2 May 1953 (Saturday morning),
60 year old businessman Marion Wesley Stembridge, a wealthy and eccentric Milledgeville citizen, guns-down two prominent, influential attorneys in their respective offices with a .45 pistol then takes a .38 Special from his briefcase and commits suicide while Milledgeville prepares for a parade and festivities to celebrate the city’s 150th anniversary. That’s usually the gist of the story.
Marion’s story is told in Milledgeville often in half whispers as, perhaps, a ghost story especially near Halloween as visitors ride trolley tours when a local historian might dress as Marion and board the trolley, telling his story as if he were Marion, himself. At other times on any given day, a Waffle House waitress might bring you a cup of sweet tea, remembering how she heard Marion’s story but also how the story wasn’t, and isn’t, a story Milledgeville may want told. Marion’s story is legendary yet often forgotten, or intentionally lost, despite oral tradition. Mostly, Marion’s actual story is shrouded in mystery and inaccuracies—a myth, almost—something that might’ve happened mixed with court reports, intrigue, and shame. Marion’s grocery store is now a bakery—a fine establishment called Ryal’s Bakery known for its yellow smiley face cookies that resemble friendly ghosts. The law offices are gone above the Sanford Building that was once adjacent to the Campus Theatre on Hancock Street. Sanford was razed, and legend suggests the .38 bullet and a shock of Marion’s hair remained lodged in the upstairs ceiling of the Sanford Building for years. Today, the Campus Theatre building houses a Barnes and Noble that sells Georgia College officially licensed attire, school supplies, and textbooks; however, it’s not hard to imagine a day in early May of 1953 when 800-plus people filled Hancock Street dressed in period clothing of 1903, and one can almost hear the gunshots before the hour struck 11:00 am.
Dr. Bob Wilson, professor of History at Georgia College, alludes that no known photographs of Marion Wesley Stembridge exist, to public knowledge, despite Marion’s infamous notoriety in local and national newspapers in the days, months and years following the notorious 1953 murders and suicide. Considering that American icon Dennis Hopper portrays Marion in the 1991 film adaptation of Peter Dexter’s 1988 National Book Award winning Paris Trout, which is fictionally based on Marion’s life and the murders and suicide, scarce facts are known about Marion besides aging residents of Milledgeville who might recall the events surrounding his life that they gathered as children, or the residents may recall Marion as if he were a ghost who lived. Even Pete Dexter was surprised to hear that Dennis Hopper didn’t resemble Marion, at all, when the author came to Milledgeville to sign copies of Paris Trout. So who was Marion Wesley Stembridge besides the commonly repeated “loan shark” and “eccentric” “unscrupulous businessman” and “murderer” besides being a man who, even today, many residents of Milledgeville would simply like to forget?
In order to establish or envision a knowing of who Marion Wesley Stembridge was, or might have been, I invite you on a journey as if it’s a historical trolley tour that must begin in 1803 when Milledgeville was founded. There, at the beginning, we’ll uncover piece by piece how Milledgeville came to be, and why a man walks into two separate law offices, killing two attorneys and then himself 150 years after the city began. Let’s go on a tour through the years that lead to the bloody Saturday of May 2, 1953, for the gist of the story, so often told of Marion Wesley Stembridge, doesn’t convey who Marion could have been, who he was, or what Milledgeville may have forgotten.
1803 Georgia legislature initiates a survey in order to establish a town to be named in honor of Georgia’s current governor: John Milledge. Milledgeville will become one of the few cities pre-envisioned as a capitol city, placing it in a rare category along with Washington D.C.