H. L. Griffin.
“The Vigilance Committees of the Attakapas Country;
Or Early Louisiana Justice.”
The expression “Early Justice in Louisiana” is meant to apply to the administration of justice, not in the whole state of Louisiana, but only in that part known as the Attakapas Country. The “justice” with which this paper will deal was dispensed in that region for a period of about six months during the year 1859; and was in nature somewhat akin to that justice dealt out a few years later by such organizations as the Ku Klux Klan. The organizations in this instance were known as Committees of Vigilance, or in the language of the natives of that section “Comités de Vigilance.” These committees represented a popular uprising against a wave of crime that was sweeping over the region at that time and were revolutionary in character. They took the law into their own hands and dealt out punishment to criminals without any pretense to legality or to established rules of procedure. Before, however, one can well understand all the incidents of such a grave and radical movement, it is necessary that he get a view of the country and its inhabitants.
This region includes the present parishes of Calcasieu, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, and Vermillion. It is called the Attakapas Country because it was at one time inhabited by a fierce race of Indians of that name, who had the reputation of eating their prisoners of war. It was to this country that the exiled Acadians came to find permanent homes and a refuge from the political persecutions of their English conquerors. The broad, rolling prairies, the densely wooded forests, and the deep, murky, lazily flowing bayous, such as the Atchafalaya, the Teche, and the Vermillion have been most effectively described in Longfellow’s Evangeline, and need no further description here. It is enough to say that the whole region is characterized by a richness of soil that can be found nowhere else in the United States. The opportunities which it offers for agricultural pursuits have always been great; and since its first discovery and exploration by La Salle and Bienville, these opportunities have attracted home-seekers from many parts of the world.
Before the purchase of Louisiana from Napoleon by the United States in 1803, many settlers had come to this Attakapas Country, especially from France, Spain, the Canary Islands, and Acadia. Subsequent to its purchase many came, also, from the various states of the Union. Thus there was found in this territory quite a mixture of nationalities. The prevailing nationality, however, was the French; and the French language was almost universally spoken. This condition existed especially in the Attakapas section, and continues almost the same to the present day. In fact the French traditions and customs still exert a weighty influence not only on the daily lives of the people, but even on their attitude toward public questions — an attitude not always sympathetically appreciated by Anglo-Americans. Only a few days ago a good old “Yankee,” who had migrated here from Indiana, having become exasperated at the conduct of a customer who had taken “French leave,” was heard by the writer to exclaim: “Confound these Frenchmen; I get so disgusted with them that I don’t know what to say. This is not America; this is France. I tell these people they ought to join the Union.”
Many of the settlers were, naturally, strangers to American customs and laws, and hence could not understand them; many others were criminally inclined, and not only did not want to understand them, but actively violated them. Entirely too many had brought with them from abroad corrupt socialistic and anarchistic ideas. Moreover, the country was still sparsely settled, and the seats of justice were far removed from the people and their activities. Consequently the law was often violated with impunity. Still, however, a large majority of the population consisted of peaceable and law-abiding citizens, who were content and anxious to cultivate their lands and live a life of simplicity and industry. It was this honest and thrifty class which, exasperated by the ravages of the lawbreakers, and carried away by their zeal to bring the offenders to justice, furnished the leaders who proposed and carried out such unusual and extreme measures for the suppression of crime.
It was while the Attakapas Country was at this stage of development, just before the Civil War, that the peace of this section was seriously disturbed. The cause of the disturbance was found to have its source in those same uneducated and lawless settlers who had come to the region from so many different places. At first their depredations were infrequent and well concealed. Gradually, however, when they had learned that the hand of justice was slow and uncertain, they became bolder and more open. Their earliest crimes consisted of petty thievery, but their later offenses involved greater stakes; and often consisted of overt acts of brigandage in which stores were robbed, houses were burned, and whole herds of cattle were corralled and driven away. In many instances the brigands made no attempt to conceal their acts, boldly carrying out their expeditions in broad daylight. In the accomplishment of these offenses the perpetrators oftentimes committed, also, the crime of murder. The most significant thing about these depredations was that they all seemed to be directed by some master mind or by some central organization. This organization was evidently so thorough and so far-reaching that it was practically impossible to convict the offenders. In fact, later investigations proved that the individual criminals were banded together into organizations, each having its officers and regular place of meeting. These small bands were further united under a single head which directed the operations of the subordinate bands. Regular campaigns of crime were planned by the commanding officers and carried out by the smaller and subordinate organizations.
