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PAST TENSE

Opinion: 1906 rampage of James H. Clark

James H. Clark was working as a night telegraph operator in Chamblee in 1906. Those who knew him said he was a quiet man. However, when a young woman named Nellie Gay broke off their relationship, he became enraged. He was boarding at the home of her sister and brother-in-law, Daisy and J. W. Purcell, and was convinced they were the reason she broke it off.

The newspaper account of the incident began by reporting that Clark got a bottle of whiskey from Atlanta and began to drink. Then, on May 14, 1906, he went to the house of the Purcells, but they were hiding out at the home of E. S. Purcell, father of J. W.

William J Cheek's grave marker

William J. Cheek’s grave marker at New Hope Cemetery in Dunwoody. He was shot by James Clark on May 15, 1906.

Once Clark realized where the Purcells were, he went to a store to purchase kerosene. He returned to the home, saturated the kitchen floor with kerosene, and set the floor on fire. The house did not burn down, but the light from the fire shone on the Purcell family members. Clark began shooting. He shot J. W. Purcell in the hip and E. S. Purcell in the hand. W. S. Mask, an employee of the railroad, and Frank Bolton, another boarder at the home, were both injured by shots from Clark.

The following day Clark went to the feed and grocery store of William J. Cheek and William R. Nash, located along the west side of Nandina Way in Dunwoody. Clark wanted to purchase more bullets. A phone call just moments earlier had warned Cheek and Nash of Clark and his mission, with specific instructions not to sell him any ammunition.

When Cheek refused to sell him anything, Clark instantly shot Cheek and Nash. Cheek died but Nash survived because the bullet hit a Masonic charm on his watch. William J. Cheek left behind his wife, Mattie Lou Puckett, and four children.

As Clark left the store, he threw 75 cents on the floor and called out to Cheek’s mother that he had gotten what he came for. Cheek’s mother was Laura Eidson Cheek, and his father was Joberry Cheek, who built the Cheek-Spruill Home.

Clark then walked along the track of the Roswell Railroad, coming across Will Coker of Dunwoody. He injured Coker by hitting him over the head with a shotgun.

Later that day, Clark was reported roaming free in the woods. A posse had formed and surrounded Clark. When his capture was inevitable, Clark shot himself. (Atlanta Constitution, “Clarks Runs Amuck,” May 16, 1906)

The funeral for William J. Cheek was held at New Hope Church on May 16, 1906, with burial in the church cemetery. The church is long gone, but the historic cemetery remains along Chamblee Dunwoody Road just north of Dunwoody Village Parkway. (Atlanta Constitution, “Chamblee Quiet After Tragedy, May 17, 1906).

You can email Valerie at pasttensega@gmail.com or visit her website at pasttensega.com.