(40th in a Series)
Two events in the late 1860s sparked new life into a two-decade-old Catahoula Parish feud when a third man met his death by gunshot.
Before the Civil War, St. John Richardson Liddell, a planter along Black River on the outskirts of present day Jonesville, had been harassed and threatened for years by another planter, Charles Jones, who lived four miles downriver.
When Liddell returned from the Civil War, his plantation was in disrepair and his finances dwindling. He could not find labor to work the plantation and his debt was skyrocketing.
Jones, on the other hand, was flush with cash. He was a player in state politics and knew influential people. He used his connections to help himself and his business partner obtain a sweet deal from the Louisiana Reconstruction government to operate the state penitentiary with free rein to use the prison labor however they wanted.
But when another entity offered him $50,000 to give up the lease, Jones took the money and returned to Elmly, his Catahoula Parish plantation, a rich man. The transaction was an old-fashioned backroom deal in which state legislators got kickbacks.
Now Jones, aware of Liddell’s precarious financial situation, decided he wanted to buy Liddell’s plantation, known as Llanada.
Three years after the war, Liddell could no longer make payments on his land note held by Citizens Bank of New Orleans. Wrote historian Nathaniel Hughes, who edited Liddell’s Civil War memoir, “Liddell tried to pay the interest, but the demands of his other debts, $72,408.31, plus two of unknown amounts, crushed him. The bank foreclosed on two-thirds of his property.”
On the advice of two of his brothers-in-law, Liddell “petitioned for bankruptcy in December of 1868. Twenty-eight creditors were listed with a total indebtedness of $86,808.31.” That would equal about $1.6 million today.
His crop expense had exceeded his crop income for three straight years. The plantation was in need of repair and new equipment.
These years after the war had been particularly depressing for Liddell and the long-running tension between he and Jones was always in the back of Liddell’s mind. Only his beloved wife Mary, who stood by him and ran the plantation while he was at war, could keep his spirits up.
In Liddell family letters and records, and according to Liddell’s Civil War memoir, Mary had written of the troubles at Llanada, recalling that she and her husband had lived there for 27 years. She said that other than war and the loss of the plantation’s enslaved labor during the rebellion, that flooding over the years had been a constant problem. In fact, she said, overflows “helped to ruin my husband and will ruin anyone.”
Mary was Liddell’s rock. She alone could rally him. As the Confederacy began to collapse during the war, she wrote him that when he returned home the couple would together face “the wreck of things.”
She told him they could make it work, that they had loved ones who needed them for guidance during the difficult years to come. She said they had to focus on the things they could do to improve their situation.
These goals, she said, “will divert our minds from these calamities which have befallen us.”
And then in February 1869, Mary died. Life for all practical purposes ended for Liddell with her death.
Wrote historian Nathaniel Hughes: “In a series of events of which tragedies are made, the bank put Llanada on the auction block. It was sold to Charles Cammack, who intended to resell it to Charles Jones, and his partner, Elijah Cotton.”
Seventeen years earlier, Liddell had shot and killed two men – Samuel Glenn and Moses Wiggins -- who had threatened to kill him. Both men were working in conjunction with Jones, who attempted to hire assassins to kill Liddell and who was thwarted in at least one effort to ambush Liddell on the roadside.
Now a New Orleans cotton factor and business agent would be the next man to lose his life in the long running feud.
A BANKER AND A BROKER
In Michael Lanza’s study of the conflict, he wrote that near “the end of 1869, the bank sold its part of the property to one of its tellers, Charles E. Cammack, who agreed with Charles Jones and Elijah Calhoun to convey the property to them. This led to a legal dispute between Cammack on the one hand and Jones and Cotton on the other. Liddell was faced with eviction.”
According to the New Orleans Daily Picayune:
“Some months ago, the Citizens' Bank of Louisiana enforced, by judicial process, a mortgage it held against the cotton plantation of Gen. Liddell, situated on Black river … The property was ordered to be sold. Mr. Charles Jones, and a neighbor of his, Mr. E. B. Cotton, thereupon determined, if possible, to purchase it, and Mr. John Nixon, as their factor and agent, was instructed to act for them in their negotiation with the bank, or the auctioneer employed to sell it.
“Mr. Nixon thereupon entered into a contract with Mr. Charles Cammack, then paying teller of the Citizens' Bank, the terms of which were that he, Cammack, should purchase Gen. Liddell's plantation, on account of Charles Jones, E. B. Cotton, and C. W. Cammack, each to have one-third interest in the purchase. It was agreed that Mr. Cammack should take the title in his own name temporarily, and until Jones and Cotton should pay their share of the purchase money.
