Gunfight On Vine Street

Samuel Chase
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It happened long before the ‘Gunfight at the O.K. Corral’ in the former State Capitol of Alabama, Old Cahaba. In fact, the gunfight took place right in the middle of town on Vine Street between First North Street and Second North Street on a Friday evening near sundown. The exact date was May 30, 1856.

Sign pointing to Alabama’s first state capitol. Notice anything about the spelling?

The gunfight involved two doctors, a judge, a colonel, and the colonel’s two sons. All were prominent citizens of the community.

It was a fight to the death in which the colonel and one of his sons died instantly.

To understand the quarrel, you must first understand the decorum of the times. And, you must understand the customs as it pertained to the ownership of slaves. The book, ‘Memories of old Cahaba,’ published in 1905, describes very well those customs and the events that led up to the famous gunfight as follows:

The difficulty grew out of a number of robberies that had but recently occurred in Cahaba and the burning of several houses which the most dispassionate could but believe was the work of an incendiary. Suspicion rested on a notoriously bad negro by the name of Pleas, who at one time belonged to Mr. E. M. Perine, and who sold him to young John Bell because of his uncontrollable conduct.

Pleas was a bright, smart negro, and so efficient a servant that, despite his bad reputation, he became a great favorite with the Bells, from whom he completely succeeded in concealing his faults. In those days, to accuse a gentleman’s servant of crime, especially a favorite servant, was regarded almost as great an insult as to accuse the gentleman himself, and a master would fight in defense of his slaves as quickly as he would in defense of his children — hence no one dared make public the accusation against the negro; but when Dr. Troy’s residence fell a victim to flames, followed in quick succession by the destruction of Judge Bird’s house in the same way, then Judge Bird became so exasperated that he openly charged this negro with arson, and denounced the Bells as accessories to the crime. Accusation followed accusation, recrimination followed recrimination, until it ended in the fatal meeting. The parties involved were all prominent in social life. Feeling ran high on both sides, everybody in the town in a measure became involved in the feud, and it is impossible to describe the excitement and grief that prevailed when the difficulty terminated, and the tragedy became known.”

According to a newspaper article at the time, Dr. Troy’s house was burned to the ground. A few days later, someone set fire to Judge Bird’s house. No clues could be found as to who the culprit could be. However, Judge Bird and Dr. Troy became convinced that John Bell had been instrumental in the burning of both dwellings. Dr. Troy then filed suit in Circuit Court for damages against Bell.

The Gunfight

Inflamed from the filing of the suit, John Bell went to the Doctor’s office and, according to eyewitness accounts, commenced an assault upon Dr. Troy using a hickory stick and a drawn pistol.

Graveyard where Bell’s are buried.

These same eyewitnesses then state seeing Charles Bell, John’s brother, running toward the ruckus firing a pistol. At the same time, Dr. Hunter and Judge Bird, both related by marriage to Dr. Troy, were running toward the mayhem in defense of Troy. They arrived at roughly the same time as Colonel John R. Bell, the father of the two brothers. All were firing shotguns and pistols in a wild deluge of blasts.

When the dust settled, Judge Bird had shot John Bell. Doctor Hunter had shot Colonel John R. Bell. Both father and son died instantly from the blasts.

Inexplicably, Charles Bell managed to dodge the hail of bullets unharmed and fled the scene. Curiously, in a completely separate matter, Charles Bell had fled the State of Alabama in October 1855 after an assault on a William Quarles which resulted in attempted murder charges being brought against Bell. A month later, on November 16, 1855, he was captured in Louisiana and brought back to Cahaba. Six months later, he’s involved in the Gunfight on Vine Street.

Residents of Cahaba thought it miraculous that Judge Bird, Dr. Hunter and Dr. Troy survived without being wounded from all the rounds fired during the gunfight.

Dr. Hunter, Judge Bird, and Charles A. Bell were all arrested immediately. The survivors were eventually exonerated in a court of law. But judging from the inscription on John A. Bell’s headstone, the Bell family believed Dr. Hunter and Judge Bird got away with murder.

The headstone reads, “No murder hath eternal life abiding in him.”

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