Murder and mayhem

The killing of Mrs. Bonfoy

Emily Bonfoy – or Bonfoey – who was brutally killed in 1867.

I was looking for a newspaper story about a downtown Shreveport mansion that burned in the 1960s when I spotted a bulletin from Marshall, Texas, about the burning of a historic mansion there. The article made a glancing reference to the killing of a Mrs. Bonfoy. And, just like that, I was Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole.

The article was annoyingly unspecific about what happened to Mrs. Bonfoy. It just said she was killed during reconstruction days. In fairness to the “Shreveport Times,” the story was really about the fire that destroyed her house, which – when it burned in 1914 during a remodeling – belonged to a Y. D. Harrison. The glancing reference was that the home was known as the old Bonfoy homestead and was the site of Mrs. Bonfoy’s killing. No doubt, the killing was so well known at the time that no other details were needed.

I had to know more. It didn’t take me long to find the bigger story.

I should add here that while Marshall is firmly in Texas – and not in Louisiana, which is the focus of this blog – it’s fairly close to Shreveport. In fact, it’s part of what is known as the Ark-La-Tex, which stands for Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. All that means is if you live in southern Arkansas, you watch the same news station as the folks in Shreveport.

Husband and wife were buried weeks apart.

But back to Mrs. Bonfoy – or Bonfoey according to what’s on her tombstone..

Someone with the initials J. C. H. related the details of the murder to the “Jefferson Jimplecute” in 1909.

Mrs. Bonfoy was Emily Warner Powers Bonfoy. She was married to Davis Brainerd Bonfoy. According to J. C. H., Mr. Bonfoy was a scalawag. By that, he meant Mr. Bonfoy was a tax collector.

The site of the unsolved murder.

The period surrounding the end of the Civil War was uneasy in Marshall. Union soldiers were stationed in the town, and they weren’t welcomed by the residents. The mysterious murder of Mrs. Bonfoy didn’t help matters.

The way J. C. H. relayed it, Mr. Bonfoy became engorged with the taxes he collected, shot his assistant in the back of the head, ran to the door and called out that the assistant had shot himself. After his arrest, his wife was guarded by federal soldiers. Why were guards needed? Supposedly, a trunk with all those tax collections was in the Bonfoy home.

According to J. C. H., a guard killed Mrs. Bonfoy and took the contents of the trunk. Mr. Bonfoy heard the news and died in jail of a broken heart over the death of his beloved wife.

“The Longview News Journal” later told a very different account. According to the newspaper, Mr. Bonfoy asked for a security detail when he had to travel for business because of the large amount of cash in a safe at the house. His wife was later found brutally beaten and her murderers never caught.

Finally, I turned to The Southwestern Historical Quarterly for a definitive account of what happened in 1867. It’s clear from that account that confusion surrounds the murder despite the presence of guards at the scene. It’s unclear whether the guards were foxes guarding the henhouse or just incredibly inept at their job.

Beverly was just 12 when he woke up in the night to his mother’s screams.

Mrs. Bonfoy was a schoolteacher before marrying Mr. Bonfoy. After their marriage, she continued her work in education by opening a seminary for women in their home. They weren’t wealthy, but they were comfortable with a nice home and four sons: George, Clarence, Beverly and Edwin.

As tax collector, Mr. Bonfoy had to collect an unpopular tax on cotton. In 1867, he heard that a deputy collector named W. H. Fowler was working with cotton dealers to cheat the federal government of true collections. Bonfoy must have been fearful of confronting Fowler because he armed himself with a pistol to meet with him in a nearby town.

Fowler didn’t take the confrontation well, refused to cover the shortage in collections and threatened Bonfoy. He wanted Bonfoy to clear him in writing of any wrongdoing. The men argued, guns were brandished and Bonfoy shot Fowler. Bonfoy was arrested and taken to the city jail.

Back home in Marshall, Mrs. Bonfoy was tending to two of her sons and waiting for the rest of her children to come home from school in Connecticut, where they’d been sent in the waning days of the war. The family’s home and grounds took up an entire block. In the home was a safe containing the family’s personal money and the government’s tax collections.

