According to Family Tree Maker, Joseph Ashley Schwartz is related to me thusly: He’s the brother-in-law of the brother-in-law of the first cousin three times removed. It’s not a very solid connection, and I guess I should be thankful. Joseph lived a rather sordid life.
Joseph was the son of Robert Schwartz and Cora Talley, who settled in New Orleans. His father sold newspapers at night and worked for the city at day. Robert and Cora divorced when their youngest child was just a baby. Both quickly remarried and built blended families of step siblings, half siblings and full siblings that made the Brady Bunch look like a small clan.
Robert’s second wife was Mary Louise Boote. She was still a teen-ager when she fell in love with a traveling salesman named Snodie Munsell. Snodie stuck around long enough to father daughters named Rose, Ruth and Ruby before abandoning the family. Distraught, Mary Louise disappeared for a short time – just long enough for her worried mother to contact the police and the newspapers – but she pulled it together, found Robert and remarried.
But back to Joseph, who would die by the hangman’s noose in New York. Joseph married Mary Louise’s daughter Ruby after she got pregnant. They had a son whom they named Joseph Ashley Schwartz Jr. Shortly after the birth, Joseph left his wife and new baby. He wrote Ruby from Mobile and told her he’d found another girl. Apparently the new romance didn’t stick.
Joseph kept heading north until he ended up in New York.
In New York, Joseph was booked for assault and robbery. He managed to escape the Tombs in 1933, but got into a gun battle with detectives that left his friend William Clark dead. Soon, Joseph would have more blood on his hands.
Despite the wife and child back home in New Orleans, Joseph struck up a romance with clerical worker Anna Downey (some newspapers identified her as Helen Downey) in New York. Anna would describe Joseph as a perfect gentleman who wouldn’t let her say the word ‘damn’ because it wasn’t something a lady said. Joseph and Anna had some kind of a sham wedding. Then Anna got pregnant, and they decided to get married for real. There was just one problem (besides the wife back in New Orleans).
Joseph was in prison for murder and robbery. He supposedly held up a beer garden and killed a man named Charles Theuner.
The wedding took place at the prison with Anna’s sister and a newspaperman serving as witnesses. Newspapers loved the story of the condemned man and his beautiful bride. Pictures of the wedding were published across the country, including in New Orleans.
Ruby saw the photos and showed them to her stepfather. Then she raced across town to show them to her mother-in-law. One thing puzzled them.
The papers described a marriage between Anna and a John Collins. John looked very much like Joseph Ashley Schwartz.
Ruby went to the newspapermen, who seized upon the fresh angle to the story. John Collins denied from prison that he was Joseph Ashley Schwartz, and Anna said it couldn’t be true. Anna also threw in that – by her math – John couldn’t possibly be the father of Ruby’s baby or the man that Ruby had to marry because she got in trouble.
Anna also minimized John Collins’ criminal record. By her reckoning, police get your name for one little thing and then pin everything on you. Poor Anna.
Joseph’s family was left wondering if John Collins was their Joseph – although they couldn’t have scratched their heads for too long. Joseph had written his sister letters and signed them John Collins. Although … how did she know who that was when she got the letters? Did he sign them “John Collins (you know, Joseph Schwartz)?” Curiouser and curiouser.
Ruby sent a letter to Joseph in Sing-Sing. The warden returned it, explaining that John Collins denied knowing anyone named Joseph Ashley Schwartz. Ruby decided to let the matter drop. After all, she reasoned, Joseph was condemned to death so she’d soon be a widow with no reason to pursue a divorce.
If you look up the list of people executed in New York, you won’t find Joseph Ashley Schwartz. Instead you’ll find the name John Collins, who was one of four men to go to his death in the electric chair on May 29, 1936.
Joseph – or John – was 25 when he died. He supposedly told the guards “Let’s go” as they strapped him to the electric chair. At the prison gates, Anna clutched their four-month-old baby and sobbed.
