Louisiana politics wasn’t always dirty; sometimes it was just deadly.
In Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, a largely forgotten character utters one of the writer’s most memorable lines: “First, let’s kill all the lawyers.” The oft-misinterpreted line was meant to praise attorneys and judges who impart justice in society. But in the Reconstruction Era after the Civil War, a Louisiana lawyer served in government at his own risk.
Politics today could be considered downright nasty with plenty of mudslinging and vitriolic name-calling. But even Louisiana’s notoriously scandal-plagued politics of the 20th century does not compare to the violence of Reconstruction. After the war, Republicans, with control of the federal bureaucracy, took charge of local and state government in Louisiana and most of the South, even though the majority of the populace was Democrat. Once the sole purview of the white Democrats, control of local politics was largely in the hands of those holding newfound power gained through the Union victory.
Serving in the Republican-controlled Reconstruction government could be deadly. Political assassinations were common as the Democrats saw their domain coming to an end. They did not take kindly to outsiders—carpetbaggers—coming in to run local government. The scalawags—locals who allied themselves with the Radical Republicans—were especially despised. Even those who had excellent relationships with the populace before and during the war were now considered pariahs by their longtime friends and associates.
The White League used violence against officeholders, running some out of town and killing others, and suppressed election turnout among black and white Republicans. In August 1874, a mob assassinated virtually every government official in Red River Parish. An insurrection by 5,000 White Leaguers against Metropolitan Police and state militia supporting the state government in New Orleans on September 14, 1874, killed dozens. The insurgents held the statehouse, armory, and downtown for three days, retreating before arrival of Federal troops that restored the Radical Republican government. A memorial commemorating the Democratic view of the Battle of Liberty Place is currently the focus of a contentious fight over the removal of purported racist symbols in New Orleans.
Sometimes the attack on government officials had more to do with outright lawlessness than political opposition. Such may be the case with the murder of a district judge and district attorney near Winnsboro in September 1873. The Ouachita Telegraph called the apparent ambush killing of District Judge Thomas H. Crawford and District Attorney Arthur H. Harris “a great crime, exciting our horror and strongest condemnation.”
Harris and Crawford had participated in court proceedings in Winnsboro for a week before returning to their homes in Columbia in Caldwell Parish. On Monday, September 8, they set out for Winnsboro for a second week of court. Along the route, an ambush cut them down. Another attorney, Thomas J. Hough, who left Columbia two or three hours after the two officials, discovered the bodies fourteen miles down the road near the Boeuf River swamps. Hough spurred his horse back to Columbia to collect a posse.
Judge Crawford lay in the road, the victim of what the Ouachita Telegraph termed “murderous fire.” The paper’s description was gruesome: “He was shot so often as to leave no distinct marks of the number of shots he received. His head was literally torn to pieces, the parts being gathered up in a handkerchief for interment. His horse was shot in the neck, but not killed.”
District Attorney Harris had opportunity to flee the first onslaught. His horse was shot down in the road but Harris’s body was found some distance away, indicating he briefly fled on foot. According to the Telegraph, “his body exhibited wounds in the knee, thigh, side and head, from which it is believed he was killed in flight, and even shot while down and several paces from his horse. The character of the wounds leads to the belief that the fire was delivered from both sides of the road, and that after having shot the two men down, they were shot while down, and Judge Crawford even after he was dead. His chest received a number of bullets, and underneath his head a large hole in the ground was seen, while the upper portion of this head was entirely blown asunder.”
As a Unionist who opposed Louisiana’s secession, Crawford’s alliance with the Republicans meant losing friends and gaining many enemies. He had fled to New York during the conflict. Attempts had been made on his life since his return to Louisiana. Many drew the conclusion that his office was gained through subterfuge with the help of the Republican-controlled election returning board as the vote count had been decidedly against him. Harris, it was supposed, was killed because he was in company with Crawford, and no witnesses could be left alive.
Some suggested a different and more likely motive. Crawford and Harris had been threatened by a Caldwell Parish man named Winn, a fugitive facing a murder charge.
Harris had no known enemies. As a Democrat, the Telegraph reported, “he was thoroughly and strongly opposed to Crawford politically, and was even beloved by the people of his district. Nothing but strong personal enmity can account for his death and that of Judge Crawford in the way recited. And this fact — admitted to be such by every one — points more strongly than anything else to the accusation of Winn as the guilty party.”
Judge Crawford was buried in Columbia, and forty-one year old Arthur Harris in his family’s burial plot in City Cemetery in Monroe. The Telegraph described a massive outpouring of sympathy for both men, but especially Harris, saying he “possessed fine social qualities, a cultivated mind, popular manners and a good heart. He loved his country, and set duty above all sense of fear.” His tombstone is marked with a similar sentiment. Crawford was named “one of the best criminal lawyers of the State.”
Governor Kellogg offered a $5,000 reward but no one was ever brought to justice in the case. Rewards announced in response to political killings in Reconstruction Louisiana almost never produced the desired results.