The Murder of John W. Cherry

Written by Gene Barron

John Waddell Cherry (13 May 1845-16 Apr 1884) was the fifth child of Judge William Powell and Elizabeth Travis Cherry. John served in Co. “I” of the 31st Infantry during the Civil War. He married Rebecca Giles in Union Parish in 1868 and they lived on a farm about 3 miles below Spearsville. By the summer of 1884 they had 3 living children and one on the way.

Perry Melton (7 Sep 1825-19 Jun 1885) came to Union Parish from Twiggs County, Georgia, in 1865. He married Eliza Kinard in Union County, Arkansas, in October of that year and settled on land just northwest of the Cherry farm. Perry was a Union man and refused to serve or enlist in the Confederate Army. This was probably the spark that festered over time between him and John Cherry.

A year or so after the Civil War started, the Confederate Army began to run short of men so a policy of conscription was adopted.  With this in mind, the 31st Louisiana Infantry was formed to allow men in the area to join and serve together instead of being conscripted and sent where need most. Among those choosing to join the 31st were John W. Cherry, Henry Calloway Barron and James D. Barron.

Perry and Jack Alphin chose a third option. They left Louisiana and went to Johnson County, Illinois where they became known as Louisiana refugees. While there Jack Alphin died in 1864 and was buried on the White’s farm on which they were working.

In 1863 Perry’s wife, the former Olivia Albina Muse, died leaving Perry with 5 children to care for so in 1866 he married Jack’s widow, Eliza Kinard Alphin, and by 1885 they had 9 children. Eliza was highly spoken of in the community.

It is unclear exactly what brought the tension between John and Perry to a boiling point. One story was that Perry’s dog was trying to catch one of the Cherry’s sheep, John had killed it, delivered the corpse to the Melton home, hung it over the gate and announced, “Here’s your old dog if you want him,”  turned and went home.

In any case, on the morning of April 16, 1884, Perry and his oldest son, William who had just turned 36, passed the Cherry farm on their way to work on the public road and engaged in what became a heated altercation with John Cherry, who was tending his stock. The Meltons were carrying hand spikes needed to work on the road. John went into his pasture and closed the gate to escape the Meltons but they followed and caught him by the arms. John begged off from his assailants and they released him and went out of John’s pasture as if to go on their way.

Whether John said something to provoke Perry or not is unknown. In any event, as William walked ahead of his father on down the road, Perry stopped and exclaimed, “Let’s kill him!”

William then turned and both entered the gate again with pocket knives in hand. John drew a revolver from his pocket and shot at them several times and Perry was hit by one of the bullets in the left arm. John then ran toward his house to get his shotgun, with the Meltons in pursuit.

Mrs. Cherry heard the commotion and came to the door. John told her to bring his shotgun. John entered the yard by the back gate and tried to enter the house by the back door, but it was locked. He scurried around to the front door but was cut off by the Meltons, who had entered the yard by the front gate. With knives drawn, the Meltons attacked John and succeeded in getting hold of him. Just then Mrs. Cherry came from the house, shotgun in hand, running toward her husband. William, seeing her coming, released his hold on John, grabbed the shotgun away and struck Mrs. Cherry, knocking her down.

With his hand spike, William struck John on the head several times while Perry held him. They left John lying on the ground and fled the scene. Family lore has it that on their way home they met a Mr. Rabun and a Mr. Barron on the road and told them that they had just killed John Cherry. Barron’s reply was, “Yes, and you’ve played hell too.”  Perry and William went home to care for his wounded arm as the two men went to check on John. When they arrived at the Cherry farm they found John alive and sent for a doctor.

Dr. T. J. Tabor arrived to administer aid to John, but there was little he could do for him. John died in about 2 hours of his head injuries.

After discussing their plight with the family and taking into account the feelings of the community about his actions during the Civil War, Perry and William fled to Pala Pinto County, Texas, where Perry’s daughter, Epsy, lived with her husband, William David Nicklas.

Soon after the homicide, Sheriff B.F. Pleasant had postal cards drawn up with the description of the fugitives and sent them to every sheriff in Louisiana, Texas, and Arkansas. In the latter part of June he received notice from Sheriff J.C. McQuarry of Palo Pinto County, Texas, that two men answering the description on the Meltons were at the home of David Nicklas in the northwestern part of the county.

Sheriff Pleasant left for Texas and upon his arrival Sheriff McQuarry placed 3 deputies at his disposal, W.K. Bell, John McLauren and James Owens. The three proceeded to the Nicklas place, about 20 miles away, arriving about daylight on July 2. After accessing the situation, men in the area volunteered to lure the Nicklas family away from the house for their safety’s sake.  A neighbor sent word for the Nicklas family to come to his house immediately. As the family arrived at the neighbor’s house, Pleasant and the deputies moved in. Two went to the front and three went to the rear of the house. Sheriff Pleasant called for the Meltons to surrender, but the Meltons tried to escape by the back door, which led to the corn field and thence to the mountains, but they were cut off by the officers in the rear. William ran toward the front of the house where he was apprehended by Sheriff Pleasant and deputy Bell. Perry reached the fence of the corn field and was about to cross it when McLauren’s Winchester persuaded him to stop and surrender. William had been armed with a Smith & Wesson revolver. Perry had no arms on him.

The prisoners were jailed in Pala Pinto awaiting the requisition of Governor McEnery which was received on July 12. On the 16th Sheriff Pleasant received the warrant of Governor Ireland and left for Louisiana with his prisoners that evening.

