(55th in a Series)
In the 19th century, Catahoula Parish became famous as the home of one of the fiercest feuds in the history of the United States. Newspapers across the country wrote about it for decades. Six people died during its course but dozens of families were affected by it.
The trouble began not long after two planters – St. John Richardson Liddell of Llanada Plantation and Charles Jones of Elmly – settled along Black River around 1840. Their properties were four miles apart.
An early friendship between the two soon descended into hatred and violence.
Liddell grew up in Mississippi, his father a judge and wealthy landowner who nurtured and spoiled his only son. The son went to a military school and then to West Point, where after a year he got booted out for some indiscretion, possibly involving a duel.
Once back home in Wilkinson County, Liddell’s father made his son an offer: Go spend some time learning how to operate a plantation and then I will set you up with a place of your own. Liddell searched and there along Black just south of the city limits of present day Jonesville, he found the property he wanted.
Not long afterward, he married and he and his wife Mary began a family. Theirs was a long happy marriage. They were devoted to one another.
Downriver, Charles and Laura Jones settled at what would become Elmly Plantation. Jones came from Kentucky; his wife was born somewhere in the Ohio Valley. They were difficult and abrasive. Jones was a rough, impulsive man. He bullied his way into getting the things he wanted and there were few things he wanted more than land and power.
Laura was mysterious, quiet, and not known to socialize much. Yet she had a mean streak, was fiercely independent and had no problem standing up to her domineering husband.
In the early 1840s, the Liddell and Jones families became friends. But it was a short friendship. Something happened between the two men and although there were several rumors as to what led to their falling out, there was nothing to indicate what was to come.
Jones, while drinking at a Natchez tavern one day, started a rumor about his neighbor to the south of his place – Eliza Nichols, wife of Philip Nichols. Eliza counted the Liddell’s as close friends. The two families visited one another often.
At a tavern, Jones, drinking heavily, said he had a neighbor named Eliza Nichols who was cheating on his husband. He said her secret lover was a plantation overseer. Jones called Eliza an immoral woman – no good, stained, wicked. There was speculation that Jones wanted the Nichols’ land and when they refused to sell, Jones decided to ruin their lives.
The allegations got back to Eliza. She was hurt, embarrassed and furious. Her husband, who was later called a coward, refused to confront Jones, claiming that Jones was drunk when he spewed the insults. He advised Eliza to let it go but she didn’t see it that way.
Eliza made arrangements to see Jones and asked Liddell to meet her there. She arrived one morning at the front steps of Elmly. Liddell stood nearby as Eliza called out for Jones, who soon came down the steps and approach her.
She laid into Jones, telling him he had ruined her good name. She demanded that he apologize to her and then make a public apology. Jones refused and doubled down on his accusations against her. He was cruel and vicious.
In a flash, Eliza pulled out a revolver and opened fire, the first bullet blasting into Jones’ face. Blood splattered on his clothing and ran down his neck. He turned to run back inside the house, but Eliza fired twice more, hitting Jones in the back, the other bullet missing. He stumbled inside.
Liddell, shocked, made sure Eliza got home safely. A few days later, it was rumored that Laura Jones tried to hire someone to assassinate Eliza. Years later, Liddell would lament that he had not fired his own revolver to finish Jones off that day. It would have saved a lot of suffering, he reasoned.
A cholera epidemic in the early 1850s along with a high water cast a gloom over the countryside. Jones left town with his family, moving to Baton Rouge to recover from his wounds and to regroup. Before he left Catahoula Parish, he let it be known that Liddell would pay for Eliza Nichols’ actions. He even accused Liddell as having shot him in the back, an act of a coward, Jones claimed.
He vowed revenge.
SEARCH FOR ASSASSINS
In early 1852, Jones returned to Black River. His arrival was greeted with trepidation. Upriver, the Liddell’s braced themselves.
Soon, a friend of Jones’ arrived at Elmly. His name was Richard Pryor, an agitator, rogue, and a troublemaker with a reputation for violence. Soon Pryor was badmouthing Liddell and predicting that he would be run out of Catahoula Parish or killed.
Pryor attempted to recruit assassins. Meetings on that topic were held at Elmly Plantation. Jones’ friends, alarmed by his actions, urged him to send Pryor away and to leave Liddell alone. Liddell’s friends attempted to mediate a truce with Jones and Liddell even offered to fight a duel to settle the matter. Jones was not interested in a truce.
In the meantime, Liddell fortified his home. His friends helped guard the house at night.
One day in June of 1852, Jones, Pryor and others were spotted in the woods near the back of Liddell’s property spying on Liddell’s father and the workers in the field. A day or so later, Liddell got word that two of Jones’ associates – Pryor and Samuel Glenn – were going to assassinate him, possibly that day. Liddell stood along the public road next to Little River and waited for the two to pass by. When he saw them coming in a horse-drawn buggy, Liddell demanded they stop. When they didn’t, he opened fire.
A man in a skiff on Little River heard the shots and looked up. He saw a runaway horse pulling a buggy and near where the shots were fired, he saw two men standing. Obviously, one of the men was Liddell, but the other man – possibly a second shooter – has never been identified.