It is true that the criminals were often apprehended and even brought before the courts for trial, but in most cases they were acquitted. It was this apparent mockery of justice and the inability of the public prosecutors to secure convictions that caused property holders and peace-loving citizens to become alarmed. In fact, they had sufficient cause to be alarmed; for the attempts of the courts to enforce the laws were rendered ridiculously unavailing by the organized machinations of the bandits. The punishment of the criminals was rendered still more difficult by the misused ability of one or two well-known criminal lawyers of the Attakapas Country. These lawyers were natives, and were so well versed in the traditions and customs of the people of the section, and enjoyed such extensive acquaintance and favor among even the lowest classes of the population, that, in nearly every instance they were able to select a jury which they knew beforehand would return a verdict favorable to the defendant, no matter how revolting the crime he had committed. These same lawyers did not hesitate, in many instances, according to the evidence of many citizens who still remember those conditions, to devote their brilliant talents to securing the release of offenders who, by all rules of justice, should have been sent to the penitentiary or the gallows. Naturally, therefore, these lawyers came to be in great demand among the brigands. As a consequence, then, of the many acquittals which resulted from their efforts and from perjured juries, the impression became general that it was useless to try to secure in the courts of the state the conviction of any of the outlaws.
Many instances of the way in which justice was defeated can be given. On one occasion a planter came suddenly upon a “neighbor” who had just killed a cow, and was in the act of carrying away the meat. “This is my cow,” said the planter, “I shall have you prosecuted for larceny.”
“Pshaw!” said the neighbor, “you are too intelligent to do that.”
“Too intelligent! Why, do you mean to say that this is not my cow?”
“It may have been yours once,” answered the neighbor, “but it is mine now.”
“What!” said the planter. “This is your cow?”
“Certainly it is; you have sold her to me and I have paid you the price in the presence of witnesses.”
“Monstrous! They will swear to a lie; you know this cow belongs to me. I will prosecute you all the same.”
“As you please,” said the neighbor, shrugging his shoulders as he went away with the meat.
He was prosecuted, but true to his word he produced seven witnesses in court who testified that he had purchased the cow from the planter, and had paid him in their presence. It is unnecessary to say that he was acquitted.
On another occasion a planter missed his favorite cow. He mounted his horse and rode in search of her on the prairie surrounding his farm. Having come to a store at the roadside kept by a Frenchman, he was very much astonished to see the skin of the cow hanging on the fence.
“Where did you get that skin?” he asked the merchant.
“I have just bought it.”
“From whom? It is the skin of my cow that was stolen last night.”
“Had you come a little sooner, you would have seen the person who sold it to me. He has just left; but I cannot give his name.”
“Be careful,” said the planter, “the skin is in your possession. This is strong presumption, at least, that you yourself have stolen the cow; the more so that you refuse to give the name of the one who sold you the skin.”
“I can’t give his name,” said the merchant.
“Very well, the grand jury will investigate the matter.”
The merchant was indicted for larceny by the next grand jury. Although he was repeatedly warned by his attorney to disclose the name of the thief, to avoid being convicted himself, he steadfastly refused to speak. The case was tried and the evidence against him was direct and conclusive; nevertheless, he was acquitted. Throughout the trial he had shown no concern at all for his own precarious situation; and his acquittal did not appear to surprise him in the least. When asked by his counsel to explain how it was possible for the jury to render such a verdict against so conclusive evidence of guilt, he merely smiled and said: “I can speak now, although I will give no names. The man who sold me that skin was on that jury; and there were, besides him, five others who belong to his gang. I was sure of an acquittal. Had I given his name, my store would now be in ashes, and I would probably be dead. I thought it more prudent to take my chances.”
