Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
March 12, 1872
Vienna, Jackson Parish, Louisiana
Although every community in the South suffered deprivations and despair during the Civil War, some were spared the horrors of armies turning their cotton fields and pastures into battlefields. North Central Louisiana, between Monroe and Shreveport and from north of Alexandria to the Arkansas state line, was such a pocket never penetrated in force by Yankee invaders until the war ended and Reconstruction began.
The small town of Vienna, then in Jackson Parish, was located in the center of this pocket. Vienna watched the war go by as plantation owners marched their slaves west toward refuge in Texas and meager military supplies came through headed east. Confederate armies marched through and trained on the outskirts of town but the fighting never reached the little village. The real war, North Louisiana’s war, began with chaos of Reconstruction as white Democrats fought Radical Republican control of local offices and state government with the assistance of federal troops. More blood flowed from lawlessness and clashes with the government and freed blacks than was ever experienced in the region during the war. Vigilantism was the norm to correct perceived wrongs that the carpetbag government refused to rectify.
But Vienna thrived after the war, rivaling the parish seat of Vernon in size. It boasted hotels and a number of stores and churches and even cultural activities. There was a dancing school, operated by two men—Peace and Whatley—who also gave lessons in Vernon and perhaps elsewhere in Jackson Parish. Rumors abounded, however, about what was really happening at the men’s dance studio. There was something sinister and disturbing about the men. Supposedly, they were from Natchitoches but had spent time in Texas where one of them had killed a man.
On the evening of March 12, 1872, a young local man who had imbibed too much liquor accompanied Peace into Dr. Jackson’s drug store. The man was loud and obnoxious. Jackson told the rowdy youth to leave the store. He snapped back with a rude remark and the doctor replied in kind. Peace then stepped forward in support of the youth and made remarks of his own. “Do you take it up?” the doctor asked. The men were now in front of the store where 54-year old John Huey, Jr., and Whatley, Peace’s partner, were standing. The exchange of words led Huey to step forward to back up Dr. Jackson and say, “Fighting is the game, is it?”
Whatley said, “No, but it’s pistols,” and fired three shots in Huey’s chest and abdomen, causing instant death. Simultaneously, Peace shot Dr. Jackson through the left arm, the bullet entering his side and passing through his chest. Jackson stepped back into his store, and reached the back room, where he fell over on a bed, saying as he fell, “I am dead!”
One of the two men then shot a Mr. Hedgepeth who had been attracted by the gunfire. Hedgepeth fell to the ground with serious wounds through his thighs. Spencer Colvin, a well-respected local, tried to arrest Whatley but received several severe blows in the face from Whatley’s empty revolver, causing him to retreat. Eugene Howard, who would later serve many years as Lincoln Parish sheriff, fired at the two as they ran off, but without effect. They reached their hotel, procured fresh revolvers, saddled their horses, and galloped away. Just south of Vienna, they encountered a young man, robbed him of his pistol, and demanded his money.
That evening Peace and Whatley reached Vernon, the parish seat about sixteen miles southeast of Vernon. Peace had recently been married to a local widow. He called for her without dismounting from his horse, spoke a few words with her, got a pair of boots he had in the house, and left in what direction is not known.
Vienna mourned the loss of two of its finest citizens. Dr. Jackson had served as a surgeon in the Confederate army, and had been practicing medicine since the war. Huey was one of the first settlers of Vienna, well known as the only hotelkeeper in town for many years. He was considered a warm-hearted, frank and courteous gentleman with hosts of friends.
The Ouachita Telegraph in Monroe reported, “The affair has cast a deep gloom over the entire parish, and has justly incensed its inhabitants to a high pitch against the murderers.” A party of men set out from Vienna in pursuit of the killers. Sheriff Huey, stationed in the parish seat of Vernon, formed a posse and joined the chase. The sheriff was deeply moved by the death of the cousin who had raised him. The Monroe newspaper announced, “We anticipate bloody work if the men meet, as the pursuers and pursued are well armed, and the latter will fight for life, as well they may, for if caught we learn that Louisiana justice, as interpreted by courts and juries of late, will not be invoked in the case of these desperadoes.”
