Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
After the Civil War, some men in Winn Parish banded together to form what was to be a home guard, serving as “regulators” to control the behavior of recently freed slaves and oppose the Republican government of “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags.” Before long, some elements of the group turned to banditry and murder, terrorizing north central Louisiana for years before falling at the hands of vigilantes.
The bandits, known at the Kimbrel-West gang, or the Nightriders, robbed and killed along the east-west thoroughfare crossing Winn Parish from Natchez, Mississippi to Nacogdoches, Texas and points west. Cross-country travelers were easy marks since their disappearance might not be noticed for months. Even when locals were victimized, the disarray of the disputed Reconstruction government and the power of the gang precluded any significant law enforcement action against the culprits.
The Kimbrels moved to Wheeling in Winn Parish sometime after 1850. The family patriarch, Dilson “Uncle Dan” Kimbrel, was born November 19, 1803, in Oglethorpe County, Georgia. He married Mary L. “Polly” Williams in 1833, a month short of her fifteenth birthday. After a time in Mississippi, they pushed on to Louisiana, settling in Wheeling on what was often called the Harrisonburg Road, the connection between the Natchez Trace and the El Camino Real which wound its way southwest to Mexico.
The Kimbrels operated a store and post office at Wheeling and rented rooms to travelers. In 1860 Dilson owned 22 slaves, many more than the average Winn Parish farm. With $2,300 worth of real estate and personal property valued at $20,000, Dilson was well off compared to most of his neighbors. The Kimbrels were respected, church-going people, at least for a time.
According to one Kimbrel family account, in 1869 Dilson Kimbrel spotted some campers near his home. Recognizing one as a horse trader, Kimbrel shot and robbed the man and others. Weeks later, Kimbrel saw more campers at the location. As Kimbrel approached, a young man the son of the murdered horse trader shot him. Gravely wounded in the abdomen, Kimbrel struggled to return home. Masked Kimbrel sons kidnapped a doctor and carried him to their father’s bedside. Dilson Kimbrel died June 16, 1869, and was buried with Masonic honors at the family homestead. Due to the Kimbrel’s standing in the community, no one appeared to suspect any nefarious behavior by the family.
At some point after the Civil War, a Confederate veteran, John R. West, took up residence in Atlanta in Winn Parish and became a rather wealthy landowner himself. West and the Kimbrels became allies and led the outlaw element within the regulators.
Jackson Lawson “Laws” Kimbrel, the eldest living son of Dilson and Polly, served in the 12th Louisiana Infantry Regiment with a friend named Dan Deen. Deen and West quarreled and Deen left Winn Parish for a year. On Saturday night, April 23, 1870, John West found Deen back at home. After an apparently cordial conversation, West attempted to cut Deen’s throat. Deen fired a shot at West but missed. The two backed off to continue the fight later.
West then kidnapped Deen’s family to draw his adversary out into the open. Deen had exposed the Nightriders’ secrets and disassociated himself from its bloody deeds. A group of vigilantes cornered the gang in Atlanta on April 24, rescuing the Deen family and killing the gang. John R. West, David Frame, A. J. Ingram. Oz Collins, and Grow Thompson were riddled with gunfire. West’s head was severed from his body by a shotgun blast.
For many years, West’s skull was displayed atop a fence post in Atlanta, perhaps as a warning to others of his breed. Laws Kimbrel was only grazed by a shot and fled when no one was looking. A few days later, the vigilantes killed George Frame near St. Maurice because of his alleged involvement in the some of the gang’s murders.
Some Winn Parish citizens published a justification of the vigilante action in the Natchitoches Times, enumerating many of the clan’s crimes. The statement was reprinted in other Louisiana newspapers:
* * * “We, the people of Winn parish, Louisiana, feel it our duty to inform the public of the facts concerning the affair which occurred near Atlanta, on the twenty-fourth day of April, 1870. The following is a true and correct statement, which is established by unmistakable evidence.
“Immediately after the surrender, John R. West, J. L. Kimbrel and others, organized a company for the purpose of keeping the country regulated, and specially the colored people. But it appears in this, as in other similar cases, that they soon needed regulating themselves; for they soon became a terror to the surrounding country, first by taking government property, and afterward stealing generally and committing murders on the highway.
