(47th in a Series)
In New Orleans in 1870, a mentally and physically exhausted Cuthbert Jones – charged with murder in Catahoula Parish -- rested at a friend’s house after spending several days eluding a mob of 25 to 30 men who wanted to kill him in revenge.
The 19-year-old son of Catahoula Parish planter Col. Charles Jones, Cuthbert’s life had been tainted by his father’s obsession to kill his neighbor up the Black River – General St. John Richardson Liddell.
Jones achieved that goal 23 years after his feud with Liddell had begun. In mid-February 1870, Jones along with sons Cuthbert and William gunned down Liddell aboard the steamer St. Mary. Liddell’s death marked the fourth in the feud.
Soon after the shooting, Jones and sons turned themselves in to Catahoula Parish Sheriff Oliver Ballard in Harrisonburg, who lived with wife at the home of her mother, Janette “Jane” Sargent. Although the Jones’ had been charged with murder, the 26-year-old Ballard had no jail to house the prisoners. It had been destroyed during the Civil War.
During the early morning hours of Feb. 28, 1870, a mob of men surrounded the Sargent House, which also served as a hotel. Inside were the Jones’ men, all three prisoners of the sheriff, as well the Ballard and Sargent families and a few guests.
Outmanned, outgunned and facing threats of arson, Ballard, in order to save innocent lives in the household after refusing to turn the Jones’ men over to the mob, had no choice but to leave with family and guests. Remaining inside were the Jones’ and Col. Jones’ friend, Elijah B. Cotton, a planter on Little River.
In seconds, Jones was shot and killed in the front yard and William in the back. The mob held Cotton at gunpoint as it hunted for Cuthbert, eventually going upstairs to the second floor where Cuthbert was hiding.
“At this juncture,” Cuthbert told a newspaper, “I moved to the open window and swung myself out, catching hold of a board on the window ledge, which projected at the side, so that I could hold by it. I was suspended by my left hand alone, clasping my right hand around the wrist of my left. My toes just touched the projecting bricks of the chimney. I thought every moment I would fall.”
Cuthbert claimed he stayed there “probably eight or ten minutes, but it seemed a much longer time to me – almost a lifetime.” One of the men held a torch to the open window and looked out. He didn’t see Cuthbert just a few inches away.
Soon the mob vacated the house and made its way to the Ouachita River and crossed in a ferry. Cuthbert heard them talking to pickets stationed along the bank. Once someone yelled that all was clear, town’s people rushed into the house, but Cuthbert managed to slip out without being noticed.
What he did next was a mystery finally unveiled by the New Orleans Picayune.
BOARDING THE MAYFLOWER
Cuthbert told the newspaper that he “went around to a friend’s and staid in a loft for two days, without anything to eat, and the greater portion of the time without water. Then, hearing the whistle of the steamer Mayflower above, I got into a ‘dugout,’ which I found in the bayou, and paddled down about two miles.
“When the steamer came along I hailed her from the bank, and she landed and I went on board. There were a couple of the party, with their guns, who seemed to have been on guard, lying upon some bales of cotton asleep, as I passed on board.
“I passed them, and walked up the stairway leading to the main cabin, with my hat down over my face, and my jaws tied up with a handkerchief and my hair, which was then very long, arranged so as to conceal my face as much as possible.
“The first glimpse which I got of the lighted cabin disclosed a group of those who had attacked and killed my father and brother. The whole party were standing drinking at the bar, with their revolvers and shotguns.
“For a moment I did not know what to do. I tried to get to the pilot-house. Just about this time a friend who recognized me touched me on the shoulder, and told me to follow him.”
Cuthbert said the friend “hid me away in one portion of the boat at first, and finally put me down in the hold, where I remained until I reached New Orleans.”
During the interview, Cuthbert was careful not to name his friend on the boat or the friend who let him sleep in the loft of a barn. Obviously, Cuthbert could not have eluded the mob without help and he did not want to reveal the names of those who helped him escape for fear that their lives would be in danger.
So who helped him get out of Harrisonburg?
There are four that we are sure about, and possibly one more.
One was the mail rider from Winnsboro, who had been an overnight guest at the Sargent House when the mob attacked. Later, after the mob, unable to find Cuthbert, left the house, the mail rider walked upstairs.
There, Cuthbert, who obviously knew the man, told the mail rider to be quiet and asked him to get the sheriff.
Soon the sheriff came upstairs. He told Cuthbert to be careful and not to let anyone see him.
Both the mail rider and the sheriff saved Cuthbert’s life by not revealing him to the mob.
The third person who helped Cuthbert was Mrs. Sargent, the sheriff’s mother-in-law.
In his study of the feud written decades ago, W.M. Crawford wrote:
“Mrs. J. K. Knight of Sicily Island, a daughter of Sheriff Ballard, relates that her grandmother, Mrs. Sargent, whose home her father lived in at the time the Joneses were killed, aided Cuthbert Jones in getting out of the country.
