Harriet pursued him, my grandmother said. Relentlessly. Followed him to Ohio to make her case for marriage. Certainly, that she, a widow in her early 40s, found (or allowed herself to become) pregnant suggests an impetus for her plans. Still, Thomas Alonzo “T.L.” Hart was not easily swayed. Their only child Bertha Mae was born in 1902 and not until December 1904 did he apply for a marriage license at the Iredell County Courthouse.
Alonzo was born about 1866 to Ephraim and Caroline Hart. Little is known about the years before he married Harriet Nicholson Tomlin. My grandmother asserted that he was a non-practicing lawyer, but no record has been found of his education or training. In the late 1890s, he moved briefly to Ohio; a visit home was nearly disastrous:
Alonzo Hart, colored, who formerly lived here but has recently been in residence in Toledo, Ohio, was arrested yesterday on a warrant sworn out by Mr. O.P. Sowers, the latter charging him with having his purse and $90 in cash which he lost on Monday, December 26th. Hart deposited $100 in cash with Justice White for his appearance at the trial which is set for to-morrow. The defendant is represented by Mr. H.P. Owen and the plaintiff by Mr. L.C. Caldwell. Mr. Sowers is positive that he lost his purse on the sidewalk in front of the Cooper block on Center Street. It is said that Hart was present at the time and as he has been pretty flush with cash since then he is suspected of having picked it up. — Statesville Landmark, 6 Jan 1899.
At Alonzo Hart’s trial for theft, the witness testified that Hart was not the man, “and as there was no other evidence against him, [Hart] was discharged, Mr. Sowers paying the costs.” — Statesville Landmark, 11 Jan 1899.
Despite his ignominious arrest, Hart remained in Iredell County, farming in Shiloh township while his sister Etta kept house. A couple of years after marrying Harriet, he again made the local newspaper:
Alonzo Hart, colored, was severely injured Sunday night by Will Stevenson, colored, in a fight in the Poplar Branch neighborhood. Hart received several severe cuts about the body and one on the neck. The cause of the trouble is unknown. A warrant for Stevenson is in the hands of the police. — Statesville Landmark, 18 Sep 1906.
Fifteen years later, Hart helped prevent a lynching by negotiating the surrender of a black man wanted for killing a white man:
BOB BENSON SURRENDERS.
“Slayer of Robert Dishman Surrenders to Alonzo Hart, Colored, and Sends for the Sheriff — Others Capture Benson Before the Sheriff Arrives on the Scene and Take Him to Lincolnton — Now in the Mecklenburg Jail”
Working on clues set forth by Alonzo Hart, colored, Bob Benson was captured late yesterday evening by Messrs George Ayers, Fred Claywell, Pam Morrow, Vance Jenkins and Everett Wilkinson.
Lacking only a few hours of being a fugitive from justice a week, Bob Benson, who assaulted and killed Robert Dishman is today resting behind bars in the Mecklenburg county jail, where was taken to escape possible violence. Thus ended one of the most thrilling searches for a criminal in the history of the county.
Friday during the search on Third creek, near Morrison’s store, Alonzo Hart came to Sheriff Alexander and asked the sheriff if he should find Benson and turn him over to the sheriff would there be any violence. Upon receiving the sheriff’s promise that he would keep Benson from violence and see that he received justice, Hart said he would do all in his power to get in touch with Benson and have him give him up to the sheriff.
Early Sunday morning between 6 and 7 o’clock Benson came to the home of Hart, which is south of Hoyt Morrison’s store, wearing only a shirt and an old sack tied around his loins, and begged Hart for something to eat and a chance to rest. According to Hart, Benson said he had been lying in a thicket near Third creek during the search Friday night and Saturday, and had more than one time heard searching parties passing near him so close that he could plainly understand their conversation.
Throughout the day, Sunday, Hart persuaded Benson that it was best for him to give up to the officers, which Benson agreed to do provided he was turned over to the officers, who would take care of him. About 5 o’clock yesterday afternoon Hart came to town after the sheriff and was seen by some of the party who captured Benson, who surmised Hart was in town on business concerning Benson, and went immediately to Hart’s home, where they captured Benson in one of the rooms of the house.
Benson was carried by his captors to the Lincoln county jail last night. Early this morning Sheriff Alexander had Benson moved to the Mecklenburg County jail at Charlotte, so as to be doubly sure of his safety.
It was just one week ago yesterday evening, about 8 o’clock, on the Chipley Ford road, six miles north of Statesville, that Bob Benson, a negro, dealt Robert Dishman, white, a blow, or blows, on his head with a stick or other weapon, that resulted in Dishman’s death about 30 hours later at the Carpenter-Davis hospital. It was a week ago today that the searchers for Benson assumed the proportion of a posse. A few officers and others had begun the search soon after the killing.