“It appears that they broke the ice by stealing thirty or forty bales of cotton near Wheeling. After this they committed another crime by robbing some Federal soldiers at Nantacha bridge, near old man Kimbrel’s, taking all their money and four fine government mules.
“Various crimes of theft have been committed in different parts of the country, and it is generally believed that this clan was either directly or indirectly concerned in most all of them.
“We will not, however, attempt to enumerate all the depredations that we know to have been committed by this clan, but passing over these smaller crimes, will proceed to relate others of greater concern, which we think will more clearly illustrate the character of these men.
“Lieutenant Colonel Butts, of the United States army, on his way from St. Maurice to Vernon, was arrested by the clan, and murdered near Drake’s Mills. A man by the name of Jones, returning home in Natchitoches parish, was arrested and killed at Nantacha bridge. He begged them to spare his life, but to no purpose; he was led to an old well by J. L. Kimbrel and his father, the latter of whom said, send him to hell, boys, for he went to the Yankees during the war, and, therefore, he ought to die. Billy Kimbrel, standing behind Jones, shot him through the head, and they forced him head foremost down into the well.
“A short time after this, they killed a negro boy because he was not willing to remain with Kimbrel, his former master.
“Sometime later they made an attempt to assassinate lawyer Safford, while on his way from Natchitoches to Winnfield, on professional business for his client; but fortunately they did not succeed.
“The grand jury, being then in session, at Winnfield, succeeded in finding true bills against John R. West, J. L. Kimbrel, and others, for said attempt. To evade trial and conviction, they set fire to the courthouse and destroyed all the books and papers belonging to the pariah. Conscious of being successful in their wicked designs, they began to commit crimes in daylight on the public highway. Two of the clan in daylight, went to Hal Frazier’s saw mill, killed him and another colored man named Jesse Robertson, both of whom were considered good citizens.
“Upon another occasion, two freedmen, who were travelling, were directed by the Kimbrels to John R. West’s, to stay all night. Next morning, shortly after leaving West’s, they were attacked by some of the clan, and robbed of two fine mules, and sixty dollars in greenbacks, also ordered to leave the country immediately, or death would be their portion. Not satisfied with their sweeps in making money, they removed the goods and burned their own storehouse, for the purpose of obtaining the insurance.
“Several members of the clan have repeatedly been indicted, since the Court house was burned, but they succeeded in stealing the indictments, and thus escaped with impunity.
Every attempt to have them tried and committed by civil law proved ineffectual.” * * *
The locals refused to bury the dead outlaws in the Atlanta cemetery among its good citizens.
Instead, the dead were interred in a gully just outside the graveyard. Sometime later, a marker was placed for West inside the cemetery, but over 150 feet from the other graves of that period.
The marker incorrectly gives 1872 at the date of death rather than 1870. Grow Thompson, who was buried by his family at the St. Maurice cemetery, recently had his grave marked with a tombstone.
Laws Kimbrel made his escape to Texas where he apparently continued his wicked ways. On July 22, 1871, he was part of a group from Wise County that camped on the outskirts of Austin.
The overseers of the group, Hiram and Martin Cardell, went to a concert while their cook and wagon driver, Joseph Philpot, remained at the camp. Late into the night the Cardells returned to find Philpot dead under the wagon, shot through the chest. A large amount of cash had been stolen from a trunk in the wagon.
News reports revealed Kimbrel and another man, George Barnes, fingered a Texan named John Deel as the murderer. The sheriff arrested Deel but many fellow Confederate veterans came to his defense, citing his heroics in battle, including saving the life of General John Bell Hood when he shot down a Yankee who was trying to kill the Confederate officer.
Apparently the charges against Deel were dismissed at some point. Details of the investigation are scant, but Kimbrel and Barnes were tracked down and arrested for Philpot’s murder. They were convicted in 1873 and sentenced to hang. On April 14, they were led to the gallows. Kimbrel danced as he ascended the scaffold, as if he had not a care in the world. When the trapdoor opened, the men dropped but Kimbrel’s rope broke and he hit the ground. He was carried back up and hanged again and this time to rope held. The last of the Nightrider clan was dead.
Clan leader John R. West has a marker in the Atlanta Cemetery but he was buried outside the fence with other outlaws killed by vigilantes.
Nightrider member Grow Thompson’s grave in the St. Maurice Cemetery was recently marked for the first time.
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