Dr. Timothy Hudson
John Martin Lee (24 July 1829–30 June 1893) was born near Snow Hill, in Wilcox County Alabama, the son of Martin Batte Lee and Levincy Albritton. He grew up at Snow Hill, surrounded by his parents’ large extended families and undoubtedly attending Bethsaida Primitive Baptist Church of which his father and uncle, Eaton Lee, served as deacons. A drought likely caused an exodus from the Georgia and south/central Alabama region in the mid-1840s, and in 1847, John M. Lee’s parents moved their family to Union Parish Louisiana and settled along Bayou d’Loutre about five miles northeast of Farmerville.
John Martin Lee married on 6 February 1849 in Union Parish Louisiana to Mary Jane Taylor (14 June 1831–18 Oct 1903), daughter of Judge John Taylor and Jane Wood. For the duration of their married lives, John M. and Mary Jane Lee maintained a large planting operation in Union Parish near his parents’ farm on Bayou d’Loutre. Although he was of appropriate military age, there is no known record of military service by John M. Lee in either the Mexican War or the Civil War. The Lees remained residents of Union Parish throughout the War, and afterwards, to help pay for the costs of the conflict, the United States government imposed an income and property tax on citizens. They assessed the tax on Louisiana residents in 1865 and 1866, with Lee taxed for one carriage, paying $1.00 in 1865 and $2.00 in 1866.
In the quarter-century period following the War, John M. Lee held a number of important offices in Union Parish. He ran for Union Parish Sheriff in the fall of 1870, with his campaigning schedule preventing him and his eldest son, John Martin Lee, Jr. from making their regular fall trip to Missouri to buy mules and other stock to bring home and sell. The younger Lee, then aged nineteen, wrote his first cousin on September 14th, saying, “Pa is running for sheriff and he is out lectioneering and I will have to stay at home until the election is over.” At the election held on November 7th, Lee received 695 votes to 528 votes for his opponent, James Edwards.
Soon after taking the oath of office as Union Parish Sheriff, John M. Lee hired his namesake son as one of his deputy sheriffs. At the young age of twenty, the younger Lee exhibited extraordinary qualities of calm and coolness in desperate situations, personal characteristics that would carry him far in life. In March 1872, the Union Parish District Court had tried and convicted three former slaves of crimes, incarcerating them in the parish jail in Farmerville. The trio conspired to overpower Mr. Schneider, a German immigrant who served as the jailor. The three freedmen agreed to enact their plan as they were returned to their cell following a regular outing. As Schneider and Deputy Lee routinely moved the prisoners back to into their cell, the prisoner selected to initiate the escape walked directly towards Lee, then standing at the head of the staircase. Lee instantly “coolly drew his pistol and told the prisoner to walk on in” the cell. The inmate complied, and after they had locked the cell door, Lee and Schneider overheard one of the men berate the other for not having the courage to carry out their escape attempt.
Although Sheriff Lee managed to maintain order in Union Parish throughout his first term, the overall political situation across Louisiana worsened as the 1872 election approached. The white Democrats in Union Parish split into factions, with each group holding starkly differing views on how to oppose the Radical Republicans who dominated Louisiana’s state government and the election process. The factional strife among the Democrats caused serious animosity, making Sheriff John M. Lee’s 1872 reelection campaign against his former opponent, James Edwards of Marion, a bitter rematch. Deputy Sheriff John M. Lee, Jr. described it as “one of the most interesting Campaigns ever known here.” At the election held on November 4th, 1,236 local citizens cast their vote for Lee with only 642 citizens voting for Edwards. Sheriff Lee’s second term saw the chaos and violence in nearby areas of Louisiana as federal troops stepped in to enforce the administration of Republican Gov. William Pitt Kellogg over his opponent, Monroe attorney John McEnery.
Sheriff John M. Lee ran for reelection again in the fall of 1874, this time facing Spearsville resident Malcom Leander McFarland, a thirty-four-year-old veteran of the Confederate Army. At the election held on November 2nd, McFarland defeated Lee, receiving 1029 votes to Lee’s 568. In the election two years later on 7 November 1876, McFarland faced Shiloh farmer Benjamin Franklin Pleasant, with Pleasant defeating McFarland by a landslide vote of 1465 to 2. During the fall 1878 campaign, John M. Lee’s former opponent, James Edwards of Marion, ran against Sheriff Pleasant, defeating him at the election held on November 5th, with Edwards receiving 928 votes to Pleasant’s 850. During Sheriff Edward’s brief, one-year term (Louisiana’s 1879 Constitution mandated new elections in December 1879), John M. Lee, Sr. and James Edwards apparently resolved their personal differences, as Sheriff Edwards hired Lee to work as one of his deputies.