Mrs. Bonfoy was fearful of sleeping in the house at night because of the safe. She asked for a guard, and the federal government granted her request. A guard slept on the veranda every night.

It was Beverly who first realized something was wrong. Sleeping on the floor of his mother’s room, he woke up to groans and cries for help. His mother had been beaten in the head with a hammer or an axe. She lingered in agony for four days before dying.

An excerpt from the investigation into Mrs. Bonfoy’s murder. The guards were arrested, freed, placed on a train and never seen in Marshall again.

Her murder was never solved.

The safe – which undoubtedly was what sparked the killing – never left the house that fateful night. Afterward, no one was quite sure what happened that night. Did Mrs. Bonfoy catch the robbers in the act of trying to cart off the safe? Did the robbers club her in the head with the intention of breaking into the safe once she was silenced? What is clear is the security detail was immediately suspected.

The guards knew exactly how much money was in the safe. Mrs. Bonfoy had shown them the contents to distinguish the government’s money from her family’s.

Soon, whispers started, and they got louder as the days passed. Everyone was certain the guards had killed Mrs. Bonfoy in a botched robbery attempt. The guards were arrested, quietly released and hustled onto a train. They never saw Marshall, Texas, again. It’s not even clear what their names were so intent was the government in protecting them.

The government seized the safe after Mrs. Bonfoy died. Her children later sued the federal government for the family’s portion of the money that was inside it. It took them 25 years to collect the $13,000 that belonged to their parents.

As for Mr. Bonfoy, he was still in jail. Six weeks after his wife died, he was released on bail and immediately went to the cemetery to see her grave. While there, he collapsed. He was taken home, where he died 24 hours later. Later, a rumor circulated that he had poisoned himself, adding yet another strange chapter to this bizarre tale.

Years later, at age 75, Beverly would share photos of the family home and his mother with reporters. He was the only one of the four boys still living. He wanted his mother to be remembered as an educator.

terrebonne parish

The death of an old citizen near Houma

I’ve grown a little skeptical of historic newspaper obits for centenarians. From my experience, once people hit 90 down on the bayou, they tended to exaggerate just how old they were.

Case in point: Marguerite Anne Trahan Blanchard.

Marguerite was lauded as the “oldest resident of Terrebonne” when she died just before the year 1902 turned into 1903. It’s possible that she was.

What’s not possible is that she was 103, as the “Houma Courier” newspaper claimed. She was a mere 95 when she died.

Marguerite was born in Lafourche Parish on Aug. 10, 1807 a little over a year after her parents, Etienne Trahan and Anne Daigle, married. At age 20, she married Alexis Blanchard and raised a large family.

By the time she died in 1902, she was a matriarch. It’s possible that she didn’t know how old she was. A lot of people born in 1807 never learned how to read or write. Maybe she lost track.

Certainly, she lived a long and full life, even if she didn’t make it to 103.


An obituary scrapbook

I don’t know how an obituary scrapbook ended up in a batch of Orleans Parish court records that were scanned at some point. However, I can imagine.

Clerk to archivist: You’ve scanned all the civil records dated before 1900. Oh, there’s also this.

Archivist: What’s this?

Clerk: Miss Ruby’s scrapbook. Well, you didn’t know Miss Ruby, but she worked here for 55 years and she liked to paste obits into a scrapbook. Anyhoo, would you like to scan it? She mostly collected obits for European royalty, but she occasionally pasted in a local obit.

Archivist: Okey dokey.

Actually, I don’t know who put together this scrapbook. I’m willing to bet it was someone who’d worked for the clerk of court long enough to always be known as Miss, but I’m just guessing.

I was amused to see a black-edged death notice for the queen. Were these pasted up in New Orleans? The queen in question was Victoria, who died in 1901.

I also found a long obit for Michel Bergeron who died on his 42nd wedding anniversary. Despite his inclusion in a scrapbook mainly devoted to long forgotten European royalty, he was very much a Louisiana man.


Hebert family, Military Records

The day my ancestor was caught by Union soldiers

In January 1865, the 11th Wisconsin Infantry undertook an expedition from Brashear City to Bayou Sorrel. Brashear City is what we know today as Morgan City.

