John Fleming, Southern Gentleman By Preston Lindsay


John Fleming's life was, in a word, full. He traveled all around the country, meeting beautiful women in swanky hotel ballrooms, established himself as a respected businessman, built a fortune, and, tragically, lost it all. Chronicled by the federal Life Histories Project, his story stands as a testament to the kind of exuberant, extravagant lifestyle enjoyed by the upper class in turn-of-the century America.

The Life Histories Project

The Life Histories Project was an offshoot of the New Deal Era Federal Writers Program (FWP), which aimed to help authors and journalists who were struggling to make ends meet by giving them jobs. Among the programs the FWP founded was the Life Histories Project, which was a massive, nationwide effort to chronicle the stories of everyday Americans. Interviewers were sent out to interview ordinary folk, ranging from farmers to mechanics to preachers, and record their life story. It heralded an unprecedented effort to preserve histories that had heretofore been left out of the narrative.

However, the project was not flawless. The histories were edited thoroughly, passing through three levels of editors before being record in finality, and as such there exists a distinct possibility that they were altered for increased impact or dramatic effect. Additionally, the editors and regional directors often had overarching goals in mind, such as portraying their state or region in the best possible light, and others (Stave 20). Particularly, in Fleming's case, it appeared that his interviewer was asking very leading questions about his past relationships, and may have edited the story to enhance that aspect. Yet much of what was written can, in fact, be verified, and the histories as they exist are a fascinating look into the lives of Depression-Era Americans.

John Fleming

The old post office in Milton, NC., where John Fleming may have grown up

John Fleming was born in 1863 to wealthy, upper class parents. At a young age, he moved to Milton, NC, where he was educated in a private school and groomed for life as a businessman, full of pleasure, and indulgence. While he mostly stuck to this path, he took several detours along the way, particularly with women.

To call Fleming a ladies’ man would be a drastic understatement. He went through four engagements and three marriages throughout his lifetime. The first, when he was in college, lasted only for a few days, after a moonlit, drunken proposal was redacted once sobriety set in several days later. The second engagement was purely for money, and he divorced the girl quietly months after the wedding. The third engagement was to a young woman who for years took care of Fleming’s ailing mother, and the fourth came during his advanced, impoverished years, to a much younger woman, who supported him in his feeble financial footing. He married primarily for utility, and left love out of the equation, except, however, in one instance.

Early 20th Century Couple

Fleming’s most sacred, most intimate, most treasured experience came not with his wives , but with an already married woman, whom he met while roaming the country as a traveling salesman. He treasured her memory so fondly that, even in his old age he kept pictures of her, and begged the interviewer not to judge him as he told the story. The woman's husband had been unfaithful, but she could not divorce him due to Catholic scruples. This was quite common at the time, as divorce was heavily regulated both legally and religiously, with many religious groups forbidding and disincentivizing it even in severe cases (Strow & Strow, 2-5).

Thus unable to marry, the pair expressed their love covertly, meeting up in various cities, in elegant ballrooms and, more often than not, private rooms in hotels (which, according to Fleming, they would not leave for days). Yet their separate lives eventually pulled them apart, and Fleming lamented her as, perhaps, his only true love throughout his life. Even forty years later, he could never get over the classic “one that got away.”

Tobacco and Fleming's Fortune

The American Tobacco Company

The other pillar of Fleming’s life, aside from romantic liaisons, was his business ventures. Originally a salesman, he eventually filed a wrongful termination suit against the American Tobacco Company for $19,000 (a hefty sum in that time), and used that money, partly out of spite, to form his own tobacco company in Detroit – Red Devil Tobacco – and use the proceeds to post propaganda all around the city besmirching American Tobacco, claiming they abused workers and were anti-union. In the current political climate, this whipped Detroit up into a frenzy, until James Duke, owner of American Tobacco, bought Fleming’s company out and discontinued the brand to save his company’s good name, putting huge sums in Fleming’s coffers in the process. At the time, the average wage everyman was desperately pro-Union, because unionizing was the only hope for fair pay for many workers, so Fleming's propaganda was so effective that, by 1939, the company had fully embraced a partnership with a Tobacco workers union (Traver 5). Eventually, the American Tobacco company would fall completely, but not to Fleming - to the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, which broke up James Duke's conglomerate fully in 1911, and left only a shell of the same name operating solely in North Carolina.

James Duke, owner of the American Tobacco Company

For a while, Fleming reaped the rewards of his work, but eventually a stroke of bad luck ruined him. He invested heavily in real estate in Florida, which was destroyed during a flood (likely due to the Okeechobee hurricane in 1928), and left him penniless, forced to live in a rundown shack in Milton, next to what used to be his childhood home, now turned into a post office.

However, by the time of the interview, Fleming seemed at peace with his state of affairs, happily remarking that he wasn’t afraid to die, and was happy to have lived a full life, full of romance, pleasure, and prosperity. Strangely enough, he seemed particularly pleased that his body would be cremated, which was an almost unheard of practice at the time. Even thirty years later, in 1969, it only accounted for 4.4% of deaths. In closing, he remarked how happy he was that, after a long and full life, his ashes would be "placed in a little bronze box and brought back to lie in the old Milton cemetery, beside [his] mother's grave" (Cannady).


"1928 Okeechobee Hurricane.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 18 Feb. 2017,

Cannady, Beth. “John Fleming: Southern Gentleman," in the Federal Writers' Project papers #3709, Southern Historical Collection, The Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Carter, Robert W. “American Tobacco Company.” American Tobacco Company, NCpedia, 1 Jan. 2006,

Edmands, Michael J. "Dying Business?" Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly (1942-Current file), Aug 25 1969, pp. 5. ProQuest Central,

Frank Traver, DE V. "THE PRESENT STATUS OF LABOR UNIONS IN THE SOUTH." Southern Economic Journal (pre-1986), vol. 5, no. 4, 1939., pp. 485 ProQuest Central,

Stave, Bruce M. ""the Doctor Told Us what He Wanted": Sam Koenig's Instructions to WPA Ethnic Group Survey Interviewers." The Oral History Review, vol. 34, no. 2, 2007., pp. 17 - 25 ProQuestCentral,

Strow, Claudia W., and Brian K. Strow. "A History of Divorce and Remarriage in the United States." Humanomics, vol. 22, no. 4, 2006., pp. 239-257 ProQuest Central,

Image Citations

“169 Broad Street, Milton NC.” Homes and Land,

“American Tobacco Company Plant in Durham, NC.” Open Durham, Google Images,

“Early 20th Century Couple.” Google Images,

“James Buchanan Duke.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation,

“Labor Day Parade.” Industry Weekly, Google Images,

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