02 November 2010

James Willingham Fell Victim to His Own Benevolence (Tombstone Tuesday)

James Willingham

This grave is that of a man, who had he lived in these days would have received recognition from Carnegie.
- Bridges Smith, 1917
Awful conflagration and loss of life.

(Macon Weekly Telegraph, Georgia, 20 August 1844)

Our City has again been visited by a destructive fire; about 1 o'clock this morning, our citizens were aroused from their slumbers by the alarm of fire, it having broken out in a Gun-Smith shop occupied by P. Roux, and immediately spread with great rapidity, notwithstanding the extraordinary exertions of our citizens to arrest its progress. Eleven or twelve buildings were entirely destroyed, estimated in value, at about 35 or $40,000.

We have the melancholy task also to record the death of one of our most active and worthy citizens, Mr. James Willingham. It was occasioned by the falling in of the front of a house which had been blown down in part by powder.

By the death of Mr. Willingham our city has sustained the loss of an energetic and most useful citizen -- and the democracy of Georgia of a staunch and unflinching supporter.

As a foreman in our office we have not only lost a firm supporter in the great republican principles for which we are battling, but a sincere and ardent friend. In our next we will be more explicit. We have stopped the press to insert this short and confused account of this catastrophe.
After the death of James Willingham, the obelisk pictured above was placed over his grave in Rose Hill Cemetery. Inscribed is the following:

Erected by the Mayor and Council of Macon in honour of the Public Spirit which lost a valuable life in saving the property of his fellow-Citizens from the ravages of FIRE.

Over the week after the fire, it's occurrence as well as the death of Mr. Willingham was reported in newspapers across the country, including the District of Columbia's Daily National Intelligencer.

Approximately two weeks after the fire, another item about it and the man considered to be a hero was published in the Macon Weekly Telegraph on 3 September 1844:

Departed this life in this city, on the 20th ult. -- the night of the recent fire -- Mr. JAMES WILLINGHAM. The melancholy duty of noticing the death of this gentleman, has fallen to our lot; and when we recur to the intimate connexion that existed between us up to the period of his death, we are compelled to acknowledge ourselves inadequate to the task. It is well known that Mr. Willingham was the Foreman, in our office, as well as our friend; and if honesty, sobriety, and diligence, in the discharge of his duties, tend to the elevation of human character, his claims to that distinction were preeminent. In all the relations of life, his sterling qualities of heart and mind shone forth resplendently. He was the ardent supporter of Democratic Republican principles, the useful, active and benevolent citizen, the warm social friend -- the affectionate husband, and the tender father. They only who knew him intimately were able to appreciate his worth; and now that an inscrutable fist of the Almighty has taken him from our midst, they only can realize to the full, the loss which his family, his friends, and the community in general have sustained.

Mr. Willingham was born in Columbia county, Ga. on 1st November, 1813, and at the time of his death was consequently about 31 years of age. Many of our citizens were eye-witnesses of the sad catastrophe which occasioned his death, and could all have been present, farther comment would be unnecessary. With a chivalrous self devoting spirit he had ever been found foremost in the van where the lives or property of his fellow citizens was endangered. To him "the post of danger was the post of honor," and ever nobly did he perform his duty. On this night the intrepid Willingham was at his post and up to the moment of his death wherever his giant form was seen, his brawny arm wielded the axe -- the only efficient implement that could be then opposed to the destroying element. The building on which he was employed at that time, was a wooden one occupied by Mr. Kennedy as a Grocery, and owned, we believe, by Mr. Bishop. A number of persons were engaged at the same time in attempting to pull down the building while Mr. W., with others were cutting away the stronger studs and braces which supported it. Relying, alas! too confidently on his activity, he remained beneath the roof after every one else had deserted it, and we are told that had he retreated but a moment sooner, his valuable life would have been saved to the community, to his friends, and above all, to his interesting, but now bereaved family.

When it is remembered that our friend was actuated by no selfish motive, (having no interest in that part of the city.) but prompted a one by the most generous emotions of the human heart, he fell a victim to his own benevolence, we are lost in admiration of the man, and overwhelmed with sorrow at his untimely death.

To his bereaved widow, we alas! have not the consolations of Christian piety to offer, but we fervently pray, that this soul harrowing affliction may work for her temporal as well as eternal benefit, that "he who tempers the wind to the shorn lamb" will season this dread calamity with good to those little children who have been deprived of a fathers care long ere they could know a fathers love; and may she and they soon find that now belongs to them,

"Whatever God ordained, to bless
The Widow and the fatherless."

For our friend what more can we say. He died as a he had lived, a good and brave man, and there can be no earthly doubt that long ere this he has met with his reward in "mansions of bliss prepared for the just made perfect."

"A good man and an angel! these between
How thin the barrier! what divides their fate?
Perhaps a moment, or perhaps a year;
Or if an age, 'tis but a moment still.""

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