Later, upon being woken and told about the execution, Ruby was unsympathetic. She reportedly shrugged her shoulders and showed no emotion. She also told reporters that Anna had fixed her own little red wagon.
Recently, we were in Asheville, where we made the trek to Grove Park Inn. The hotel is in a stunning landscape and boasts an incredible great hall with huge fireplaces and logs the size of a not-so-small child. It was Christmas so we wandered the halls looking at gingerbread houses from the hotel’s annual contest.
While looking at an exhibit devoted to one-time guest F. Scott Fitzgerald (he would come to stay while Zelda was in a nearby loony bin), I turned around and encountered an exhibit devoted to the Pink Lady.
The Pink Lady is the Grove Park Inn’s ghost. Supposedly she plunged to her death from an upper floor to the Palm Court in the 1920s. I diligently searched for an account of the death in newspaper articles and came up empty. So it may just be local legend with no basis in fact.
However, it got me to thinking about Louisiana murders in the 1910s or 1920s. Murder is so much cozier when there’s some distance isn’t it?
I didn’t find a Pink Lady, but I did find the curious case of Helaire Carriere.
Carriere’s trial for murder of St. Landry Parish Sheriff Marion Swords was a sensation in 1916. The fact that the jury at first couldn’t agree on whether to send him to the gallows only added to the frenzy.
Newspapers in those days were fairly sensational. One newspaper described Carriere as an illiterate backwoodsman who killed a man, broke out of jail and subsequently terrorized St. Landry Parish. Supposedly, “all of St. Landry” knew where Carriere was but only Sheriff Swords was brave enough to venture out to the cabin where he was hiding.
A gun battle broke out in a corn field near the cabin. The sheriff was killed. A Deputy Cachere was hit by the bullet splinters in the face. And two other men were wounded. So he shot the sheriff and he shot the deputy (get it?).
From the corn field, Carriere fled to a deserted mill near Lake Charles. It took a month to find him. Another shootout ensued. One newspaper account had Carriere mortally wounded, but he survived. There would be no cheating the gallows.
“The New Orleans Daily States” brought in an artist to assess Carriere’s character. Artist Napoleon DeRemont – a student of European universities – looked at a picture of Carriere and concluded that he was lazy, a dreamer, of ordinary intelligence, bossy, passionate, nervous and of questionable ancestry.
DeRemont concluded: “Judging by his eyes, he was not born to be a servant. To digress from a straight character study, I would remark that Carriere typifies the fourth of fifth generation of those rollicking, carefree adventurers who came from France and Spain to the new world to seek quick fortunes and remained to drink, gamble and scratch the surface of the eart for bare livelihoods. Loose of morals were those men and strange mixtures of blood …”
Carriere hung for the crime. He was hanged in Baton Rouge – supposedly at “high noon” – in 1917. He was all of 33. Afterward, a funeral was held, also at “high noon” at the “little Catholic Church” in Opelousas. Friends brought shovels to cast dirt into their friend’s grave.
In an odd footnote to the story, an Athens Simien was accused of slashing his wife’s throat in the same cabin in Pott’s Cove that Carriere hid in until Sheriff Swords found him. The woman died.
Thibodaux was in a state of repressed excitement yesterday over the dastardly murder of Mr. Julien Vergnole, an event unprecedented in the history of that section of Lafourche and one which has stirred up the wrath of its citizens to such a pitch that summary vengeance is threatened the perpetrators in the event of their being apprehended. The account of the murder was published in The Times-Democrat of yesterday, and was a correct statement of the principal facts in the case.
Claudet plantation is situated three-fourths of a mile above the town of Thibodaux and was purchased a little over two years since by Mr. Vergnole, he removing at once to his purchase and making his home at the plantation. During the two years Mr. Vergnole resided on the Lafourche his genial manner and kindly disposition made him a host of friends. The business training he had acquired as a merchant of this city stood him in good stead in his new vocation as a sugar planter, and while he was very firm in his dealings with his employees, he was also generous and just. Some time after taking possession of Claudet he discharged the overseer and replaced him with the present manager, Mr. Thompson Barillieux. The new overseer, ascertaining that a number of the resident hands were indolent, and as he terms it, “spoilt,” he immediately proceeded to order them from the plantation. This action on the part of Mr. Barilleaux (sic) caused considerable feeling among the employees, they attributing it altogether to the new owner, and their dismissal was in all probability the cause which led to the killing of Mr. Vergnole.
