Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
Lost in the recent national controversies over the use of force by law enforcement are the sacrifices made by police officers in protecting their communities. Men and women sacrifice their lives each year chasing bank robbers and murderers but also while performing mundane tasks like checking on a stranded motorist. In the early 1900s, a number of officers in the rural South died enforcing a law many farmers viewed as federal government overreach.
From 1906 to the early 1940s, federal and state governments engaged in a war against a cattle tick that caused a devastating fever. The law required farmers to carry their cattle to community dipping vats where the animals were immersed in a chemical solution to kill the ticks. Many stock owners resisted, claiming transporting the cattle led to injuries, the chemicals sickened them, and the time and effort of the process was an annoyance. Cattlemen expressed their frustrations by refusing to dip, dynamiting dipping vats, burning the property of pro-dippers and government employees, and hurling threats that eventually escalated to assault or murder. Destruction of vats continued into the mid-1930s, but eventually government dissemination of information on the economic benefits of tick eradication led many skeptics to withdraw their opposition to dipping.
In the remote rural South, from the piney woods of south Georgia to Louisiana, resistance to mandatory treatment of cattle was strong and at times violent. Farmers who raised cattle largely for their own use rather than shipment out of quarantined tick-infested areas viewed the mandates as unnecessary involvement of federal, state, or local officials in their lives. In Louisiana, the dispute reached deadly proportions on April 21, 1936, when 43-year old Grant Parish Sheriff Wyatt Luther Nugent and Deputy Delmer Lee Brunson were murdered.
Nugent had served two terms as sheriff of Grant Parish and had been re-elected just days before in the general election. Brunson had worked as a deputy under Nugent for eight years. Nugent, former clerk of court for the parish, was beginning his ninth year as sheriff.
Claiming dipping sickened cattle, 41-year old Walter Johnson and his father refused to permit their stock to be dipped. On the morning of April 21, Sheriff Nugent served an order from the Eighth District Court commanding the younger Johnson to show cause why he should not be kept from interfering with officers. That afternoon, Nugent and Brunson accompanied federal range riders to Johnson’s property in the Aloha community to load the cattle for transport to the dipping vat. From a hidden position in the woods, Walter Johnson opened fire on the range riders. Brunson and Nugent attempted to capture Johnson by circling behind him. Hearing a series of gunshots, the range riders hid nearby for an hour before advancing with caution into the woods to discover the lawmen’s bodies. Walter Johnson had escaped.
After completing autopsies, Dr. J. H. Sandifer, Grant Parish coroner, announced the two lawmen were killed with a shotgun. Nugent suffered a shot to the head and Deputy Brunson died from three shotgun blasts.
A massive manhunt ensued with Sheriff U. T. Downs of Rapides Parish, Sheriff Bryant Sholars of Winn, and Sheriff Henderson Jordan of Bienville heading posses of local citizens scouring the area. Two Aprils earlier, Jordan teamed with other lawmen to kill Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. The officers located a truck belonging to Johnson on a country road about one-half mile from the scene of the shooting. The manhunt progressed slowly for the numerous state police troopers and sheriffs engaged in the search since Johnson had fled into a nearly impenetrable swamp around Lake Iatt north of Colfax.
The suspect’s 84-year old father Sam Johnson was arrested as a material witness and spirited away from Colfax to an undisclosed jail in another parish, largely to protect him from retaliation.Bloodhounds from the state penitentiary at Angola arrived the next day but heavy rains during the night had obliterated Johnson’s trail. General Louis F. Guerre, head of the state police, hurried to the scene to direct the manhunt. Later in the day Johnson was captured in the swamp. Officers detained him a jail outside Grant Parish also—away from the enraged locals who already had lynch fever.
Bloodhounds from the state penitentiary at Angola arrived the next day but heavy rains during the night had obliterated Johnson’s trail. General Louis F. Guerre, head of the state police, hurried to the scene to direct the manhunt. Later in the day Johnson was captured in the swamp. Officers detained him a jail outside Grant Parish also—away from the enraged locals who already had lynch fever.
On April 23, the Colfax Baptist Church held a double funeral for Sheriff Nugent and Deputy Brunson. Sheriffs of the neighboring parishes served as pall bearers, including Downs and Sholars, Sheriff Bill Payne of Natchitoches Parish and Sheriff Floyd Jones of Red River. Nugent was interred at Liberty Chapel Cemetery north of Dry Prong and Brunson was laid to rest in nearby Bethel Cemetery.
Nugent left behind a wife and ten children ranging in age from three to 21. Brunson was also married and the father of three children. Lydia Nugent was appointed to succeed her husband as sheriff, a common courtesy in Louisiana to maintain the income of a family of a deceased office holder.
Walter Johnson was convicted of two counts of murder and sentenced to life in prison.
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