Subject of the upcoming film “The Free State of Jones,” Mississippi’s Newton Knight is remembered in his home of Jones County as both a hero and a scoundrel.
by Judy Smith
The legend and lore of Newton Knight still haunts Jones County today. Whispers of his deeds — or misdeeds, depending on who you ask — blow through the Spanish moss lining the trees of the lands he called home. Some view Knight as a hero, while others discount him as a scoundrel, but Knight loved his Southern home and fought to keep his fellow citizens and his land free. Hence, “The Free State of Jones County.” Although it’s quite ironic: Knight was from nearby Jasper County, farmed there and is buried there, yet he fought for the freedom of Jones County. That’s still an enigma that has never been truly unriddled.
If Knight were to revisit his former stomping grounds, he might not even recognize the area. Historian J.F.H. Claiborne described it as a “land of milk and honey.” It still is today to an extent, however, the area embodies a much different atmosphere of prosperity than the one with which Knight was acquainted.
Jones County still thrives, but gone are much of the luscious rolling hillsides covered with pines and flourishing vegetation. No longer would Knight be able to hide in the swamps or woods of the region. The county itself, especially the town of Laurel, was well known in the lumber industry, and the countryside was covered with tall, majestic trees spanning further than the eye could see. I remember my mother telling me stories of the long logs being hauled, and if you heard the stomping of horses hoofs, you had better run into the house because one of the horses that was used to pull the lumber wagons had gotten loose and would trample you in a minute.
Laurel was a big player in the lumber industry and saw great prosperity during those days. The milk and honey of the region is still prevalent, but it comes from the industrialization and technology through such worldwide success of Howard Industry and Howard Technology Park in Ellisville. Where once was the playground of woodland creatures and the locale of fruits and berries growing wild, now stands shopping centers, restaurants and so many more modern conveniences Knight never dreamed of.
In 1963, my parents moved into our family home in Laurel. The two-story house was surrounded by rolling hills, and woods filled with pines and shady oaks bordered the property for miles and miles. It wasn’t long before the land behind our home was cleared so that a new highway — the heavily trafficked 16th Avenue Hwy. — shopping centers and restaurants could be built. And that’s just the progress and evolution of the area in recent years. My family still lives in that yellow two-story house with the red shutters, but the area around our home has definitely changed.
The population of Jones County has increased from 8,333 in the 1890s to more than 68,000 today. Knight would scarcely recognize his former homelands, but people there haven’t forgotten him. For Jones County, Knight has always held a sort of mystique of infamy, surrounded by legend and lore.
“To me, Knight wasn’t necessarily a good guy or necessarily a bad guy. He just did what he thought was right to help his family and Jones County survive and prosper,” says Larkin Simpson, Jones County Chamber of Commerce director. “Knight had a ‘can do’ attitude and willingness to work that is represented throughout Jones County still today from businesses that have been passed down through several generations.”
Simpson is referring to people like Billy Howard, who worked for GE and eventually built up one of the world’s largest technology, transformer and medical supply builders in the country; the Sanderson brothers with Sanderson Farms; Laurel Machine and Foundry; and the Morgan Brothers Millwork Incorporated.
Despite the evolution of the area, Jones County has the unique ability to seamlessly combine its latest advancements with its historical roots. In Laurel, historic homes still stand majestically and brick roads remind of us a much different time when people traveled by horse and buggy. Laurel and Ellisville take pride in honoring their former citizens, their contributions to the communities and historic locations.
Thanks to Matthew McConaughey and the upcoming movie “The Free State of Jones,” more attention is being focused on Jones County and Newton Knight than ever before. McConaughey portrays Knight in the film and has done extensive research on the man and region, even visiting Knight’s former farm, gravesite and other locations related to him in Jones and Jasper counties. To stay as pure to the South and storyline as possible, locals were recruited to work in the movie as extras or in various roles.
One of those extras happens to be my nephew Brody Smith, age 17. He will be featured at the beginning of the movie and unfortunately be killed quite soon. He was handpicked by the director because he looked so young — a major point Director Gary Ross wants to emphasize in the movie. These were young boys fighting and dying in a rich man’s battle. Before these young men even had a chance to make a life of their own, they were left dying on battlefields for a war in which they really had no vested interest. In Jones County at that time, only 12 percent of the population owned slaves. So why were these men and young boys losing their lives to maintain slavery?
McConaughey himself directed Smith’s part in the opening scene. “He [McConaughey] got down on the ground and showed me how I was supposed to lie there and how to do my eyes,” Smith recalls. “He told me to ‘smile without smiling. Smile from the inside.’ I didn’t really know what he meant, but he said that I did it right anyway. He was really cool, and it was so awesome to work with him because he was just so nice and down-to-earth.”
There has been much buzz and frenzy around Jones County since news of the movie spread throughout the spring and summer. McConaughey has been spotted all over the area, and lucky fans taking their picture with him have filled up many Facebook walls. Kids, and even some adults, who didn’t know of the region’s history or heritage are finding interest in the legacy of Newton Knight.