The morning following the murder found numerous parties of men scouring the neighborhood of the plantation in a search for the assassins. A number of footprints were discovered in the rear yard and were followed for a short distance, when all trace of them was lost. Deputy Sheriff Rich Frost made accurate measurements of the footmarks, which from their size and shape led a number of searchers to believe they belonged to white men. This theory was soon abandoned by the majority, although this idea is still held to by a few.
SUSPECTED PEOPLE ARRESTED
Deputy Sheriff Frost, a few hours after daybreak Sunday morning, arrested and jailed three negroes named Jos King, Jos Crossing and Cornelius Crawford, the latter being the old man who put in an appearance in answer to the agonized screams of Mrs. Vergnole a few minutes after the shooting, and the others were arrested on suspicion, they being two of the former laborers on the plantation discharged by the overseer.
Later in the day, Mr. Frost arrested three white men, tramps, they being seen in the company with the negro, Crossing, near Dr. Meyer’s office when the messenger arrived from the plantation. The man Crossing was also witnessed at 9 o’clock the night of the murder in company with Jos King and the negro Crawford walking through the streets of Thibodaux. These facts, together with Crawford’s opportune appearance so short a time after the shooting, were considered so peculiar that the entire lot were arrested. Dr. Meyers said, however, that Crawford assisted him in his examination of Mr. Vergnole and showed no traces of excitement or fear.
Who was Julien Vergnole?
He married Emma Marie Aimee Riondel in New Orleans on June 27, 1891. He had arrived in New Orleans after sailing from France at age 35 in 1878. He initially settled in New Orleans, where he made his living as a commercial merchant.
Julien and Emma had one child: Jeanne Laurance, born July 28, 1892, in New Orleans. This was the child who was with her mother when Julien was shot. Little Jeanne was not even 2 when her father died.
After her husband’s death, Emma and her daughter Jeanne moved in with Emma’s stepfather and mother at 629 St. Peter St. in New Orleans.
Emma and Jeanne later moved to California but soon returned to Louisiana. It appears that Jeanne never married.
What is probably the correct clew (sic) to the murder, and one which will receive a thorough investigation, is a report of a conversation which took place fully two months ago near the market place in Thibodaux and which was overheard by a resident of that town. The conversation did not appear of much importance to the listener, she thinking it mere idle talk, and consequently thought no more of it until it was vividly brought to her remembrance by the murder of Mr. Vergnole. It appeared that several negro men and women were discussion (sic) that gentleman and evidently becoming excited by the subject of their discourse, spoke very loudly. One of the women, her feelings getting the better of her discretion, cried out: “I don’t care. This man Vernole comes up from the city and wants to play big and smart out here in the country with the people on his plantation. He’s mighty smart, he is, and ought to be killed.” One of the men answered to the woman, saying: “You shut up and never mind about that. We are the ones to attend to that part of the business.” The party then walked away and the rest of the conversation the listener did not catch.
Acting on the information received, Deputy Sheriff Frost arrested three negro women named Eva, Dora and Melinda King, but subsequently released them, they not being identified by the person giving the information. It was also ascertained that a former employee of the plantation by the name of Joe Ellis had been disputing some months ago with Mr. Vergnole about a lot of hogs belonging to the former which were damaging the land and which Mr. Vergnole had ordered off, together with their owner. Ellis is at present, or was, living in a neighboring parish and had been in the neighborhood of Claudet recently.
