I often tell my history students that they live in a very different world in terms of media than the one that existed for most of our nation’s history. I am referring to the significance of newspapers in the public consciousness that was so strong in the past but is rapidly decreasing. The advent of television did much to change that status, but it seems that the Internet may finally be the death of the printed newspaper with which we were so familiar. Many of you may well be reading this online and I must confess that I do almost all my reading of the newspaper online.
However, in the past newspapers played such a significant role in the sharing of knowledge. For many years the New York Times was known as the “paper of record” for the country and a measure of the most significant events in the life of smaller towns in this nation could be learned by finding which local stories earned mention in the pages of the Times. In my next Echo’s I will be looking at the stories from Minden and the immediate vicinity that were deemed important enough to be covered by the New York Times. The online archives of the paper extend back to 1851 and I have complied nearly all mentions of Minden in those issues.
Before I begin I need to comment that I was struck by one thing in particular. Today we often hear that the news media is all about sensationalism and that “good news” is missing from the coverage. I must tell you that looking at these mentions of our town in the New York Times makes it clear that it has always been true that if your town is mentioned in the national media, it won’t be for a good reason. You will see that most of these stories involve violence, rampant racism or some tragedy. So while they aren’t “happy talk stories”, these are the events in our area that gave readers all across the nation a glimpse of Minden.
The earliest appearance of our town in the pages of the Times came with two mentions in the edition of July 10, 1856. I have written an entire Echo earlier on the events that had taken place. The Times carried a news story that day about an editorial written in the Minden Herald by Editor W. Jasper Blackburn. Blackburn had shared his take on the controversy raging in the country over the caning of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts by Congressman Preston Brooks of South Carolina that had taken place on the floor of the Senate on May 22, 1856. The beating had occurred as the violence that was raging in Kansas and other parts of the country over the issue of slavery reached the halls of Congress. Blackburn’s take was essentially “a pox on both your houses,” chiding the extremists on the side of both slavery and abolition. Beyond the reprint, editorially the Times commented that this opinion coming from the Deep South was a refreshing change and perhaps indicated that cooler heads might prevail in the crisis. Of course, we know they did not prevail, and as we will see later in this article, Blackburn was out of the mainstream and eventually would be driven from Minden and later on the state of
Our next mention in the Times came in an obituary published on September 17, 1869, announcing the death of Edward Rufus Olcott a Judge in Richmond, Virginia. Olcott had graduated from Dartmouth College in 1825 and after several years of practicing law in.
Lowell, Massachusetts he had come to Minden in 1838 to serve as the teacher at the Minden Academy. (That school had been established by Legislative charter at the request of Minden’s founder, Charles H. Veeder and became the forerunner of both the Minden Male Academy and the Minden Female College.) Soon after arriving in Louisiana he resumed his law practice and became a Judge in Claiborne Parish before returning north to New York City and eventually Boston. He had come to Virginia during Reconstruction to become an official in the Reconstruction government of that state.
The third mention brings us back to W. Jasper Blackburn once again. Blackburn had left Minden in the late 1850s after serving as Mayor and relocated to Homer. During the Civil War, he refused to support the Confederacy and after the war, he soon became active in Republican politics. His newspaper office in Homer was vandalized leading to a crackdown in the area by Union occupation troops. But his name appears in an article that ran on September 23, 1872, as follows:
“Attempted Assassination of a Republican in Louisiana – After the adjournment of the large Republican meeting held at Minden yesterday, an intoxicated bravo, named T. L. Boone, attacked and seriously wounded Hon. Jasper Blackburn, the well-known editor of the Homer Iliad. Mr. Blackburn was shot in the neck, but happily the wound, which is severe and painful, is not believed to be mortal.”
Blackburn by this time had already served as a Republican Judge in Claiborne Parish and served for a year as a Republican Congressman from Northwest Louisiana. He would go on to serve a four-year term as a Louisiana State Senator before moving back to his home state of Arkansas. He published Republican newspapers in Arkansas until 1892, when dissatisfied with the politics of the national Republican Party he retired and disappeared from public life until his death in 1899.
The political turmoil of Reconstruction would bring the next two mentions of Minden, as it became the nearest point of communication with newspaper coverage for one of the most violent episodes of Reconstruction: The Coushatta Massacre. In the following two stories that appeared on August 30 and September 1, 1874, news from Coushatta was brought to Minden and relayed to the outside world.
The first article published on August 30, was datelined the day before in Shreveport and stated:
“Armed Negroes assembling near Coushatta, trouble is anticipated. Letters tonight by courier state that about 800 armed Negroes had assembled below Coushatta and were constantly receiving reinforcements from all quarters. The town is guarded by 200 white men who call for help. A courier has also arrived at Minden, Webster Parish, who brings substantially the same information. Forty men left Colton Point at daylight this morning for the scene of conflict. Seventy men left here this afternoon and more will follow tonight. Reinforcements have also come from Minden.
