and stagger back. That’s the last I saw of Brown.”
Brown died where he had been standing, but it isn’t clear which of Medlin’s shots actually caused his death.
After shooting Brown, Medlin fled toward Dallas, N.C. He was found by a search party that was quickly assembled after the shootout. Medlin said that he would have been further away had he known that Brown was dead. He was apprehended by authorities and held in the county jail at Dallas. Medlin’s family left town shortly after the murder to seek employment elsewhere.
A funeral service was held for Brown at the Methodist church where he had been a member. Brown’s wife and five children collected a life insurance policy of either $2,000 or $5,000. They continued to live in their house on East Airline Avenue in Gastonia for decades to come. Had Brown not died and had he continued to progress in the cotton industry, his family would’ve been much better off than they were without him though they apparently had a middle-class existence.
Dramatically Different Life Choices
Medlin and Brown were both raised in western South Carolina and were about the same age, but the way they chose to live their lives as adults was dramatically different.
Medlin was listed in census records as a farmer, but he was a career criminal. In the late 1880s, he was a part of a gang of criminals in South Carolina who broke into people’s houses and robbed them of their possessions. They would look for wealthy, old men who wouldn’t be a threat to them. One time, they even robbed a blind man.
After an attempted robbery in 1889, the ringleaders of the gang, Medlin and Fayette Pelfrey, stopped at a man’s house on the way back to their homes. While discussing their latest crime, a band of citizens surrounded the house and entered to the surprise of the men. A shootout erupted and Medlin was hit in the hand causing his right thumb to be amputated and his left thumb to be removed and reattached. The bullet that ripped Medlin’s thumbs off ended up in his abdomen. There were reports that Medlin had been killed, but he lived due to the care of a doctor. Four members of the gang, which included Medlin, his brothers, a nephew and other accomplices, were sent to prison after being convicted. The Greenville News described the men as “white men of low character.’’
In 1893, Medlin and his brother James were released from prison in South Carolina on the condition that they leave the Palmetto State. Medlin moved to the Gaston-Lincoln area of North Carolina and worked in cotton mills as a weaver. In 1898, Medlin volunteered for service in the Spanish-American War but deserted his unit before it reached Cuba to join the fight. He returned to North Carolina where his wife and children lived. Medlin and at least one of the children worked at the Gastonia Cotton Manufacturing Company’s Old Mill #1. After Medlin killed Brown at the Old Mill, the Charlotte News described Medlin as “a desperate man, having been in several scrapes.”
Brown was born in Tennessee to a Civil War veteran two years after the end of the war. He grew up near Aiken, South Carolina with his parents. Brown’s father was a cotton mill worker. According to Gaston County historian, Jason Luker, he would’ve started working in the cotton mills at a very young age, most likely around age 6. In the 1880 census, Medlin was listed as a cotton mill worker. In the 1880s, Brown moved to North Carolina to work in the cotton mills.
At the time, steady work at the cotton mills, conveniences of the “big city,” and a general improvement of life conditions, drew tenant farmers to the small towns that were experiencing growth due to the development of industry.
Records show that Brown married his wife, the former Mary L. McCoy at Lincolnton in 1887. Together they had five children.
The Concord newspaper stated that Brown had worked at the Cabarrus Cotton Mill in Concord prior to working at the Gastonia Manufacturing Company’s Old Mill #1. Brown was clearly knowledgeable about the cotton manufacturing industry and skilled at its processes because he was in charge of the production activities at the Old Mill at the time of his death. He would’ve been in frequent contact with George Alexander Gray, the ambitious cotton industry stalwart who owned the mill and went on to own at least eight others in the county. In order to earn the respect of Gray and be offered a position of high responsibility in the mill, Brown would’ve had to have had a track record of hard work and success.
The Old Mill was a large employer and Brown would’ve been known throughout the town. The Gastonia Gazette stated that people of all backgrounds paid their respects to Brown when he died.
Brown apparently surrounded himself with decent, fair-minded people. After Brown was killed, his friends were upset and thought about retaliating against Medlin, but decided that the best thing to do was to let the legal process unfold.
In October of 1899, just months after the killing, Medlin was put on trial for first-degree murder in Gaston County Superior Court at the old county courthouse in Dallas. Each day, Medlin was taken from the jail nearby to the courthouse for the proceedings.
Some of the biggest names in the law and politics in North Carolina participated in the trial.
Representing the State of North Carolina were attorneys Frank R. McNinch, Col. Hamilton C. Jones, Jr., and Edwin Yates Webb.
