Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
The office of constable is unknown to most Louisianans. While the elective office appears on the ballot of each parish every four years, most citizens have little idea what constables do.
Each ward in every parish elects a justice of the peace and a constable. The “JP” is essentially the judge of what amounts to a small claims court and the constable is the officer of the court, in much the same role sheriffs serve for the district courts. Most constables keep a low profile, only serving papers issued by the JPs, but they are fully authorized to engage in the same law enforcement activities as the sheriff and police officers. In Texas, constables take on a much larger role, supplementing the county sheriff in traffic enforcement and patrol.
In 1887, John Nimrod Ferguson was the constable for Union Parish’s Ward 8. By all accounts, he was a respected, efficient officer well-known in the community. He had joined Confederate forces in Georgia in 1861 and was elected lieutenant of the regiment a year later. By June 1864, he was a captain. Captured in Maryland in July 1864, he had seen combat in some of the Civil War’s bloodiest battles Antietam, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Gettysburg. Ferguson moved to north Louisiana after the war, like many other families from Georgia and Alabama who yearned for a new start. Accompanied by his wife, parents, and grandmother, Ferguson settled in Shiloh in Union Parish about 1871. He was elected as a constable in the 1880s.
On December 16, 1887, Ferguson visited Stein’s Bluff, the uppermost port on Corney Bayou. During the late 1800s, Daniel Stein was one of the most prominent citizens of Farmerville and a well-known businessmen throughout north Louisiana. The success of his Farmerville store led Stein to expand his business and open another on Bayou Corney about a mile upstream from its mouth on Bayou D’Arbonne. He named it Stein’s Bluff.
From Stein’s, steamboats carried cotton and other goods down Corney to Bayou D’Arbonne, past Farmerville to the Ouachita River, then down the Red to the Mississippi and on to New Orleans. These waterways played an important role, providing the principal means of transporting supplies and foodstuffs, as well as passengers before the railroads arrived. Steamboats made a regular round trip between Monroe and Stein’s Bluff, a distance of 80 miles, twice a week.
Constable Ferguson’s visit to Stein’s was to collect fees owed the JP court. It was probably a good place to catch people with a bit of cash in their pockets as they shopped at the store or received payment from Stein for goods shipped downstream. On the road back to Shiloh that chilly December evening, someone fired a shotgun from ambush. Ferguson fell from his horse. As he lay in the road, the killer fired another blast into the constable’s head, nearly taking it off. Newspapers reported a thorough investigation was made, presumably by the Union Parish sheriff, but no clue was found that might identify the culprit. The only evidence at the scene were the shotgun pellets in Ferguson’s body and the wadding from the gun made from scraps of the Farmerville Gazette, the parish’s newspaper. Sixteen dollars in Ferguson’s pocket were undisturbed. A little girl living with nearby said she heard two shots fired, after which she saw two men running across a field. Ferguson left behind a wife and numerous children.
Ferguson’s murder remained unsolved for ten years. In 1898, through a disagreement of the perpetrators, rumors of their identities became known. Samuel D. Nutt, a prominent Shiloh citizen active in business and politics, learned of the reports and vowed to expose the truth. As a fellow Georgia Confederate with a house of children, Nutt may have felt a kinship with Ferguson. One of the men implicated in the rumors, Wiley Bragg, had gone to Arkansas, and Nutt tracked him down. Confronted with the reports charging him with the deed, Bragg confessed and named his collaborators as Columbus Straughter and John Neal Johnson.
Bragg said on the afternoon of the Ferguson assassination, Columbus Straughter, John Johnson and he waited for their victim at the roadside. When Ferguson approached, Straughter fired at him with a shotgun causing constable to fall from his horse. As Ferguson lay prostrate on the ground, Straughter fired a second shot producing instant death, Bragg stated.
Bragg said he and Johnson did not have guns. His account corresponded well with the facts the coroner’s jury determined at the inquest as well as the testimony of the little girl. Bragg claimed that robbery was their motive and that they mistook Ferguson for businessman George Washington Moore. After the killing, Bragg said the three men went to their respective homes. G. W. Moore had gone to Stein’s Bluff that day to sell a large amount of cotton and carried the money home with him. Moore and Ferguson resembled each other in many respects and had horses very much alike; and as the day of the assassination was cloudy and cold, Ferguson was wearing a heavy overcoat buttoned about his neck.
Straughter, Johnson, and Bragg were arrested, placed in the Farmerville jail, and indicted for murder by a Union Parish grand jury. A representative of the Farmerville Gazette saw them in their cells, and Bragg’s statement was practically the same as he made when first arrested. Straughter and Johnson proclaimed their innocence vehemently.
Criminal court week started slowly in Union Parish on September 26, with most of the early cases being misdemeanors like disorderly conduct and carrying concealed weapons. Once the calendar was cleared, the trial of Bragg, Straughter, and Johnson began on Thursday, September 29. The jury found Bragg guilty of murder but acquitted Johnson. The jury could not reach a verdict on Straughter but apparently a deal was worked out where he also pleaded guilty to avoid the death penalty at a subsequent trial.
On November 7, Columbus Straughter and Wiley Bragg were sentenced to life terms in the state penitentiary for the murder of Constable Ferguson on December 16, 1887. After their sentence, a Gazette representative visited the jail to get a clear statement of the crime from the prisoners. Straughter charged Bragg with the shooting while Bragg claimed Straughter did it. They both, however, admitted being present, and said the party who did the shooting intended to kill Ferguson, and not G. W. Moore. Bragg and Straughter both claimed the acquitted John Neal Johnson was a party to the killing, while he claimed another man, Tom Johnson, who had since died, was also there.
After the court proceedings, the Gazette wrote, “The truth of these conflicting statements may never be known, but it is quite certain that both Bragg and Straughter deserve their fate.” In December, the Union Parish Police Jury issued to Captain S. D. Nutt $200 in parish scrip as a reward for what the Gazette termed “his efficient work in bringing to justice the assassins of Constable Ferguson.”
Justice for Constable John Ferguson took just a month shy of ten years. His death was in the line of duty as a law enforcement officer as he was on the job and the convicted men confessed he was their target, although their motive is unknown today. Unfortunately, Ferguson’s name does not yet appear on the National Law Enforcement Officers Memorial in Washington, D.C., but newly discovered officer deaths are added periodically.
Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Greetings From Ruston: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Check out his Louisiana history blog at http://diggingthepast.blogspot.com