The trial of Perry and William Melton began on October 24, 1884, and lasted 4 days. Judge Young presided over the trial. After District Attorney and council for the state, E. H. McClendon, had presented his evidence on the 25th and after instructing the jury not to discuss the proceedings; court was adjourned until Monday morning. By noon on Monday the defense attorneys, R.H. Odom and G.H. Killgore Jr., had presented their evidence. At 2:00 PM E. H. McClendon made the state’s opening argument followed by R.H. Odom and G.H. Killgore for the defense. At 6:00 PM Killgore had not completed his argument. This argument had not concluded by 1:30 PM the next day and the crowd in the courtroom became restless. The judge had to call the court to order so that the defense could finish its argument.

The jury was charged and court adjourned until 8:00 PM while the jury retired to deliberate. No verdict had been reached by 8:00 PM so the time was extended. At 9:45 PM the jury reported that they had reached a verdict and court reconvened. The jury foreman, H.L. Scott, read the verdict – guilty.

Perry and William were returned to their cell to await sentencing and the jury dismissed. After an appeal for a new trial was denied on November 8, sentence was passed ordering the accused to be executed at such time as directed by the Governor.

The execution was set for Friday, June 19, 1885. In the mean time an appeal was made to the state supreme court. The appeal was denied.

While awaiting the hangman’s noose Perry and William Melton were interviewed by a Gazette staff reporter in their cell at 3:00 PM on Thursday, June 18th. Neither of the men wanted to make any further statement about the killing of John Cherry. Perry then said he wanted to make a statement to be published in the Gazette. He had heard the rumor that he was being accused of the murder of Jack Alphin. Perry flatly denied the accusation. He said that he and Jack had both contracted smallpox while living on the White’s farm in Erline, Illinois, in 1864, adding that Erline was a station on the Illinois Central Railroad located about 10 miles from Cairo. Perry stated that he had recovered but Jack had died and was buried near the Whites’ house. He said that sons of Jesse Sours, Jake Quigley and David Kentrill assisting in burying Alphin.

Later in the interview Perry stated, “A place for our graves has been selected by me and the family on our farm where Bill and I will be buried.”  The interview lasted until 4:00 PM. On Friday morning at 10:30 the typed interview was submitted to the condemned for approval. They said it was correct.

Before leaving the cell Perry asked the reporter to take another statement for publication, which was done. “I do not think I have had humane treatment by the law and its officers. I do not feel that I have broken the laws. My trial was not fair, the judge was biased: Judge Young was biased and his rulings were made against me through the trial on account of his biased mind. Judge Young did not give us justice, he was partial, and made so by men who were afraid of me; afraid I would tell something on them. But I have no malice against anyone. The treatment I have received in jail has been kind. Mr. Turnage has been especially kind to both of us and we thank him for it.”

Gloom and despair filled the cell of Perry and William who, with few friends to offer confront, faced eternity on the morning of the 19th. Outside it was a clear and beautiful day. At 12:50 PM Sheriff Pleasant notified the condemned men to prepare for execution. They requested a few minutes of silent prayer which was granted.

At 1:00 PM William stepped from his cell into the hallway where the gallows were erected followed by his father. Both men were calm and evidently resolute to the fate that awaited them. They spoke to the witnesses and remained dignified and calm. At 1:30 PM Sheriff Pleasant began reading the death warrant. Perry interrupted him, “That’s not necessary. You can dispense with it.”  The Sheriff, however, continued and concluded at 1:10 PM. As the warrant was read Perry stood straight, his eyes on the sheriff and the witnesses. William, however, resting one hand on the upright of the gallows, stared at the blue sky through the window.

After the reading, William was asked if he had anything to say. He answered in a firm voice, “I have not.”  The same question was asked of Perry and he shook his head. The condemned were then blindfolded as they stood holding hands. They were directed to step up on the scaffold, a platform raised about twelve inches above the floor, which they did without hesitation and took their places on the fatal trap door. At 1:16 PM the feet of both men were tied and their hands tied behind them.

Perry squatted down and asked his son to do likewise. He then stated, “Frank, give us the last minute you can.”  He was told they could have half an hour. This time was spent by the condemned in prayer, as a death-like stillness enveloped the jail. At 1:24 PM Perry complained of the ropes hurting his wrists and said, “I want it to be done with.”

The ropes were placed around their necks at 1:27 PM and black hoods drawn over their faces at 1:36 PM as both men were earnestly praying in voices scarcely audible. At 1:40 PM the fatal words – one, two, and three – were spoken, the rope was cut, and the trap door fell. Both men dropped 7 ½ feet into the hallway below before their fall ended with a sudden jerk. Perry’s neck broke and he died instantly. William met a more gruesome fate. The knot had caught under his chin and the fall was not enough to break his neck. He struggled until 1:56 PM when the knot was slipped to the side of his neck and he died of strangulation. At 2:01 PM his pulse ceased to beat, at 2:06 PM his heart ceased to beat, and he was pronounced dead. Perry was cut down at 2:10 PM and William at 2:14 PM. The bodies were placed in coffins and delivered to B.F. Post as requested by the family.

A private funeral was held at the graveside of Perry and William Melton in the peach orchard on the family farm where they had requested they be buried. Only two meager mounds of sod with iron ore rock surrounding each marked the spot of their burial. Today it is virtually impossible to find the graves for machines used in harvesting timber in later years have blurred the location forever.

 

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Gene BarronGene Barron is a native of Spearsville, Union Parish, Louisiana. He has a genealogy database of 182,000 names, who are all connected to his family.

Gene has also written two historical books on Union Parish. I highly recommend both.

 

 

 

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