The foregoing illustrations are sufficient to explain the conditions that prompted the citizens of a large and growing section of Louisiana to take the law into their own hands. Whether they were justified in pursuing such an unusual course is hard to decide. However, the causes which would rightly prompt citizens to throw aside all established law and take the administration of justice into their own hands, in direct disobedience to the commands of the highest state authorities, must be grave ones indeed. At that time many good and sensible citizens of the disturbed section held that the state courts and officers were sufficient to meet the urgent needs of the situation; that any extraordinary measures needed should emanate from the state itself; and that any attempts on the part of individuals or societies to punish the offenders were wholly unwarranted and illegal. Still, there was a large majority of the population in the afflicted district strongly in favor of resorting to irregular justice. Those who supported the movement based their arguments in its favor on the broad and general principle that all authority emanates from the people; and that, when all established means of enforcing the laws of the state and protecting the lives and property of the citizens fail, then it devolves upon the people to take the law into their own hands, and see that justice is administered. Many went so far as to liken the situation to that in which the French found themselves on the eve of the French Revolution.
It was in January, 1859, that the plan of organizing committees of vigilance was first suggested. It was not until March of that year, however, that the first committee was organized at Cote-Gelée in Lafayette Parish. This organization was soon followed by others with similar motives, in the territory now composing the parishes of Calcasieu, Lafayette, St. Landry, St. Martin, and Vermillion. In all seven committees were organized. It is most interesting to note the reasons which the promoters of this movement gave in defense of the step they had taken. They are contained in the following proclamation issued by one of the executive committees, Mar. 16, 1859:
Having organized ourselves as vigilance committees, that is, having constituted ourselves a tribunal entirely independent of the other judicial tribunals created by law, we owe it to ourselves, as well as to you to give the reasons that have driven us into the revolutionary movement that we have inaugurated. We address ourselves to the honest people of the State, our peers in integrity, and who, like us, bow in sweet reverence to the laws enacted for the protection of society. We would blush to give any explanation either to the bandits who infest the district or to their friends or accomplices. We incline ourselves before that justice — that saintly justice that shields the innocent and strikes the guilty; we look her in the face, fellow citizens, because we have violated none of the duties that society imposes upon its members. This being promised, we veil her statue, so often insulted and spat upon by the bandits, and we say to those who, like us, have at heart the prosperity and dignity of their native state: Fellow Citizens: We have been subjected to a system of rapine and plunder without parallel in this country; our property is destroyed daily and hourly; our houses are burglarized and rifled of their contents; crime has its army in our midst with its generals, officers, and soldiers. We will tell you bluntly how it is that crime holds high carnival in our midst: the jury has failed most miserably in its mission. It has been guilty, in the face of God and society, of the abominable crime of perjury, for when jurors acquit those whose guilt is established beyond peradventure, they commit the crime of perjury, and place themselves on a level with those whom they have acquitted. Is it not to your knowledge, fellow citizens, that such verdicts are of daily occurrence in our courts of justice? If this criminal indulgence of the jury had no other effect than that of saving a few miscreants from the penitentiary, we would qualify it merely as a weakness without a name, but verdicts rendered contrary to the most convincing evidence, find an echo in the hearts of the corrupt people of the district; the acquittal of a bandit is a premium for the encouragement of vice, and opens a new field for the perpetration of crime. “He that sows the wind shall reap the whirlwind,” says Scripture, and our district is an eloquent proof of this. As soon as the law became powerless for the repression of crime, what have we seen? The boldest robberies committed at night, in the day time, everywhere and at all times. We have seen the assassin and the incendiary following in the footsteps of the thief and of the robber; we have seen corruption festering in our midst, and extending its pestilential stench and rottenness to the very core of society. Do we exaggerate, fellow citizens! The bandits have a numerous and intelligent army, with chieftains shrouded in the dark, but issuing orders that are obeyed without hesitation by the soldiers. It is a mixing of whites and blacks, a confused mass of thieves and assassins, standing shoulder to shoulder in their progress of rapine, of plunder, and incendiarism, each one concurring to the ultimate success of the organization. Crops, cattle, everything in fact that constitutes the riches and ministers to the comfort of our laborious population, is exposed to the depredations of these bandits.
