Digging holes here and there in American history.

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Monday, November 15, 2010


My newest history book is now available and selling well.  

GREETINGS FROM RUSTON:  A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana

First Baptist Church, 1920s

The book tells the city's history with the use of over 100 vintage post cards and interesting anecdotes.  Many of the post cards are over one hundred years old.

The book is available through http://www.amazon.com/ (see the link), by e-mailing me at campruston@gmail.com and at these Ruston businesses:

   Townsend House Gifts
   Karen's Hallmark
   Ruston Chamber of Commerce/Visitor's Bureau
   Rumo's Barber Shop

   Get yours soon!

Sunday, November 14, 2010


Gunfight changed railroad town in 1898

By Wesley Harris

John Tom Sisemore
 The conventional view of Louisiana history invokes images of genteel Southern chivalry rather than the hurly-burly associated with the rough and tumble Old West. Yet Louisiana experienced wild and woolly times in the 19th century, requiring the services of lawmen like John Tom Sisemore. Although not a big man—he wore a size 4 shoe—Deputy U.S. Marshal Sisemore was tough and solidly built. His children would later remember townspeople referring to their father as "full of dynamite" and "the shortest six-foot fellar we ever saw."

In 1884, the town of Ruston rose from the red-clay hills when the railroad finally spanned north Louisiana. The Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad—or the "Very Slow and Pokey," as it was known locally—replaced the Wire Road as the main transportation route between Vicksburg and Shreveport. Vienna and other Wire Road communities all but disappeared when the railroad bypassed them.

With Vienna's demise, the courthouse was moved to Ruston. New schools were started, including a small college, the forerunner of Louisiana Tech. A Chautauqua program was established for educational and cultural activities amid shade trees and bubbling springs north of town. Fiery politicians, preachers, and pontificators visited the Chautauqua to lecture and exhort.

Bad men came as well. Routine gunfire and rowdy disturbances clashed with Ruston's hunger for sophistication and culture. Believing liquor to be the root of the community's ills, in 1894 the town fathers proposed an ordinance prohibiting the sale or possession of alcoholic beverages. It passed overwhelmingly.

As a federal marshal, Sisemore scoured north Louisiana, raiding stills and arresting bootleggers and outlaws. His name struck fear among whiskey runners.

Thursday, July 22, 2010


Despite the battles fought in Louisiana during the Civil War—Port Hudson, Mansfield, Pleasant Hill, and others—more violent deaths probably occurred in the state during Reconstruction than in the war itself. Lawlessness reigned in many parts of the state from the war’s end in 1866 through the 1870s, from highway robbery to the intimidation and murder of freed blacks and office-holding carpetbaggers.

In many instances, local white citizens who viewed the new freedoms given former slaves as an affront to Southern society resorted to vigilantism to put blacks in their place and terrorize the Republican officials who protected them. With most parish and state offices held by Republicans, the largely Democrat populace often bypassed despised local lawmen and took care of criminal offenders themselves.

Reconstruction officially ended in 1877 with the removal of federal troops from the South and white Democrats resumed control over most public offices. The animosity of the post-war years remained.

The Crescent Plantation arose from the Mississippi Delta soils of what is now Madison Parish in the 1830s. Consisting of over two thousand acres, the estate on Brushy Bayou was one of the largest in northeast Louisiana. In the 1890s, the plantation was the home to numerous black freedmen and their families who still worked in the same fields their ancestors tilled as slaves. Most owned little or nothing—a pig or two, perhaps a milk cow or a horse. A few owned firearms but mostly they possessed little more than their fathers had before the Civil War.

While the prominent Darcy family owned the Crescent, the workers were supervised by a white man named J. K. Boyce. Little is known of Boyce. His name does not appear on the Madison Parish tax rolls of the late 19th Century. He probably lived in a small home on the plantation. Whether he had family on the plantation is unknown.

Toward the end of April 1894, Boyce’s lifeless body was discovered on the plantation.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


The Dr. Samuel A. Mudd House, where John Wilkes Booth found refuge after assassinating President Abraham Lincoln in 1865, is one of the most notable historic sites in southern Maryland.  Mudd gave medical treatment to Booth who injured his leg fleeing Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C.  The doctor was convicted of aiding and conspiring with Booth.  In February, an arsonist set fire at an entrance to the Mudd House, causing only slight damage to an exterior door.  A catastrophe was averted when the fire apparently burned itself out before the building was ignited.  

