• Lynchings

Should Tangipahoa Parish apologize for lynchings?

On April 12, 2019, in a public ceremony, the mayor of New Orleans will formally apologize to Italian Americans nationwide for what many consider one of our country’s most violent acts—the mob lynching of 11 Italian immigrants following their acquittals in the murder of the New Orleans police chief on March 14, 1891.

In 1892, the United States government paid $25,000 in reparations to victims’ families, but according to Michael Santo of the Order Sons and Daughters of Italy, that monetary compensation fell short.

“This has been a longstanding wound,” he said. And when we asked the city earlier this year for an apology, Mayor LaToya Cantrell embraced the idea.

Michael J. Pfeifer, the author of several books about lynching and its roots in the United States, told me last week that the New Orleans massacre “was a horrific act of collective violence inspired by ethnic prejudice, but it was hardly the largest act of collective violence in Louisiana history.”

“Someone,” he said, “should be talking about Bloody Tangipahoa.”

In the years before the civil rights movement, residents of Tangipahoa Parish illegally executed 22 black men—18 more than St. Helena and Livingston Parish combined. Of course, these numbers account only for those deaths reported in local newspapers. There were likely many more, said Pfiefer, that went unreported.

Pfeifer’s statements caused me to research the matter and to consider the question: Should Tangipahoa Parish apologize to anyone?

Before answering, consider just a few of the reported cases:

■ On January 27, 1887, the St. Helena Parish Echo reported that police brought John Johnson— “the black boy who so unmercifully slaughtered the Cotton family in Tickfaw, Louisiana” —to Amite to stand trial, but “the court was relieved of this pleasure” by a mob of 250 hooded men who raided the jail after dark. The crowd hung Gus Williams—a man who allegedly killed his wife—at a nearby church, but they took Johnson and Arch Joiner—a man accused of assisting Johnson—to the Cotton farmhouse near Tickfaw. When the authorities arrived later than night, they found no mob; only Johnson and Joiner’s bullet-riddled bodies swinging from a tree.

■ In January of 1893, the Times-Picayune said a jury verdict for acquittal against Merethe Lewis “was not favorably received” by a citizen committee who decided to “administer justice” themselves.

■ In May of 1898, a mob from Kentwood executed William Bell after he pled “not guilty” to an assault charge. The New Orleans Item started their report with “The armed citizens of Bloody Tangipahoa took the life of another negro this week.”

Ponchatoula Lynching in 1900
Ponchatoula Lynching in 1900

■ On September 19, 1900, the Baton Rouge Daily Advocate reported the hanging of four men in Ponchatoula: Isaiah Rollins, 18, Charles Elliot and George Bickham, 20, and Nathaniel Bowman, 47, who left behind a wife and seven children. Following the robbery and mortal assault of Louise Hatfielder, Sheriff Frank P. Mix picked up a total of 18 men for questioning. A witness saw one black man leave her house, but that witness could not identify which of the jailed men—if any—was the assailant. After police released14 of the men, 15 masked men dismantled the jail door with axes and overpowered the sheriff. The mob hung the men from a tree two blocks North of Ponchatoula. After the bodies fell to the ground, George Bickham still breathed until two men strangled him by hand. A news reporter asked a witness later why the mob killed all four men. The witness answered, “They took no chances. They made sure they got the guilty party.”

■ On December 12, 1905, a mob in the town of Tangipahoa lynched Monsie Williams for “connection to the attempted assault” of an elderly farmer’s wife. Williams, the New Iberia Enterprise reported, confessed to “standing watch for the principal in the affair under compulsion.” A deputy was transporting Williams by horse and buggy when the crowd attacked and hung Williams near a church. One of the participants told the deputy, “We needed to make an example of him.”

■ In October of 1909, another angry mob—this one in Greensburg—hung Aps Ard for “shooting at and missing” Judge B. T. Young. Young later told a grand jury that Ard had not been the shooter. He had identified the wrong man.

■ On October 27, 1912, the Times-Democrat reported that Deputy Sheriff W. R. Mullins transported Dock Bell, “the negro who stabbed and almost seriously wounded two young white men in Natalbany” to the parish jail, where a dozen men overtook the deputy and hanged Bell. Days before, the news reporter interviewing Bell said he appeared frightened. “He was so nervous that his teeth chattered when he talked. He admitted to cutting both men, but he said he did not realize what he had done until it was all over.”

■ On March 3, 1917, a special session of the grand jury met to discuss the lynching of Emma Hooper, a Hammond woman accused of shooting Hammond Police constable Fred Carlton. According to the New Orleans States, following the officer’s shooting, “a crowd of Hammond citizens went to Hooper’s home and demanded her surrender. Instead, the woman leveled a shotgun at the Hammond police chief and fired.” When the gun jammed, several men broke through the door and apprehended the woman. Later, the chief walked home to change his clothes, leaving two deputized citizens guarding Hooper. When he returned, he found all three gone. He later discovered Hooper’s naked body “hanged just outside Hammond’s city limits.” In the grand jury hearing, jurors said they were concerned because the accused had been a woman but ultimately decided that they did not have enough information to identify the hangmen.

■ On July 31, 1917, Judge Robert S. Ellis called another Tangipahoa Parish grand jury, this one to investigate the double lynching of Dan and Jerry Route of Amite. In 1996, I spoke with a man who saw their bodies.

I met Bishop Willie K. Gordon, Sr., during my days at WFPR radio. When he died in 2007, Bishop Gordon was 97 years old and had served as pastor of Reimer-Gordon Temple Church in Hammond for almost 70 years.

As an eight-year-old boy playing in the streets of Amite, he watched two undertakers load the bodies of Dan and Jerry Route into pine boxes.

Bishop Gordon said he was also on the courthouse grounds in Amite when Tangipahoa parish authorities hung the five Italians charged with robbing the bank in Independence and shooting bank president Dallas Calmes.

Bishop Gordon
Bishop Gordon

Bishop Gordon also recalled meeting one of these armed mobs in his pre-teens.

“I was walking east and crossed paths with another black boy walking south.” He said. “There were some cows on the sidewalk, and the other boy began to curse them in a loud manner. A little white girl nearby started crying and told a horse trader that a black boy had offended her. I had walked away by then, but when I got to the next block, several white men lifted me over their shoulders. One had a rope ready to hang me when the white girl told them I wasn’t the right one and made them release me.”

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