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.
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 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.
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.
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.