Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
After the Civil War, Republicans, with control of the federal bureaucracy and the military, took charge of local and state government in Louisiana and most of the South. Once the sole purview of the white Democrats, control of local politics was largely in the hands of those holding newfound power gained through the Union victory.
Serving in the Republican-controlled Reconstruction government could be deadly. Political assassinations were common as the Democrats saw their power wane. They did not take kindly to outsiders carpetbaggers coming in to run local government. The scalawags locals who allied themselves with the Radical Republicans were especially despised. Even those who had excellent relationships with the populace before and during the war were now considered pariahs by their longtime friends and associates.
The White League used violence against officeholders, running some out of town and killing others, and suppressed election turnout among black and white Republicans. In August 1874, a mob assassinated virtually every government official in Red River Parish. An insurrection by 5,000 White Leaguers against Metropolitan Police and state militia supporting the state government in New Orleans on September 14, 1874, killed dozens. The insurgents held the statehouse, armory, and downtown for three days, retreating before arrival of Federal troops that restored the Radical Republican government. A memorial commemorating the Democratic view of the Battle of Liberty Place was recently the focus of a contentious fight over the removal of purported racist symbols in New Orleans.
Sometimes the attack on government officials had more to do with outright lawlessness or animosity than political opposition. When a district judge and district attorney were murdered near Winnsboro in September 1873, it was first supposed that a man facing criminal charges was the culprit. The Ouachita Telegraph called the ambush killing of District Judge Thomas H. Crawford and District Attorney Arthur H. Harris “a great crime, exciting our horror and strongest condemnation.”
Harris and Crawford had participated in court proceedings in Winnsboro in Franklin Parish for a week before returning to their homes in Columbia. On Monday, September 8, they set out for Winnsboro for a second week of court. Along the route, an ambush cut them down. Another attorney, Thomas J. Hough, who left Columbia two or three hours after the two officials, discovered the bodies near the Boeuf River swamps. Hough spurred his horse back to Columbia to collect a posse.
Judge Crawford lay in the road, the victim of what the Ouachita Telegraph termed “murderous fire.” The paper’s description was gruesome: “He was shot so often as to leave no distinct marks of the number of shots he received. His head was literally torn to pieces, the parts being gathered up in a handkerchief for interment. His horse was shot in the neck, but not killed.”
District Attorney Harris survived the first onslaught. His horse was shot down in the road but Harris’s body was found some distance away, indicating he briefly fled on foot. According to the Telegraph, “his body exhibited wounds in the knee, thigh, side and head, from which it is believed he was killed in flight, and even shot while down and several paces from his horse. The character of the wounds leads to the belief that the fire was delivered from both sides of the road, and that after having shot the two men down, they were shot while down, and Judge Crawford even after he was dead. His chest received a number of bullets, and underneath his head a large hole in the ground was seen, while the upper portion of this head was entirely blown asunder.”
As a Unionist who opposed Louisiana’s secession, Crawford’s alliance with the Republicans meant losing friends and gaining many enemies. He had fled to New York during the conflict.
Attempts had been made on his life since his return to Louisiana. Many drew the conclusion that his office was gained through subterfuge with the help of the Republican-controlled election returning board as the vote count had been decidedly against him. Harris, it was supposed, was killed because he was in company with Crawford, and no witnesses could be left alive.
Some suggested a different motive. Crawford and Harris had been threatened by a Caldwell Parish man named Thomas Winn, a fugitive facing a murder charge.
Harris had no known enemies. As a Democrat, the Telegraph reported, “he was thoroughly and strongly opposed to Crawford politically, and was even beloved by the people of his district.
Nothing but strong personal enmity can account for his death and that of Judge Crawford in the way recited. And this fact admitted to be such by every one points more strongly than anything else to the accusation of Winn as the guilty party.”
Judge Crawford was buried in Columbia, and forty-one year old Arthur Harris in his family’s plot in City Cemetery in Monroe. The Telegraph described a massive outpouring of sympathy for both men, but especially Harris, saying he “possessed fine social qualities, a cultivated mind, popular manners and a good heart. He loved his country, and set duty above all sense of fear.”
His tombstone is marked with a similar sentiment. Crawford was named “one of the best criminal lawyers of the State.”
Governor Kellogg offered a $5,000 reward. The Caldwell Parish Police Jury added another $500. Rewards announced in response to political killings in Reconstruction Louisiana almost never produced the desired results. Perhaps in this case, however, the prospects of a big payoff may have led someone to talk, as several men were identified as suspects, including William and John Adams and John and George Ellison, as well as Thomas Winn.
One newspaper reported Winn’s gang was the likely culprits:
“The murder of Judge Crawford and District Attorney Harris…is thought to have been committed by a party of desperadoes known as Tom Winn’s gang. Their leader was, at the last term of the court, tried at Columbia before Judge Crawford, for murder, and was convicted, the prosecution being carried on by Harris. The convict escaped from jail before sentence was passed, and has threatened repeatedly since to kill the judge and the district attorney. Both unfortunate gentlemen were highly esteemed. The people are in active pursuit of the murderers.”
No one was more involved in pursuing the killers than Judge Crawford’s brother, Isaac H. Crawford. Not long after the murder, William Adams, a cotton planter, went to Rayville to take the train to Vicksburg. On the train were Isaac Crawford, Ouachita Parish Sheriff Bernard Dinkgrave, and a witness to the killings named Jane Woods. Crawford had apparently enlisted the Republican Dinkgrave to assist in the case, even though the murders took place well outside the sheriff’s jurisdiction.
When Jane Woods saw Adams at the Rayville depot, she identified him as one of the assassins. Isaac Crawford ordered that Adams be arrested, and Dinkgrave took him into custody.
Dinkgrave escorted Adams on to Delta, in Madison Parish, and detained him until Crawford made affidavit against him as one of the assassins.
At a preliminary hearing, the Madison Parish judge committed Adams to jail to await the demand of the judicial authorities of Franklin Parish where the assassinations were committed.
Franklin Parish Judge Duncan Buie ordered the local sheriff to go to Delta and bring Adams back to face the charge. Sheriff Robert Hawthorn, with a posse of citizens, proceeded to Delta to execute Buie’s order.
Before reaching Delta, Sheriff Hawthorn was met by an armed force intending to kill Adams if necessary to keep him from being removed from Delta. Madison Parish Sheriff Brown’s action in refusing to obey the order was commended by the Delta Journal as an act of prudence. Adams was hurried across the river into Mississippi, and confined in the Vicksburg jail, “with manacles on his limbs,” the Telegraph reported. Later, Adams was returned to Delta.
Adams was returned to the Delta jail after Franklin Sheriff Hawthorn confessed his inability to execute Judge Buie’s order. Captain. H. P. Wells, counsel for Adams, went to Monroe and asked Judge Robert Ray for a writ of habeas corpus. Judge Ray granted the writ, directing Sheriff Brown to produce William Adams in Monroe on October 7.
Meanwhile, Isaac Crawford was informed of the action, or contemplated the action of Judge Ray, and hurried to New Orleans to file an affidavit against Adams under the Ku Klux Act.
The Ku Klux Act, also known as the Enforcement Act of 1871, gave the federal government the power to charge those who violated the civil rights of recently freed slaves and others. It was generally used when local authorities refused to act in cases of murder and other serious crimes.
Brown went to the depot at Delta to take Adams to Monroe. The sheriff was met at the depot by a deputy U.S. marshal with an arrest warrant for Adams from Commissioner Wolfley of the federal court in New Orleans.
The Telegraph condemned Brown for surrendering his prisoner to the federal officer:
“Brown, at the time, was obeying the writ of habeas corpus issued by a State District Judge in a case involving the issues of life and death, and where the highest privileges of the citizen and the mightiest exercise of power in a State are concerned, and yet this man Brown, the fit tool of despotism and tyranny, gave up his prisoner to the deputy U.S. marshal who took Adams was taken to New Orleans via the state of Mississippi, in defiance and contempt of the highest and holiest mandate of any judicial officer of the so-called State of Louisiana, and is there confined in the Parish Prison to await another preliminary examination for an offense in every feature incomparably less reprehensible than that charged upon this man by Jane Woods and for which he was thrown into the Delta jail and for which the State was demanding his trial. His examination before the Commissioner in New Orleans has been fixed for the 31st, and after that matter is disposed of, we suppose Judge Ray will be permitted to have his writ obeyed.”
Judge Ray, “smarting under the indignity placed upon his authority by Sheriff Brown,” sent Sheriff Dinkgrave to Madison Parish to arrest Brown. Brown was brought to Monroe, and for his contempt of Judge Ray’s writ, was sentenced to 24 hours in the Ouachita Parish jail, and to pay a fine of $24 and the costs.
Democrat and Republican argued back and forth about Adams’s arrest. The Democrat- leaning Telegraph complained, “These movements from State to State of a prisoner who was simply committed for trial before a jury of his peers, and was legally innocent, took place without the shadow of law, and were gross outrages upon Adams’s rights, and upon the manhood of Madison Parish, and the dignity and sovereignty of the State of Louisiana. We venture to say that no parallel case can’t be shown in all the criminal proceedings of any State in the Union.
“Adams, a citizen of our parish, who was carried to that city under the enforcement act, and most outrageous ill-treated in the face of the best and strongest evidence that can be produced In the State to establish his innocence. From every fact elicited in this case, it becomes painfully manifest that Mr. Adams is the victim of heartless persecution.”
On November 3, 1873, Adams was brought up for examination before United States Commissioner Weller in New Orleans on the charge of obstructing the due course of law, by being to one of a party who conspired and effected the murder of Thomas S. Crawford and Arthur H. Harris.
The prosecutor immediately moved for a continuance of the trial on the grounds his witnesses were not all present, and due to transportation difficulties, the witnesses might have been delayed by circumstances beyond their control. The defense objected, citing the inconvenience, trouble. and expense Adams had endured, and that there was no need for witnesses, as the charge against Adams was for obstructing the course of justice, and not for the murder as that was a charge only the State of Louisiana could pursue.
Adams’s lawyers argued for his release on the ground he was arrested under the Ku Klux Act, and the affidavit did not show that his case came within the provisions of that law. They asked for the charge to be dismissed but the motion was denied and the trial set to begin the next day. Testimony began on the second day of the trial. A number of witnesses testified they saw Adams the day of the murders, placing him in locations away from the crime scene. When testimony ended, the commissioner stated the evidence established an undisputable alibi for the prisoner, and he considered it his duty to discharge Adams. Adams was released. The failure of the prosecution to gain a continuance so additional witnesses could be brought to New Orleans likely played a role in the lack of evidence.
Another man, Henry M. Pemberton, was arrested for Crawford’s murder under the Enforcement Act in July 1874, over a year after the double murder. The charge was initiated by Isaac Crawford, who appears to be the only person pursuing the case.
When Pemberton appeared in court, Isaac Crawford asked for a continuance of three weeks to arrange for witnesses to come to New Orleans. He asked for Pemberton to be kept in custody until then. Instead, the judge set bail at $10,000 and Pemberton was released, only to be re-arrested on a murder warrant from Franklin Parish. However, Isaac Crawford was apparently unable to get Franklin Parish authorities to take Pemberton into custody and return him to Winnsboro for trial. Pemberton made himself scarce so authorities could not find him, just in case. No one else would be arrested for the Crawford-Harris murders.
Maybe Isaac Crawford attained some “justice” on behalf of his brother after all. By August 1877, nearly three years after the murder of Judge Crawford and D.A. Harris, Thomas Winn was living in Bossier Parish. Winn was sitting by a window in his home one evening when an unknown assailant shot him. His killer was never identified.
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