McNinch was a rookie lawyer at the time of the trial who had recently graduated from law school at UNC. Later, he would serve as a representative in the North Carolina General Assembly and as the Mayor of Charlotte. He was appointed to serve as a member of the Federal Power Commission by President Herbert Hoover, and was appointed to serve as Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. From 1939 until 1946, McNinch served as the Special Assistant to the U.S. Attorney General in Washington, D.C.
Col. Jones was an officer in the Confederate Army, a former editor of the Charlotte News, a state senator, a district attorney, and an influential leader of the Mecklenburg County Democratic Party. Col. Jones joined Sylvester Brown Shepherd from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office to fight Medlin’s appeal when it was heard at the NC Supreme Court.
Webb was a state senator at the time of the trial and was elected to Congress the following year where he served for 8 terms. He was nominated by Woodrow Wilson 1919 to serve as a judge on United States District Court for the Western District of North Carolina and served in that capacity until his death 36 years later in 1955.
The defendant was represented by attorneys Frank I. Osborne and Oscar F. Mason.
Osborne had been a Solicitor for the Sixth Judicial District, the Mayor of Charlotte, and Attorney General of North Carolina. At the time of the trial, Osborne was a State Senator. Less than two years after the trial he was appointed by President Theodore Roosevelt to be a judge on the U.S. Circuit Court of Private Land Claims, which helped settle disputes about land claims granted by the Spanish in the western U.S. Osborne was highly influential in political and legal circles. He was regarded by some as the best lawyer in the state and one of the best in the South.
Mason was a state senator, a representative to the General Assembly, and a local Democratic Party leader.
Court records from the trial still exist in the North Carolina State Archives, but they are hard to read and don’t offer many details about the action in the courtroom during the trial. The archives of the Gastonia Gazette do not have editions for many dates in 1899. However, one Gazette article that exists states that the Fall term of the court lasted for longer than local observers remembered it having ever lasted. The fact that nearly all of the attorneys in the courtroom were skilled orators who were well-known and respected in legal and political circles can only lead one to believe that the trial was an important one. Many newspapers around the state and in various locales throughout the country published information about the murder and the subsequent happenings.
After hearing evidence for five days and deliberating for five hours, the jury in the case found sufficient evidence of Medlin’s guilt and he was sentenced to death by hanging. The verdict was rendered, but the story was far from over.
The Fight for Medlin’s Life
Osborne immediately appealed Medlin’s conviction and sentence. The case went all the way up to the North Carolina Supreme Court in Raleigh.
In his appeal, Medlin claimed that he shot Brown in self-defense even though he initially approached Brown and fired the first shot. Medlin claimed that he was trying to leave the scene. However, Justice Robert M. Douglas wrote that Medlin was still engaged in the conflict and had not done everything necessary to separate himself from Brown or keep Brown from being fearful of him. He noted that Medlin continued to turn around to look at Brown when he should have been focused on getting out of gunshot range or finding something to hide behind.
The justices of the Supreme Court affirmed the lower court’s ruling and the verdict stood.
Osborne then requested that the execution be delayed and it was at least three times by Governor Daniel Russell. Finally, Gov. Russell commuted Medlin’s death sentence to a life term in the penitentiary. His reasoning was that the jury should have had the option of convicting Medlin on a lesser charge, such as manslaughter.
The Fight for Medlin’s Freedom
Gov. Russell’s decision did not go far enough to appease Osborne. He continued advocating for his client during the coming years.
Meanwhile, Medlin was in the penitentiary, but his time there was not at all uneventful.
In September 1903, Medlin and another prisoner, A.V. Rice, mysteriously disappeared. For 10 days, authorities searched for the two under the assumption that they had escaped from the penitentiary. Newspapers around North Carolina and in other parts of the country reported the incident. There was suspicion that they had been helped by employees of the prison. Citizens of Gastonia speculated that Medlin would return to the city because of his connections there. Officials weren’t sure how the pair could’ve escaped because there was no evidence of that and no eyewitness accounts.
Medlin was described in the newspapers as “a white man about forty (40) years old, five feet three inches high, 125 pounds, has black eyes and black hair; left thumb shot off and reset, right thumb off at first joint; tattoo of woman on world between wrist and elbow inside, and is very bald.”
It turned out that Medlin and Rice never left the prison. After 10 days, warden Captain J. M. Fleming discovered them hiding above the prison’s old shoe shop. They had been subsistenting on some food that they had brought along with them. They apparently set-up their hideout while working at the prison’s electricity plant.
The disappearance of the two convicts caused prison officials to look inept and most likely led to time in isolation.
