Take for example the tragic tale of the Espy family. Many guides recite a tragic tale of this prominent Savannah family from the early to mid 20th century. While each tour tells a slightly different version of the story, the basic gist goes something like this…
(NOTE – false historical facts are struck through)
THE MYTH In 1905, the Espy family, hailing from rural Alabama moved into the house at 421 Abercorn Street off of Calhoun Square. The patriarch of the Espy clan was a Georgia Supreme Court judge named Albert Carlyle Espy Sr. During prohibition, Judge Espy was a “hanging judge” with a zero tolerance policy for lawbreakers and bootleggers. If you were charged with an alcohol related crime during prohibition, you did not want to have Judge Espy presiding over your trial. A case with Judge Espy on the docket was virtually a guaranteed trip to prison, for the maximum sentence. If Carl Espy found you guilty, you could be certain that he was going to throw the book at you. One might respect the Judge for upholding the law as he was elected and sworn to do. The problem is that Judge Espy was as corrupt as the day is long. According to several “sources” alleged by other tour companies. the judge himself was a bootlegger. He was leveraging his position of power on the bench to eliminate the competition. The story alleges that Judge Espy was “in bed” with an organized crime duo – the Haars Brothers. The racket was running bathtub gin out to speakeasies on Tybee Island, as well as downtown Savannah. The Judge was locking up people for the very same crimes of which he himself was guilty. The most corrupt man and biggest hypocrite in Savannah. Carl and his wife Leila had several children. His personal favorite was his eldest son Wesley. In the prohibition era, Wesley was in his early 20’s but already a single parent; a widower. His wife Catherine having died in childbirth while delivering their only child, daughter Catherine “Katie” Espy. As a widower in the prohibition era, Wesley took every opportunity possible to live it up during the roaring 20’s. The Judge and Leila adored little Katie, and were only too eager to babysit their granddaughter whenever Wesley decided it was time for a night on the town. Katie was spending the night with her Grandparents one evening. Carl and Leila tucked little Katie into bed early one evening, and began drinking heavily. An alcohol fueled argument ensued between Kate’s grandparents which quickly escalated into an all-out screaming match and physical altercation. Both Carl and Leila exchanged harsh words, and blows with each shoving the other physically. Little Katie was awoken by the calamity and crept downstairs in her pajamas to see what all the commotion was about. Katie snuck into the dining room, and hid underneath a table, topped by a heavy slab of marble. While the argument raged on between her grandparents, either Carl or Leila shoved the other right into the very table little Kate was hiding beneath. The blow caused the marble top to dislodge and fall squarely on top of their granddaughter, crushing her skull and killing her instantly. Her grandparents were completely oblivious to the fact that they had killed their granddaughter, and the argument raged on. It wasn’t until several hours later that the servants of the household were cleaning up the aftermath of Carl and Leila’s fight, that the lifeless body of Katie was discovered. By then it was far too late. Little Kate was gone. As one might expect, the loss of his daughter after losing his wife took it’s toll on Wesley. Especially since the blame fell squarely on his parents whom he had entrusted with the care of his only child. Wesley began drinking heavily, and for the next several weeks became reckless. His reckless behavior was at least in part an attempt to shame his father and bring him down in retaliation for the death of Katie. Wesley’s favorite watering hole was a speakeasy operated by his fathers partners in crime, the Haars Brothers. Drinking away the sorrow of the loss of his wife and daughter, Wesley quickly became the patron from hell. He would get drunk, and then get verbally and physically abusive with the other patrons. The Haars brothers found themselves in a bind. They couldn’t simply bounce Wesley out of the bar when he had too much to drink, as a modern bar might do. This was, after all, prohibition. The establishment was illegal, and Wesley was the son of the Judge himself. The Haars’ were in a position for which there seemed to be no easy way out. To make matters worse, Wesley took a special liking to one of the Haars women. The two began running around, much to the chagrin of both of the Haars. The brothers send one of their thugs to pay a visit to Judge Espy himself. Issuing a strong warning. “Tell your son to stop the affair, or pay the consequences.” The Judge upon being issued the warning said nothing. It’s not known whether he ever actually conveyed the Haars’ warning to his son or not, and was rumored that he held his silence; essentially allowing his own son to be rubbed out. None the less, Wesley carried on with the relationship. In the pre-dawn hours of a cold December day, a young boy was delivering coal to the Espy residence on Calhoun Square. He heard a car quickly approaching, heading south on Abercorn Street. As the large vehicle entered the square, it came to a screeching halt in front of the Espy house. The young delivery boy (who was allegedly given the alias “Sleepy” by the courts to protect his identity) said two sharply dressed men emerged from the car. He later identified the men as the Haars Brothers. One of the men looked at Sleepy and motioned for the boy to leave the area. The boy said he ran away, but from a remote vantage point looked back around at the Espy house to watch what was about to unfold. Sleepy said he watched as the Haars opened the trunk of the car, and remove a large object. They carried it over to the banister of the large staircase at the front of the house. He