SABR

Shootout at Hardscrabble Church

By Richard McBane

This article was published in the 2010 The National Pastime.

The affair of honor that began on Saturday, October 20, 1883, at a baseball game in Burke County, Georgia, continued the following afternoon at Hardscrabble Church near McBean. On that Monday, a coroner’s inquest was held at the church. 

No two accounts of the events were identical. In fact, the Atlanta Constitution concluded from the number of versions in circulation that imagination was the clear victor over veracity. Picking up a report from the Waynesboro Citizen on October 31, the Constitution explained: “We have been able to learn very few reliable facts concerning the terrible tragedy which occurred near McBean on last Sunday. We have seen twenty or more statements in the public prints, all of which probably contain some facts, but none of them can be correct, and we deem them all the statements of the rumors of the hours. We do not care to give these rumors currency, as we feel satisfied that none of them are correct, and may bias the public mind.”1

Most accounts agree that Thomas Syms, a spectator, insulted Rufus McNorrell, one of the players, at the Saturday baseball game. Both sides then showed up at the Hardscrabble Church on Sunday afternoon. From what occurred, both sides must have been armed, although that conclusion was disputed at the time. One contingent consisted of Thomas Syms and his two sons, Frank and Duff. McNorrell’s group included John M. Rodgers, T. Britton Rodgers, Warren Rodgers, and John Cox. While it is clear that McNorrell had been insulted at the ballgame, it is unclear whether Thomas Syms had slapped him in the face on Saturday at the game or on Sunday, when the two groups met outside the church. 

Beyond that, the matter of who did what and to whom becomes even more confused. However, there is no doubt that Thomas Syms was killed at the scene, while Frank and Duff Syms were wounded, Frank fatally. Britt Rodgers was shot in the face but survived. The five members of the Rodgers side then rode into Waynesboro, the county seat, and “voluntarily delivered themselves to the sheriff.”2 

Newspaper reports described the participants as well-to-do farmers belonging to respectable families. Both sides promptly employed lawyers, Judge H. D. D. Twiggs by the Rodgers side and the firm of Foster and Lamar by the Syms side. In due time T. Britton Rodgers and Rufus McNorrell were charged with murder and tried in the Superior Court of Burke County.3

During the trial, a female witness who had seen the affair from a church window testified that she had not been frightened by the shooting. In closing arguments, Judge Twiggs, representing the defense and known for his great oratorical ability, used her statement to support a disquisition on the bravery of Southern women, including a story about a general who envisioned his wife at his side during the fighting at Gettysburg. Twiggs’ presentation was so vivid and dramatic that one of the jurors delivered a Rebel yell. The trial judge promptly held the juror in contempt of court but later remitted the $10 fine.4 

The jury deliberated just half an hour before acquitting Rodgers and McNorrell. Whether that verdict was a reflection of the views of a segment of society that still considered firearms a proper recourse in affairs of honor, a tribute to Twiggs’ eloquence, or simply an acknowledgment that no one knew what had really happened must remain a mystery.5 

RICHARD MCBANE, a retired newspaperman, is the author of "Glory Days: The Akron Yankees of the Middle Atlantic League, 1935–1941" (Summit County Historical Society, 1997), and "A Fine-Looking Lot of Ball Tossers: The Remarkable Akrons of 1881" (McFarland, 2005).

  • 1. Atlanta Constitution, 23 October 1883, 2; 31 October 1883, 2.
  • 2. Atlanta Constitution, 23 October 1883, 2; 31 October 1883, 2.
  • 3. Atlanta Constitution, 23 October 1883, 2; 31 October 1883, 2; New York Times, 1 February 1884, 1; New York Times, 3 February 1884, 2.
  • 4. Carroll (Carrollton, Ga.) Free Press, 15 February 1884, 1; www.hickory-hill.org/tom_watson.html.
  • 5. 5. New York Times, 3 February 1884, 2.
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