I came across this fascinating factoid in James Ottley’s “Atlanta History for Cocktail Parties” and thought it would make for a good holiday column. As Dec. 25 drew nearer I realized it would be wise to stay away from murder at a time of year usually reserved for joy and peace. So here it is, a few weeks later, the tale of Henry Irby’s son George, the hot-headed Henry Norton and a Christmas gone horribly wrong.
Henry Irby should be instantly recognizable to anyone with even a cursory interest in Buckhead or Atlanta history. In 1838, the South Carolinian purchased from Daniel Johnson Land Lot 99, 202 acres of what is today Buckhead.
On his new land Irby opened a tavern and retail store on the northwest corner of West Paces Ferry Road and Roswell Road in about 1840. Not far down West Paces Ferry Road, the buck’s head had been placed upon a post, thus giving the area its name. While Irby was a small man — he wore a size 6 boys’ shoe — he thought big. When the U.S. established a post office at the Irby settlement, it was known as Irbyville, a name that thankfully did not take.
On Christmas Day in 1856 a large, rowdy group had gathered outside of Irby’s tavern for the usual revelry of the day: drinking and shooting guns. Late in the day Irby got into a heated exchange with a gentleman named Henry Norton. Norton, according to Franklin Garrett in his “Atlanta and Environs,” lived on Irby’s property and the two men were known to be friends. Norton was also known to have a short temper and had a tendency towards violence, especially when alcohol was involved, which it was on that fateful day. Norton began arguing with Irby about whether he had put money toward a raffle, with Irby insisting he had. Norton accused Irby of lying and the two men soon engaged in a fist fight.
In the detailed accounting by Garrett, Norton landed several punches before Irby got his former friend by the throat and Norton had Irby by the hair. Norton then dragged Irby along the piazza in front of the store when some of the people gathered intervened. It was around this time that Irby’s son, George W. Irby, arrived on the scene carrying a pistol, which he promptly used to end the confrontation by shooting Henry Norton in the head. He died a few minutes later.
Given that George was just a teenager, no more than 14 at the time, and the shooting was in defense of his father, one would think the matter would be settled. But George was sentenced to two years of hard labor in the penitentiary. The case was taken all the way to the Supreme Court of Georgia and was upheld at every turn.
Coincidently Ottley, the historian in whose book I first read about the homicide, has written a new book, “Atlanta History for Cocktail Parties II: Another Round,” which he will be discussing Thursday at the Cathedral of St. Philip as part of the Buckhead Heritage Society lecture series.
Buckhead resident Thornton Kennedy is a sixth-generation Atlantan and a former news editor of this paper. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.