A correspondent at Vienna supplied the paper with the descriptions of the murderers: “J. M. Peace is about thirty years of age; five feet seven inches high; dark complexion; black hair, eyes and mustache; has remarkably small feet, wears No. 2 shoes; and has a contracted and bad countenance. W.R. Whatley is about twenty-three years of age; five feet eleven inches high; fair complexion; light hair and eyes; rather pleasant countenance; is a violinist.”
The sheriff’s posse overtook the two fugitives at Clear Lake not far from Red River opposite Natchitoches. Peace and Whatley spurred their horses toward a fence, the only chance of escape, intending to leap it and get away.
The horses refused to jump. Peace and Whatley turned, drew their revolvers, and charged full speed at the posse, firing as they rode. Sheriff Huey and his eight men fired on the killers as they advanced. Whatley fell from his horse, shot in the back of his head; Peace’s horse fell after receiving numerous wounds and its rider was arrested. None of the posse were hurt but one man was saved when a bullet intended for him struck a small pistol he carried in his side pocket.
The posse found Whatley gravely wounded. He was beyond help. His last words were to request his horse and pistols be sent to his wife in Sabine Parish. After Whatley took his last breath, the posse returned Peace to the parish jail in Vernon.
An arraignment was held in district court before Judge E. M. Graham, one of the most celebrated jurists in north Louisiana. Former Confederate General John Young and Captain E. E. Kidd served as the prosecutors. Former General Henry Gray, well known in the region for his command of the 28th Louisiana Infantry during the war and a Colonel Richardson were appointed to serve as defense counsel. The hearing lasted two days with numerous witnesses traveling from Vienna to testify. Peace was bound over for trial on a charge of murder with a court date set in May.
On March 20 at about 2:30 a.m., a party of 25 men appeared at Sheriff Huey’s house in Vernon. The sheriff was out of town. They inquired of Mrs. Huey for Deputy Sheriff Dickerson, who lived with the Hueys, and Mrs. Huey said he was not home, either. The men entered the house and discovered Dickerson and wrested the jail key from him, leaving two men to guard the deputy. Dickerson later reported he saw distinctly the faces of at least twelve men in the bright moonlight but oddly recognized no one.
The party proceeded to the unguarded jail. Peace slept on the second floor; another man slept in the room below. Screams were heard. Someone asked for a rope. In the morning, only Peace’s pants, hat, and drops of blood remained in the jail. The Ouachita Telegraph noted, “the supposition is that the confederate of Whatley has joined his comrade in another world.” Peace’s body was never found.
“What a commentary upon the outlawed condition of the country,” the paper continued, “is this deplorable tragedy! Ten years ago [in the middle of the Civil War] such an occurrence was never heard of in this peaceful land. Now, we see four men killed, in the heart of a most tranquil region, a terrible crime and a swift retribution, within the period of ten days. Why is this? The good people of the last decade are good yet, but the bad men have the power and enjoy immunities, under our hybrid form of a government, that stimulate them to take life in their own hands. Who can censure us, if we charge all this wrong-doing, and bereavement upon the men now in power, and who have notoriously brought the laws into contempt and put a premium upon crime by permitting ignorance and depravity to control the administration of justice? We shudder at the taking of life — it is a terrible responsibility — but what are good men, women and children to do, when the protection of their government is but as pledges written on the sands of the sea-shore — when their rulers are corrupt, irresponsible and depraved?”
Vienna would recover from the violence and the murders were largely forgotten. In 1873, it became the seat of government for the newly created Lincoln Parish. When the railroad was finally completed between Monroe and Shreveport in 1884, completely bypassing Vienna, the town literally packed up and moved to the new town of Ruston.
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