This week’s Echo of Our Past will be the story of a court case from the 2nd Judicial District Court, sitting at Minden, in 1919. There is no great historical significance to this case, it is simply one of most unique stories I’ve ever heard and certainly adds a colorful tale to Webster Parish history.
At first examination, one might find some historical significance in this matter by observing that the filing of what seem to be frivolous lawsuits is not a new phenomenon. Nor is the granting of favorable rulings from a court in such cases a recent development.
However, the results of this case may indicate that some seemingly trivial lawsuits may have more serious results in the lives of individuals.
I will make one editorial comment, since some of the circumstances of this case could prove embarrassing to any relatives of those involved in the case, I have substituted the name Jane Doe for the main character in this tale, rather than use her name. In other cases where possible I have simply omitted the names of persons shown in less than the best light.
This isn’t a morality tale, just a funny story about human greed, and the value that the Louisiana Supreme Court in 1920 placed on a damaged reputation.
The story begins in 1917. Jane Doe, a 45-year-old woman from Webster Parish was a relative of pioneer settlers of the area, Burton and Lawson Deck. For many years a family tradition had stated that the Deck brothers had before their deaths, buried a large amount of gold coins on a piece of family land.
That land had in subsequent years been sold to another family unrelated to the Deck brothers. Miss Doe worked as a traveling saleslady for the California Perfume Company and her route included the towns of Webster Parish and parts of Shreveport.
During a sales call in Shreveport, she went to see a fortune teller. This fortune teller confirmed the story that the Decks had buried gold. She even went so far as to provide Miss Doe with a map to the location of said treasure on the property where it had been rumored to be hidden.
Upon returning home, Miss Doe enlisted the assistance of three or four relatives and one hired man to begin digging up the property searching for the Deck gold.
The search went on for several months, with the approval of the property owner who had apparently been promised a cut of the discovery.
The owner provided free room and board to the prospectors and even allowed them to cut holes through the floor of his home, in places, as part of their search.
After several months of this search, without any gold being found, the daughter of the property owner felt that enough was enough.
She enlisted the help of several friends to help her supply the “missing gold.”
The motivation for this decision would later be a key factor in the court’s ruling, but for whatever reasons, the little group of conspirators moved ahead with their plans to end Miss Doe’s search.
They found an old copper kettle filled it with rocks and wet dirt and buried it in an old chimney on the property adjoining the previously searched land. Miss Doe had made it known that her search would soon spread to that property, too, since the first land hadn’t yet yielded the treasure.
Before burying their pot, the hoaxers put two lids on the bucket; the first was tied down with haywire. Between this lid and the top lid was placed a tin containing a note, which was dated July 1, 1884.
The note instructed anyone finding this pot to not open it for three days and to contact all heirs of the Decks. Then the top lid was put on and also sealed with wire.
The “fools gold” was buried in late April. Later as part of their defense, the planters would state their intention was for the pot to be part of an April Fool’s joke.
However, Miss Doe and her party did not find the pot until Saturday, April 14. On that date, with the assistance of one of the conspirators, the prospectors struck pay dirt.
As the word spread, people from all around the neighborhood flocked to the site, including all of those who had planted the fake treasure.
According to witnesses, those “in on the trick” were among the most enthusiastic at the find and seemingly the most interested in opening the pot.
After the first lid was removed, the note was discovered and one of those who had planted the pot urged Miss Doe to follow the instructions and wait the required three days before opening. Miss Doe was convinced, and the pot was wrapped in a gunnysack and taken to the bank in Cotton Valley, which was the nearest community and seemed the appropriate meeting place for the heirs to open their treasure.
Upon receiving the pot, the Cashier of the bank, G. G. Gatling, later to be named as a defendant, refused to give a receipt for the deposit, claiming he didn’t know if it had any value.
Soon news spread all over the area that Miss Doe’s party had found gold. The word reached A. J. Hodges, Vice-president of the bank, so he went down to the bank.
After discussing the situation with Gatling, they decided that the contents of the pot should be examined immediately, because if it did contain gold, extra security precautions would be necessary.