Today, that route would take you 46 minutes by car. According to the National Park Service, it took the 11th Wisconsin Infantry two days. The infantry was fortunate enough to have a gunboat, making the trip easier than it would’ve been on foot.

The purpose of the expedition was to find rebel soldiers who were said to be in charge of a torpedo. Those rebel soldiers included William Duvall and John S. Hebert – both of the 26th Louisiana Regiment, Company B. John S. Hebert was my ancestor.

John S. Hebert – really Jean Severin, but he embraced the American version of his name – was my great-grandfather’s father. John S. enlisted on March 27, 1862, in Berwick along with two of his brothers.

John S. was captured in Vicksburg and paroled in 1863 after promising never to take up arms against the U.S. again. Yet, there he was with Union soldiers in pursuit of him two years later.

Perhaps it was a huge misunderstanding. After all, the Union soldiers never found the torpedo. They did find John S.

In the report submitted by Lt. Richard Caddell, all that was found in the search for the torpedo was a small anchor and a palmetto tent. Concluding the anchor was meant to be used to sink a torpedo, Caddell had it tossed into the bayou. Still in search of that torpedo, he headed to John S. Hebert’s house and left four men to stand guard while he searched a neighbor’s home.

Coming back to Hebert’s house, he found his men had located my ancestor. Caddell also apprehended Cleopha Penisson, who was the uncle of John S. Hebert’s wife, rowing a boat down the bayou. The prisoners were taken to Brashear City. The war would be over within a few months.

Penisson Family

The mystery of how Dr. Cowan came to die in an insane asylum

The New Orleans Insane Asylum where Dr. Cowan died.

The New Orleans Insane Asylum was supposed to be a temporary establishment for the indigent insane. It ended up lasting nearly 30 years.

When I saw that Dr. Leonidas Cowan – a member of my family tree – died at the insane asylum in 1877, I wondered if he’d been treating patients and died suddenly. Then I found his admission record.

Leonidas wasn’t a native of Louisiana. He grew up in North Carolina. Why he came to Louisiana, I can’t tell you. All I know is he married Eliza Brogden about 1860, which brought him into my family.

Eliza’s mother was Sedalie Penisson. The Penisson family in the U.S. started with a single Penisson who crossed an ocean to Louisiana, fathered 11 children and established roots that now stretch across the United States.

Like her mother, Eliza died young, making her story difficult to trace. The Penisson book that a cousin put together in the 1980s says she had two little girls before dying. That turned out to only be part of her story.

Eliza and her doctor husband seem to have established a country home in St. Mary Parish and a city home in New Orleans. Leonidas worked as a surgeon in the city, once tending to a drunk woman’s bullet wounds in the drug store where her husband shot her. Big city life, huh? No wonder they kept a place in the country.

The child called Isabella on the census record is a mystery to me, assuming she was a child. Mitty died in 1869 so this may have been yet another daughter who died young.

Life in the city must have been fairly comfortable. They had the means to have a live-in servant. How quickly everything would fall apart.

Far from having just two girls, Leonidas and Eliza had five children: Marie Charlotte Coraline, Rosalie Emma Agnes, Mitty Mary, Leona and James. Decades later, the family would only remember the two oldest girls. They completely forgot about Leona and James, which seems a bit odd, especially since Leona married into a St. Mary Parish family – and the Penissons were very much of St. Mary and the adjacent Assumption parishes. Little Mitty Mary died young.

Eliza herself – according to the family’s dusty memory – died in 1871, which would’ve been the same year James was born. Just a few years later, Leonidas died in the city’s insane asylum.

Why Leonidas was committed, I can’t tell you. I’ve been unable to find an interdiction record for him. One day, I’ll try to look up his hospital records. I did find a transcription of his admission notation, confirming that he was very much admitted and not just there treating patients. And that record itself is strange.

The next of kin is Eliza Cowan, who would’ve been dead several years at this point. Why would he list her as the family point of contact? Did he go off the rails when she died and left him with four little kids?