“She hid him in a barn some distance up the river from her home. She sent him food and clothing and later secured passage for him on a boat bound for New Orleans. By arrangement with the Captain of the boat, Cuthbert Jones boarded the boat disguised as a girl and was hidden until the boat reached its destination.”
COTTON & THE CAPTAIN
The fourth person to help was Elijah B. Cotton, Col. Jones’ friend, and co-partner in an attempt to purchase General Liddell’s beloved Llanada Plantation that was in bankruptcy. Liddell had sent word to Jones that he (Jones) would never own the land that held Liddell’s loved ones. A few days later, the Jones’ killed Liddell.
According to Cotton family history, Cotton had helped Cuthbert board the steamboat by dressing Cuthbert in women’s clothes.
It’s interesting that two sources mention that Cuthbert had been disguised in women’s clothes, something he did not mention to the newspaper in New Orleans.
But it’s apparent that such a disguise would have been effective.
The News Orleans Picayune described Cuthbert as of medium stature, “delicate, almost effeminate appearance. He gave evidence of refinement and culture, and was, we learned, educated at Heidelberg, Germany.”
According to the reporter: “In looking upon his slight figure we could scarcely realize that he was the youth who had passed through such dangers and hardships as might well have unnerved a powerful man.”
Plus, Cuthbert’s hair was exceptionally long at the time and when he snuck out of the Sargent House he pulled his hair over his face and pulled his hat down over his forehead.
Also, Cuthbert had mentioned that he used a dugout found in a bayou to paddle out to the Ouachita and hail the riverboat.
Obviously, the dugout didn’t just appear. Likely, Elijah Cotton arranged for the boat to be placed there.
Finally, it appears the fifth person who assisted Cuthbert was the captain of the Mayflower who had been contacted by Mrs. Sargent to help Cuthbert escape. He likely was the “friend” on board who assisted Cuthbert by providing a hiding place.
WILLIE & CLARE
While Cuthbert, hidden on the steamboat, traversed down the Ouachita in route to the Black, the Red, the Mississippi and New Orleans, the bodies of Col. Jones and Willie were soon to be buried.
W.M. Crawford revealed yet another little known tidbit about the Jones-Liddell feud.
It involved Willie.
Crawford wrote that Willie and Clare (Connie) Wilmont of Mossy Grove Plantation, located below Jones’ Elmly Plantation on the Black River, were romantically involved.
“William Jones and Clare Wilmont were sweethearts from childhood,” Crawford wrote. According to her nephew, N.R. Cotton, “she never quite got over the murder of the sweetheart of her youth.”
Although Clare later married a Jonesville physician, she kept the diamond engagement ring – “a beautiful solitaire” – and the wedding ring given her by Willie shortly before he and his father and brother Cuthbert went to Harrisonburg to give themselves up to Sheriff Ballard after shooting Liddell.
This ring, according to Crawford, was placed on Clare’s finger “after her death and buried with her.”
A CRUEL, SELF-CENTERED MAN
Through the years, Col. Jones proved himself to be a cruel, self-centered man who would do anything to get his way, particularly when it came to land, money and revenge.
Prior to shooting Liddell, Jones’ sons delivered him a message from a friend of Liddell’s asking that he not board the St. Mary because Liddell was onboard. The friend feared trouble and asked Jones to wait for the next steamboat.
By nature, Jones was a combative, confrontational man – a bully -- and no one was going to tell him what to do. So he marched right onboard without having the decency to tell his sons to remain on shore.
Jones always used others in his actions and schemes, and didn’t mind if they took a bullet for him.
During the Civil War, Jones was wounded at the Battle of Shiloh in Tennessee. A private, Roland A. Oliver, who had been under Jones’ command, didn’t think much of his leader: “Our Company fought as well as could be expected considering the Regiment was so badly commanded and separated. Col. Jones was in command but did not seem disposed to expose his precious life any more than he could help.”
At the Sargent House, as the mob threatened to burn down the house, Cuthbert said he tried to talk with his father about a strategy to fight off the mob. The three Jones’ and Elijah Cotton had four or five revolvers among them.
Cuthbert thought by making a stand they would improve their odds of survival.
But rather than discuss any plan of defense and fearing the house would be torched, Jones, who feared dying by fire, decided he might save himself by mixing in with those forced by the mob to leave the house.
In doing so, he walked out on his sons, leaving them to fend for themselves as their father sought to save his own skin.
In New Orleans, the newspaper story about Cuthbert’s escape was the talk of the town. It also drew the notice of the Legislature, which would soon assemble to address the bloody affray in Harrisonburg, the seat of government in Catahoula Parish.
(To Be Continued)