One of the most brutally violent and sensational crimes ever committed in Union Parish occurred in 1879, while John M. Lee, Sr. served as a Union Parish deputy sheriff. In a drunken state, W. Jackson Overstreet murdered a man without cause in Clarke County Alabama in April 1879, and then absconded. By the fall, he sought refuge along Bayou D’Arbonne where his wife’s family lived. Soon after his arrival in the piney hills of north Louisiana, Overstreet violently raped, mutilated, and murdered a woman in October before sneaking up on his wife while she cooked breakfast and slamming an iron maul into the back of her head. The blow knocked the poor woman senseless and left her weltering in her own blood, and she succumbed to her injuries some twelve hours later. A posse searched for Overstreet for eight days before locating him hiding in a neighbor’s cotton house. After a gunfight that left him with several wounds, Overstreet managed to escape to the D’Arbonne Swamp, but leaving behind a telltale trail of blood. Sheriff Edwards brought his hounds to help track and apprehend the villain. They lodged Overstreet in the Farmerville jail, which a newspaper reporter described as “a miserable edifice…utterly unfit for the purpose to which it is put.”
A telegraph from Alabama authorities informing Union Parish residents of Overstreet’s escapades in Alabama and his repeatedly evading the authorities there sealed his fate: the news from Alabama convinced locals that Overstreet would make his escape from the Farmerville jail once he recovered from his injuries. Before noon on Wednesday, October 29th, a large group of men rode into town, “…with the avowed purpose of hanging Overstreet.” Deputy Sheriff John M. Lee, Sr. and a few other of town officials persuaded the men to disperse and leave town. The mob returned later that afternoon, again intent on breaking Overstreet out of jail. Deputy Sheriff Lee again convinced the mob to leave Overstreet alone and disperse. Concerned that the mob would return yet again, Deputy Lee formed a posse to guard the jail. When the mob returned for the third time, the sight of the posse convinced the mob leaders to announce they had given up their intentions and disperse again. Lee then dismissed the posse, retaining a few guards for the night, and he left the jail around 7:00 that evening and headed home.
Around 9:00 p.m., the mob of around eighty men rode back into town. Witnesses reported that it included many of the best-known Union Parish citizens, none of whom made any attempt to conceal their identity. They managed to quickly overwhelm the guards outside, break open the lower doors to the jail, and “under threats of death secured the keys to Overstreet’s cell” from the jailor. The mob clamored into the inner room to find Overstreet asleep in his cell. He sprang to his feet to confront his attackers, looking quite haggard but still defiant. He barely managed to stand due to his leg wound, and so two men grabbed him, one on each side, and dragged him out of the jail. They went a short distance from the jail to a dense grove of trees. With the noose around his neck, the crowd asked if he had anything to say in his defense, but he refused to answer. His expression revealed absolutely no pangs of conscience for his crimes, and he appeared utterly indifferent to his own fate. As he was swung from a tree, his facial muscles barely twitched, and he died without a struggle. Overstreet’s hometown newspaper described his lynching as “a wretched death for a wretched man.” The crowd remained until certain Overstreet was dead, and then they dispersed to their homes.
In the days following Overstreet’s lynching, Deputy Sheriff John Martin Lee, Sr. wrote to Judge Tompkins of Mobile, Alabama, saying, “I never saw the deed, but learned that he confessed to the murder in Alabama.” Despite the illegal vigilante activities, the local law enforcement apparently agreed with public sentiment that rightful justice had been properly served, and they took no action against Overstreet’s executioners. The next week, “The Ouachita Telegraph” wryly reported that the mob had given Overstreet “his just dues, a short shrift and a long rope,” with “Judge Lynch presiding.”
In March 1878, Farmerville citizens elected John M. Lee, Sr. as one of their town councilmen, and in early 1886, they elected Lee as Farmerville’s mayor. During the mid-1880s, Lee also served as Union Parish Treasurer, the same period in which his son, John M. Lee, Jr., served as Parish Assessor. On Sunday, 28 March 1886, two “tramps” robbed John M. Lee, Sr. at Farmerville of $2000. Local newspapers reported that one man was tall with a large mustache, while the other was “low and chunkey.” Although rewards were offered for the apprehension of the thieves, it is unclear if they were ever caught.
Following his 1893 death, locals described John Martin Lee, Sr. as a “prominent and useful citizen of this parish” who “was a man of excellent character, made a good citizen, and his community regretted to lose him.” In 1900, Mary Jane Taylor Lee lived at Calhoun, in Ouachita Parish, with her widowed son, Jordan Gray Taylor Lee. At her death in October 1903, Mary Jane lived in Mer Rouge, Morehouse Parish Louisiana, with her daughter. The editor of Farmerville’s newspaper wrote of her,
“Mrs. Lee has been a mother indeed who has furnished to her country noble sons and daughters…Mrs. Lee was in her 73d year and was always a good Christian mother and leading spirit in church affairs…We will not speak of her Christian qualities, as all who knew her are familiar with them. Suffice it to say that she was ever zealous in all church work, especially was she anxious about her pastor’s salary. Seldom did the write meet her in conversation that she did not ask about her pastor’s salary. She was also a member of the ladies’ aid society. Both in church and society she will be greatly missed.”
John Martin and Mary Jane Lee are buried in the Taylor/Liberty Hill Cemetery, Farmerville, Union Parish.
Dr. Tim Hudson is the mathematics department head at Southeastern Louisiana and an avid historian on Union Parish. Hudson is a Union Parish native and graduate of Farmerville High School.