In late October 1904, Medlin witnessed a violent clash between two inmates at the prison. The instigator, Sherman Jolly, hit the second inmate, Archie McIver with a brick. McIver broke a piece of wood over Jolly’s head. Other inmates apparently tried to break up the fight. Medlin testified that Jolly had a razor, but it was Jolly who ended up dead from knife wounds. Jolly and McIver had had previous disagreements and had argued the same day while shooting craps.
Medlin Regains Freedom
Gov. Charles Aycock, who followed Gov. Russell, was very generous in dispensing commutations and pardons during his term. In the final hours of his governorship in February of 1905, Gov. Aycock issued a pardon which would set Medlin free. The newspapers noted that Gov. Aycock had already been the recipient of backlash for his tendency to be forgiving and that Medlin’s pardon would only fan the flames.
Medlin was released on October 1, 1905 from the penitentiary. Though he served time in prison, he was not reformed and returned to criminal activity shortly thereafter. In September 1907, he was sentenced to time on a chain gang in Lincoln County for selling liquor illegally. He was also wanted in Gaston County for unknown charges around the same time, but wasn’t immediately sent there to face the music because he was already in custody.
In 1920, Medlin’s wife filed for divorce in Gaston County court. Several notices were published in the Gastonia Gazette, but it isn’t clear if he ever showed. Around the same time, Medlin’s mistress, who he later married, gave birth to a son in Greensboro, N.C. That son, Warren Harding Medlin, died of a head injury following a motorized bicycle accident in 1938. Another son from the marriage, Erwin Junior Medlin, was wounded in at least two attempted escapes from incarceration during his life.
In 1932, Medlin died following a four-month-long bout with an illness at his son’s house on North Davidson St. in Charlotte. Medlin lived more than 32 years after the death of Brown who died at only 32 years of age. Medlin was 70-years-old at the time of his death.
A Gaston Gazette article about the old jail being put up for sale in 1973 mentioned Brown’s murder. Someone quoted for the story, a Mrs. R. R. Rhyne, was alive at the time of the incident and shared her recollection of what happened that day. She said that her father was named Will Brown just like the victim in this case. A person came to her home and said that Will Brown was dead, which caused confusion and fear. Her relative was not the person killed. The article noted that Mrs. Rhyne played on the scaffold that was built to hang Medlin when she was a child.
The old courthouse and jail still stand. The hotel that was across the street from the courthouse also stands and is occupied by the Gaston County Museum of Art and History. The mission of the museum is “To interpret the art and history of Gaston County and the region through education, preservation, and collection.” For more information about the museum and its programs and exhibits, visit GastonCountyMuseum.org or call (704) 922–7681.
Special thanks to Brian Brown of the Gaston County Public Library for his assistance with the research on this story. Thank you also to Jason Luker of the Gaston County Museum for showing interest in this story and helping to tell it.
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Unknown. Charlotte News. September 15, 1903: Page 3. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “The Escape of Medlin.” “Gaston People Think He Will Return to that County.” Charlotte News. September 15, 1903: Page 5. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Two From The Pen Fly Away.” “On Sunday They Depart for Parts Unknown.” North Carolinian. September 17, 1903: Page 8. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Drayton Medlin Escapes.” Gastonia Gazette. September 18, 1903: Page 8. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. Charlotte Observer. September 19, 1903: Page 4. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Are Troubled By Escapes.” “North Carolina Penitentiary Officials Mystified By Alleged Deliveries.” September 21, 1903: Page 3. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. Semi-Weekly Messenger. September 22, 1903: Page 1. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Convicts Concealed 10 Days in an Old Loft.” “Medlin and Rice Discovered by Penitentiary Officials, Bored Through the Ceiling in the Unused Shoe Shop and Hid — Their Supplies Were Exhausted.” Morning Post. September 23, 1903. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Had Not Escaped.” “Two Convicts Found Hiding in Penitentiary Building.” Wilmington Messenger. September 23, 1903: Page 1. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Two Convicts Have Been Found.” “Warden Fleming’s Find.” News and Observer. September 23, 1903: Page 5. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Two Convicts Have Been Found.” “Warden Fleming’s Find.” North Carolinian. September 24, 1903: Page 8. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Hidden in Penitentiary.” “Mysterious Disappearance of Two Convicts Finally Explained.” Winston-Salem Journal. September 24, 1903: Page 4. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Had Not Escaped.” “Two Convicts Found Hiding in Penitentiary Building.” Semi-Weekly Messenger. September 25, 1903: Page 8. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Had Not Escaped.” “Two Convicts Found Hiding in Penitentiary Building.” Tar Heel. September 25, 1903: Page 1. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Medlin Found.” Gastonia Gazette. September 25, 1903. Via newspaperarchive.com.
