'The report of my death was an exaggeration'

 

Fake news'is not a recent development

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent


C.C. Nash. Deuty Sheriff, led possie
In 1897, when Mark Twain's cousin was seriously ill, reporters confused the two men,announcing the great writer had died. Twain famously responded,"The report of my death was an exaggeration." It was not the first time, nor would it be the last, that the newspapers were wrong.

During the 2016 U.S. elections, charges of inaccurate reporting and even the fabrication and coverage of fake news increased substantially. Fake news consists of deliberate misinformation or hoaxes spread via traditional print, broadcasting news, and social media. Fake news is written and published with the intent to mislead in order to gain financially or politically, often with sensationalized, exaggerated, or false headlines crafted to grab attention.

One of the most infamous examples of inaccurate news is the 1948 headline of the Chicago Daily Tribune, "Dewey Defeats Truman," mistakenly reporting Thomas Dewey had beaten Harry Truman for the U.S. Presidency. While the report was incorrect rather than deliberate misinformation, the fiasco embarrassed the paper.

Fake and inaccurate news has been around as long as newspapers. An erroneous report was published by a Natchitoches newspaper in 1875 regarding the murder of Grant Parish tax collector Gus Radetzki in 1875 at the hands of former sheriff John B. McCoy. The March issue of the Piney Woods Journal revealed the long forgotten story of the July 14, 1875, altercation in Colfax between Radetzki and McCoy.

Days before that deadly encounter, several defendants had been convicted in Grant Parish, including one for murder. The judge directed Sheriff McCoy to lodge the prisoners in the Alexandria jail, since Colfax's jail had been burned down during the shameful Colfax Massacre.

Instead, McCoy released the prisoners who promptly fled the country. The judge found McCoy in contempt, fined him $500, a huge sum in those days, and removed the sheriff from office.\par }{\plain Angered by the loss of his position and a lingering feud with Radetzki over tax bills, McCoy announced his intention to kill the tax collector who apparently did not take the threat too seriously. A short time later, McCoy walked up within ten feet of Radetzki, cocked his shotgun, and pointed it at Radetzki's chest.

Radetzki spoke calmly. "McCoy, I am sure you would not kill me so."

The appeal went unheeded as McCoy fired, striking the tax collector in the right chest with a load of buckshot. Radetzki fell into a sitting position against the house and exclaimed, "My God, the man has killed me!"

Both men belonged to a group of Radical Republicans who had taken over Grant Parish politics during Reconstruction. They should have been allies politically but McCoy's troubles overcame any political bond with Radetzki.\par }{\plain Deputy Sheriff C. C. Nash and a posse of citizens soon arrested the assailant and placed him in irons to carry to Alexandria.

"Captain" Christopher Columbus Nash was one of the most notorious Louisianans of the day.

Revered by some and reviled by others, Nash was responsible for leading the assault of the Grant Parish courthouse in April 1873 known as the Colfax Massacre. In 1872, elections had been disputed in nearly every Louisiana parish as both Democrat and Republican candidates claimed victory. Nash and other Democrats proclaimed themselves the legal officeholders but the Republicans protested.

After the Republicans slipped into the parish courthouse to take offices pledged to them by Governor Kellogg, the Democrats, led by Nash, responded with an attack that resulted in the death of 75 to 200 African Americans who had fortified the building in defense of Republican officeholders.

Nash was also implicated in the Coushatta Massacre, the murder of six white Republican officeholders in Red River Parish.

By 1875, Nash had been pushed out of office as the Republicans took firm control of Grant Parish with the backing of the state and federal troops. When McCoy was removed from office, the new sheriff appointed Nash as a deputy. Thus the champion of the Democrats and the White League was the one charged with carrying the Republican McCoy to jail in Rapides since Grant's jail and courthouse had been burned down in Nash's attack.

On July 24, the People's Vindicator, published in nearby Natchitoches Parish, announced Nash and his assistants had been ambushed and murdered as they carried McCoy to Alexandria.

The headline read, "Another Outrageous Murder in Grant Parish. Capt. C. C. Nash Killed."

The editor in Natchitoches had received a letter from Colfax reporting the prisoner McCoy had been tied on a horse by Deputy Sheriff Nash. Somewhere between Colfax and Alexandria, a gang of McCoy's comrades ambushed and killed Nash and two men accompanying him. The murders were described as brutal.

Grant was freed and escaped. "Great excitement prevails in Grant, and soon you may hear of speedy justice being meted out to some of those deserving faithful down there," the informant wrote.

There was only one problem with the correspondent's information. It was not true.

Nash and his party had reached the Rapides Parish jail safely and turned McCoy over without incident. Since the Vindicator was published weekly like most Louisiana newspapers of the time, the error was realized before the paper was printed. But the story was typeset already, so the editor merely inserted an addendum.

"Horrible Murder! That did not take place," read the headline to the second article. The editor wrote: "We are pained to announce (in a newspaper sense) that all remains quiet in Grant parish, and it really affords happiness to our people to know that C. C. Nash, Esq., was not killed."

The original correspondent had sent a second letter to the Vindicator two days after the first, writing, "I am glad to inform you that the news of Capt. Nash's death proves all a hoax; so right here ends a first class sensation which would have been "gotten off" soon if not corrected. What possessed *** [the name is deleted by the Vindicator editor] to tell such a d----d [also deleted] lie, I don't know. McCoy is in the middle cell of the Alexandria jail, and Nash was seen in Alexandria."

Radetzki's death was not the first murder attributed to McCoy but Republican political control of Grant Parish stymied efforts to prosecute him. Despite his arrest for the murder of Radetzki, McCoy was released and even became sheriff again that fall. He remained free for several years before being convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He died in the state penitentiary in 1890.

The federal government tried for years to prosecute Nash for the deaths at Colfax in 1873.

The case of U.S. v. Cruikshank involving Nash and others went all the way to U.S. Supreme Court but to no avail. As one of the best known cases of the 19th century, the Court ruled in Nash's favor. The decision led to Jim Crow laws and other civil rights abuses in the 20th century.

Nash lived until 1922 and is buried in American Cemetery in Natchitoches. Today, he is all but unknown except to historians and civil rights scholars.

Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston who writes extensively on Reconstruction era crime. His books include Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at campruston@gmail.com .

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