And what became of the children? Eliza’s brother was living in the city, working as the head bookkeeper for a company on Poydras and living in a nice part of town with his wife and daughter. Yet, he apparently didn’t take in the orphaned children. According to the 1880 census, Leona was living in an orphan asylum. The two eldest girls may have moved in with family in the country because they married within a few years of their father’s death. What became of little James until he was of age is unclear.

The girls, at least, had fulfilling lives. Charlotte married Emile Barras and had 12 children. She’s buried in Gibson. Emma married a tailor named Charles Maloz and had 10 children. Leona married John Templet and moved to Texas. She had eight children, including a son named for her father.

As for James, his story was a sad one. He became a cook, moved to Houston near his sister and died of tuberculosis. When she filled out his birth certificate, Leona couldn’t remember his birth day. It’s possible they never knew it because of the turmoil that must have punctuated James’ early years.

That death certificate is the only record proving James was a child of Leonidas and Emma. Born in 1871, no one filed a birth certificate if his birth happened in New Orleans. Both his parents were dead by the time the 1880 census rolled around. And the extended family just forgot he and Leona even existed.

None of that tells me how Dr. Cowan went from being a respected physician to dying in an insane asylum.

Growing up, I was always told that the Penissons were known for being a little crazy. Now I wonder if the inspiration for that story was Leonidas.

Newspaper articles

The secret to a long life: No smoking, no short skirts and no alcohol

The feisty Sophie Grand

How a New Orleans newspaper came to interview Sophie Grand for her 100th birthday is unclear. Mrs. Grand lived in downtown Baton Rouge, more than an hour from the Crescent City. Regardless, the interview is a hoot and far from the last time Mrs. Grand would entertain the media.

Mrs. Grand grew up in France, where she went to work for a hotel peeling potatoes at age 4 to help support the family after her father died young. Her brother fought in the Napoleonic wars.

How she came to the United States isn’t made clear in the article. What is clear is that Mrs. Grand was a woman of strong opinions. She didn’t approve of women wearing short skirts (their legs look like broomsticks) or men going out drinking (it causes them to come home and beat their wives). She also didn’t care for the use of tobacco in the home (it’s unclear if she thought it OK to smoke in the yard). As for women voting? Oh, absolutely not.

During the “pioneer days” of her marriage to a man not named (according to their shared tombstone, it was Louis) but described as being in the “livery stable business,” she sewed for a local merchant. After putting her seven children to bed, she’d sew late into the night, producing four pairs of trousers before turning in herself. Is it any surprise what happened when she hired some men to chop down a tree in her yard? Unhappy with the pace of the work, she took up the ax and cut it down herself.

No doubt chagrined by missing this news scoop, the Baton Rouge newspaper beat a path to Mrs. Grand’s door on her 101st birthday. She was in bed but still feisty. She would walk around the yard on pretty days and confessed to enjoying rides in automobiles as much as a 10-year-old boy. However, she admitted she was ready to die.

A year later, on her 102nd birthday, Mrs. Grand may have been getting a little punchy. She’d given up housework and now boasted of once being a bootlegger – or maybe all the secrets were now spilling out. She talked of making $100 a day selling whisky, cakes and pies to soldiers during the Civil War.

She also wished she would just die already so other people wouldn’t have to take care of her.

A few days after Mrs. Grand’s birthday, the Baton Rouge newspaper quietly retracted the bootlegger story. It seems that Mrs. Grand was just having a bit of fun with the media.

For her 103rd birthday – no, I’m not kidding – I can’t tell you what Mrs. Grand did to celebrate. Perhaps still smarting from the bootlegger joke, the media seem to have skipped the event.

A year later, a reporter found Mrs. Grand sitting in front of her fire on her 104th birthday. She was no longer able to speak or walk. She seemed to like watching children play, accepting bouquets of flowers and going for those fun automobile rides.

Mercifully, it seems, she died a few months later.

Penisson Family, St. Mary Parish Genealogy, Succession Records, Uncategorized

In 1883, the kids weren’t alright

When Etienne Bourgeois died in 1879, he left a young family behind: his wife, Marie Landry, their 3-year-old son, Alexis Etienne, and their 1-year-old daughter, Leonie. Marie quickly remarried, but life in the 1800s could be cruel. By 1883, Alexis Etienne and Leonie were orphans.