“Mr. Cammack purchased the property as agreed upon, but in consequence of some misunderstanding he refused to make title to his partners, Jones and Cotton … Thereupon Jones and Cotton entered into a suit against Cammack in the Sixth District Court … They pray the Court to decree that Cammack make them title to two-thirds interest in the property …”
The paper said that Cammack’s conduct, “placed Mr. Nixon in an awkward position towards his constituents, Messrs. Jones and Cotton, and the probability is that Mr. Nixon's criticisms upon the transaction were by no means reserved. They produced, as we hear, the quarrel between himself and Mr. Cammack, which ended so fatally to Mr. Nixon.”
In fact, the New York Sun reported that when “Liddell began denouncing those” trying to “steal his property,” Cammack and Nixon had words, indicating that Cammack had not previously been aware of the violent animosity between Liddell and Jones.
‘THAT DAMNED SCOUNDREL’
Cammack was 61-years-old when he purchased Liddell’s property. He was known as an excitable, nervous man. John Nixon, the cotton broker, was described as a tall, powerfully built much younger man with a wife and children. His friends said he was “kind and gentle.”
During the era, plantation owners, dependent on New Orleans banks for financing, had agents represent them in their financial dealings and in selling their cotton.
When Cammack decided not to sell the Liddell property to Jones and Cotton, Jones was furious.
Nixon was angry at Cammack, too, for reneging on the deal while Cammack was mad at Nixon for filing a legal complaint against him.
According to a lengthy article in the New Orleans Daily Picayune, shortly after the two had words over termination of the deal for Llanada, they ran into each other on Jan. 8, 1870, at the Boston Club, a white male club in New Orleans that got its name from the famous card game of the era. Lavish parties, fancy balls, social activities, daily lunches, drinks and food made this a haven for the town’s rich elite and the up-and-comers.
General Richard Taylor, the son of President Zachary Taylor and the man who led Louisiana’s defensive efforts against the Union Army during the Civil War, was president of the club in January 1870 when Cammack and Nixon clashed.
According to the newspaper, Cammack was talking about agriculture and crops when Nixon entered the club and settled at a table with his friends to begin a game of dominos. Cammack’s table was a good distance away.
Soon after Nixon walked in, Cammack said in a loud voice, “There is that damned scoundrel, Nixon.”
Nixon rose, walked over to Cammack’s table, and said, “You mentioned my name?”
Cammack responded, “I don’t want to talk with you.”
Nixon returned to his table but in a short time Cammack repeated the remark.
When Nixon walked back to Cammack’s table a second time and asked what he had said, Cammack responded, “I have nothing to say to you.”
The argument escalated and moved outside.
Although eyewitness testimony conflicted, the general story was that as the argument grew more heated outside Nixon struck Cammack in the face.
Then Nixon was heard to shout, “I am not armed,” possibly because Cammack had drawn a revolver. Cammack claimed that Nixon had reached into his pocket, possibly to get a gun.
One man heard Cammack yell, “Go away from me,” and then heard a shot.
The unarmed Nixon stumbled back into the club and died later while being attended by a surgeon.
The defense lawyers painted Cammack as a typically harmless and drunk old man who ran his mouth too much that night. They said Nixon should have just walked away.
The prosecution argued that Cammack was a murderer, that he had forced the confrontation. Additionally, the prosecutor said when Nixon shouted that he wasn’t armed that Nixon would have naturally assumed this would provide him “immunity from danger.” Instead, Cammack shot Nixon.
When the final arguments were completed late in the day, the judge sent the case to the jury to deliberate, but sometime later the jury told the judge it could not reach a decision.
The next day, however, Cammack was found not guilty.
FROM TENSE TO EXPLOSIVE
Back on Black River, things ramped up from tense to explosive.
Liddell sent word to Jones that it “would not be healthy” for him to “purchase the graves” of the Liddell family.
Jones was fighting mad, too. He hated Liddell now more than ever and by God he wanted Llanada and he intended to have it.
Now three men were dead as a result of the Jones-Liddell Feud.
Even Charles Jones had been shot – twice by a woman, Eliza Nichols -- after he called her a harlot in the 1840s. Jones had blamed Liddell for the shooting and this sparked the deadly feud.
What would happen next?
No one knew for sure but just about everyone on both sides of the Black River knew that all hell was about to break loose.
(To Be Continued)