Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
A MAYOR and HIS MURDEROUS SIBLING
They were born in County Clare, poor as the rocky Irish soil, and came to America for a new start after their parents died. One became a popular public servant, the other a brutish killer.
In 1849, Jim and Andrew Currie sailed with their older brother Michael from Cork, Ireland. Andy was only six, Jim two years older. Landing at Boston, the brothers settled in New York City. In 1859 at age 16, Andrew ventured out on his own and found employment in Shreveport as a store clerk. After serving the Confederacy in the Civil War, Andrew returned to Shreveport as a deputy sheriff. His fortune rose as a very successful insurance agent and influential businessman. Elected mayor of Shreveport as a Democrat in 1878, Andy Currie developed the city’s first water and sewer systems and built a bridge across the Red River while maintaining financial interests in the railroad and other business ventures.
The life of brother Jim took a different direction. One writer called Jim Currie “one of the most depraved specimens that ever visited the western country. He was the embodiment of everything bad and disreputable, the very quintessence of all wickedness, and a living personification of crime in its worst forms, without a single redeeming quality. No person was safe against his attacks; his murderous weapons were aimed at all alike.”
“Big Jim” Currie killed more than a dozen, maybe many more than that. Most were outright murders. For instance, in 1870 he went on a drunken rampage in a Kansas dance hall and killed two men and two women. Big Jim Currie was said to be the only man Wild Bill Hickok feared.
By 1873, Jim Currie was in Texas working as an engineer for the Texas & Pacific Railroad. Later he was reassigned as a railroad detective to chase thieves. Despite his record of leaving dead bodies everywhere he went, Big Jim Currie would have been completely forgotten except for one man he almost killed.
Maurice Barrymore was an up and coming actor in 1879. He and a partner, Frederick Warde, created the Warde-Barrymore Combination, booking the play “Diplomacy” on an extensive run. Warde would take one troupe across the Northeast and upper Midwest, while Barrymore toured the Southwest. In January 1879, the partners departed on tour. Performances received critical acclaim and the venture enjoyed modest financial success.
After a performance in Galveston, Barrymore’s group headed north by train for an engagement in Marshall. During the trip, actor Ben Porter announced to the troupe that cast member Ellen Cummins had consented to marry him as soon his divorce was finalized.
The performers pulled into Marshall in the early evening of March 19. Dubbed the “Gateway to Texas” because of its proximity to Louisiana and Arkansas, Marshall viewed itself as a cultural haven. Among its several theaters was Mahone’s Opera House where the Combination would play one performance that night before a capacity crowd. The production was flawless with Barrymore and his brother-in-law John Drew exceptional as the leads.
After the performance, the troupe retired to the Depot Hotel to await their train. Maurice Barrymore, Ben Porter, and Ellen Cummins entered Nat Harvey’s empty lunchroom on the station platform. At the eating bar, Ben and Ellen ordered coffee. After drinking a light ale, Barrymore excused himself to see to the luggage while the couple stayed to have dinner.
As Nat Harvey took their order, Big Jim Currie came in the door. Even when sober, Big Jim was known for his vicious temper. The influence of his brother Andy had rescued him from several jams. Big Jim’s recent killing of three men while serving as detective for the Texas & Pacific Railroad still fueled rumors and speculation. More than six feet tall and weighing 220 pounds, Currie’s size was intimidating. He asked for liquor.
As Currie gulped down his drink, he spotted Ellen Cummins’s reflection in a mirror beside the bar and made some condescending remarks about her. Words were exchanged with Ben Porter who invited Currie outside. Barrymore returned. “Go away,” he said, “There’s a lady here.”
“Maybe you want to take it up, you damned whoremonger,” Currie responded angrily.
Barrymore turned quickly to Porter. “Get Miss Cummins out of here,” he urged.
Barrymore removed his coat. He had no fear of Currie, having trained as a boxer. As Barrymore assumed a fighting stance, Currie drew two Smith & Wesson revolvers from beneath his coat, leveled them at the unarmed actor, and fired. The first bullet ripped through Barrymore’s left arm before burying itself in the actor’s chest. Another shot struck Barrymore’s boot. The actor turned and ran with Currie giving chase. Crashing through a side door, Barrymore fell into the yard as another bullet struck nearby.
Currie turned back into the lunchroom just as Ben Porter ran through the front door. “For God’s sake,” Porter shouted, “Don’t murder an unarmed man!”