It was the district attorney for St. Mary Parish who went to court and reported that the children “were without proper care or moral training.” Worse, their mother’s sister, Victoria, was mistreating them and usurping their inheritance. The district attorney’s recommendation was that Etienne’s property and belongings be sold to pay for the children’s care at a Catholic asylum in New Orleans.

The saga is contained in St. Mary Parish’s probate records, proving once again just how interesting dusty old court records can be. You’ll also find a list of every looking glass, mattress and lamp Etienne owned because it all had to be sold for the children’s benefit.

What’s interesting is that the children’s mother remarried before swiftly dying. I don’t know why her second husband’s family didn’t take charge of the children. Maybe Aunt Victoria – who was helping herself to their inheritance – wouldn’t allow it.

Regardless, the court records shows that the district attorney was successful in placing the children in St. Mary’s Catholic Asylum in New Orleans. The proceeds from the estate sale were to be used for their schooling, board, tuition and the upkeep of property that wasn’t sold.

Curious what became of the children? Alexis became a steam engineer and settled in Morgan City with his wife and their two girls. Leonie – later known as Leonide – stayed in the New Orleans area, raised a large family and died just two months shy of her 97th birthday.

In the end, the kids were alright.

Early Louisiana

A steamboat explosion in 1817

Poor Thomas Brown.

Born in Scotland, he crossed an ocean and settled in Massachusetts only to die in a steamboat explosion near the village of St. Francisville. The local priest kindly buried him and 10 other victims in Pointe Coupee Parish, which is across the river from St. Francisville.

I came across the burials in the Diocese of Baton Rouge’s published records, and they reminded me of reading long ago about the perils of steamboat traveling. Sometimes captains would recklessly push a steamboat boiler beyond its limits by racing another steamboat. It was drag racing on the river.

The passengers aboard the Constitution were at breakfast in 1817 when the crew tried to outsail another steamboat from the same company. The race didn’t end well. The Constitution’s boiler burst, scalding to death 11 people.

Besides Mr. Brown, who was just 27, the dead were:

James Carpenter, 36.

Eliphaler Frazer, 41, who was born in New Jersey but had a wife and family in Franklin, Ohio.

Peter Hebert, a 27-year-old engineer from Mantz, France.

John Larkin, a Natchez silversmith.

A Mr. McFarland, 26, of Pittsburgh.

Alexander Phillpot, 22, of Henry County, Va.

Robert Robinson, 18.

William Steel, a 25-year-old Montana merchant.

George Wilson, 28, who was born in Virginia.

William Yowell, 30, who was born in Virginia but lived in Washington County, Ky.

St. Mary Parish Genealogy, Succession Records

A dustup over the cost of postage

How much could postage have possibly cost in 1881?

Sometimes you stumble across something funny when you dust off court records from more than 100 years ago. Case in point: A century-old squabble over the cost of postage.

Severin Dupuis died in 1879 from yellow fever. The disease also claimed his 19-year-old daughter, Amelia, for whom the town of Amelia was named. Because Severin left behind children and property, his widow filed a succession to divvy up the possessions.

Two years after Severin’s death, the estate still was being wrapped up. And someone – presumably a clerk with a sense of humor – stuck a rather pointed note about how much postage the case was consuming in the court record.

“Don’t talk to me any more about postage stamps,” the widow’s attorney, S. Lanaux, wrote someone named Placide (I would assume this was another attorney). “I only follow your good example.”

I didn’t quite understand what the argument was. I turned to the U.S. Postal Museum for help and learned that Congress authorized “postage due stamps” in 1879. Basically, the authorization allowed the Post Office to collect the cost of postage from the recipient of mail.

Whenever Lanaux picked up correspondence from Placide at the Post Office, he had to pay the postage due on it before he was allowed to take the letter. The same went for Placide.

Like any good attorney, Lanaux offered a compromise.

“If you promise me not to get mad and curse and beat your head against the court house pillars, I will send you in a day or so one dollars worth of postage stamps to stamp my letters with hereafter,” Mr. Lanaux wrote.