Probably the search for a criminal in no other case in Iredell county has attracted more interest than has been evidenced in the Benson case. Reports which came to the officers and the posse kept this interest alive.
After the crime he is alleged to have committed Benson lost himself in the neighborhood of his home and in the neighborhood of his victim for the first night of his get-away. The earlier hours of the day following the crime brought some reports of his having been seen. Late the same afternoon came the report that up to that time had had the semblance of assurance — someone had seen him making his way from woods to woods in the country around the pump station. It was then that the crowd assumed the proportion of a posse and it was on this clue that the bloodhounds were introduced and initiated. They struck a trail and followed it to the right house but the wrong person. The search continued that night, dissipating other reports of Benson’s whereabouts. The same program was gone over day after day and night after night.
The all night man hunt was without reward Thursday. Benson had not been seen since he was shot at about 4:30 o’clock that afternoon, near the home of Mr. D.L. Raymer.
The bloodhounds were brought from Salisbury about 7 o’clock that night and were placed where Benson was last seen, but did not hit a trail durng the night. — Statesville Landmark, 26 Sep 1921.
THE BOB BENSON REWARD.
Attorney Z.V. Long Will Share Burden of a Decision in This Matter to Iredell Superior Court.
No decision yet has been reached in paying the reward of $300 [illegible] by the County and $200 by the [illegible] for the apprehension of Bob Benson, colored, who killed Robert Dishman and who has been convicted and sentenced to electrocution.
Two claims are offered for the reward, one by Alonzo Hart, colored, whose home Benson went and [illegible] until a number of white men went and got him and took him to the Lincolnton jail, while Hart was in town looking for Sheriff Alexander to report Benson’s presence at his house.
The matter of determining proper disposition of the reward was left to County Attorney Z.V. Long. Since it has become apparent that an amicable settlement can not be made this way, the matter will be left to Iredell Superior court to say how and to whom the reward shall be paid. — Statesville Landmark, 5 December 1921.
Harriet Nicholson Tomlin Hart died in 1924. When Alonzo Hart’s sister died four years later, the Landmark breathlessly reported every detail of the disposition of her sizeable estate, worth about $81,000 in 2013 dollars.
Margaret Richardson Leaves Will Disposing of $6,000 Estate
The will of the late Margaret Richardson, colored, which has been filed with the Clerk of Superior Court John L. Milholland for probate, provides for the distribution of the estate, estimated to have a value of $6,000, as follows:
The farm, one mile north of Statesville, is given to a sister, Lula Loyd; two acres laid off the northern end of the farm, adjoining the lands of J.C. Duke, and the city pump station, to Gilmer Walker; all the rest of the land and personal property to be sold and the cash distributed as follows: $10 to Mollie Alexander of Wilkes County; $10 each to Florence Camp and Minnie Brawley, both of Toledo, Ohio; $100 to Alonzo Hart of Iredell county; $25 to Zion Methodist church, colored, on South Center street; $25 to Broad Street Presbyterian church, colored; $25 to John Adkins, of Winston-Salem; $300 to Lula Loyd; $100 to Preston Smith of Virginia; $200 to Alonzo Loyd and the rest of the property to be divided equally among Lula Loyd, Bertha May Hart, Mollie Alexander, Florence Camp, Minnie Brawley, Earl Smith, and Rebecca Bailey. Mr. John A. Scott, Jr., is designated as executor of the will. — Statesville Landmark, 19 Mar 1928.
At the end of the following year, Thomas Alonzo Hart succumbed to tuberculosis at a Hoke County sanatorium. His final appearance in the Landmark was a respectful and laudatory one:
FUNERAL SERVICE FOR ALONZO HART.
Will Be Held Sunday Afternoon from Centre Presbyterian Church — Was Respected Colored Citizen
Funeral services for Alonzo Hart, 63, well known colored man, whose death occurred Tuesday at State Sanatorium, where he had been a patient for a short time, will be held from Center presbyterian church Sunday, December 22, at 2:30 o’clock in the afternoon. Interment will follow in the cemetery there. The surviving members of the family are one daughter, two step-sons and four sisters.
Alonzo Hart, by his extraordinary habits of frugality and industry, had accumulated a considerable estate. Although living in an age of speedy travel, he held on to an older and slower method of transportation, his regular visits to town having been made in his buggy, drawn by his faithful, dependable mule. He was a colored man of rare powers of mind, having a valuable library and keeping fully informed on the events of the day by reading newspapers and periodicals. A unique Iredell citizen has passed to his reward. — Statesville Landmark, 19 Dec 1929.
His will confirms Hart’s prosperity and reveals as well his deep ties to his family: