Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
Gunfight Changed Railroad Town in 1898
The conventional view of Louisiana history invokes images of genteel Southern chivalry rather than the hurly-burly associated with the rough and tumble Old West. Yet Louisiana experienced wild and woolly times in the 19th century, requiring the services of lawmen like John Tom Sisemore. Although not a big man—he wore a size 4 shoe—Deputy U.S. Marshal Sisemore was tough and solidly built. His children would later remember townspeople referring to their father as “full of dynamite” and “the shortest six-foot fellar we ever saw.”
In 1884, the town of Ruston rose from the red-clay hills when the railroad finally spanned north Louisiana. The Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad—or the “Very Slow and Pokey,” as it was known locally—replaced the Wire Road as the main transportation route between Vicksburg and Shreveport. Vienna and other Wire Road communities all but disappeared when the railroad bypassed them.
With Vienna’s demise, the courthouse was moved to Ruston. New schools were started, including a small college, the forerunner of Louisiana Tech. A Chautauqua program was established for educational and cultural activities amid shade trees and bubbling springs north of town. Fiery politicians, preachers, and pontificators visited the Chautauqua to lecture and exhort.
Bad men came as well. Routine gunfire and rowdy disturbances clashed with Ruston’s hunger for sophistication and culture. Believing liquor to be the root of the community’s ills, in 1894 the town fathers proposed an ordinance prohibiting the sale or possession of alcoholic beverages. It passed overwhelmingly.
As a federal marshal, Sisemore scoured north Louisiana, raiding stills and arresting bootleggers and outlaws. His name struck fear among whiskey runners.
One reporter wrote Sisemore was “an efficient officer who made it exceedingly risky for the moonshiner to run his business in North Louisiana. He is a terror to the whiskey element and all outlaws in general.” Sisemore’s pursuit of robbers and moonshiners became regular fodder for north Louisiana newspapers. He worked often with federal revenue agents who could destroy stills but relied on deputy U.S. marshals for arrest powers.
While federal officials were interested in moonshine because of its producers’ aversion to paying taxes, communities like Ruston objected to alcohol for moral and social reasons. The town’s founder, Robert Russ, was a staunch Baptist. In a letter to the Ruston Leader after the 1894 election, Russ wrote: “The votes have been counted. The decision has been made by a large majority…all persons are prohibited from selling in any quantity all alcoholic or vinous spirits. Remember this is clothed with the strong arm of the law, the voice of the people. The law should be upheld and executed and when we fail to do this, we fail to do our whole duty.”
Ruston lawmen had their hands full. Removing the lawless element shooting up the town and enforcing prohibition was no small task. Some of Ruston’s early police chiefs served as little as one month before surrendering their badges within the gleeful taunts of the troublemakers.
Marshal Sisemore’s chief adversary was Frank Mullins of Simsboro. Claiming photography as his profession, Mullins operated a “studio” near Ruston’s train depot. It served as a front for his true business—running whiskey. Mullins was arrested at least a dozen times in Ruston, usually for selling liquor without a license, but the fines were just a cost of doing business.
By 1896, Sisemore had been asked to serve as a part-time officer in Ruston in addition to his federal duties. The marshal charged Mullins with federal violations and with violating Ruston’s city ordinance on selling whiskey. “A bad feeling has existed between Sisemore and Mullins,” reported the Shreveport Times, “and everybody expected trouble between them every time they met.” During one difficult arrest, Sisemore shot Mullins. Mullins served a year in the Lincoln Parish prison while his younger brother Will kept the alcohol business in operation. Another Shreveport paper, the Evening Journal, speculated that the enmity between the two rose from Mullins’ alleged assassination of a government witness to prevent his testimony—Sisemore’s own brother-in-law.
On December 14, 1897, Sisemore and Mullins exchanged gunfire but neither was injured. Mullins cried foul and a grand jury indicted Sisemore for assault. But Sisemore had sizable support in Ruston. In fact, in January 1898, after years of futile attempts at finding a strong police chief, city officials begged Sisemore to take on the job. A unique arrangement was approved allowing Sisemore to continue as a deputy federal marshal while serving as Ruston’s new chief. Sisemore bought a house for his wife and five children on a hill just south of downtown Ruston.
Sisemore and Mullins met in a final showdown on the stormy evening of February 26, 1898. Lightning pierced the sky occasionally, casting ghostly shadows across Ruston’s business district. About 8:00p.m., a string of gunshots filled the air and Sisemore prowled the rain-dampened streets in search of the culprit. Mayor Fred Price also heard the gunfire between thunderclaps and, armed with his shotgun, rushed from his home to investigate. He had nearly stumbled between Sisemore and Mullins in the murky night when he heard voices.
“It was very dark,” Price later testified. “I spoke and said hello to attract their attention, but I heard somebody say, ‘Who is that? Is that you, Frank?’ The answer was ‘Yes, that’s me.’ I recognized Sisemore’s voice and I thought the other was Frank Mullins. I could see neither of them, only when the lightning flashed… Sisemore then said, ‘Is that you doing this shooting around here tonight?’ Mullins replied, ‘No, but by god I’ve got the fixing for you.’ Sisemore said, ‘You are a liar’—he may have said, ‘You are a damn liar’—and immediately both parties fired simultaneously.”
Other witnesses would contradict Price and accuse Sisemore of firing again at the mortally wounded Mullins as he fled. One man reported the gunshots had sounded as if they came from the same gun, hinting that only Sisemore had fired.
Mullins, riddled with shotgun pellets, limped to his boardinghouse where the landlady discovered him near the front door. Mullins encouraged Mrs. E.M. Sherwood to go to his room and locate his revolver to prove he had been unarmed. The many witnesses to his dying statement announced that Mullins insisted Sisemore had shot down an unarmed man. Before he died, Mullins urged his family not to seek revenge but to let the courts deal with Sisemore.
Sisemore was indicted again by a grand jury, a surprise to many citizens. The Shreveport Times announced, “Mr. Sisemore has the sympathy and backing of almost the entire law-abiding community, and will doubtless be exonerated when his case comes to trial.”
A record cotton season filled the streets with wagons, mules, and farmers as the trial began on September 14, 1898. In a packed courtroom, jury selection was made difficult by the vehement opinions both for and against Sisemore. The prosecution subpoenaed 19 witnesses; the defense, 15. It would be the biggest trial to date in Lincoln Parish.
Testimony was heard that the gun recovered from Mullins’s room was dotted with mud, as if it had been dropped on the wet street. Witnesses revealed Mullins had visited his room before Mrs. Sherwood found him bleeding by the front door. A youngster declared Mullins had been shooting off his gun on a street where spent cartridges had been discovered.
The jury quickly returned a not guilty verdict. The Shreveport Times reported, “The verdict meets with general approval.” The charges from the earlier shooting were dropped. But soon rumors circulated that Sisemore had been targeted for assassination.
On the evening of November 17, Sisemore ate supper with his family and played with his youngest son by the fire. Pocketing his children’s letters to Santa Claus on the pretense of mailing them that night, Sisemore followed his evening routine of making a final patrol through town. As he walked toward downtown Ruston, Sisemore heard a noise in a pine thicket nearby. Drawing his revolver, he approached the trees slowly. A shotgun blast knocked Sisemore to the ground. A second shot missed.
Neighbors carried Sisemore to his bed by neighbors and doctors hurried to the scene. With his sobbing family and concerned friends gathered around, Sisemore whispered he did not see his ambusher. Soon Sisemore joined his nemesis Frank Mullins in death. The Shreveport Times reported the shooting on page one with the headline, “A Cowardly Murder: Deputy United States Marshal John T. Sisemore Shot to Death by Assassins.” The article noted Sisemore “for the past few years has been a terror to the moonshiners…and always fearlessly discharged his duties…regardless of fear or favor.”
Telegraphs were sent in all directions requesting bloodhounds to track the killer. The U.S. marshal and a deputy rushed from Shreveport to aid in the manhunt. Rewards were offered. Frank Mullins’s associates were blamed for Sisemore’s death. One news story reported, “While so far as is known there is no direct evidence, yet every citizen of Ruston seems to have settled to their own satisfaction who the actual criminals or instigators of the crime are.” No suspects were arrested, but Sisemore family members tell the story of a killer hanged in El Dorado for another murder. Before his execution, John Henry Thomas reportedly confessed to killing Sisemore for $50.
We will never know if Mullins was shot in a “fair fight” or who killed Sisemore. But we do know Ruston founder Robert Russ appreciated the town’s newfound tranquility. The removal of the alcohol element, Russ wrote, “added more to the material, social, and religious growth of Ruston than all other agencies put forward by its citizens. Money that once went to saloons now goes to beautify and make happy homes. Wives and daughters who once had sad faces, now carry smiles and contentment. Ruston is now the refuge for virtue, happiness, and law abiding citizens.”
Sisemore’s brief career and death helped mold Ruston’s path into the new century. The attitudes towards alcohol and lawlessness in Ruston’s early days endured for decades. The city would remain “dry” for nearly 75 more years before allowing alcohol to be sold again in the 1970’s. Despite the controversies they created, men like John Tom Sisemore were sought by struggling communities committed to maintaining law and order.
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