“A letter from Mr. Stringfellow, at Robinson’s place, says that a conflict is inevitable, and thinks that it cannot be delayed longer than tonight. The black population of Red River Parish outnumbers the whites three to one.
“Coushatta is fifty miles from the nearest telegraph station, and it is not possible that further particulars can be had before tomorrow.”
Two days later, on September 1, 1874, the follow-up story appeared:
“Parish officers arrested on the pretext of exciting a mob. Taken from the guard and reported shot. The air is full of rumors concerning the Coushatta trouble, but none of them can be traced to a reliable source. A gentleman who left Coushatta yesterday morning reports all quiet and the citizens discussing the propriety of removing the prisoners to Shreveport. It is reported today that the prisoners were intercepted near Mansfield by a party of Texans and hanged, but the driver of the Mansfield stage, which has just arrived, pronounces the report entirely unfounded. The Times has just received the following dispatch from Minden: ‘A gentleman just up from Red River says that the company of men who started up to Shreveport with the Coushatta prisoners were overtaken twenty three-miles below Shreveport on Sunday evening about 3 o’clock, by forty or fifty armed men, supposed to be Texans from beyond the Sabine, who took the prisoners out of the hands of the guard and killed Homer Twitchell, Bob Dewees and Frank Edgerton on the spot. The other three, Howard, Holland and Willis, escaped, but were recaptured and are supposed to have shared the same fate. The prisoners requested to be taken to Shreveport and selected the men to take charge of the company that was to guard them. Every precaution was taken that was believed necessary to insure their safety. The citizens were satisfied with the assurances that they would leave the State and did not desire to take harsh measures. The Texans swore they did not intend to have such scoundrels hunting homes in their State. The gentleman from whom we gather this information says he saw the dead bodies of the three first mentioned persons.
“This dispatch is not generally credited here, as various persons have arrived today from Mansfield, Keatchie, and Kingston who must have passed near the scenes of the reported murders this morning, and they bring no information on the subject. Strong hopes are entertained that this report, like earlier ones, may prove untrue.”
Of course, the “discredited” accounts proved largely true. The six parish officials were captured by a mob of 40 men from the Coushatta area and executed and before the problems were over nearly 60 freed former slaves were killed. Later elements of the same group attacked Marshall Harvey Twitchell, the “boss” of Red River Parish (and the brother of Homer Twitchell) as he returned to Coushatta from New Orleans. He was shot and left for dead. After having both arms amputated because of his wounds, he testified before a Congressional investigation of both the Coushatta Massacre and the Colfax Riot wearing his old Union Army uniform with the empty sleeves making a powerful statement.
The final article I will cover today is once again a story of violence, as I said, the bad news it what gains attention and it comes from the New York Times of April 28, 1882, in a story that came from the Webster Parish area, although it did not even take place in Webster Parish.
“Convicts Brutally Treated – Terribly Whipped in Louisiana – Committing Suicide Through Fear of Punishment. Information has been received here that a white convict from New Orleans, at work in a railroad gang near Minden made his escape on Wednesday from the convict camp. He was recaptured the next morning and returned to camp, where he was severely whipped with the cat, leaving his back torn and lacerated beyond description. A Negro convict, a party to the white man’s escape, knowing that he would receive the same punishment, and being overcome by the sight of the terrible whipping he saw administered, cut his throat with a razor, killing himself to avoid the torture. The District Attorney of the Parish of Bossier is making an investigation of the affair. This is said to be a frequent punishment when escaped convicts, are brought back alive, though the judicial officers of the State are not in the habit of paying attention to either the beating or shooting of convicts. The most remarkable feature of the case is that convicts are worked outside of the prison walls, in direct violation of the laws of the State, by virtue of a military order issued by Gen. Hancock when he was in command of the Military Department, just after the close of the war.
The last part of that paragraph is incorrect as the laws of the state not only allowed such usage of prisoners; the state actually granted a franchise for operating the system. That Convict-Lease system and the monopoly held on the practice by Samuel James would later become a national scandal when it was revealed that more than 50% of the “leased” prisoners died while being used by James and the companies that he supplied labor. It would be well after 1900 before the practice was finally ended.
I wish I could tell you things get better, but the next installment of these stories will begin with two executions, one conducted by the legal system, the other by a mob. Reading the scant coverage our area received in the New York Times and the negative nature of the story does help one understand how the years after the Civil War perhaps widened the gap and the misunderstanding between North and South, rather than bringing reconciliation. Sadly, that, too, is an Echo of our Past.