The search for the owner of the five-gallon oil can found in the rubble of Frank Morris' shoe shop led the FBI to the doorstep of a Eunice farmer who once worked as a deputy sheriff in St. Landry Parish.
As evidence the can was listed as Q11, and the FBI felt that if it could trace that container from the manufacturer to a local wholesaler or service station that agents stood a shot, based on sales receipts, of determining who left the container at Morris' shop on Dec. 10, 1964.
Morris told agents on his deathbed at the Concordia Parish Hospital that he saw two men outside his shoe shop that cold December morning around 1-2 a.m. after hearing the sound of glass breaking from the front of his store. One man held a single-barrel shotgun, the other was spreading a liquid which Morris' thought was gasoline or kerosene, from a five-gallon can.
Just two months prior to the arson of Morris' shop, the Mississippi Highway Safety Patrol and the FBI were trying to find out who was responsible for the September bombing of the home of Natchez Mayor Joe Nosser on Linton Ave. and other bombings in the area. On Oct. 17, 1964, authorities learned one startling piece of information. An informant told them that "he has never seen any of the explosives, but has heard that they have a liquid that they pour on the floor of a building and it will spread over the floor and when you ignite it, it will explode. Does not have any odor and comes from the Paper Mill in Natchez."
The FBI lab reported that "approximately 1/6th of an ounce of an oil having a green coloration with properties of a motor oil was recovered from the Q11 can. There were no traces of petroleum products characteristic of the flammable liquids" in the can matching that found in other debris and material from the shoe shop rubble — such as a petroleum mixture characteristic of kerosene or a light fuel oil in one sample and a petroleum naphtha such as "Varsol" in another.
From the beginning, the five-gallon charred can was one of the best pieces of evidence the FBI had. Whoever set the shop on fire may have left the can behind because they didn't expect to find Morris in the shoe shop that night and his appearance startled them. Maybe when the liquid poured from the can was ignited it caused an explosion greater than anticipated by the arsonists and the can was accidentally left behind. Or maybe it was left behind because the arsonists weren't too worried about being caught.
The FBI's search took it initially to the St. Louis, Missouri, offices of Steel Package Division, National Lead Company, the manufacturer of the container found in Morris' shop.
There an agent learned that the can was made in 1964. A company spokesman said the oil derrick lithograph design on the container was used by numerous oil companies, but thought this particular can was manufactured for Skelly Oil in Tulsa, OK. The spokesman said he would have to see the can to identify it but added that hundreds of thousands of such cans were made that year and shipped by the carload.
Making the task even more daunting was the fact that these cans were often "used over and over by various individuals." Once empty of its original liquid, the can's owner might fill it with a variety of fuels over and over again.
In January 1965 agents visited the Gulf Service Station on Hwy. 61 North in Natchez and three stations in Vidalia — Southland, Texaco and DX. Representatives of W.W. Calloway Oil Products Distributor and T.E. Mercer Trucking Company in Vidalia viewed the charred can but "could not identify it as coming from any source in the Vidalia area. They said the closest service station that sold Skelley products was in Wisner."
There, a representative of Quality Oil and Tire, Hwy. 15, Wisner, confirmed that Quality Oil distributed Skelley Oil Products in the area. At Quality Oil's main office in Winnsboro, an employee viewed the container and advised "that type of can was used for heavy grease" and he "had not had any oil in cans of that type." He had stocked in the warehouse some "light duty oil in cans of that type," but advised that "he had not sold any heavy duty oil from the Wisner branch of the company in a can of that type."
He said farmers were the primary purchasers of those type cans which contained either oil or grease. Agents checked the cans in the warehouse and found that no cans there had the manufacture dates corresponding to the numbers found on the can at Morris' shop.
In mid-February 1965, a representative of the Steel Package Division, National Lead Company, positively identified the can as one manufactured for Skelly Oil Company of Tulsa, OK. The charred can had these features:
— The word "EN-EL-CO" on bottom of the container. The word was a trade name.
— The letters "STC" appearing under "EN-EL-CO' which stood for "Single Trip Container."
— The figures "26-5-64" indicated that the container was 26 gauge metal with the capacity of five gallons and manufactured in 1964.
— The letters and figures "ICC-37B60" were manufacturing specifications for the can and the words "St. Louis, Missouri" indicated the container was manufactured by the St. Louis company although the container was actually fabricated in Granite City, Ill.
The container in question had a concave bottom and dome top equipped with two openings 180 degrees diametrically apart. There was a pouring opening equipped with an American flange in a screw nozzle and a tamper-proof seal cap and metal straight reversible spout with flat single cap filler opening.
Records revealed that the charred can was one of 11,981 manufactured for Skelly Oil Company in Tulsa in 1964. Four separate rail shipments of the containers were made to Skelly in 1964 — on February 5, April 17, June 24 and June 26.
Hundreds of cans of Skelly Fortified Tagolene HD Motor Oil in five-gallon cans were shipped to jobbers in Louisiana to places such as Alexandria, Charrier Oil Company in Delhi, Powell Oil Company Inc. in Eunice, E&E Oil Company in Lafayette, Central Louisiana Oil Co. in Marksville, Heard Oil Company in Monroe, Valley Farmers Coop in Natchitoches, and Matthew Oil Company in Shreveport.
A Skelly Oil spokesman from El Dorado, Kan., said the company had no jobbers in Mississippi and "therefore no oil is shipped to that state."
In Louisiana, about a dozen cans were shipped to Quality Oil & Tire's Wisner station and 47 to the company's Winnsboro office.
Agents also learned that Central Louisiana Oil Co. sold a limited amount of products in Catahoula and Concordia parishes but it was unclear whether any of the cans in question were sold there.
In April, a clerk for Quality Tire in Winnsboro, after thoroughly reviewing records, found that in 1964 the company sold three of the cans in Wisner, three in Winnsboro and 12 in Newellton.
Any area in the state that sold the product in the five-gallon can was visited by agents. But the chase took an interesting turn in Eunice.
There the Powell Oil Company provided the names of seven customers who had purchased a total of 22 containers of the motor oil in five-gallon cans. One of those cans was sold to a Eunice man whom the FBI chose to visit.
His initials were M.S. and he lived at 440 North Second Street, and had a rural address of Route 1, Box 64, Eunice. Agents interviewed M.S. at his rural address where they learned that he operated a 500-acre farm and had done so for about 40 years.
He was 66 years of age, stood 6 ft.-2 in. and weighed 265 pounds. He had a large build, black and gray hair and a one-inch cut scar on his forehead. He also had a "crippled right thumb."
M.S. had been considered a suspect in the attempted lynching of a black man. From 1940 to 1944 he had served as a deputy sheriff in St. Landry Parish.
The man told the FBI that he bought different types of motor oil for his farm machinery and did not specifically recall purchasing a five-gallon can of Skelly Tagolene HD Motor Oil on Sept. 4, 1964. M.S. said he used this type of oil for his rice combine, using about two five-gallon cans per year.
Agents said the man had one of his "hired hands" search the premises. The employee found "one can had SAE Number 30 and the other showed no SAE number." The number "30" stood for the weight of the oil and records from Powell Oil in Eunice revealed that of the 22 cans sold by Powell Oil in Eunice, all the cans sold was "30" weight with one exception, the weight of the can sold to M.S. was "unknown."
M.S. denied "knowing Frank Morris or having any knowledge of the burning to death of Morris."