Piney Woods Journal Correspondent
Vigilantes Demand Immediate Justice for Murders by Rowdy Potato Boat Crewmen
Although American railroads expanded rapidly after the Civil War, many goods were still transported through the nation’s waterways. Barges loaded with coal, corn, cotton, lumber, and other goods and products moved slowly down the Mississippi and its tributaries to New Orleans.
At their destination, the flatboats, powered solely by the downstream flow of the rivers, were dismantled and their planking sold. Being a rough and rowdy crowd, the flatboatmen often drank up their pay in New Orleans and had to find jobs on the docks or on a northbound steamboat to earn their fare back north. In 1828, at the age of nineteen, Abraham Lincoln worked on a produce-laden flatboat floating down the Mississippi River from Illinois to New Orleans his first visit to a large city where he got his first glimpse of slavery. To save his pay, he walked home.
Lake Providence was Louisiana’s northernmost port on the Mississippi. The town was incorporated in 1848 as Providence, but had served as a river trading since the 1700’s.
According to legend, pirates around the post terrorized traders; if the would-be victims escaped, it was called an “act of Providence.” Later called Lake Providence, the small town and port saw significant activity during the Civil War. In 1863, under the leadership of General Ulysses S. Grant, Union troops dug a canal connecting an oxbow lake and the Mississippi River. The area was to be a permanent supply depot and base of operations for the siege of Vicksburg. Grant eventually decided Lake Providence was too far from Vicksburg and moved his troops further south toward Milliken’s Bend in Madison Parish.
On Sunday evening, January 4, 1880, a coal boat and a potato boat stopped at Lake Providence. The boats were two of many making their way down the Mississippi to New Orleans to sell their goods. The crews went out into the town and, after drinking to drunkenness, some of the men became noisy, and threatened “to take the place.”
Their boisterous demonstrations brought a response from City Marshal Bernard McGuire, who demanded the surrender of the drunken roustabouts. Jim Brown, who was the noisiest and most demonstrative, and the marshal struggled and the two pistol shots were heard. The marshal was killed. The frightened crews ran to their boats.
It did not take long for news of the murder of the marshal to spread through Lake Providence.
His family and friends vowed to swiftly avenge the 27-year old marshal’s death. Men responded with their guns and two loosely organized groups went to arrest the crews of the coal boat and potato boat.
The crews were taken to the Mayor’s office, placed in line on benches, and as their names were called, the brother of the marshal began firing, killing three of the helpless prisoners.
Boatmen flew down stairs and leaped out windows. One of the flatboat men who escaped during the melee was Henry Kendall. Dirty, hungry, and exhausted, he arrived at Vicksburg several days later and told his story to a reporter for the Vicksburg Herald:
“I came down the Mississippi River on a coal boat which was tied up at Lake Providence on the night of the fifth about a half a mile above a potato flatboat. A man by the name of Jim Brown from off the potato flatboat went up town, and getting drunk, killed the City Marshal while the latter was in the act of arresting him. Thirty or 40 of the citizens came in a body to our boat and arrested our crew. We were taken to the mayor’s office. In a few minutes after, another squad of citizens came up with the crew of the potato boat. We were imprisoned in the City Marshal’s office, 16 in number and kept there until Monday night, under guard.”
“In half an hour after the same parties returned to where we were imprisoned, and arranging us on one side of the room and themselves on the other, the brother of the marshal who was killed sat down on the table just in front of me. He had both his hands in his pocket. He asked us our names and when the last man told him his name, with a revolver in each hand, he commenced shooting, his followers commencing about the same time.”
“One of our crowd ran to the stairway and downstairs into the streets. I jumped out of the window on to the roof of another building and down to the ground, a distance of about 20 feet. As I ran around and jumped over a fence into the street, I saw a guard standing with a musket nearby. I saw my only chance for escape was to knock him down with a brick, which I did, and as I ran across the street I saw J.B. Carnes [the coal boat pilot] lying with his face on the ground. I expect he was dead. As I jumped out the window onto the street, I heard someone say, Halt, you —- —-,’ in response to which I heard Carnes say I have halted.’ Then I heard five or six shots and Carnes exclaimed, Oh, my God!'”
“I ran down around on down the levee, they in hot pursuit and firing all me at every step. They must have followed me, at the least calculation, two miles through the thickets. I have been walking ever since, and until I reached this city [Vicksburg] this morning. My impression is that every one of the 15 boatmen who are in prison with me on Sunday night were either killed or wounded. I believe I am the only one that escaped and as to Jim Brown I don’t know anything about him where he went to or what became of him.”
