This week’s Echo will be a collection of some stories connected with Minden that I came across while doing research. The first is an obituary found on the Internet that demonstrates a combination of the national confusion about lifestyles in Northwest Louisiana and a little bit of “tall tales” told by a musician. The last three came from the pages of significant national newspapers describing events that happened locally.
On August 5, 2004, R & B musician Willie Egan died at his home in Los Angeles. Egan was born in this area, and I found the following paragraph from his obituary very interesting. It read: “He was born Willie Lee Egan in 1933 in poverty, in the bayou country around Minden, Louisiana. The community was so isolated that they had to forge a path through the undergrowth and the swamps to the main road every year. Alligators were a daily hazard and although Egan survived with all parts intact, his father lost a hand and his brother a foot.”
Now, while alligators are present in this area, it seems the details of the story must be exaggerated. According to the obituary, Egan left Louisiana before his 10th birthday and went to live with his grandmother in Los Angeles. I am certain if there had been a situation where two area residents had lost appendages to alligators it would have been big news locally. It seems fairly clear that Egan told that tale to make his early life seem more exotic. It does produce amusement that such stories are accepted as the gospel by those that think everyone in rural Louisiana uses a pirogue to get back and forth to town.
The other stories I’m relating in this column come from the pages of two of the most significant newspaper in the United States, the New York Times and the Washington Post. Each of these happenings in our area was considered significant or unique enough to gain attention from the national press. These articles are copied as direct quotes from the newspapers of the time – two of the stories come from the 1880s and one from the 1930s – and if the language offends anyone, I apologize for the usage, but it was the vocabulary of the times.
Most local residents are familiar with the killer tornado that struck our town on May 1, 1933; however, until this week I was not aware of another severe storm that hit north of Minden on April 28, 1883. Here is part of the Washington Post story of May 1, 1883, about that tragedy, filed by the New Orleans Times-Democrat, and printed under the headlines: “Swept by a Cyclone”; “Nothing left standing in a tract fifteen miles long”; “Appalling Destruction of Property in a Louisiana Parish”; “Fence Rails Hurled for Miles.”
“A special dispatch to the Times-Democrat from Minden, La., says, ‘A terrible cyclone visited this parish, seven or eight miles above here on Saturday evening, passing from the northeast to the southwest over a length of track extending fifteen miles.
The wind was of such terrific force that not a house, tree or other obstruction is left. Dr. S. F. Johnson’s gin house and other buildings were blown away. William Taylor’s place was badly wrecked. S. J. Harrell’s place was torn to pieces and the cabins and barns were utterly demolished, while rails from the fences were blown for miles. B. F. Carr’s gin house, cabins were destroyed and some killed. Irby White’s dwelling was demolished and only one roof was left on the plantation buildings out of twenty-four. One Negro man and several children were injured. John B. Newsome’s place was almost as badly served, every house was wrecked except the dwelling which was only partially unroofed. The quarters on S. J. Harrell’s place were utterly demolished. On forty acres of heavy timbered land not a tree is left standing. The fences on the place were blown away and not a vestige of corn or fodder is left. William Gamble’s place is badly damaged. Mrs. Youngblood was seriously injured and several children were slightly hurt. Most miraculous escapes are reported. Several Negroes who were blown across a field alighted uninjured. No one was killed or mortally wounded, but few dwellings being directly in the path of the tornado.’”
The second tale comes from about three years later and is a tale of crime. Here is that story, published January 22, 1886, in the New York Times headlined, “Singing When the Drop Fell”; “A Religiously Inclined Assassin Hanged in Louisiana”: “Last July Henry Britton of Minden was found murdered in his store. He had been shot through an open window with a shotgun and his brains blown out. The murderer, it was subsequently shown, deliberately crawled into the store window over the dead body, took down some sardines from the shelf, opened them and made a meal. After eating he rifled through the cash drawers and the dead man’s pockets, securing about $130 in money and two watches. He then went out the front door, taking the key, which had been left sticking into the lock on the inside. He closed the door and carried away the key. The next morning, which was Sunday, a Negro named Henry Jackson appeared at the Negro church in Arcadia, 10 miles away, took a prominent part in the services, and contributed liberally to the church. On Monday morning, as soon as the business houses were opened, Jackson commenced purchasing goods freely, which led to suspicion of his being the man who committed the murder.
“Jackson was arrested, and when he searched the money and watches – one of them with the murdered man’s initials on it – and the store key were found on him. He stoutly asserted his innocence until he was returned to Minden and jailed. He then confessed. He said that he knew Britton had money, and he murdered him for it. Jackson was tried by a jury composed of his own color, who found him guilty of murder in the first degree, without leaving their seats. He was sentenced to be hanged on such day as the Governor might name. He experienced religion a week after he was jailed, and he said that the Lord had forgiven him, and he was going straight to Heaven.
“The murderer was hanged today, and the event is notable in consequence of his being the first person every legally hanged in Webster Parish. He came down the stairs to the gallows singing a Negro revival hymn at 12:50 in the presence of the Sheriff, his deputy and the witnesses allowed by law. The rope holding the trap on which the prisoner stood was cut, and in 15 minutes the doctor declared the man dead. His neck was instantly broken, and there was every indication of an instantaneous death.
Jackson was singing a hymn when the trap fell.”
This story has some interesting pieces of information in terms of local history. The first is the apparent use of a gallows located inside the courthouse – based on the limited presence of witnesses to the hanging. That contradicts that tradition that legal hangings in Minden were carried out on a tree on the south side of the grounds of the old courthouse, located where Capitol Bank is today on the corner of Union and Broadway. The claim that this was the first legal hanging in Minden is factually incorrect, so perhaps the location of the execution is also wrong. The second unique piece of information is that the jury in the trial was composed completely of black residents. In the climate of that day, nearly 10 years after the end of Reconstruction it was rare that black citizens were allowed any public function. It seems that the emergence of Jim Crow policies was slightly delayed in Minden, as it is also true that in May of 1886, R. L. Shepherd was elected an Alderman in Minden, the last black city official in Minden until the 1970s.
The final story comes from the New York Times of October 20, 1936, and is an event that some local residents recall vividly. That fall the workers of the L & A Railroad were on strike against the company. The Times coverage involves the response of some local railroad wives to the “scabs” who were operating the railroad during the strike. The headline read, “Women Stop Train, Strip A Rail Official”, “Crowd of Hundreds in Louisiana Also Make Engineer Resign.” Here is that account:
“Several hundred women early tonight seized two members of the crew of The Shreveporter, northbound train of the Louisiana and Arkansas Railroad, forced the engineer to telegraph his resignation and tore the clothes from a railroad official who remonstrated with them. Late tonight the train was still in the yards here.
“Members of the ‘Big Four’ brotherhood struck recently in a dispute over wages and working conditions.
“Surrounding the train when it stopped for water, the women caught Mark Willis, engineer, and a Negro brakeman, while other crew members fled into the woods. Willis was reportedly beaten and forced to notify C. P. Couch, president of the railroad, that he resigned.
“W. F. Salisbury, chief engineer of the railroad, was in the station. The women tore off his clothing and slapped him.”
The L & A strike saw several incidents of violence and sabotage in the area and will be the subject a future echo. In addition, I also found some other fascinating stories that will have entire columns devoted to them at a later date. For now, it is interesting to reflect on these Echoes of Our Past that garnered attention at a national level.
John Agan is a local historian, an instructor at Bossier Parish Community College and a published author. His column appears Fridays in the Minden Press-Herald.