Since the bank would be closed on Sunday, it meant the meeting of potential heirs was at least 48 hours away and the treasure would need protection.
The two men lifted the lid enough to determine that there were only rocks and dirt in the pot. Later they would testify that their discovery was shared with no one; however, the word that the pot was a hoax, soon began to circulate as quickly as the original story of gold.
Miss Doe went to Minden, to the office of her lawyer, Judge R. C. Drew and asked him to accompany her to Cotton Valley on Monday to make sure the opening of the pot was handled legally.
Drew had already heard rumors that the story was a hoax being played on Miss Doe and tried to persuade her not to put too much faith in the claim. Still she persisted and out of a sense of obligation and friendship, he agreed to attend the meeting.
In addition, more than a half-dozen relatives of Miss Doe from the Minden area were invited to attend, since they, too, had a potential stake in the riches.
The “grand opening” was held at 11 a.m. on Monday, April 16, 1917. All the invited heirs were present along with most of those involved in hiding the pot and the members of Miss Doe’s search team.
Judge Drew, serving as spokesman, requested Gatling to produce the pot for examination. When the pot was produced, Miss Doe immediately flew into a rage.
She noticed that the seal had been tampered with – during the brief examination of Hodges and Gatling – and began screaming that she had been robbed.
When the contents were revealed to only be dirt and rocks, Miss Doe became violent. She threw the lid of the container at Gatling and had to be physically restrained from attacking one of those who had planned the hoax.
In the aftermath of this incident, whatever humor had been present originally had vanished. Miss Doe filed suit against all involved in the matter, including Gatling and Hodges, seeking damages for mental suffering.
By all accounts, her life was ruined by this tragedy. She had previously been under care for mental problems as a very young person but had been free of symptoms for nearly twenty years before the incident. After the hoax, she rapidly declined in mental and physical health and was soon unable to perform her job.
Within two years of the event, she died, at the age of 47, before the suit could be heard in court.
With the plaintiff dead, the case appeared to be over; however, after Miss Doe’s death, several of her heirs petitioned the court to be allowed to become substitute plaintiffs. This action was approved, however, the case lingered on the docket with out being heard for nearly three years.
Finally, on February 2, 1920, the case came up before Judge John Sandlin. Sandlin, after hearing the facts of the case, found for the defendants. The plaintiffs entered a request for a rehearing and that request was rejected.
They then turned to the Louisiana Supreme Court. The Supreme Court turned a more sympathetic ear to the plaintiffs.
The highest court, while removing the bank officials from the case as defendants, found there was liability for those that planned this hoax.
The court stated that: “Miss Doe was a maiden, nearing the age of 45 years, and some 20 years before had been an inmate of an insane asylum, to the knowledge of those who had thus deceived her. She was energetic and self-supporting in her chosen line of employment, as a soap drummer, until she met the fortune teller who gave her the ‘information’ which she evidently firmly believed would ultimately enable her to find the fortune which the family tradition told her had been left by the deceased relatives. The conspirators, no doubt, merely intended what they did as a practical joke, and had no willful intention of doing the lady any injury. However, the results were quite serious indeed, and the mental suffering and humiliation must have been quite unbearable, to say nothing of the disappointment and conviction, which she carried to her grave some two years later that she had been robbed. If Miss Doe were still living, we should be disposed to award her damages in a substantial sum, to compensate her for the wrong thus done; but as to the present plaintiffs, her legal heirs, we think that a judgment of $500 will reasonably serve the ends of justice.”
For a frame of reference, $500 in 1920 is the equivalent of about $5000 today, adjusting for inflation. So, the sum awarded to the plaintiffs was relatively large, for damages of that sort.
Again, I have no significant historical reason for this column at this time; I just found the story of hidden treasure fascinating. But, I guess the ruling of the judges does bring remind us that every action, no matter how trivial, has consequences and practical jokes can often go too far. That is still more than just and Echo of Our Past.
Minden Historian John Agan’s column appears Tuesdays in the Minden Press-Herald.Special to the Press-Herald.