THE WIFE’S ACCOUNT OF THE TRAGEDY
In company with Mr. Frost, the reporter drove out to the Claudet homestead to view the scene of the assassination and get such additional facts as would throw some light upon the motive for the killing. Many rumors were rife in the town of Thibodaux and the opinions were equally divided, some attributing the crime to a purpose to rob, and others to a fiendish desire for downright and premeditated murder.
Reaching the residence and ascertaining the willingness of the bereaved widow to receive him, the reporter entered the house and was shown the room wherein the killing took place, and the broken blind and window through which the fatal bullet was fired. In the rear of the bedroom is a small gallery, accessible by a series of high steps leading into the yard and separating the main dwelling from the kitchen and cistern. The murderers were evidently acquainted with the location of the rooms and the familiar with the habits of the inmates and entering the yard, secured a bar of iron from a scrap pile near the house, reaching the gallery by the steps described and at once attacking the window blinds made an aperture, breaking the glass and firing the first shot. What followed can best be described by the statement of Mrs. Vergnole, who, with tears streaming down her face, told the horrible story of a loved husband’s assassination and her sudden and terrible widowhood.
“My husband had retired a little earlier than was his usual custom, as he was feeling tired from a day of considerable worry. He was shortly aslepp and tiring of remaining up alone, I took my little girl and also went to bed. This was about 9:30 o’clock. Falling asleep, I was suddenly aroused by a crashing noise and as I opened my eyes and raised up from the bed I saw the flash from the pistol and heard the report and the next instant the glass from the window, shattered by the impact of the bullet entering the sash near the foot of the bed, fell to the floor.
“I at once sprang to the floor, and seizing my child ran into the adjourning room, expecting every moment to be shot. My husband also jumped out of bed, and grasping his pistol, although I tried to keep him away from the window and follow me, approached the window and asked: “Who is there: what do you want?” A man’s voice answered him, saying: “We will show you” and at that very moment the second shot rang out, breaking a second pane of glass and my poor husband crying out: “Wife, I am shot and badly” ran into the next room and sank on the floor.
“I was crazy. I knew not what to do. My husband lay there dying and the men were still hammering at the window blinds. I felt that we were lost and I called out for help as loud as I could, although I knew there was no one in the house but an old colored woman who slept upstairs. My screaming must have frightened the men away, for the noise ceased and I heard their footsteps going off the gallery and into the yard.
“By this time, the old woman up stairs was aroused and came down, and after a little while her husband, Cornelius Crawford, came to the house from the levee. He said he had heard the shots as he was on his way from Thibodaux and also my screams and came to see what was the matter. I sent him to awaken the overseer, Mr. Barilleaux, and when he came, with one or two of his men, I sent him to Dr. Meyer at Thibodaux.
“When I first awoke I distinctly heard the men talking, and I think the voices were those of negroes, and if I could hear them again I believe I would know them. There was a light in the room during the shooting.
“It was horrible. I am sure they tried to kill us while we were asleep, and the one who fired the shot was kneeling on the gallery as the first ball struck the window sash quite high and at an angle from the broken blind. I do not know why anyone should have done this, as to my knowledge my poor husband had not an enemy in the world. The only person with whom he had any altercation that I know of is not in the parish and if he were I would never suggest the idea of his committing the deed.”
Dr. Meyer said to the reporter that he had been called to attend Mr. Vergnole, the summons reaching him several hours after the shots had been fired. He had diagnosed the wound as fatal and endeavored to sustain life as long as he could. The pain from the wound was very intense and he had administered opiates to quiet the patient.
Dr. Stark, the coroner, made an examination and found that the bullet had penetrated the abdomen, severing the intestines and lodging in the spine. At the request of the relatives, Dr. Stark did not make a more extended examination.
From information gathered in Thibodaux there is every indication that a large reward will be offered by the planters of Lafource and also by the police jury, for the apprehension of the murderer. An effort was made by the sheriff to procure a pair of bloodhounds to follow the track of the men, but his efforts to secure the dogs were unavailing.