Unknown. “Stayed in Loft for Nine Days.” “Two Supposed Escaped Convicts Had Never Left Penitentiary.” Sedalia Evening Sentinel. September 25, 1903. Via newspaperarchive.com.
Unknown. “Mysterious Disappearance Explained.” Greensboro Patriot. September 30, 1903: Page 10. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. The Dispatch. September 30, 1903: Page 2. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. Wilmington Dispatch Report to Charlotte Observer. “Col. Hamilton C. Jones Dead.” “The Well Known Charlotte Lawyer Expired Sunday at Wilmington.” August 26, 1904: Page 1.
Unknown. “Sherman Jolly Dead.” “Convict Cut in Affray at Penitentiary Died Yesterday.” Farmer and Mechanic. November 1, 1904: Page 8. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Drayton Medlin Pardoned.” Gastonia Gazette. February 28, 1905: Page 3. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “The Horse Dies.” Gastonia Gazette. July 18, 1907. Via newspaperarchive.com.
Unknown. “The Boy Bound to Court.” “But Not for Killing the Horse — He Will Answer for Obtaining the Animal by False Pretenses.” Gastonia Gazette. July 21, 1907: Page 3. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. Wilmington Morning Star. August 8, 1907: Page 1.
Unknown. Lincoln County News. September 6, 1907: Page 2. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Drayton Medlin Again.” Gastonia Gazette. September 10, 1907: Page 3. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. Gastonia Gazette. September 17, 1907. Via newspaperarchive.com.
Unknown. Lincoln County News. October 11, 1907: Page 2. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. Wilmington Dispatch Report to Charlotte Observer. “Daniel L. Russell Dead.” “Former Governor, Prominent Lawyer, and Republican Politician Passes Away — Sketch of His Life.” Morganton News Herald. May 21, 1908: Page 1.
Unknown. “Charles B. Aycock Drops Dead Before Alabama Audience.” Greensboro Daily Record. April 5, 1912: Page 1.
Unknown. “Frank Osborne Died This Morning.” “Prominent Jurist of Charlotte Died at His Home This Morning — Heart Failure Cause of Death — Was One of the Most Prominent Lawyers in the South.” Gastonia Gazette. January 20, 1920: Page 1.
Unknown. “Who, What, and Where Among the Alumni.” “Judge Osborne Passes Away. The Davidsonian. January 29, 1920: Page 7.
Unknown. “Notice of Summons. Gastonia Gazette. July 31, 1920: Page 7. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Notice of Summons. Gastonia Gazette. August 7, 1920: Page 7. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Notice of Summons. Gastonia Gazette. August 14, 1920: Page 7. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Notice of Summons. Gastonia Gazette. August 21, 1920: Page 7. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. “Thirty Years Ago.” Gastonia Gazette. March 1, 1935. Via newspaperarchive.com.
Unknown. “Oscar Mason Sr., Gastonia Solon, Taken by Death.” Daily Times-News. July 14, 1942. Page 1. Via newspapers.com.
Unknown. The Monroe Enquirrer. February 17, 1944: Page 1.
Unknown. “Frank McNinch Dies at 76.” Statesville Daily Record (UP). April 21, 1950: Page 9.
Unknown. “Frank R. McNinch Taken By Death.” Statesville Record and Landmark. April 24, 1950: Page 2.
Unknown. “Last of a Glittering Galaxy.” Obituary of Judge Edwin Yates Webb. Gastonia Gazette. February 8, 1955: Page 2.
Unknown. “Prisoner Shot Trying Escape.” Statesville Record and Landmark. January 1, 1960: Page 4.
Unknown. “Prisoner Falls in Escape Try.” Daily Times-News. April 8, 1970: Page 12.
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“William G Brown (1867–1899) — Find a…” Find a Grave, nl.findagrave.com/memorial/106798433/william-g-brown. Accessed 26 June 2020.
“1st North Carolina Volunteer Infantry.” A Brief History of the 1st North Carolina Volunteer Infantry, www.spanamwar.com/1stnorthcarolina.html. Accessed 2 July 2020.
“1304 N. Davidson St., Charlotte, NC.” Zillow, www.zillow.com/homedetails/1304-N-Davidson-St-Charlotte-NC-28206/6186873_zpid. Accessed 2 July 2020.