A portion of a finger found in the charred rubble of Frank Morris’ Ferriday shoe shop in 1964 appears to have belonged to Morris, according to newly-obtained FBI documents.
Those records indicate that James White Sr., Morris’ lifelong friend, told agents in early 1965 he specifically examined Morris’ hands during a visit to the Ferriday hospital and found the nail and part of the skin from the palm-side of one of Morris’ fingers missing.
Previously, the Sentinel has reported that the emergency room nurse who examined Morris immediately after the fire observed that he was missing the tip of one of his fingers.
The "finger" found in the shoe shop rubble was little more than skin connected to the fingernail of one finger, according to FBI lab records, which match James White's description of Morris' injury. While the FBI never conclusively determined the specimen came from Morris, the Washington Post reported in 2010 that the finger "did not" belong to Morris.
Morris’ shop was torched during the early morning hours of December 10, 1964. Asleep in a back room when the arsonists arrived, Morris suffered fatal injuries in the fire and died four days later at the Ferriday hospital. His murder -- believed to have been committed by Klansmen -- was never solved in the 1960s and eventually closed. The bureau reopened the case in 2007 as part of a national initiative to solve 100-plus Civil Rights era murders.
The Post also reported in its article two years ago that the FBI had recently sent an undercover agent to Concordia Parish to look for a man missing a finger. The article quoted the FBI’s Cynthia Deitle, then head of the cold case investigations, as asking, “So who’s missing a finger in Ferriday?”
Shortly after the article was published, the Sentinel sought clarification on the matter from Deitle, who said in an email that while the Post story was “accurate” the conclusion that the finger found in the rubble did not belong to Morris was that of the newspaper, not the FBI’s.
The FBI says it has never stated to whom it believed the finger belonged.
Additionally, the Post reported that the specimen had been lost by the bureau but that a fingerprint existed. If true, this would eliminate the possibility of extracting DNA.
The recently-obtained document in which James White reported Morris was missing a portion of one of his fingers after the fire prompted another effort by the Sentinel recently for comment from the bureau. This record was obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Unsolved Civil Rights-Era Student Project at LSU's Manship School of Mass Communication.
However, spokespersons Chris Allen at FBI headquarters in Washington and Sheila Thorne at the New Orleans office, which counts Ferriday as part of its territory, would not comment or clarify the matter because they said the Morris murder is currently under investigation.
If the finger found in the shoe shop rubble didn't belong to Morris, then whose was it? If the FBI was looking for a “fingerless” man in Ferriday in 2010, then was that man a suspect or witness to the 1964 arson?
The FBI won't say.
FOUND IN THE RUBBLE
Forty-eight years ago, Mack Moore was one of many people in Ferriday who knew Morris and drove by the shoe shop to look at the devastation on the day of the early morning fire. Now 78, Moore was a 30-year-old teacher and football coach in 1964 at the all black Sevier High School during the days before public schools in the parish were integrated.
On the afternoon following the fire, as Morris lay dying in Room 101 of the Ferriday hospital, Mack Moore stopped by the shoe shop where he noticed two of his football players standing near the rubble on the north side of the building. The two teens stood in the alley separating the shop from a vacant used car lot and the Billups gas station farther north.
"They were looking down, so when I walked over they asked me, 'What does that look like?'" Moore recalled recently.
"I saw something that looked like part of a finger. There was meat. It looked like it could have been the skin of a finger."
Bending over to take a closer look, Moore said he realized with certainty that "it was skin. You could see the (finger) nail and the skin" of a finger. "We didn't bother it."
Although bureau documents indicate the finger was found "in the corner of the front of the building near the window on the northwest side," Moore says he remembers its location as being "more in the middle" of the north wall.
Moore said he contacted the Rev. August Thompson, the African-American priest at the St. Charles Catholic Church in Ferriday, who in turn contacted the FBI. A short time later, two FBI agents visited Moore.
He told agents it was rumored "that a lady that ran one of the clubs" had the finger. That woman was identified in FBI documents as Catherine Johnson, who operated the Junction Inn, located diagonally across the street to the south of Morris' shop.
Ann Baker, who was 10 in 1964, is the granddaughter of the late Catherine Johnson. Baker said she was with her grandmother at the cafe, where patrons could buy food and alcohol, when two boys stopped by and showed Johnson the finger found in the rubble.
Baker said she can't recall the identities of the boys.
Documents show that Johnson gave the bureau "the remains of a finger or toe. She advised that she was scared to death and did not want to get involved."
Morris, who told agents on his deathbed that he had confronted two men standing outside the front of the building on the night of the arson, was trapped inside when the men set the shop on fire. According to transcripts of an FBI interview with Morris before his death on Dec. 14, Morris said one of the men pointed a shotgun at him to prevent his exit out the front door.
Consequently, Morris said he had to find his way through the flaming and smoke-filled shop to escape through the back door, a task he reported as being most difficult. Morris also told the bureau that he thought he saw a third man standing beside a car in the alley along the north wall of the building.
When he exited the shop, Morris said the car and the men were gone.
If the finger didn't belong to Morris, did it belong to one of the men at the shop that night? Or did it belong to someone with nothing to do with the arson?
In addition to the emergency room nurse's description of the missing tip of one of Morris' fingers, more revealing is the statement from Morris' best friend, the late James White, who examined Morris' hands at the hospital.
White was 45 in early 1965 when interviewed by the FBI. According to bureau documents and Sentinel interviews with his children, White had survived an attempt by armed Klansmen to abduct and beat him ten months prior to the Morris arson. After Klansmen opened fire, White retrieved a shotgun and fired back, hitting one of the Klansmen in the face.
According to FBI documents, the man White shot was Tommie Lee Jones, a Natchez Klansmen who worked at International Paper Company and was a member of the violent Klan offshoot known as the Silver Dollar Group. A suspect in the Morris murder in the 1960s, Jones died a few weeks after the Morris case was reopened in 2007.
Bureau records indicate that in 1967 Jones admitted to agents that he was the man White shot in the face, but denied any involvement in the Morris arson.
Angered over the attack on his best friend, White's children said their father tried to figure out who was responsible.
In an FBI report, the two agents who interviewed White reported: "With reference to a 'finger' found in the alley next to the burned shop, White explained that this was the skin and fingernail from one of Morris' fingers. White purposely examined Morris' hands after hearing about the finger and disclosed that the skin and fingernail was missing from one finger. He could not recall the exact finger."
A FBI photograph of the finger obtained by LSU students recently appears to match White's description.
According to an FBI lab report issued December 31, 1964, the finger was identified as "skin and fingernail of a finger. No bone or muscular tissue present.
"The specimen is dried out and dark, which is typical of dried skin regardless of race. Specimen was in formaldehyde. This, plus absence of tissue, precludes reliable grouping tests."
The bureau consulted a pathologist and several anthropologists, including one from the Smithsonian Institution, but noted that the consultations "produced no information of value."
"In general," the report noted, "it can only be stated that the size, color, condition of the fingernail and the amount of debris removed therefrom indicate an adult male source, possibly Negroid."