In this dangerous emergency, were we to await supinely for the action of the courts to check this growing evil, when everyone knows that our courts are powerless to protect us, with jurors who acquit the worst criminals, although there be superabundance of proof of their guilt? No! We have banded together, for self-protection is supreme — and, armed henceforth with the sword of justice, we have organized temporarily as a tribunal for the trial of the violators of the law. We have called ourselves Vigilance Committees, and our constitution contains but one word: Chastisement. The lash and the rope will be our arms, both terrible and dishonorable chastisements. Our organization is that of honesty against dishonesty, of society against crime, and we fear neither the censure of man nor the wrath of our enemies.
Now, fellow citizens, if you still hope to save from rapine and plunder that which you have earned by your labors; if you wish to restore our corrupt society to a healthy standard, by branding with the infamy of exile or of the lash the men whose presence in our midst is an insult to public morality and a danger to our families, follow our example; join us, fellow citizens, in our holy crusade against vice and immorahty; against rapine, murder, and incendiarism, and let us, with the lash, print on the backs of those wretches a catalogue of their crimes.
It is interesting to note that the various committees, while their organization, purposes and methods were in general alike, were under the direction of no central organization. Each one was independent and followed only the rules and regulations of its own making. Each organization as a rule elected a president, a secretary, and an assistant-secretary. In most instances there was an executive committee to decide emergency cases, and a marshal to carry out its orders. Meetings were held regularly, at which members were received into the organizations. In most cases members must swear to keep secret all the proceedings of their respective committees. In some instances the committees organized a miniature army, which assembled in the towns regularly to drill under an officer. Maj. Aurelian Saint-Julien was made commander of the military forces of all the committees. Gen. Alfred Mouton, a graduate of West Point, who was subsequently killed at the battle of Mansfield, was appointed drillmaster of the forces. These forces were organized in order to meet any organized armed resistance which it was thought the bandits might possibly offer. Altogether, the various committees could muster about four thousand armed and disciplined men. The forces at Lafayette had, as a part of their equipment, a four-pound brass cannon, nicknamed “Betsy,” which they used regularly in the military maneuvers.
As has been said the punishments generally agreed upon by the committees consisted of banishment, the lash, and the rope. In a few instances the crimes and their punishments corresponded to those provided for in the criminal code of the state; but as a rule no attention was given to established law or methods of procedure. Each committee enforced whatever rule it thought proper to use in apprehending, convicting, and punishing the offenders. The usual method of convicting one suspected of an offense was for certain members of the committee, in whose jurisdiction the crime had been committed, to call an informal meeting at which the guilt or innocence of the accused was determined. He was not allowed to be present even; and never given a chance to defend his cause. This treatment was accorded especially to those who had been acquitted by a jury that, in the estimation of the committee, had been “packed” or that had based its decision on the evidence of perjured witnesses. No consideration was shown to such persons accused.
These punishments, as administered, were extremely severe. One suspected by the committees was notified by an emmissary to leave the district within a given time. If he did not obey the order he was caught and severely lashed. Then if he did not obey he was given a still worse beating; and this punishment was repeated until he was glad to obey. Some of these whippings were exceedingly severe, as many as a hundred lashes with a trace strap or bridle rein being inflicted upon a single victim. The time limit for getting away, also, was so short that oftentimes the accused did not have time to dispose of his property or provide for moving his family, before he was compelled to leave.
On one occasion a suspect, charged with a number of crimes, was waylaid by twenty-two members of one of these committees, who surrounded him almost before he was aware of their presence. After having dragged the miserable wretch into their midst, they each began to rain blows upon him with their whips.
“There,” said one as he struck him a terrific blow, “that is for my cotton-mill which you burned.”
“Take that,” said another, “for stealing my horse.”
“That,” said a third, “for driving away my cattle and selling them.”
“And that, and that,” said all the others as they took their turn at applying their lashes.
In this manner the punishment was continued until the victim was completely overcome, and ready to pledge himself to leave the country. The death penalty was also inflicted by these committees, and more than one poor rascal was left swinging to a tree, or lying in a crumpled heap as a result of the deadly aim of a firing squad.