Knight has long been surrounded by legend and lore, but it seems his legacy is continuing to grow thanks to the film. Jones County has definitely stepped into the spotlight, and one of those historic locales receiving more attention than it usually does is the Amos Deason House located near the campus of South Jones High School in Ellisville. The old homestead where Knight allegedly shot Confederate Major Amos McLemore, the house has always been a hotspot of paranormal activity and a place of interest and mystery, especially around All Hallow’s Eve.
According to local legend, Major McLemore was warming himself by the fireplace in a bedroom in the house on a cold and rainy October eve. Knight burst through the door and shot McLemore before he had a chance to defend himself. Knight then turned and fled into the pouring rain. Crumbling to the floor, McLemore died in a pool of his own blood that stained the floor in front of the fireplace. No matter how many times the floor was cleaned or scrubbed afterward, the blood stain continued to rise especially on rainy or stormy nights.
I remember my grandfather, David Nicholson, telling me that story when I was a little girl. He wanted to know if it really was true, and he and a couple of his friends went to the house on a rainy night to see if the blood stains were still there. He swore to me that he saw the blood stains with his own eyes. My grandmother, Eula Nicholson, gave him “the look” so that he would stop the scary tale, and she implied that there may have been more than just “ghostly” spirits involved that night. But I believed him then, and I still do today.
There are other tales of hauntings at the house: the door to the bedroom flying open on the eve of the Major’s murder, cold spots, rocking chairs that move on their own, voices, sometimes not speaking very politely, and other ghosts. The local chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution now owns the house and has reported many ghostly sightings of their own. One member saw a woman in a long, old-fashioned dress floating down the hall, gliding through a wall. Children have been spotted in the windows of the old home even after it has been without residents for quite a while. Many of the DAR members will not enter the home alone because there is such an unsettling feeling in the house. The bloody floor is no longer visible because former owners put down a new flooring over the stained wood, but researchers have viewed the stains from underneath the house and say they are still very much visible.
But that’s not the only story circulating about Newton Knight (pictured). In the very conservative and patriotic Jones County, Knight was seen as a controversial figure due to the fact that he deserted fellow soldiers on the battlefield and that he left his wife for a former African-American slave and allegedly had children with her. It is believed he is the founder of the biracial community in Jones County.
“There are definitely two camps when it comes to Knight’s image,” says George Bassi, director of the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art. “He was very polarizing. Following the Civil War for most of the early 20th century, he was pretty much thought of as a scoundrel. Even prior to the war, he was controversial. He was accused of murder as a teenager, and his date of birth was changed in the family Bible so he could not be tried as an adult. As time has gone by, I feel like some have mellowed on his tenacity and his two families — one white and one black — which is why the movie will be compelling if it paints him as a hero.”
It will definitely be interesting to view Ross and McConaughey’s take on this controversial individual, but one premise that Knight stood and fought for — freedom —is alive in a completely different atmosphere in Jones County today.
What To See in Present-Day Jones County
While in Ellisville, you can visit the old Deason House for a small fee right before Halloween or by appointment during other times of the year. Take a stroll through the charming historic district, eat at at Casadores Mexican Grill, KaRock’s Restaurant, the French Quarter Grill or Bosun Joe’s or Charlie’s Catfish House. “You have to have an old-fashioned ice cream soda at the legendary Ward’s Pharmacy in the middle of town,” adds Chamber Director Simpson.
Just a stone’s throw from Ellisville, Laurel has the world-class Lauren Rogers Museum of Art with free admission. Catch a live performance at various times of the year at the Arabian Theatre, spend the day antiquing, learn of the heritage and history of the area at Landrum’s Country and Homestead and more about our patriotic heroes at the Veteran’s Memorial Museum. And stop by the recently opened The Knight Butcher downtown to meet some of Newton Knight’s descendants and get a taste of their fresh meats, jerky and homemade fudge.
“The historic district of Laurel is one of the largest in Mississippi and a leading example of the Belle Epoch timeframe featuring lovely homes built when Laurel was extremely wealthy and known as the Yellow Pine Capital of the World,” Bassi says. A walking tour available of the historic district is available, along with plenty of bed and breakfasts for those wanting to spend a night or two in the Free State of Jones.
Photo Credits: Confederate monument and Deason home by Judy Smith; “The Free State of Jones” movie extras on the battlefield in Bush, Louisiana, by Deep South.
Judy Smith is a freelance writer living in Laurel, Mississippi. She has a bachelor’s in Journalism and Paralegal Studies, master’s of Science in Mass Communications and PhD in Communications, all from the University of Southern Mississippi. Her work has been featured in DeSoto Magazine, Rankin Living Magazine, Northside Sun Magazine, Country Roads Magazine and Mississippi Magazine, and she also writes about events for VisitSouth.com. Overall, Smith enjoys covering concerts, the arts, sports, travel and history.