For most of us, the name Hugh Dorsey Gravitt wouldn’t ring a bell. A simple man who grew up in then-rural Forsyth County, Georgia, he was one of five brothers and five sisters. Moving to Atlanta to improve his chances of making a living and supporting his family, he initially drove a cab and later owned filling stations. There was nothing in his life to make his name widely known except one moment in 1949. Either by recklessness or an unfortunate accident, he struck and killed one of the most famous women in the world, Margaret Mitchell, the author of Gone With The Wind. His life would never again be the same.
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In 2013, Gravitt’s daughter, Gloria Gravitt Moulder, wrote a book about her father and the situation based on her conversations with him toward the end of his life. He didn’t speak of the accident for decades and seemingly wanted to set the record straight as to his version of events and facts he felt were excluded from the narrative. Many of the questions here are asked in her book.
Some facts are not in dispute. On August 11, 1949, Mitchell, who by then also went by “Peg,” along with her husband, John Marsh. They parked on the side of Atlanta’s Peachtree Street and crossed the middle of the block. They were headed to see a movie, A Canterbury Tale, at the Peachtree Art Theater. Mitchell was struck by a car driven by off-duty cab driver Hugh Gravitt and died of her injuries.
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Other facts, while not in dispute, are subject to debate and interpretation as to what exactly happened that night. A photo from the accident site, taken several minutes after the accident and after the ambulance arrived, shows Mitchell lying face down on the ground beside the gurney, which would eventually carry her to the rear of the ambulance for transport to Grady Hospital. Mitchell’s husband is talking with bystanders, as are the medics. No one is rendering aid or attempting to move Mrs. Mitchell. Of the dozen or so individuals in the photo, all are away from Mrs. Mitchell, and none look to be in any form of action.
In his initial interview with officers, Gravitt said that he had a beer around 4 PM, which was a rarity, as he had suffered from ulcers for years, and beer would aggravate them. He then went home, where he had dinner. A doctor had called in a prescription for his stepson, Jimmy, to a local pharmacy. Gravitt had gone by his employer, the Veteran Cab Company, and borrowed money from Jack Burns, a fellow driver. He then headed to the drugstore. He was en route when he struck Mitchell. He described traffic that evening as being heavier than usual. Witnesses at the scene said Gravitt did not seem to be impaired. Breathalyzers and similar devices were not in use then.
Hugh Gravitt was arrested at the scene and charged with drunk operating, an accident, speeding, driving on the wrong side of the road, and violating the State motor vehicle law. Sgt. J.P. Eaves and M.C. Faulkner of the Accident Investigation Squad determined that Gravitt skidded for 67 feet and another ten after impact. The Atlanta Constitution reported that the couple was in a proper walkway, which was later shown not to be the case. Gravitt said, “I would have missed them if she-Mrs. Marsh-hadn’t run back toward the curbing.” He was consistent in the statement about her coming into his path; later, that statement would have support from others.
Gravitt also received a great deal of ill will for a photo taken while he was being booked. An Atlanta Journal photographer told him to smile, and he did. The photo was run with copy about how his smile indicates that he exhibited no sorrow for Mrs. Mitchell.
The story made headlines daily around the country. Mitchell even received a telegram from President Truman wishing her a speedy recovery. The hospital had to add additional operators for the high volume of calls. People were calling for Gravitt to be hanged. There were threats of breaking out of jail and killing him. He made bail but then received threatening phone calls at his home.
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What was not mentioned in the papers was the fact that Gravitt’s car was closely behind another vehicle that barely missed the couple. No newspaper account noted that they were jaywalking, even though they were crossing in the middle of a block, with no traffic signal or marked crosswalk, in an unlit section of a busy street.
Papers posted stories that Gravitt had a record of over twenty traffic violations and articles that he had numerous convictions for drunk driving. The 23 number was correct, but most were minor offenses dismissed outright, and the drunk driving claims were invalid.
On the third after the accident, Mitchell was reported as speaking. An examination concluded that she had no internal bruising or bleeding. The following day, the papers reported her decline, calling her condition “a sinking spell.”
Margaret Mitchell died at noon on August 16, 1949. Condolences came from around the world. The Governor of Georgia ordered flags to half-staff. Police Chief Herbert Jenkins upgraded the charge against Gravitt to murder, and the accused surrendered a short time later. He made bail again a few days later.
Gravitt stood trial in November 1949. Many potential witnesses for him, like the doctor who wrote the prescription for his stepson Jimmy, did not testify out of fear that the threats they received would be carried out. The jury convicted Hugh of involuntary manslaughter in about an hour of deliberation. He was sentenced to one year to eighteen months. He served about ten months. After his release, he was given a job as a mechanic with his old cab company. In 1967, he moved to Covington, an Atlanta suburb. He died in 1994.