In connection with the death of Mr. Vergnole it is interesting to note that many of the dwellings in the French quarter of this city are decorated with crepe in respect to his memory.
Mr. Vergnole was a very handsome man and was about fifty years old.
ARRIVAL OF THE BODY
The body of Mr. Julien Vergnole, merchant and planter, who was assassinated at his plantation near Thibodaux in Lafourche Parish reached the city yesterday morning on the California express of the Southern Pacific Railroad. The remains were accompanied by his father-in-law, Mr. Bouchoux; his brother, John M. Vergnole. When the train pulled into the depot, there were a large number of the dead man’s relatives and friends present to take charge of the body. It was removed from the baggage car, placed in an undertaker’s wagon and driven to the residence of his father-in-law, 196 Royal street, from which place his funeral will take place at 10 o’clock this morning.
A reporter visited the house during the day. The body, encased in a handsome metallic casket, was in the front parlor. Around it sat the grief-stricken relatives and numerous friends. The high esteem in which the murdered man was held in New Orleans was demonstrated by the large number of friends who visited the house with expressions of condolence for the family and take a look at the features of their friend who had been so suddenly and brutally robbed of his life by the assassin’s bullet.
Mr. John M. Vergnole, brother of deceased, who left New Orleans and hastened to his brother’s home upon receipt of the telegram notifying him of his critical condition, was interviewed by the reporter. He said that when he reached the bedside of his brother the latter was speechless, consequently all he could learn of the assassination was what his frightened sister-in-law had heard and seen during the few moments that intervened between the time they were awakened by the breaking of the shutter and the shooting of her husband before her eyes. Of course the work of the murderers was so quick and the lady’s excitement so great that she saw or heard but little. When they were awakened by the breaking of the shutter with the piece of iron her husband jumped out of bed and rushed to the window. His advance in that direction brought forth the first shot from the assassin’s pistol. Evidently intending to see if possible who the midnight marauders were, and undaunted by the first shot, he went close up to the window. As he did so he exclaimed: “What do you murderers want; you assassins, what are you trying to do?” A voice from the outside replied, “We will show you what we want when we get to you.” His sister-in-law did not recognize the voice that made these remarks. “The piece of iron,” continued Mr. Vergnole, “which was used in breaking the shutter, and which was left by the assassins in their flight, proved to be a portion of an old pump on the plantation.”
He did not believe that the object for the murder of his brother was robbery. He is
convinced that his life was taken in a spirit of vengeance and by persons well acquainted with the habits of his murdered brother and his wife. They knew that both were in the habit, except in grinding season, of retiring very early. His brother was in the habit of going to bed about 8 o’clock, and his wife would follow him as quickly as she could get her baby to sleep. Both were generally in bed by 9 o’clock. Of this fact, Mr. Vergnole was satisfied the assassins were aware, otherwise they would not have been at their bloody work as early as 10 o’clock, but would have waited for a later hour. After all that medical skill could accomplish was done to save his brother, and leaving his last hours to be watched by other relatives, he started out to do all in his power to learn, if possible, some clew that might run to earth the assassins. The reason for believing that there were three in the murdering party was because of the sound of the different footsteps that Mrs. Vergnole thinks she heard as the parties left the gallery after firing the fatal shot.
“Three negroes,” said Mr. Vergnole, “were arrested because they had been discharged a week ago off the plantation.” He did not think that they were prompted to commit such a crime as they were discharged by the overseer of the place and his brother had nothing to do with the transaction. His next move was to notify the sheriff of the parish of the shooting of his brother. The sheriff did not appear in person, but sent a deputy to his brother’s house to represent him. The deputy upon his arrival looked around the place, examined the footprints on the gallery where the murderers were supposed to have stood when they fired the shots. He then conversed with a number of persons and left, promising to return with blood hounds to see if they could get on the scent of the murderers. Up to the time that he left yesterday morning with his brother’s body for New Orleans neither sheriff nor dogs had put in an appearance.