Intentional acts to destroy our history are inexplicable.  Why?  What could be accomplished by burning down the Mudd House or destroying any other historic site?  Yet, it occurs quite often.  Sometimes the motivation is pure greed, as in the destruction wreaked on the Vicksburg National Military Park by relic hunters.  In 2007, park rangers discovered over 100 holes dug in attempts to recover loot from the famous Civil War siege.  A few years earlier, eleven monuments at Vicksburg were spray painted by a vandal.  Vicksburg's supervising ranger said, “The park is continually plagued by varying degrees of looting, digging and excavation.  They're stealing America's heritage. This belongs to the American people.”

Under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act of 1979, it is illegal to excavate, remove, damage, alter or deface archaeological resources on federal or Indian land.  It's also illegal to traffic materials or items found on such land.  There are also state and federal laws against defacing or vandalizing property or stealing artifacts from private or public land.

A few years ago, someone attempted to burn down a 150-year old "dog-trot" style log house near my home, one of the few historic sites to be preserved in our region.  There is no logical explanation for such behavior.  Yet, the fact it is one of the few surviving historic sites nearby is evidence that we have done very little in my area to preserve our past.  I find local history fascinating but it seems we have gone out of our way to raze it, obliterate it, and forget it.  As a youth, I marveled at the wonderful Victorian homes in our town with their intricate gingerbread trim and stained glass windows.  They are mostly gone now, victims of "progress" in the form of big, boxy grocery stores and auto parts shops.  This is a town where marshals and outlaws engaged in shootouts.  Where thousands of German POWs were held during World War II.  Bonnie & Clyde committed crimes here.  But most residents have no knowledge of this history.  Even the city's 125th anniversary was overlooked last year.

When we forget our history, we might as well be burning it up because it disappears either way.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010


Was the pistol used to kill Lincoln stolen from its display in Ford's Theatre?

     A small pistol reposes in a display case in Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.  A sign identifies it as the weapon used by John Wilkes Booth to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln.  But is it the gun used to kill Lincoln or a clever fake planted during a burglary in the 1960s?
     According to one source, the murder weapon was stolen from Ford’s Theatre one hundred years after Lincoln’s death.  The stunning allegation arose in 1997 during the adjudication of a New England estate.  Suzanne Kelley, the National Park Service site manager for Ford’s Theatre, said a man cleaning out his deceased mother’s home found some suspected stolen items.  The man called police, believing his brother, now serving time in prison, secreted the valuables in the house.  The incarcerated son was a member of a burglary ring that operated in New York and Massachusetts between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.

Monday, February 1, 2010


Custer's Men Rode the Hills of North Louisiana

The story of George Armstrong Custer and the destruction of his command at the Little Bighorn in Montana is well known. The “Custer Massacre” has been immortalized in movies, books, and music, albeit often with sensational inaccuracy. But only the most ardent Custer historians know of the significance of Custer and his famed 7th Cavalry in Louisiana history.

After a distinguished military career during the Civil War in which Custer experienced a meteoric rise through the ranks to become the Union’s youngest general, the brash redhead was sent to Alexandria in 1865 by General Philip Sheridan to take command of a cavalry division. After a respite in New Orleans following the long journey from Washington, Custer, accompanied by his wife Elizabeth, marched the troops from Louisiana to Hempstead, Texas, anticipating possible military action against Mexico. Elizabeth later wrote of her hardships in her book, Tenting on the Plains, published in 1887, recalling the exhilaration she experienced when the party finally departed the thick pine thickets of Louisiana for the open terrain of Texas.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Former POW pays visit to Camp Ruston



While World War II raged across the globe, Americans back on the homefront were heavily engaged in the war effort. There were training camps, military maneuvers, war bond events, and scrap drives.  Rationing of food, rubber, and gasoline were necessary to fulfill military needs.  Unlike the current Mideast conflict, World War II affected everyone personally and most people did their part to support their country.

