By Fred Woods
Several months ago we did a piece on “Old Opelika,” the Opelika of the last half of the 1800s. Many of you told us you enjoyed that. Recently we uncovered some more old newspaper articles and decided to share them with you. They paint the Opelika of that day as a lawless town, worthy of the old western Saturday movies, a town that was particularly rough on newspaper editors.
More to set the stage than anything else, the first, from the New York Times of Dec. 26, 1882, with a Montgomery, Dec. 25, dateline, said:
“Christmas Day passed quietly. Exaggerated rumors prevailed of trouble at Opelika, as Gov. O’Neal, who had gone to Mobile to spend a few days with relatives, was called back by a telegram from the Commissioners appointed to take charge of municipal affairs in place of the old authorities, who were removed by an act of the Legislature vacating the charter. The Commissioners called on Dunbar, the old Mayor, to give them possession of the city property. This he refused to do, and apprehending trouble from the refusal, the Commissioners called the Governor back. So far no violence has been reported and no troops have been ordered to the scene of trouble. They will be if the emergency demands it. The Sheriff of Lee County has been ordered to summon a sufficient force to sustain the Commissioners, who are the legal authorities of Opelika, and to preserve the peace. The trouble is caused by only a few men, the great body of the citizens being anxious to see the Commissioners in full control, but they are loth [sic] to resort to desperate measures. The State authorities are determined to sustain the Commissioners and to enforce the law.”
F.M. Dunbar, the former mayor and a saloon-keeper, and his followers continued to resist the Commissioners and, in late January, 1883, Gov. O’Neal did send in the troops.
On Dec. 20, 1882, a special dispatch from Opelika to the Montgomery Advertiser had reported:
“The war cloud darkens. The house of B.H. Keiser, editor of the [Opelika] Times, was last night fired into by unknown parties and 10 buckshot crashed through the window of his bedroom and buried themselved in the opposite wall.”
Several years later, in January, 1887, the reason for the shots fired into the editor’s home some four years earlier became more clear as Editor Keiser was ordered to leave town.
In another New York Times story, this time with an Opelika dateline of Jan. 8, 1887, it was reported:
“Major B.H. Keiser, editor of the Times of this city, on going into his office the other morning, found the gear wheel of his Campbell press smashed to pieces and the type all in pi. Under the door he found the following letter:
AT THE CLUB, Jan. 3, 1887.
Ben H. Keiser, Reprobate:
Your conduct toward the honest and decent people of this town has become unendurable, and as you are hedged about with a class of supporters that is as low and debased as you are, there is no chance to bring you to justice. Therefore I am ordered by the club to notify you to leave the town and county within 10 days or abide the consequences.
This is an outbreak of the lawless spirit which has prevailed ever since 1872, when certain parties secured licenses to sell liquor. Half a dozen riots have taken place, one in the Fall of 1882 being notable because of the murder of Malone, and the serious wounding of several citizens. Efforts have recently been made to stop the sale of liquor, but F.M. Dunbar seems to have continued the sale until a few days ago. The Probate Judge is accused of leaning to the whiskey sale. Major Keiser, in his paper, was waging a relentless war upon these people, and it is for this reason that he has been warned to leave the town.”
As far as we know today, Major/Editor Keiser did not leave town and continued his campaign against “Demon Rum” and other forms of alcoholic beverages. The “Club,” C. Pratt and his fellow members, possibly decided that discretion was the better part of valor.