While conflicting reports make it difficult to determine the number of deaths, it is most likely that only three were killed. The boats apparently left Lake Providence as soon as they could and made for Vicksburg. Captain Thomas Tobin, in command of the coal boat, was interviewed by the Vicksburg Commercial:
“On last Sunday evening I arrived at Lake Providence in charge of a coal boat. Shortly afterwards a flatboat, loaded with potatoes, belonging to Ritterhouse & Pierson, came down the river and landed about 800 yards below my boat. Some hours afterwards six of the crew of my boat went down to the potato boat, and the crew of the two boats proceeded up into the town.”
“While there, I am informed, some of them drank considerably, and one man became loud, boasting on the street. After remaining ’til about 8 o’clock in the evening, they started to return to the boats. The man who was boasting so loudly pulled off his coat and hat and remarked, Boys, let’s take the town.’ As they proceeded in the direction of the river, John Brasher, one of my crew and Jim Brown, the boaster, and who is said to have done the shooting, were at some distance behind the rest, when the city marshal stepped up to lay his hand on Brown. Brasher started to run. While running he beard two pistol shots. He did not see who discharged them. But turning his head backward as he fled, he saw the marshal on his knees still clinging to Brown, and heard him exclaim: O Lordy!’ or words very similar.”
“At that the remainder of the party seems to have been at a considerable distance in front of Brown and knew nothing of the shooting at the time it occurred.”
“When the members of my boat’s crew came on board, myself and a man named Hazell were there. About fifteen minutes after this a body armed men came down to the boat and called for the captain. I told them, Here I am.’ They ordered me to come ashore, and when I compiled some of them said, You’re not the man.’ They then ordered me to bring out the whole crew. I called for the leader, and demanded protection for my property and my men, and told him I surrendered to the civil law.”
“We were marched up town and put in prison. A few minutes after our being locked up, I pulled off my boots to rest my feet, and began walking up and down the room, when a man, whom I was afterwards informed was the sheriff, levelled his gun on me and told me to sit down.”
“Nothing more happened to me, and at 12 o’clock that night I was released. I told the man who released me that there was a man on the boat with me who had not gone up town at all, and that I desired that he should be turned loose, to accompany me back to the boat. He believed me and let Mr. Hazell out. Antecedent to the shooting of my men, I was warned that trouble was anticipated. Did not witness the shooting, being on the boat at the time it occurred.”
The Commercial’s reporter also interviewed J. B. Carnes, the pilot of the coal boat, who was not killed as Kendall supposed. Carnes said after he was taken to the mayor’s office under arrest, and had testified [presumably at an inquest], a crowd gathered.
“They came in, ordered us to take seats on benches in the back of the room and asked our names. As soon as we told our names the brother of the marshal drew his pistol and commenced firing. I jumped up and asked what was meant, and attempted to escape, when I was struck by three men, and the firing became general. I jumped down the stairway and escaped, and got into a boat on the levee and then my friends, citizens of the town, came and took me out, and I was afterwards protected by them. My friends advised me to leave, and I shoved off with my boat, with a crew of four men, and arrived here this morning. Three of our men were wounded; one died yesterday, one is expected to die today and the condition of the other unknown.”
The town of Providence authorized a $250 reward for the “capture and delivery of James B. Brown.” Notices of the reward described Brown as “about 25 years old, stands nearly 6 feet high, weighs about 190 pounds, light hair, and had a light mustache, is said to be a No. 1 skiff hand; had with him a Red Jack Five-shooter thirty-two caliber.” A family member of the marshal, Hugh McGuire, offered another $250. It is unknown if he was the brother who opened fire on the boatmen.
The Morehouse Clarion condemned the vigilante act by McGuire’s relatives: “We are sorry that such an impolitic step was taken by the people of Providence. Defiance of law impugns its authority, and correspondingly engenders a disrespect for those whose duty it is to administer it.
“The criminal code of Louisiana is sufficiently broad and severe to cover all such crimes as that committed upon the Marshal of Lake Providence. For a set of exasperated men to set aside the legal authorities and inflict summary vengeance upon a supposed criminal, is the work of heathens rather than the act of a civilized people. Such deplorable outrages reflect not only upon the people of one community, but they injure the people of the whole State. No stranger will be favorably impressed with Louisiana when he hears of the Lake Providence murder.”
The available records do not indicate if Brown was ever found. None of the vigilantes who opened fire on the innocent boatmen were prosecuted.
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