At home that night, Liddell was shocked to learn that one of the men he had killed that day was Moses Wiggins, who like Glenn and Pryor, had attempted to hire someone to kill Liddell. Liddell thought that Pryor was with Glenn in the buggy because the buggy belonged to Pryor. What Liddell didn’t know was that Pryor had sold his buggy to Glenn the day before.
Jones didn’t think Liddell would face justice, so just in case he bought a cannon and had it shipped from New Orleans on a steamboat. But by the time it arrived, Liddell had turned himself in to the sheriff. A jury found Liddell not guilty of murder during a trial in 1854. Jurors believed he had acted in self-defense.
Jones, like he always did when things got hot, left the parish soon after Glenn and Wiggins were shot. He returned after the trial and from then until the Civil War, there was peace on Black River.
THE BANKRUPTCY OF LLANADA
After the war, Liddell returned to a wasteland. There were no slaves to work the fields and finding labor was almost impossible. Liddell’s debts mounted; his small acreage of cotton yielded little. Although Liddell had property in Richland Parish, Llanada was his home and in the graveyard by the plantation house, rested Liddell’s son William and other family members.
In the late 1860s, Mary was buried there, too. Liddell was inconsolable. A short time later, in 1869, Llanada Plantation went into bankruptcy.
Downriver, Charles Jones saw opportunity. He wanted Llanada because he seemed to never have enough land, but even more, he wanted it out of revenge -- he knew this would devastate Liddell.
Jones had plenty of money. He had political associates in Baton Rouge and New Orleans, and after the war he and a partner were put in charge of prison inmate labor, providing Jones a plentiful supply of hands for his plantation. Soon he and his partner convinced the legislature, primarily through bribes, to give them control over the state penitentiary and over all of the labor force. Days later, Jones sold his interest for $50,000, making him rich in a time when a dollar would buy a lot.
Soon, Jones’ wife Laura, their daughters and their nine-year-old son, Francois, went to Europe for the children’s education. Then Jones and a partner made a bid on Llanada. Liddell found out and sent Jones a message: You will never own the land where my loved ones are buried.
When the banker overseeing the bankruptcy learned about Jones’ longtime harassment of Liddell, he delayed action. In New Orleans, Jones’ cotton broker, who stood to benefit from the bankruptcy sale, and Liddell’s banker argued at the Boston Club in New Orleans. The argument moved outside. The banker shot and killed Jones’ cotton broker. Later, at trial, the banker was found not guilty. The jury believed he had acted in self-defense although there were no eyewitnesses.
LIFE AFTER THE FEUD ENDED
After learning of this shooting, Jones was furious, while Liddell made plans to visit New Orleans and check the status of the bankruptcy. In mid-February 1870, Liddell boarded a steamboat, the St. Mary, at his plantation. Three miles downriver at Garrett’s Landing, two of Jones’ sons, his eldest son, Willie, and second youngest Cuthbert, age 19, boarded with news that their father wanted the steamer to stop at Elmly. Liddell’s friends told the sons that would not be wise and asked that Jones wait for another boat.
The boys got off the St. Mary, and raced their horses a mile downriver to Elmly where Charles Jones awaited the steamer’s arrival. When his sons gave him the warning from Liddell’s friends, Jones acted in character: As soon as the St. Mary landed, he raced on board, his two sons following him. Liddell was seated in the dining hall eating. Charles Jones walked directly past him. As Liddell rose with his hand on his revolver, Charles Jones opened fire. Willie and Cuthbert fired too. Liddell got one shot off. It landed in the ceiling.
Hit multiple times, Liddell died on the spot.
Jones and his sons were soon arrested by Sheriff Oliver Ballard in Harrisonburg. Ballard lived in the Sargent House with his wife and mother-in-law. The jail had been destroyed during the Civil War, so Ballard kept the Jones’ men there while they awaited a preliminary hearing for the murder of Liddell.
Late one night a mob – planter friends and the male members of Liddell’s family - arrived. Jones was killed in front of the house, and son Willie shot dead as he attempted to escape out the back. Cuthbert managed to hide from the mob and with the help of others made his way to New Orleans. Unaware of these circumstances, Laura on the scheduled return trip home arrived in New Orleans where she was told of the death of her husband and oldest son. Knowing the danger Cuthbert faced, she returned to Europe with Cuthbert and the surviving family members.
Although the feud was over, it still had a life. Cuthbert was educated in Europe, received a diplomatic assignment in Tripoli for the U.S. government and after landing another diplomatic job in South America lost it when a Louisiana congressman, learning that Cuthbert was a fugitive from justice, withdrew his support. The President voided the appointment.
Cuthbert waged a verbal war on the congressman and led a successful effort to defeat him for a renomination to his post. Later, Cuthbert secured a job in Peru where he represented U.S. business interests in mining and in construction of a railroad.
Laura and daughter Rosa had much earlier returned to Catahoula Parish. She owned Troy Plantation where she later laid out lots, built a post office and renamed the place Jonesville, in honor of her own family. According to one account, she also had gained title to Llanada after the feud ended, ultimately providing her dead husband with revenge against Liddell.
Cuthbert died in 1905. He and his siblings had no children. When Cuthbert’s life ended, the family died, too.
Yet in the days after the feud ended in 1870, a remarkable thing happened: Never once did any of the children of Liddell and Jones attempt to revive it, some stating they were drawn into it by their fathers.