Currie cursed him, adding “I can kill the whole lot of you!” He shot Porter in the stomach. At the sight of her fiancé sprawled in the doorway, Ellen Cummins screamed. John Drew arrived next, finding Big Jim holding the two revolvers. Drew froze as their eyes met but Currie merely shoved past him out onto the station platform where he fired his pistols into the night. A brave deputy, bolstered by a double-barreled shotgun, confronted Currie and convinced him to surrender.
A railroad officer summoned a doctor but Ben Porter died within minutes. Seriously wounded, Maurice Barrymore was taken to the hotel for surgery while the troupe waited anxiously in the lobby. In the morning, the doctors emerged with news the bullet had been removed and the operation a success.
Word spread of the shooting of the unarmed men. The St. Louis Democrat called Texas “a place where whiskey and pistols are too plentiful and law and order too scarce.” The New York Times, read by many theater aficionados, reported on the shooting eight times during the spring of 1879.
Meanwhile, Shreveport Mayor Andy Currie arrived at Marshall with the Crain brothers, noted criminal lawyers from Caddo Parish. Marshall was familiar ground to Andy Currie. His wife Annie Fort Gregg was from one of the town’s most prominent families. As the most powerful man in Shreveport at the time, Andrew Currie would call in all the favors due him to defend his intractable brother. Big Jim Currie did not help his case when he told a reporter from jail he “had no regret at what he had done [only] that he had not killed the entire party.”
On March 25, while Ben Porter’s funeral was being held in New York City, the remaining cast performed again in Marshall followed by benefits across Texas. Barrymore insisted all $5,000 of the proceeds go to Porter’s mother. Distraught over the murder of her fiancé, Ellen Cummins returned home to Louisville, rarely performing again. Maurice remained in Marshall for months recovering from his wounds.
On July 3, 1879, the murder trial of Jim Currie began only to be delayed when the defense complained of the absence of several witnesses. Upon recommendation of her doctor, Ellen Cummins had been allowed to give her testimony by deposition. Nat Harvey had mysteriously vanished. After rejoining his company’s tour for its final performance in Philadelphia, Maurice Barrymore had returned to Marshall for the trial, hoping to see justice for the brutal killer of his colleague. When the judge caved in to the defense’s request for a postponement, Barrymore could not conceal his bitterness. “This reminds me of our performances in England,” he complained. “We commence with a tragedy and end with a farce.”
The new trial date, June 10, 1880, gave prosecutors time to track down Harvey, its star witness. The former saloon owner was finally found near Fort Worth and arrested. Barrymore and Ellen Cummins returned to Marshall. On June 14, after a prolonged jury selection process, the trial began. The three eyewitnesses recalled the details of Jim Currie’s drunken rampage with clarity. The evidence appeared to establish Currie’s guilt without question.
Currie’s defense team, now expanded to eight lawyers, attempted to show he had acted in self-defense. But despite the testimony of 23 witnesses, the evidence supporting their assertion remained weak and unconvincing. Next, the defense argued that Currie was not guilty by reason of insanity. Dr. T.G. Ford of Shreveport, certainly an acquaintance of Mayor Currie, testified Big Jim was likely not in his right mind at the time of the shooting.
Closing arguments by long-winded lawyers dragged on for two days. On June 18, 1880, the judge presented the case to the jury. “With what can be characterized as indecent haste,” reported Marshall’s Tri-Weekly Herald, the twelve jurors reached their verdict in just ten minutes. “With unabashed pride,” the foreman stood and announced their inexplicable decision: “We, the jury, find the defendant not guilty by reason of insanity.” There was little doubt the jury had been bought. Jurors suddenly came into large sums of cash.
Andrew Currie returned to Shreveport but not before banishing his brother from the region. Big Jim died of heart disease in Spokane, Washington in 1899, years after he was erroneously reported killed in a shootout in New Mexico. Andrew served as Shreveport’s mayor until he resigned in 1890, later serving as Shreveport’s postmaster and as a state senator. He owned the Shreveport Times and other businesses. Currie died in 1918 and was buried in Confederate Veterans’ section of Greenwood Cemetery in Shreveport.
Maurice Barrymore survived to sire one of the most famous of all Hollywood families. His children John, Lionel, and Ethel became popular stage and screen stars. Great granddaughter Drew Barrymore continues to enjoy a successful movie career.
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