The historian Joel Williamson made several trips to Ripley to check records in the public library and in the Tippah County Courthouse, on the square where the Old Colonel was killed by a former business partner. When he began the search, Williamson had never spoken to Alfreda Hughes or heard her family story. He discovered it through interviews in Ripley and by following a trail of records: census, real estate and slave ownership ledgers.
Williamson wrote that it added up to "an abundance of evidence," supporting the story Alfreda Hughes heard as a girl growing up in West Baltimore. Although she and the novelist were born two generations apart, her maternal great-grandfather and Faulkner's paternal great-grandfather appeared to be the same man.
The Old Colonel prospered before the Civil War by practicing law, buying and selling real estate and slaves. He was never a large landowner or planter, and apparently never owned more than six slaves at once. He brought Emeline and her children into his household in September 1858 as collateral on a $900 loan he made to Benjamin E.W. Harris, a white man and the father of three of Emeline's children. Emeline was 21 at the time. Col. Falkner was 33.
There's no way to prove that Emeline became Falkner's mistress. The case is circumstantial, but solid, Williamson says. He rests his argument on Falkner's whereabouts at the end of the Civil War and information about the birth of another child, Fannie Forrest Falkner, between 1864 and 1866.
Suffering from ulcers and frustrated in his attempts to gain a brigadier general's commission, Falkner had resigned from his Confederate command in 1863. For the next two years, he dropped from view in the record books, only to surface at war's end in April 1865, putting down $2,500 cash for a lot in the village of Pontotoc, nearly 30 miles south of Ripley.
Local history says Pontotoc County was commonly used late in the war as a staging ground for "blockade runners" who smuggled cotton into Union-controlled Memphis and returned with boots, medicine and other commodities in short supply in Confederate territory. Williamson believes the Old Colonel spent the last two years of the war conducting this sort of illegal trade from a base in Pontotoc. Hence he had plenty of cash on hand when the war ended to buy land in the village.
According to biographies written by members of the local black Methodist Church, Emeline Lacy gave birth to Fannie Forrest Falkner in the village of Pontotoc. Williamson believes Emeline .. must have been with the Old Colonel in Pontotoc in the last years of the war while his wife, Elizabeth Vance, remained in Tippah County. Williamson says an account of a conversation between a Union officer and Mrs. Falkner in 1864 makes it apparent that her husband was not in Ripley at the time. In 1884, for reasons that are not exactly clear, Elizabeth Vance left Col. Falkner and moved permanently to Memphis.
Emeline's youngest daughter's name, Fannie Forrest, also suggests a link to the Old Colonel, Williamson says. Fannie is derived from the name of Falkner's favorite sister, Frances; Forrest comes from his favorite Confederate general, Nathan Bedford Forrest.
Williamson says there's little doubt that Fannie was the daughter of a white man. But which white man? By the time she was born, Benjamin Harris was "out of the picture," says Williamson, a native of Anderson County, S.C., who has written five other books on race and Southern history. "I can't see an argument" that it could have been anyone other than Col. Falkner, who would have been protective of the few slaves he owned.
Williamson's interpretation is accepted by one of the country's eminent Southern historians, C. Vann Woodward, professor emeritus at Yale University, as well as Joseph Blotner, who wrote what is considered the definitive Faulkner two-volume biography. Blotner says Williamson's "scrupulousness, besides his knowledge of the area, of the customs, of the sociology, led me to have confidence in what he wrote."
Despite his months in Mississippi, a good part of the time spent stalking the connection between Col. Falkner and Emeline Lacy, Williamson concedes he "never found the smoking gun on the Old Colonel."
The ambiguity suits the Faulknerian theme. Faulkner was never famous for tidy endings. In a sense he was a mystery writer, concerned with doings in the back alleys of the soul; a creator less of whodunits than whydunits.
He wrote 18 novels in his career, five of which are usually considered his best work. In three of these -- "Light in August," "Absalom, Absalom!" and "Go Down, Moses" -- the core conflict has to do with race, an element of Southern hierarchy that troubled Faulkner profoundly. The fathers' sins of slavery and racism passed to the sons. Many of the fathers and sons were related to people of mixed racial ancestry, or were of mixed ancestry themselves.