Such a radical move as the organization and methods of these committees could not, of course, be undertaken without attracting much notice from the press, from the state authorities, and from men of public affairs. Probably without exception all the papers in the parishes where the committees existed gave them their strongest support. The Courier of Opelousas, the Democrat of St. Martinsville, and the Echo of Lafayette, defended the committees and their propaganda in the strongest terms. The New Orleans papers were divided in their attitude, the Times and the Democrat supporting the state authorities against the committees. Governor Wickliffe and the state prosecutor of that judicial district, A. Olivier, denounced them in most uncompromising terms as rebels against the law and order of the state. In fact, many prominent and influential citizens of the district took the side of the state authorities. On the other hand the committees received the strong support of such men as ex-Gov. Alexander Mouton, Gen. Alfred Mouton, Maj. Aurelian Saint-Julien, and Alcée Judice, all of whom took an active part in the work of the committees. Governor Wickliffe gave official notice of his opposition to them in the following proclamation:
Whereas, official information has been conveyed to us by the District attorney of the 14th Judicial District of Louisiana, that a certain number of persons of the parishes of Vermillion and of St. Martin, organized as Vigilance Committees, have in violation of the law committed sundry outrages on persons, and have been guilty of depredations on property of citizens of these parishes, and have resisted the officers of the law who have attempted to put a stop to their illegal proceedings; and
Whereas, it appears that the officers of courts of justice have been unable to bring these violators of the law before the courts, with means within their reach — Now, therefore, I have thought proper to issue this, my proclamation to invite these committees to disband and disperse; and I call on all the good citizens of the State to lend their assistance for the arrest and prosecution of these violators of the law.
Given under our signature and seal of the State at Baton Rouge, this 28th day of May A. D. 1859, and the 83rd year of the independence of the U. S. of America.
By the Governor — Robt. C. Wicklipfe
Andrew S. Hebron — Sect’y of State.
The committees heeded not this proclamation of the governor. On the other hand it infused new life into the brigands, who became bolder and more insolent than ever. Believing that the governor meant to come to their aid with the state militia, they called themselves “Anti-Vigilants,” and began to make plans for an open military campaign against those identified with the vigilance committees. To this end they brought together stores of arms and ammunition on a certain farm at Bayou Queue Tortue, near Lafayette. It was suspected that their intention was to attack, pillage and burn the town of Lafayette; and such proved to be the case. The vigilance committees at once inaugurated a movement to disperse them, and, if possible, in one supreme effort to break their power completely and drive them from the state. Accordingly the committees began to assemble levies of armed men. These forces, led by Major Saint-Julien, advanced from Lafayette to make the attack. His forces, numbering 700 men, were fully armed, well drilled, and had with them the brass cannon, called “Betsy.” The “Anti-Vigilants,” had, according to some estimates, 1,800 men. They seemed determined to fight, but when the brass cannon was unmasked in the final encounter which took place on Sept. 3, 1859, most of them took to their heels. In the chase that followed about 200 were finally captured. There were taken, also, by the forces of the committees, near 1,000 small arms of various kinds. Of the 200 prisoners taken, all but eighty were released on their promising never again to molest the peace of the district. These eighty were then bound and, according to the reports of eye witnesses, laid with their faces to the ground and lashed until they had promised to leave the state never to return.
The power of the bandits was thus completely crushed. Hundreds of them had been driven from the state and the others had been scared and beaten into submission. There was no further trouble on their account and conditions resumed once again their normal aspect. The work of the committees being apparently at an end, they disbanded, thus bringing to a close a movement which for a period of nearly six months had threatened to plunge the state into civil war.
- “Early Justice in Louisiana” This paper is based on the following sources of information: Alexander Barde, Histoire des Comitis de Vigilance aux Attakapas; William H. Perrin (ed.), Southwest Louisiana; Felix Voorhies, Ms. on “Vigilance Committees"; interviews with Judge Felix Voorhies, Judge William Campbell, Alexander Mouton, and Maj. Paul DeClouet.
Text Prepared by:
- Aaron Donatello Green
- Kevin Leonardo Lockarno
- Bruce R. Magee
- Makenzie Michelangelo Miller
- Leah Raphael Stevens
Griffin, H. L. “The Vigilance Committees of the Attakapas Country; Or Early Louisiana Justice.” Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association 8 (1915): 146-59. Google Books. Web. 26 Dec. 2015. <https:// books. google.com/ books?id= v1UUAAAAYAAJ>.