The 1936 Lanett police shooting: A retrospective

Published 11:00 am Tuesday, June 6, 2023

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LANETT — Captain Patrick McCullough of the Lanett Police Department’s Criminal Investigations Division (CID) talked to Lanett seniors recently about an incident that happened in Lanett some 86 years ago now. It was adjudicated many years ago, but McCullough has done a great deal of research on it. He’s even talked to surviving family members of a Lanett police officer who was killed in the line of duty in November 1936.

The officer involved, Ben McDonald, has his name listed on the National Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C.

McDonald was 27 years old at the time. He had been a high school football star at Handley High in Roanoke and had turned down a football scholarship at the University of Alabama to marry Maggie, his high school sweetheart. Alabama didn’t take married men on football scholarships in those days. Ben had his choice of Alabama football or Maggie, and he picked her.

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In 1936, the couple had two children, five-year-old Ben Jr. and two-year-old Patricia, nicknamed Patty.

McDonald was a promising young officer dedicated to doing his job the right way when he was gunned down by two drunken men on the night of November 15, 1936. One of the men was the city’s former police chief who had been fired by the mayor and council earlier that year.

Late that Sunday night, Officer McDonald was on duty when he saw a blue Chrysler sedan driving erratically in the downtown area. He and fellow officer Eddie Harris gave chase but lost them at the state line. That blue car returned from West Point a short time later, and the two officers located them in downtown Lanett. “Officer Harris was able to block their automobile behind another car that was parked on Lanier Avenue,” McCullough said. “McDonald exited the passenger side of the police car and approached the driver of the blue Chrysler.”

The driver, G.M. Browning (the former police chief), trained a pistol on the approaching officer. Officer Harris approached the car to talk to a passenger in the back seat. As he neared the car, the passenger, J.L. Smallwood, struck him in the midsection with the barrel of a shotgun. The Chrysler then backed away and headed in the opposite direction. As the car was moving away, the passenger fired his shotgun. The officers returned fire. Harris was slightly wounded but McDonald was not so fortunate.

Gravely wounded, he was rushed to the hospital in Langdale (then across the street from the Methodist church). His intestines were punctured 17 times buy the shotgun blast. He died several days later leaving a young wife and two small children.

The city’s police chief at the time, Larry Avera, arrested Browning and Smallwood early Sunday morning. They were reported to be still in a drunken state at the time.

They were convicted in court, but McDonald’s widow asked for them to be pardoned. It seems that they had small children at the time, and Maggie did not want them to be raised without a father in the home. It was in the dark days of the Depression, and families had to pull together regardless of the circumstances.

Maggie McDonald received a $10,000 insurance settlement. With that she purchased a store in Rock Mills and went back home to Randolph County. She was a gifted singer, performed frequently on radio shows and taught music. She now lies next to her husband in a Standing Rock cemetery.

Ben Jr. went on to be a highly respected professor of horticulture at Auburn University.

Capt. McCullough had the chance to meet the youngest child, Patty. “She was 86 at the time and living in Pendleton, South Carolina, not far away from Clemson,” he said. “She told me what people had always told her about her dad. She had kept some of his personal items he’d had with him when he was with the Lanett Police Department. They included his whistle and his policeman’s badge. Seeing that meant a lot  to me.”

Officer McDonald died six days after the shooting. The incident spawned lots of rumors and misinformation, so much so that Lanett’s mayor at the time, W.H. Knight, had an interview published on the front page of The West Point News trying to set the record straight.

Browning had been appointed police chief on August 1, 1933. He was relieved by the council on March 1, 1936 after pleading guilty to a charge of disorderly conduct. There were rumors that the shooter, J.L, Smallwood, had at one time been on the police force. This was not true. J.L.’s brother, Guy Smallwood, had been on the force but had no involvement with the shooting.

It has been long believed that McDonald and Harris were not the targets the two men were looking for that night. It’s believed that Browning had a vendetta against a Lanett officer named L.D. McGhee, who had preferred the charges that got Browning fired.

During his high school years in Roanoke, McDonald was called “Big Ben” by his friends. He lettered in football, basketball and baseball and was captain of the football team.