One of the most fascinating aspects of homefront life during WWII was the presence of prisoner of war camps across America. There were hundreds of them, housing mostly German and Italian troops. The Japanese rarely allowed themselves to be taken prisoner. Camp Ruston, Louisiana was one of the largest in the country.

In June 2006, I met a former German prisoner of war when he returned to visit Camp Ruston. Horst Blumenberg lived at Camp Ruston from October 1944 to January 1946 after being captured in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Blumenberg was a sailor on the submarine U-664. "We were attacked, and when we tried to fire, our torpedo got stuck in the tube,” Blumenberg said. “We were on a crash dive. The first people who came out (of the submarine) were shot. I was the last one off and swam eight and a half hours before I was picked up by the USS Borie.”

Blumenberg was eventually transferred to an interrogation camp near Arlington, Virginia. He was the only one of his captured crew that was not sent to a Nazi camp in Arizona. “I was the only one at Camp Ruston. I said I wasn’t a Nazi,” he explained. “In 1943, it was a very dangerous thing to do that. If Hitler had won the war, I would have been a dead duck.”

Many German soldiers and sailors did not consider themselves Nazis.  While some were very hardcore Nazis, many were just ordinary men who were drafted into the army.

Blumenberg brought several pieces of memorabilia with him to present to Louisiana Tech University, the repository for Camp Ruston archival materials. He allowed me to escort him to the site of old Camp Ruston and spent an hour talking about his experiences. I had previously interviewed Horst by phone and e-mail for a book I wrote about the U-boat sailors at Camp Ruston. In addition of Blumenberg, the entire crew of the U-505, the first enemy vessel captured by the U.S. since the War of 1812, was held at Camp Ruston.

After several years and many camps, Blumenberg finally made it back to Germany. His family had never heard of his fate.“By the time I got home, it was September 1947, and the war was over in 1945,” he said. “The few letters I wrote (as a POW) were heavily censored, and I never saw them again." As soon as Horst got home to Germany, he told his mother he was going back to America as soon as possible. He now lives in Kentucky and has been an American citizen for 50 years.

More to come on Camp Ruston....

Photo: Horst Blumenberg near one of the two remaining buildings at the Camp Ruston site, 2006

Digging the Past

Hello. This is a sort of New Year's Resolution. I am currently writing a book with ideas for several more. The problem with writing books is it takes forever to get your thoughts and facts before a reader. Even with magazines, a nine to twelve month delay between my submission of the work to the publisher and the appearance of the article is common. This blog will solve the problem by permitting me to share with you long before my book or books are published.

Beware, I don't write much about "general" topics but very specific aspects that have captured my interest. Stories that I "dig," in other words. For example, my current book is about the crew of a German U-boat captured during World War II. Many books have been written about the U-505 submarine but mine will focus on the yet untold story of their secret internment in a POW camp in Louisiana. Publication later this year, I hope.

I've collected material for my next two books. One will be on the guns and knives used by John Wilkes Booth and his co-conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln and attempted murder of Secretary of State William Seward. A very unique topic, I believe, especially since dozens of books have been written on Lincoln and his murder but none has examined the weapons and their recovery. As a police investigator for three decades, my experience in crime scene analysis will permit me to discuss the collection of evidence in the case and reveal interesting stories of the tools of the assassins. The literature on the Lincoln assassination continues to increase with a flood of recent book releases so it is a subject that still captures the interest of many.

Perhaps within a couple of years, I will finish my research on crime during Reconstruction in Louisiana. My preliminary research indicates the murder rate was higher in the 1870s than today. Incidents with national and international significance occurred in north Louisiana during the late 1800s including the so-called "Colfax Riot," the "Coushatta Massacre," and the lynching of five Italians. There is compelling evidence that Jesse James robbed a stagecoach in Louisiana during this time, a crime not usually enumerated in the "official" list of misdeeds committed by the James & Younger gang. During Reconstruction, the famed Seventh Cavalry patrolled north Louisiana and many of the troopers who arrested members of the "White League" for crimes against newly freed blacks would later die at the Little Big Horn.

So, you can expect my blog to include entries on these topics and many more. Digging into the past is a passion and I can't wait to share some of my discoveries. I hope you will bring your shovel and do some excavating with me.

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