As he was leaving with his brother’s body for New Orleans yesterday morning he was informed that a white girl had made a statement that some time since, while marketing in the Thibodaux market she saw a negro girl conversing with two negroes. As she approached the trio she heard the girl remark, “Vergnole has got to die.” One of the men answered, “And we are the two that are going to do it.” The white girl said she was not acquainted with either the negro girl or the two negro men, but was satisfied that she would be able to identify all of them if she saw them again. The neighbors, who were doing all in their power to
ferret out the murderers, had heard of this story and were investigating it for what this statement was worth. In conclusion, Mr. Vergnole said that he was convinced that his brother’s murder was the result of a conspiracy and he believed that he knew who was at the bottom of it. He knew the motive, but in the absence of any direct evidence he would not mention names until the proper time in his opinion arrived.
Sometimes you stumble across something truly surprising while researching your family tree.
I was looking through a newspaper index the other day when I saw an entry in the Thibodaux Sentinel for Alexis Benoit’s son. I figured this referred to one of the children of Alexis Celestin Benoit and Marie Adelaides Clement. I was right.
Looking up an 1868 edition of the Thibodaux Sentinel – a paper I didn’t even know existed – on microfilm in LSU’s special collections, I found a murder in the family tree. Fortunately (I guess), my ancestor’s son was the victim.
Here’s what the newspaper said:
“The village of Houma was the scene of a most unjustifiable murder on last Sunday afternoon about 5 o’clock.
Our informant states that two brothers named Conner who were working on the Opelousas Railroad rode into Houma during the day, one of whom became much intoxicated and whilst passing along the street fired wontonly of some person walking along ahead of him, but missed him. A few minutes after he met a Mr. Benoit and without any words struck at his face, and as Benoit warded off the blow he shot him, killing him instantly. Turning round, he fired at the third party without effect and mounted his horse and rode off.
The unfortunate victim of this tragedy was residing just out of town and had not spoken to his murderer and it is doubtful if the two knew each other at all.
Mr. Benoit was a son of Alexis Benoit of the Chackbay settlement and we hope the murderer may be arrested and suffer the penalty which such an unprovoked crime richly merits.”
The victim was Clairville Silvin Alexis Benoit. He died at age 36 in Terrebonne Parish, and I had just assumed that he died of the usual type of disease that killed people in the 1800s. I had no idea that he was shot dead on a city street by a drunk. Poor Silvin!
More from the New Orleans Commerical Bulletin:
“Mr. Sylvain Benoit was killed last Sunday evening on Main street, in front of Mr. Berger’s stable, by a young man name Cornelius O’Conner. The former was an industrious, hard-working Creole, in the employ of Mr. Pierre Portier and living near Houma, on the Wade plantation. He leaves a wife and four helpless orphans in an almost destitute condition. A subscription has since been gotten up for their benefit, and we are pleased to learn that our citizens have subscribed liberally.
We have also been informed that Mr. Michael O’Conner, an elder brother of Cornelius O’Connor, has contributed liberally to the relief of the family and given them assurance that they shall never want.
It is supposed that young O’Conner was laboring under a temporary fit of insanity. His actions a few minutes before the occurrence had attracted the attention of his friends as being very strange. He met Mr. Benoit for the first time, in the street, jostled him or pulled at him, when a scuffle ensued.
Mr. Benoit then struck him, or struck at him, when O’Conner drew his revolver and shot him. The shot entered in front, near the left side, ranged upwards and lodged near the region of the heart. He died immediately.
Some persons running up to interfere, he fired at John Bacon (clerk in Franis’ store) who made a narrow escape. His brother approached him, when he threatened to shoot him.
Before a writ could be made for his arrest, he made his escape and has not since been heard of.
A profound feeling of regret pervades the community. The brothers O’Conner were well thought of in the community, their deportment being courteous and gentlemanly. The elder brother is a master of a section of the Opelousas Railroad.
Cornelius O’Conner, we learn, was living with his brother and assisting him in his duties.”