Valdosta Daily Times

March 30, 2014

A Look Back: Former Gov. Ed Rivers survives kidnapping attempt

Kay Harris
The Valdosta Daily Times

LAKELAND — Editor’s Note: Each year, The Valdosta Daily Times produces a Yearbook section in March with a different theme. This year, the theme “A Look Back” is a historical retrospective on places, people, industries and more in our wonderful community. You don’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.  Enjoy learning, or relearning, about Lowndes County today.

 

Banks Lake is now the property of the state but it was once owned by  Gov. E.D.  “Ed” Rivers and his family. Rivers served two consecutive two-year terms as governor in Georgia from 1936 to 1940, and he and his wife lived beside the lake after his retirement from politics.

A polarizing figure who created the Georgia State Patrol and gave every school student free textbooks, Rivers’ legacy is being preserved by the Lakeland community. His house was moved to a location close to the old homestead by the lake, and historical documents from his fascinating and at times, thrilling life are a large part of the preservation efforts underway.

On a recent visit with Chamber of Commerce President John H. “Sandy” Sanders, a visit to the house led to the discovery of a clipping from the Oct. 2, 1941 Valdosta Daily Times recounting the attempted kidnapping of Rivers. In a nutshell, the story is better than anything you might find on television today, replete with a bizarre ransom note, a suicide, shots fired, and a wife wielding a cast-iron pan.

Several stories about the kidnapping attempt were combined to tell the following story.

An abortive and fantastic attempt to “snatch” former Gov. E.D. Rivers from his home in Lakeland, apparently with ransom as a motive, was foiled last night, as a gun-wielding assailant was beaten off by Mr. and Mrs. Rivers, and trailed to a tourist camp here, where he sent a bullet crashing through his brain after arguing over surrender with city police officers, who cornered him in a trailer.

Three shots were fired in the living room of the Rivers home during a hard struggle, before the former governor and Mrs. Rivers drove the intruder from their home and forced him to flee, even as their friends, alarmed by their screams and the shots, gathered to give chase. Neither Mr. nor Mrs. Rivers was struck by a bullet, but Mr. Rivers was so badly beaten over the head that a doctor gave him a sedative.

The man who committed suicide at the tourist camp was identified by

police officers as Horace Walters Bickle of Pennsylvania through papers found on his person. He was apparently about 39 years of age and his driver’s license gave addresses in Pittsburgh, Altanta and Miami.

Police Capt. Lonnie Murphy said, “When we approached the trailer to which the man had been traced and awakened him, he asked for the officer in charge, saying ‘there won’t be any trouble.’ I told him I was in charge and he asked me to come in the trailer. I noticed he had a gun in his hand, and with my gun in my hand, I ordered him to drop his gun, come out and submit to arrest. He refused to do this and insisted that I enter the trailer while he still refused to drop his gun.

“After some words, he stepped back from the door, snapped on a light, and then I heard a shot. I jumped to the door, pushed it back, and found the man lying on a bed, a bullet hole in his head. He evidently had put the gun he had in his hand, a .32 calibre automatic of foreign make, to his mouth and pulled the trigger. The bullet emerged almost at the center of the top of his head. I called an ambulance but he was dead,” said Murphy.

A piece of paper, printed on both sides in pencil and found in the trailer, appeared to be a rough draft of a would-be kidnap note. Murphy said the dead man apparently intended to force Rivers to sign it and send it to a friend while he was held under a threat of death. He quoted the note as saying “detailed directions” would be sent within 48 hours.

Two or three lengths of heavy cord were left behind in the Rivers home. More cord was found in his car.

Murphy said a strangely worded note found in the man’s possession suggested that he planned to attribute his actions to political reasons.

The former governor and his wife were asleep at their home in Lakeland around 10 p.m. when a man knocked on their door. Rivers has been operating a radio station, and the man claimed to be from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). When Rivers opened the door, the man entered with a gun in his hand. When Rivers grabbed for the gun, a hectic battle ensued and Mrs. Rivers assisted him in beating off the assailant.

“It was quite a fight for a time,” said Rivers. “I got a pretty heavy rap over the head with a pistol and Mrs. Rivers also was on the receiving end of a blow.”

The man, later identified as Bickle, fired the gun three times (two bullet holes are still visible in the house, one in the floor and the other in a wall). Mrs. Rivers may have also used a cast-iron skillet at one point to hit the man. She ran screaming into the yard, and several young men at the lake had already heard the commotion and were on their way to help. The kidnapper ran to his car and took off towards Valdosta. The young men followed the car, which ended up at the tourist camp. They alerted police.

“The promptness with which friends and neighbors answered our calls for help, and their continued solicitation for our well being is deeply appreciated,” Mr. Rivers said.

The note found with Bickle was written on the back of a piece of stationery bearing the name of T. B. Converse, clerk of the Lowndes county superior court. It said, in part, “I had no design against the life of the former governor of the state, who dishonesty surpassed anything I had ever heard of. But I would have more to say for his vile betrayal of the people’s trust in my own way. Since I have failed the least I can do is save the people further expense. May God and all those I love and that love me forgive me. My motive is not robbery but the futile attempt of a person crazed by the universal dishonesty and corruption of those whom the people have trusted as their leader and who have in turn robbed them of their justice as well as their collective wealth.

“Perhaps if other Americans who have shrugged off rotten politicians as none of their concern, and thereby made their continuance possible would take it upon themselves and put the fear of righteous wrath of the citizenry in them, our own political structure now so rotten as to eventually collapse in time would be strengthen.”

In addition to this note and the note that Bickle intended for Rivers to sign requesting ransom, Police Chief R. L. Kemp said the police also discovered letters from Nazi-occupied Norway, written in Norwegian, drawings that resembled battle formations of naval units, a Norwegian-American dictionary and other material among his belongings prompted reports of “fifth column” activities.

Bickle’s wife and family were en route from Pennsylvania to retrieve his body for burial. The Times also learned that Bickle resigned as a teacher in Pittsburgh in 1933 and went to the South. He had also coached basketball at the high school and was described as a “likable, mild-mannered fellow.”