watched as the Haars tied this object to the banister, then quickly get back into the car and speed out of Cahoun square, continuing south on Abercorn street. Once the car was safely out of sight, Sleepy ran back over to the Espy house. He was horrified to discover that the object that had been tied to the banister was a man, badly beaten and unconscious, or possibly dead. He ran up the stairs and began pounding on the front door. The Judge answered the door in his bathrobe. When Sleepy motioned to the man tied to the banister, the Judge descended the staircase, only to discover that the man was his own son, Wesley. The Judge quietly unbound his son from the banister and carried his son into the parlor, where he laid him down on the sofa. The Judge did not call the police, or call for an ambulance. He knew this was a mob hit, and that the Haars brothers were responsible. Fearing his own reputation around town, he called a friend of his – a physician based in New York. He explained to the doctor that he was in desperate need of a favor. He needed him to come to Savannah immediately and attend to his sons injuries. The doctor agreed, and got on the next train southbound for Savannah. By the time he arrived, two days later, Wesley had quietly passed away in the parlor of his childhood home. The Judge officially has blood on his hands now. The death of little Katie, and now his son Wesley are too much for the Judge to sweep under the rug. He reported everything to the police, but due to his position of power, avoided being charged with gross negligence in conjunction with either Wesley’s or Katies deaths. However he and Leila ultimately paid the price by total loss of their social status. Where they had once been the toast of the town, invited to extravagant parties and functions, Savannah now shunned the Espy’s. Carl retired from his position on the bench, and he and Leila left Savannah in disgrace.
Such a tragic story. But STORY is the operative word here. The author of this tall tale has fabricated a fine piece of fiction that reads and recites well, but has virtually zero base in reality.
Let’s bust this Savannah myth open, once and for all, line by line…
The patriarch of the Espy clan was a Georgia Supreme Court judge named Albert Carlyle Espy Sr.
Most of the story you may have heard of the Espy family falls apart right here. We can immediately call into question the integrity of the “researcher” with this little fact-
Carl Espy was not a judge.
He identifies himself as working in the cotton industry every year, up until the 1940 census, when he lists “contractor” as his trade working in “road construction” industry.
Not only was Carl Espy not a judge, according to his census filings, he could read and write, but never received any formal schooling. The field “attended school?” is marked as “NO” in the 1930 census, and was left blank in the 1910 and 1920 census records.
Very odd that a “state supreme court judge” would indicate no formal schooling on the census? Or that his occupation was a “cotton exporter.”
Fake news? Or fake research?
I obtained these records on Ancestry.com and you may use your own Ancestry account to link to the Espy Family Tree that I have begun constructing here. Within the details for Carl Espy, you will find links to, among other interesting documents, the census records.
The only bench Carl Espy ever sat on was a pew in church. The only bar he ever passed was one that was closed on Sunday.
We could stop right there, as obviously a great deal of the Espy story has been embellished. But lets continue on…
His personal favorite was his eldest son Wesley. In the prohibition era, Wesley was in his early 20’s but already a single parent; a widower. His wife Catherine having died in childbirth while delivering their only child, daughter Catherine “Katie” Espy.
Wesley and Catherine Espy had FOUR children. Wesley Jr. was their eldest child. Little Catherine was their second oldest, with two younger brothers, Alexander and Joseph.
Wesley was no widow. He was survived by his wife Catherine Schley Hook Espy. She lived another 26 years after Wesley passed away in 1934. She didn’t die in childbirth. She lived to be 59 years old, and died in 1960. Again, the family tree from Ancestry clearly shows these facts.
Katie snuck into the dining room, and hid underneath a table, topped by a heavy slab of marble. While the argument raged on between her grandparents, either Carl or Leila shoved the other right into the very table little Kate was hiding beneath. The blow caused the marble top to dislodge and fall squarely on top of their granddaughter, crushing her skull and killing her instantly.
There is a thread of truth here. Little Cathrine Espy did indeed die a tragic death at the tender age of just 6 years old on December 2nd, 1933. She did indeed die from a head trauma – caused by a blow to the head from a large piece of marble.
That, however, is where the thread of truth unravels. Little Cathrine did not die while in the care of negligent grandparents. She died in her parents custody at their home while playing with her siblings. A tragic, freak accident where a “heavy marble cutting slab…accidentally fell from a kitchen table” onto her. Note the newspaper story indicates she is “survived by… three brothers.”
Furthermore, we can safely surmise that Wesley did not frequent speakeasies in the weeks following her death, as prohibition itself was overturned by ratification of the Twenty-first Amendment on December 5, 1933 – just three days after Little Cathrine’s death. In other words, if the Haar brothers were indeed running a speakeasy, they would have been out of business very soon into Wesley’s mourning period, and it seems extremely unlikely he would have been frequenting.
UPDATE – Further research shows that Georiga did not repeal prohibition on a state level until March 22nd, 1935 – 15 months after Little Cathrine passed away. So speakeasies were likely still functioning for over a year after her death.